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.


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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood