Why the US midterm elections should concern the whole world

NEW YORK — US presidential elections routinely hold a global audience, with onlookers from around the world hooked on the theatre of the campaigns, the stage-managed debates and the tense denouement of election night.

In comparison, the midterm elections – held every four years (at the mid-point between presidential elections) – are far more perfunctory, comprising regional battles in which members the Senate and the House of Representatives are elected to Congress.

Yet the midterms are absolutely vital in shaping US domestic and foreign policy for years to come, with the makeup of the Congress determining how much of the current and future president’s agenda can be pushed through – whoever he or she is.

This November, Americans (or around 40% of those eligible to vote) will head to the polls, with one race in particular likely to have a huge impact, not just on the US but around the globe.

Welcome to the senatorial race of Kentucky, a state better known for Bourbon, horse racing and boxes of chicken, yet the scene of an election that could sharply define America’s approach to climate change for the foreseeable future.

Climate policy in the US has gained significant traction in recent years, with all but the most industry-tied politicians reluctant to deny the phenomenon, such is the weight of scientific consensus (many Republicans instead refuse to commit by saying “I don’t know, I’m not a scientist“).

A bi-partisan report published in June detailed the huge costs to American business of refusing to act and, though Obama has failed to pass broad legislation to counter rising temperatures, he has, through the use of an executive action, pushed through a Clean Power Plan, setting limitations on how much carbon can be emitted into the atmosphere by the country’s power plants.

Tasked with enforcing this plan is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a body much maligned by the Republicans and the corporate interests they dutifully serve. Yet left in place, the Clean Power Plan is likely to have a significant impact on reducing pollutants in the atmosphere – down 17% from 2005 levels by 2020.

Enter Mitch McConnell, Kentucky’s incumbent senator who has spent the past 30 years in Washington working on behalf of America’s coal industry. Should he retain his seat next month, the ageing politician is likely to become the Republican majority leader in the Senate – and the man charged with ensuring the final two years of Obama’s presidency are as uncomfortable as possible.

Republicans would also have to triumph in other states, with close races in South Dakota, Kansas and Georgia but, should McConnell become majority leader, he has already promised to roll back the emission caps, hobbling America’s fight against climate change for years to come.

Standing in his way is 35-year-old Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic Party challenger, who is currently polling level with her more experienced opponent. Most commenters think McConnell has the edge, but the vote could go either way.

So how could the leader of the biggest party in the Senate stop the President reducing carbon emissions? The answer is indirectly. Obama would veto any direct attack on his policy, so instead McConnell plans to place restrictions on the EPA within routine budget bills, with any veto from the White House carrying the risk of shutting down the government.

McConnell was caught on tape outlining this strategy at an event for wealthy Republican donors in August. He said: “So in the House and Senate, we own the budget. So what does that mean? That means that we can pass the spending bill.

“And I assure you that in the spending bill, we will be pushing back against this bureaucracy by doing what’s called placing riders in the bill. No money can be spent to do this or to do that. We’re going to go after them on healthcare, on financial services, on the Environmental Protection Agency, across the board.”

In short, McConnell could make Obama choose between shutting down the government and compromising on climate change policy. And with 10 of the hottest years on record occurring in the last 16 years, neither America nor the world has time to allow McConnell to force compromise.

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

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Obama and the Tea Party…

Though the origins of the Tea Party are difficult to discern, from the failed 2008 Republican nomination campaign of Ron Paul, to a Florida resident organising a demonstration via Facebook, by early 2009 a populist, grassroots movement had gained ground in American under the banner of “fiscal responsibility” and “smaller government”.

The Tea Party movement drew from the ranks of conservatives, Republicans, libertarians, constitutionalists, Christians and various other political and religious stripes. Men and women, disaffected, anxious and fearful of events about them joined together, with touchstone issues ranging from disillusionment with the political process to immigration to the erosion of individual liberty.

Though ill-defined, hazy and nebulous, the Tea Party was the latest incarnation of populist tradition stretching back more than a century, from the People’s Party to the Temperance Movement to the Moral Majority – the expression of a desire for a rebirth, a new way or a political third party.

Yet like its populist forebears, the Tea Party became different things to different people. For one follower it was a buttress against government expansion, to another a defender of the nation’s border, to another it was a flag bearer for social issues, from homosexuality to abortion.

The Tea Party’s dramatic and rapid growth coincided with the election of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, which critics took as an indication of the movement’s true character. Fiscal responsibility may be the watchword, opponents of the Tea Party argued, but this was really a movement fuelled by anxieties about race.

Yet to dismiss the Tea Party as a political entity defined or motivated by questions of race alone is to miss the swell of economic, religious, social and historic waves crashing up and around the American people at the time. The Tea Party certainly is about race, but it is also about so much more…

The 2008 financial crash

A month before the inauguration of Barack Obama in January 2009, outgoing President George Bush gave an interview to CNN in which he explained the passing of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act (October 2008) as the abandonment of “free-market principles to save the free-market system”, a move he said was necessary to ensure “the economy doesn’t collapse.”

The Act was designed to prop up America’s ailing financial institutions in the face of economic turmoil, or “bailout Wall Street”, as it became known.

In February the following year, Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a stimulus package offering a mix of spending and tax cuts in the hope of further containing the economic maelstrom.

That same month, CNBC’s Rick Santelli gave an impassioned rant on the woes of economic stimulus, calling for “a Chicago Tea Party in July”. The video went viral and is now often ascribed as a tipping point in the formation of the Tea Party as a national movement.

The content of his now-famous clip caught the prevailing mood post the passing of the stimulus package. “The government is promoting bad behaviour,” said Santelli, stood on the trading room floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange. He then proposed an online referendum “to see if we want to subsidise the losers mortgages or would we like to buy houses, buy cars and foreclosure and give them to people who might actually prosper down the road”.

The benefits of the stimulus aside (argument continues as to whether its passing prevented recession becoming depression), the ideological battle lines for the next four years had now been drawn. These were not social and these were not racial; they were economic, as free market capitalism bumped up against bailouts, regulation and government intervention.

That it was unfettered and unregulated markets that had created the housing bubble and its subsequent collapse that led to the 2008 stimulus was an irony seemingly lost on Santelli. Regardless, the bubble burst, leading to a downturn in US property prices, which threatened global institutions worldwide. The consequent collapse of the stock market and decrease in international trade forced global governments to act, with Bush’s Economic Stabilization Act, which included the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), and Obama’s Recovery and Reinvestment Act ploughing more than $1trillion combined into the beleaguered US economy.

According to former U.S. Representative Dick Armey, currently co-chairman of Freedomworks, a Washington-based conservative organisation with close ties to the Tea Party, it was Bush-era policies which propelled the movement to national prominence, arguing that: “The Government expansion during President George W Bush’s reign provided the fuel. And it was his Wall Street bailout that ignited the firestorm we see today.” For Armey, Obama had simply “doubled down on the bad policies of the Bush administration”, and in doing so had poured “gasoline on a bush fire”.

Amid the foreclosures, rising unemployment and declining consumer spending, rallies began to spread across the country, under the banner of the Gadsden Flag. Most boasted a few hundred protesters; some in the bigger cities attracted thousands, though debate raged in the media as to the exact numbers.

One of the biggest rallies of 2009 was held in April in Atlanta, part of a National Tax Day event, with protests reported across hundreds of major cities. Numbers for the events were difficult to quantify, exemplified by debate over the Atlanta rally. Fox News reported a crowd of between 15,000 and 20,000. Others put the number more at 7,500.

Common to all the rallies was a voicing of economic concerns, whether that was manifest in opposition to healthcare, the bailout or the perceived increasing size of government (hence spending), usually sub-vocalised as a rant against the evils of “socialism”. Estimates of the total number of people protesting that day run from anywhere from 200,000 to 350,000. Regardless, the Tea Party as a national movement, albeit disjointed, devoid of leadership or, as the BBC’s Mark Mardell put it, “hydra-headed”, had arrived.

In September 2009, the Tea Party Express, a bus convoy of activists, snaked its way across the American heartland, stopping at more than 30 cities to spread its six-principled message: “no more bailouts, reduce the size and intrusiveness of government, stop raising our taxes, repeal Obamacare, cease out-of-control spending and bring back American prosperity.”

A second convoy set off a month later with a mission to “highlight some of the worst offenders in Congress who have voted for higher spending, higher taxes, and government intervention in the lives of American families and businesses.”

The impact of the movement at the ballot box was first registered at the 2010 mid-term elections, with a number of Tea Party-backed candidates winning office, most notably Rand Paul, son of Ron Paul, who beat Trey Grayson in a GOP Senate primary in Kentucky.

Despite victories that propelled the Republicans to a majority in the House of Representatives, they missed out on a majority in the Senate, often with Tea Party-backed candidates beating establishment Republicans for the nomination only to lose the election to the Democratic candidate. It remains speculation as to whether the establishment Republicans would have fared better than the Tea Party-backed candidates against their Democratic counterparts.

Still, the mid-terms probably represented the high-point in Tea Party support amongst Americans, with a Gallup poll putting support at around 30 per cent. By August 2011, following the debacle of the debt ceiling crisis, that figure had dropped to 25 per cent, while opposition to the Tea Party had increased with “more Americans holding intensely negative feelings toward the movement than intensely positive feelings”.

Implacable demands from Tea Party-backed Republicans during the debt ceiling debate, most notably Junior Senator Jim De Mint, had led to a game of political brinkmanship that almost cost the United States its AAA credit rating. During the crisis, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner outlined the danger of not increasing the debt: “failure to raise the limit would precipitate a default by the United States. Default would effectively impose a significant and long-lasting tax on all Americans and all American businesses and could lead to the loss of millions of American jobs. Even a very short-term or limited default would have catastrophic economic consequences that would last for decades.”

For a movement that crowed “fiscal responsibility” as a mantra, holding the US economy hostage on a matter of ideological purity was perhaps the least fiscally responsible route available. However, the power of the Tea Party, this strange grassroots activist movement that had gained popularity n a platform of debt reduction, had now been displayed, and at Washington’s top table.

Healthcare as a rally point

On January 4, 2012, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann gave a speech suspending her campaign for the Republican nomination, having won only 5 per cent of the caucus vote in Iowa, her home state. Reflecting on her run for the nomination, she said:

“On the evening of March 21, 2010, that was the evening that Obamacare was passed… that day served as the inspiration for my run for the presidency of the United States because I believed firmly that what the congress had done and what President Obama had done in passing Obamacare endangered the very survival of the United States of America, our Republic because I knew it was my obligation to ensure that President Obama’s programme of socialised medicine was stopped before it became fully implemented.”

The 2009 health care debate, culminating in President Obama’s September address to a joint session of congress, outlining the reform of public and private health insurance and the subsequent passing of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, is one of the defining moments of the 44th presidency (so far).

Along with the passing of the Wall Street bailout and the stimulus package, healthcare reform worked to galvanise an already vociferous opposition, particularly among the grassroots Tea Partiers, who now had another tangible legislative totem against which to rally.

In his congressional speech on healthcare, Obama pitched the debate as a moral choice. Quoting a letter from the recently deceased Ted Kennedy, himself a long-term proponent of healthcare reform, Obama argued: “What we face… is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”

Notions of social justice have long been anathema to the free market ideals of the GOP, and while South Carolina Republican Representative Joe Wilson’s outburst (“You lie!”) perhaps caught the mood of opposition (albeit in response to rumours that illegal immigrants would receive insurance), there were also some extremely persuasive legal arguments that said the Act was unconstitutional.

Central to Obama’s reform was what became known as the “insurance mandate”, which requires every American citizen to buy and maintain health-care coverage by 2014. But could the government compel its citizens to buy insurance and remain within the parameters of the constitution? The debate continues yet regardless of the outcome, opposition to the bill was no longer just ideological but legal, giving further impetus to the Tea Party and their message.

Another indicator of the importance of the healthcare bill was highlighted by the election of Scott Brown, the Republican candidate who won the 2010 special election to succeed U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts. Despite a record not attuned to the social conservatism – Brown is pro-choice and unopposed to gay marriage (Boris Shor of the University of Chicago called Brown a “liberal Republican who is to be found to the left of [his opponent] Dede Scozzafava”) – the movement still backed him due to his vocal opposition to Obamacare.

Arguably this was a marriage of convenience, with Brown benefitting from the Tea Party as much as the Tea Party thought they would benefit from Brown’s election. However, that the movement was willing to be ideologically flexible on social issues as long as the candidate stood firm on healthcare points to the importance of the Affordable Care Act’s repeal within Tea Party ranks.

During the 2012 Republican nomination process, Michele Bachmann was not the only candidate to run on a platform of repeal. “If elected president on my first day in office I will grant a waiver for all fifty states for Obamacare,” Mitt Romney told the audience at the New Hampshire Republican presidential nomination debate in June 2011.

Similar sentiments were expressed by the other candidates. To make this sop to the political right, Romney was forced to contort his record and by doing so opened himself up to charges of political expediency from his rivals. However repeal of Obamacare, for the majority of Tea Party supporters, remains a central, unalterable goal. As such, even Romney, the architect of the Massachusetts’ healthcare plan on which Obamacare was based, had little option but to abandon his state-based achievement in favour of the rabid anti-government message now demanded by the Tea Party movement.

The Tea Party and racism

It is less than fifty years, little more than a generation, since the passing of the Civil Rights Act, and despite steadily changing attitudes, the issue of race pervades. In short, the US remains a nation divided by colour.

An oft-heard criticism of the Tea Party is that it is racist in character. There has been plenty of anecdotal evidence that gives credence to this view, from signs calling the president a “half breed Muslim” or demanding he be “traded” back to Kenya, to accusations by politicians and lawmakers of hearing or being called the word “nigger” at a protest rally on Capitol Hill prior to the passing of the healthcare bill.

Racism exists within the society therefore perhaps it is no more surprising to find it at a Tea Party rally than at a football game. However, two questions remain: is racism a characteristic of the Tea Party and how reflective is this of the movement at a whole? Neither has a simple answer as racists tend not to volunteer their bigotry to pollsters, however, research carried out by Professor Gary Jacobsen suggests that members of the Tea Party are more likely to harbour some form of racial resentment than non-Tea Party affiliates. Using national data compiled by a congressional election study on political attitudes, behaviours, and beliefs following the 2010 mid-term elections, Jacobsen concluded:

“Tea Party activists have denied accusations that their movement is racist, and there is nothing intrinsically racist about opposing ‘big government’ or clean energy legislation or health care reform. But it is clear that the movement is more appealing to people who are unsympathetic to blacks and who prefer a harder line on illegal immigration than it is to other Americans.”

On the makeup of the Tea Party, Jacobsen also pointed out that:

“The movement energised people who opposed Barack Obama from the start and who subsequently developed intensely negative opinions of him and his agenda that were extended to his Democratic allies in Congress. Tea Party sympathies helped to mobilize an electorate that was older, whiter, more Republican and more conservative than the one that had given the Democrats control of the government two years earlier.”

Though the research is far from conclusive (and was immediately attacked in the blogosphere as part of an academic liberal conspiracy to discredit the Tea Party), when allied to the myriad YouTube clips displaying racist signs and various demographic studies that show the Tea Party member tend to be “older, white and male”, Jacobsen’s argument becomes persuasive.

Yet racism seems to be a very specific charge to throw at such a sizable and nebulous group. A broader and more potent characteristic of the Tea Party appears to be the fear of change, and not just the immediate individual concerns of unemployment or higher taxes, but the long-term remodelling of America and what it is to be an American.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton gave an address on immigration to the students of Portland State University. He said:

“Today, nearly one in ten people in America was born in another country; one in five schoolchildren is from immigrant families. Today, largely because of immigration, there is no majority race in Hawaii or Houston or New York City. Within five years there will be no majority race in our largest state, California. In a little more than 50 years there will be no majority race in the United States. No other nation in history has gone through demographic change of this magnitude in so short a time. What do the changes mean? They can either strengthen and unite us, or they can weaken and divide us. We must decide.”

A decade on, the US Census Bureau published a report that projected that by 2042, whites would no longer be the majority of the population, though they will remain the biggest single grouping (around 70 per cent) within the population until well after 2050.

Writing in the Atlantic, Hua Hsu argued that the rise of multi-culturalism in the US, manifested in myriad ways, from the growth of hip hop culture to Tiger Woods success on the golf course, has led to a “cultural and socioeconomic dislocation” for whites, who have become aggrieved by the sense that “the system that used to guarantee the white working class some stability has gone off-kilter.”

The politics of white identity in America, which for Hsu means “the gradual erosion of ‘whiteness’ as the touchstone of what it means to be American”, has left the country’s white working majority adrift in a world where “‘whiteness’ no longer defines the mainstream.”

And what greater indication of America’s shifting identity than the election of a Hawaiian-born, mixed-race man with a Kenyan father and a foreign-sounding name to the office of President?

Not that Obama’s victory triggered this crisis of identity, but in an unsophisticated way, the election of a black man to the white house probably brought the issue into sharper focus for America’s blue collared masses, certainly more than the projections on a Census Bureau report. As such, Tea Party members are not only politically conservative, but they are, in the literal sense, fearful of change. It’s a fear that has revealed itself in a number of ways, from the need to seek out new communities (the Tea Party as an expression of white identity) to investing in conspiracy theories that decry Obama is a secret-Muslim-fifth-columnist.

Like their John Bircher Society forebears, the Birthers, a group of people that claim that Obama is not a natural-born citizen of the United States, see only conspiracy and plot. Questions over the president’s constitutional eligibility originated as a political smear, playing to base fears of ‘otherness’ seared into the American psyche through decades of propaganda from the Cold War to the so-called War on Terror.

The rumours started during the 2008 Democratic Party primaries, when a handful of anonymous Hillary Clinton supporters tried to reignite her faltering campaign by questioning her opponent’s citizenship. Following Obama’s inauguration, the rumour was picked up by the Republican blogosphere, appealing not only to those who sought to make political hay, but also the vast legions of online conspiracy theorists seeking the “truth” on everything from the 9/11 attacks to the moon landings.

According to Kathryn Olmsted, conspiracy theories gain traction in the US for two main reasons:

“First, they’re highly effective because they tap into deep, historic American anxieties about “un-American” agents within the republic — perhaps even within the White House. Second, these stories have some powerful sponsors in the media and in politics, sponsors who insinuate their paranoid theories into the mainstream debate to promote their own political goals.”

For Olmsted, the birther issue is borne out of racism:

“Above all, his [Obama] ‘Americanness’ is almost certainly suspect because he’s not white. It’s hard to imagine the same theories being used against Sen. John McCain — even though he was born overseas and could have his U.S. citizenship legally challenged. These fears are worsening now partly because the economy has fallen on hard times, and also because there is a substantial part of the American electorate that will never accept a black president as legitimate.”

Polls give indications, though questionable, about the resonance of the birther myth within Tea Party ranks. A CBS News/ New York Times poll conducted in April 2010 found that 30 per cent of Tea Partiers thought Obama was born in another country, yet 41 per cent said they believed he was born in the US. Even among the wider US population, 20 per cent said they thought the president was not born in the US.

Though not its defining characteristic, racism remains part of the Tea Party makeup, betraying the anxieties of a social group stricken with a loss of identity and fearful of a future in which the tenets of the past have increasingly little hold.

Religion and revolution

Like race, religion is a pervasive aspect of American identity, soaked like a dye into the very fabric from which the nation was cut.

Though the makeup of the Tea Party remains hazy and imprecisely defined, research from Pew conducted in February 2011, suggested that “the movement “draw(s) disproportionate support from the ranks of white evangelical Protestants.” The research also concluded that “most people who agree with the religious right also support the Tea Party”, however the analysis found that support for the Tea Party “is not synonymous with support for the religious right”.

On social issues, Tea Partiers are more likely to base their decision on religious beliefs, with opposition to same-sex marriage running at 65 per cent, 15 per cent more than all registered voters. It was a similar story on abortion, with 59 per cent of Tea Partiers saying that abortion should be illegal in all/most cases, against the national average of 42 per cent.

Yet even if most Tea Party followers tend towards the religious right, this is perhaps one of its least distinctive characteristics. As noted by Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British Ambassador to the United States, in politics “God does not even get a walk-on part in our [European] elections. In America he is centre-stage, wherever you place yourself in the political spectrum, to be invoked as much by Barack Obama as Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has apparently been told by God to stay in the Republican primary race.”

If the bible is entrenched as the basis for moral or spiritual law for the Tea Party, the 1776 revolution and the constitution is equally as important as the basis for civic law.

For Jill Lepore, the revolution has been transformed into “civic-minded folklore that has been turned into historical fundamentalism” in the Tea Party mindset. There is nothing new about poaching episodes from history to buttress modern political positions, whether that’s the hijacking of Ronald Reagan’s legacy to the holding of a “Restore Honour” rally on the anniversary day of Martin Luther King’s historic freedom march.

Yet for Lepore, this “historical fundamentalism” has turned the revolution into an almost religious event, the birth of a country with a manifest destiny given by God.

As Lepore argues, “historical fundamentalism is marked by the belief that a particular and quite narrowly defined past—‘the founding’—is ageless and sacred and to be worshipped; that certain historical texts -‘the founding documents’- are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments; that the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired; that the academic study of history (whose standards of evidence and methods of analysis are based on scepticism) is a conspiracy and, furthermore, blasphemy; and that political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and to the Founding Fathers, as prophets, are therefore incontrovertible.”

To question the founding fathers or the constitution is to be a heretic. “Historians question the past, fundamentalists revere the past,” argues Lepore. For the Tea Party, the founders are divine, while the constitution has been raised to the level of a sacred document, similar to the gospels.

Conclusion

Fear not race is the defining characteristic of the Tea Party. The 2008 economic crash was played out on Wall Street, but the consequent evictions, foreclosures, rising unemployment figures and failing businesses had the biggest impact across the towns and cities of working class America.

In 2000, US national debt stood at $5.3 trillion. In 2008 it stood at $10 trillion. By 2018, projections put the debt at $18 trillion. Fear again pervades – how will we pay for this debt, how will the next generation pay for the debt? Reducing debt means higher taxes or debasing the dollar. Or, as the Tea Partiers argue, decrease borrowing now.

For much of the last decade, the US has been engaged in two costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to a 2011 congressional research report, the total cost of the wars stands at $1.3 trillion, not to forget the countless bodies (more than 8,500 fatalities) that have been repatriated to the US in black bags along with countless injuries during the conflicts. Support for the wars was built on fear – fear of WMD, fear of Muslims, fear of the spread of Islam, fear that petrol prices will rise, fear of terrorism, fear of anything “other” than America or that threatens America’s standing.

To the east, Chinese industry threatened US global economic hegemony, while to the south a seemingly porous border added to the number of illegal immigrants on American streets, with 11 million illegal immigrants lived in the US in 2008, 56 per cent of which came from Mexico.

Added to the fear of outside threats came perceived threats from within. The bailout, and the stimulus packaged jarred with the country’s free markets fundamentals, used by the opponents of the administration to whip up economic anxieties. Likewise healthcare reform, which not only challenged the sovereignty of the markets but also treaded on the toes of the constitution.

The country was changing and in the midst of this shift, Barack Hussein Obama was elected to office, embodying a new form of America- culturally, economically, politically and racially. To that end, the Tea Party came into being as a product of the forces pushing inwards and outwards on the society. However, Obama’s victory in 2008 and his subsequent policies, many forced by the same outside pressures, threw into sharp relief the changes and fears that beset the nation.

The certain world of Michele Bachmann

A Quinnipiac University poll released last week revealed that Michele Bachmann had consolidated her position as the second place candidate behind Mitt Romney in the race for the Republican Presidential nomination. According to the figures, the senator from Minnesota now commands 14 per cent of the national vote, near doubling her support amongst Republicans in the last month. Yet despite a solid showing in the recent CNN debate, her rise remains as baffling to many Americans as it does to those monitoring events from further afield.

In a week in which the scandal engulfing the UK saw the main political parties round on Rupert Murdoch hoping that condemnation leads to disassociation, it is heartening to know that we can nearly always rely on our politicians to do what’s in their own best interests. Ideological motivations and the occasional twinge of altruism aside, convictions in Westminster seem to bend according to the prevailing wind.

For Bachmann, however, public office seems less inspired by the trappings of power and status and more informed by the certainty of her faith. This is politics as an extension of religious belief, with her candidacy a national platform on which to evangelise the Christian message.

Faith and politics have long been bedfellows across the Atlantic, with every president since Abraham Lincoln paying lip service to The Almighty. It’s a sage move; as recently as 2007 a Gallup Poll suggested that more than 50 per cent of the franchise would not vote for a non-believing presidential candidate.

Many have used this to their advantage, most recently Sarah Palin who frequently used scripture to bolster a populist message that now manifests itself in the occasional Tweet or Facebook update. However, even the most ardent Palin devotee would find it difficult to argue that the book-hawking, reality TV star was in it for anything other than personal gain.

Bachmann, though, seems different, espousing a brand of politics built on an unerring and literal belief in biblical teaching that, until recently, would have discounted her from a serious tilt at the White House. It’s still early in the campaign, and her recent surge may well deflate. Then again, it may not.

The senator’s intellectual underpinnings are explored by Michelle Goldberg in her recent profile in The Daily Beast, summarised by “a biblical world view” that instructs her “entire perception of reality”. This is manifested most noticeably in her campaigns against abortion and gay marriage. Only last month, she argued that her challenge to legal abortion does not exclude cases of “rape, incest, or the life of the mother.” In regards to gay marriage, she has built a career rallying against her perceived homosexual threat, abridged to such choice statements as:

“Don’t misunderstand. I am not here bashing people who are homosexuals, who are lesbians, who are bisexual, who are transgender. We need to have profound compassion for people who are dealing with the very real issue of sexual dysfunction in their life and sexual identity disorders.”

Speaking on same sex marriage and the gay community:

“This is a very serious matter, because it is our children who are the prize for this community, they are specifically targeting our children.”

Aside from a few ramblings on chastity from Ann Widdecombe, religion has remained taboo in modern British political life, so much so that Tony Blair had to wait to leave office before he could declare himself a converted Catholic. In contrast, the influence of evangelicalism on the US political stage has been steadily growing since the Seventies, culminating in the election of George W. Bush, propelled to office twice on the support of the faithful.

The election of Barack Obama was a backwards step for their cause however, in the years since he took office the religious right has regained ground by forging an alliance with the equally active Tea Party movement. Fiscal conservatives merging with social conservatives under the banner of what some commentators are calling “Teavangicals”. As Ed Kilgore points out in a recent article for The New Republic:

“Christian Right elites, for their own peculiar reasons, have become enthusiastic participants in the drive to combat Big Government and its enablers in both parties. It’s no accident that one red-hot candidate for president, Michele Bachmann, and a much-discussed likely candidate, Rick Perry, each have one foot planted in the Christian Right and another in the Tea Party Movement.”

It should be noted that Mike Huckabee’s withdrawal from the race and Palin’s no-show has left Bachmann the most high profile evangelical candidate by default, while the anti-establishment fervour produced by the economic bailout will no doubt have bolstered the senator who flaunts her grass root connections every time she steps atop a stand, soap box or podium.

Still, that a candidate with beliefs so entrenched as to openly espouse sexual bigotry and the denial of abortion even in the case of rape has got so far should provide a stark reminder that however corrupt, deceitful and self-serving our own politicians appear to be, at least we don’t have to deal with the blind certainty of faith.

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

Dispatches from the red planet

Cheers echoed around the huge conference hall as the name was finally announced. For the second year running, Texas Republican Ron Paul had won the straw poll for the Presidential nomination at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). For most in attendance, particularly the 1100 or so supporters of the Texas Governor who had made the trip to Washington, the result was never in doubt.

Yet despite their enthusiasm, Paul remains at best an outsider within the Republican Party thanks to his fixation with the Federal Reserve and his advocacy of complete isolationism in regards to US foreign policy. Earlier in the conference, Donald Trump, a fellow potential nominee, had draw jeers from the crowd by stating that Paul had “no chance”. Most serious political opinion agrees with Trump, though these are strange times for a Republican Party whose shape is being shifted by the gravitational pull of different groups, factions and figures from within its own broad ranks.

Speaking after the event, Tony Fabrizio, the Republic pollster in charge of collating the results, offered some perspective: “In the same poll in 2007, Rudi Giuliani and Mitt Romney finished a close first and second. Guess who came in fifth? John McCain.” A year later McCain won the Florida primary en route to his ultimately unsuccessful run for President. Sarah Palin, then a little-known Governor of a peripheral state, was not even on the ballot card. In short, the poll means nothing; anything can happen.

Every year, CPAC offers those affiliated with the right of American politics the opportunity to come together, debate the direction of the movement and, in the years preceding an election, cast an eye over prospective candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination. Organised by the American Conservative Union Foundation, the event started in the early seventies, growing through the decades to become an annual point of focus not only for the thousands of attendees, but the many millions throughout America for whom conservatism is not only a political leaning but a way of life.

Yet recent yeas has seen a schism develop in American conservatism with the Tea Party, a grass roots movement born from the ruins of Republican defeat in 2008, outflanking the GOP to secure huge swathes of populist support throughout much of America’s heartland. Theirs is a message of fiscal and moral conservatism, anchored in the twin pillars of Christian teaching and Reaganomics.

Much of their ire is directed at President Obama, with oft-quoted accusations ranging from genuine concerns about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, to the downright conspiratorial, in which the President is a Kenyan-born fifth columnist planted in the White House as part of a communist/Muslim plot.

Despite the movement’s willingness to propound outlandish beliefs, their political power has grown spectacularly during the past three years, so much so that many in the GOP have been forced to shift further from the centre in order to ally themselves with the Tea Party’s more conservative agenda.

Last year’s mid-term elections, in which the Republican Party secured the House of Representatives, including the election of a number of Tea Party-backed candidates, served to emphasise the growing re-alignment of the GOP, moving rightwards as to remain connected to the vocal Tea Party base. Only recently, John Boehner, the new leader of the house, refused to denounce those that question Obama’s constitutional eligibility, arguing that “it’s not my job to tell the American people what to think.” Although Boehner has a strong conservative voting record, he is certainly no crackpot and has stated on record that he believes Obama is a US citizen. Yet his refusal to denounce the “Birthers” (those who question Obama’s citizenship), a sop to the Tea Party faithful, indicates how much their support is now prized within the GOP.

The emergence of the Tea Party has certainly energised the American Right, breathing new life into a Republican Party that less than three years ago looked old, ponderous and frail next to the Democrats and their newly-elected talisman. Since then, the fallout of the global economic crisis, the healthcare debate and the ongoing issue of immigration have eaten away at Obama’s popularity, hindered further by a Tea Party whose concern about shifting demographics, particularly the influx from the southern border, has galvanised their opposition. “Take Back Our Country” is a crude yet all-encompassing emblem for the Tea Partiers, whether their concerns are economic, demographic or, in the case of those convinced of an Islamic/communist coup, fanciful bordering on sinister.

So where does this leave the 2012 election? The emergence of the Tea Party may well skewer the field for the next election not only pushing new candidates to the fore, but also influencing the campaign message of the established candidates. One of the Tea Party’s central messages is cuts in spending. As such, expect to find that issue high on every Republican candidate’s agenda. As a Muriel Coleman, a board member of the American Conservative Union told me on the second day of the conference, “the winner will be the person who takes the core principles of Reagan and moves them into 2012”.

Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts who was also a candidate for the 2008 election, looks a certainty to run, alongside former Arkansas Governor turned Fox News host Mike Huckabee. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty also looks a likely candidate, along with Haley Barbour, the current governor of Mississippi’s and Indiana’s governor Mitch Daniels.

Outside the main field, Ron Paul has plenty of support among young Republicans and Libertarians. One man that has already said he will stand is Fred Karger, an openly-gay Republican strategist who served in the Reagan Administration and will run as an independent. Then there’s Donald Trump. All of the above attended CPAC with the exception of Huckabee.

Speaking to Karger, it seems his candidacy is more about offering publicity for gay civil rights than a genuine tilt at the White House, though running as a centrist (“a fiscal conservative and a social moderate” as he puts it) does offer an alternative to the very polarised nature of current domestic politics in the US. And perhaps the most polarising figure in US politics remains the big unknown for 2012.

“I think Sarah Palin is going to get in to this,” says Karger. “If she does it’ll throw a money wrench into everyone else’s plans”. Like Huckabee, Palin also failed to appear at CPAC, yet her shadow loomed large over the three-day event. The 2008 Vice Presidential nominee has yet to rule herself out, however despite her undoubted popularity in the heartland, many attendees in Washington, especially the younger conservatives, were unconvinced by Palin’s credentials. “I can see why she resonates with a lot of people in this country,” Eric Chester, President of the Libertarian Club at the University of Delaware, tells me on the third day. “But I certainly wouldn’t vote for her.”

Likewise Ashlee Filkins, a student at the West Virginia University: “Palin is a good cheerleader and very good at voter-initiative but I don’t think she’s a viable candidate for 2012.”

Speaking to other attendees, Palin’s no show, along with her recent foray into reality TV hasn’t proved endearing. Another factor that could diminish her popularity is the emergence of Michelle Bachmann, a representative for Minnesota’s 6th congressional district who in recent months has been hailed as the new darling of the Tea Party, Similar to Palin, Bachmann is a staunch conservative who believes in the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools, the phasing out of social welfare programmes and a ban on same-sex marriages. Whether she can have an impact on the race for 2012 is debatable, especially after she gave her own Tea Party-backed response to Obama’s recent State of the Union address, much to the chagrin of many within the GOP. Then again, she opened the conference at CPAC.

Karger remained diplomatic on his potential fellow nominees. “I’m an advocate of the big tent,” he says. “It’s the more the merrier.” More there certainly will be, but with no front runner and prospective Republican candidates faced with the almost impossible task of appealing to both the moderate and extreme wings of the party, come November 2012 the merriment may well belong to the Democrats and Barack Obama.

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

How politicians should use social media

Organising a night out, poking your friends, catching up with a schoolmate you last saw in 1987 … Facebook has become a vital part of our social lives, but it could decide something a lot more important that whether you’re heading to the Dog and Duck tonight. It’s going to play a big part in who runs Britain. With an election happening in less than a month, politicians have woken up to the power of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. At stake are not only the keys to No 10, but – and more profoundly – how the Government engages with the people from here on in.

The general election on 6 May will mark the start of the campaigning season proper for parties, politicians and prospective parliamentary candidates. Much of the debate will take a traditional form, using door-knocking, posters and broadcasts. Yet in the last five years since the British electorate (or at least 61 per cent of them) took to the polls, the world has evolved beyond measure.

The development of social networking, alongside the unprecedented growth in online video content, added to an upsurge in broadband access – an increase of 28 per cent between 2006 and 2009 according to the Office of National Statistics – has transformed us into an increasingly cyber society, forcing politicians to adapt with varying degrees of success. Gordon Brown’s YouTube video on MPs’ expenses is unlikely to be remembered as a high water mark for the integration of politics and technology.

For anyone in public office, engaging in personalised interaction can be like dancing on a trap door. From America, Republican former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s ill-advised tweet on Judge Sonia Sotomayor – “White man racist nominee would be forced to withdraw. Latina woman racist should also withdraw” – stands as a clear warning.

Yet, for every ill-conceived tweet or detrimental status update, there have been myriad successes for politicians, campaigners and pressure groups hoping to make a mark. Writing recently in this paper, Kerry McCarthy, Britain’s Twitter Tsar, said that MPs tweet because it can “reveal the person behind the politician; their principles, their passions, their personality. It’s the authentic voice that comes through, of the MP and in aggregate, of the Party”. So there can be a political reward. It’s also, she suggests, “good fun”.

Since it launched in 2006, Facebook has matured from a tool for keeping in touch with friends to a powerful and highly effective way of grouping communities, offering a collective voice to anyone with an internet connection.

This was highlighted in January when Islam4UK, an offshoot of the banned Islamic group Al-Muhajiroun, was banned under counter-terrorism laws, following a Facebook campaign.

Grass roots campaigns are one thing. An election campaign is another. But if Westminster was slow on the uptake about social networks, the 2008 election of Barack Obama, founded on a campaign with a comprehensive online strategy, should have proved portentous.

Speaking recently on Radio 4, Thomas Gensemer, the mastermind behind Obama’s online campaign, said that the ideal is “an integrated strategy that includes third parties, such as Facebook and Twitter”, working alongside more established methods, such as door-to-door petitioning.

Many factors played a part in securing the White House for the Democrats in 2008. Still, $560m in online fundraising goes a long way, especially when allied to an enthusiastic support mobilised via the web.

For Richard Allen, a former Liberal Democratic politician now employed as the Director of EU policy at Facebook, the use of social networking by the Obama campaign made people feel more empowered. “An Obama supporter in the backwoods of Oklahoma, who would previously have found it difficult to do anything practical, could now get together with other supporters. This allowed them to take ownership of the campaign rather than passively waiting for someone else to tell them what to do. This dramatically extended the Democrats’ reach.”

Allen also believes having a single presidential candidate around which to orientate the campaign made it easier for US activists to engage with the electorate. “In the UK there’s a much more complex relationship between the parties and the voters. When you cross the ballot paper, you’re not crossing it for David Cameron, Gordon Brown or Nick Clegg. You’re crossing the ballot for whoever your local candidate is.”

Looking at the Facebook fan pages of the party leaders suggests the British electorate has been slow to embrace parliamentary politics via the site – so far. David Cameron leads with 17,500 followed by Gordon Brown (4,000) and Nick Clegg (3,500).

These figures will no doubt rise in the coming weeks (David Cameron has added 3,500 fans in the last two months). The official party pages on Facebook, however, are in good health – the Conservatives’ page is the most popular, boasting around 25,000 fans and plenty of daily updates.

At the constituency level, MPs such as Tom Watson, the Labour candidate for West Bromwich East, have been building an online community for years through blogs and, more recently, Twitter. However, the problem for MPs such as Watson is that online communities have no regional boundaries. As such, members of his online community may have absolutely no say in returning him to parliament next month. Still, more politicians of all stripes are turning to social networking as a way to communicate. Following the success of Tweet Congress in America, a British version launched in December 2008 offering access to tweets from politicians, as well as political commentators and news services. Called Tweetminster, the service aggregates Tweets from the political world.

A recent Tweetminster report focusing on political traffic makes for interesting reading. Collated throughout 2009, the document suggests that MPs, prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs) and grass-roots supporters representing Labour are the most active on Twitter, with more followers than both the Conservative and the Liberal Democrats combined. But it also suggests that the Conservatives boast a greater reach, with official party posts receiving more mentions and retweets. In short, Labour supporters at the bottom are driving the Twitter conversation on the centre left, whilst official Conservative tweets from the top are driving the conversation from the centre right. Tweets and Retweets from the Liberal Democrats featured both grass roots and official traffic. Despite the surprisingly neutral conclusion of the research, the report still had Labour and Conservative supporters locking horns in the blogosphere over which party was the dominant force on Twitter. Such are the stakes.

According to Tweetminster co-founder Alberto Nardelli, “there is likely to be a significant rise in the number of candidates and MPs using Twitter in the run-up to the election. However, as it takes time to build a following and those that join late will struggle to find value in a short period of time.”

So those MPs not currently on Twitter may have missed the boat. Still, there are already large numbers on the site – 111 MPs and 226 candidates at the beginning of the year. What impact they will have on the election is difficult to quantify, especially as Twitter isn’t just an interaction between MPs and the electorate. Another important part of the equation is the traditional media, whether that’s newspapers, the BBC, Sky News or any other major news gatherer. While social networks may be able to set the agenda, it takes the force of traditional media to frame it.

For Nardelli, this is the key to how Twitter will influence the election. “More and more articles are using Twitter as a source, so it really depends on how traditional media interpret these stories.” And like any source, Tweets can be bent by the media to fit an agenda. In February, the Daily Mail ran a story suggesting that David Cameron had “ordered his party’s candidates to submit their online utterances [Tweets] for vetting”. According to Nardelli, Tory candidates had simply been asked to “be careful when discussing official Conservative policy”, a far cry from the “strict edicts” mentioned in the paper. The story was picked up by other papers and even received a mention on Newsnight.

So it’s the same cat and mouse game politicians have always played with the media, just using new tools. Still, the benefits seem to be outweighing the potential hazards, so much so that between January and March this year 16 MPs and 59 PPCs joined Twitter. That means nearly 19 per cent of parliament currently Tweets, a figure that should rise with the influx of current PPCs after the election.

Tweet Congress offers similar uptake figures for American politicians, yet Nardelli sees far more direct interaction between politicians and the electorate in Britain. “In the US lots of politicians have Twitter feeds but they tend to link to press releases or official blogs.” In short, you’re unlikely to find your local congressman sat at home trying to squeeze comment into 140 characters. In the UK, it generally is your local MP.

Before a Commons Liaison Committee, Gordon Brown recently spoke of broadening the franchise by lowering the voting age to include 16 and 17-year-olds, no doubt an olive branch to the Liberal Democrats, carrying overtures of electoral reform should there be a hung parliament after the election. It may also point towards a new attempt to engage with the younger demographic, mindful of their potentially significant voice harmonised by social networking. Yet it’s important to remember that these sites aren’t just playthings for listless teens. According to Facebook, the fastest growing demographic on the site is over 55-year-old women. Whatever the outcome in May, from here on in we’re all going to have a say.

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

A black president, but America remains troubled

Watching President Obama’s acceptance speech in the early hours of that November morning, one had the feeling that history, for one of those seldom moments in life, was tangible, material… almost touchable.

It could have been the lateness of the hour or the cheap wine, but I was sure this was a demarcation point in American history – just as significant as the Gettysburg address or the falling of the Berlin Wall.

Its true impact is the remit of historians yet to come, though even the most dismissive of their discipline will surely note the general and widespread welcome that accompanied Obama’s victory. When else has the world rallied so universally around the story of one man?

However, lost behind the placards and crowds, overlooked by a media carouselled by the public mood were those who felt not so much the comforting hand of history, but a sharp jab to the stomach.

Racists from the wrong end of the Republic were dismayed. Those of equally bigoted bent around the globe no doubt felt the same. Yet a more subtle form of racism has since emanated from a hard-right fringe of political commentators for whom Obama’s election sticks in the craw.

We all winced at those moments during John McCain’s campaign when Republican housewives offered the microphone would use the moment to question Obama’s heritage.

“He’s a Muslim and an Arab,” was an oft repeated charge from the flag-waving throng.

These allegations have wandered even further down an intellectual cul-de-sac in recent months with a small group of conservatives actively seeking to delegitimise the election through increasingly wild claims about Obama’s birthplace.

Know as Birthers, the attackers are directly questioning Obama’s eligibility to be president by suggesting the Hawaiian-born Democrat was, in fact, born in Kenya, despite firm evidence to the contrary, including Obama’s birth certificate, issued by the Republican-held state.

The White House press office has even taken the step of placing the certificate online, making it freely available to download. However, the Birthers maintain the certificate is a forgery, thus making his presidency illegal under Article II of the U.S. constitution.

These claims have been widely vilified in the American press, yet the whispering campaign continues, some going as far as to suggest Obama is a plant, a Muslim agent, the centrepiece of an international conspiracy to take over the USA. Would the far right go down this road if Obama were anything but black? If Arnie, a non US-born white Republican, was to suggest a change in the constitution allowing him to run for the top job, it would be interesting to see what, if any, outcry would follow.

Unfortunately the Birthers – a collection of activists and conspiracy kooks – have received encouragement from some quarters with popular commentators, including radio host Rush Limbaugh and CNN’s Lou Dobbs, adding credence to their claims.

Recent weeks have seen plenty of disenchantment with the current administration, with conservatives rallying around town hall meetings to protest at healthcare reform. Is it Obama who is the source of their angst or his reforms? For the majority, it is probably the latter. Having been preached to about the evils of socialism since the end of the Second World War, is it any surprise that your average American is voicing concern over Obama’s proposed healthcare plans?

The Birthers have clearly benefited from a credulous population, many of whom will turn automatically to a conspiracy theory, comforted by the feeling that at least they know “the truth”. You hardly need to trawl the internet to find thousands of sites dedicated to ill-considered theories surrounding 9/11, the holocaust, the moon landings and now Obama’s birth.

During the election, many analysts felt uncomfortable predicting the outcome because of the Bradley Effect – a theory suggesting that some white voters wouldn’t vote for Obama simply because he is black. That Obama was elected suggests that the effect was minimal, though we’ll never truly know.

As such, the current town hall challenges facing the administration are more likely to be a result of the president’s progressive policies (warped by Republicans shouting “communism” at every opportunity) than the colour of his skin.

But the fact a conspiracy theory as bizarre as the Birthers’ can take root in the U.S. shows that, for all the optimism surrounding Obama’s win, America remains a society deeply troubled by race.

This first appeared in The Sunday Express. The original article can be found here.

Will Tehran listen?

Last week’s vitriolic address by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in which the Iranian president called for the US to apologise for “crimes” against the Iranian people, offered Barak Obama’s fledgling administration a glimpse of the uphill task it faces in search of a better understanding with Iran.

The closing of Guantanamo Bay drew a sharp and necessary line between the new and the old in Washington, though thousands of detainees remain held without trial in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Those still flush from Obama’s victory would no doubt argue that the demise of Gitmo was clear indication of a shift in US policy, the opening bar of a more modern and thoughtful American symphony. Russia’s abandonment (for the time being) of its cruise missiles programme directed at Europe suggests that the goodwill offered by the new US administration is, in some quarters, welcome. Other countries, however, may not be so willing to listen.

Throughout the presidential campaign Obama repeatedly offered to talk to unfriendly Governments “without preconditions”, sentiments echoed in the inauguration address. “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” one of the speech’s more poetic lines, suggested hope of a better understanding with the world’s rogue states. Yet despite these overtures, reconciliation between Washington and Tehran remains problematic.

The Carter Doctrine, the lasting legacy of the Georgia farmer’s unspectacular administration, has been a trenchant position for US policy makers for the last thirty years. As such, the Bush administration, seen as particularly reactionary towards Iran, simply trod a path scoured by every US government since the late Seventies.

It is no coincidence that the critical discourse emanating from Washington started with the overthrow of the US-backed Shah in 1979, with much of the subsequent disapproval seen as recompense for Iran’s unwillingness to “play ball” with US interests in the region. This mindset of punishment can and must be transformed; a review Obama and his candidate for secretary of state, Hilary Clinton, seem willing to make. However, changing the approach of Iranian regime will be more testing.

The censure of Iran by successive US administrations has played straight into the hands of the hard-line religious leaders who preside over the malign theocratic dictatorship. Tyrannies rely on the exploitation of threat to remain in power, and US sanctions have made it easy for the mullahs to paint themselves as the defenders of the revolution against the machinations of the “Great Satan”.

Ahmadinejad, a leader whose popularity resides in his strong anti-American stance, is simply a product of the system, a front-man for a corrupt regime. According to US and Israeli intelligence Iran’s nuclear programme ended in 2003, yet the country remains intransigent on UN inspections, desperate to appear ready for a fight.

This is suggestive, not that Iran’s immediate goal is the acquisition of a nuclear weapon (though giving the regime the benefit of the doubt on this would not be wise), but that it needs to maintain its anti-western posture for its own people, as well as the neighbouring powers that look to it for leadership. Ahmadinejad’s domestic agenda must also be considered, with Wednesday’s strong rhetorical outburst clearly designed to bolster support for his re-election when the country goes to the polls in June.

Friendly relations with the US is not a winning campaign message; the hard-line former mayor requires this tension not only remain in office but to ensure the mullahs, the country’s real power brokers, retain a firm grip on the population. But why is it important to get Iran onside? Clearly the country is not a direct military threat to the US or the west; Iran’s annual military expenditure is less than Thailand – around $5billion according to the CIA. It is also well established that Iran currently has no nuclear arsenal, despite Ahmadinejad’s bravado. However, the suspected uranium enrichment programme needs to be dealt with.

The consequence of an apocalyptic weapon in the hands of religious fanatics poses a future threat to Israel (and Eastern Europe), and would make bargaining with Iran a far more difficult prospect further down the line. Indeed, should the issue remain unresolved, Israel, the country directly in the line of fire, may choose to strike on its own, sending the region into a tail spin.

Moreover, Iran’s leadership could disrupt shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway between the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, which provides passage to nearly 50 per cent of the world’s oil. Any interruption of the supply would see the world economy convulse on an unimaginable scale. Was this to happen, it remains inconceivable that the US would refrain from using military force, with, once again, dire consequences for the region.

Perhaps the best hope of stabilising relations between the two countries rests with the election of a more progressive Iranian leader. Unfortunately this seems unlikely. A group of hard-line clerics known as the Guardian Council scrutinise all candidates, turning down those who don’t mesh with their fundamentalist theocratic beliefs.

One possibility rests with former president Mohammad Khatami, a reformer who has plenty of support in the Universities. Should he run, his high profile would make his candidacy difficult to reject. However, Khatami supporters have come under increasing pressure in recent weeks with reformist newspapers and websites falling foul of the authorities. More likely is the re-election of Ahmadinejad or an equally hard-line substitute. So with no prospect of political change in Iran, are air strikes the only option left? Had the Bush regime attacked, as it threatened to do repeatedly during the latter years of W’s tenure, the consequences could have been catastrophic.

It is likely that Iran would have carried out reprisals on US targets in neighbouring states – the prospect of Iranian troops crossing the border into Iraq doesn’t bare thinking about – but also on Israel. The likely Israeli retaliation, possibly nuclear, could have pushed the entire region into war.

How to affect change in a country that so far has flouted diplomacy, including a series of Security Council resolutions, without recourse to war? This is the challenge facing Obama and the western leaders. Re-establishing full diplomatic ties with Iran should be America’s first step. Whether Iran is willing to accept let along reciprocate gestures of conciliation is another matter entirely.

This first appeared in The Daily Express. The original article can be found here.