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Australia

Jun 1, 2017

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This week in Sydney, US Senator John McCain made a speech on Australia-United States relations that ought to have been as surprising to us as gravity. This was textbook post-war Pax Americana: only the US can guarantee world peace; only the US can set the terms of trade; “No one has ever gotten rich betting against America.” Really? Tell that to the short-sellers of the world.

Given that we Australians have been hearing this malarkey since 1945, you’d think that the description “extraordinary” was a little misplaced. Still, this is how local media responded to a boilerplate moment. While there was once nothing exceptional about statements of US exceptionalism, now, McCain’s calls for a full return to DC-led international order made our journalists swoon.

Call me old-fashioned, but I miss a time when this stuff caused us to groan or protest. Opposition to the US invasion of Iraq was very widespread among the young just a decade ago. Older Australians had long thought of Americans as flashy and deluded about the purity of their hegemonic intentions. We all received America’s gifts of military alliance and nylon stockings, but we didn’t accept the Land of the Free crap that went along with it.

Over at News Corp and at Fairfax, though, they’re now eating it up with a spoon sold in preferential trade. This ordinary speech is now extraordinary, simply because we all despise Donald Trump — an execrable and dangerous person, to be certain, but in possession of a single good quality: he doesn’t sermonise to other nations about “democracy”.

[Smarter than your average Colbert: liberal media’s stupid obsession with Trump’s intelligence]

I guess a lot of our commentators are missing these sermons, as they received McCain’s with such uncritical joy. Not only is the man himself forgiven for the role he personally played in the US rise of Paleo-conservativism by giving the monstrous Sarah Palin a platform, but everything the US ever did, including war atrocities in the Middle East and North Africa that we know have led to our own problems with domestic terrorism, is forgiven as well.

This guy? Really? The man who spoke out so forcefully and influentially against the Obama administration’s crowning foreign policy achievement, the Iran nuclear deal? He is our peace guy?

As far as I can tell, our journalists suspended criticism of the liberal Republican for two reasons. First, they’re having a protracted nervous breakdown about the long death of daddy — like it or not, US global power has been diminishing since the end of the Cold War. Second, McCain offered the line that China “seems to be acting more and more like a bully”.

That McCain’s description of China — a nation, apparently “asserting vast territorial claims that have no basis in international law” — applies very precisely to the post-war US could not be perceived by our papers. This is not just due to their revulsion for Trump, which produces a tolerance for anything that isn’t Trump, but, I reckon, the choice of the word “bully” itself.  The overused term can now describe anything, from vehement disagreement to building infrastructure for the Global South. But it always means “bad”.

News of McCain’s speech came to me yesterday as I had felt the word “bully” wielded in two distinct contexts. First, a young sales clerk in a women’s clothing chain-store demanded money from me for a vague corporate empowerment program that would “stop bullying of girls in our schools!” (I didn’t give her any). Then, in a curious and widely reported interview with world champion bigot Margaret Court, I saw it again. Opposition to her opposition is, you guessed, it “bullying”.

[Razer: we need more than appearances and personalities from our leaders]

“Bullying” has come, rather craftily, to signify anything one doesn’t like, from the stuff I write in Crikey to the PRC’s economic growth. From the schoolyard to international relations, the “bully” stands as the threat that doesn’t need to be explained. To oppose the bully is an effective virtue signal for women’s chain-stores. To describe, as Court does, the anti-bullying program of Safe Schools as itself bullying is now peculiarly possible. To say to an immense audience, as both Andrew Bolt and Shannon Molloy have done, that you are being “silenced” by bullies, even as you are as amplified as you can possibly be in this nation, is somehow acceptable.

This is the, um, bullying power of the term “bully”. It has now elevated trivial moments of disagreement and trivialised serious moments of genuine abuse.

And, it makes it possible for McCain’s very ordinary plea for a return to Cold War conditions — those that guaranteed US dominance of two-thirds of the globe — to be read as “extraordinary”.

China is no “bully”–which is not to say it’s as benign as a high-school self-esteem program. It is to say that the power has carefully expanded over the decades. And largely with projects that promise, or deliver, prosperity. But without very many empty sermons about the good old days, such as that lapped up by our nervous journalists and delivered by John McCain.

Crikey Worm

May 29, 2017

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OUT OF OUR SYSTEM?

The government is considering scrapping the private health insurance rebate and requiring the states to come up with more funding for public hospitals, according to an article by Adam Gartrell in the Fairfax papers. A Health Department presentation obtained by Fairfax says the Commonwealth is considering “pooling” the “$20 billion it currently gives to public hospitals each year with the $3 billion it pays to private sector doctors and the $6 billion it spends on the rebate to help people pay their private health insurance”. The government would then pay a standard amount per health service, regardless of whether the service is performed in a public or private hospital. Doctors and specialists in private hospitals would likely be paid less, and a 2015 discussion paper on the proposal describes it as “the public hospital equivalent of bulk-billing in general practice”. A government spokesman was quick to throw cold water on the story, telling Sky News’ Kieran Gilbert the proposal was not government policy. 

CORBY GIVES MEDIA THE SLIP

Australia’s most famous drug smuggler has returned to the country 13 years after she brought 4.1kg of marijuana into Bali in her boogie board bag. Schapelle Corby left Bali Saturday night, but a last-minute airline change and a fleet of decoy cars outfoxed the waiting media. People wearing masks, believed to be Corby’s friends, turned up at her mother’s Loganlea home on Sunday. It is believed Corby is in hiding in a Brisbane hotel, but she is not entirely shunning the limelight — hours before she left Bali Corby launched a new Instagram account, posting the first picture to the account of the two dogs she was leaving behind in Indonesia. 

 

THEY REALLY SAID THAT

“The government’s proposed changes to the banking sector should be abandoned. The changes are illiberal, amount to the quasi-nationalisation of the major banks, and will permanently reduce economic growth.” That’s a briefing note prepared by the Institute of Public Affairs and sent to all MPs. Almost two-thirds of Australians supported a “super profits tax” when The Australia Institute commissioned polling on the matter last year, but will the IPA’s argument carry more weight with conservative MPs?

Despite widespread support for a bank levy and Gonski school funding the Prime Minister has failed to secure a post-budget bounce in the polls. The latest Newspoll has Labor leading the Coalition 53-47 on a two-party preferred basis. Malcolm Turnbull is doing a bit better, with a net satisfaction of -19, up from -20 two weeks ago. But Opposition Leader Bill Shorten‘s numbers are also going up; his net satisfaction rating is -20, up from -22 two weeks ago, and well up on the -30 he achieved at the end of February. As William Bowe wrote in Crikey two weeks ago, voters are not usually swayed by the federal budget. 

Meanwhile, the Australian Bankers Association has asked PR agencies including WPP and Red Head to pitch a public relations campaign to turn the tide of public opinion against the $6.3 billion bank levy (much of which is a tax write-off, as Crikey told you last week), according to Adele Ferguson in The Australian Financial Review. 

READ ALL ABOUT IT

Adani: Government body board members considering rail loan ‘linked to companies who may benefit’

Constitutional reform rejected by Uluru forum, we’ll pursue Makarrata

Ian Macdonald set to be jailed after judge revokes former Labor minister’s bail

WHAT’S ON TODAY

Canberra: Senate estimates continues this week, with  Health, Treasury, Employment and Defence mandarins in the hot seat. Will anyone ask Health bureaucrats about the possibility of scrapping the private health insurance rebate (outlined above)? 

Also in the nation’s capital, Senator John McCain, one of the few Republican congresspeople to publicly challenge Donald Trump, will visit the Australian-American memorial in Canberra. McCain has spoken to The Australian‘s Cameron Stewart about his hopes for his Australian visit and his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. 

Sydney, Brisbane: NSW skipper Boyd Cornder will talk to the media in Sydney and Queensland captain Cameron Smith will hold a media conference in Brisbane ahead of Wednesday night’s State of Origin clash.

Alice Springs: Hearings for the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory will be held in Alice Springs today.

Melbourne: A class action lawsuit brought by 1905 current and former detainees at the Manus Island detention centre will begin this week, with a Supreme Court judge to decide whether to grant an application to commence proceedings on Wednesday or kick things off today. Slater & Gordon are representing the current and former detainees, who are seeking compensation for alleged physical and psychological injuries they say they suffered on Manus Island. Fifty detainees are expected to give testimony. 

THE COMMENTARIAT

Indigenous declaration is an honest claim from the heart of our nation — Rachel Perkins (The Australian $): “Let me be clear: the Uluru consensus did not reject constitutional recognition. On the contrary, the Uluru Statement from the Heart clarifies what real constitutional recognition means to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It calls for substantive constitutional recognition.”

Uluru statement offers up different set of priorities — George Williams (The Age): “Any treaties that Aboriginal people enter into with state and territory governments are vulnerable to being disrupted by the Federal Parliament using the races power. Australia’s current constitutional arrangements do not provide a secure basis upon which to negotiate and enter into such agreements.”

Harold Holt’s death and why the 1967 referendum failed Indigenous people — Gary Foley (Guardian Australia): “In a bizarre twist of history, John Gorton has in the long term been perceived as a sympathiser of Aboriginal issues purely on the basis that he attended an Aboriginal debutante ball at the Sydney Town Hall in 1968. The widespread positive publicity Gorton attracted from that single event has obscured his basic hostility and indifference to Aboriginal issues whilst he was prime minister.”

THE WORLD

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that Europeans must “take our fate into our own hands” after the conclusion of a testy G7 meeting, attended by the leaders of the world’s largest economic powers, including the US. President Donald Trump did sign on to an anti-protectionism pledge, but he declined to endorse an emissions pact, and continued to denounce NATO members for not paying their share during his trip to Europe. — Reuters

A man who attended alt-right protests and posted neo-Nazi material on his Facebook page has been charged with double murder and hate crimes after allegedly slaying two men on a train in Portland, Oregon. Jeremy Joseph Christian was reportedly taunting two Muslim women on the train before others interjected, leading him to attack them with a knife, killing two and injuring one. — The Guardian

Close to half a million people have been impacted by severe flooding in Sri Lanka, with 151 confirmed dead. Water levels are now receding and the navy has been deployed to help rescue survivors. — New York Times

Ruben Ostlund’s film The Square has taken out this year’s Palme d’Or, the top prize of the Cannes film festival. See all winners here

WHAT WE’RE READING

Why Donald Trump’s ‘mini-surge’ in Afghanistan invites scepticism (The Australian $): “The harsh reality is that, in Tunnell’s terms, we repeatedly have won the counter-guerilla fight in Afghanistan, only to fail at the broader counter-insurgency effort. Time and again — in 2001-03, in 2006, and in 2011-12 — Western-led forces defeated the Taliban on the battlefield. But, time and again, governments failed to translate battlefield success into enduring stability.”

This is the worst Tory election campaign ever (The Spectator): “The most salient comment of this election may have been made on the day it was called, by Brenda of Bristol: ‘Oh no, what’s she done that for?’ People suspect that their lives are being disrupted for Theresa May’s political and personal gain. And they’re not wrong, are they?”

Emmanuel Macron says bone-crushing Donald Trump handshake was ‘not innocent’ (Newsweek): “In an interview with the Journal du Dimanche Sunday, the French leader said his interaction with the American head of state was “a moment of truth.””

Hilary Clinton is furious. And resigned. And funny. And worried. (New York Magazine): “Almost everywhere Clinton goes, it seems, someone starts crying. It’s not just friends and staffers. And though it was more intense in the weeks immediately following the election, it hasn’t entirely let up. At restaurants, in grocery stores, on planes, and in the woods, there are lines of people wanting selfies, hugs, comfort.”

HOLD THE FRONT PAGE

United States

Oct 10, 2016

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A week is, as they say, a long time in politics. Events are moving so quickly at the moment for Donald Trump and the Republican Party in the US presidential campaign that, by the time you read this, they could have substantially shifted yet again. In all, however, Trump’s presidential campaign has begun to implode.

Though 11 years old, Trump’s boorish and misogynistic comments about using his celebrity to take sexual advantage of women has pushed many Republicans over the edge. Trump’s vice-presidential running mate, Mike Pence, is being openly considered by the Republican National Committee as Trump’s replacement. The RNC have already cut off funds to his campaign.

Should Pence be nominated, the Republicans will remain split, with Trump’s populist-driven voters seeing it as yet another cynical ploy from exactly that political elite they do not trust and that drove them towards Trump in the first place. Yet Pence’s nomination could be the Republicans’ best chance at securing the presidency, given his decent performance in the vice-presidential debate and the widespread — if largely unearned — distaste for Hillary Clinton.

What has been so odd about this circus is that statements and behaviour that just a few years ago would have been laughed out of the room have, on the whole, worked well for Trump. Even his more offensive remarks, of which there have been many, have not caused the type of political damage one might have previously expected.

[Rundle: Trump boasts of ‘grabbing pussy’, GOP ducks for cover]

Trump is adamant he won’t quit and if the Republican Party machine manages to dump him, which they’d have to do quickly to have any chance of success, Trump could still run as an independent. This would then split the Republican vote. With a large and growing list of senior Republicans now openly opposing Trump’s candidacy, there is no scenario now in which he can have a clear run to the elections.

That Trump had been trailing in the polls, more so since the first presidential candidates’ debate, meant that he faced an increasingly difficult challenge in any case. During the past two weeks, the “swing states”, which could have handed the presidency to either candidate, have firmed as voting in favour of Clinton. Today’s debate was fascinating to watch.

It all makes compelling, if somewhat voyeuristic, viewing. But what it reflects, and what we should all be concerned about, is just what is happening with the United States that it could have gotten to the point of a rich clown being a serious contender for the country’s highest office.

That there is an anti-elite backlash towards the political classes in most developed (and some developing) countries is not new. But ordinarily, one might expect a focus on issues, such as immigration or Brexit, or around an individual, such as the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.

Trump may limp, bleeding and broken, towards the finish line. But with even his former party colleagues closing in for the kill, as one former international electoral official noted: “It won’t be long before they have to poison the Alsatians.”

* Damien Kingsbury is professor of international politics at Deakin University.

Federal

Jun 13, 2014

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“To the American people, I know you’re war-weary, I know you’re tired of dealing with the Mid-East. But the people that are moving into Iraq and holding ground in Syria have as part of their agenda not only to drive us out of the Mid-East, but to hit our homeland.”

Republican Senator Lindsey O. Graham was thus the first neocon to be fully reanimated by the looming partition of Iraq. Graham, who until recently has had to make do with trying to connect Benghazi and the Ukraine, will be just the first of the hawks being vomited forth from their graves to demand intervention. John McCain might have been beaten to the punch, but he was a close second, with the novel twist of using events in Iraq to demand a delay in the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The government of Iraq — the sort of description that seems to merit several sets of air quotes — is a paralysed United States client controlled by Nouri al-Maliki, whose human rights abuses run to rape, torture and execution (“let freedom reign”) and whose army appears to have maintained the Saddam-era tendency to flee at the first taste of opposition. Unless it is able to reassert control against ISIS and, for that matter, the Kurds (traditionally framed as much-betrayed honorary Westerners who have a special claim to our support, who have taken advantage of the chaos to seize the long-coveted Kirkut), a shambling army of zombie neocons will be on the march. They’ll look decidedly the worse for wear a decade on but they’ll insist, as per Graham, that you can fight them in Iraq or fight them in the streets of the your own town, but you have to fight them one way or another, so which would you prefer?

“The Iraq War thus was a multitrillion-dollar exercise in making Western citizens materially less safe from terrorism …”

Let’s do a quick recap of where that logic has left us.

The United States is estimated to have spent $1.7 trillion on the Iraq War so far, with much more to come via healthcare and veterans’ costs — the real corporate winners from the war aren’t so much defence companies or even services companies, but US healthcare companies. The final total may be around $4 trillion, decades hence. The cost to the United Kingdom of its participation was US$14 billion in 2010; the cost to Australian taxpayers of our role had, by 2011, reached $2.4 billion. The war led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis — estimates vary between 100,000 and 600,000. So many Iraqis died during the allied occupation and ensuing civil war that according to the World Bank, life expectancy fell by two years between 2002 and 2007 and had still not recovered to pre-war levels in 2010.  Nearly 4500 US troops died, along with 179 UK servicemen and women, with many thousands more injured and crippled.

As we all know, the justification for the war, Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, didn’t exist. But the broader strategic goal of making the West safer from terrorism was never achieved. In fact, quite the opposite: while the Blair and Howard governments rejected any link between Iraq and the increasing risk of terrorism, in 2006, a US intelligence report concluded that “the Iraq War has made the overall terrorism problem worse”. That conclusion was echoed by a UK government report that year into the 2005 London bombings and confirmed by the head of British intelligence service MI5 in 2010 in evidence to the Chilcott Inquiry. The then-head of the Australian Federal Police, Mick Keelty, also reached that conclusion in 2004.

The Iraq War thus was a multitrillion-dollar exercise in making Western citizens materially less safe from terrorism, at least in the view of the intelligence agencies paid to make such assessments, but then again they said Saddam had WMDs.

Australia’s contribution to a renewed effort in Iraq, as the comparative costs above illustrate, would be trivial — something US President Barack Obama noted in 2007 when he replied to John Howard’s lunatic remark that terrorists would be hoping for an Obama victory. “[W]e have close to 140,000 troops in Iraq, and my understanding is Mr Howard has deployed 1400, so if he is … to fight the good fight in Iraq, I would suggest that he calls up another 20,000 Australians and sends them to Iraq.”

Neocons insist — as McCain and other GOP figures like John Boehner already have — that the apparent collapse of Iraq is the fault of Obama and their opponents; it was the West’s failure to stay the course in Iraq, to treat it as a Cold War-style generational struggle. It’s not neoconservatism that failed, they insist, but our failure to be neoconservative enough. In fact, it is another example of the self-perpetuating nature of the War on Terror, which endlessly replicates the very conditions that produce radicalisation, thereby ensuring the war, with its associated government expenditure and restrictions on liberties, need never end.

Another Western intervention in Iraq, like the previous one, will again make Western citizens less safe. Our intelligence agencies might take a break from mass surveillance — which didn’t prevent the West from being surprised at the fall of Mosul — to pass that advice on to their political masters.

United States

Oct 9, 2013

5 comments

It was supposed to be about healthcare. Yet as the US government rolled into its second shutdown week, the embittered battle between President Barack Obama and the Republican Party has taken another surprising turn.

Armed with a new set of talking points, Republican speaker John Boehner revealed his party’s strategy has shifted sharply in the past 24 hours. It appears that for now the group has put aside their bid to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act. But any sense of urgency to end the shutdown prior to an ever-pressing October 17 debt-ceiling deadline seems absent.

The President and Boehner at least spoke today, conversing briefly on the phone early this morning Australian time. Yet in an expansive, hour-long press conference later in the day, Obama declared he would not give more ground to his opponents:

“Think about it this way, the American people do not get to demand a ransom for doing their jobs. You don’t get a chance to call your bank and say ‘I’m not going to pay my mortgage this month unless you throw in a new car and an Xbox’. That’s not how negotiations work.”

The President firmly put forward the case that he has given a lot of ground, but will not be held to what he described as “extortion”:

“[Republicans] don’t get to demand ransom in exchange for doing their jobs … They don’t also get to say, you know, unless you give me what the voters rejected in the last election, I’m going to cause a recession. That’s not how it works.”

Meanwhile, delays for those attempting to apply for Obama’s online health insurance program — the key component of the new healthcare act — continued. Reports are now attributing the delay to the failure of a software component designed by private contractors.

Health and human services secretary Kathleen Sebelius was here in Florida today, where much of the delays have hit consumers. “We are working really around the clock,” she said.

Almost perversely though, this seemed of less concern to both sides today. It was telling that the throng of journos packed into the White House press room for today’s presser did not ask any questions regarding the delays. Remarkably, the issue appears to have suddenly almost moved to the backburner.

And while it takes a lot for Americans to pay credence to what the rest of the world thinks of it, the pointed (albeit lighthearted) jabs at the country overnight from the APEC conference amplified a growing sense of impatience in the stalemate. Political analyst David Corn summed it up: “The appearance to the outside is that we are in chaos.”

Boehner, renowned in Washington for his deep, country club tan and prodigious cigarette smoking habit, is clearly more comfortable talking about debt reduction. Holding up the debt deadline via healthcare repeal is unsustainable and extremely unpopular. Hence today’s shift. Today he said:

“When it comes to the debt limit, I agree with the President: we should pay our bills. I didn’t come here to shut down the government. I certainly didn’t come here to default on our debt.”

Far from contrite, many Tea Party-affiliated Republicans appear to be positively luxuriating in the shutdown. One group of far-right congressmen, described as “default deniers” by various Democrat operatives, are even suggesting the long-agreed-upon date of October 17 might be a moving target. The group, led by Senator Rand Paul, insist Treasury is receiving enough daily tax revenues to pay off creditors and avoid a default. They maintain if there is a default, the impact will be minimal.

Democrats are aghast. Both Obama’s administration officials and Republican lawmakers have met with executives at the country’s major financial institutions who spelled out the impact defaulting would have. Democrat Senator Sherrod Brown said today of the “deniers”:

“It’s hard to get in their minds. They want a world without Medicare, social security, the EPA and all the things that helped create a middle class.”

Some of this is simply political theatre. To many here though, something more sinister is at play. An intriguing piece in Sunday’s New York Times described a plan hatched months ago by Republican-affiliated billionaires to help push fellow Republicans into cutting off financing for the entire federal government. Democrat Senate leader Harry Reid was certainly barbed today on the Senate floor:

“It’s obvious what’s going on. Very, very rich people in America don’t believe in government. They are using Obamacare as a conduit to shut down the government.”

The fact that most Tea Party Republicans hail from rezoned, gerrymandered seats where they hold between 70-80% of their district aids this perception. Their fervent base dismisses climate change, still believes Obama was born overseas and are driven by a revulsion of the President and a wish to do him political harm.

A fear for moderates is that chaos and destruction is not merely a Tea Party threat, but an ultimate goal. Still, there remains a group of Republicans who do not want this. As Corn said:

“It’s a civil war. More moderate Republicans like John McCain and Lindsay Graham, who aren’t actually that moderate, don’t want to be known for blowing up the government. But the Tea Party group don’t believe in compromise. It’s as simple as that.”

In his brief appearance before the press today, Boehner bypassed a question regarding the current shutdown and moved straight to the debt limit. The two issues, it seems, have now morphed into one. And in contrast to Obama’s expansive presser, Boehner answered four brief questions, licked his lips and swiftly shuffled off.

Meanwhile, the military is always close to the heart of Republicans. Seventeen US troops have been killed in conflict since the shutdown began. No death benefits have been paid to families of fallen troops in that time.

It was a Republican, McCain (pictured yesterday), who took to the floor to admonish both sides for allowing that situation to transpire:

“Shouldn’t we as a body — Republican or Democrat — be embarrassed [or] ashamed? What do American people think when they see that death benefits for those who served and sacrifice — they’re not eligible? I’m ashamed! I’m embarrassed. All of us should be.”

Asia-Pacific

May 29, 2013

5 comments

Foreign intervention in the Syrian nightmare has kicked up a couple of notches. Yesterday the European Union lifted its embargo on supplying arms to the Syrian opposition, although it also expressed strong support for the proposed peace conference. Britain and France, the main supporters of ending the embargo, have promised to refrain from any actual supplies until the conference has had a chance to work.

In response, Russia indicated that it would supply the Assad regime with advanced anti-aircraft missiles, which it described as a “stabilising factor”. Doubt was cast on that description by a veiled threat from Israel that it would intervene to prevent Syria deploying such weapons within range of its airspace.

This is starting to look a lot like a proxy war between Russia and the West. No great historical imagination is needed to conjure visions of Afghanistan in the 1980s (Martin Chulov, for one, raises it in The Guardian). That country has never recovered from the devastation wrought then, and there’s no reason to think that escalation in Syria would be any less destructive.

But if Russia and the West can make war, they can also make peace. If the Syrian combatants on both sides become dependent on outside help, that gives those outsiders the power to bring them to the negotiating table if they want to.

So far, Russia’s actions are consistent with the view that it recognises its interest in a Syrian peace settlement and is willing to impose one on Assad if need be, but that it wishes to maximise its leverage beforehand in order to get the best deal possible.

While there are obvious similarities with the proxy war in Afghanistan, there are major differences as well. Russia is not the Soviet Union; it has no ideological solidarity with Assad and it no longer has a central Asian empire of its own to defend. Although Syria in a sense is in Russia’s backyard, it is not on its border; the fears of Muslim insurgency spreading into its own territory, while not completely absent (think Chechnya), are much less than they were in the 1980s.

The West’s interests are also different, firstly because the element of global competition with the Soviets is no longer there, and secondly because it has now seen first hand the dangers of fostering Islamic fundamentalism. There was a good strategic argument for keeping Afghanistan going as a constant low-level conflict, gradually bleeding the Soviets dry. There is no such argument in Syria.

That’s why it’s a matter of concern that a leading role is being taken by cold warriors such as US Senator John McCain, whose outlook seems to have progressed little in 30 years. (It’s quite likely that they have counterparts on the Russian side as well, itching for revenge for Afghanistan.) Deprived of the chance for war with Russia over Georgia in 2008, McCain looks at least as interested in the chance for a rematch as he does in the welfare of the Syrians.

But as I have said before, Western and Russian interests in Syria are not fundamentally incompatible. Neither wants continuing instability, and neither wants a fundamentalist regime in its place. The relatively modest strategic concerns that they have there should, with a bit of effort, all be able to be accommodated.

The prospect of British, French and American supplies to his opponents may just possibly put Assad and his colleagues in a more compliant mood.

Increased Russian involvement may do the same for the opposition. But of course it could easily work the other way around, with foreign assistance encouraging intransigence on both sides — in which case the bloody downward spiral will continue.

Foreign intervention in civil wars is a dangerous game; nonetheless, in some cases it’s the least bad option available. Unfortunately there’s no way of telling in advance whether this is one of them.

Media

Apr 15, 2013

5 comments

Fairfax sorry about Cory allegations. This hurts: the apology Fairfax was forced to make to Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi over the weekend:

“Articles published by Fairfax Media on January 27 and 28 contained allegations that Senator Cory Bernardi had failed to properly declare pecuniary and other interests in his statement of registrable interests.

“They alleged that Senator Bernardi had breached his disclosure obligations by not declaring his role as international delegate of the American Legislative Exchange Council or payments received from the Heartland Institute for travel and accommodation.

“Fairfax Media accepts that its reporting of those matters was factually inaccurate in a number of respects and that the allegations regarding Senator Bernardi were unfounded.

“We retract those allegations and apologise to Senator Bernardi for the distress and damage caused by the articles.”

There’s an awful lot you can say about Cory Bernardi — just not that he failed to declare his pecuniary interests.

Rundle: Coulter puts her feet in it. What is it with the Left and violence? (Copyright: Andrew Bolt, all media, all the time.) Why yes, just last week someone called for the killing of Meghan McCain, daughter of former Republican candidate John McCain, and now a half-smart, half-ditzy centrist-conservopundit in her own right. Disgusting, I — oh hang on, it was Ann Coulter.

The raptor-like reactionary was riffing on a remark by Martin Bashir, the Brit journalist who has become a hell-raising leftist pundit on MSNBC. In the wake of the compromised gun legislation Bashir asked whether it would take the child of a Republican senator being killed to change their votes. Bashir’s point was that gay marriage is becoming acceptable on the Right because so many Republican lawmakers are having their young adult children coming out to them. Bashir’s point was about the hypocrisy of shifting your opinion for personal reasons.

Coulter’s remark? Sure, why don’t they start with Meaghan McCain! Place of publication? Her Fox News blog. There’s no need for seething leftists to make unbalanced comments about killing Right-wingers — they’re now proposing to kill each other. Fox deleted the post after uproar — and then gave Coulter a softball interview to defend herself. Perhaps the Bolter can ask Rupert and Roger Ailes whether everyone’s children are open-season, when next they gather on some island hideaway. — Guy Rundle

Front page of the day. Venezuelans are voting to choose a successor to Hugo Chavez. National daily El Nacional features the the two candidates — acting President and Chavez pick Nicolas Maduro and Henrique Capriles — under a headline that translates as “vote, pay attention, count”.

Links

Jan 19, 2012

5 comments

United States

Dec 6, 2011

5 comments

Well it has been a helluva ride for the Republican Party, as its right-wing base searches for anyone but the passionless and, by American standards, centrist mainstream candidate Mitt Romney. Since the heartbreaking news that Sarah Palin would not be running, the Republican Right has, by a process of default, stumbled upon genuine diversity, with first Michele Bachmann and then Herman Cain breaking up the line of ageing white men who usually fill the candidature ranks.

The more surprising of these was Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, who has now withdrawn from the race, after being hit not merely with multiple accusations of sexual harassment, culminating in revelations that he had had a 13-year affair with a woman, the perfectly named Ginger White, whose bills he had paid for some time. Early revelations of the affair had caused Cain to “suspend” his campaign, a polite term for “panic behind closed doors”.

Revelations of the affair — and the Cain campaign’s defence that his accusers were talking of “a consensual relationship” which pretty much confirmed it — put paid to any residual support Cain could muster. He had long since lost the mainstream Right of the party, as represented by groups such as the National Review, but he retained strong support in the hinterland of Republican activists and their nutty blogosphere.

S-xual harassment accusations, even by three women, can be passed off as vindictive, and the Right doesn’t like the laws that make such accusations possible anyway. But a decade-plus affair is something else — not only does it indicate a corrosive attitude to the image of marriage that the Right holds dear, but it also indicates a capacity for magical thinking that sits ill with a winning candidate (no one cares what sort of President they would make).

But more than anything, it turns people away because they feel taken for fools. Herman Cain became, in an instant, the John Edwards of the Republicans — in each case the standard bearer of true belief turned out to be the very man whose entire life was a lie. Edwards has dropped down the memory hole of American life; it is extraordinary the degree to which he has just disappeared.

Cain’s fate is not to be forgotten. It may be worse. Right-of-centre Americans who wanted an intelligent candidate were still reeling from the impact of Palin. Cain made the Wasilla thriller look like Frederick the Great — from his contemptuous remarks about not knowing who the President of “Uzbeki beki beki beki stan” was, to his pizza-hotline style “9-9-9” tax plan, to a surreal performance on the question of Libya, which began with him checking with the interviewer as to which country they were talking about (“Gaddafi, right?”).

Cain brought exactly the wrong sort of insouciance at the wrong time — just as the John McCain/Sarah Palin double had foundered in 2008 when the collapse of the global economy convinced the US public that they should vote on ability, not identity, on what people could do, not what sort of idea of themselves the candidate reflected back to them.

With China rising, the US falling, the Arab Spring and the collapse of Europe, the Republican Right knew that the presence of Cain as a candidate, and, God help them, as a winner, would have promised not merely a loss to Obama, but a caving-in of the Republican brand, a simple absence of discourse, replaced by the noise “beki beki beki”.

So it will be very surprising if we do not eventually find the hand, not merely of the Romney campaign, but of the Republican Party centre, behind the Cain debacle — even if only to give a nudge to what was going to happen anyway. There is plenty of commentary around pointing to Cain’s vanity, poor organisation and selective relationship with reality — but the important point is surely that it exactly matched the predilections of the small but active Right push that sent him to the top of the polls.

Indeed, it was the only way that a black man could have risen to the top of the Republican Right’s wish list. They had tried everyone else on offer — everyone new and exciting that is, ignoring only one old dude named Gingrich. Cain was the last cab off the rank. His perfect match with Tea Party fantasy made him not white, but essentially transparent; they saw past the colour that would have otherwise limited their identification with him.

I don’t mean by that that Tea Parties are necessarily racist, though some are. It is simply that their celebration of America, though it claims to be about the abstract values of America, are in fact grounded in its white ethnos — hence all the malarkey with tricorn hats in Walmart carparks. The strength of this myth is that the concrete and the abstract in here — for the Tea Party, it’s our myth of nationhood, but it is also a story for all mankind. But nevertheless it only happened in one place once. Yet it is the only “correct” vision of how human beings should be.

That powerful and paradoxical American exceptionalism has become supercharged among the Right of late — a hysterical reaction to its disappearance. And so, with Cain gone, the Right has finally alighted on Newt Gingrich, a man whose polls were flatlining so badly some months ago that his staff quit en masse.

The last choice, on the face of it, should have been the first one. Gingrich is undoubtedly intelligent, across the issues, capable of talking clearly about policy. He is also an obsessive exceptionalist, and happy to be the type of conservative who sees an absolute distinction between the rights that should be extended to Americans, and those that should be extended to others, which is precisely none.

Thus he has spoken hitherto of the reality of global warming, but also of the Islamicisation of America as represented by the Ground Zero (non-) mosque. He has spoken with something approaching rationality about immigration, yet he continues to blather on about traditional values while divorcing one wife while she had cancer, and having a long affair behind the back of another, while pursuing Bill Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

That mix of fantasy and reality is what has kept Newt at arm’s length from the core of the Right — not the whacko stuff, but the fact that he once authored a book called Contract with the Earth, and that in his career as an academic — he has never worked in the private sector — he founded one of the world’s first environmental studies programs, in 1974.

But with Michelle Bachman a distant memory, Rick Perry now a joke, Herman Cain a trivial pursuit question, Ron Paul a permanent 8%-er (though check out his fantastic ad, made all the better by the fact that this libertarian is using early Soviet constructivism as an aesthetic), Rick Santorum now permanently associated with ass-juice, it’s now all Newt.

He has a good chance in Iowa and Nevada, is coming up fast in New Hampshire — where until now, Romney was leading 45% to 15% against the nearest contender — will take South Carolina, and only needs the last of these to be competitive in Florida and Colorado. Two weeks ago, the Republicans thought they might have a black man as their candidate — they will instead get Newt, the ultimate black swan, the unexpected unexpected to lead “Ameri meri meri merica stan”.

*After captivating Crikey readers — and winning The Age non-fiction book of the year prize — for his 2008 US election road show, Guy Rundle is back stateside in the New Year to do it all again. His on-the-ground reports from the Republican primaries begin on January 9.

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Jun 10, 2011

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