Thursday, July 28, 2016

Obama's poetry called into action one last time

Barack Obama came to public attention through the power of his oratory, and then won the presidency on the back of its soaring, uplifting, optimistic cadences.  He called it into action again, after eight years as the nation's preacher in chief where his ability to persuade a nation and articulate its public and hidden feelings has often been stretched to the limit but rarely found wanting.  His speech to the Democratic Convention wasn't just about supporting the woman he wants to be his successor, or damning, with his customary crisp, light yet lethally wielded authority, her opponent.  It was also about ensuring the longevity of his own legacy.  It was about whether the presidency stays in the hands of someone with intellectual rigour, passion and nuance, or whether it passes to the vulgarian instincts of a self-regarding demagogue.

It was a tremendous speech, a reminder of what it's like to be governed in poetry.  And in defending the character of Hillary Clinton, a woman who has been active in front-line politics for over thirty years, he also called in support the impressive verbal artillery of one of his illustrious Republican predecessors.  Teddy Roosevelt was the man who first referred to the presidency as the "bully pulpit", and he was no mean user of it.  He had no time for the critics who sniped from the sidelines, preferring the endeavours of the person who clambered into the arena to do something, and while yes, this embraces both good and bad, it is nonetheless an invocation to do more than simply carp.  The passage that President Obama referred to is here:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Roosevelt was addressing the issue of "Citizenship in a Republic", speaking at the time to an audience at the Sorbonne in Paris.  As our own democracies and republics face ever greater threats, and as our political class comes under more cynicism and pressure the time is certainly here for more people to actually get into the arena, for there they will not just act for the ideals they hold but perhaps also understand that there is no easy path to any political goal, no matter how virtuous.  That compromise and shortcoming and erring is part of the process.

Obama called many ideas and people into action in his speech, including the very founding fathers who declared their independence at Philadelphia in 1776.  His speech - worth watching in its entirety - was a reminder not just of how far the republic has come, but also of how easily it might fall back into the mendacious hands of an arrogant authoritarian.  It was a terrific call to arms. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Trump's disastrous convention doesn't matter

This year's Republican convention has been a mess.  A delightfully anarchistic mess for those of us who do not wish him well, but a mess nonetheless.  Although he is unchallenged as the Republican nominee, he still faced a floor challenge to his candidacy.  In previous conventions - and you have to go back to 1976 for this - you at least had to have another candidate to rally round, but not this time.

Donald's wife gave a speech that had significant elements plagiarised from Michelle Obama's 2008 convention speech, which gave us the excellent spectacle of hardened Trumpites loudly applauding the sentiments of the current First Lady.

The principal speakers at the convention have all shown clear signs of madness.  Rudy Giuliani, once a respected New York mayor, tried to be Donald Trump on acid.  Chris Christie, once a governor who briefly looked as if he could reach across partisan divides, played his role as chief witch-hunter (prosecuting chief witch Hillary Clinton) to a perfection that would have been admired in Salem back in the day.

Only Ted Cruz - Ted Cruz!! - has emerged with any credit from this nonsense, and he did so by adding to the fiasco.  Unlike Marco Rubio - who prostrated himself on video before the Donald - Cruz used his convention speaking slot to basically stab Trump in the front.  He clearly loved doing it.  I think Cruz is in many respects a repulsive politician, probably in league with the sulphur burners, but he did this bit very well.

Yet despite it all, it probably doesn't matter.  The Telegraph's Tim Stanley makes a good case for suggesting that the conservative Cruz has fatally holed the Trump candidacy, but I'm not so sure.  Trump has succeeded on the back of a lamentable campaign that would have sunk anyone else.  But that is rather the point of Trump.  The media classes and the liberals and all those who hate him have rejoiced in a hopeless, divided convention.

Trump's supporters won't have heard any of that.  All they want to see and hear is their man telling them that all the ills of the world, all of their own poverty and economic dislocation, is down to dastardly forces and people who can be evicted from American society.  He'll tell them that again and they'll lap it up.  He won't lose any of that support on the basis of a lamentable convention week.  

Liberal democracy is in crisis at the moment because it turns out that it has failed to gain the support of significant numbers of left-behind voters.  In America, Trump has those people.  If it turns out there are actually more of them than there are of the many different groups Trump offends, then he's on course for the White House.  His convention plays no role in that calculation.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

It's ok - choosing our next PM is safely in the hands of Tory members.

Here’s a chance for the Tory selectorate to prove they’re not just right-wing shadows of Momentum.  Will they take it?

1.              The Tory grassroots voted overwhelmingly for Leave.  Theresa May didn’t.

2.              The Tory grassroots is as representative of the electorate as a whole as your slightly loopy grandparents who are appalled at all these gays and rather regret having to leave the 1950s.  Andrea Leadsom voted unapologetically against gay marriage.

3.              The Leave campaign which received so many Tory votes was notable for  a number of porkies which quickly became apparent after they won – the most obvious being that £350 million pounds a week that isn’t going to fund the NHS because it doesn’t actually exist.

4.              Andrea Leadsom has had to busily revise her CV because the original, declaring her to have managed million pound investment funds and manage hundreds of people in major teams, wasn’t actually quite 100% accurate.  Turns out she didn’t.  Do either.

5.              Tory grassroots occasionally latch on to genuinely loopy ideas, like the one that suggests we’d all be much happier paying privately for our health care.  One of Andrea Leadsom’s signature policies is to do with babies’ brains.  No, I’m not entirely sure either.

6.              After the hustings when Andrea competed against four other Tory MPs, one cabinet minister noted that “only four of them were sane”.  Don’t know who he meant.

7.              Theresa May once suggested that people saw the Tories as “the nasty party”.  Ooops.

8.              Andrea Leadsom dislikes gays, isn’t keen on Europe, is distinctly incurious about the world around her, is a social reactionary, thinks the EU is just going to hand us a great deal on a plate and, in the words of the great right-wing commentator Douglas Murray, confuses stubbornness for principle.   Tory members are cut from an entirely different cloth.

9.               Andrea Leadsom has no appeal to young people (Young Tories who wear bow-ties don’t count).  Neither does the Tory party.

10.          So, over to 150,000 Tory electors for the choice of our next Prime Minister.  Looks like a clear wrap for Theresa May (erm….).  Glad we’ve all managed to “take back control” though. Wouldn’t like to think what would happen to Britain if those meddlesome Eurocrats were in charge with their silly ideas on regulation, open borders and international co-operation.  Hurrah for democracy.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

The Terrible Tale of a Disastrously Botched Aftermath in Iraq

The Chilcot Report is, as expected, damning of Tony Blair's government and its decision to support America in a war of invasion  against Iraq.  There isn't much that is positive to be taken away from the report, from the war's inception, to its execution and through to its long drawn out, disastrous aftermath.

But Blair did not act alone.  Indeed, it is his slavish desire to show solidarity with the American administration and inability to temper - even a little - that administration's determination on war that is such a contributory factor in his overall failure.

Chilcot is damning about the awful aftermath of the invasion in Iraq.  As well he should be.  But the real responsibility - if we accept that Blair was a mere cipher in this regard - lay with the ultimate planners of the war, and none was more involved than George W Bush's Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld.

It is worth briefly recounting why the Iraq invasion turned that country into such a ruinous state in so rapid a time.

Once determined on war, Donald Rumsfeld was also determined that it should be fought with as few men as possible.  Having scythed through Baghdad, Rumsfeld’s forces were then confronted with a horrendous security operation, and faced with the Secretary’s unyielding demand that this too be undertaken with the most underwhelming force possible.  Rumsfeld, indeed, even stopped one division from going to Baghdad at all, in the belief that it was an unnecessary expenditure. 

The man in the Pentagon thus hamstrung the very forces he had sent into Iraq right from the start. There was worse to come, though, in the form of his sweeping aside of the cautious but politically aware team of American reconstructionists who were in Baghdad and headed by Jay Garner, in favour of the brash, arrogant and wholly unsuited Paul Bremer.  Bremer, a man of supreme egoism who likened himself to General MacArthur, insisted on complete authority to run Iraq.  It couldn’t have gone to a less qualified individual.  Bremer had no knowledge whatever of the Middle East – unlike Garner and his team, or the Iraqi originally slated to be a co-leader, Zalmay Khalilzad.  His foreign experience had been as a chief of staff to Henry Kissinger, and an ambassador to the Netherlands.  It was this lack of any prior involvement in Mid East affairs that endeared him to the ever cretinous Rumsfeld. 

Bremer arrived in May 2003 to an urgent need to establish some sort of authority in Baghdad. His predecessors, Garner and Khalilzad, had been making some useful moves to incorporate previous Iraqi civil servants and military commanders into a new governing authority.  Bremer swept this aside, since he had arrived determined to stamp his authority on Baghdad by dismissing the whole of Saddam Hussein’s political and military structure.  His first order was thus to bar the top four levels of Saddam’s Baath Party from holding any government office.  As the CIA station chief in Baghdad noted, Bremer had just disenfranchised 30,000 people.

Bremer’s Order No 2 was even more catastrophic.  Despite the talks that had been going on between Garner and Khalilzad and potentially sympathetic Iraqi army commanders, Bremer’s order – drafted by former Clinton aide Walter Slocombe – removed the entire military structure that had existed under Saddam.  The reaction in Iraq was furious, with angry demonstrations in Baghdad and other cities; sixteen US soldiers were wounded by violent protests in Mosul, a matter of particular annoyance to General Petraeus whose forces had up to that point been making some headway in winning over the city’s population.  And if Order No 1 had sent 30,000 officials to unexpected unemployment, Order No 2 did the same for 300,000 well armed soldiers.  It is no surprise to discover that many of those soldiers formed the nucleus of the Islamic Army of Iraq and Syria that is causing so much grief today.

Bremer’s orders, confirmed by Rumsfeld, were ill considered and destructive, but even the logic on which they were based was flawed, not least because Bremer failed to make even the most cursory investigation of the country he had come to rule.  Had he done so, he would have discovered that the Iraqi army’s top ranks had far fewer Baathists than he had thought.  A mere half of the generals,  and only 8,000 of the 140,000 officers and NCO’s were committed Baath Party members.  The Iraqi officers who had been in discussions with Garner and Khalilzad knew this, but Bremer had dismissed their contribution out of hand.  He ended up pursuing de-Baathification of a military that hadn’t needed it. 

There is a final indication – and perhaps an appropriate one – of Paul Bremer’s mendacious ignorance of Iraq and Arab culture.  He and Slocombe had devised a scheme to replace the Iraqi military with a ‘New Iraqi Corps’.  NIC, when pronounced in Arabic, sounds very much like “fuck”.  It is a fitting commentary on a man who has retired into a peaceful life of painting and lecturing in the bucolic countryside of Vermont while the reverberations of his ill-thought out and gung-ho policies continue to condemn thousands of Iraqis to death, torture, or – often at best – a wretched existence carved out in the midst of slaughter, and fear of the ISIL monster which has filled the vacuum he created.   Mr. Rumsfled may not have been in favour of imposing democracy.  The trouble is, he doesn't appear to have been in favour of imposing anything at all.

The book “Cobra II” by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor (chapter 24) provides much of the narrative detail referred to above.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Thatcher's Return

The Tories are in a better position than the Labour party as they will undoubtedly quickly unite behind a new leader come September.  The question is, who will that leader be and what does it mean for British politics?  At a time when the Labour party is incapable of providing any clear opposition and the Liberal Democrats remain an irrelevance, the choice of Tory leader is crucial for the country. Sadly, the country doesn't choose.  A few thousand Tory activists do.

Forget the MP tallies in the parliamentary vote for the moment.  That they will put Theresa May through with a substantial - even overwhelming - majority supporting her seems likely (at the moment - though the last week has emphasised the unpredictable nature of politics).  Andrea Leadsom looks well set to be her competitor in the run-off amongst party activists.

And here's the thing.  Leadsom may be relatively new to the party, while May has racked up immense service in the voluntary party even before she went into parliament.  But if you have a look at the way the wind is blowing the activists think they could have found their new Thatcher, and it's not the estimable Mrs. May.

The Conservative Home site remains a useful - though admittedly not infallible - bell-weather inidcator of Tory grassroots opinion.  While the focus of the media commentariat is still on the vote amongst Tory MPs, the key vote, the activist vote, is being monitored by Conservative Home.  It shows a serious movement in Andrea Leadsom's favour, as she edges past Theresa May.

A previous poll from the ConHome panel showed Michael Gove as the firm favourite a mere few weeks ago, and even after his dire week he is still holding up well in third place.  The message for the May faction, however, is that they are nowhere near victory in this race.  While she may seem to the non-Conservative onlooker to embody many of the characteristics of a classic Tory leader - strong on national security and law and order, fiscally sound, compassionate but only to a degree, socially pretty conservative in most areas - she has a serious weakness as far as the grassroots vote is concerned.  Two, actually.

The most serious is that, for all her strengths of character and her low profile in the EU campaign, she is a Remainer.  Yes, she has announced that Brexit is it, Brexit is the way.  But the Tory grassroots were implacably for Brexit over many years.  Their euro-scepticism stymied the frequent attempts of the Tories' most popular national politician, Ken Clarke, to become leader.  Their implicit support for the regular bouts of euro-sceptic rebellion undermined John Major and gave rise to David Cameron's catastrophic referendum decision.  They are socially very conservative and tend to a more isolationist global outlook.  And they want someone who reflects their image.  By endorsing the EU, Theresa May has significantly distorted that comforting reflection.

Second, no matter how quietly (again), Theresa May did support gay marriage.  In the metropolitan, EU supporting part of Britain that is a good thing.  In the Conservative Party, it is a cause of real suspicion.  Before the referendum, nothing alienated David Cameron more from his own party members than his promotion of gay marriage, and it remains significant that he chooses that as one of his signature achievements.

If Theresa May had been facing off a candidate with similar socially liberal tendencies this might not have mattered.  Her support for the EU would still be a stumbling block, but against a Johnson or a Gove there is a chance that her steadier personality and the perception that she is a tough defender of British interests might still have pulled her through.

But May won't be against either of those men.  She will be against a woman who reminds the Tory electorate more than she does herself of their most potent icon.  Margaret Thatcher.

Leadsom is a grassroots member's dream.  They love the fact that she has been "in finance" for over 25 years since nothing screeches success to Tory members more than the ability to make a killing over a long period in the financial markets.  They fully embrace her euro-scepticism, and as the key male leaders of that campaign fall like dominoes, Leadsom's own over-rated role becomes ever more important.  She was a true believer when it still looked like a lost cause.  And she opposed gay marriage.  She will face hostile questioning from a metropolitan media about that, and all the people on social media who aren't members of the Tory party may excoriate her for it, but it is a significant point of unspoken attraction for Tory members.  If homosexual attraction used to be the love that dare not speak its name, genuine hostility towards gay people is the attitude that dare not speak its name within the Tory party.

I would rate Leadsom's chances, over a summer campaign, of gaining a majority of the small Tory grassroots vote as being much better than average.  This race may look like May's to lose, but her star rose only recently, benefitted from Westminster shenanigans, and could dip again as the brighter meteorite of a more clearly Thatcherite lady takes centre stage.

Forget Westminster.  Like the referendum before it, this race is decided amongst ordinary people who have never been plugged in to the Westminster conversation.