Why Weiner got the chop

How do some shamed politicians cling on, while others lose everything?

It's not just the weather that's been steamy in DC. New York Congressman Anthony Weiner has finally bowed to the political pressure and resigned - a promising career dragged down by the scandal over the lewd photographs he sent to women on line.

In the end, he simply proved too much of a distraction to the Democratic party. It was time to go. "I got into politics to help give voice to the many who simply did not have one," he said. "Now I will be looking for other ways to contribute my talents."

The press conference itself was a fittingly bawdy affair, with constant heckles from a Howard Stern show producer, along the lines of "You pervert!" More seriously, Weiner made an apology to his wife Huma Abeidin - who was not at his side during the press conference. She's said to be "devastated" and "shocked" by his behaviour. According to reports, the Congressman made the decision to go after lengthy discussions with his wife, who'd been travelling abroad with her boss, Hillary Clinton. One can only imagine the conversation those two women had on the plane ride home.

Except President Bill Clinton stayed in office throughout the Lewinsky scandal - and there's the rub. How come some politicians manage to survive the most humiliating disclosures, while others are left with no choice but to go?

Louisiana's senator David Vitter hung on despite being embroiled in a prostitution scandal four years ago - he remained popular with his colleagues and easily won re-election last year. New York's former mayor Eliot Spitzer - aka Client Number Nine - failed to keep his job.

Earlier this year, it took another New York Congressman, the Republican Chris Lee, just eight hours to resign - after the topless photographs of himself supposedly sent to a woman via an internet dating ad were revealed to the world. In April, Republican Senator John Ensign of Nevada, stepped down suddenly, two years after news of his extramarital affair with a former campaign aide emerged. A decision to launch an Ethics committee inquiry into his behaviour was the last straw.

Weiner, too, was facing a possible ethics investigation into whether he violated House rules. Then again, he did lie about what happened. For more than a week he tried to claim that the embarrassing photos sent from his Twitter account must have been the work of a hacker. Then last week - yet more lewd pictures emerged, and it became clear that at least six other women were involved. By Wednesday a porn actress had emerged on the celebrity website TMZ claiming she was among them. This was a scandal that could clearly run and run - something the Democratic leadership was determined to avoid. Eventually even President Obama voiced his public frustration: "If it was me, I would resign". Weiner tried announcing that he would merely take a period of leave and work on "becoming a better husband". But he'd already become a political liability.

The Democrats are clearly relieved by his decision: the party is hoping to re-take Weiner's seat in a special election - the seat he'd easily held for seven terms. And they're hoping there'll be no more distractions hampering their efforts to win back control of the House in 2012.

These are steamy times in DC. Weiner's Twitpix are merely the latest in weeks of lurid headlines featuring, among others, John Edwards, Arnie Schwarzenegger and Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Good times for the tabloids and late night comedy shows. For the noble tradition of politics, not so much.

Felicity Spector is a deputy programme editor for Channel 4 News.

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.