This week's guest editors

Hillary Clinton: a good Secretary of State?

A picture of Barack Obama's cabinet is starting to emerge, and it is not pleasing his more left-wing supporters. Some of them were already unhappy about the appointment of Clintonites like Rahm Emmanuel. Now, the New York Times is reporting that Hillary Clinton will almost certainly become Secretary of State. That is disturbing for some Obama supporters, who were told during the primaries that her foreign policy views disqualified her from the nomination.How you feel about Clinton's appointment - assuming that it does come to pass - will depend on how legitimate you feel those criticisms were. Central among them was the charge that she showed bad judgement in supporting the Iraq war. That may well be so, but she had a lot of company in this. Many liberals, myself included, thought in 2003 that regime change was the lesser of two evils, only to change our minds when we saw the nature of the regime change we got. I would readily admit that was bad judgement on my part. Clinton refused to say that it was bad judgement on hers - this may, in fact, have been what cost her the Democratic nomination. Perhaps she was privy to special intelligence before the war which added support to Bush's arguments. But I find it hard to believe that she had any such excuse, given that she reportedly failed to thoroughly study the briefings given to her at the time.Nonetheless, that is all in the past. What matters is what sort of Secretary of State she will be over the next four years. It is clear why many on the left are concerned about this. She has been decidedly hawkish on Iran, supporting the controversial Kyl-Lieberman amendment that classified that country's Quds Force as a terrorist organisation. She also has a reputation for pandering to the more extreme elements of the soi-disant 'pro-Israel vote' in the States - and since this voting block's favoured policies would actually harm Israel and the peace process, this is concerning.However, this history may allow her to play the role of Nixon in China on these questions, providing Obama cover against those who would claim that his positions on these issues are too 'soft'. She and her husband have almost unparalleled knowledge and experience of dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian question in particular. There are already rumours that Obama has charged her with finding a solution to this, and given her substantial autonomy in doing so. If she can accomplish this, few will or should regret her selection.

NYT comes out against electoral college

Following in our footsteps, a New York Times editorial today forcefully argues for the abolition of the electoral college in favour of the popular vote. There are numerous reasons to dispense with the creaking, archaic system: much of the initial rationale of the system lay in slavery; it is unconscionable that the presidency can be awarded to the candidate for whom fewer Americans vote (as happened in 2000); and the electoral college exaggerates the importance of votes in "swing states" like Ohio and Florida, while diminishing their significance in "safe states" like New York and Texas.

But most importantly, in my opinion, the system reduces the diverse political landscape of the country into monochrome blocks. It creates the crippling sense of a "red state" vs "blue state" divide. If a popular vote was in place, this perception would not have room to flourish. As the editorial points out, over 40% of voters in deep red Alabama cast their ballot for Obama, while 4.5 million Californians voted for McCain (equivalent to the number of votes the Republican got in Texas). If Obama is serious about transcending red-blue fissures, he should welcome the burgeoning national movement for the popular vote.

Will Obama govern from the left?

The tea leaves are ready, and the crystal balls are out. Now that the campaign is over, everyone's attention is focused on predicting what sort of president Barack Obama will be. The real answer is that it is too early to tell: the degree to which he moves the country to the left will be limited not by his plans but by what is politically feasible, and that will be revealed by events yet to come.

It is true that some of Obama's recent actions seem almost designed to test his left-wing base's patience. He has reportedly offered the position of secretary of state to Hillary Clinton, who he pilloried in the primaries as a symbol of nineties triangulation. Clinton was never popular with the party's left wing or 'netroots', and Ben Smith at Politico reports that they are reacting to her reemergence with some dismay.

Likewise, the possibility of Lawrence Summers becoming Treasury Secretary is generating anger among feminists; they reacted badly (and in my opinion unfairly) to a notorious remark he made mentioning the possibility of gender differences in aptitude and interest in science. Obama's tolerant attitude towards Joe Lieberman, which yesterday resulted in the Connecticut Senator earning only the mildest of punishments, has also irritated some on the left.

However, these actions tell us more about Obama's attitude to HR than about his governing agenda. Neither Clinton nor Summers would drag the administration notably towards the left; both show signs of having moved away from the centrist nineties. As for the Democrats' leniency towards Lieberman, I argued earlier this week that it was the smart political choice, and this consideration appears to have been what drove Obama's decision.

The "celestial" president

The New Yorker's recent issue boasts a particularly arresting cover (pasted below). Obama's "O" moon waxes high over the Lincoln Memorial, casting a pale reflection in the pool beneath. Still months before his inauguration, Obama finds himself in the longest of shadows, that of the president who steered the United States through bloody division and great crisis. It's a mantle that Obama has, in effect, placed upon himself. He quoted Abraham Lincoln extensively throughout his campaign. And in his first interview since the election, Obama told CBS' Steve Kroft that he'd been preparing for the months ahead by returning to the works of Lincoln: "I’ve been spending a lot of time reading Lincoln. There is a wisdom there and a humility about his approach to government, even before he was president, that I just find very helpful."

The reflection of the memorial - eerily reminiscent of the pillars of light that all too briefly replaced the World Trade Centre after 9/11 - tells a cautionary tale. Even the brightest alabaster of presidential grandeur has its dark side. He probably knows this. Obama's performance on 60 Minutes was low-key and almost pedestrian, belying the tremendous anticipation weighted on the President-elect. On display was not only Obama's famous calm, but his deep respect for the office and the moment he has risen to. Perhaps he has imbibed the "wisdom" of Lincoln. The "greatness" expected of him, Obama knows, will only materialise if it ultimately draws from a deeper reserve of modesty.  


Hat-tip to BAGnewsNotes.

Let Obama be Obama

"Let Reagan be Reagan!"  That was the slogan of Ronald Reagan's conservative followers. They were afraid that their leader's sharp ideological thrust was being blunted by timidity and moderation. The shrewder among them were also aware that, while a president of the United States is very powerful, he is not omnipotent.Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent.

His books include The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996);

The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan
(Houghton Mifflin, 2000);

More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006)

A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving
(PublicAffairs, 2007)

Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles on America's election year:

"The United States election: time for ‘change'" (10 January 2008)

"America's change election: reality or mirage?" (11 February 2008)

"The lost election year" (15 May 2008)

"Barack Obama: at the crossroads of victory" (11 June 2008)\

"A game of two halves" (15 July 2008)

"Welcome to the party: American convention follies" (18 August 2008)

"America's foreign-policy election" (28 August 2008)

"America's economy election" (17 October 2008)

"Yes he can!" (6 November 2008)

Now, in the interval between Barack Obama's election and his inauguration, there is a deep yearning, in America and abroad, for Obama to be Obama.

Let him be the apostle of change he has always claimed to be. Let him sweep away the miasma of foreign and domestic disasters that persuaded so many Americans to vote for him. Let him end the war in Iraq, close Guantánamo and fire the torturers, but let him also end the growing inequality of American life.

Many would go further, and hope, too, that he will end the deregulation and the dismantling of the powers of government to protect the people that have led so directly to the economic crisis.

At the same time there is an awareness that Obama will not be able to do all that his supporters expect of him, or indeed all that he would like to do.

Even the strongest of presidents have complained of the limitations on presidential power. "Every president", said Lyndon B Johnson, "has to establish with the various sectors of the country what I would call ‘the right to govern'". On another occasion he put it more bluntly. "The only power I've got is nuclear, and I can't use that!"

Franklin D Roosevelt, the most effective president in the last century, expressed his frustration with the bureaucracies who nominally served him. "To change anything in the N-a-a-v-y", he drawled, "is like punching a featherbed!".

So it seems timely to take a look at the specific constraints that will bind Obama so that he may not "be Obama", as so many want him to be.

The limits of power

There are obvious financial and economic constraints imposed by the economic crisis. Obama has said that the economy will be his first priority. Whatever strategy or mix of strategies he adopts to make the recession as shallow and as short-lived as possible, resources for bold initiatives are bound to be limited.

There are, too, the constraints imposed by his own personality. Barack Obama is an unusually complicated man. He is indeed in many ways a radical. He is also a conservative. Three values, in particular, that are massively important to him are at the heart of what has been historically the conservative personality.

He is a religious man: not a Muslim, as some in his family were, and as his enemies pretend, but a Christian, one who has chosen the Christian faith consciously and as a mature adult.

He is a patriot and an American exceptionalist. Like other great American radicals before him, from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King, the motivation to which he constantly appeals is the idea that in America, more than elsewhere, higher standards of political and social morality must be observed. Good for him: at the same time he will not instinctively look for political ideas abroad.

As he shows in the charming affection he shows to his wife and his daughters, he has the strong sense of family that is natural to a man whose family, though loyal and affectionate, was in several respects dysfunctional.

So we should not expect him to be driven by an instinctive wish to overturn the applecart. He is sincere when he says he wants change. He will not want to try to change everything.

Like every politician, and especially every politician who has captured his party's nomination not as the beneficiary of a long-earned legitimacy but as an insurgent, Obama is constrained by the ideas and values of the immediate circle of his supporters and advisers. To be sure, because he has raised so much money in small amounts, often over the internet from hundreds of thousands of donors, he is not in hock to big business and special interests. But he has made friends and incurred obligations on his astonishingly brief rise to the top.

He will do much for African-Americans and also for Hispanic-Americans. But he is hardly their prisoner. In Illinois, the traditional "race men" neither liked nor trusted him. Even the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a more substantial figure than envious black members of  the Illinois legislature, was even recorded in a moment of un-Christian annoyance uttering an earthy insult directed against him.

More restricting, perhaps, are the feelings of a group that supported him less enthusiastically than African-Americans: working-class, or "blue-collar" voters. Obama will be under pressure to adopt at least some protectionist measures to calm the fears of industrial workers who have lost their jobs or are afraid of losing them to foreign competition.

One reason, among several, why he has been talking to Hillary Clinton about a job in his administration - perhaps as secretary of state - is to buckle to himself two groups she was more successful at reaching out to in the campaign than he was: blue-collar workers, and women.

One constraint on the power of every president, especially underestimated outside the United States, is the power of Congress. Obama's coat-tails, as they say, were quite long. Democrats will have a more substantial majority in  the House of Representatives than speaker Nancy Pelosi has been able to count on since the mid-term elections of 2006.

In the Senate, the new president will have fifty-seven or fifty-eight votes (depending whether the comedian Al Franken can win a seat in Minnesota that is still undecided). To apply the cloture rule and end debate, you need sixty votes. On many issues, Obama will be able to win the handful of Republican votes he needs to pass legislation he wants. But not on all.

Also in openDemocracy on the United States election:

openUSA has published daily commentary and analysis of the 2008 election - both from the United States itself and around the world - and links to the best campaign coverage

The current highlights include an email exchange between KA Dilday and Anthony Barnett on the meaning of Barack Obama's candidacy


Sidney Blumenthal, "The strange death of Republican America" (4 November 2008)

Party loyalty and party organisation in the United States are not so mechanistic that a president, even one with an arithmetical majority in both houses of Congress, can count on getting what he wants. Here he will run into the most important constraints of all.

Between ideal and reality

There are issues where the will of the American people, especially as organised by long-established and  well-funded lobbies, sets rather tight limits on what a president can do. Two examples are healthcare reform and Israel.

Barack Obama is committed to reform of  the American healthcare system, and in particular of access to it. Poll data suggest that a large proportion of the American population wants reform. Hillary Clinton is if anything even more committed. Public opinion, however, shies away from a national healthcare system. Some kind of universal health insurance, with exceptions allowing those who are content with their existing health policies, is the most that could pass Congress (see Lawrence R Jacobs & James A Morone, "American sickness: diagnosis and cure", 16 October 2007).

The situation with regard to Israel is somewhat similar. A lot of prejudiced nonsense is written around the world about the "Jewish lobby" in American politics. A majority of American Jews vote the Democratic ticket, and Jews are at least as strongly represented on the left as on the neo-conservative right.

Still, over at least three decades, the American people have been persuaded that Israel is America's staunchest and even its most democratic ally (a questionable proposition, but one widely held in the United States). Jewish organisations, especially the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), have worked very hard to raise money for congressmen's election campaigns and to keep them briefed on the Israeli view of middle-east politics.

As a consequence, while it will be a key goal for the Obama administration to make progress towards peace between Israel and the Palestinians, there are in practice quite strict constraints on how far or how fast it is likely to move (see John C Hulsman, "Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you", 9 November 2008).

This applies even more to America's relations with Iraq, Iran and Pakistan. Senator Obama came out early and clearly against the Iraq war. But he did so in part because he saw it as a foolish  distraction from what he has continued to insist was the more urgent and legitimate task of  fighting Islamist extremism in Afghanistan and in its last redoubt in the tribal areas of Pakistan. As a result, one of the first and most dangerous crises the Obama administration will face will be over Pakistan.

As a candidate, Obama continued to insist (including in a speech at the Aipac conference in June 2008) that Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. At the same time, he has said he would be willing to talk directly to the Iranian government about the issue. He has also insisted that the Taliban must be defeated in Afghanistan, and that he is willing to enter Pakistan territory, with military force if necessary, to eliminate al-Qaida leaders.

What he can do

The president-elect has said repeatedly that before anything else he will focus his energies on attempting to reduce the duration and the severity of the economic crisis. Wisely, he has given few hints as to how he would go about that. He has however insisted that help should be directed, far more than has been done by the Bush administration, towards regular citizens struggling to keep their homes and their jobs, as opposed to the Wall Street investment firms from which the Bush administration has recruited both its economic philosophy and the personnel with which it is trying to cope with the crisis. Obama is unusually free from obligations to the mirror-glass towers of finance capitalism. But he is not an opponent of capitalism as a system.

All these constraints are superimposed on the institutional isolation of the presidency as it has evolved in the American constitutional system of separated powers, the isolation that doomed even such titans as Roosevelt and Johnson to frustration.  

We can expect a serious, progressive administration. It is committed to ending the uglier aspects of the Bush administration's foreign policy and to trying to save the country from the worst economic consequences of the conservative ascendancy. We should not, however, expect miracles. We must hope that Obama can swim. He will not be able to walk on water.

The week of pragmatic transition

The significance of the transition period for an incoming presidential administration cannot be overstated: not only does it offer the opportunity for the President-elect to identify the priorities within his or her legislative and policy agenda for the forthcoming term, but it also represents the first true test of managerial acumen at the highest governmental level; just ask Bill Clinton, who endured a number of early and largely self-inflicted blows to his executive authority as a result of tardy mobilization and ill-judged selections for his supporting cast (cf. Zoe Baird).

As such, the actions of the Obama transition team in the coming weeks should not be observered merely for the sake of palace intrigue. Instead, like a candidate's general election campaign, transition offers a fleeting glimpse as to how well prepared a future Obama administration is to meet the challenges ahead, while at the same time acting as a rough indicator as to what the President-elect's advisers believe are the key issues that need to be addressed internally between now and January 20th 2009. Over the brief but fervent period of time that has elapsed since Obama's electoral victory, I would suggest that the following has rung true:

The pariah-to-messiah moment

The Obama Moment in America reminds the Chicago anthropologist John Comaroff of the Mandela Moment in his native South Africa in the early 1990s. The whole world has embraced the Obama Moment as its own, Comaroff says, because it marks “the reentry of a pariah nation into the world” on the terms of a revived democracy.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with John Comaroff. (52 minutes, 24 mb mp3)

There’s a bracing analysis here from a man who makes it his business to jar our perspective — whose definition of anthropology boils down to “critical estrangement.” Anthropology won the election, Comaroff says, only half kidding. He means not just that Barack Obama is the son of an anthropologist but has a mind to stand outside the consensus when he must.

Democrats ask: "Will no one rid us of Joe Lieberman?"

Senator Joe Lieberman has been a thorn in the Democrats' side for a long time, but relations have only worsened since Connecticut primary voters booted him off the party ticket in 2006. Lieberman reacted by separating himself from the party and running as an independent, despite his earlier promises not to do so. Having campaigned for him in the primaries, many of his Democratic colleagues switched their support to the official party nominee, much to Lieberman's chagrin. He won re-election anyway, and since then has repeatedly broken his campaign promise to be loyal to the Democrats, stumping for his old friend John McCain, smearing Barack Obama, and delivering the keynote address at the Republican convention.

It's no surprise, then, that the party base want revenge. There is already outrage at the gentle approach President-elect Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have taken thus far. However, they ought to remember the proverb about not cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. Kicking Lieberman out of the party might send a message that disloyalty will be punished, but other than that it would accomplish precious little. It would be far wiser for Democrats to send a forgiving and non-partisan message, and keep Lieberman on board for important Senate votes. There is currently a real prospect of their controlling a 60-seat majority in the Senate, which would let them stop Republican filibusters derailing their legislative goals. These are still goals that Lieberman shares, despite his alienation from the party. Here's hoping Democrats don't give him more reason to subvert these goals. Lieberman is the one who has been cutting off his nose to spite his face, and there is still a chance that he will come to see that.

Only in America (part VI)

In the sixth part of his exchange with KA Dilday, Anthony Barnett realises that Obama's victory was hardly as comprehensive as it seemed. Catch up with part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5

Dear Kay,

You are right to mull it over. There are big issues to be addressed, from celebrity to Afghanistan not to speak of the recession. But not immediately. I had a shock about 36 hours afterwards. I'd known - I'd put it as strongly as that - since January that Barack Obama could win and that in his case his race would not prevent this. I suppose I must have been too confident that he would. It was only afterwards that I suddenly saw how close it was. Obama needed Lehman Brothers to turn all the "palling around with terrorists" junk into froth.

One American in three did not vote at all! Most Americans did not vote for Obama. He got 66 million to McCain's 58 million votes. Nearly a quarter of the US's 300 million plus population are under 18, still leaving over 230 million of which less than 130 million voted. Obama got the actual votes of barely more than one in four American adults. He and his supporters must do something about the extent of what remains, in effect, a form of disenfanchisement in the USA.

What Obama means for Iraq

Barack Obama's victory in the election for the next president of the United States on 4 November 2008 was an undeniable symbol of progress for the entire world, including for the middle east. For months, as the opinion-polls fluctuated and Obama gradually established a perceptible lead, Arab policy- makers as well as the general public refused to believe that a man of African descent could rise to the presidency of the most powerful nation on earth. Such a sentiment in part reflected outdated attitudes that persist in the region, where one of the most common terms used to describe an African is abed (literally, slave).

Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar and specialises in international commercial arbitration. He has graduated from King's College London, the Sorbonne University in Paris and Harvard Law School. He is currently writing a book on the Iraqi constitution with Jõrg Fedtke, to be published in 2009.

Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles in openDemocracy:

"Iraq's war of elimination" (21 August 2006)

"The United States in Iraq: the case for withdrawal" (19 January 2007)

"Iraqis in freefall" (21 March 2007)

"Iraq: a wall to conquer us" (7 May 2007)

In the end, the Arab world's scepticism proved unjustified: Barack Obama will be inaugurated as the successor to George W Bush on 20 January 2009. But a further aspect of its sentiment during the election period and after its outcome was known has been striking: a depressing lack of enthusiasm. Even Beirut, with its cosmopolitan and world-savvy populace, awoke to a vaguely disinterested haze the morning after Obama delivered his victory speech.

Perhaps it is not so surprising: the past few decades of American policy in the middle east, particularly the 2000-08 era, have made Arabs deeply cynical of American foreign policy. Ralph Nader's famous case that there are no Republicans or Democrats, merely "republicrats", has won many new adherents in the region.

Many middle-eastern observers do acknowledge that the past eight years have represented a major deterioration for the region in comparison with the Bill Clinton years, but this is generally attributed to a global shift that has taken place in US foreign policy, or to the US's total surrender to pro-Israel influences and interests. The result is that little or no effort is made to distinguish Republicans from Democrats. Some go even further and echo Dwight D Eisenhower's farewell warning against the "military-industrial complex" and its influence over government. Many argue and firmly believe that it is beyond the capacity of one person, even the president, to decide whether the US should engage or disengage from a war.

That view is very much the product of a sad realisation that things have never been good in the middle east (particularly in Iraq), regardless of who is US president. Iraqis care little that, for example, Republicans have dominated the White House for the past forty years, or that the US's economic policies and standards have regressed significantly under Republican presidents. They are also indifferent to the fact that it was specifically the Republican Party that was responsible for most of the devastating policy decisions that caused their suffering, including the US's support of Iraq during its war with Iran (1980-88), for the devastating onslaught upon the country in 1991, and for the invasion in 2003. For Iraqis, it is the entire American political class that is responsible - and the more the US has involved itself in their country, the worse their situation, regardless of which party is in power.

The rationale for war

The head of state of any nation will always prioritise his or her nation's interests (typically within the context of a set of legal rules), while the interests of other nations remain secondary at best. The question of how a head of state defines what lies within the country's interest is therefore paramount. It might be too much to expect that heads of state, when deciding whether to engage in a conflict, might consider the interests of humanity as a whole; but they should certainly consider the interests of their own citizens.

Also in openDemocracy on Barack Obama and the world:

John C Hulsman, "Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you" (11 November 2008)

A Wess Mitchell, "Memo to Obama: a Europe policy 3.0" (11 November 2008)

Anita Inder Singh, "Obama's Afghan challenge" (12 November 2008)

This point carries special weight in the case of the US, in light of its recent disregard for international rules and its unparalleled ability to impose its will internationally. Although Iraqis tend not to believe it, US presidents do not always agree on what is in the interest of their country, nor do they always manage to satisfy whatever interests they prioritise.

The best illustration of this from an Iraqi perspective is George W Bush's decision to invade and occupy their country. The rationale was supposedly a desire to eliminate a potential security threat (Iraq's alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction), to spread freedom in Iraq, and (though less explicitly stated) to reimpose American military might in the region in line with the neo-conservative vision of a "new middle east". Thus, the invasion was intended also to catalyse changes in regimes hostile to the US (principally Iran and Syria); the effect would be to make them as well as Iraq pliant to US interests (and not necessarily democratic and free).

It hardly needs emphasising that the Bush administration committed an enormous miscalculation, and proved itself incapable of achieving any of its objectives. The war is now an unequivocal financial catastrophe for the US (its long-term cost will be of the order of $3 trillion); it has led to significant military losses; it has damaged the US's military and symbolic standing in the world; and it has strengthened the hand of al-Qaida, the Taliban and Iran. It is evident that the interests of the Iraqis, who suffered terribly as a result of the invasion, were violated by the US policy; but (in light of the above point about a leader's priorities) there is no discernible link either between any of the Bush administration's ambitions and the interests of US citizens themselves.

The logic of interests

How will Barack Obama's approach differ from that of the neo-conservative cabal? The question can - drawing on the theme of how a leader calculates a country's interest - be broken down into three separate inquiries:

Also in openDemocracy on conflict and politics in Iraq:

Sami Zubaida, "The rise and fall of civil society in Iraq" (5 February 2003)

Peter Sluglett, "Iraq's short century: old problems, new perspectives" (3 June 2003)

Wendell Steavenson, "Afterwards" (12 June 2003)

Fred Halliday, "America and Arabia after Saddam" (13 May 2004)

Omar A Omar, "Kirkuk: microcosm of Iraq" (21 March 2005)

Tareq Y ismael, "The Iraq Study Group report: an assessment" (8 December 2006)

Charles Tripp, "Iraq: the politics of the local" (25 January 2008)

Safa A Hussein, "Iraq's political space" (18 February 2008)

Robert Springborg, "Uncle Sam in Iraq: the war of narratives" (19 March 2008)

Joost R Hiltermann, "Iraq, Iran and the United States: problems and prospects" (30 July 2008)

Reidar Visser, "The United States and Iraq: still getting it wrong" (3 October 2008)

* how does Obama define US interests?

* will he take the interests of other nations into account in formulating his foreign policy?

* will he be capable of achieving the objectives that he sets for himself?

Obama, in his first presidential debate with John McCain, explained his reasons for opposing the war in Iraq: "we [did] not know how much it was going to cost, what our exit strategy might be, how it would affect our relationships around the world, and whether our intelligence was sound, but also because we hadn't finished the job in Afghanistan". This echoed the influential speech he delivered at an anti-war rally in Chicago on 2 October 2002, when he also stated that "the Iraqi military is a fraction of its former strength".

The earlier, pre-war speech showed Obama to be both prescient and penetrating: able to cut through the propaganda on Iraq at a time when much of the Democratic Party and the media were parroting the Republican Party line. At the same time, both his earlier and later statements also reveal a calculating mind that clearly engaged upon a cost-benefit analysis before settling on a position.

For Obama, the war in Iraq shouldn't have taken place - but for reasons other than that it was morally or legally problematic. Rather, the US was unlikely to benefit from the venture, as the political, financial and human costs would be too high in comparison with whatever gains the US would derive. Obama's reasoning suggests that if he had been confident that the Bush administration had worked out a proper exit-strategy, and if the cost involved had in his view been clearly definable and tolerable, then he would have taken a different position.

Did Obama take the interests of Iraqis into account when deciding whether to support the conflict? The answer to this question is important in addressing another: is he the "transformational" figure that some people hope for, who would impose a compassionate foreign policy?

Some of his recent statements paint a mixed picture. The Obama plan for Iraq, posted on his campaign's website, makes a commitment to alleviating the Iraqi refugee crisis, something of a rarity for a major US politician. The plan states: "America has both a moral obligation and a responsibility for security that demands we confront Iraq's humanitarian crisis - more than five million Iraqis are refugees or are displaced inside their own country. [...] [An Obama administration] will provide at least $2 billion to expand services to Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries, and ensure that Iraqis inside their own country can find sanctuary." This is a welcome departure from the Bush administration's almost total indifference to the refugee crisis that it caused almost singlehandedly.

However, during his second presidential debate against McCain, Obama discussed sanctions on Iran and argued: "I have consistently said that, [...] Iran right now imports gasoline, even though it's an oil-producer, because its oil infrastructure has broken down. [If] we can prevent them from importing the gasoline that they need and the refined petroleum products, that starts changing their cost-benefit analysis. That starts putting the squeeze on them."

This outrageous policy, which is tantamount to recommending that the Iranian people be strangled economically, underlines the prism through US politicians view the middle east, in which there is not an Iranian people, but merely a defiant Iran. Obama's statements are particularly disturbing given how devastating the sanctions regime (1990-2003) against Iraq was to its people, and how inefficient it was in pressuring its regime.

His analysis of the status quo in Iraq is equally questionable, even if in part it reflects the constraints of engaging in a presidential election. He has argued: "I think that there's no doubt that the violence is down. I believe that that is a testimony to the troops that were sent and General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. I think that the surge has succeeded in ways that nobody anticipated".

What is referred to as a "success" by Obama is much more likely to be the result of a successful campaign to ethnically cleanse Baghdad of one sectarian group by another in 2006-07. A report by the University of California published in September 2008 revealed (through the study of a series of night-time satellite images) that large swathes of Baghdad are completely dark at night as a result of depopulation (and not power-cuts, as the rest of the city continues to shine brightly). It has become politically unpopular in the US and sometimes even regarded as unpatriotic to question the surge or General David Petraeus, but the reality is much more complicated and far bleaker than Obama's statements suggest.

Withdrawal or bust

But if Barack Obama's familiarity with and judgment about Iraq is clearly imperfect, he does understand that the US gains nothing by extending its stay in the country. He also understands that an immediate and unconditional withdrawal is not in his country's interest, and that he must proceed with caution in order to encourage a propitious environment that will allow for a withdrawal. His plan for Iraq seeks to "encourage Iraqis to take the lead in securing their own country and making political compromises, while the responsible pace of redeployment [sixteen months, i.e. by June 2010] called for by the Obama-Biden plan offers more than enough time for Iraqi leaders to get their own house in order".

The fact that Obama accepts that the Iraq war should never have happened, and that it should end as soon as possible, is a large part of what caused so much celebration in the world on 5 November 2008. Some of his supporters have ignored Obama's reasoning and have mistaken him for a dove: but at this stage, all that matters is that he is intent on withdrawing, for whatever reasons. Many Iraqis doubt that there will ever be a withdrawal, based on the assumption that the US is somehow benefitting financially from the occupation (by secretly stealing Iraqi oil or otherwise). The truth however is that Obama has already operated his cost-benefit analysis and decided long ago that the US would be better off if the occupation ended. His convincing victory on 4 November also provided him with the mandate to implement his plan. The emerging question will be whether he can actually manage to withdraw without causing chaos in the country and in the region.

A large majority of Iraqis agree that the US must set a timetable for withdrawal, and there is no question that maintaining the occupation would merely prolong the torment that Iraqis have been living through since 2003. A withdrawal is a necessary prerequisite to stabilising the country, but Obama's task will not be an easy one, as circumstances have changed significantly since he first set out his plan. The Iraqi government has strengthened its hand and may not be interested in compromising with rival groups (many of whom have been severely weakened of late). More importantly, entering into a compromise of this nature will be hard under any circumstances and could easily fail regardless of everyone's best intentions.

The Barack Obama administration will almost certainly amount to a return to the Bill Clinton years, when chauvinistic military adventures were more infrequent and of a lesser scale than they have been since 2000, but during which United States interests were sometimes prioritised over those of weaker and more vulnerable states. For Iraqis, a calculating US president could still represent an improvement over the George W Bush years, assuming that the person doing the maths knows how to add.

"Obama's Afghan challenge"

Elsewhere in openDemocracy, Anita Inder Singh explores the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which poses one of the toughest foreign policy challenges facing the next president. Singh paints a bleak picture: "The Taliban now control at least one-third of the country; President Karzai's fledging elected government struggles to extend its authority beyond the capital Kabul; and wracked by growing divisions and doubts, NATO seems to be at risk of losing a seven-year old war." Read the rest of the article here.


Memo to Obama: a Europe policy 3.0

To: The President of the United States 

From: A Wess Mitchell

Subject: America's Europe Policy, Version 3.0

Mr President,

You will inherit a policy agenda for Europe that was conceived twenty years ago for a world that no longer exists. That agenda was built on three bedrock assumptions, all of which were then refreshingly new:

A Wess Mitchell is co-founder and director of research at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington,DC-based foreign-policy institute

Also in openDemocracy:

John C Hulsman, "Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you" (11 November 2008)
* that Russia was an enervated, status-quo power

* that Europe was unifying into an Atlanticist whole

* that American global - and therefore regional - power was virtually inexhaustible.

Working from these assumptions, your post-cold-war predecessors embarked upon one of the most successfully expansionist courses in the history of United States foreign policy, advancing the western ideological and institutional ambit by a space of half a million square miles in less than two decades.

Collectively, the family of policies that made this success possible could be called "Europe Policy 2.0." Where American cold-war strategy (Europe Policy 1.0) had been largely defensive, working to staunch Russian expansion through cautious counter-force, Version 2.0 switched to the geopolitical offensive, methodically absorbing the lands that had formerly composed the Soviet Union's western power-base.

Each strategy was a brilliant success in its day. The reason they worked is that the policies they fielded corresponded to deeper global power realities:

* for containment - the restrictive environment of bipolarity, with its furrowed geopolitical map and hair-trigger standoffs

* for expansion - the permissive strategic environment of unipolarity, with its cooperative centre and untamed periphery.

Neither structural reality now applies. You will be the first American leader to confront the full-blown psychological reality of multipolarity. In Europe, the new global power arrangement is giving rise to the third great geopolitical re-configuration of the Euro-Atlantic space since 1945. This new landscape is marked by three mega-trends:

Also in openDemocracy on Europe and the world:

Dieter Helm, "Russia, Germany and European energy policy" (14 December 2006)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "European unity: reality and myth" (21 March 2007)

John Palmer, "Europe's higher ground" (22 October 2007)

Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap" (19 August 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "The world after the Russia-Georgia war" (5 September 2008)

Paul Gillespie, "The European Union and Russia after Georgia" (10 September 2008)

Aviel Roshwald, "Nato, the west and Russia: from peril to progress" (23 September 2008)

* a resurgent Russia

* a geopolitically-polygamous Europe

* an isolated, over-extended America.

The vast majority of recommendations on offer for US policy in Europe discount the importance or durability of these changes and counsel a continuation of Europe Policy 2.0. An intrepid but irrelevant few swing in the opposite direction, overestimating the new trend lines' significance and arguing for a down-scaling of US regional commitments to devote scarce resources to more pressing existential challenges elsewhere.

You should do neither. Instead, the time has come to devise a fundamentally new approach to Europe - one that matches reduced power means to more modest and intelligent policy ends. America needs a Europe Policy 3.0. Rather than expansion or retrenchment, the current geopolitical constellation calls for a strategy of consolidation - a sustained effort at managing the effects of the disintegrative trends listed above and "locking-in" the Euro-Atlantic order established between 1989 and 2007. In the immediate future, this means:

* buttressing exposed eastern regions where old security dilemmas have reawakened

* husbanding once-vibrant political relationships through re-synchronisation of fundamental interests

* erecting counterpoises to creeping non-Atlanticist geopolitical influences.

Together, these changes will require nothing short of a wholesale reorganisation of American diplomatic and military resources in the Euro-Atlantic space.

It is worth the effort.

1. Buttress Europe's eastern flank

The single greatest challenge you will face in Europe over the next four years is the sharpened security dilemma that has come to exist along the EU's eastern border. In the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Georgia, Moscow has unveiled a doctrine for regional intervention, consolidated its politico-energy position in central Asia, issued threats to Nato member-states, and attempted to assume the status of sole arbiter to the frozen conflict in Transnistria. Some experts believe Moscow could precipitate a major crisis in Ukraine within your first two years in office.

The outgoing administration was unable to frame a meaningful response to these moves. American impotence was a source of discomfort for Nato's newest and most exposed eastern member-states. The geopolitical status of these new allies can be summed up as that of a group of small and mid-sized powers wedged between a 21st-century power to the west and a 19th-century power to the east and relying for their security on a 20th-century power beyond the horizon.

Assuaging their heightened sense of vulnerability should be your highest priority in Europe. Your administration should move swiftly and confidently to shore up Europe's eastern flank and restore trust in the full faith and credit of American security underwriting. Two steps are needed here.

2. Do not expand Nato to the east

The need to extend offers of Nato membership to Georgia and Ukraine has become orthodoxy in the US foreign-policy establishment. In reality, this goal will for the foreseeable future remain unachievable. Opposition to expanding the alliance is deeply entrenched in Berlin, Paris and (though often overlooked) Ankara. American persistence only deepens the perception of US powerlessness and crisis in Nato at a moment when these perceptions desperately need to be countered.

While continuing to support the goal of stability and democracy in Ukraine and Georgia in principle, your administration should support an "EU membership first" strategy for these and other states in the new eastern arc of crisis. To the extent that scarce US political capital is invested in enlarging Nato, it should be to the north rather than the east. Both Finland and Sweden have become more interested in joining Nato since the South Ossetian war. Bringing them in could help to shore up Nato's northeastern flank, reducing the sense of strategic exposure among the Baltic states and uniting the alliance around a practical and achievable goal without bringing us into immediate confrontation at a moment when we cannot sustain it.

3. Strengthen the US military presence in central Europe

While halting the rush to absorb Ukraine and Georgia, a convincing demonstration of US strength must be made in the eastern member-states of Nato, lest they - and Moscow - mistake deceleration on enlargement as a sign of retreat. At present, the combined western military presence in central Europe consists of a handful of US troops at lily-pad bases in the Black Sea and four rotating Nato F-16s patrolling Baltic airspace. This security-blanket needs to be thickened - not just rhetorically but visibly. The outgoing administration took a positive step in this direction by advocating the creation of a new territorial Rapid Reaction Force. You should go further by initiating talks within Nato for the transfer of select military installations from their current locations in western Europe to new sites further east. There was already a strong case for shifting some assets on logistical grounds before the Georgia crisis, and there is an even stronger case for doing so on geopolitical grounds now.

4. Husband once-vibrant political relationships

Received wisdom correctly holds that America's bilateral relationships in Europe are in disarray. In the span of barely eight years, the sixty-year-old foundation of Atlanticist unity has sustained deep erosion. There are invaluable lessons to be learned from recent experiences about how intra-alliance politics function under conditions of multipolarity - lessons that could easily be forgotten in the rush to confront challenges further afield. Your administration will need to engage in the tedious spadework of mending fences with estranged allies. These fall into two distinct categories - the mostly small and eastern states that have supported US policies but failed to receive compensation and the mostly large and western European states that did not stand with us but who we cannot afford to alienate. Each group is worth retaining, but requires a subtly different kind of attention.

5. Reward disappointed Atlanticists

The first focus of attention should be the countries of the ill-starred "new" Europe - e.g., the Poles and Czechs, alongside older allies such as the British and Dutch - who supported America in Iraq but have little to show in return. In collaboration with Congress, you should devise a package of strategic perks aimed at retaining their goodwill. For the western Europeans, this could include enhanced military technology sharing and presidential review of longstanding bilateral grievances in US trade policy. For the central Europeans, it could include finalising the expansion of the US visa-waiver programme and creating a new fund within the Foreign Military Funding programme specifically earmarked for ex-Warsaw Pact militaries. In both cases, the goal should be long-term - i.e., not enlisting help for the next Iraq-style adventure, but rather constructing a permanent, institutionally-embedded Atlanticist cadre around which to build a pro-US consensus in EU decision-making.

6. Seek mutually-beneficial tradeoffs with core EU states

Your administration should also think creatively about how to re-synchronise US policy with the large, increasingly non-Atlanticist powers at the EU's core. At present, the United States and Germany are each engaged in activities that the other doesn't like, that are arguably not in their own interests, and that are contributing to the de-stabilisation of the wider alliance: the US push for Georgian/Ukrainian MAP and German participation in Russian energy deals that bypass eastern EU member-states. Your administration should seek a bargain: softening our stance on MAP in exchange for Berlin rethinking Nordstream. To sweeten the deal, we should be willing to meet Germany halfway on missile-defence (embedding the bilateral pacts with Poland and the Czech Republic more firmly within a wider Nato-wide system). While doing these things is already good for America, it should be linked as far as possible to concessions from Germany.

7. Erect counterpoises to creeping non-Atlanticist geopolitical influences

The organising problem in Europe for coming generations of US statesmen is likely to be European geopolitical dependency on Russia. In recent years, Moscow has used what a recent report from the European Council on Foreign Relations called "coercive bilateralism" to establish permanent pathways of dependency that will enable Moscow to either block the emergence of a unified European geopolitical actor altogether or, to the extent that such an actor does congeal, have so many threads in the European Union rug as to be able to pull it out from under EU policies that harm Russian interests. Your administration should devise a long-term strategy for countering this influence. A combination of direct and indirect tactics are needed.

8. Remove US policy obstacles to a viable southern energy corridor

Diversification of energy supply is a longstanding US policy priority in Europe. The problem is that it works at cross-purposes with another top US policy priority: the effort to diplomatically and economically isolate the Republic of Iran. The US-backed Nabucco pipeline project could help lessen European dependency on Gazprom - and with it, the danger of European states being held hostage to Russian geopolitical machinations. But to work, Nabucco needs to carry Iranian gas, which Washington currently opposes. It is not difficult to see how this circle could be squared. The Europeans need non-Russian gas and America needs carrots to lure Tehran away from producing nuclear weapons. Your administration should work with Congress to include a relaxation of US opposition to European investment in the Iranian energy sector as part of the package of incentives for the next round of nuclear talks with Tehran. It's a sweeter enticement than any other currently on offer and, if successful, could kill two birds with one stone.

9. Encourage a deepening of German-Polish relations

While striking directly at the fountainhead of Russian geopolitical influence in Europe - energy dependency - you should also approach the problem indirectly, by encouraging EU member-states to prioritise their bilateral ties with one another over links to Moscow. The main thrust of this effort should be directed at Germany and Poland. The relationship between Europe's largest western and largest eastern power is arguably as important to the overall stability of Europe today as the Franco-German relationship was in the 1950s. The current alignment of moderate governments in both countries, with Schröder-ite Russophiles and Kaczynski-ite Germophobes consigned to the backbenches, offers a rare opportunity to deepen ties. Your administration should encourage the Angela Merkel government to reiterate its offer of an overland spur from the Nordstream pipeline into Poland - only this time, with the added inducement of German/EU commission funding. On the Polish side, the United States should reinforce the growing tendency to seek leadership roles alongside western member-states in EU decision-making councils. Our comfort-level with the EU should increase in proportion to the strength of Polish and other Atlanticist voices within its structures.


In short, your administration should conduct a comprehensive review of American strategic priorities in Europe. We can no longer leave US policy inputs on autopilot and expect European policy outputs - on Iran, on Afghanistan, on energy security - to improve. We cannot continue the headlong geopolitical expansion that brought us to the gates of Tblisi and Kiev, but we also cannot precipitously retract. A new playbook is needed. Where Europe Policy 1.0 saw the European geopolitical space as a besieged outpost and Version 2.0 saw it as combination launch-pad for freedom and global helpmeet, a Europe Policy 3.0 would see it as America's vital geopolitical "base" in world politics - an over-used, under-cultivated base that, in the multipolar world ahead, will require careful maintenance to retain.

Where the leitmotif of American strategy under bipolarity was containment ("patient, firm, and vigilant") and the theme under unipolarity was expansion (heady, unimpeded, and slack), the keynote of our Europe policy under multipolarity must be consolidation: flexible, steady and balanced.

Make that your watchword, Mr Obama, and you will leave better than you found.

The electoral college is still a poor system

Last Tuesday, Barack Obama won clear majorities in both the electoral college and the popular vote. Their divergence in 2000 remains an aberration in American political history; remarkably, the parties' support in different states is distributed in such a way that the winner of the popular vote will tend to win the electoral college (with Democrats currently having only a slight structural advantage due to the more efficient distribution of their vote).

In that respect, things are better in the US than in the UK, where the first-past-the-post system has often put one or other of the major parties at a disadvantage (as well as denying the significant number of third-party voters proportionate impact). However, we should not let this obscure the fact that the electoral college system has a number of other drawbacks.

First, it gives voters in low-population states like Vermont and Wyoming over twice as much weight as those in high-population states like New York and Texas.

Second, it hampers the growth of third parties. Some will regard that as a good thing, on the grounds that it encourages stability and forces compromise, but I disagree.

Third, it allows states to disenfranchise voters without losing clout. Southern states originally supported it for just this reason, as it let them increase their electoral college votes by counting their slave population (albeit at a discounted rate, with each slave worth three fifths of a free man).

Fourth, states in which one party has a comfortable margin suffer decreased turnout, as their residents feel that their votes will not make a difference.

Fifth, these states get less attention from the candidates than large swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, which force politicians to pander to their particular needs. For example, John McCain's defeat in Iowa was ensured by his (admirable) refusal to follow Barack Obama in supporting ethanol subsidies.

There are moves afoot to overturn this flawed system. One of the cleverest, which bypasses the need to pass a constutional ammendment,is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.This is an agreement which kicks in when joined by enough states to command a majority in the electoral college, at which point these states promise to award their votes to the winner of the national popular vote. It has already been joined by Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland,and New Jersey. Let's hope that more states recognise the flawed nature of the current system, and join in the effort to reform it.

Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you

To: The President of the United States

From:  John C Hulsman

Re: The Middle East Peace Process

Mr President,

I can only imagine how many long-winded memos you will have to wade through between election night and your inauguration. They will all have basically the same message: You must do what they say, and quickly, to save the republic from further disaster. It reminds me of the comments of Georges Clemenceau, the premier of France, regarding the "fourteen points" agenda of that most vainglorious of presidents, Woodrow Wilson. The wily old premier replied: "Fourteen points: that's a bit much. The good lord has only ten."

John C Hulsman is the Alfred von Oppenheim scholar-in-residence at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin. His books include (with Anatol Lieven) Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World (Pantheon, 2006)

John C Hulsman's website is here:

Also by John C Hulsman in openDemocracy:

"Beyond the neocons: ethical realism and America's future" (20 September 2006)
I will keep to Clemenceau's critique and come in under the strictures of the almighty; I am genuinely sorry to take up your time at such a dramatic moment of economic crisis for the country. But American policy in the middle east desperately requires a radical rethink. You, in the words of my grandmother, will have to learn to walk and chew gum at the same time, to grapple with a profound global economic meltdown that will colour all things, while still engaging America in an outward-looking foreign policy. We are all realists now; the days of the neo-conservative pipe-dreams of American empire are at an end. But while we are in relative decline, the United States will remain for a long time, much as the British did, primus inter pares, first among equals in the global system. We must devise a new strategy to cope with the middle-east tinderbox, one that above all calls for genuinely new thinking about the middle-east peace process.

The strategy has eight points:

1. While much must change, the basis for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal remains the same: land for peace

The key point for the Palestinians is a viable, contiguous West Bank, with secure links to Gaza. The essential matter for the Israelis is genuine peace, with the Arab states in the region all diplomatically recognising Israel, while actively assisting in disarming Arab terrorists. Without both these very difficult elements satisfied, no deal can possibly hope to work.

2. It is time to recognise that the confidence-building measures (including President Bush's roadmap) that arose in the wake of the Oslo accords amount to a noble failure

A comprehensive approach, arrived at in secret, is the only way forward. Unfortunately for the world, the architects of recent efforts at middle-east peace all went to the same graduate schools, which preach the same soothing platitudes. Conventional wisdom holds that in intractable complex negotiations like the middle-east peace process, small, limited steps forward will instill confidence in diplomatic interlocutors from both sides, enabling them later on to grasp the nettle of dealing with the large and controversial issues, like refugee right of return and the status of Jerusalem. To put it mildly, this seemingly sensible approach has worked better at the Kennedy School and Georgetown than on the ground.

For what it leaves out of the equation is the primal fact that both the Israelis and the Palestinians have been deeply traumatized by the past sixty years. Both electorates are strongly against concessions being made by their leaders that are not immediately reciprocated. Both the Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert leaderships were very weak, with Abbas proving to be deeply unpopular, while he has lost total control of Gaza to the more radical Hamas. Further, Tzipi Livni's failure to form a government means that an election is in prospect which may result in the formation of yet another fractious Israeli coalition, headed either by Livni herself or by the more intransigent Binyamin Netanyahu-led Likud. The terminal political feebleness of both Israeli and Palestinian political leaderships means that it is wholly utopian to assume that either has the political capital to move ahead with concessions first, hoping that they will be rewarded down the road.

Yet that is what both the roadmap and the virtual peace deals floating around the internet in fact call for. The roadmap calls for the disarming of Palestinian radicals to proceed ahead of a final territorial solution: peace first, then land. The virtual plans call for Israeli territorial concessions to proceed ahead of final discussions about Israeli security: land first, then peace. Both sides are far too traumatised for either approach to ever happen, as neither of these options corresponds to practical political realities on the ground. Neither side can go first, and deliver. 

Also in openDemocracy on international diplomacy and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute:

David Mepham, "Hamas and political reform in the middle east" (1 February 2006)

Khaled Hroub, "Palestine's argument: Mecca and beyond" (6 March 2007)

Fred Halliday, "Palestinians and Israelis: a political impasse" (5 June 2007)

Richard Youngs, "The European Union and Palestine: a new engagement" (28 March 2007)

Khaled Hroub, "Annapolis, or the absurdity of postmodern politics" (22 November 2007)

El Hassan bin Talal, "Annapolis: a view from Amman" (26 November 2007)

Yossi Alpher, "Kosovo and Palestine" (5 March 2008)

Tony Klug, "Two states for two peoples: solution or illusion?" (21 July 2008)

Jeroen Gunning, "Hamas: talk to them" (18 April 2008)
3. Rather, all outstanding issues must be settled at once in a complete package, with both sides making concessions and receiving incentives at exactly the same time

That is the only way they can weather the predictable political storm that will surely follow from radicals on both sides. The membership of such a negotiating team must be limited to the highest-level, allowing the fewest number of people to know of its existence, in an effort to avoid leaks until the entire deal is finalised. Such a process must not drag on indefinitely; a rough six-to-nine-month timetable ought to be sufficient to see if such a process can lead to a sustainable breakthrough. Every time the very public negotiating process has been attempted, it alerts the radical enemies of any form of peace deal, giving them time to destroy both the emerging plan and the political actors supporting it. We must rediscover the joys of secret diplomacy.

The political trick to the whole exercise is that if both sides receive just enough political benefits from the deal they will be able to make the concessions necessary to the other side to push through an agreement. Neither can nor will be wholly happy. What instead we are shooting for is a sober cost-benefit analysis by both Palestinians and Israelis that both gain just more than they lose by such an agreement - such as happened during the negotiations between Lloyd George and Michael Collins in 1921 to establish a settlement in Ireland. That is the best that men can do. Do not hold out for a perfect settlement that simply does not exist; embrace a moderately good one that makes political stakeholders of the majority of the peoples and leaders of both sides.

4. We all know roughly what a final peace agreement looks like in policy terms; the devilishly tricky part is to game out how to politically get there. A rough place to start is as follows

The Palestinians will get to fly a flag over East Jerusalem, while the real administrative capital will remain in Ramallah. There will only be a symbolic right of Palestinian return, as a genuine one would forever change the Jewish character of the Israeli state, and will never be agreed to by any Israeli leader. For this concession, the Palestinians will be significantly compensated by Japan and the European allies. The Palestinians will form a contiguous, internationally-recognised state on 95% of the West Bank, with secure rail and road links to their enclave in Gaza. In return there will be land swaps adjusting the 1967 borders, with Israel incorporating their three largest settlements in the West Bank (which account for the bulk of Jewish settlement) in return for the Palestinians not being given a series of unconnected reservations, and receiving territorial compensation, leaving them a contiguous West Bank to rule over. It amounts to a 1967-plus land agreement.

In return the new Palestinian states and the vast majority of the Arab world will recognise Israel and its government and the borders of the new settlement unconditionally, along with the deal being ratified by the United Nations, Nato, the Arab League, the European Union, and all other relevant international bodies. Further, the agreement will clearly state that all the leaderships of the middle east (including Israel) formally and in fact forsake further regional violence.  Abbas and the Palestinian leadership must commit to and in fact move against the militants threatening Israel. Such a deal will come into force only after it is submitted to both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples for a referendum, with each side securing the "yes" vote to provide the political cover for their leaders to make the brave steps necessary to secure peace. Local political legitimacy must be a prerequisite for any lasting deal.

5. For the locals, not the international community, must take the lead in making peace

The rest of the world must help the Palestinians and Israelis fashion peace. For instance, the Palestinians will never accept a deal without the Europeans being in the room, just as the Israelis will never accept a concord without the Americans being in the room. But, as happened during the waning days of the Clinton administration, we must not pressure either side to get too far ahead of its own people; President Clinton's Wye River deal of October 1998 would never have been ratified in the expected Israeli referendum, because he pushed both prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat too hard to accept an American-crafted deal.

Such an approach will never work, being instead seen as a foreign diktat that will be abandoned at the first jolt of what will amount to a very bumpy road forward. Instead, local Israeli and Palestinian leaders must be encouraged to be the primary stakeholders in any settlement, as they must implement the accord through the difficult days ahead, possessing the political clout necessary implement the deal. Otherwise the accord will be seen as yet another foreign intrusion in regional politics and will be swiftly abandoned.

6. America does not get to pick and choose the interlocutors on either side. We must work with whoever the Palestinians and Israelis elect, however difficult they prove to be

At the time of this memo, this means the more moderate leadership in Hamas must be engaged, even though this makes reaching an accord far more difficult. As proved true in the Good Friday agreement, the Irish Republican Army and the majority of the Protestant paramilitaries, however difficult, could not be excluded from a final settlement, as no deal without them represented the collective will of Northern Ireland. Further, political exclusion would have led to both sides continuing down the path of violence, which given the fragile political situation would have certainly undone the accord. It is not naïve to follow the notion that the United States does not get to pick the politically legitimate interlocutors of others; rather it represents a sound grasp of reality.

7. Encourage the Israelis to accept the Yitzhak Rabin approach

Remind our allies that the cold strategic calculations that impelled the great Rabin to take the enormously difficult decision to move forward with Arafat remains even more true today. A deal in the near term means Israel negotiates from a position of strength with its neighbours. Waiting for the decades to pass will surely erode Israeli strategic advantages, given the Arab demographic advantage. Friends don't let friends drive drunk. Privately, we must make it clear to our Israeli allies that your administration thinks Rabin was correct; dragging the peace process out indefinitely is to the advantage of Israel's enemies. While they must decide what is best for their people, the United States, as Israel's greatest ally, can surely proffer some private unsolicited advice from one friend to another.

8. Start now. Presidents tend to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis late in their terms, as domestic initiatives are shut off and their power wanes

It is as if they try for the holy grail of solving the world's most intractable problem as a last desperate attempt to make their name enter the pantheon of the immortals of history. This was surely the case for both Presidents Bush and Clinton. Sadly, a president in the twilight of his term does not have the political capital to help further along such a deal. Both the Arabs and the Israelis know this, and are unlikely to take risks for a dying king. This has certainly been true of President Bush's well-meaning but ineffectual efforts in the region. Break this cycle by committing genuine political capital to this problem early in your term, when your power is at its height.

By making a genuine good faith effort early on, you will show the middle east, more than any inspiring speech ever could, that you are a different sort of president from your predecessor, committed to leading while listening, to actually trying to solve the most knotty global problems, and that America generally remains a significant force for good in the world. It will not be news to you that America as symbol, a source throughout the cold war of significant soft power, has been badly tarnished in the past years. By genuinely trying to solve some of the world's hardest problems you can begin the necessary and arduous process of making America again a symbol of hope in a world transitioning to multipolarity. I can think of no better way to enhance American power than by restoring American standing.

For what its worth, know that this Republican will help you in any way he can.


John Hulsman

The future of campaigning

The Obama campaign has set new standards for politicians, strategic advisors and spin doctors around the globe. What aspects of his campaign will be appropriated abroad and shape the conduct of political competition in elections to come?

Only in America (part V)

In the wake of Obama's victory, KA Dilday begins to digest an unprecedented result. Catch up with the earlier segments of her conversation wtih Anthony Barnett: part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.  

Dear Anthony:

From the moment the news was announced at about 4 am in London, and I heard the triumphant roar of the Harlem, New York City residents through the phone as I spoke to my sister overseas, I've been in a state of shock.  A black man with a funny name, and Hussein as a middle name no less, was elected president by more than half of the Americans who voted in the largest voter turnout in 100 years.

I never believed that enough of my fellow citizens would feel comfortable voting for a black man to be president for Obama to win. In a time of Islamophobia, I never believed that enough of my fellow citizens would feel comfortable voting for a man who had Muslim relatives for Obama to win. Until the moment when it became an irrefutable fact, I had underestimated my country.

So I consumed my dish of crow with relish.

One nagging concern though: while John McCain's concession speech was gracious, I inferred that he thought Barack Obama's success heralded the end of racism in America. Just as Thatcher's tenure as prime minister didn't mean the end of sexism in Britain, or Lula's and Morales' triumphs don't mean the end of classism in their respective countries, nor does Obama's success mean that racism no longer exists. But it does mean that for any one person with determination, anything is possible. And that is a powerful piece of knowledge to hold.

I think I'm going to take a few days to mull this over, Anthony, before we continue our conversation.


KA Dilday was recently a France-based fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs. She covered integration and immigration in France and traveled frequently to North Africa. She has written and edited for many American publications. She was an editor for the New York Times opinion page. 


Gay marriage: what now?

Dennis highlights the success of California's Proposition 8, which amends the state constitution to ban gay marriage.  This was a bitter note in Tuesday's results, made all the more so by evidence that the surge in African-American turnout carried the proposition to victory. Gay rights activists clearly have a lot of work to do convincing socially conservative blacks, unless they plan on hoping that their high turnout was a passing aberration.

Other than continuing the slow process of convincing Americans of the rightness of their cause, or simply waiting for time to do its work as each new generation becomes more tolerant, these activists have a few options. Attorney Gloria Allred has already announced plans to challenge the constitutionality of the new constitutional amendment - unsurprisingly, this does not seem likely to succeed. Others are hoping to wait a few years and then introduce a new proposition to overturn this one - a prospect which suggests we may see decades of see-sawing court decisions and citizen initiatives.

In the meantime, what will happen to those same-sex couples who have already got married in California? Eugene Volokh has a good rundown of the possibilities. In brief, it appears quite possible that their marriages will be converted to domestic partnerships, either by the courts or by the legislature. Strangely enough, that would not provoke the ire of many who voted for Proposition 8 - a solid majority of Americans are comfortable with something very like gay marriage, so long as it is not called 'marriage'.

Despite the bad news in California, it is worth remembering that Connecticut and Massachusetts still have equal marriage rights, that New York recognises marriages in Massachusetts, and that President-elect Obama has promised to push for federal civil unions. Time remains the best ally supporters of gay marriage have on their side.

Lost in the moment: ballot measures

While the world celebrates Barack Obama's historic victory over John McCain, many ballot measures on the state level also deserve our attention (overview). Most controversial among them were the decisions on same-sex marriage and abortion that were up in several states.

Is this what a landslide looks like?

With almost all states called, we have a pretty good picture of the electoral map. It looks like this:

Though not quite the stuff of Democrats' wildest fantasies (which featured Georgia and even Montana), this is about as good as they could have hoped for. It is already being called a "landslide" by the often restrained New York Times. Nonetheless, it looks somewhat less impressive than this:

Or this:

However,  those sorts of landslides look to be things of the past. America is now much more evenly split, with both parties calibrating their message so as to win 51% of the electorate. The Democrats in particular have moved to the centre ever since Bill Clinton, scarred by the experience of the 1984 and 1988 elections depicted above, in which their candidates were widely seen as too liberal. Of course, some commentators, like John Judis of the New Republic, are already interpreting this election as part of a leftward shift in the nation. They may well be right, and I am sure we shall be discussing this at openUSA over the coming weeks. But there is no missing the fact that many of the new congressmen the Democrats have gained are more conservative than their old colleagues. This is the result of a deliberate and apparently highly successful strategy of recruiting candidates in tune with their districts. It will help keep the Democrats close to the centre, and perhaps even mark the return of a South in which both parties are competitive. Perhaps then we may see an electoral map which is more uniformly blue.

Only in America (part I)

In the first segment of a multi-part exchange, KA Dilday reminds Anthony Barnett of how Barack Obama's rise is very un-European. Read on: part II, part III, and part IV

Dear Anthony:

It's been several months since I told you that Barack Obama's nomination as the presidential candidate for a major political party, could only happen in America . But even as I said that, I also insisted that he would never be elected president because of his race, particularly since he was running against a patrician white man. Now, and I say this with a cautious optimism, it seems that on the night of 4 November (EST of course) I may be eating a dish of crow, and relishing every bite.

I've lived in three countries in Europe - France, The Netherlands and now the United Kingdom - and despite the western European belief, particularly in France, that their countries are more liberal and tolerant than the United States, none of them have ever voted someone from an ethnic minority to a major position in national government. France, despite having a Muslim population (mostly of north and sub-Saharan African descent) of nearly ten percent, has never elected any Muslims to their National Assembly, the directly-elected body of their bi-cameral parliament.

In a way I'm embarrassed that my excitement is based on a politics of identity - Obama's black, I'm black, hooray for the race! - because as a thoughtful person, I've always tried to base my decisions on a candidate's ideas and policies. And despite that I've always been registered as a political independent, unaffiliated with either major party, I didn't vote for another black man, Jesse Jackson, when he ran as an independent candidate for president in 1988. But I can't deny the thrill I felt when I colored in the dot next to Barack Obama's name on the absentee ballot that I scoured the mail for each day until it finally came last Monday. I'm still expecting an unpleasant surprise. I don't think the exposure of Obama's aunt as an illegal alien will derail him, but who knows what the Republican's dirty tricks strategists will throw up. They're fiendishly clever and unabashedly dissolute when it comes to winning elections. But could it be? A black man, president of the United States! Who would have thought it in my lifetime?

Optimistically yours,


KA Dilday was recently a France-based fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs. She covered integration and immigration in France and traveled frequently to North Africa. She has written and edited for many American publications. She was an editor for the New York Times opinion page. 

Barack Obama will be the next President

The networks are calling crucial state after crucial state for Obama, and Nate Silver at has just called the whole race. Upsets can always happen, but I think we can rely on his judgement. There will be more on this historic result tomorrow at openUSA.

The strange death of Republican America

Senate races to watch

If the Presidential race provides insufficient drama tonight, watch out for the results of the Senate races also taking place. There look likely to be some real nail-biters. Foremost among these is the match-up in Georgia between incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss and Democrat Jim Martin. The race looks so close that it may end up in a December runoff, prolonging the election season yet further. Another close race is in Minnesota, with comedian Al Franken challenging Republican Senator Norm Coleman. This should have been a solid Democratic gain this year, but Franken has proved to be a less than ideal candidate, with the race essentially tied in the polls.

The outcome of these races should interest us all, even if we are not Minnesotans or Georgians. The workings of the Senate mean that a minority of over 40 can effectively stall any legislation, so the Democrats are desperately hoping they can reach 60 seats. It looks unlikely at the moment, but if this is truly a landslide for Obama, he may have sufficiently long coat-tails to get his party there. Amid all the excitement and triumphalism that would surround an Obama victory, we should not forget that he may have a difficult time bringing about the change he has promised.

Update: The Democrats have managed to win Elizabeth Dole's seat in North Carolina, a pleasing result for them...

2006: McCain 510-Obama 28

The Huffington Post is carrying an intriguing story regarding a survey conducted exactly two years ago by polling company SurveyNow, gauging the balance of voter support across the country in the event of a hypothetical Barack Obama-John McCain presidential showdown in 2008.

Interviewing 600 voters in each state, SurveyUSA was able to extrapolate that an Obama candidacy would take Illinois, Hawaii and the District of Columbia-and that's it. This would have left him with a grand total of 28 total electoral votes, and culminated in a landslide victory for John McCain.

If Howard Wilson was right in his assertion that a week is a long time in politics, then this should prove ample evidence that two years is a very very long time indeed.

2006 SurveyUSA Electoral College Map

Only in America (part IV)

In the fourth part of his exchange with KA Dilday, Anthony Barnett argues that Obama sees the US as part of the world, not apart from it. Catch up with part 1, part 2, and part 3.  

Dear Kay,

Senator Obama - and I SO hope by tomorrow morning it will be "President-elect" Obama - agrees with you. In an otherwise masterful opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, he writes, 

I'll finally finish the fight against bin Laden and the al Qaeda terrorists who attacked us on 9/11, build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century, and restore our moral standing so that America remains the last, best hope of Earth.

Right up to the implication of your last clause I agree with you that 

What Obama has demonstrated goes beyond the example that, no matter how far-fetched it seems, one can achieve one's dreams. He has shown people that there are many different ways to be black; that one can be comfortable and at home with people of all races and religions; that intellectualism is valuable to anyone of any race; and that America has done it again.

I'd say he has done more in that he has shown people of all colours, including white, that there are many different ways of being themselves, that their skin and background is not their fate. (And intellectualism is valuable - hurray! Have you tried to say that here in Britain?)

Here is the main point: America is special, yes. It is different. It is unique in its own way. But so too in their ways are all other countries. America is especially special because it is so powerful. But this is not inspiring - look what it has done with its power, from Vietnam to Iraq. Yes, Obama represents another America from Bush. The immense importance of his campaign is that it means one cannot say about George W Bush's Guantanamo-USA, "That's it folks - there is no other America".

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