A post by Dr Jorg Mathias, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Aston University
Finally, Obama behaves like a President. It has taken him a while, he is now in office for two and a half years. Re-election is looming, campaigning has in practice already begun. Congress is firmly in the hands of the Republicans. National debt as a percentage of GDP is higher than ever in the history of the United States, paling even the Cold War excesses into insignificance. It was time for a wake-up call, and Barrack Obama seems to have gotten the message of late. The US President’s job is to exercise executive power, after all. Even Democratic Presidents in the past knew that, and the one who didn’t, or didn’t want to know, Carter, suffered the electoral consequences.
So, the Obama of 2011 is markedly different from the Obama that ran for office in 2008, who traded heavily on his guaranteed place in history, sprouted evocative platitudes about Lincoln and Kennedy, and basically honed his general “Mr Nice Guy” image at home and abroad. Policy contents will take care of itself… This time, however, with the Democratic nomination practically in the bag, it’s nevertheless time to convince the American electorate to give him a second term based on the performance during the first term. It’s time to act presidential, then.
The Arms Limitation Treaty with Russia, 18 months ago, was just a small clear-up action from the Cold War, tiny compared to SALT, START and other strategic arms limitation treaties (thankfully, there is not much more left to clear up). The camp at Guantarnamo is still running – a key election promise broken. What makes this nevertheless good Presidential leadership is that Obama is largely unapologetic about it, and doesn’t even hesitate to blame a lack of international co-operation in repatriating the inmates. Still, civilian trials on US soil might spectacularly backfire, and he knows the risk – though he used to noisily blame Bush Jun. for not taking it. Violating the sovereignty of a supposed ally by means of a military incursion is always a good vote winner if it works, and thankfully dear old Osama was at home this time, not gone like in Clinton’s Tora Bora effort. In a throwback to the Eisenhower era, earlier this year Obama even managed a Latin American scandal, ATF Arms to Mexico, with Federal Agents cheaply selling illegal firearms ceased on the streets of the USA to Mexican gang lords in the hope of starting a gang war among them instead of them joining forces against the Mexican authorities. Neither the NAFTA partners nor the civilian victims in the northern provinces of Mexico were impressed. Sometimes, it also pays not to be in the driving seat, and let NATO take the lead in the Libyan mess. American firepower will be provided, but let Sarkozy and Cameron rush headlong into the political stalemate, for unlike those two Obama has not forgotten the “No Foreign Intervention” posters waved in the streets of Benghazi in the early days of the uprising. Ah, the Middle East: Harsh on Israel and soft on the Palestinians, as attempted in the early days, had precisely the same effect in terms of progress as the opposite stances taken by previous administrations, i.e. none. So, as the new “presidential” President, it’s worth to go for an attempt to re-write history and tell the assembled great and good of the American Jewish lobby on 22 May that the stalwart phrase “a return to the 1967 borders”, when spoken by Obama, means “negotiation between the two sides as to what these borders should be, taking into account the events and demographic shifts that have occurred since then”. Rapturous applause guaranteed, and one can safely travel off to Europe while the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Nethanyahu is in Washington (well, he prefers to talk with the Republicans anyway).
Compared to this, Europe is safe territory, an oasis of peace and tranquillity, a good place to combine business and pleasure, visiting places that provide resonance with key sections of the electorate at home, while strengthening traditional international political ties. The first stop is Ireland, practically home ground in any case. As the Corrigan Brothers told us in 2008: “O’Leary, O’Reilly, O’Hare and O’Hara, nobody is as Irish as Barrack O’Bama”. “Fenian to Kenyan the American way” – even if it’s five generations in the case at hand, Irish roots are a Must for Presidential hopefuls ever since Kennedy, and duly an eight cousin was ready in Moneygall, Co. Offaly, to welcome the long-lost relative. (By contrast, Kenyan roots are not so essential, so the one state visit early in the presidency, though highly symbolic, was of no practical consequence).
On to Britain then, sneaking in a few hours ahead of schedule, the middle of the night, to avoid the volcano ash, for a historic First: the great pleasure to speak in the Parliament of the former colonial masters. “No taxation without representation”, remember? But before that, the traditional “special relationship” talk had to be wheeled out at the state dinner (yes, when Queen Elizabeth II began her reign, Winston Churchill was still Prime Minister, and she saw no less than 11 US Presidents come and go in the meantime). Nevertheless, the close friendship between the two countries is more than a myth, and in the modern era is just as essential as it was sixty years ago. Indeed, Cameron employed the very phrase, “essential relationship”, in place of “special relationship” – a new quality of co-operation already in evidence with the Blair-Clinton and Blair-Bush partnerships, though Brown was really not into it in the same way, with either Bush or Obama. However, the traditional party-political links between the Democrats and Labour on the one hand, and Republicans and Conservatives on the other hand, seem to be of less relevance in recent years. If Bush could work with Blair, there is no reason for Obama not to work with Cameron. By and large, American Presidents, in London’s eye, simply can do no wrong.
Paris, by contrast, will be a more tricky proposition. Sarkozy is also gearing up for re-election, and the photo opportunities will be beneficial for both – and maybe, just maybe, a way out of the Libyan deadlock can be found between Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy. However, there will also be a G8 meeting and lots of international trouble to talk through. Yet there is the budget deficit at home, so Obama will hopefully not have to make too many new costly promises, Congress will simply not stand for it. The last-second budget deal last month was enough financial brinksmanship, and if Newt Gingrich is really going to make a serious run for the Republican nomination, he will no doubt claim that the balanced books of the 1990s were as much his achievement as Clinton’s. Still, Russian President Medvedev will probably need some sweetener so as not to object too noisily to the business planned for Poland, the final station…
The Polish community is of course another key constituency at least in the New England Democratic heartlands, so Warsaw is almost as much a Must as Dublin these days. This time the trip even makes business sense, fortunately those F-16 fighters are still bestsellers on the global arms market, and the Polish have now been close NATO allies for over 15 years. The Russians may make some noises about their national security, but deep down they know that in the current international climate that’s just business, and neither Russia nor NATO need to have serious security concerns about each other. In military terms, the “threat axis” has shifted South by Southeast, for both sides.
A visit to Germany, by contrast, can be dispensed with this time. The serious rift from the Bush era has already been healed by the pre-election visit in 2008, but Kennedyesque speeches in Berlin work only once per President. At present, the agreement with Merkel to quietly disagree about just about everything seems to work well enough for both sides, not endangering the long-term friendship. Another one to avoid is Berlusconi, despite his obviously important role in the Libyan crisis. Yet he is not on the same wavelength as Obama, Sarkozy and Cameron. Also, one wouldn’t want to give the American press excuses to engage in another round of private mud digging, the Republicans will probably try that again anyway come next year. Luckily, however, the Italian is essentially on his way out, and won’t feature largely in a 2nd term. Also, it would be wise to avoid any upset with Russia before the election, so Ukraine and Georgia will also have to wait to a 2nd term as well.
So, barring unforeseen incidents, it should be a relatively pleasant week in Europe, and key boxes will be ticked with the voters at home at the same time. Overall, so far it looks as if Obama is doing just enough to earn a 2nd term, and with it the freedom to do what he really wants without having to face the electorate again, ever. A state visit to Cuba, perhaps?