Obama is not providing the leadership the US needs

The President is staying firmly on the sidelines, in the face of another potential financial crisis.

There will be no President Bartlett moment -- no West Wing style last minute drama as the commander-in-chief lays down the line to a bickering Congress. This President is staying firmly on the sidelines.

The White House spokesman, Jay Carney, has talked of plenty of backroom conversations and top level meetings. However, the face of the debt ceiling crisis negotiations is not Obama's, but Republican House Speaker John Boehner's. After the President's attempt to broker a deal with him failed late last week, the administration's efforts are now being led by Joe Biden, while Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is busy planning for the worst case scenario: not reaching an agreement to raise the debt ceiling in time. There isn't even a White House "war room" to deal with the crisis.

It's got pundits on all sides claiming that President Obama is in danger of looking like a spectator at the funeral of his own economy. In the meantime, it's Boehner's deficit reduction plan in the spotlight -- his Bill in front of the House, his responsibility to bring reluctant Tea Party hardliners into line. If the measure does pass today -- and at the moment it's deemed "too close to call" -- Democrats have pledged to defeat it in the Senate. President Obama says he'll veto it. But then who would look like they were the ones tipping the nation into that "catastrophic" default? Obamagaddon, indeed.

In this intricate game of political chess, with the fate of the most powerful economy on earth at stake, has the White House lost the initiative? Remember healthcare? That long summer of 2009 when Obama sat back and somehow let the narrative get overtaken by the conservative right? Even the rival plan, piloted by Boehner's opposite number Harry Reid, has dropped the commitment to tax hikes as part of the debt ceiling solution, although it does at least ring-fence entitlements like Medicare.

But liberal disappointment is rife. Here's Democratic Rep Peter Welch: "The House Republicans have been successful in getting two plans, Boehner and Reid, that are all cuts, no revenues, and a debate about doing this all at once or in two stages. The Democratic approach was a balanced approach. We lost."

It is true that the plan that Boehner is promoting has exposed the deep fault-lines within his own party, with a sizeable number of Tea Party activists refusing to sign up to any compromise at all. But President Obama has his own unity issues, with liberals frustrated that he appears to have conceded quite so much ground in what looks like an effort to appease the conservative right. One "senior party operative", quoted on Politico, bemoans the situation: "Every policy outcome for liberals is a loss at this point...We may win on trhe politics, but the policy battle is lost. It's just depressing."

Look at the latest polls, and they do show that most Americans blame the Republicans for the gridlock. After all, Obama did inherit a $1.2 trillion budget deficit -- and it was his predecessor George Bush who was behind the tax cuts and wars which made that deficit so much steeper.

"Call your Congressmen," Obama told the American people on Monday, and worried families have been bombarding Capitol Hill with phone calls. But Obama's own popularity ratings have slipped back over the last month, while the numbers who think he's doing a good job on the economy have slumped. Of course, some 75 per cent of Democrats are still rallying behind their leader, but goodwill can't automatically be taken for granted. And heading into 2012, active support from the grassroots -- not to mention party donors -- will be crucial in those battleground states.

And what the White House wants to avoid at all costs is putting Obama's neck on the line if there's no last minute compromise on the debt ceiling. He's already been strongly advised not to invoke the 14th amendment to force through an increase. "Believe me, the idea of doing things on my own is very tempting," he said earlier this week. "But that's not how our democracy functions".

But in the face of another potential financial crisis -- and real pain for millions of Americans -- what the country is looking for is leadership. And now, more than ever, it's their President's chance to provide it.


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.