Cheney Takes Another Hit at Obama

President Barack Obama is projecting “weakness” because of his “agonizing” over whether or not to send more troops into Afghanistan, former Vice President Dick Cheney complains. “I begin to get nervous when I see the commander-in-chief making decisions apparently for what I would describe as small ‘p’ political reasons, where he’s trying to balance off different competing groups in society,” said Cheney.

After spending eight years more or less undercover Cheney has come out as a fierce critic of the Obama Administration especially where the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are concerned — wars, of course, his administration launched and, arguably, mismanaged for years.

Cheney continues to question the president’s ability to steer the war in the right direction when he nags that, “[e]very time he delays, defers, debates, changes his position, it begins to raise questions: Is the commander-in-chief really behind what they’ve been asked to do?” Apparently, after neglecting the Afghan war throughout almost his entire two terms in office, now, Cheney is concerned with the soldiers on the ground.

Asked whether he believes that the Bush Administration bears part of the responsibility for the difficulties faced in Afghanistan today, the former vice president answered, “I basically don’t,” without volunteering to elaborate.

What he was willing to elaborate upon was Obama’s supposed weakness however. He called the president “far more radical than I expected” and correctly observed that Obama “campaigned against much of what we put in place.” We referring, of course, to the previous administration. “I think that our adversaries […] see that as a sign of weakness,” said Cheney. Traditional allies of the United States see it in a wholly different light however; they are extremely relieved to find a government across the Atlantic that is once again taking them seriously and treating them on equal footing. Denouncing that only demonstrates all the more what colossal foreign policy misjudgments the last Bush Administration made.

Cheney’s fear that Obama’s pondering encourages America’s enemies in the Middle East seems rather misplaced. A war of such importance as the one in Afghanistan demands a president that isn’t afraid to consider all of his options before making a decision. In fact, one-sided advice is probably what led George W. Bush to severely underestimate the magnitude of the war in the first place. So when Cheney accuses the president of using the war in order to score political points, he really ought to take a look in the mirror — and not just when it comes to Afghanistan.

Republican Party Lost Direction

Many appear to agree that in spite of their increasing popularity in the polls, today’s Republicans are divided when it comes to their party’s future. After the evangelic surge under George W. Bush, the populist, anti-Obama rhetoric that is espoused nowadays by the likes of Glenn Beck, Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin fails to charm part of the conservative backbone that would like to see their GOP move back to the old-styled small government, free-market philosophies which used to make it great.

Just a few days ago, JD Roger quoted Ronald Reagan-biographer Steven Hayward when he declared the Republican Party “brain dead”. Hayward longs for the days when right-wing intellectuals as Allan Bloom, Milton Friedman and Francis Fukuyama fueled the party’s agenda with their writings on the accomplishments of Western-styled democracy, individualism and free-market economics. What we get instead, he complains, is ridiculous “birthers” and “tea partygoers” who are encouraged by blustering lunatics as Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

Writing for The Washington Post, Jon Cohen and Dan Balz explain in part why so many people turn to listen to these hysterics. Besides a strong anti-Obama sentiment, they write, there is actually little that holds the Republican Party together these days. Not even half of the people who identify as a “Republican” approve of the direction in which the party’s leadership is pushing them. Moreover, they don’t really know who their party’s leaders are supposed to be anyway. No more than two out ten people favor Sarah Palin while just 1 percent said former President Bush represented “the best reflection of the party’s principles.”

In spite of strong internal disagreement on issues as abortion and same-sex marriage, the Post states that most Republicans “see the party as paying too little attention to federal spending. Most strongly oppose the government’s use of hundreds of billions of dollars over the past two years to bolster the economy.”

Yet it was under the last Bush Administration already that government spending skyrocketed while Republicans in Congress today dare hardly to voice any criticism of massive bailouts and outright government takeovers of business. The economic downturn has apparently been able to silence even the staunchest of capitalists in Washington even though many Republican voters are protesting evermore loudly against further government intrusion in their private lives — and in their private businesses.

Will He Stay Or Will He Go?

Some confusing news from Washington today. The New York Times alleges that President Obama “plans to lay out a time frame for winding down the American involvement in the war in Afghanistan” while The Wall Street Journal reports that the White House has come up with a “revamped war strategy in Afghanistan that includes tens of thousands of additional U.S. forces and benchmarks for the eventual transfer of Afghanistan’s defense to the Afghan government.”

Next Tuesday the president is scheduled to meet with members of Congress before speaking at West Point where he will outline his exit strategy for the war. Apparently, the Times believes this signals a “winding down” of the American involvements in spite of the sending 30,000 extra troops.

According to an anonymous official, Obama “wants to give a clear sense of both the time frame for action and how the war will eventually wind down” although for now, it seems, we will see a lot more action first before anything winds down. There is no talk of even a time frame yet, let alone withdrawal. The Times‘ assessment therefore would seem rather premature at this stage.

Whatever the president says on Tuesday he is likely to be attacked for it from both the left and the right. Where the latter calls upon him to send in even more additional troops than he already will, Michael Moore suggest in The Huffington Post that Obama fire General Stanley McChrystal — even though just last May he replaced the previous commander, General David McKiernan for failing to implement a more irregular strategy. Firing another general just six months later seems rather like a bad idea but then again, Moore apparently has utterly no idea what the war is about.

I know you know that there are LESS than a hundred al-Qaeda left in Afghanistan! 100,000 troops trying to crush a hundred guys living in caves? Are you serious? Have you drunk Bush’s Kool-Aid? I refuse to believe it.

You better start believing it, Mr Moore. Obama might become a “war president” as you so dread, but he understands that the United States must persevere in Afghanistan. This war is of immense importance to maintain America’s credibility as well as the security of the region. That Obama remains determined to bring it to a successful end deserves praise for that reason.

Swiss Vote to Ban Minarets

In a referendum proposed by the Swiss People’s Party, the Schweizerische Volkspartei, an alliance of farmers and urban conservatives, a majority of Swiss voters (57.5 percent) agreed to ban the construction of minarets in their country. The government, perfectly democratic, will uphold the outcome while assuring Muslims, mostly immigrants from the Balkans and Turkey, that the vote does not represent “a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture.”

It seems odd that one of the wealthiest and safest countries in the world should be so frightened of this architectural display of Islamic culture, especially when one considers that of the 150 mosques and prayer rooms in Switzerland, just four boats minarets with only two more planned. None conduct the traditional call to prayer. Moreover, of the circa 400,000 Muslims in the country, out of a total population of some 7.5 million, virtually none adhere to the codes of dress and conduct associated with orthodox Islam. In other words, the Muslim presence in Switzerland is hardly noticeable.

The Associated Press notes that the vote “taps into anxieties about Muslims that have been rippling through Europe in recent years, ranging from French fears of women in body veils to Dutch alarm over the murder by a Muslim fanatic of a filmmaker who made a documentary that criticized Islam.” In fact, Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders immediately called for a similar referendum to be held in the Netherlands today. Considering the opposition he faces in parliament, such a referendum, let alone a ban, is unlikely to come about, but with his support currently polling at around 17 percent (making him the second largest party), Wilders’ fierce crusade against what he believes is a growing Muslim corruption of Western culture is telling.

Unlike the United States, which actually fell victim to a destructive attack by Muslim extremists, most European countries never experienced such extremism first hand. Yet the countries that have (specifically Britain and Spain) seem the least determined to wipe out any traces of Islamic culture whereas in France, the Netherlands and Switzerland, countries that have significant Muslim populations, fear is more widespread.

When Geert Wilders declares the Quran a “fascist” book and proposes to outlaw it, he finds many people agreeing with him. Now, a majority of the Swissdemand that no more minarets be erected in their streets. These are all outward displays of Islam however. Burning the Quran or banning minarets will do little to diminish the threat of Muslim extremism. Quite to the contrary, such measures might well strengthen the fundamentalists in their conviction that the West intends to wage a religious war against them.

Meanwhile, the voice of moderate Islam is overlooked. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have adapted perfectly to Western culture while retained part of their heritage feel threatened. While perhaps not an explicit infringement of their freedom to worship, the Swiss ban of minarets is a sad display of intolerance all the same that is terribly unbecoming of a country renowned for its democratic tradition.

Is Obama Failing in the Middle East?

The Obama Administration got off to a promising start in the Middle East. It announced to refocus on the war in Afghanistan; the president himself delivered a fine speech in Cairo, Egypt, in which he called upon the Muslim world to end “the cycle of suspicion and discord” and special envoys were appointed for Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as Israel and Palestine.

Now, almost a year later, the new strategy doesn’t seem to have amounted to much yet. Even The New York Times, typically supportive of the Democratic administration, has to admit that Barack Obama’s credibility in the region has “diminished”. The awkward strategy of publicly demanding a settlement freeze from the Israelis and getting none has deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. The administration, writes the paper, “apparently had no plan for what they would do if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said no.”

Netanyahu offered a compromise — a ten month freeze, exempting Jerusalem and the construction of schools, synagogues and 3,000 homes that were already being built. Although this went far beyond anything Israel had promised so far in relation to the settlements, the president insisted on more and in doing so, he strengthened the Palestinians in their resolve. They rejected the offer. Read more “Is Obama Failing in the Middle East?”

Medvedev’s New Russia

After last year’s infamous power shift it seems that President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia is more and more able or willing to distance himself from his precedessor and mentor Vladimir Putin. Although Medvedev is just as happy as Putin to maintain close ties with rogue states as Iran and Venezuela he has also launched efforts to ally with rising powers as Brazil, India and China within the so-called “BRIC” and nearby Central Asian states within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). With the other BRIC-states, Russia seeks to greaten its diplomatic and financial leverage on the world stage while within the SCO, it maintains relations with its neighbors. On top of that, Medvedev welcomed a reconciliatory President Obama in Moscow this summer to talk about reducing nuclear warheads.

All in all, the Russian president appears to do well abroad. Internally however he must struggle with an economy that performs poorly and a war machine that is hopelessly outdated. The other three BRIC-states have been able to climb out of their recession already but Russia probably has to wait until 2012. The Economist called it “the price Russia is paying for failing to develop its own financial markets and to tame inflation.” The two are inextricably linked because of the averge Russian citizen who deems life too uncertain to put some of his money in the bank, let alone contemplate an insurance of any kind. Rather he likes to spend every ruble he earns as quickly as possible.

Medvedev is determined nonetheless. On November 12 he spoke before the Russian Parliament and announced his intention to transform his country into “a global power on a completely new basis.”

Our country’s prestige and national prosperity cannot rest forever on past achievements. After all, the oil and gas production facilities that generate most of our budget revenue, the nuclear weapons that guarantee our security, and our industrial and utilities infrastructure — most of this was built by Soviet specialists.

Russia, therefore, must modernize and it must modernize today. Democracy, transparency, and a clean and healthy service economy are supposed to do away with a past of authoritarianism and heavy industry. Similarly, Russia must start (or continue) to conduct foreign policy on twenty-first century terms.

Instead of chaotic action dictated by nostalgia and prejudice, we will carry out an intelligent domestic and foreign policy based on purely pragmatic aims.

The rhetorics are followed by a series of concrete promises that are meant to reshape Russian society: pensions and unemployment benefits will go up, Medvedev says; war veterans will be housed more properly; and the flow of credit will be encouraged to strenghten consumption. At the same time, Russia must become less dependent on gas and oil and develop alternative energies, including biofuels. The medical and ICT-sectors are to be expanded while Medvedev intends to invest more in space technology. Schools, institutions, court, even Russia’s timezones are all up for reform.

Lastly, Medvedev pledges to restore the country’s proud military by purchasing thirty ballistic land- and sea-based missiles, five Iskander missile systems, about three hundred modern armoured vehicles, thirty helicopters, 28 combat aircraft, three nuclear-powered submarines, one corvette-class battleship and eleven spacecraft. “All this simply has to be done,” says Medvedev. But things don’t quite stop there. On top of buying a whole lot of military hardware, the Russian president promises to invest in state-of-the-art equipment and improved military education.

Only one thing Medvedev neglected to mention though; that is, how Russia will pay for it all.

Be Nice to China

In The Washington Post, Robert Kagan and Dan Blumenthal describe the Obama Administration’s new approach toward China as “accommodating”. What this entails precisely, no one knows, but what we do know is that the White House likes to call its policy “strategic reassurance,” or: convincing the Chinese that they’re really not out to bomb Bejing any time soon. It’s about time.

Up until now, Washington still seemed to consider China a future rival more than anything. The previous administration did very little to change that view. Quite to the contrary, it launched a partnership with Australia, India and Japan to counterbalance China’s growing naval potential; a potential that is greatly overestimated anyway. Moreover, China is virtually ignored when it comes to Afghanistan although it has shown itself able and willing to contribute to the economic reconstruction of the country.

In a speech this summer before the Council on Foreign Relations, American secretary of state Hillary Clinton finally appeared to put some distance between the Sinophobia of the previous years and her own approach. She wants to encourage all rising powers to become “full partners” in her multilateral world while acknowleding China’s economic significance to the United States. Read more “Be Nice to China”

Why Van Rompuy Might Be a Wise Choice After All

When the Belgian prime minister Herman Van Rompuy was selected to become Europe’s very first “president” of sorts, all media were quick to characterize his election as the kind of compromise that is so typical of how the continent continues to handle its political future. Especially across the pond, newspapers were weary of the man. Both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal called him a step backward for Europe: with Van Rompuy at the top, the Americans seem to think, the union can never hope to claim its rightful stake in world politics.

Van Rompuy is something of a bore, that much even the greatest Europhile ought to admit. He was picked over the likes of Tony Blair because he is a conservative and a patient negotiator. Germany, France and especially the United Kingdom don’t care for a Brussels that dictates foreign policy to them: the larger states believe, for good reasons, that they’re quite able to look after their own interests overseas. Besides, Van Rompuy is known to oppose Turkey’s entry into the union: a position that Germany and France both share.

At the same time, whoever occupies the position of permanent chairman of the European Council (which is really all the “presidency” entails) must be able to satisfy the many smaller member states. Hence, the chairman had to come from such a smaller member state himself. Someone of a higher profile, like Blair, would never have been able to secure support in all countries on the continent — that is not even mentioning his initial support for the Iraq War which so many Europeans opposed.

Anita Kirpalani describes the “cautious choice” for Van Rompuy as a wise one therefore. In Newsweek she writes that with Van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton, Europe “picked people who actually have a chance at fostering consensus,” especially on what to do with Afghanistan and Iraq. “What looks like timidity might just lead to a stronger Europe after all.”

David Cameron and the British Welfare State

The Conservative Party in Britain has never been a fan of anything that reeks of socialism. But with David Cameron, it takes on something of a new attitude toward it.

In a speech delivered earlier this month, party leader Cameron admitted that social policies enacted since the Second World War have benefited lots of people: inequality has decreased while access to education and health care is now near universal.

At the same time, people seem to feel less responsible for their own lives and because of that lack of responsibility, they are less inclined to contribute to society voluntarily. “As the state continued to expand, it took away from people more and more things that they should and could be doing for themselves, their families and their neighbors,” said Cameron.

Human kindness, generosity and imagination are steadily being squeezed out by the work of the state. The result is that today, the character of our society — and indeed the character of some people themselves, as actors in society, is changing.

And change, of course, is not something the Conservative particularly cares for. The solution is not so simple as to diminish the role of the state, however. “Just because big government has undermined our society, it does not follow that retrenchment of the state will automatically trigger its revival.”

What Cameron wants is not big government but something he calls a “big society” in which everyone truly takes part. The state is still necessary to bring it about, though. “We must use the state to remake society,” he said.

In the first place, that implies a shift of power from London to local government. Cameron’s thinking is that if you grant people more responsibility, they will act more responsibly.

Compare that for a moment with what Margaret Thatcher said in 1977. “The economic success of the Western world is a product of its moral philosophy and practice. The economic results are better because the moral philosophy is superior,” declared the woman who would go on to lead the United Kingdom for more than a decade. “It is superior because it starts with the individual, with his uniqueness, his responsibility and his capacity to choose.”

Choice is the essence of ethics: if there were no choice, there would be no ethics, no good, no evil; good and evil have meaning only insofar as man is free to choose.

Cameron gives new meaning to this Thatcherist thinking by demanding that Britons be allowed to take charge of their own lives once again.

At the same time, he does set himself the task of fighting poverty and social inequality. “We need new answers now,” he said, “and they will only come from a bigger society, not bigger government.”

Wasn’t it also Thatcher who stated that there exists no such thing as “society” you might ask? “There are individual men and women and there are families,” she said in 1897. “And no government can do anything except through people and people must look after themselves first.” But, she added, “It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbors.”

That’s something that might be contested but it isn’t all too different from what Cameron is saying these days.