Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Going way beyond the Palin

Business Times - 22 Sep 2010

Going way beyond the Palin

Is the radical right taking over the Republican Party - and making things easier for the Democrats in November?


KARL Rove, the legendary political strategist who helped George W Bush get elected president twice - he is AKA Bush's Brain - is one of the leading 'talking heads' of FOX-News where he has been bashing President Barack Obama and the Democrats, predicting huge Republican electoral gains in the coming midterm Congressional elections.

And he is regarded by Democratic activists and liberal pundits as a symbol of the efforts by conservative Republicans to dominate the American political agenda and its public discourse through a web of media outlets and front organisations - including the Tea Party movement. Mr Rove is a conservative that liberals love to hate.

So it was quite astonishing to watch him during an interview on FOX-News questioning the credentials of Christine O'Donnell, the Tea Party candidate who unexpectedly won last week's Republican Senate primary election in Delaware.

Mr Rove insisted that Ms O'Donnell - a conservative activist and a long-time campaigner in support of sexual abstinence and against masturbation and abortion - did not represent the conservative characteristics of 'rectitude and truthfulness and sincerity'.

In fact, during his attack on Ms O'Donnell, Mr Rove sounded more like a spokesman for the Democrats than a top Republican political adviser. What Ms O'Donnell was 'going to have to answer in the general election that she didn't have to answer in the primary is (questions about) her own chequered background', Mr Rove said, and listed those questions: 'Why did she mislead voters about her college education? How come it took nearly two decades to pay her college bills so she could get her college degree? How did she make a living? Why did she sue a well-known and well-thought-of conservative think tank?'

In a way, Mr Rove's attacks against Ms O'Donnell seemed to dramatise the fiery political and ideological fight raging within the Republican Party after her shocking win over the Republican establishment favourite - US Representative Mike Castle - in Delaware's Republican Senate primary. The 71-year-old Mr Castle has represented the small state of Delaware in the House of Representatives since 1993 and has also served in other capacities, including as its governor.

In the tradition of former president George HW Bush, he is a moderate Republican whose centrist views on social cultural issues - he supports a woman's right to have an abortion, for example - have helped him win the support of Democratic and independent voters in the state.

Hence it was not surprising that Mr Castle had been heavily favoured against the Democratic Senate candidate Chris Coons in the general election, with Mr Rove and other pundits predicting that the Republicans would take over control of the Senate in November.

But to do that, the Republicans would have needed to pick up 10 Senate seats, including the seat in Delaware. However, with opinion polls showing Ms O'Donnell trailing the Democrat Coons by 15-20 points, that is probably not going to happen.

Ms O'Donnell is actually an attractive and relatively young candidate who looks like a (young) clone of former Republican vice-presidential candidate and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who is probably the most popular political figure among Republican and conservative voters.

The problem is that Ms O'Donnell sounds even more extreme than Ms Palin on many policy issues, including social-cultural ones. In addition to vowing to repeal the healthcare reform plan passed by Congress and to block any cap-and-trade legislation and promoting other policy stands favoured by the Tea Partiers, Ms O'Donnell has been campaigning in support of sexual 'purity' - equating masturbation with adultery, among various things - as the head of a group called Saviour's Alliance for Lifting the Truth (SALT).

The 'Bible says that lust in your heart is committing adultery', she explained, adding that 'you can't masturbate without lust'.

And it is clear that the last thing that Mr Rove and other Republican strategists have been trying to focus the attention of the voters on is the issue of masturbation . . .

The game plan they have been promoting centred on exploiting the political weaknesses of Mr Obama and the Democrats; more specifically, the perception among voters that the White House and its allies on Capitol Hill have failed to successfully deal with the economic problems of the country, and that instead of taking steps to accelerate economic growth and reduce unemployment, President Obama and his political party have been pressing for expansive and ineffective spending programmes that have raised the government deficit to the stratosphere and are threatening to bankrupt the nation.

From that perspective, the campaign mounted by the Tea Party movement has been very effective in helping to disseminate this central Republican economic message, which explains why the Republicans and their wealthy donors have been providing financial support for the Tea Partyers while FOX-News and conservative talk show hosts and bloggers have been promoting them.

But many of the Tea Partyers also have ideological baggage. The mostly middle-aged and white members of the movement tend also to embrace ultra-conservative positions on abortion, immigration, gun control, and issues relating to the separation of religion and state that are very much to the right of moderate independent voters like the ones who are going to determine the outcome of the Senate race in Delaware.

Hence the dilemma that has been facing mainstream Republican leaders. On the one hand, they have embraced the Tea Partyers and their message, hoping to exploit their energy and numbers in November. On the other hand, they are worried that the takeover of the Republican Party by these same Tea Partyers could force the party to shift into the direction of the radical political right and alienate moderate voters as well as African- American, Hispanics and young white people.

That candidates supported by the Tea Parties have defeated centrist Republicans like Mr Castle in the Republican Senate primaries in Nevada, Florida, Alaska and Kentucky highlights the political and electoral challenge facing the Republicans.

In Nevada, for example, the conventional wisdom until recently has been that Democratic Senator Harry Reid, who is also the Senate Majority Leader and who has helped Mr Obama pass his spending legislation, would lose his Senate seat.

But after the Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle was elected as the Republican Senate candidate in the state and her extreme positions on various issues were revealed (for example, opposing the right of women who had been raped to have an abortion), Mr Reid seemed to be making a dramatic comeback and has a good chance of returning to the Senate.

That probably explains why the Democrats joined the Tea Partyers in celebrating the O'Donnell victory this week.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

The Last Summit?

on The Huffington Posr

Israeli-Palestinian talks recently convened by President Barack Obama may or may not lead to a peace agreement. But the negotiations could mark the last serious attempt by a U.S. president to invest his (or her) own political capital and American diplomatic prestige in resolving the conflict based on a two-state solution.
An international consensus has emerged in support of a formula setting an end to the 100-year-old clash along the lines of the 2000 "Clinton Parameters." This consensus includes the members of the Middle East"Quartet," the Arab League, and mainstream Israeli and Palestinian leadership.
Thus, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are under pressure to conclude within the year negotiations over a final status agreement along the following lines: A Palestinian State that would be established on most of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Approximately 80 percent of the settler blocks in the West Bank would remain under Israeli sovereignty. In exchange, Israel would concede some territory within the 1967 Green Line borders.
If the Clinton Parameters are followed, Palestinians would have to relinquish their claim to the "right of return" of all Palestinian refugees; sovereignty over the Temple Mount and the Western Wall will have to be resolved; and the two sides would have to agree on the division of Jerusalem.
Unfavorable Precedents
Bridging the differences on these issues presents a major diplomatic challenge. The willingness of the United States, the other members of the Quartet, and moderate Arab states to apply their influence during the negotiations is critical for producing a viable and long lasting outcome.
On the other hand, getting the Israelis and the Palestinians to conclude such an agreement proved impossible for President Bill Clinton in 2000. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat failed to make a deal despite pressure from President Bill Clinton and a favorable political climate.
A decade ago, Washington was still enjoying its post-Cold War "unipolar moment" with few significant geostrategic or geoeconomic challenges and a booming economy. A relatively moderate Labor government governed Israel; its public had rejected the right-wing Likud Party blueprint for a Greater Israel. At the same time, Arafat brought together many disparate Palestinian factions in support of negotiations with Israel.
The collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000 reflected, in large part, the inability of the two sides to narrow the chasm between their positions on Jerusalem and other issues. This breakdown helped trigger the second Palestinian Intifada and return the Likud Party to power.
In the United States, the 9/11 attacks the following year helped establish the geopolitical environment for launching the invasion of Iraq. The attacks also reinvigorated American neoconservatives and the Israeli right-wing to advocate for their radical vision of reshaping the Middle East map (see "Why Iraq? The State of Debate on the Motives for the War," Right Web, May 19, 2009).
The Bush administration's "war on terror," however, had the effect of weakening U.S. geopolitical power and its position in the Middle East. Rather than launch the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from a position of strength--like Clinton was able to do--Obama comes to the table as U.S. military and economic power is eroding. The effort also comes at a time when the international system is quickly evolving, and global powers such as China and Russia--as well as Middle East players like Iran and Turkey--are challenging U.S. dominance.
Moreover, Palestinian leadership is divided between the secular Fatah led by President Mahmoud Abbas, which controls of the West Bank, and the Islamist Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu now heads Israel's government. He has spent much of his political career railing against the idea of ceding "Judea and Samaria" (the occupied West Bank) to the Palestinians. In the aftermath of the second Intifada and Israeli military retaliations, Israeli and Palestinian public opinion have been radicalized.
A diplomatically and economically frail United States led by a politically weak president is much more constrained in its ability to exert leverage than it was a decade ago. Additionally, Netanyahu and Abbas do not have the political will or the public support for making the kinds of concessions made by Barak and Arafat in 2000 at Camp David.
A Weakened President
When President Obama addressed Muslim audiences in Istanbul and Cairo in 2009, his commitment to promoting peace between Israelis and Arabs suggested policy movement in that direction. Subsequent signs of a rift between Obama and Netanyahu over the issue of Jewish settlements seemed to reflect a new willingness on the part of a U.S. president to pressure Israel to embrace a more flexible approach to peace.
For his part, Netanyahu made a few public comments suggesting he would accept the idea of a Palestinian state under certain conditions. But after Israel announced new settlement construction in East Jerusalem during Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel this past March, the Obama administration was furious. When Netanyahu next visited Washington, Obama appeared to give the Israeli prime minister the diplomatic cold shoulder by refusing to pose with him for photographs.
Still, Obama failed to get Netanyahu to agree to extending the moratorium on Jewish settlement growth beyond the late September deadline. Although the Israeli prime minister suggested in mid-September that he would limit the amount of new construction, he refrained from making a public commitment.
If anything, Obama himself appears to have refrained from applying serious diplomatic pressure on the Israeli government, rather than repeat President George H. W. Bush's battle with former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir, when Bush threatened to withhold financial aid to Jerusalem over the issue of the Jewish settlements.
There was a palpable contrast between the downbeat mood of Netanyahu's White House visit in April and the upbeat tenor of his meeting in July. In fact, Obama took major public steps to end what remained of the "rift" with Israel. After meeting with Netanyahu in July, the president insisted the U.S.-Israeli relationship had never been better. "I just completed an excellent one-on-one discussion with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and I want to welcome him back to the White House," Obama said. "As Prime Minister Netanyahu indicated in his speech, the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable."
From a political perspective, the April meeting took place immediately after Obama's win on health-care reform. According to the narrative in Washington at that time, Obama was starting to gain his political traction and was winning the fight with the Republican Party and its Tea Party allies. This momentum in turn would strengthen Obama's hand in dealing with other policy issues, including strained relations with Israel (see "No Tea Parties for Bibi," Right Web, April 1, 2010). Unfortunately for Obama, his legislative victories have failed to sustain his personal popularity and the electoral standing of his party. There is a strong possibility Democrats will lose control of Congress after the midterm elections. Obama would then be in a far weaker position to wield influence to impact the peace process, especially as he gears up to run for a second term.
In 2008, Obama won with the support of a large majority of American-Jewish voters and is unlikely to take steps that could alienate them. As Laura Rozen has pointed out, "Some congressional Democrats have told the White House they fear that they will suffer with key donors and in the November midterms from the perception that Obama has been too tough on the Israeli leader." Even with the launch of the pro-peace and liberal J Street lobby, Obama undoubtedly will have less political maneuvering room in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
It is likely Obama hopes that by creating a sense he is "doing something" to help advance Israeli-Palestinian peace, he will be able to placate Arab moderates led by Saudi Arabia and foster a "strategic consensus" between Israel and Sunni Arab countries, a consensuses that would be bolstered by concerns over the rise of a Shiite Iran. But that is a strategic pipe-dream. The fact is, Arab leaders do not have the political will or capital to accept the sharply limited terms Netanyahu will agree to. Doing so would spell their political, if not personal, extinction.
The Neocon-Likud Fantasy
Sadly, this foretelling of failure is music to the ears of U.S. neoconservatives and their Likud comrades. Their fantasy: An enduring confrontation between the U.S.-led West and the Muslim world, which would turn the Israeli-Palestinian issue into a strategic sideshow and bolster Israel's position as America's sheriff and quasi "crusader state" in the Middle East.
These armchair warriors hope that a U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear installations--or granting of a "yellow light" for an Israeli attack--could transform the clash-of-civilizations scenario into a reality. They view with satisfaction the growing Islamist bent of Turkey, which coupled with the aftermath of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and growing political instability elsewhere in the Middle East, could strengthen the power of the radicals in the region and thus create pressure for an aggressive U.S. posture.
But this fantasy, like the earlier ones concocted by neocons in an effort to get the United States to attack Iraq, is bound to further diminish U.S. military and economic power and erode the country's ability to support Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
It is not inconceivable that the momentum of the newly reinitiated peace talks could lead to some limited progress, which in turn would create an environment more conducive for reaching some level of agreement on Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees, and Jerusalem. But even if that happens--and that remains very unlikely--the mounting opposition to such a settlement on both sides would probably be exploited by the extremists: Iran and its regional partners who back Hamas, on one side; on the other, the axis of Israeli and American right-wingers, which is expected to become even more energized as Obama and the Democrats lose power.
An American political environment that is dominated by mounting Islamophobia and rising tensions over Iran's nuclear ambitions will likely lead to the closure of the narrow window of opportunity for an activist U.S. role in trying to resolve the conflict in the Holy Land. Whether under Republican or Democratic control, Washington will likely not have the credibility to help mediate an agreement, especially with its strategic and economic position continuing to diminish.
Hence, unless the balance of power in Washington and worldwide starts moving in a new direction soon, Obama's current peace processing could prove to be the last American diplomatic hurrah in the Middle East. The Israelis and the Palestinian will have to come to terms with each other eventually. But the ability of the United States to make that happen is diminishing in a very dramatic way.

No relief for Sino-US trade tensions

Business Times - 21 Sep 2010

No relief for Sino-US trade tensions

With midterm elections approaching, the Obama administration may be torn between taking a more populist rhetoric and a harder stance on China


THE Obama administration seems to be embracing a harder hitting rhetoric on the issue of China's exchange rate policies. Or at least that was the message US Treasury Timothy Geithner was trying to convey to the US Congress during testimonies before the Senate Banking Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday and Friday.

While emphasising that China's management of its currency did not pose a 'systemic risk to the American financial system', he agreed with the lawmakers that the yuan was 'undervalued' and the Chinese were 'moving to let it rise, but not very quickly'.

Mr Geithner told angry US lawmakers who accuse China of keeping its currency artificially low and gaining an unfair trade advantage over the US that he shared much of their concerns and that his administration was ready to get tough with Beijing over the issue.

The Obama administration was committed to 'using all tools available to ensure American firms and workers' could compete fairly with the Chinese, he insisted. And Mr Geithner also said that China was allowing piracy of US products and was putting up trade barriers that prevent American companies from operating there.

But it does not look as though Mr Geithner was very successful in persuading the lawmakers that he was getting really, really tough with the Chinese. US lawmakers, reflecting the nasty mood of economically distressed American voters and quoting studies issued by leading economists insist that China has devalued the yuan about 40 per cent, making their exports cheaper than America's and as a result, making it more difficult for US manufacturers to survive and putting downward pressure on the very high unemployment rate.

The lawmakers invited Mr Geithner to testify before them during two days of hearings on China's currency, the yuan, making it clear that unless the Obama administration took steps to punish China for its policies, they were ready to pass legislation that would force the Chinese to let their currency rise in value.

Democratic and Republican Senators introduced in March legislation that would change the criteria for designating government and currency manipulators and would force the administration to add China to the list. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives.

US officials, including top White House economic advisor Lawrence Summers who visited Beijing recently, have been pressing the Chinese to take steps to revalue the yuan against the US dollar. But in response, the Chinese have resisted the American pressure, while allowing it to appreciate a little, by about 0.6 per cent, which made Congress angry.

But, what made both Republican and Democratic lawmakers angrier was the refusal by the Obama administration to officially designate China as a 'currency manipulator' in its annual international trade report. 'The only question is, why is the administration protecting China by refusing to designate it as a currency manipulator?' said Alabama's Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee.

'You know we are right. You know the United States is put at a terrible disadvantage, and you refuse to act. What are you afraid of?' asked Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York. 'Are you afraid that if you cite the Chinese, they will respond by selling some of the trillions of dollars of Treasuries that they currently hold? By doing that, they'd be cutting off their nose to spite their face,' he continued, adding: 'Mr Secretary, you are vowing today to take a tougher stance against China's currency manipulation. With all due respect, I'll believe it when I see it.'

Against the backdrop of a heated election campaign leading to the crucial midterm Congressional elections, some members of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party have been urging President Barack Obama to adopt a more populist rhetoric and policies as part of an effort to convince Americans that the White House and the Democrats were willing to stand up to Wall Street and Big Business. In that context, bashing China's currency exchange policies and accusing it of 'stealing' American jobs could fit very much into that proposed campaign strategy.

The outgoing Democratic Banking Committee chairman, Christopher Dodd from Connecticut seemed to be promoting such a populist approach during the hearings last week when he compared the attempts by the Chinese to gain an unfair trade advantage to the conduct of large banks that helped bring about the financial meltdown.

'In the last financial crisis, we learned that what you don't know can hurt you, that arcane financial instruments on Wall Street can cause real pain for families and business who have never even heard of a credit default swap,' Mr Dodd said.

'That interconnection goes beyond the familiar Wall Street/Main Street divide. Something as seemingly abstract as Chinese currency policy can mean a shuttered factory in Iowa. This administration must be the one who takes a stand,' he suggested, calling on Mr Obama to adopt a firmer approach towards the Chinese.

Yet, Mr Obama and his aides are indeed 'afraid', as Mr Schumer put it, that trade sanctions against China could precipitate major Sino-American economic tensions that would retard the slow economic recovery and prefer to utilise the tools of quiet diplomacy to get the Chinese to revalue the yuan.

But most analysts doubt that the Chinese would start selling the US securities in response to American sanctions since such a move would reduce the value of the debt that they would still continue to own.

In any case, if lawmakers want to take action against the Chinese, they would need to do that before the midterm election. The expectation is that Republican leaders would prevent the passage of such legislation if as expected, the pro-business Republicans take control of the House and perhaps even the Senate after November. And that would probably suit Mr Geithner and other Obama administration economic officials.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.