Beltway Briefing

The top five stories from US politics today.

1. Jon Huntsman has become the second Mormon millionaire (the first being Mitt Romney) to announce his bid for the Republican candidacy for the 2012 presidential election.

Unusually for a Republican, he has worked for President Barack Obama, who appointed him as ambassador to Beijing. Obama's praise for Huntsman can be seen from about 30 seconds into this news report:


Huntsman's candidacy worries the Democrats. Obama's 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe said he felt "a wee bit queasy" when he floated the idea of running early in 2009. However, over at Hot Air, Jazz Shaw notes that this might not be a good thing:

All of the video clips making the rounds showing President Obama praising Huntsman will certainly be widely employed ammunition for the rest of the GOP field. But in the unlikely event that he somehow nabbed the nomination, those same clips would hobble the president in the general election. It would be fairly hard to start questioning the man's credentials after heaping that kind of praise on him.

2. Just hours before Huntsman announced his bid, Rick Santorum, a rival for the Republican nomination, released a video criticising him for not signing an anti-abortion pledge.

The video parodies the web videos of a man riding a motorbike through a dessert that the Huntsman team have put out over the last week to trail their candidate's formal declaration. In this spoof video, the character crashes at the end.


The Huntsman team was quick to respond, telling CNN:

People who rely on pledges usually don't have a record. Fortunately Governor Huntsman, a life-long, no flip flops pro-lifer, has actually signed anti-abortion legislation into law -- that's a signature that makes a difference.

3. The Texas governor Rick Perry's team is gearing up for unsubstantiated rumours about his sexuality to resurface if he runs for president. Back in 2004, it was reported that he was gay and that he and his wife planned to divorce. At the time, he blamed his political opponents, saying that the rumous "are not correct in any shape, form or fashion."

Speaking to Politico, his top strategist Dave Carney said:

This kind of nameless, faceless smear campaign is run against the Perry family in seemingly every campaign, with no basis, truth or success. Texas politics is a full contact support, live hand grenades and all; unfortunately there are always going to be some people who feel the need to spread false and misleading rumors to advance their own political agenda.

Dirty tricks and smear campaigns are not unusual in US politics, as the recent furore over Obama's birth certificate showed.

4. Reggie Brown, the comedian who was pulled off stage after racially questionable jokes about Obama at the Republican Leadership Conference last weekend, has defended his routine ("My mother loved a black man, and no she was not a Kardashian," he quipped, saying that while Michelle Obama celebrated all of black history month, Barack only celebrated half).

Although RLC President and CEO Charlie Davis told CNN that he was pulled because "we have zero tolerance for racially insensitive jokes", Brown suspects another motive:

I was at the Republican Leadership Conference, and I was just entering my set where I was starting to have some fun with the Republican candidates. I do believe that I was over my time by a few minutes, and I also believe that the material was starting to get to a point to where maybe they started to feel uncomfortable with where it was going.

He also denied that the racial content of his jokes had anything to do with it:

I didn't hear any boos on any of the racial jokes. The president, like myself, shares a mixed background. My mother's white, my father's black, and I feel very safe delivering content like that. And the president himself has poked fun at his heritage.

5. Michele Bachmann has been rather silent after performing unexpectedly well in a debate with Mitt Romney last week. This is surprising, given that Bachmann has been one of the most outspoken members of the House simce being elected to Congress in 2006 (who could forget her suggestion that Obama might be "anti-American"?)

According to the Washington Post, this is a "calculated strategy aimed at building message discipline within the ranks" ahead of 2012. Reportedly, this decision was made before the debate, and is being carried through to avoid trampling on the momentum created. Silence must certainly be a new experience for the Minnesota republican but some message discipline wouldn't go amiss. Several weeks ago, she castigated her campaign manager Ed Rollins' for saying that Sarah Palin is not been "serious".

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

The Prime Minister still has questions to answer about his plans for Syria

Cameron needs a better plan for Syria than mere party-politicking, says Ian Lucas.

I was unfortunate enough to hear our Prime Minister discussing the vexed issue of military action in Syria on the Today programme yesterday. It was a shocking experience - David Cameron simply cannot resist trying to take party political advantage of an extremely serious crisis. It is quite clear that there are massive humanitarian, military and political issues at stake in Syria. A number of international and national powers including the United States and Russia are taking military action within Syria and David Cameron said in the broadest terms that he thought that the UK should do so too.

The questions then arise - what should we do, and why should we do it?

Let me make it clear that I do believe there are circumstances in which we should take military action - to assist in issues which either affect this country's national interest and defence, or which are so serious as to justify immediate action on humanitarian grounds. It is for the Prime Minister, if he believes that such circumstances are in place, to make the case.

The Prime Minister was severely shaken by the vote of the House of Commons to reject military action against President Assad in 2013. This was a military course which was decided upon in a very short time scale, in discussion with allies including France and the United States.

As we all know, Parliament, led by Ed Miliband’s Labour Opposition and supported by a significant number of Conservative MPs, voted against the Government’s proposals. David Cameron's reaction to that vote was one of immediate petulance. He ruled out military action, actually going beyond the position of most of his opponents. The proposed action against Assad action was stressed at the time by President Obama to be very limited in scope and directed specifically against the use of chemical weapons. It was not intended to lead to the political end of President Assad and no argument was made by the governments either in the United States or in the UK that this was an aim. What was proposed was short, sharp military action to deal specifically with the threat of chemical weapons. Following the vote in the House of Commons, there was an immediate reaction from both United States and France. I was an Opposition spokesman at the time, and at the beginning of the week, when the vote was taken, France was very strident in its support for military action. The House of Commons vote changed the position immediately and the language that was used by President Obama, by John Kerry and others .

The chemical weapons threat was the focus of negotiation and agreement, involving Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his connections with Syria.  The result was that Assad agreed to dispense with chemical weapons on a consensual basis and no military action took place.

David Cameron felt humiliated by this outcome and loses no opportunity to suggest that the decision was wrong.  He is determined that he should revisit the issue of bombing in Syria, though now action there has elided to action against Islamic State. He has delegated Michael Fallon to prepare the ground for a vote on military action in Parliament. Fallon is the most political of Defence Secretaries - before he became a minister he was regularly presented by the Conservative party as its attack dog against Labour. He gives me the impression of putting the Conservative Party’s interest, at all times, above the national interest. Nothing in his tenure at Defence has changed my view of him.

I was therefore very sceptical what when, in September, Fallon suggested that there should be briefings of members of Parliament to inform us of the latest position on Syria. It turns out that I was right - at the Conservative party conference, Mr Fallon has been referring to these briefings as part of the process that is changing minds in the House of Commons towards taking military action in Syria. He is doubtless taking his orders from the Prime Minister, who is determined to have a vote on taking part in military action in Syria, this time against Islamic State.  

If the Prime Minister wishes to have the support of the House of Commons for military action he needs to answer the following questions: 

What is the nature of the action that he proposes?

What additional impact would action by the UK have, above and beyond that undertaken by the United States and France?

What is the difference in principle between military action in Syria by the UK and military action in Syria by Russia?

What would be the humanitarian impact of such action?

What political steps would follow action and what political strategy does the government have to resolve the Syrian crisis?

The reality is that the United States, UK, France and other western powers have been hamstrung on Syria by their insistence Assad should go. This situation has continued for four years now and there is no end in sight.

The Prime Minister and his Defence Secretary have yet to convince me that additional military action in Syria, this time by the United Kingdom, would help to end Syria's agony and stem the human tragedy that is the refugee crisis engulfing the region and beyond. If the Prime Minister wishes to have support from across the House of Commons, he should start behaving like the Prime Minister of a nation with responsibilities on the United Nations Security Council and stop behaving like a party politician who seeks to extract political advantage from the most serious of international situations.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.