EU sanctions against Russian elites could pose existential threat to Putin regime

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Responding to the renewed crisis in Ukraine, on Tuesday the European Union (EU) moved towards imposing economic sanctions on associates of Vladimir Putin, with foreign ministers agreeing to “concrete proposals” to create a list of the president’s “cronies” who would be subject to punitive measures.

Following on from sanctions earlier imposed by Washington, this week’s push by the EU to inflict more punishing strictures against Russia’s elites could not only have far-reaching consequences for the future conflict between Moscow and Kiev, but pose an existential threat to the Putin regime.

“The Russian political system rewards strong leaders who can keep order and stability, while providing the opportunity for people to gain economically,” Kimberly Marten, a professor of political science at Barnard College and Columbia University, told HuffPost. “The alternative in the minds of the population and the inner circle of elites is the terrible instability and violence of the 1990s.”

So, on the surface, all Putin needs to do is show the West a strong face while maintaining the stability and open markets that have allowed the elite class to prosper. However, herein sits the problem: within Russia’s “inner circle of elites”, various different interests are coming into conflict.

According to Samuel Greene, the Director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, the security establishment (members of the military and the secret services), and the ideological establishment (nationalists), both of which espouse a very isolationist agenda, are “pushing up against the interests of the business elites” who profit from the ability to move money and goods across borders.

“Putin’s goal is not to make any of the groups happy but to maintain a balance and a steady state,” says Greene. “What becomes a threat to him is if the system is unbalanced and everyone comes to the conclusion that they might be better off without him or with some other leadership.”

The problem for Putin is that sanctions targeted at members of the elite are likely to stir such an imbalance, the president’s high-wire act made all the more difficult by the nationalistic and imperialistic fervour he deliberately unleashed as a means to justify past actions, most recently the annexation of Crimea. As Greene points out, “It serves Putin’s purposes to use ideology as a tool to give the state legitimacy, to mobilise against the political opposition and marginalise them, and to justifying a certain amount of confrontation with the West.”

However, Putin may well have become hostage to this ideological framing. “The more you use it, and the more widespread it becomes in the media, the harder it becomes to back away from,” says Greene. A further consequence of the nationalistic rhetoric is the inspiration it provides for people within the hierarchy, who look to strengthen themselves through the ideology or “trying to be holier than the pope”. If people below are ratcheting up the ideology, Putin has to keep up or he could face a challenge from those that have bought into his imperial rhetoric.

So the Russian president can’t back down from the West without facing some tough questions from the ideological and security wings, but can’t shoulder economic sanctions without likewise weakening his position with those whose interests reside in international commerce.

It is this predicament that could prove an existential threat to Putin’s regime. “The problem for authoritarian rulers is that you make one mistake and you’re out of the game, and you’re out of it for good… there’s no coming back,” says Greene. As such, Putin is constantly fighting against not only real internal threats but perceived threats. “As soon as it looks like there might be an alternative or a better way, particularly for the elites, then he’s vulnerable.”

Yet even if Putin were deposed by an internal challenge, it is unlikely to come in the form of a liberal democrat bent on better relations with the West. As Marten forewarns, “Russians are afraid of changing away from Putin, because he has provided what they want. But if he starts slipping, and people doubt his ability to continue to provide order and wellbeing, the alternative is likely to be an even stronger nationalist who might move the country toward fascism.”

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Intervention or isolation?

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According to Hillary Clinton, David Cameron’s historic parliamentary defeat, in which MPs voted against the government’s proposed use of British military forces against Syria in August last year, exerted some influence over the US decision to likewise pull back from strikes against the Assad regime.

Both countries, scarred by the experience of Iraq, were unable to countenance another intervention, even, as was the case in Syria, with the regime deploying chemical weapons against its detractors. Of course, domestic politics played a role both in London and Washington, however for the two nations that led the charge against Saddam in 2003, intervention, it seemed, was now off the table.

A year later and the black flags of the Islamic State (formerly ISIS), currently fluttering across lands from from northern Syria to the Iraqi province of Diyala north-east of Baghdad, have once again pushed the noxious issue of intervention to the forefront of the US foreign policy debate – a discourse that is further dividing an already fractured Republican Party, with the question of action versus non-action likely to run all the way to the 2016 election.

In recent weeks, Bush-era Republicans have been sought for comment on the arrival of “Caliph” al-Baghdadi, most notably Dick Cheney, the ageing hawk revelling in the unexpected limelight and his chance to peddle aged bluster about long-discredited “links” between Saddam and al-Qaeda.

Yet Cheney’s Punch and Judy sideshow (the former VP is routinely hit over the head by everyone from his own party to Fox News) was just a foretaste to a more bitter debate that finally blossomed this week, with the crisis in Mesopotamia pitting traditional interventionist Republicans against the party’s youthful Libertarian and isolationist flank.

The debate was mediated through rival newspaper columns penned by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Governor Rick Perry of Texas – both already limbering up for a tilt at the Republican presidential nomination and the chance to thwart the other Clinton from entering the White House 15 years after the last one left.

Writing in the Washington Post, Perry outlined a worldview in which American security is best served through muscular interventionism, a traditional perspective not far removed from the last Bush White House and indeed most Republican administrations dating back to the Sixties. In his article, the Governor attempted to paint Paul as an isolationist, a timid idealist who would prefer “accommodation” with those that would threaten the homeland rather than revert to the use of force.

On Iraq and Syria, Perry wrote that the Islamic State was a “real threat to our national security – to which Paul seems curiously blind – because any of these passport carriers can simply buy a plane ticket and show up in the United States without even a visa.” He continued: “It’s particularly chilling when you consider that one American has already carried out a suicide bombing and a terrorist-trained European allegedly killed four at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. Yet Paul still advocates inaction.”

Paul responded by allying Perry to Cheney and Bush – a member of the “let’s intervene and consider the consequences later crowd” – hawks that would honour American troops already lost in Iraq by sending in several thousand more to likely meet the same end.

Writing in Politico, Paul retorted: “I ask Governor Perry: How many Americans should send their sons or daughters to die for a foreign country — a nation the Iraqis won’t defend for themselves? How many Texan mothers and fathers will Gov. Perry ask to send their children to fight in Iraq? I will not hold my breath for an answer. If refusing to send Americans to die for a country that refuses to defend itself makes one an “isolationist,” then perhaps it’s time we finally retire that pejorative.”

Although Paul’s is the minority view within the Party, a recent poll showed that 52% of Republicans said that the US military did “too much” overseas, while the same overall percentage wanted the US to “mind its own business internationally and pay more attention to problems at home”. According to Pew, this is the highest measure of international disengagement in more than half a century, while support for US engagement overseas is currently close to an historic low. If the US is changing, it is going in the direction of the Senator from Kentucky.

Still, the historical pull for the US to try and reshape the world aboard to better serve its interests at home will be a difficult orbit from which to break, particularly as many of the same justifications for intervention – to enhance US credibility abroad and to provide reassurance to allies in the region – remain potent, particularly to those on the right.

The effectiveness of Paul being able to counter those traditional arguments will likely go a long way to shaping not only the next election but perhaps even America’s future role in the world.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

The brief sum of life…

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I thought death would be serene and gentle, a restful slipping from life into lifelessness, the mind clinging to the last moments while the body succumbed. Yet the act of breathing is a persistent habit. Even if death is desired, consciousness pleading for the final dream, the body endures, an act of primal hostility against surrender as it wrestles for every last second of life — air in, air out, air in, air out…

It had been two days since she had softly pleaded with doctors to end her treatment. The plastic pipes pushing food and water directly into her stomach had been retired; the medicines designed to march on the infection had similarly been withdrawn. Morphine was now her only sustenance but supplied in cruelly small and regimented doses.

Time passed no longer in hours but in intervals between shots of medical opiate. There was no final cocktail, no caring push into death. Each injection was followed by a period of sleep, then a sad awakening, her eyes straining up and right to see the walled clock, briefly fixating on the passing of time that, for her, refused to end. She was enslaved in a hospital room; a prisoner on a plastic mattress, shackled by her own body and its relentless need to breathe.

In the early morning of the fourth day, she started to drown. The liquid building up in her throat entered her lungs, shocking her awake with fear, desperation and a perhaps a realization that after seven months of sickness, suffering and depression, the dénouement would now be the hardest part. Yet the body continued, each breath now carrying an orchestra of deep rattles from within her beleaguered frame, the sound of air and water moving making her almost mechanical, a broken machine whose spring had yet to fully unwind.

She remained awake as her lungs slowly flooded, occasionally trying to force words between the tin-like clatter shaking out from her chest, her half-dead hands clamping to those of the living perhaps in pain, perhaps in disbelief that her end had to be so punishing. Her now-graying eyes told only of distress.

Finally, the metronome started to slow; fingernails turned blue as the air supply dwindled. On that small, unwelcome sheet, one arm under her head, the other grasping her hand, our eyes remained fixed as I watched the final scene of her life’s play, each breath now further apart and slightly shallower than the last.

And then there were no more.

I walked to my mother’s funeral on my own. There was no procession, no ride in a hearse; just a stroll from an empty hotel room to the crematorium, a functional brick outhouse circled by ornate grounds with small birds moving between the headstones.

Next to the door was a sign exacting the day’s services. She was third on a list of seven, her printed name resting between two strangers in this surreal, random roll-call of death.

Yet there was serenity here, in this place among the stones of those that had gone before. She had not slipped into death, but had been tortured, punished by her own body in a sickening coda to life. But the savagery had gone and the brutality had ended. All now left was the silence of a large wooden box mantled by curtains that slowly closed.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Ann Coulter is wrong, ‘soccer’ is the most American sport imaginable

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Our American brethren are delighting in the World Cup. And so they should be. Not only are the Red White and Blue through to the knockout stages, but they’ve advanced thanks to a coherent team ethic and some strong individual performances. The on-field success for the US has translated into packed fan parks, record viewing figures, and a huge boost to the already burgeoning popularity of the game across Atlantic.

However everything in the US is political, so of course one right-wing media pundit has decided to piss all over everyone’s fun by decrying the “growing interest in soccer” as “a sign of the nation’s moral decay“. Fortunately, this castigation came from Ann Coulter, a pundit whose career as a contrarian borders on, as Alyssa Rosenberg argues in The Washington Post, “performance art”.

Yet taking the syndicated columnist at face value, her objections run thus:

“Individual achievement is not a big factor in soccer. In a real sport, players fumble passes, throw bricks and drop fly balls — all in front of a crowd. When baseball players strike out, they’re standing alone at the plate. But there’s also individual glory in home runs, touchdowns and slam-dunks. In soccer, the blame is dispersed and almost no one scores anyway. There are no heroes, no losers, no accountability, and no child’s fragile self-esteem is bruised… the prospect of either personal humiliation or major injury is required to count as a sport.”

“In a real sport, players fumble passes, throw bricks and drop fly balls – all in front of a crowd.”

A fumbled pass, such as when US defender Geoff Cameron mishit a clearance in the early minutes of the game against Portugal? The ball went straight to Nani, who shot past Tim Howard – all in front an audience far bigger than has ever watched one of Coulter’s “real sports”.

“When baseball players strike out, they’re standing alone at the plate.”

Like Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev’s shocking error against South Korea in the team’s opening match? But if you’re looking for real individual responsibility, how about a player stepping up to take the fifth kick in a penalty shootout knowing that a miss will send his national team out of the World Cup?

If a baseball player strikes out to lose a game, there’s often another one the next day. The World Cup is staged every four years, with one player nearly always responsible for an entire nation’s progress or elimination – all in front of a global audience of millions.

“But there’s also individual glory in home runs, touchdowns and slam-dunks.”

A player gaining individual glory, such as Lionel Messi scoring a wonder goal in extra time against Iran or Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa single-handedly denying Brazil’s potent frontline a goal?

“In soccer, the blame is dispersed.”

Of course, it was the entire Italian team’s fault that Claudio Marchisio got sent off. Likewise, everyone with a Uruguayan passport is to blame for Luis Suarez biting Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder.

“There are no heroes, no losers.”

Quite right – there are no heroes such as John Brooks, the young substitute whose 86th minute header gave the USA an unlikely victory against Ghana, paving the way for the Klinsmann’s team to gain passage out of the group of death? I presume a nine match international ban and a four month stadium ban would make Luis Suarez the most obvious loser of the 2014 World Cup… so far.

“The prospect of either personal humiliation or major injury is required to count as a sport.”

The prospect of personal humiliation such as that suffered by England player Steven Gerard, who made two catastrophic errors during the match against Uruguay that led to England’s early exit? As for major injuries, the sport is littered with broken legs, concussions, career-ending tackles and, in some fortunately rare cases, even deaths.

“Most sports are sublimated warfare.”

Here Coulter is quite correct. There is no clearer sublimation of warfare than football. Witness the Argentinean team unfurling a flag that read “Las Malvinas son Argentina’s” before their World Cup warm-up game against Slovenia.

So here’s the rub: Coulter knows nothing about football, but has attacked “soccer” because of its European heritage, arguing that it represents the collective over the individual. This plays into the conspiratorial mindset of many conservative Americans who fatuously believe that the European nations, with their mixed economies and socialised medicine, are Bolshevik enclaves, while bemoaning “communist fifth columnist” Barack Obama for attempting to bring down the American way of life by reforming the beleaguered US healthcare system in the form of the Affordable Care Act.

What football represents is not only a freedom to gain individual glory and make individual mistakes, but also the possibility of the triumph of the group, where a nation can achieve more by working together than simply relying on the personal self-interest of the players.

If you’re looking for individualism and self-interest, members of the England squad are currently sat playing Xbox 6,000 miles from Rio. The American team, with arguably lesser individuals but a far stronger collective mindset, is still very much in the tournament. The notion of the American dream has two components – individual as well as collective (national) achievement. As such, “soccer” is probably just about the most American sport there is.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Dick Cheney has not only lost his mind on Iraq – he’s lost his audience

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“Rarely has a US president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many,” ran the line in a comment piece about Iraq published in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. Amazingly, the author was not talking about George W. Bush, the man who led the US into a disastrous war that cost the lives of 4,500 Americans, 100,000 Iraqis and nearly a trillion dollars in debt. The writer was taking aim at the current president, Barack Obama.

What’s more, the piece was penned by Dick Cheney, one of the architects of the Bush Doctrine that sought to spread democracy through military power, the success of which can be easily measured in the pictures of mass executions and men digging their own graves that are filtering out from the disintegrating Iraqi state.

In the article, bizarrely published as a joint piece with his daughter Liz (some pundits have speculated that his family are the only Republicans left who will stand with Cheney), the former vice president excoriates Obama for “abandoning” Iraq to Al-Qaeda-inspired ISIS, jihadist militants who now straddle both Iraq and Syria, launching sectarian attacks on those who might oppose their mission to create a cross-border Caliphate.

And where was al-Qaeda before the 2003 invasion? One place it wasn’t is Iraq, demanding an answer to just how the current president is responsible for the hard-line Islamists currently occupying the cities of Mosul and Tikrit and threatening to march on Baghdad?

And this from the man who in 2003 had said that he thought American forces “really would be treated as liberators” and who remains unrepentant about the American and Iraqi lives taken by the conflict and the deep financial hole left in the US national coffers after they were plundered for an illegal war.

Of course, Cheney isn’t the sole cheerleader for the 2003 invasion that has failed to offer penitence. Last week, conservative commentator Bill Kristol, former envoy to Iraq Paul Bremer, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and the increasingly baffledJohn McCain, not only failed to show contrition, but all, apart from McCain (he didn’t know what he wanted), advised the current White house to return to the use of force in Iraq.

In Britain, a similar lack of self-awareness has plagued Tony Blair, with London Mayor Boris Johnson going as far as to call the former PM “unhinged” over his assertion that the failure to deal with the war in Syria is responsible for the crisis in Iraq, not the 2003 war for which he was – and remains – a staunch advocate.

Yet Cheney’s remarks are perhaps the most galling, with the former VP following up his comment piece by announcing the establishment of a non-profit group nefariously named the “Alliance for a Stronger America”, with its mission to educate and advocate for the policies needed to restore American pre-eminence and power in the world.

And where did Cheney make this announcement? On YouTube, stood next to his daughter and wearing a cowboy hat. The post was followed by a joint appearance on Fox News, an interview in which even the GOP shill presenting was forced to ask if Cheney might have the wrong end of the stick as to who was responsible for the crisis unfolding across the region.

Unfortunately for Dick, the world has moved on and so has his party, with the modern GOP far more influenced by the Libertarian movement’s strong non-interventionist bent than has been the case any time in the recent past.

Whereas Cheney could once rely on the Republican hierarchy and a US national media to take note, now the former VP is forced to scramble for hits on YouTube, his inane ramblings on foreign policy, the Obama administration and the crisis in Iraq competing unsuccessfully with the latest J-Lo album teaser and a video on how dogs react to humans barking.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Soccer’s cultural invasion of the US hasn’t started – it’s already over

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“Who’s your team, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester?” It’s the stock opener posed by every waiter, concierge or taxi driver in New York City. “Manchester City is beautiful,” “Wenger has to go,” “Why did Ferguson say ‘no’ to Mourinho?”

In the US, soccer talk is everywhere, with City’s triumph in the Premiere League and Barcelona’s loss of La Liga giving way to speculation on the World Cup, the US national team and “Klinsmann, man, what the fu*k?”

On ESPN, retired nobles of the European game – van Nistelrooy, Ballack, Ekoku, McManaman – glean greenbacks for discussing the forthcoming tournament in Brazil, each discussion bookended by adverts showcasing their footballing heirs in the latest batch of Hollywood-inspired mini-movies for Nike.

Papers of record, such as the New York Times, feel comfortable to run front page editorials on Fifa corruption, while Morning Joe, the popular breakfast show on MSNBC, offers regular updates on the English game, each segment welcomed with puppy-like enthusiasm by the Georgia-born host Joe Scarborough – as much for his love of the game as for the bafflement it elicits from his co-host Mika Brzezinski.

New York is bathed in emblems and icons of the European game. Soccer shirts are widespread, with the names of Suarez, Rooney or Messi as likely to adorn clothing as those of Carmelo Anthony (Knicks), Eli Manning (Giants) or Derek Jeter (Yankees).

In the early months of last season, a marketing campaign by broadcaster NBC had New York’s iconic subway trains emblazoned with individual team colours from the Barclays Premier League or “BPL” as is the common abbreviation, while Times Square was decorated with the hue of Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool et al.

All the games from the BPL season just gone (for which the broadcaster paid $250million) were available to watch across the NBC channels – small subscription required – with the time difference meaning that a midday kick off in the UK was watched upon waking up on the east coast or through a haze of booze in the early hours on the west coast.

Premier League games continued throughout the day, usually at 10am EST and then midday EST… then you could switch channel and watch a game from La Liga at 5pm EST.

Speaking to The Guardian in October, Jon Miller, NBC Sport‘s president of programming, said: “There have always been a lot of people in this country who have loved soccer, but I don’t think as many people really embraced the Premier League as they have now. It has become part of the daily conversation in this country, much more relevant and important.”

That’s certainly evident, with the viewing figures for Premiere League games on NBCreaching a total of 31.5million for the season, with 5million watching the denouement on the final Sunday.

The crunch game between Liverpool and Chelsea at the end of the campaign was watched by more than 940,000 viewers, an impressive figure considering kick off was 8am EST. In total, NBC devoted thousands of hours of coverage to the English game, replete with commentary and analysis every bit as sophisticated as that delivered by the UK’s Sky Sports.

Adding to the mix were Fox Sports and beIN Sports, between them broadcasting Champions League, FA Cup, and even Capital One Cup matches.

Soccer is culturally ingrained into the US way of life. The traditional view of US sports is a landscape dominated by the big four – football, ice hockey, basketball and baseball – with Major League Soccer (MLS) a poorly followed sideshow popular with immigrants or, up till recently, fans of David Beckham.

Although the MLS is growing, the relative weakness of the league (there are currently only 19 teams, soon to be 21, with no relegation) hasn’t hindered the sport’s burgeoning popularity. The contradiction of the US is that it boasts a thriving soccer culture without having a strong domestic league.

As Simon Kuper points out in his book Soccernomics, “Major League Soccer is not American soccer. It’s just a tiny piece of the mosaic. Kids’ soccer, college soccer, women’s soccer, indoor soccer, Mexican, English, and Spanish soccer, the Champions league, and the World Cup between them dwarf the MLS”.

According to Miller, soccer is rapidly overtaking other sports “in terms of attention and social conversation, coverage in print and broadcast news,” a product not only of NBC’sconverge but, according the TV executive, a levelling in the interest in other sports, particularly baseball and college football.

Yet the upsurge in US soccer is not a product of NBC or David Beckham’s recent sabbatical to LA to “put soccer on the map”.

For many years the game has been the sport of choice for the offspring of white, middle class Americans, a more genteel pursuit that many parents (the clichéd “Soccer moms”) view as far less dangerous than the contact-rife American football – itself a sport under increasing scrutiny following a series of life-changing injuries in both the professional and amateur game. With basketball the game of the inner cities, soccer has become the game of the suburbs, a recreation divorced from the associations of violence, money, drugs and corruption that have scarred the country’s more indigenous sports.

A 2006 Fifa survey found more than 24million Americans played soccer, a figure likely to have increased substantially over the past eight years, while a 2011 ESPN poll rated soccer as the second most popular sport in the country for 12-24-year-olds. Young players, of course, turn into older fans.

This popularity has been bolstered by strong female participation with the US women’s national team regarded one of the best in the world despite the lack of a professional domestic league, while the big European clubs, sniffing dollars, have been quick to market themselves stateside, routinely participating in pre-season tournaments across the Republic’s major cities.

Of course, all this will count for little in Brazil, with Klinsmann’s Red, White and Blueunlikely to progress out of the group stages (although the US’s continued participation in the big tournaments has certainly added to its domestic popularity).

Regardless, television viewers are assured. Even though the US had long left the tournament, more than 24million Americans watched the 2010 World Cup final between Holland and Spain, more than the average viewers for that year’s World Series games between the Yankees and the Phillies.

Popularity aside, the chances of the men’s US national team winning a major soccer tournament anytime soon are absolutely zero… so only slightly less than England. Yet the game as a sporting and cultural phenomenon has already won.

Until recently, “the global game” was called so despite the seemingly impenetrable enclave of North America, with many within the US viewing the spread of soccer akin to the spread of communism – a nefarious ideology followed by foreigners and fifth columnists.

Unfortunately for those wishing to preserve the cultural purity of “American” sports, not only is soccer past the TSA and across the Rio Grand, but it has already set up some nets and is having a kick-a-bout on the White House lawn. The invasion hasn’t begun. It’s already over.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

British MEP tells American conservatives to ‘act worthy’ of themselves at CPAC

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Dan Hannan delivered a bravura performance at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Saturday morning, demanding a room full of predominantly American political activists “act worthy of themselves” as heirs to a common inheritance of Western values.

In a 20-minute address increasingly punctuated by applause, the British Eurosceptic intellectualised the conservative position, a rare approach at a convention in which the word “Benghazi” is enough to provoke a paranoid squeal, while invoking a brand of Atlantacism that honoured Britain and the US as the standard-bearers for constitutional freedom in an increasingly divided world.

“Think about the world as it stood in 1941,” said Hannan, invoking Winston Churchill, a character whose reverence in these parts is second only to Reagan. “Constitutional freedom was confined to the Anglosphere,” freedoms that were retained, Hannan argued, as a result of specific military victories in the Second World War and the Cold War.

“The easiest temptation to get into my friends is to take things for granted and become blasé about the unique privileges into which we’ve been born. We could all so easily fall into the error of assuming that freedom – free contracts, free elections, the freedom of newspapers, habeas corpus, equality between men and women – that these things are somehow the natural condition. But history tells us a different story. Those precepts were overwhelmingly developed in the language in which you’re listening to now.”

Moving into contemporary territory, Hannan highlighted the increasingly vocal critics of the US, but said, “They would be a lot quicker to complain if it went. You don’t have to look to far to see some of the alternatives”.

“Forty million people around the world tuned in to see your presidential inauguration – it would have been nicer if it was another president – but can you imagine anyone tuning in to watch the proceedings of the Russian Duma or the National People’s Conference in Beijing or the European parliament, God forbid?”

The MEP drew a series of standing ovations for lambasting Washington over the US Federal debt, which he said acted as a hindrance on the authority and legitimacy of the US to spread Western values around the globe.

“When you’re faced with a debt of $17 trillion that becomes an issue of national security,” he said, reminding those in the Potomac Ballroom that the interest on that debt alone is equivalent to a third of the Chinese defence budget and a half of the Russia defence budget. “When we are talking about numbers on that scale it’s not just your problem any more, it becomes a problem for the Western world in general.”

At a conference that to outsiders can appear inward looking, heralding such bastions of insularity as Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry and Sarah Palin, it was unusual to see a Briton take the podium talking about American domestic policy in an accent cut from the spires of Oxford. This is, after all, the encampment of the Tea Party, a movement whose very name evokes hatred of the British.

It was an incongruity that Hannan highlighted himself and redressed: “I’ll answer frankly, my friends. No English speaker can be indifferent to the fortunes of this Republic. We’ve been through too much together. You are a separate country but you are not a foreign country.”

“You are citizens of the greatest Republic on this planet and that carries responsibilities as well as privileges. It is for you to keep fast the freedoms that you inherited from your parents and to pass them on in tact to your children. Act worthy of yourselves.”

Hannan’s message may have its critics (many in the UK), but at an event in which the political parade prefers to spit bumper sticker charges at Obama or pontificate on the banal tensions between Republicans and Libertarians, the Briton’s performance was a welcome piece of theatre, while perhaps also highlighting a scarcity of genuine intellectual talent within the leading figures of the American political right.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Arizona to pass law allowing discrimination based on religious beliefs

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On Wednesday the Senate in Arizona passed legislation that would allow businesses and state employees to deny services to any customer based on their religious beliefs.

Pushed through by the state’s Republican majority, proponents of the Bill argued that it was required to protect business owners from legal action should they refuse to offer services on religious grounds. However, opponents contended that the legislation was tantamount to state-backed discrimination, with same-sex couples the most likely target.

In November, the UK Supreme Court ruled against Peter and Hazelmary Bull, devout Christians who refused a gay couple lodgings in their bed and breakfast hotel because it “violated their faith”. The Bulls were challenging an earlier court decision that forced them to pay £5,000 in damages, with the case going someway to clarify Britain’s current legal standing on matters of sexual orientation versus religious liberty.

In the US, the question of equal rights versus religious convictions is far less settled, with predominantly conservative state legislatures currently looking to push back against the federal overturning of a ban on same-sex marriage last June.

The Arizona Bill states: “Exercise of religion means the practice or observance of religion, including the ability to act or refusal to act in a manner substantially motivated by a religious belief whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief.”

In opposition, Arizona Senate Democratic Leader Anna Tovar described the Bill as “discrimination under the guise of religious freedom,” adding, “with the express consent of Republicans in this Legislature, many Arizonans will find themselves members of a separate and unequal class under this law because of their sexual orientation”. Senator Steve Yarbrough, one of Bill’s sponsors, rejected Tovar’s evaluation, arguing that it serves to “prevent discrimination against people who are clearly living out their faith”.

Similar legislation designed the protect religious liberty has been floated in Idaho, Kansas, South Dakota, Kansas and Tennessee. All have been struck down, with opponents arguing successfully that the proposal would not only discriminate against same-sex couples, but would provide legal backing for prejudice based on race, religion, sex, nationality, age, familial status or disability.

Should the Bill pass the House of Representatives, Arizona will stand alone as a solitary success for those campaigning on the grounds of religious liberty. Yet the push back against the repeal of the Defence of Marriage act is just part of a wider trend in the US, with the evangelical wing of the GOP determined to drive state law more into line with Biblical law, most notably in the religious lobbying to restrict access to abortions – even in cases of rape and incest.

In the post 9/11 paranoia, journalist Oriana Fallaci popularised the idea of Europe being consumed by Islamification, a notion given crude lip service in the UK by the English Defence League (EDL) and the rhetoric of “creeping Sharia”. Yet in the US the threat of religious literalism is far less fatuous, with the mainstream (albeit fractured) Republican Party openly invoking God’s word to justify discrimination against homosexuals.

Yet with a series of court rulings reversing bans on same-sex marriage, even if Arizona’s Bill does become law (it is expected to pass the state House), the faithful will still have a long way to go to push back the onrushing tide of secularism in the US. Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state remains in place… albeit with a few bricks soon chipped off.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Putin’s anti-gay propaganda law finds support among America’s social conservatives

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In a recent attack on the White House, conservative political commentator Pat Buchanan paraphrased Ronald Reagan by suggesting “Barack Obama’s America” had taken the place of the Soviet Union as the world’s “evil empire”. It was an appraisal that echoed a speech given by Vladimir Putin in mid-December, in which the Russian leader said that over the past twenty years the US and the erstwhile communist state had switched roles.

For many on America’s Christian right, the Cold War represented more than a bi-polar nuclear stand-off between two superpowers but the bleeding edge of a cosmic battle between the faithful (America) and the Godless (the Soviets). Yet more than two decades after the end of the Soviet experiment, American social conservatives are now looking to Moscow as the guardian of the Christian moral compass.

Since the introduction of Russia’s now-infamous anti-gay propaganda law in June, the country has witnessed a sharp upturn in the number of attacks on members of its LGBT community, while those protesting the legislation have found themselves often targeted by police for mistreatment and arrest.

The bill, which bans “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations“, was introduced by Putin as a means of buttressing his dwindling support among Russia’s youth by appealing to members of the very conservative Russian Orthodox Church. In July, Putin declared, “The adoption of Christianity became a turning point in the fate of our fatherland, made it an inseparable part of the Christian civilization and helped turn it into one of the largest world powers”. This mixture of religion and nationalism was not only a nod to the faithful, but a populist sop to a citizenry of which 90% support legislation that stigmatises the gay community.

Unsurprisingly, the move was decried around the globe, with Europe and the US particularly vocal in their condemnation. Just last week, more than 50 current and former Olympians criticised the anti-gay law, and called on the International Olympic Community (IOC) and the event’s multinational sponsors to do more to change the situation in Russia ahead of this week’s games in Sochi.

Since the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) was ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court last June, American gay rights advocates have stepped up their efforts to end bans on gay marriage in at least 20 states, a move that enjoys considerable public support with a 2013 Gallup poll suggesting that around 50% of American adults favour allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally.

Momentum has gathered so quickly that the established wing of a highly divided Republican Party seems to have lost its appetite for a fight over the issue, with House GOP lawyers withdrawing from a defence of DOMA in July. More recently, when asked if the Party should support two openly gay Republican candidates running for office, House Speaker John Boehner stated publically that he did.

Yet equal marriage remains a controversial phenomenon in the US, particularly for the Republican Party’s right flank. So, with the GOP establishment either preoccupied with a futile attempt to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act or an unwillingness to push against the populist tide, Putin’s draconian legislation has become a clarion call for social conservatives across America’s religious heartland.

Just days after Russia’s anti-gay legislation became law, the Daily Caller, a conservative news and opinion website, published a swooning editorial by Austin Ruse, the President of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, entitled ‘Putin is not the gay bogeyman’. In the article the author praises Russian resistance to the “political movement to regularise and even celebrate homosexuality,” while criticising the law’s American opponents, stating that there is no “human right to parade your sexual preferences and practices down public streets”.

A week later, Larry Jacobs of the World Congress of Families (WCF) gave a radio interview in which he called the Russians the “Christian saviours to the world,” before heralding the anti-propaganda law as “a great idea”.

In August, Rush Limbaugh, a right-wing mouthpiece who hosts a daily syndicated radio show, explained that Russia’s anti-gay laws were a reaction to the country’s need for population growth, reasoning that more people are required for economic security, while offering praise for the Russian leader for “putting his foot down” against a “full-frontal assault on what has always been considered normalcy”.

The same month, Kris Mineau, head of the Massachusetts Family Institute, struck a more nuanced tone during a recorded Tea Party conference call, attacking President Obama for his opposition to Russia’s anti-gay legislation while noting that by cancelling the planned summit with Putin one day after criticising the Russian law,Obama had turned the advancement of LGBT rights into American foreign policy.

Similarly, Buchanan has on several occasions stated his admiration of the Kremlin, most notably stating that “Putin was trying to re-establish the Orthodox Church as the moral compass of the nation it had been for 1,000 years before Russia fell captive to the atheistic and pagan ideology of Marxism”. Writing in the World Net Daily, the 75-year-old former senior advisor to Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan, continued his moral rebuke by lamenting, “Only yesterday, homosexual sodomy, which Thomas Jefferson said should be treated like rape, was outlawed in many states and same-sex marriage was regarded as an absurdity.

Yet American support for Russia’s state-backed persecution goes further back than 2013, with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) highlighting 14 leaders of American conservatism that have visited Russia in recent years to specifically lobby for anti-gay legislation. Indeed, the Illinois-based WCF, just one of six US groups to have signed a controversial global petition backing Russia’s anti-gay law, is scheduled to hold its next global meeting in Moscow this September, with the Russian organisers trumpeting their credentials on the event’s website:

[The] choice of Moscow as the place to organize the next Congress is connected to serious steps in our country [Russia] at the national and international levels aimed at protection of the natural family, family and moral values. Efforts of representatives of Russian society, Russian pro-family organizations defending the priority of marriage and family, parental rights and the sovereignty of the family, the right of children to live with their family, with father and mother, spiritual and moral foundations of human society were highly praised by WCF organizing committee.

In a December speech, Putin struck a similarly conservative chord, arguing that, “Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values. Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan. This is the path to degradation.”

Throughout the Cold War, America’s tough stance towards the Soviets was buttressed by a religious right ready to decry communism as the embodiment of Satan on earth. Viewing the Soviets and communist system as literally evil (and conversely America and capitalism as good) proved a comfortable fit with the premillennial worldview of the evangelical masses.

Yet the spiritual battle ground appears to have shifted with American social conservatives now viewing homosexuality rather than communism as the centre-piece of the good-versus-evil paradigm. So with equality being pushed at home, while Putin fashions himself as a 21st century protector of the Godly abroad, it’s perhaps unsurprising that those on America’s religious right are now looking east and seeing another piece of Reaganite imagery – that “shining city upon a hill”.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Chris Christie scandal could have major implications for 2016 US Election

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Since becoming governor of the American state of New Jersey in late 2009, Chris Christie, a straight-talking former attorney from the city of Newark, had built a reputation as a pragmatic politician.

Christie has governed the state, which sits just across the river from New York City, as a moderate Republican with a strong focus on eschewing the national squabbles of Washington in favour of delivering balanced budgets and improving education.

However, the notion that Christie could transcend party politics — a perception cemented in late 2012 when he and U.S. President Barack Obama were pictured arm-in-arm touring the stricken Jersey Shore after Hurricane Sandy — recently came crashing down.

Newly released emails revealed that in August, a top Christie aide ordered the closure of two entrance lanes to the George Washington Bridge, the main traffic artery connecting the New Jersey borough of Fort Lee to New York City, because Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor didn’t endorse Christie’s reelection bid.

An email from Christie’s deputy chief of staff read, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” One of Christie’s top aides who worked at the agency that runs the bridge, replied, “Got it.”

The revelation led to the immediate dismissal of the deputy chief of staff, while providing the American political lexicon with a new shorthand for an act of revenge — “Bridgegate.” Christie has denied all knowledge of the affair and said he was“blindsided” by the emails. Investigations continue, with the possibility of more incriminating revelations in the coming weeks.

While the scandal has yet to make a dent in Christie’s favorability ratings, the long-term implications for the governor may be more profound. His popularity had given rise to talk of a run for the Republican presidential nomination ahead of the 2016 election. The real political fallout from “Bridgegate” might not be evident until it’s dredged up by Christie’s Republican rivals. And the main beneficiary of one of the more bizarre political episodes of recent years may turn out to be none other than the 2016 Democratic Party nominee.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

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