Friday, July 13, 2012

A Call for an Anglo-German Axis

At the heart of Europe, the Franco-German alliance is withering in the heat of the crisis. The ox and the ass have traditionally pulled in unison, dragging behind it other member states towards tighter fiscal and political integration. Central to the success of this pairing has been a series of shared economic and social values, as well as the personal relationship between the country’s two leaders: Mitterrand and Kohl; Chirac and Schroeder; Sarkozy and Merkel.

Now, the beasts of burden are pulling in opposite directions, stalling the pace of development at a time when the continent needs to be more united than ever, precisely because of a bridge between the philosophy and ideology of the French President and German Chancellor. Angela Merkel believes in the necessity of austerity and structural economic reform – privatisation, social security reform, labour reform – in nations like Greece and Portugal which binged on cheap credit in the early years of the euro and are now sick with the consequences of their reckless actions.

François Hollande, on the other hand, stresses the need for deficit spending and urgent cash injection from bodies including the IMF and EU, in order to prevent Europe from slipping into a double-dip recession. The nation that would more likely than not have to pay for all this additional output would, of course, be Germany. There is compromise to be had – a limited amount of short term deficit spending for countries that agree to longer-term reforms akin to Germany’s Hartz and Treuhand programmes, as well as the full implementation of the Fiskalpakt – if only the leaders of these traditional enemies can reach it.

In the continued absence of such a deal, a historic opportunity has presented itself for a realignment of power in Europe. For, whilst Hollande demands that Europe spend additional monies it does not possess (to use Merkel’s thinking), David Cameron is enacting at home the very kind of austerity measures and cutbacks Merkel would wish the southern European nations might soon adopt themselves. Thus, it is conceivable that Britain and Germany might formulate a new power axis which could lead to the construction of a better Europe based on fiscal and personal responsibility, individual freedoms, and democratic principles.

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Monday, May 23, 2011

Exodus from the Ryan Plan

He can try and walk it back as much as he likes, but Newt Gingrich was the first high-profile Republican to back away from the Ryan Plan with regard to Medicare - the plan to replace this guaranteed federal programme of universal medical coverage for the over-65s with a flimsy voucher scheme. Gingrich labelled it “right-wing social engineering”, and has been regretting it ever since.

Now, Tim Pawlenty appears to be shying away from Ryancare too. In his campaign announcement today, Pawlenty did give tacit approval to another part of Congressman’s plan, to “block grant Medicaid to the states”, which Pawlenty asserted would allow “innovative reformers closest to the patients can solve problems and save money”.

On Medicare however, the former Governor of Minnesota stated merely that it ought to be “reformed”, with with “”pay for performance” incentives that reward good doctors and wise consumers”. No mention of privatisation, voucher schemes or any other overtures to Tea Party desires to destroy Medicare as we know it.

Pawlenty said the following later in the speech:

Conventional wisdom says you can’t talk about Social Security in Florida. But someone has to say it.  Someone has to finally stand up and level with the American people.  Someone has to lead”.

That person, apparently, is not T-Paw, who backed away from one Republican interpretation of the things that “someone has to say”, claiming no-one deserves to win an election by “pitting classes, and ethnicities, and generations against each other”.

First Gingrich, now Pawlenty, will others follow? Is this the start of a trend? The answer is unlikely, and that Pawlenty’s words may have just been an oversight. However, we may witness a tweaking of Ryancare, dependant on the outcome of the special election in New York’s 26th congressional district.

For, what once was a solidly-Republican seat (one which backed Carl Paladino over Andrew Cuomo in the gubernatorial race last November), the GOP may be on to lose to the Democratic challenger, or so the latest polls indicate. Such an outcome would be an embarassment for the party, at a time when President Obama’s popularity hovers about 50pc, and the Democrats in Congress are faring even worse. Defeat in the fightin’ 26th might give the GOP cause of a reconsideration of their approach to governance, give greater credence to notions of reconciliation over the bugdet and the debt ceiling and punt Medicare reform into the never-never.

Friday, April 8, 2011

We must not forget Syria

Media at this time is completely consumed by the threat of a government shutdown in the United States. Meanwhile, the eyes of the world have been shielded from events in the Arab world. Whilst we squabble about the merits of Planned Parenthood (an extremely worthy debate, I might add), we must not forget about Libya, about the Arabian Peninsula, about Israel, nor about Syria.

For today – during what has been dubbed Syria’s biggest day of unrest – at least twenty people have been slain in the midst of a heavy-handed, brutish and violent crackdown by security forces. Most of the violence was concentrated in the southern city of Deraa, where the seeds of Syria’s own rebellious spring were sown. Gatherings and demonstrations occurred across the nation, in cities such as Hama – the site of the ferocious, remorseless 1982 massacre – as well as Homs, Deir ez-Zor and Damascus. “It was peaceful until security forces attacked and some shots were fired,” an anonymous source in the capital told The Guardian, “I saw six people shot, three of them with two bullets each.”

Those who elect to lavish Bashir al-Assad with the title ‘reformer’ are as ignorant and stupid as those who put all their eggs in Saif al-Gaddafi’s bone-beaded basket. As far, his programme of perestroika and glasnost amounts to nothing more than pandering to certain niche constituencies, in an effort to placate them with bread and trinkets. For instance, to reach traditionalist Muslims, al-Assad reversed a ban on teachers wearing the niqab in schools, and closed Syria’s only casino.

No serious attempt has been initiated – outside of a loose, rhetorical one – to either lift 48-year-old state of emergency legislation, or transition toward allowing a multitude of organic political parties to participate in parliamentary elections. Instead, al-Assad as again lapsed into totalitarian cliché, in sending out the mukhabarat to quell any indication of dissent. During this time of crisis, the world must not give up on the Syrian people, nor must it stop its sharp and focused critique of the Ba’athist regime, even as Washington turns in on itself.

(Photograph: AFP/Getty Images)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Mubarak’s Dying Shuffle

Yesterday, I wrote about the day’s joyous demonstrations in Egypt, stating firmly that Mubarak must and will step down from the presidency. Now the mainstream media is lining up behind such an argument, with an editorial in today’s Washington Post calling for the United States to back Mubarak’s departure and to reach out to the opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei.

In an attempt to cling onto power, Mubarak has, is it were, shuffled the deckchairs on the Titanic, by sacking the government and appointing another. The New York Times reports that, according to state media at least, Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s military intelligence chief, had been sworn in as the country’s new vice president, and Ahmed Shafik is the new prime minister.

In this, I cannot help but draw historical parallels to the fall of the Berlin Wall. With every step, the East German government was desperately trying to keep apace with the demands of the people: in this instance, for the freedom to travel and greater economic and personal liberty. The Politbüro too purged some of the old guard, including Erich Honecker, and promoted more youthful faces, in the wake of demonstrations which took place in Berlin on the anniversary of the state’s foundation in October 1989.

Yet protests continued, and grew in size and stature and spread throughout the nation. The wall was breached on November 9, 1989.

The main difference though between the Velvet Revolutions of Eastern Europe, and today’s demonstrations in the Arab world, is both the speed of development and the use of violence. In East Germany, a month elapsed between their cabinet reshuffle and the government’s demise. In Egypt, we seem to be talking about days. Mubarak is in effect already a creature of the past: the King is dead.

(Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Revolution by the Jordan

Those of us on the side of freedom and liberty can not but take delight in the events which are currently sweeping tyranny out of the Maghreb, and soon the Middle East to boot. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, sole ruler of his micro-Carthaginian empire for twenty-four years, was run out of town by a populace tired of life lived under his despotic rule.

The question Media seems obsessed with now is: where next? Libya was sounded out for a time, as was Algeria, though nothing seems to be happening on either front, and certainly not in the land of Gaddafi. Things appear to be progressing nicely in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak has ruled for thirty years, determined to outlast the Pharaohs of yore. Media’s attention has too turned more recently to Jordan, where protests which begun over the price of bread have escalated for calls of major political reform.

Jordan is an oddity of a nation. To be polite would be to call it plucky, making the best of a bad lot. More accurately, Transjordan as it was upon its foundation was created as a fiefdom for the Hashemites of Mecca, out of the bits left over from the postwar slice-and-dice of the Levant. Since its birth, it has relied heavily on both strong monarchical authority and generous aid from the United States to survive. Jordan has had to absorb great waves of immigration too, first from Palestine and later Iraq, which has completely reordered societal structures and created swarms of citizens dependant on the state’s subsidised bread to survive.

This is not to say that life in Jordan is entirely bleak, as it is in some other parts of the region. In comparison with her neighbour, Ba’athist Syria, the climate is ever-so-slightly more liberal, the streets cleaner, and life a little less of an unrelenting struggle. In Aleppo and Damascus, the moustachioed face of Bashar al-Assad stares down at you from every street corner. In Amman, the same sensation is replicated, but with the occasionally clean-shaven and presentable visage of King Abdullah II.

The main difference between the Syrian and Jordanian cases is that there is in the latter some degree of reverence for the Hashemite monarchy, particularly amongst the older generation of Jordanians who recollect with fondness the reign of King Hussein as an era of stability and growth. Part of this too is religious: the Hashemites are considered by some to be descendants of the Prophet Muhammad (though how this is calculated remains unclear). Dissent against the monarchy is rare, in part due to this respect, but for the most part due to repressive legal mechanisms which have stamped it out.

But these new protests are a testament to the nation’s ambivalence to King Abdullah as a personality. In Amman it is extremely common to see him portrayed alongside his father Hussein, or his eldest son the Crown Prince. Recent reports have indicated that his wife, Queen Rania, is in fact quite unpopular, seen as perhaps too Westernised or lavish in an era of great austerity.

That said, reports from Newsnight indicated that on the Arab street at least, there was no desire to throw off the monarchy. Rather, they sought political reform which gave the people real existing democracy, as opposed to the current sham version where the king still wielded tremendous executive and legislative power. Along these lines, the West ought to welcome a revolution by the Jordan, even if the means the election to parliament of political factions we may not wish to ally ourselves with, namely the Muslim Brotherhood.

A doomsday scenario – of total revolution, the proclamation of a republic, and the accession to power of the Muslim Brotherhood – could in turn have disastrous consequences for the region. For instance, it is certain that they would seek to repeal the Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace, signed only in 1994. The normalisation of relations between these two nations – torn apart for decades over the right of the former to exist, and the sovereignty of the latter over the West Bank – is extremely unpopular with those in Jordan who align themselves with more fundamental strains of Islamism.

Thankfully however, nothing of this sort appears to be on the cards, for it seems as the protests currently taking place on the streets of Amman and elsewhere are purely economic and by extension political. Jordan has been under Kings Hussein and Abdullah open to business and Western commerce. Take a stroll in Amman from the Second down the Fourth Circle, for example, and you see a swath of swanky hotels and office complexes.

But, so was Tunisia, and Jordan suffers much the same problem as they did under Ben Ali: the revenues and boons of their fiscal liberalism remain in the coffers of the nation’s minuscule elite, namely the Hashemite family. Little if nothing of it actually trickles down to the Jordanian people in the way of increased wages or state social security net.

Though a republic is an idyllic system of government, sometimes it must be recognised that monarchies can have their advantages, giving shaky nations a stabilising effect in certain instances. Jordan is one such circumstance. The Hashemites have been good friends to the West, and it would not be in our best interest to see them removed from the scene altogether.

Nonetheless, on principle, and for the universal rights of man, it could only be beneficial for the people of Jordan and for the Middle East too to feel the warm and heady air of revolution come in from the west, as to set in motion a grand transfer of power from King Abdullah and his puppet parliament to the citizenry.

About time, too!