How Ted Cruz, the US Tea Party’s Darth Vader, is preparing for a tilt at the presidency

The end of American empire has presented difficult questions about what might come in its place – even for those who found the George W Bush “freedom agenda” so difficult to stomach.

The latest revelations about the activities of the National Security Agency (NSA) may still be reverberating in Europe and South America, but the impact here in the United States has been muted. If anything, the Obama administration is taking more heat for its technological incompetence than its Orwellian overreach. The dominant story in the media is that the website set up to allow Americans to enrol for health care under the Affordable Care Act is in meltdown, putting the Department of Health and Human Services under severe strain and prompting the president to order a “tech surge” to solve the problem.

It is hard to find much sincere outrage at the activities of the NSA – except from the libertarian right, whose main concern is homeland surveillance, in any case.

The reason why the NSA has been allowed to grow so large is that it gives the US a significant advantage in a world in which the cybersphere is becoming ever more important. To restrict its activities to terrorist threats would be to cede the field to nations that are prepared to use this space for a range of equally nefarious activities, including industrial-scale theft of intellectual property. China is already reported to have stolen from the Pentagon the blueprints for the US’s much-prized F-35 fighter jets.

At the heart of this scandal is a deeper truth – which is that the US is operating within a narrower conception of its core national interests than at any time since the cold war. President Obama’s arrival in office was perceived in the rest of the west as an era of rapprochement and multilateralism. While he has eschewed the adventurism of his predecessor, it is hard to make the case that he has been any less unscrupulous. He is certainly not any more engaged. A recent story in the New York Times described how he sat through discussions of Syria policy in the summer, chewing gum and scrolling through his BlackBerry.

This is not to say that Obama’s idealism was a mirage. But it is clearer than ever that his priorities are domestic and that he has a bold agenda fundamentally to change the role of government in American society.

This is far from unpopular with the US electorate. The National Interest magazine, enjoying something of a renaissance, leads with a story about the return to the primacy of the nation state, “surpassing in significance all the recent preoccupations over civilisational clash, globalisation, history’s end and great-power polarity”. In the same spirit, Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, has just completed a review of US policy in the Middle East addressing the question of “core American interests”. “‘We can’t just be consumed 24/7 by one region, important as it is,” she has said, signalling a much more hard-headed approach in which American commitments are to be scaled down further. The support for democratic reform in Egypt, once seen as a cornerstone of US strategy, has been dropped, emphatically.

The end of American empire has presented difficult questions about what might come in its place – even for those who found the George W Bush “freedom agenda” so difficult to stomach. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has been grumbling about the failure of US leadership in Syria and about the vacillation of policy during the summer, which Riyadh believes is playing into the hands of Iran. The Saudi view is that the deal to dispense with Assad’s chemical weapons has taken the diplomatic pressure off him in the civil war. The Saudi decision to turn down a seat on the UN Security Council was intended as a sign of discontent directed at Washington.

Saudi Arabia is not the only ally to feel a little stung by the new realpolitik rationale in DC. After Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, raised the issue of the ongoing drone campaign at a meeting with Barack Obama late last month, documents were leaked to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post proving that senior Pakistani officials co-operate closely with the CIA on its drone programme. This may be the worst-kept secret of US-Pakistani relations. But it defies the logic put forward in a book doing the rounds in DC – One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare by Linda Robinson of the Rand Corporation – which suggests that “partnering” is the critical element of the new American approach to war.

GOP fallout

The Republican Party, meanwhile, continues its internal feud over the strategy that led to the US government shutdown last month.

As much as anything, the battle between the GOP and the Tea Party was about tone and tactics. On the substantive policy issues involved – opposition to the Affordable Care Act and belief in the need to cut government spending – they were fundamentally on the same page. The same can’t be said of the looming issue of immigration reform, shortly to appear on the legislative agenda. It represents the single greatest threat to party unity.

Senator Ted Cruz, the Tea Party hero who came to national prominence during the shutdown, continues to court the spotlight. Over the course of his 21-hour filibuster speech against “Obamacare”, the maverick Princeton-educated Texan imitated Darth Vader and read from Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss. He spent last weekend drumming up support in the bellwether state of Iowa. That’s a sure sign he is preparing a run for the Republican presidential nomination.

Ted Cruz speaks about immigration in Washington, DC. Image: Getty

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.