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On September 11th, 2001, the content of any message to American friends and loved ones was easy and obvious: commiserations, empathy, and solidarity. It’s less easy to know what to say today. No nation can ignore the sort of provocation 9/11 represented; but targeted executions and assassinations remain roubling. As Blake Hounshell at FP Passport writes, it’s even uncertain what substantive achievements will proceed from the death of Osama bin Laden, a man who knew little about mercy himself – but revenge is not necessarily a dish best served quite this cold.

So this is an event within the theatre of power – a symbolic lifting up of the US, but also one might hope a turning of the page in the book of the war on terror. Its character had changed some time ago; bin Laden’s death makes this step-change explicit – but also easier for President Obama to sell to an American public which, from the celebrations on the streets of New York and Washington, is still somewhat uninterested in nuance when it comes to the fight against Islamism.

Politically, of course, Obama is immeasurably strengthened by this achivement: crassly, ‘four more years’ has apparently already been chanted by some of the crowds on Pennsylania Avenue. Obama’s speech was, I think, rather well pitched; but Howard Fineman at the HuffPo for one thinks that bin Laden’s death will intensify, rather than smooth, the political and strategic debates that now await America. Nevertheless, the LA Times has a piece which captures the tenor of the operation itself – one that seems to have been remarkably well executed. This will help after the Tora Bora debacles of the Bush years.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to know what to say about it all. Maybe I should have just written that piece on AV instead.

ETA: David Remnick at the New Yorker is a bit better than me at saying wise things.

Richard Holbrooke is of course a key player in both the books I wrote about last week. For Halberstam, Holbrooke was one of the few insiders within the Clinton White House proactive enough to deserve sympathy or success:

Of all the people who had joined the Clinton administration in 1993, Dick Holbrooke ended the eight years, by the consensus of his peers – or at least among those who still intended to serve in a future Democratic administration – as the most successful member of the foreign policy team. Madeleine Albright might be, in terms of celebrity star power, at least momentarily a larger figure because of the nature of her personal story; and because she was the first woman secretary of state, her memoirs would probably sell for a larger sum than those of anyone else who had worked in foreign policy. But it was Holbrooke who had truly impressed his peers, even many who had been dubious of him earlier on. [War In A Time of Peace, pg. 484]

This from a writer himself rather dubious of Clinton’s foreign policy aides, and from a book which includes the entry ‘ego of’ under Holbrooke’s name (there are six page references). Much of the media coverage today is rightly focusing on the hole he leaves at the centre of Obama’s AfPak team, and Bob Woodward quotes him as insisting that, “Our [US] presence [in Afghanistan] is the corrupting force” [Obama's Wars, pg. 225]; the WaPo obituary suggests that his final last words were, “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.” This sort of voice will be missed around a table of men and women often more gung-ho than all that. But, and FP Passport summarises Holbrooke’s frustrations under Obama pretty well, he will likely best be remembered for all that heavy lifting in the 1990s.

Obama, Petraeus, Gates

Bob Woodward has made something of a late career surge out of Iraq and Afghanistan. His Bush at War, Plan of Attack, and State of Denial all received warm plaudits from reviewers and fellow hacks alike. That trilogy detailed with a remarkable lightness the functioning of the Bush White House’s foreign policy: its designs, strategies and internal dissent. Obama’s Wars, his latest book, picks up where they left off. Obama, too, finds that what is past is prologue – stuck as he is, even before he is sworn in, with two boggy wars for which he has little heart.

Perhaps as a result of this new scepticism, the focus of the policymakers around the new president is on refiguring the war in Afghanistan as a struggle for strategic advantage in what comes to be known as the ‘AfPak’ region. Woodward makes it hard to conceive of Afghanistan as much more than a proxy war against the unstable elements of its far more potent neighbour: even as Iraq is dialed down, intense and interminable debates are had about the precise balance to strike in tackling the ISI, the Taliban, al Qaeda, and a teetering Muslim state in possession of nuclear weapons.

There emerges a clear gulf between the White House’s political team and the military figures advising Obama – among them the commander in Iraq, General Stanley McChrystal, his boss at CENTCOM, General David Petraeus, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen. As was widely reported at the time, Joe Biden opposes their counterinsurgency strategy, and their proposed uptick in troop numbers; more interesting is James Jones, the retired General whom Obama appoints as his National Security Adviser – despite his past in uniform, Jones is an equivocal voice far more cautious about full-blown deployment in Afghanistan. His focus is always on the stability of Pakistan; his colleagues in the intelligence services, most notably Dennis Blair, the frustrated Director of National Intelligence, are only too aware of the danger that American troops will wind up shadowboxing in an arena replete with double, triple and quadruple bluffs on the parts of all the players.

Much of Woodward’s book narrates the detailed, somewhat circular, discussions which made for such critical headlines from late summer to early winter last year. The decision on what exactly to do in Afghanistan is endlessly delayed, largely – as Woodward depicts it – as a result of the military’s refusal to provide more than one viable option (a leisurely increase of 40,000 combat troops, plus a few thousand more support staff and an emergency 10% discretionary pool). Another important factor, however, is  Obama’s own interest in maintaining appearances: he does not wish to seem to be boxed-in by his military advisers:

Obama had campaigned against Bush’s ideas and approaches. But, Donilon [the Deputy NSA], for one, thought that Obama had perhaps underestimated the extent to which he had inherited George W. Bush’s presidency – the apparatus, personnel and mind-set of war making. [pg. 281]

I found it impossible to read Obama’s Wars and not recall David Halberstam’s magisterial 2002 study of 1990s US foreign policy, War In A Time of Peace. That book covers the presidencies of both George Bush Snr. and, more fully, Bill Clinton – of course the last Democratic occupant of the White House. What is striking is that, despite the reputedly transformative trauma of 9/11 (Halberstam even prefaced his work with some remarks on this subject), the relationship between policymakers and generals seems little changed. The decision-making process over the intervention in the Balkans was, according to Halberstam, just as prolonged and pained as Obama’s over AfPak; Halberstam makes much of the Vietnam precedent, and it hangs like a leery oracle over Obama’s White House, too.

Yet Obama makes the point to Woodward that he is perhaps the first President for whom Vietnam was not a formative experience. Despite the advice of Leon Panetta, his director of the CIA, that “no Democratic president can go against military advice” [pg. 247], Obama, unlike Halberstam’s Clinton, stamps his own authority on foreign policy: he steers a middle ground between the doves and the hawks, and crafts a distinctive message. Whether that message has ultimately had much resonance is a different issue; Obama has at least tried to forge a coherent policy, with due consideration of its intended effects.

On the subject of effects, Obama demanded – against military opposition and widespread tensions which have persisted – on a December 2010 review of the eventual increase in troop numbers (a swift 30,000, without any of the wiggle room). The latest on that review is that it’s on track. A fitting subject, one imagines, for Bob Woodward’s next book.

They Do It Slicker.

I’ve been reading Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s Race of a Lifetime, a book ostensibly about ‘how Barack Obama won the White House’, but in truth a quite in-depth look at each viable campaign first of the 2008 Democratic primaries (Obama, Clinton, Edwards) and then of the general (Obama and McCain). It’s not the same kind of book as Andrew Rawnsley’s recent Brit-centred political tome, The End of the Party (in this month’s coveted Words We Like spot), since it prioritises narrative over detail, which may itself be a useful metaphor. Halperin and Heilemann have no footnotes and no moments of great pause. They simply tell a story we haven’t heard before very well.

I wouldn’t say, then, that the book is instructive to read whilst we in the UK are having our own general election. But it is interesting, firstly because it emphasises how very personal the American political system is. The British system can be about individuals, too, of course – in every general election, some surprise local story sneaks up on the national media, in no small part because of the quite personal effects specific candidates can have in a given constituency. But the broad sweep of our system has traditionally been party political – all colours and rosettes, manifestos and messaging.

Except that this campaign has been different. It’s striking how little actually happened in the week between the first ever televised debate between the candidates for Prime Minister (even that term seems alien to the Commons system) and, er, the second ever televisied debate between the candidates for Prime Minister. The Tories, for instance, didn’t hold a single London press conference; Gordon Brown, as Jonathan Freedland has noted, is nowhere in particular to be seen. The polls came out, and everyone agonised about a sea change in British politics, but the whole affair seemed on hold until three men – out of thousands of parliamentary candidates across the country – had another slanging match on the telly.

So our politics just got personal. But Halperin and Heilemann make very clear how much travelling American presidential candidates do, and how visible they are. There is a tension in this new focus of the British system: we haven’t entirely made the change. We await the big debates, but in between we try and have a normal British campaign. Predictably, this results in a feeling of weird inertia – amateur politics going on between over-produced slices of network primetime. This isn’t how the American system, weened on the personal, operates. Not only that, but there are hundreds of constituencies across the UK which are electing hundreds of different representatives, some of whom do not – gasp! – belong to one of the three ‘main’ parties. There is some of this in the American system – Halperin and Heilemann detail how the Missouri Democratic candidate for the Senate, Claire McCaskill, worried that Hilary Clinton would damage  her chances were they on the same ticket in November 2008 – but presidential candidates are also truly national figures who are ultimately performing for their own benefit. The ‘candidates for Prime Minister’ are quite different. The campaign feels like an unwieldy, unsatisfactory, hybrid.

Guess which other party had a St George dress-up photo op today.

Still, this may be the last campaign of its kind. All polls currently point to a hung parliament in which the most likely result would be a ruling coalition of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. This would ensure the introduction of some form of proportional representation – particularly if the party with the most seats also came third in the popular vote, a probable outcome once First Past The Post begins to struggle with a truly three party system. PR would surely lock the Tories out of power forever, and the party is therefore therefore desperate to halt the slide in their support (though right-wing tactics smack instead of a twitchy core vote strategy). But Cameron was in last night’s debate reduced to arguing that change was good, but to make sure it happened you needed to vote for a known quantity you could trust. And we all know how that tactic worked out over the pond.

Barack Obama made great play during his rally in Orange County yesterday of taking off his jacket – going so far as to ask the audience for permisson to do so, as if they might mind. He then took unscreened questions. When I heard about this, I was sure some other political figure, smart and savvy, had done the same thing to great success a few years ago. Who had clearly so inspired the big guy? Was it Blair? Cameron? It surely couldn’t have been Bush. I racked my brains.

Oh, yes. It was Josiah Bartlet.

On meeting the writer of The West Wing, Obama reportedly told Aaron Sorkin that he’d be stealing some of the scribe’s lines. He’s made good on the promise! Richard T Kelly, meanwhile, points his readers to the blog of former Blair consigliere, Alastair Campbell, who recently attended a screening of Armando Ianucci’s new satire, In The Loop. A version of his thoroughly cynical TV deconstruction of New Labour’s governing style, The Thick Of It, one is left wondering if this waspish film about the US and UK waging another shady war has missed the zeitgeist, in an era when the real President of the United States is quoting a tool of liberal wish fulfilment.

The film’s released on April 17th and has a very good buzz … so we’ll see.

"So, how was it for you?"

"So, how was it for you?"

“…the nations of Europe and Asia exulted… nothing was to be seen throughout the cities but altars, oblations, sacrifices, men in white robes and crowned with garlands… goodwill, feasts, public meetings, musical contests, horse races, revels, nightlong frolics with harp and flutes, celebration, freedom, holiday-making and every kind of pleasure… Indeed the golden age pictured by the poets no longer seemed a myth, so great was the prosperity and happiness, the freedom from grief and fear, the joy which pervaded everywhere.”

There is an occasional phenomenon in politics of most stripes which sees the populace excited beyond reasonable expectation. It is a time during which old allegiances, and old saws, are discarded in favour of an illusory panacaea. The phenomenon may see the right person elected at the right time, but saddled by unmeetable demands (Barack Obama met Tony Blair only yesterday); and, when times are hard and any change is deemed worthwhile, it may also see the wrong person acclaimed. Above, the philosopher Philo of Alexandria describes the jubilation which greeted the accession of the Emperor Caligula, a startling political success perhaps best known for reputedly attempting to make his horse a consul and a
priest.

On Wednesday, the Charlotte Observer declared, “Two weeks into the Obama presidency, we like his campaign better than his administration.” This in a week of real trouble for the fledgling administration, which saw its best hope of real and lasting healthcare reform – former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle – ejected from contention thanks to dodgy tax dealings. On the same day, and as that editorial points out, it lost its nominee for chief performance officer for similar reasons. Even some of the administration’s confirmed nominees, like treasury secretary Timothy Geithner, have less than wholesome IRS records. “I screwed up,” Obama manfully admitted in a TV interview (one of many). Some of us would have preferred to hear that admission a little later in the running.

But, as Michael Tomasky points out, most people understand the personnel problems in the proper context: all new governments must make do with the talent on offer. Obama’s bigger headache is not his personnel but his policies. In typically combative style, House Republicans have given him a rough time on the economic stimulus package, and show no sign of rolling over for even this phenomenally popular president. (Tomasky also has something to say in that post about this early remobilisation of conservative forces against the Obama plan.)

One might ruefully ask why Republicans stand up to a new president whilst Democrats tend to scurry for cover (can anyone say ‘Patriot Act’?). We’re already getting back to the same old arguments about the Democrats’ hopeless track record in defining the political narrative, something I hoped Obama may be able to do – and, in his defense, something he appears to be doing his best to achieve.

And so the days of euphoria surrounding the inauguration already seem as far away as those halcyon days of May 1997, when Tony Blair and his family beamed on the steps of Downing Street, and the nation rejoiced in ditching the Tories after 18 years of Thatcherism. In an editorial, the Daily Telegraph today responds to Duncan Forgan’s new light on the Drake equation by postulating that our super-intelligent Galactic brethern may even have been clever enough to have “persuaded the top alien to relinquish office when he – or it – is no longer wanted.” Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s travails are much worse than drawing the expected opprobium of the Conservative Party’s house magazine, however.

In the past week, savers have been sent reeling yet again by a drop of the interest rates to 1%; wildcat strikers have been out in force against a Labour government, protesting the granting of new jobs to foreign workers as a result of European legislation; and the Prime Minister himself has used the word ‘depression’ in answer to the House at Prime Minister’s Questions. Brown’s team has proved adept at the tactical flourish, winning time for him again and again with a deft duck one way or the other; but strategically he is thoroughly failing to make the running – and thus, on questions such as these, cannot manage to define that elusive narrative. He rather desperately insists the Conservative party would do nothing whereas he and his government are acting, but David Cameron hangs around wearing a disapproving expression and simply pointing out that, for all his apparent expertise, Brown still let us get into this mess. When the Prime Minister defaults to complicated economic answers about world trends and globalisation, he loses the battle and the Tories set the terms of the debate.

When industrial workers in the north of England begin to think they might be better off if Labour are not re-elected in (at most) 15 months – when, that is, an unemployed rigger agrees with a Telegraph leader writer – the Conservative Party can probably start to choose the ministerial furnishings. Yet just this Wednesday all that ‘capitalism with a conscience’ nonsense was proven to be the false pleading of a professional marketing man when the Conservatives got together for the annual ‘Black and White Ball‘, a yearly splurge of the sort of extravagance you’d expect from the party of the privileged (the tickets cost a mere 450 quid a head). But – and this is classic Cameron – they renamed it a ‘party’, rather than calling it a ball, so that makes all the difference. This is the worst kind of window dressing, and Polly Toynbee is right to accuse Cameron of not meaning it: unlike some politcians over-optimistically greeted as saviours, his actions not only cannot match his words – they simply do not.

Last night on the BBC’s This Week [UK only], the peerless Billy Bragg sounded a grim warning that disaffected workers will turn to the wrong political masters if they are merely ignored. Disappointed and abandoned, yesterday’s revellers always have the potential to be tomorrow’s revolutionaries. At least today’s politicians, struggling to maintain or rekindle the enthusiasm they enjoyed upon accession, can only be hurt at the ballot box. Caligula was, of course, ultimately deposed by the terrible violence.

And then someone probably threw a party for Claudius.

obama01
Eight years ago, I had a sinking feeling. Bill Clinton had just shook the hand of a soldier who had just sung his country’s national anthem [1]; awkwardly, the same soldier turned to face George W Bush … and got nothing from him. Bush’s inaugural address did little to dispel this sense of deflation – here was the world undoubtedly making a change which it, and the very Americans who had voted for it, would come to regret.

If Clinton was far from perfect, eight years of the same high-handed behaviour sees Bush leave office with his popularity as well as his reputation in tatters. For a candidate who won office purely on the basis of being the sort of guy you’d like to have a beer with, this is quite the turn-around. Fox’s final numbers [pdf] on Bush tell the usual story: in his first term, Bush enjoyed the support, or at least the goodwill, of 61% of Americans, more than had ever voted for him. Today, that number is just 37% – many polls less favourable to the GOP put it far lower.

But it’s the average of the two terms that strikes me – 51%, that terrifying number which suggests that, over eight years, America might yet be as divided as it was in 2000 and 2004, when rancour characterized both of the mutually exclusive blocs in US politics. The social and cultural importance of an Obama presidency is already assured, and has already been exhaustively analysed. Its political significance will rest in no small part on his ability to knit his nation together. With an approval rating of 73% (according to RCP at the time of writing), he’s better placed than anyone to try.

On top of everything else, above and beyond all the staggering progress Obama’s election symbolises,  that’s what separates today from January 20th, 2001: this time America has  a guy who might try to shake a few extra hands.

***

[1] Something’s telling me this can’t be right, but he was up there for something, and this is how I’m deciding to remember it.

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