Fixing Bush's legacy

Whoever wins the White House they have a huge task to try to rebuild the US reputation abroad. Here

Having recently returned to planet earth from a ten day stop-over in Washington, it would appear as though Barack Obama is on the cusp of being a shoo-in not just for the Democratic nomination but for the presidency as well.

That's unless Hillary does something dramatic, Senator McCain manages to make a party that couldn’t beat a paper bag electable, as someone said. Or some act of god should befall us all.

Major caveats admittedly, but none have stifled a new game in Washington, which is to treat President Obama as a given, and to start to plan for life under him.

This game is most entertainingly played in foreign policy discussions – where the consensus would broadly seem to be that while Presidents Hillary Clinton or McCain would both provide a much needed change of set dressing from the reviled George W, Obama could offer the breath of fresh air that could revitalize America’s image of itself as the “shining beacon on the hill” and further persuade the rest of us to believe this to be the case as well. Naturally, this is a consensus that is seen more from the Democratic perspective than on the Republican side, but even they privately admit that it will be tough to overcome the Obama zeitgeist.

Republicans have not of course given up, and one Republican friend harangued me about the personality cult developing around the senator from Illinois, citing the recent Frank Shepard Fairey - he of the Obey Giant fame) - poster campaign that openly evokes totalitarian propaganda. On the more controversial end of the scale, prominent academic Edward Luttwak attracted a storm with an article about the candidate’s Muslim heritage in the New York Times that ran under the title “President Apostate?”

From a foreign policy perspective, however, it seems to hard to deny the potential that, if elected, Obama will offer the opportunity for the US to reach out across the world and to actually find partners willing to work with them. (This FT story shows the impact he is able to have without any apparent effort in the world’s most populous Muslim country).

This is not to say that the world will suddenly be inverted, but more that such a clean break with the aggressive Manichean rhetoric of the Bush administration can only offer positive potential.

Some may query the sagacity of openly agreeing to meet with dictators without preconditions, but one cannot deny that offering some potential forum for discussion seems preferable to the many foreign quagmires that the Bush administration has let the United States sink in to. And the potential face-lift that President Barack Hussein Obama will offer his country in the Muslim world is hard to calculate.

However, young and excessively optimistic presidents have had a tendency to be pushed around by their tougher national security types in-house, but also by opportunistic foreign leaders. The most prominent historical example is John F Kennedy who was pushed by domestic actors into the ill-judged Bay of Pigs debacle, and who was then tested by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Recognising this comparison and his oft cited weak national security credentials, Senator Obama has taken some pretty hard lines on the stump, most prominently stating that “if we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and [Pakistan's] President Musharraf won’t act, we will”. His opponents leapt on this, immediately accusing him an even deeper naiveté in being willing to bomb an ally and sovereign state (amusingly, in private conversation, most in Washington would agree that this would of course be the American reaction to such a situation).

One Democrat academic put it to me in a most mischievous manner when he stated that what Obama would need early on is a “small war.” A short, sharp and constrained conflict with high popularity ratings at home could immediately strengthen an Obama administration both at home and abroad – think Ronald Reagan and the American invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983, or the revitalising impact the Falklands had upon Margaret Thatcher’s fortunes.

None of this, however, detracts from another key element which might let down the potential that Obama offers – and that is a hand to reach back. While the senator would undoubtedly offer an outstretched hand, he will need the world, and particularly Europe, to reach back. Nowhere is Obamamania more pronounced than in Europe, but at the same time, there is scant evidence that Europeans have begun to think through what exactly they are going to do if the rhetoric in the White House changes sharply.

America’s prestige and power have undoubtedly been tarnished, and it will take some work to bring their lustre back, but in the meantime, very real problems exist in the world that it will take both sides to fix. Afghanistan cannot simply limp on – if we really think it is a just war, then resources must match intentions.

And while it is easy to avoid dealing with Iraq at all at the moment it's not a situation that will simply resolve itself.

As German academic Guido Steinberg has put it in Der Spiegel , “the next US government will demand greater support from Germany on the international stage” – a statement which is equally applicable across Europe.

There is a crucial need for leaders and citizens the world to start to think through what they are willing to contribute to fix Bush's terrible legacy. If Obama is elected, high expectations will only be met if he gets tangible international support.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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