Wherever next for Clinton?

Hillary Clinton still has a nomination to the Supreme Court in her sights.

That's what life is like if you're US secretary of state, I suppose. You see President Obama to discuss the future of the Middle East at the White House on Thursday, then fly to New York the next day to be at the bedside of a 63-year-old former US president who has had emergency coronary artery surgery - and who also just happens to be your husband.

Then, within 48 hours, you find yourself in Qatar, making international headlines by telling students on al-Jazeera that Iran is moving towards a military dictatorship, before hopping on your modified US Air Force 757 to fly to Saudi Arabia, where you find yourself cracking jokes about camels with 86-year-old King Abdullah at his luxurious desert retreat an hour north of the capital Riyadh.

So what made the determinedly low-profile former senator Hillary Clinton poke her head above the parapets in Qatar and say such inflammatory things about Iran? The reason, I'm told, is that the White House is "trying to drive a wedge" between Iran's 70 million population and its 125,000-member Revolutionary Guard, following President Ahmadinejad's declaration that Iran is now a "nuclear state". Hence Clinton and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, were dispatched to tell Middle East leaders a thing or two about how dangerous Iran has become.

Foreign policy tragedy

Nothing, of course, is more likely to make the Iranian people embrace the Revolutionary Guard than stern lectures from the US that they should not do so. But we should not blame Clinton for yet another American foreign policy debacle, because she is determined to be seen as a loyal foot soldier for Obama, despite the hatred she and her husband still harbour for the 44th US president following the rancorous primaries in 2008.

Ahmadinejad's announcement on uranium enrichment had the White House running in all directions. "Quite frankly, [he] says many things and many of them turn out to be untrue," responded Robert Gibbs, Obama's chief spokesman, immediately. "We do not believe they have the capability to enrich [uranium] to the degree to which they now say they are enriching."

But Obama himself apparently saw it all quite differently. "Despite their posturing that their nuclear power is only for civilian use, [Iran], in fact, continue[s] to pursue a course that would lead to weaponisation," he had insisted in an impromptu press conference at the White House just two days before. A week before that, Gibbs had said that Iran posed no threat.

In other words, a conventionally confused US foreign policy tragedy - like so many before, but this time with Obama mouthing the predictable clichés - looms. Hillary Clinton, I suspect, has done her duty and will now duck down below the parapet again, happily leaving Obama to extricate himself from the shambles to come (although, lest we forget, Iran was one of the few political issues on which Clinton stood to the right of Obama in the 2008 campaign, threatening to "totally obliterate" the country).

Taking a post in the Obama administration might have been an agonising choice for Clinton, but for Obama it was clear-cut: he could not afford to alienate half the Democratic Party, which had supported her rather than him. Remember: Clinton won nine of the final 16 contests, picking up 600,000 more votes and 37 more delegates than him. By the time she withdrew, only 150,000 votes out of 36 million divided the two.

In the fortnight after Obama's victory, Clinton faced the choice of continuing her rather humdrum, eight-year career as a New York senator while simultaneously having to raise $12m to repay debts the Clinton campaign had run up - or taking up the prestigious post of US secretary of state and having the Obama campaign, which was left with surplus funds after her withdrawal, take care of the debt.

Sixteen days after Obama had defeated John McCain, Senator Clinton finally decided she would accept Obama's offer and become the 67th US secretary of state. Her curriculum vitae for the post was unusual: she had visited 82 countries as a presidential wife, and delivered countless speeches overseas, but she had never actually been a diplomat.

Justice for Hillary

You would hardly know it from the media, but since taking office 13 months ago Clinton - despite a very painful elbow fracture - has visited 45 countries and flown around a quarter of a million miles in that adapted 757 (the latest trip being the first that was announced by the US state department on Twitter, before the mainstream media had been informed). With­in three days of leaving her husband's bedside, however, she was back in her six-bedroom house in Whitehaven Parkway, just south of the British embassy in Washington DC.

So what does the future hold for her? She says she can't envisage a second term (assuming Obama gets one, that is), being constantly exhausted by travel; and insists, about as convincingly as any politician could, that she won't run for the presidency again. That means either an unlikely return to politics, or the ghastly prospect of retirement with Bill in Chappaqua in upstate New York.

There is one ultimate prize a loyal soldier and lawyer such as Hillary Clinton still has in her sights, however: a nomination to the US Supreme Court. John Paul Stevens, the most liberal of the nine judges, will be 90 this year; Ruth Ginsburg will be 77 and is in bad health. Supreme Court Justice Clinton?

Now that would lead to the mother of all nomination battles

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.