Debt ceiling, round two

The USA is once again on course for financial disaster through no fault but their own.

Remember the debt ceiling debacle, when the broken American political system led to the country losing its triple-A credit rating, and nearly resulted in the largest economy in the world defaulting on its debt? Well, joy of joys, in nine months, it's all going to happen again.

The problem is the basic disagreement was never actually resolved, but merely postponed until after the election so that the Republicans could get back to the important business of tearing their party apart with excruciating primaries and loony-fringe candidates. The deal that raised the ceiling required a spending bill to be passed in both houses of congress that substantially removes the deficit. If no such bill is passed, then on January 1st 2013, a whole raft of automatic spending cuts are introduced at once, bringing in what American commentators breathlessly describe as "European levels of austerity".

Not only that, but on the same day those cuts come in, the the Bush tax cuts and the Obama payroll tax cuts both expire, increasing the tax burden on millions of Americans. Oh, and emergency unemployment benefits also time out.

Congress has had ample warning to sort out the mess (almost as much warning as it had before the initial face-off), but yesterday the House of Representatives rejected two possible solutions. The first, a bipartisan bill which has the most chance of passing in the Democrat-controlled Senate, was defeated 382-38; the second, the White House's preferred option, was unanimously rejected 414 to 0. Instead, it seems likely that the House will pass, along strict party lines, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan's bill, which has no hope of passing getting through any Democrats, calling as it does for "draconian reductions in the federal government's commitment to financing health care for the disabled, the elderly, and the poor", in the words of Slate's Matt Yglesias. So the Senate will reject the bill, and the whole damn thing will start again.

Faced with the unappealing task of repeating last summer, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke has weighed in, telling the House Financial Services Committee:

Under current law, on Jan. 1, 2013, there’s going to be a massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases. I hope that Congress will look at that and figure out ways to achieve the same long-run fiscal improvement without having it all happen at one date.

All those things are hitting on the same day, basically. It’s quite a big event.

Barclays Capital has calculated that the combined effect of all these cuts hitting at once would wipe 2.8 per cent off the annualised growth rate for the first quarter of 2013, bringing them from 3 per cent to 0.2 per cent growth. For comparison, the UK – which is voluntarily enacting "European levels of austerity" – is currently forecast by the OBR to have 2.0 per cent growth over the year, and the OECD forecast yesterday had us on minus 0.4 per cent over the first quarter of 2012, with the USA already at growing at 3 per cent annualised.

The worst case scenario is unlikely to happen; just as an actual default was unlikely to happen when the debt ceiling needed to be raised. The most likely outcome is that Congress will simply postpone everything once again, renewing the tax cuts and shrinking, but not removing, the automatic spending cuts. But all of this has led Bloomberg's Clive Cook to declare:

But there’s a much bigger threat to U.S. power [than the growth of China]: the increasingly abject failure of the country’s own political class.

Congressman Paul Ryan. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.