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''We're still fighting the Civil War here"

Virginia, a former slave state and Republican stronghold, could help secure the presidency for Barac

It is lunchtime in Petersburg and Alice McAlexander and David Nibert are on the prowl. The two Obama campaign staffers have come to the campus of Virginia State University, a historically black college that is still overwhelmingly African-American. Armed with clipboards, they fan out across the scrub lawns between the red-brick halls. “Are you registered to vote in Virginia?” shouts Nibert, clad in flip-flops and a red Obama T-shirt. The VSU students, in mottled hoodies and low-slung denim, look on curiously, but by the end of an hour-long blitz the two operatives have helped a clutch of teenagers negotiate the mauve text of the Virginia voter registration application form. “I’m excited about voting,” says one of their conquests, Davina Pitts, an 18-year-old psychology student.

The Commonwealth of Virginia, lodged above the Carolinas on America's Atlantic coast, has not voted for a Demo cratic presidential candidate since Lyndon B Johnson in 1964. (Historically, the "Solid South" of the United States was a blue stronghold, but when the Democrats announced their support for the civil rights movement in the 1960s the former Confederate states switched allegiance.) As recently as the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry wound down his Virginia campaign in August, reckoning that the state was forfeit to the Republicans.

But things have changed in recent years. Virginia has elected successive Democratic governors since 2002, and in 2007 the party won a majority in the state senate. Says Dr Dirk Philipsen, a political scientist at VSU: "Virginia is now absolutely in play." With 13 electoral college votes, a higher number than all but 11 other states, it is more than just a potentially rich prize for the Democrats. The Old Dominion may be the place where the presidential election is won and lost.

In 2004, John Kerry wound down his Virginia campaign in August, reckoning the state was forfeit to the Republicans

Demographic change in the suburbs of Washington, DC is one factor in Virginia's shifting political make-up. There, the sprawl has brought an influx of liberal-minded voters to Virginian boom towns such as Woodbridge in Prince William County. However, the change in the hue of the state from Republican red to a pregnant purple is also a result of the increasing political engagement of its large African-American population. As Harry Lewis, the black owner of a real-estate appraisal firm in the state capital, Richmond, says: "Obama is a very intelligent young man. He's got all the qualifications to be president. He's a black man, and he ought to be supported."

African Americans, who comprise 19.9 per cent of Virginia's total population of 7.6 million, generally vote Democrat. However, Obama's candidacy has created a new wave of enthusiasm among black Virginians that extends well beyond traditional party allegiances and youthful idealism.

In Chesterfield County, Sandra Noble, a 59-year-old grandmother and the former principal of Harrowgate Elementary School, is one of many professional African Americans who are looking forward to the election. "I've been listening and watching since the beginning of the campaign," she says. "I think Obama is the one to make the change. Something is changing, and our youth is changing. The higher levels need to take control to meet the needs of what is happening today."

If McCain wins, Noble says, "I would feel highly disappointed. I would feel people had not been putting in their whole spirit. I would feel it would be due to the fact that those who could have voted did not."

Elsewhere, Taniki Boyd, a black single mother from Richmond, is also gearing up for 4 November. "I'm looking forward to it," says the 28-year-old administrative assistant at Virginia Commonwealth University. "I just hope it'll be a fair race." Boyd, whose daughter Maria is three years old, is backing the Democrats because she hopes their proposals for social reform could improve her standard of living. "I am a single mother and sometimes I find it hard," she explains. "Do I come to work or do I stay with the child? And as for health care - it's getting outrageous. Sometimes I have to choose between food and medicine."

But converting African-American enthusiasm for Obama and his message into returns at the ballot box is a substantial challenge for the Democratic campaign. In a picture that is repeated across America, black involvement in politics in Virginia lags behind that of whites. In the US, citizens must register before they can vote, and in 2004 only 64.4 per cent of blacks had done so nationwide compared to 67.7 per cent of whites. Voter turnout is lower, too, with 56.3 per cent of African Americans casting a ballot on polling day, compared to 60.3 per cent of whites. As Dr Pamela Reed, a diversity consultant, says: "A lot of African Americans think why even bother, their vote doesn't count."

Moreover, in a society like Virginia's, which is still heavily racially segregated, there remains a deep undercurrent of resistance to involvement of black Americans in the political process. The civil rights legislation of the 1960s theoretically swept away the legislative bars, such as literacy tests, that Southern states introduced to circumvent the 15th Amendment of 1870, which forbade the government from preventing a citizen from voting on grounds of race. However, under a system where federal elections are administered by states, and run by individual counties themselves, vaguely worded regulations are still bent to discourage African Americans from voting. As Kent Willis of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia says, the election architecture is a "crazy quilt. No two registrars do their job the same."

When I visited King Salim Khalfani, the barrel-chested executive director of the Virginia state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), he explained that the authorities try to discourage black voters through the way polling stations in poor, minority neighbourhoods are run.

“You have to be part of the decision-making process,” said Hasan Zarif. “I’m not just voting because I’m voting, but because my vote counts”

"There's always a line, and the workers are elderly," he observed, speaking in a room at his Richmond headquarters lined with state law reports. "Sometimes we have to wait. They put hurdles in our places; for instance, they have police officers and police cars in black polling places. That's a deterrent. The perception is they're the enemy."

For Khalfani, the intimidation of African-American voters is an unwanted hangover from Virginia's past. "It's this sense of history," he argued. "Race is the most dominant factor in the society. Virginia is the first state. They made people into property in the Virginia constitution. This is where it all began, where Thomas Jefferson, hailed as a father of the nation, bedded down with underage African girls. This was a breeding state, and their main crop was African people. They stole us from Africa and put us on the plantations. We built this for free." As I prepared to leave, the NAACP executive's rhetoric began to soar. "There's a lot of blood in these red bricks," he said. "We're still second-class citizens in this society. We are still fighting the Civil War here."

And yet, despite all the obstacles, if a campaign is able to mobilise historically disengaged African Americans, the payback could be enormous. This is particularly true in Virginia, where there are 360,000 unregistered black voters, substantially more than the 260,000-vote, 8 per cent margin by which the Republicans won in 2004.

Early on, the Obama campaigners realised that black voter registration could give them a substantial advantage on 4 November. But it was the campaign's record fundraising that allowed them to undertake expensive voter registration activities to try to alter the political map in states previously thought to be unobtainable, such as Virginia. "The guy's got money," says Dr Daniel J Palazzolo, a political scientist at the University of Richmond. "He can take a shot at Virginia." In May, Obama's campaign launched Vote for Change, a 50-state registration drive in pursuit of new voters, with lavish internet hype and large-scale events across the United States. However, this process remains an infantry war, particularly in poor minority communities, with junior staffers and volunteers as its foot soldiers.

This was immediately apparent when I visited the Virginia headquarters of the Obama campaign in the Fan district of Richmond. In a backstreet, a red-brick warehouse had been converted into a hive of political activity. Volunteers’ feet pattered on the stripped wooden floors, chasing down the statewide 6 October deadline for voter registration in front of a huge monochrome portrait of the Great Leader. Elsewhere I saw Alice McAlexander, the campaign organiser I had met earlier, dressed in denim shorts and with a telephone glued to her ear. She sat before a trestle table laden with cans of Diet Coke and laptops emblazoned with Obama ’08 stickers. “Registering an unprecedented number of new voters is critical to our success here in Virginia,” Ashley Etienne, a campaign spokeswoman, told me. “In this state we have had an unprecedented outreach to African-American voters.”

Hearing my British accent, Tam Muir, a Scotsman from Edinburgh who had used his holiday to come to Richmond to volunteer for the Obama campaign, introduced himself. "I've been following Barack Obama from '04," he said. "I felt the time was right." The idealism was palpable, but the atmosphere at the headquarters, beneath sugar paper posters and hand-painted murals, was more playroom than war room. At the blunt end of the campaign it seemed like a student-run junket, with a few harried grown-ups toting BlackBerries in the midst of a sea of flip-flops.

However, it cannot be denied that voter registration has achieved results in Virginia. According to the most recent figures from the state board of elections, there has been a net increase of 283,695 registered voters since the beginning of this year. In Richmond City alone, where the population is 57.2 per cent black, the increase of 11,673 since 1 January represents more than 10.4 per cent of the total number of registered voters. "It's been overwhelming," said Garry E Ellis, the state voter registration co-ordinator, as he showed me around the board of elections office in Richmond's gridded downtown area. And, pointing out mailboxes that were overflowing with forms, he said: "Our processing centre is handling thousands of applications."

The increases in African-American voter registration in Virginia are even more startling given that they have been achieved in spite of the state's draconian felon disenfranchisement law. The Virginia system, which in the US is matched in severity only by Kentucky's, declares that anyone with a felony conviction is banned from voting for life without a special grant of clemency from the governor. This creates a huge pool of disenfranchised citizens, the vast majority of whom have served their prison time and are living freely. For example, at the time of the 2004 election there were 35,172 prisoners in Virginia compared to 297,901 ex-felons.

The bulk of Virginia's prison population is black, and today 20 per cent of African Americans in the state are banned from voting due to felony convictions. For black men, the figure may be well over a third. Although I was aware of these statistics, the human cost of the felon disenfranchisement policy did not strike me until I spoke to Hasan K Zarif, a 57-year-old African American who was convicted as a young man in 1974.

One-fifth of all African Americans in the state are banned from voting due to felony convictions. For black men the figure may be well over a third

"It was concerning an incident that happened while I had been drinking and going through tough times," he explained. "I had lost a brother and grandfather. I was going through some mental problems, I was not aware of what was going on and I shot someone. At the time I was convicted, in the 1970s, African Americans did not receive fair trials. You had a state-appointed attorney who just went through the motions. They were mostly farces. All of your information is going to be supporting the Commonwealth case."

Zarif ended up serving 17 years in Virginia State Penitentiary, and as a felon he was stripped of his right to vote.

"When they convicted me I felt my life was completely over," he continued. "I had never voted before. As I was in prison I realised I had lost being a citizen, being a contributing member of society, being able to elect officials. I realised I had lost a great deal. I decided if I was ever released I would do whatever I could to regain my right to vote. I became a model prisoner, went to school, got a college education."

However, under Virginia law the restoration of his rights was a tortuous process. "I had to finish the 17 years in prison," he recalled. "Then I had to get off the parole. After 12 years I was discharged. That enabled me to start the clock ticking. Then I had to wait an additional five years. After 34 years I was able to get the documents together. I put together a mountain of information. I presented as much information as I could present to them. The requirement was three letters. I had 20."

Finally, on 6 August 2007, he had his rights restored by the governor, Tim Kaine. "It felt like the greatest gift you can give," said Zarif who, on the cusp of his sixth decade, will be voting for the first time in a presidential election. "You have to be a part of the decision-making process," he said. "I am not just voting because I'm voting, but because my vote counts."

The evening after the lunchtime voter registration drive I had another opportunity to see the role of race in Virginian politics at first hand when I returned to VSU for one of its regular “Hot Topic” evenings. To publicise the event, Dirk Philipsen, the white professor I had interviewed earlier, had superimposed his face on to J M Flagg’s 1917 recruitment poster of a finger-pointing Uncle Sam. Beneath the figure the legend read, “I want you NOT to vote.”

As I watched, Philipsen addressed a packed crowd in the university's Foster Hall. "The road to the White House runs through Virginia," he said, reminding the students of their importance in the election. "Everything that is good happens because people do things. History shows that you can make a difference with your friends and families if you know what you are talking about."

Philipsen, in jeans and a navy blazer, then asked the overwhelmingly black crowd who did not want them to vote. There was a pause as drumbeats and cymbal smashes from the band practice outside crashed in on the night air. Then someone shouted, "The man. The white man."

In the final analysis, it is still unknowable whether the Democrats will be able to turn Virginia blue. Large-scale voter registration, not only by the Obama campaign, but also by other groups such as the Community Voting Project and My Vote Will Count, is changing the state's demographic make-up, and drastically increasing the involvement of African Americans. Yet there is always an element of uncertainty as to whether newly registered voters will turn out at the polls. In 2004 many thousands of those signed up in voter registration drives, including P Diddy's widely ridiculed Vote or Die! campaign, stayed at home on polling day. As Daniel Palazzolo says, "If Obama is to win in Virginia, the African-American vote has to come out for him."

If it does turn out on polling day, the result will be historic. For then Virginia, the former slave state that calls itself the Mother of Presidents, and has sent eight of her sons to the White House, could well end up holding out a guiding hand to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to a black man from Hawaii.

Simon Akam is a Fulbright Alistair Cooke scholar at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Israel v Hamas

Edel Rodriguez for New Statesman
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Rehearsing for war

From the Middle East to North Korea, Donald Trump is reasserting US military strength and intensifying the rivalry among the great powers.

As Vice-President Mike Pence arrived in South Korea from Washington on Sunday, he announced that the “era of strategic patience”, in which the US sought to monitor and manage the nuclear threat from North Korea without pushing the matter for fear of escalation, was over. “President Trump has made it clear that the patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out and we want to see change,” Pence declared. The heat under a crisis that had already been bubbling ominously was turned up another notch.

Much has been written in recent years about the stability provided by the post-1945 world order and the dangers of letting it crumble. The conflict in Korea provided the first big test of that order almost 70 years ago, but the difficulty was never really resolved. It remains the proverbial “wicked problem” in international affairs, “frozen” in an obsessively monitored and deeply uneasy stalemate, demarcated by the Demilitarised Zone: a line 160 miles long and roughly two and a half miles wide scored across the middle of the Korean Peninsula, drawn with superpower supervision in 1953. Partition has allowed a strong and ­successful state to flourish in the South while the North has survived in a state of ­arrested development.

The problem has been passed down from generation to generation because attempting to solve the issue risked opening a Pandora’s box. The risks included the unleashing of huge military force, potential world war and a refugee crisis on a scale that could severely destabilise even China. By the 1990s, it was clear that the North Korean regime had fastened upon another strategy for survival as the Cold War passed into history and its sponsors in Beijing and Moscow began to question the value of such an ally: the acquisition of nuclear warheads. Pyongyang has long had the firepower to flatten Seoul in a matter of hours. The mission since has been to develop its missile technology to carry that material as far as possible – certainly to Japan, but ideally also to the west coast of the United States.

The day after Pence’s announcement, the US and South Korea undertook a joint air and army exercise to ensure readiness in the event of an attack from the North. This followed a joint naval war game earlier in the week and the US decision to send a navy group led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which Donald Trump described as an “armada”, to the region. No sooner had the fleet appeared than Japanese sources reported that it had been followed by Chinese and Russian submarines as it entered North Korean waters. Such are the great-power manoeuvres of the 21st century – whether on air, sea or land – in which the world’s most potent military machines shadow the moves of their competitors, and openly rehearse for war.

***

Asia has not had a major inter-state war since the 1970s but it is not immune from the tragedies of power politics that have beset other rapidly developing parts of the world. Across the region, military spending is rising fast as states jostle in anticipation of a changing balance of power.

The purpose of Pence’s Asia-Pacific tour is to offer reassurance to America’s allies in the region, which have been watching the rise of China, in particular, with trepidation. The stark change of tone emanating from the White House – and change of gear – has been noted. After years of steady consistency in US grand strategy, there is a sense of a building crisis and the Americans are being watched in anticipation of their next move more closely than they have been scrutinised in many years.

Before he left South Korea, Pence also visited Panmunjom, where the 1953 armistice was signed at the end of the Korean War, as well as Camp Bonifas, a UN military compound near the Demilitarised Zone, set up to monitor the ceasefire that followed. It is an eerie echo from the past that Pence’s own father served in the war that divided the country. Edward Pence was awarded the Bronze Star on 15 April 1953 for heroic service. The vice-president proudly displays the medal, and a photo of his father receiving it, in his office. He is no doubt aware of the costs of a conflict in which an estimated 36,000 of his countrymen were killed.

Just over a thousand British soldiers also lost their lives in the Korean War after being sent to fight in a joint UN force. But it was far more deadly still for the peoples of the Korean Peninsula, killing more than a million people, including 400,000 troops for the People’s Volunteer Army, among whom was Mao Anying, the eldest son of Chairman Mao, the leader of the Communist Party of China and protector of the North.

History throws up strange parallels. When the Korean War began in 1950 it was understood to be the first serious test of the international system established after the Second World War. It is striking just how many of the same ingredients remain, including the identity of some of the main protagonists. On 25 June 1950, a border conflict between North and South Korea escalated into full-scale war when Kim Il-sung’s Korean People’s Army – backed by China, and with the tacit support of the Soviet Union – invaded the Republic of Korea in the south, claiming that it represented the legitimate government of all Korea. This is a claim that the regime of his grandson Kim Jong-un has not abandoned to this day.

Two days after the invasion, on 27 June, the UN Security Council voted to send a joint force, under General Douglas MacArthur of the US, the former supreme commander of Allied forces in the south-west Pacific area, to protect the sovereignty of the South and repel the invaders. Much more was at stake than the question of territorial integrity or preserving international law. By bringing the Americans into confrontation with the Chinese – and with the Russians seen to be the steering hand in the background – the conflict had all the ingredients for rapid escalation.

From the start, there were concerns that the Americans might overdo the brinkmanship, even under the cautious leadership of Harry Truman. Fears that the self-confident MacArthur would exceed his brief were confirmed when the UN forces pushed back into North Korea in October. In response, the Chinese Communists, who believed that MacArthur had designs on China itself, flooded across the Yalu River in their tens of thousands.

It was in the autumn of 1950 that the danger of another world war, this one involving nuclear weapons, reached its peak. On 28 November, after a grave reverse for the UN forces, MacArthur stated that the advent of 200,000 Chinese had created “an entirely new war”, with much higher stakes than before. Suddenly, the prospect that the US might resort to using an atomic bomb against the North Koreans, or even the Chinese forces, seemed plausible.

While the nuclear scare passed, the war rumbled on towards an ugly stalemate over the next three years. A temporary solution of sorts was found with the 1953 armistice. But there was no resolution to Korea’s frozen war. In a way that no other totalitarian state has managed, the North zipped itself into a hermetically sealed chamber, preserving a three-generation dictatorship that is both comically anachronistic and frighteningly modern in its missile technology.

***

Some of this complicated backstory was explained to Donald Trump by China’s president, Xi Jinping, during his recent visit to the United States. Trump – who had been pressuring China to do more to deal with the North Korean regime – appears to have been receptive to what he heard.

“After listening for ten minutes,” he said, “I realised it’s not so easy.”

This is the first critical test of the “new era in great-power relations” which Xi has been floating for a number of years, but Trump has now decided to put to the test. According to Trump’s most recent tweets, Beijing has continued to work with the US on the North Korea problem. He has welcomed its contribution but insisted that America’s own willingness to deal with the problem does not depend on China. In other words, there is no master plan being played out here, even if – as seems credible – America did hack North Korea’s latest missile launch to make it a damp squib.

The Trump administration is not creating the conditions for a new long game, building a fresh multilateral consensus to contain the North Korean threat. Instead, with a newfound sense of momentum serving as a tail wind, it senses a moment to “solve” one of the longest-running and most treacherous problems in international affairs. It has decided, at the very least, to severely clip the wings of Kim Jong-un’s regime. And in doing so, it has set out to demonstrate that when America speaks, it speaks with effect.

Like much current presidential policy, “the Trump doctrine” is being made on the hoof. Much of the hyperactivity of the past month or so was not scripted but emerged in response to overt challenges – beginning in Damascus and panning to Pyongyang – to the United States and the “red lines” it has laid down in the past. One foundation stone of Trump’s approach to the world is firmly in place, however: the willingness to reassert US military power with swift and decisive effect. The idea that the “America First” slogan implied anything resembling isolationism is crumbling. The growing sense that it does imply unsentimental and unvarnished power politics in the name of the US interest rather than multilateral niceties is closer to the truth.

Under Barack Obama, the US sought to withdraw from those areas in which he felt that the US had overstretched itself under his predecessor. Obama opted for a more rapier-like and cost-effective form of power projection. He drew down from formal military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, while presiding over a huge uptick in drone warfare, cyber capabilities and selective but deadly use of special operations. Much of the full range of US power was submerged in various “secret wars”, and the diplomatic compass was reset to pivot east. This was because, as a legacy of the 9/11 attacks, national security was geared towards the containment of an elusive and amorphous enemy – various offshoots of the global jihad movement – that operated on the periphery of America’s radar.

But the real metrics of great power are those now on display off the coast of North Korea. For all the advances in drone technology, the missiles that cause the gravest threats to humanity are those on the scale that the North Korean regime is attempting to build. Trump’s test was one that a president of the United States would have to face sooner rather than later.

Not since Ronald Reagan has the US been so willing to engage in naked displays of its own military potency in quick succession – and seek to gather diplomatic yields from them as swiftly as possible. The past fortnight brought a missile attack on an airbase manned by the Assad regime – changing the tenor of US-Russian relations overnight – and the dropping of the so-called Moab (“mother of all bombs”) on an Isis affiliate in Afghanistan. The latter was a far cry from the “clear, hold, build” counterinsurgency operations in vogue half a decade ago. But it did fit with a campaign promise by the new president that he would “bomb the shit out of Isis” should the opportunity arise.

Does this fit into a wider pattern or constitute a new approach? The Trump administration is eager to leverage any opening that might have been created. In Seoul, Pence wasted no time in joining the dots: “the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan”. North Korea, he continued, “would do well not to test his resolve, or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region”.

It is the generals who have increasingly set the tone for Trump’s foreign policy. During the 2016 election campaign, he promised to give the Pentagon more leeway than it had under Obama to focus on “winning”. The new national security adviser, H R McMaster, and the defence secretary, General James Mattis, are now the steering hands.

Neither man has followed the rather crass and short-sighted fashion for running down diplomacy. Mattis once said that if the state department budget was cut, he would need more ammunition. McMaster is an urbane thinker who knows that the use of force must always be carefully calibrated and is just one tool in a continuum of factors. In this respect, it is a problem that so many jobs in the state department remain unfilled. Now that muscle has been flexed, the experienced negotiators and diplomats should be flooding through the door.

***

The policy of “strategic patience” was based on an understandable calculation. But, in hindsight, it does appear that North Korea has suffered from neglect. Mitchell B Reiss, one of the most experienced diplomats who led efforts on North Korea in the 1990s, notes that, despite unprecedented co-operation between the US and China in recent weeks, including open threats of economic pressure and military action, they were still unable to prevent North Korea from testing ballistic missiles on 16 April. Even though the missiles exploded immediately after lift off, “The failure of Washington and Beijing to stop the test in the first place has important implications for the Trump administration’s future policy options and for stability in north-east Asia.”

In Reiss’s view, it is “highly unlikely that the North can be cajoled, threatened or given incentives to surrender its nuclear weapons”. The uncomfortable truth is that “short of regime change, which could inflame the entire Korean Peninsula in war”, the US cannot halt the North’s nuclear weapons programme. But that does not mean there are no options. Slowing the pace and raising the costs would be “prudent steps”. More, too, could be done, Reiss says, to “interdict imports of sensitive technologies, to sanction Chinese and other nationals who act as purchasing agents for the nuclear and missile programmes, and to punish Chinese banks that help finance these programmes through so-called secondary sanctions”.

In the end, so much comes down to US-China relations. Could this be the basis for a reset and a new accommodation between Beijing and Washington? How much further is China willing to go to use its leverage on the North, which depends on it for energy and food? And how patient will the Trump administration be if its new strategy does not yield tangible results of the sort that are sometimes elusive in the long and often open-ended game of deterrence? 

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of “Realpolitik: a History” (Oxford University Press)

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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