Obama’s deal with the GOP exposes two sad truths

President sacrifices key campaign promise for the sake of political expediency.

It is said that a stereotype gains traction because there is within it an element of truth. This week, we appear to have further confirmation of this idea. In the United States, President Barack Obama has agreed to a deal that sees the economically disastrous tax cuts passed under George W Bush extended for another two years, having campaigned against them in 2008. In this one move, Obama has, for a large number of people, demonstrated the truth in two stereotypes.

First, that politicians from all sides of the spectrum will go back on their campaign promises if it suits them politically. Morals be damned; political expediency is king (another recent example of this was when Obama's predecessor said – with a straight face – that he was not in the business of nation-building). Obama is not bowing to public pressure to appear strong in the face of an enemy as Bush did, however. He is caving in to the pressure from rich Republicans who threatened to filibuster tax relief for the middle-class households of America if the tiny minority of millionaires and billionaires did not also get the same treatment.

Which leads us to the second stereotype: the weak Democrat.

The Democratic Party has been infuriating the American left for years because it appears to be utterly unwilling to fight the Republicans on any issue. The GOP is moving further and further to the right side of the political spectrum, which is dragging what should be the centre to the right. Instead of having a right-left divide, the weakness of the Democratic Party has resulted in a far-right/centre-right divide.

The recent health-care legislation battle is a perfect example. Instead of starting from an absolute position (for instance, a single payer system) and compromising from there, the Democrats started from a compromise position and worked right. The result was a watered-down bill, most of which will not go into effect until 2014.

This tax debate was an example of the same idea. Economists overwhelmingly say that the Bush tax cuts were a major force in the explosion of the national deficit, and that their extension (especially to the super-rich) would only aggravate the problem. Obama could have taken this position and run with it. He could have called the GOP's bluff and told it that the super-rich were not getting their cuts extended and allowed them to filibuster. He would then be able to go in front of the American public and lay the blame at the feet of the corporate-friendly (or more corporate-friendly, at least) Republican Party. They would be responsible for a massive tax rise for everyone, because they wanted to help their already obscenely rich friends and contributors. Now, there is even more fuel on the GOP's "It's Obama's fault for the huge deficit" fire.

Obama has given the Republicans the stick with which to beat him. He claimed when announcing the deal that he would fight the Republicans on this issue, and others, over the next two years.

One question that immediately leaps to mind is this: if he went back on his pledge to fix the American tax system now, what reason is there to believe he won't just do it again in 2012 when the new tax cuts expire? By then, he may no longer be the president. Whose fault would that be? Certainly the Republican political machine and the conservative media outlets will claim responsibility, but honestly the blame would rest mostly on Mr Obama's shoulders.

Yes, we can? Prove it.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue