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.

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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