Kerry meets Barack

Tonight’s edition of the 7:30 Report [transcript] was a massive coup for the ABC, featuring a relatively brief, but wide-ranging interview with U.S. President Barack Obama. One would have to think that the interview was a career highlight for Kerry O’Brien, who remains Australian television’s most credible political journalist. It’s hard to imagine many (or any) other Australian television identity managing to secure an interview with the most influential politician on Earth. Its perhaps even harder to imagine having to sit through such an interview if conducted by one of Australia’s commercial television current affairs “identities”. Actually I’m sorry for even bringing that up; it feels a bit like the cultural cringe equivalent of someone walking over your grave.

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In watching the program, one did get the sense that O’Brien’s line of questioning was tempered with just a little awe and reverence. He did, nevertheless, cover a reasonable spread of serious questions, including the war in Afghanistan, the President’s priorities now that his health reform bill has passed, and climate change. The President’s comments on his relationship with Kevin Rudd will of course be viewed with particular interest locally. One would imagine that the Prime Minister will be very pleased indeed by the glowing lip service provided by his counterpart.

One was also reminded just what a considered and thoughtful person the United States President is. It’s hard to imagine either of the previous two Presidents of the United States uttering truisms like this, on the implications of the rise of China for American hegemony:

It is in our interests, both of our countries interests for China to be successful, for China to be prosperous, because that means they’re more likely to be stable, that means they’re more likely to be able to deal with issues like the energy efficiency of their industries, and reduce pollution, and so we’re not interested in constraining China, we want China to do well. The only thing we want to make sure of is that a country like China as it is growing and inevitably will end up being the largest economy just because of the enormous size of their population, that they are also taking their international responsibilities seriously and that they recognise that with great power comes great responsibility.

Is it too early to be talking about “four more years”?

Time to grow up on the Cuba issue

There is scarcely a more foolish and needlessly punitive foreign policy in global politics than that employed by the United States in relation to Cuba. Despite it being twenty years this November since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the small island nation a few hundred kilometres off the coast of Miami is still being treated by the United States as public enemy number one. While it is lamentable that the hegemony of the brothers Castro does continue, the scale of the measures that the US continues to impose on its relationship with Cuba is out of all proportion and no longer serves any logical purpose or retains any moral support.

President Obama was quite cagey on the Cuba issue in the lead-up to his election last year. It is fascinating that he overtly talked up the possibility of having face-to-face discussions with Mahmoud Ahmaninejad of Iran and Kim Jong-Il of North Korea, but Cuba received no such special mention or attention. Could it be that the prevalence of ex-Cold War combatants in US government circles and the Democratic Party have made Cuba something of a taboo foreign policy issue? Only historical hackles and an ideological war some twenty years buried would seem to stand in the way of these two nations forging a new, realistic relationship for the twenty-first century.

Promisingly, President Obama has just announced a lift of the ban on travel and money transfers to Cuba by Cuban-Americans. This move offers some hope for the future, but it does seem a curiously restricted step forward. It is a signal that Washington is not offering a carte blanche, but is expecting some action from Cuba in return before it will move to consider lifting the trade embargo.

It is also a signal that the United States is still very worried about “saving face”. Perversely, a change in policy now would be seen by many Americans (particularly the conservatives) as some sort of backdown or an admission of failure. Still, I would have thought that after all these years, the United States would be less concerned about “saving face” than kickstarting a useful new economic relationship with a country literally screaming for American imports. When one considers the economic orthodoxy on free trade that is celebrated by both the Democrat and Republican parties, and all of the tin-pot dictators the world over whose countries the United States is happily trading with, its position on Cuba seems even more ridiculous. That’s because it is.

Come on Barack, do something about it. This is one of those issues on which just a little effort and a little willpower could go a long way towards forging a real and lasting achievement for this fledgling administration.

Obamalanche?

Well after what seems like several millennia of campaigning and what must have amounted to countless of billions of dollars spent, the winner of the race for the White House will likely be known in less than twenty-four hours. The polls are looking very good for Barack Obama, with the Democrat ahead in most of the battleground states. Although it is undoubtedly a mistake of statistically extreme proportions to do so, it is very tempting to consider what events we may all witness in the coming hours if these early results are anything to go by:

Dixville Notch and Hart’s Location have just 115 residents between them and kept up their tradition of being the first to cast their votes on election day.

The usually Republican strongholds went for the Democratic candidate by a big margin.

In Dixville Notch, Obama notched up 15 votes to McCain’s six. In Hart’s Location they voted 17 to 10 in Obama’s favour, with two voters going for the libertarian candidate, Ron Paul. The Independent candidate, Ralph Nader, got no votes in either village.

I for one will be following the election coverage with avid interest over the course of the next day, and keeping my fingers crossed for a Democrat victory. My tip, and probably just about everyone else’s, is that Barack Obama is teetering on the brink of making history – and that tomorrow he will decisively defeat a Republican team that is tired and has provided only lacklustre competition. John McCain is not offering anything new to the American people for the future and quite frankly, is too old and jaded for the considerable tasks at hand. Sarah Palin, as John Cleese so wonderfully puts it, has done a magnificent job of dethroning Michael Palin as the world’s funniest Palin, but is not up to the job she has been nominated for.

The United States is on the verge of something wonderful – an opportunity for resounding change that only comes along once or twice in a generation. Will they now carry it through and signal the start of a bold new political era for their nation and indeed the world at large?

Obama, Osama, a media piñata

Sure, I think this is kind of clever and “wryly amusing”, but coming as it is supposedly from a liberal publication like The New Yorker, it is also somewhat stupefying. Don’t the magazine’s editorial staff realise (or is it that do they just don’t care?) that there are people out there in the United States whose racist or just plain insane views about Barack Obama could do without any (even satirical) reinforcing? In a not dissimilar fashion to the Mohammed cartoon fiasco, what we seem to have here is a media outlet indulging in a form of lurid self-gratification; self-gratification, of course, in the name of editorial freedom, artistic integrity, or whatever other elitist flag one can conceive of being bandied about.

Either that or it is just a plain colossal misjudgment that records (in wink nudge, ha-ha triplicate) that self-destructive foolishness is alive and well in the liberal media. Needless to say, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for any prominent conservative publication to make their man look like a joke on the front cover, for the sake of some insider giggles. No sir. Only us smart guy liberal types shoot down our own for laughs.

This time it is really happening… I think

And I have mixed emotions. Sure, Barack Obama has won the Democratic presidential nomination fair and square, he is a better orator, he does offer more likelihood of real change and a culture shift in Washington, and he is my preferred candidate for President of the United States. On the other hand, I feel fairly bad for Hillary. Neither the traditional conservative media outlets nor the liberal media outlets have done her any favours over the course of this gruelling and increasingly bitter campaign. One needs only to consider the nasty photographs published of her in the press over the past six months to realise that the world’s mainstream media, whether concertedly or implicitly, had it in for Hillary Clinton all along. Obama has been gifted a “cool candidate” framing by the media that has elevated his campaign to a degree that it is hard to quantify. One wonders what the result would have been if the media had ripped into both of the Democratic candidates equally over the past six months.

She would have been a pretty good President, despite it all. Of course, if Obama loses to McCain in November, this whole overblown, melodramatic saga is going to make Democrats and their supporters across the United States (and the globe) look and feel pretty stupid. The Democrats have certainly had the better and more competitive of the two nomination races. Now they really have to make it happen in the race that actually matters.

Of course, part of me will still not believe that the Democratic nomination race is over until I see Hillary Clinton utter her concession direct to camera. She has been nothing if not dogged and determined throughout, and for that she deserves high praise.

Dictators are only wrong some of the time

One of my pet hates when it comes to politics or political commentary is when someone’s opinion is condemned because of who they are rather than what they are actually saying. This sort of behaviour perhaps stems from the simplification process whereby we tend to reduce people to being either “good” or “bad” in our minds. Consider for a moment the following names, and whether you would classify them on the whole as being “good” or “bad”. You might be surprised at what your first instinct is for each one, depending on what your political tendencies are:

  • The Dalai Lama
  • Adolf Hitler
  • John Howard
  • Malcolm Fraser
  • Bob Brown
  • Fidel Castro

Of course, if you are a lefty, you might not like John Howard, but would it really be fair to characterise him as “bad”, alongside, presumably, Adolf Hitler? Realistically speaking, of course not. Any reasonable, rational person who disagrees with the Howard Government’s work would be forced, after some consideration, to place him somewhere in the middle of the scale, perhaps arguably even on the positive side of even steven if you were feeling generous (though I can’t say I am). I would imagine that someone on the conservative side of the fence would have to feel the same way about somebody like Bob Brown. Sure, you might think he is a bit loopy, but compared to some of the names who fall firmly in the “bad” column, any reasonable critic would judge him as relatively unobjectionable.

I think Fidel Castro’s column in the Guardian today strongly brings this little conundrum to mind. The topic of the column, bizarrely enough, is Barack Obama and the Democratic frontrunner’s comments on the trade embargo with Cuba, which would reportedly be continued under an Obama presidency. Now while I think most of us would probably agree that Castro has done the occasional good thing in relation to his country’s health and education systems, I think we would also agree that his militant aversion to criticism and indeed democracy is disturbing and hopelessly out of step with the modern civilised world we live in. Having said that, it is hard to disagree with the central thesis of Castro’s argument here; that perhaps the United States should take a good hard look at its own recent record on foreign policy and hop off its high horse before so harshly judging Cuba and by association the Cuban people:

Is it right for the president of the US to order the assassination of any one person in the world, whatever the pretext? Is it ethical for the president of the US to order the torture of other human beings? Should state terrorism be used by a country as powerful as the US as an instrument to bring peace to the planet?

Is an Adjustment Act, applied as punishment to only one country, Cuba, in order to destabilise it, good and honourable when it costs innocent children and mothers their lives? Are the brain drain and the continuous theft of the best scientific and intellectual minds in poor countries moral and justifiable?

Is it fair to stage pre-emptive attacks? Is it honourable and sane to invest millions and millions of dollars in the military-industrial complex, to produce weapons that can destroy life on earth several times over? Is that the way in which the US expresses its respect for freedom, democracy and human rights?

Of course there are plenty of things that Castro could have done during his lifetime that would have left the country in a much better position than it is today. However, I think in this particular scenario, the United States should have the moral stature to ignoring the ancient ideological squabbles and start engaging with Cuba again. I am disappointed that Obama, of all people, feels the need to perpetuate what seems to be a cold war mentality in an era when the next missile crisis the world is going to face is going to be quite far from this little island off the coast of Miami.

All eyes on the Super Tuesday prize

The presidential race in the United States has quickly boiled down to a couple of candidates for each party: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democrats, and John McCain and Mitt Romney for the Republicans. For the Republicans it would seem that the outcome is a foregone conclusion, with McCain running with far greater momentum with Romney through recent state ballots. Contrastingly, I don’t think any of us watching is too keen to put their neck out in relation to predicting the Democratic nomination. From all reports, the margins are tight, and recent results which have run massively contrary to prior polling (e.g. New Hampshire) make one pretty sceptical of market research just at the moment.

For my money’s worth (and I have an extremely dubious track record on such matters), I am tipping Hillary Clinton to do better out of Super Tuesday for the Democrats than Obama. My preferred choice is of course the latter, but I just have a funny feeling that while Obama is pulling in young voters left, right and centre, he is not doing quite so well with the older, establishment set within the Democratic party. The recent comparisons of Obama to JFK and his endorsement by Teddy Kennedy seem at first glance to be real coups for the Obama campaign, but we mustn’t forget that Kennedy no longer represents what we might call the mainstream Democratic establishment. One imagines that a decent number of hard-nosed Democrat voters would have sensed alarm bells going off when Kennedy, with his controversial take on modern politics and his high profile, backed Obama, who has less political experience and less global political connections than his counterpart. The Obama campaign team have attempted to turn this inexperience into a positive by taking an anti-establishment, anti-insider approach to the media markets, but this may ultimately prove hurtful to the campaign, as it appeared to be in some respects for John Edwards who was even more aggressive on this line.

I guess we’ll find out one way or another soon enough. If we do eventually end up with a third Clinton Administration – my one frivolous hope is that Clinton hires Obama and his team for writing and delivering her speeches. If we are talking about the craft of language and the ability to inspire people with words, I don’t think there is any doubt that Obama knocks Clinton, her husband, and the entire bevy of Republican candidates right out of the park.