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Here come the liberals

For decades American conservatism defined global politics. Now we are about to witness a seismic cha

British politicians, commentators and the public like to believe in their sturdy autonomy. We have arrived at our decisions as freeborn men and women. We debate our ideas furiously in pubs, on radio phone-ins or via letters to the editor. We read the opinion pages. We elect a sovereign parliament that passes the laws and regulations that we mandate.

The truth is more subtle. We dance to another country's tune. It is the United States that makes the political, cultural and intellectual weather. It is the rich American institutes that develop the ideas for XYZ plan or ABC radical reform. Our academics, especially in the social sciences, want to get published in the American journals and ensure they please the editor in question. Our politicians watch closely to see what works in the US. We enjoy their movies and use their technology. The West Wing and Mad Men are part of our culture, as are Sex and the City and Friends. We think we are free; we are painfully and excessively influenced by the US.

Which is why the election of Barack Obama matters so much. In the tidal wave of tears of joy, analysis of county by county results, the "were you awake to hear the speech" conversations, naming the puppy and the critiques of Michelle's wardrobe - and yet another article on the big things in his in-tray - one thing has been underplayed. Obama's success will transform British politics. The centre ground will move significantly to the left.

No account of the rise of Thatcherism or the character of new Labour is possible without acknowledging the force and impact of the 30-year ascendancy of American neoconservatism. They won control of Washington in the late 1970s, creating the Washington consensus. No country - from communist China to the Nordic social democracies - held out. Everybody, to a degree, bought into the market fundamentalist consensus. Tony Blair could have held out more than he did - but the room for manoeuvre was tiny.

It went very deep. Editors of the top US social science journals published articles in this idiom because they had secured their jobs by conforming to it; ambitious British academics soon learned what was accepted and what was not. Young British investment bankers training in New York learned about the value of securitisation. Treasury officials on secondment to Washington bought into the consensus that privatisation and deregulation were the only ways forward. From social policy (remember zero tolerance and broken windows) to " light touch" financial regulation, and from a belief in labour market flexibility to distrust of public service broadcasting, the cultural and intellectual backdrop was conservative.

Obama's election ends that. American conservatism is now in profound disarray. It is not just that Republicanism has been forced back to the south and the mountain states: the intellectual paradigm that it championed led to nowhere but a credit crunch, a bloated and overpaid financial elite and the onset of a deep recession. No accident that Obama's lead jumped in the wake of the Lehman Brothers' bankruptcy and the part nationalisation of the banking system. Conservatism was on the ropes. A change had to come. Yes it did.

Here is a checklist of areas where the discourse is going to move left - intelligently and moderately because that is part of the Obama DNA. Firstly, trade unionism. Barack Obama shares the view of liberal Democrats that the best way to roll back the stagnating real incomes of the squeezed middle of the United States is to strengthen the bargaining power of organised labour. An empowered upper working class across all ethnic groups is the backbone of both the Democrat party and the economy.

This president is the most pro-union since Roosevelt. He wants to help unions organise and get recognition through a simple membership card check system, which workers can use freely and anonymously to signal their readiness to join - fiercely opposed by American business. This June, Obama even wrote to Tesco boss, Sir Terry Leahy, urging him to work with unions in the US (as he already does in the UK). The anti-unionism that led US officials to veto OECD reports that questioned labour market flexibility will be over. Now the US will encourage the OECD to publish evidence.

The BBC and Channel 4 should also be relieved at the victory. Obama is a strong supporter of public service broadcasting and caps on media ownership; he wants to see every American television and radio network commit to neutrality. In the US, one of the live issues is whether the Fairness Doctrine, requiring equal time between different points of view on broadcast media, should be reinstated - it was abolished by Ronald Reagan.

The subsequent avalanche of right-wing shock-jocks, the dumbing down of the American media and the partisanship of Fox News are even more an issue for the left in the US than the power of the right-wing print media is in Britain. For Democrats in the House, and Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, reinstating the Fairness Doctrine is of iconic importance. Obama may stop short of imposing a legal obligation on broadcasters - but he will go a long way towards it.

So it goes, too, with tax. This is the president who will redistribute income from the top 5 per cent earners above $200,000 to the other 95 per cent. There may not be much cash involved, but as Professor Avner Offer says in The Challenge of Affluence,, the point about higher tax rates is not so much the cash they raise but the signal they send about the dominant values of society. Obama has clear views on that. As he has on tax havens.

His reforms of Wall Street will be far-reaching; he will constrain bank bonuses, introduce tough new regulations and, as Roosevelt did, set up a wave of new banking institutions. He is already committed to a National Infrastructure Bank. When this is set up, financing roads, railways, bridges and dams across the US, the argument that Britain should have one too will become irresistible. Obama will try to deliver universal health provision. He will try to extend college access. He will want to build affordable homes. He will try radically to lower the US's carbon footprint, lower petrol consumption and improve energy efficiency. He will aim to reindustrialise the US.

As for foreign policy, he will be more multilateralist and there will be no Iraqs on his watch. But he is closer to Tony Blair and David Miliband (I think, rightly) as a liberal internationalist than many on the British left might like. Enlightenment values, democracy and human rights are worth asserting as universal rather than western principles. And, at the limit, worth fighting for. Trade is a big question mark. His party remains very protectionist.

For all that, the message is unmistakeable. Barack Obama will change the trajectory of the US.

I have found it odd to have been pro-BBC, pro-multilateralist Europe, pro-moderate trade unions, a City of London sceptic, pro-public service, pro-fairness and pro-redistribution for more years than I can remember. Now the leader of the world's hegemonic power, in control of its political, intellectual and cultural levers, is making this cluster of views the mainstream. The Labour Party and the wider liberal left are being given permission to be moderately and intelligently social democratic again. It may be a hackneyed phrase - but this really is a seminal moment.

Will Hutton is executive vice-chair of The Work Foundation

Obama's inner circle

Rahm Emanuel: chief of staff An Illinois congressman and the fourth-highest-ranking House Democrat. A centrist renowned for his aggressive manner, he is a former ballet dancer and was a volunteer mechanic in Israel's army during the first Gulf War in 1991. After working for the Clinton White House, he made $18m in two years at an investment bank. He is feared for his tactical prowess on Capitol Hill by Republicans and by Democrats who are not on his list of favourites.

Robert Gibbs: press secretary Gibbs has been with Obama since his 2004 Senate campaign, an affable Southerner with a temper. He was despatched on the trail in 2007 after concerns that Obama's message wasn't getting across; no adviser has spent more time at Obama's side. He made waves in a recent on-camera confrontation with Fox News's arch-conservative commentator Sean Hannity. Obama calls him "the guy I want in the foxhole with me during incoming fire".

Robert Gates The secretary of state for defence may hold on to his position in the short term to provide continuity in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has worked as a CIA chief and president of Texas A&M. He shares Obama's vision for emphasising "smart power" over raw military force, and keeping him on could lend a bipartisan aura.

Lawrence Summers Tipped for the position of treasury secretary, a post he held under Clinton, Summers is also a former World Bank chief economist and Harvard president. Intellectually, he is hugely respected, but his occasional tactlessness - notably his comments about women's aptitude for science - has earned him detractors.

Tom Daschle Tipped for a cabinet-level post, possibly secretary of state or health policy tsar, Daschle led the Senate for a decade before being voted out in 2004. His early support for Obama lent the candidate credibility, and his legislative know-how will be of use in driving the agenda.

David Axelrod A likely senior White House adviser, Obama's chief campaign strategist began his career as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. He will be keeping his eye on Obama's 2012 re-election prospects, though probably with less of a hand in policy than Karl Rove had.

Valerie Jarrett A contender for a cabinet post, Jarrett is more likely to become a White House adviser. Co-chair of Obama's transition team, she is a businesswoman and a close friend of Barack and Michelle Obama.

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obamania

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The war within wars

Why the Western-backed assault on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is failing.

The first signs of a Western-backed attempt to recapture Raqqa, ­Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria, came a fortnight ago when fighter jets dropped leaflets over the city telling residents to leave. “The time has come,” the warnings read, alongside an illustration of residents evacuating the city as incoming forces overran IS fighters.

Although up to half of Raqqa’s residents fled when IS first took control of the city in 2014, the militants have made it ­increasingly difficult for the people who stayed behind to leave. Following the US-led coalition’s warnings of an impending attack, however, the jihadis relaxed their restrictions on movement. Citizens were allowed to disperse into the nearby countryside. The idea was to spare them whatever onslaught was planned against Raqqa while keeping them within IS territory.

Ever since the latest offensive against IS began in Syria and Iraq in late May, it has become clear that the group will not concede territory easily around Raqqa – or elsewhere. It might lose small villages from time to time, but all of its major urban centres remain well fortified. Few observers expect them to fall any day soon. IS has too much invested in Raqqa, as well as Mosul in Iraq. Occupying the cities fuels the group’s prestige by projecting the impression of ­viable statehood and by allowing it to house fighters and military equipment.

Raqqa is the nerve centre of IS operations. Several training camps are located on its outskirts, including those used to plan attacks against the West. IS has long anti­cipated a revanchist campaign against its Syrian base and has fortified the city by surrounding it with trenches and landmines to thwart any hostile advance.

What makes the fight against IS even more challenging is that its fighters are not easily disheartened. Before this latest campaign, I spoke by Skype to a British fighter from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, about how the group perceives territorial losses. He responded with the kind of fatalistic indifference that only the faithful enjoy. Their obligation, he told me, was simply to try their best. The challenge for them was to fight with all they have. Results come from Allah, so, if defeat and setbacks follow, then it is the will of God.

There are two possible interpretations, in their reasoning, for why God might not deliver success for them – because He is punishing or testing them. Either way, the conclusion is the same: to double down on their commitment. In that spirit, they are resolved to fight until victory or martyrdom – and both outcomes represent success. This reasoning shows just how hard it can be to erode the morale of IS’s most doctrinaire fighters (though not all are so zealous in their commitment).

***

The ground push for Raqqa has been overseen by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are led principally by the YPG, an ethnically Kurdish unit of fighters concentrated in north-eastern Syria. Although the SDF officially claims to be an umbrella movement for more than 20 different fighting groups – some of which are Arab – its heavily Kurdish composition has made it a reluctant and unsuitable partner in the push to liberate Raqqa.

To understand the reasons why, it is necessary to parse the conflict into its constituent parts. We often hear about the sectarian dimensions of the Syrian civil war, yet this is just one aspect of a much broader tapestry. Syria is a series of wars within a war. Just as there are sectarian components, there are strong ethnic dimensions, too. These are especially pronounced in the northern regions where the Kurds, with their cultural and linguistic distinctiveness, stand apart from their Arab neighbours.

The Kurds have usually formed defensive fighting units in the Syrian conflict, preferring to safeguard and administer their own areas rather than acquire new territory such as Raqqa. Another issue is that Arab ­civilians are reluctant to have non-Arabs push into their cities. The anti-IS activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) says that residents worry about ethnic retribution against an Arab population that is seen as having historically oppressed the Kurds. Many reason that it is better to keep IS and deal with the devil they know.

Those fears are not unfounded. With the horrors of IS and the Syrian army so magnified, it is easy to forget that every fighting group in this conflict has violated human rights and continues to do so. The Kurds are no exception; in October, Amnesty ­International accused Kurdish fighters of war crimes after they razed Arab villages in al-Hasakah and al-Raqqa Governorates. All of this adds to the intractability of the war, forcing people to seek security within their communal, sectarian or ethnic circles. Syrians are hardly unique in this respect; they are merely repeating a pattern of countless conflicts around the world.

This makes it extremely difficult for the West, which is reliant on local forces to do the fighting. The US is supporting al-Hashd al-Shaabi (meaning “popular mobilisation committee”), a nominally Iraqi force leading the assault against IS in Fallujah. Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has made two main claims about al-Hashd al-Shaabi: that it is a non-sectarian movement of ordinary Iraqis from all sections of society who want to drive IS from the country, and that its leadership reports to him personally.

Neither of these claims is accurate. It is true that some divisions of al-Hashd al-Shaabi comprise Sunni fighters, but it is overwhelmingly dominated by Shias. Its military campaigns are directed not from Baghdad, but Tehran. These efforts are overseen by Qasem Soleimani, a celebrated Iranian major general in the elite Quds Force, who is perhaps the most important military official with a battlefield presence in Syria and Iraq. He previously orchestrated several successful campaigns for President Bashar al-Assad and the al-Abadi force.

Though the ongoing assaults on Raqqa and Fallujah have put IS under pressure on two fronts, anyone hoping this might signal a turning point in the conflict is likely to be disappointed. For every push that shunts IS backwards – often only marginally – many new recruits are spawned.

Videos released on social media from the latest assault on Fallujah appear to show how incoming Shia fighters have beaten and tortured Sunni civilians. The pictures of abuse are overlaid with sectarian slurs, often invoking sensitive points of disputed Sunni/Shia theology. These resound across the region and arguably do even more damage than the images of abuse.

The rapid deterioration in sectarian relations that followed the 2003 invasion of Iraq explains how IS was able to capture Sunni areas of Iraq with such ease. Ordinary residents do not necessarily agree with the authoritarian strictures of its regime, but they mostly understand them. These latest outrages from incoming al-Hashd al-Shaabi fighters will only fuel the belief among Sunnis that they are best served by Sunni administrations – however brutal.

Islamic State has repeatedly invoked the vulnerability of the Sunnis across the Levant to justify its violence. This is the constituency in whose name it claims to act and whose interests it claims to defend.

Shortly after IS first captured Mosul, in June 2014, the group released a video, aimed at Iraqi Sunnis, explaining how both the West and Iraqi Shias had conspired against them in 2003. The result had been a decline in Sunni fortunes and increased insecurity as Shia death squads sought revenge after decades of repression and abuse.

This resonated strongly with Sunnis such as the Albu Mahal and al-Qa’im tribes, which had supported the US-led “awakening”, a military strategy initiated in 2005 to encourage Sunni Iraqi tribes to fight against the insurgency initiated by al-Qaeda. IS captured the heads of those tribes and forgave them for fighting alongside the West against al-Qaeda in Iraq. We are not accustomed to seeing videos of IS pardoning captives, but this was as careful and calculated as any of its ultra-violent theatre. The exercise was designed to project the group as a bastion of Sunni honour and security.

That is the story behind so much of IS’s strength today: the fears of the vulnerable Sunni poor over whom militants govern. Remove that constituency, and the group would collapse. But the Obama administration has done little to allay Sunni fears. Rather, it has exacerbated them by launching air strikes against IS targets in Fallujah, fuelling a perception that it is working hand-in-glove with Shia militias loyal to Iran.

***

The latest attempt to seize IS terri­tory points towards a more pressing question: what, actually, is Islamic State? During a recent meeting at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, one analyst brilliantly described the mercurial nature of the group. To residents of Raqqa, it appears as a proto-state, replete with all the nomenclature of statehood: an executive, judiciary, police force and civil administration. To rebel groups in the north and for President Assad in Syria, it is more of an aggressive insurgent movement with which there are periodic battles for control of land. For the French and Belgians, it feels more like a conventional terrorist group that deploys suicide bombers and gunmen to kill as many civilians as possible.

Such is the kaleidoscopic nature of IS that there is no reason why it cannot assume multiple forms at the same time, or why it can’t move from one to the other. If the territory in which it operates is overrun, it will revert to being a conventional terrorist movement that unleashes waves of attacks against the West and others. IS has already demonstrated both its willingness and ability to strike in Europe, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey.

It now also appears an American man, Omar Mateen, self-identified with Islamic State and affiliated himself to the group in order to carry out the most deadly act of US domestic terrorism since the 11 September 2001 attacks. Mateen killed 49 revellers, and injured more than another 50, at a gay bar in Orlando, Florida, on 12 June. The ability of individuals to align themselves with IS despite having no tangible links to it underscores the difficulties of acting decisively against the group. Indeed, this is precisely what IS has advocated. A few days ago, its official spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, repeated his call for individuals to launch attacks in the West on the group’s behalf. Following the Orlando massacre, supporters have already suggested copycat attacks in Paris, London and Washington.

By way of comparison, let’s consider what al-Qaeda looked like on the day after the 9/11 attacks. What the West faced was a small group – of perhaps 500 key individuals, if we’re generous – committed to its programme of global jihad. By contrast, even conservative estimates today place ­Islamic State’s manpower somewhere in excess of 20,000. And no one has yet convincingly addressed how to mitigate the threats that will emerge from the region should IS suffer a sudden loss of territory.

IS’s control of large parts of Syria and Iraq will not end quickly. Not only is the group embedded and emboldened, but it enjoys the strategic advantage that comes with being able to operate across two (however nominally) sovereign states. In that respect, the Syrian and Iraqi crises embody all the difficulties of the last hyphenated conflict of the past decade, the so-called challenge of “Af-Pak” (Afghanistan and Pakistan). There, the US found that whenever it pushed against Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, they disappeared over the border. When Pakistan did the same, insurgents moved the other way.

Many of the same issues undermine Western-backed attempts to eradicate IS today. When it allowed civilians to move from Raqqa into the countryside, its own families, fighters and supporters were moved
as well. It has also begun moving critical personnel and heavy arms out of Raqqa, repositioning them near the Iraqi border. In the unlikely event that its operations in Syria are severely compromised, it will fall back into its Iraqi hideouts, and vice versa.

Pressuring IS, therefore, is like squeezing the air in a balloon: push on one area and it moves to another place. In Syria, even as IS militants fight to defend their territory in Raqqa, they have made gains in the ­Aleppo Governorate, moving ever closer to the strategic town of Azaz. Whoever controls Azaz also controls the nearby Bab al-Salam border crossing with Turkey, an important source of revenue and influence. IS previously occupied Azaz but abandoned it in 2014 to consolidate its control in Raqqa. That the group is close to recapturing Azaz at a time when the Obama administration wants to suggest that IS faces an existential crisis shows just how fissiparous and ­intractable this conflict remains.

Shiraz Maher is an NS contributing writer and the deputy director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. His book, “Salafi-Jihadism: the History of an Idea”, is newly published by C Hurst & Co

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink