As the Washington clocks strike twelve on 20th January 2009, listen carefully and you might just hear a swooshing sigh of relief travel around the world.
But a critique of what should have been done differently since 2001 is not enough.
This blog is about the new ideas that can change our world and how a 'new multilateralism' can tackle the global challenges of our age.
Change the World, Reports from the Fabian new year conference

Friday, October 24, 2008

Obama and McCain would 'talk to Taliban'

Time's Joe Klein has a significant interview with Barack Obama.

It includes a significant development in his thinking on Afghanistan.

Actually, Obama and Petraeus seem to be thinking along similar lines with regard to Afghanistan. I mentioned that Petraeus had recently given a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation in which he raised the possibility of negotiating with the Taliban. "You know, I think this is one useful lesson that is applicable from Iraq," Obama said without hesitation. "The Sunni awakening changed the dynamic in Iraq fundamentally," he said, referring to the Petraeus-led effort to turn the Sunni tribes away from the more radical elements of the insurgency. "Whether there are those same opportunities in Afghanistan I think should be explored," he said.

Wired's Noah Shactman, one of the most respected reporters on security issues, has, perhaps significantly, got a McCain campaign source to respond consensually.

"There are differences over timing, strategy, etc. But there is consensus that at some point there will need to be an effort to talk with some of these [Taliban] guys and peel off more moderate elements".

This might be surprising in the final phases of a campaign when there could have been a late partisan advantage to be made in politicising (perhaps misrepresenting) Obama's position on 'talking to the Taliban'. (Maybe Schactman has got a view informed more by McCain's foreign policy advisers rather than his political operatives).

That Obama is here endorsing the emulation of an important part of the Petreaus strategy in Iraq may have a good deal to do with that. But perhaps, and despite all recent appearances to the contrary, 'Country First' is still an argument which holds some sway with the McCain campaign on issues that really matter.

PS: Even outside of the campaign context, the British experience shows why politicians can be wary of this debate in public.

Last December, British discussion of strategies to "split" the Taliban generated front-page Brown: It's time to talk to the Taliban headlines. A Parliamentary statement which generated We will not negotiate with Taliban, insists Brown headlines the following day.

The proposed strategy was always, rationally, somewhere in between. Or as Paul Woodward of War in Context put it: 'We will not talk to the Taliban who we won’t talk to, apart from those who we will talk to'. And that appears to be the policy which both US candidates are converging on too.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

McCain's future: the market was rigged!

Trading in political futures on the leading InTrade market gives Obama an 84% chance of the White House, against 16% of McCain.

Check out the graphs - and notice how late the Obama surge broke.

And now we know why. InTrade has revealed in a statement that a single institutional investor spent hundreds of thousands to make McCain look more competitive on the market than he was. This reduced the Obama probability of winning down by around 10 points over a month. (This is not simply counter-cyclical betting by somebody who thought the herd were getting it wrong: they were deliberately betting at much worse odds on InTrade than were readily available elsewhere).

CQ has all the details of how it was done. I heard about this on Paul Krugman's blog, but even the Nobel winner has to doff his hat at Nate Silver, who spotted something suspicious and worked out from the betting patterns a few weeks ago. (Sliver's blog takes political numbers to a new art form).

But there wasn't enough of a future in it. You can buck the market for a while. But you can't buck the election.

'I can live with defeat says McCain' probably isn't the best headline in the momentum stakes either.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Belgians for Dubya

About to catch the Eurostar to speak to the Flemish Social Democrats' conference in Brussels tomorrow morning.

This could also be a chance to investigate a mysterious quirk in yesterday's international poll on the US election, carried by The Guardian, Le Monde, Le Soir and other newspapers.

The public in all eight countries preferred Barack Obama to John McCain, with the lead ranging from 17 to over 60 points, and majority support for the Democrat everywhere except Poland (43-26) and Mexico (46-13)

A second question asked Since the start of the Bush Presidency, how has your opinion of the US changed?

In seven out of eight countries, opinions of America had changed for the worse.

But not in Belgium. Voters there do back Obama over McCain by 62% to 8% - quite a similar result to those in Britain and France. Yet 52% of Belgians have improved their opinion of America since 2000, while for 39% it has deteriorated. That's a 13% positive Bush bounce in America's global appeal among Belgians, compared to deficits of 44% in Britain, 64% in Canada and 68% in France.

Why? I shall try to ask around and report back ...

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A deserved Nobel

Has the Nobel prize lost its glitter?, the Observer asked this week. Like the rest of its panel, I didn't think so.

There are good tributes to this year's peace prize winner Martti Ahtisaari from fellow Finn Reijo Ruokanen and from ex-Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans for the International Crisis Group. But celebrations in Aceh or at the Martti Ahtisaari Primary School in Namibia may best capture the reasons for the award.

If securing Namibia's peaceful independence is Ahtisaari's proudest achievement, the award of the prize this year was also intended to bring renewed attention to Kosovo. The International Crisis Group - which is among the most focused and valuable of any foreign policy think-tank - has recently published a report recommending how to support Kosovo's fragile transition.

Friday, October 10, 2008

McCain may take Macedonia

And that's about as much good news as can be found for the Republican candidate right now.

McCain is still within 6 points in RealClearPolitics' poll of polls, but the InTrade futures market now gives Obama a 76.6% chance of victory with McCain back to 23.3%. The dramatic slump in his prospects over the last month is also captured by PoliticalBetting's graph of the UK betting markets.

Meanwhile in Macedonia, McCain's appeal is holding up a little better, according to The Economist's totally unscientific Global Electoral College based on reader's online votes.

This would be fun, but election night isn't going to be cliffhanger. Only Georgia has John McCain on its mind, where the Republican has 68% of the vote at time of writing, while he was hanging on to 53-47 leads in both Macedonia and Andorra. And that's it. In a much expanded worldwide electoral college, Obama's current lead is 8501 to 16

This web-based self-selecting methodology may well have a pro-Obama bias: The Economist gives him an overwhelming lead in the US too. But there are similar messages from conventional worldwide opinion polls. Obama had a clean sweep in a 22-nation BBC poll and Reader's Digest global Presidential poll.

Obama also edged ahead in Israel this summer, though another poll found McCain ahead in the Palestinian territories: both somewhat counterintuitive results.

Only Americans get to vote on November 4th. These global polls are never too good for the Republicans - and they can be more of a headache than a boon to the Democrats. But George Bush was more popular than John Kerry in 2004 in Poland, the Phillipines and Nigeria, and tied his opponent in India. All four countries have now swung behind the Democrat contender in 2008.

Its unfair to say that McCain is less popular than Bush. But Barack Obama's distinctive global appeal suggests that he could yet make the world fall back in love with America again.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Post-debate, it was no contest

The debate was a no-score bore, though voters gave it to Obama.

Wonkette has a fascinating review and full C-Span video showing Obama excelling at retail politics, Clinton-style (after being snubbed when attempting to shake his Presidential opponent's hands)

And after 90 seconds, there was one side on the field.

As Michael Tomasky has been pointing out on his excellent Guardian blog, McCain isn't competing in the ground campaign either. And that could prove an even costly mistake come election day.

Boring, boring Barack Obama

Boring Barack Obama. And Boring John McCain. And boring, useless Tom Brokaw, wittering on about the clock but doing nothing useful as a moderator, though in all fairness that much exalted Town Hall format could have been devised to take the life out of the political debate.

Were there any interesting nuggets at all? Let’s at least try.

* Is John McCain spending so much time with Sarah Palin that he’s turning into her?

Asked about the financial bailout, did he really say "I have a plan to fix this problem, and its to do with energy independence”

* Did six million Americans really email in their questions in the hope of getting them put to the candidates?

Another difficulty for the politics is broken brigade is that when we get unmediated politics (even on as flat a night as this one, then voters’ impressions of both candidates tend to rise. And that happens once large numbers of non-anoraks, about to undertake the solemn duty of electing a President, decide to pay just a little more attention for a couple of nights once every four years. Perhaps that’s because of the all too well hidden secret of national politics: it can be much more often about decent people thinking sincerely about how to solve difficult problems than anybody tends to let on.

* Does anybody really think that McCain’s “that one” comment cuts it as a historic debate “moment”?

This definitely won’t ever be there with Reagan and Dukakis on the tape of those famous debate moments in years to come; my guess would be that few people will remember it by this weekend.

Spin alley is very old news now that campaign press secretaries can simply ping over an email to reporters during the debate. But that also entails the risk of losing all perspective. I doubt this would have been much more than the briefest of footnotes to news reports twenty years ago.

Yes, McCain is getting snarkier. Like Ezra Klein, I didn’t spot any racist connotation – but McCain is pissed off that he is losing. And no, it won’t work while Obama maintains the contrasting Presidential demeanour which has served him especially well ever since the financial crisis broke, somehow seeming above the fray even as his bid to be President enters its critical final weeks.

This may still be more of a referendum on the Democratic contender than his party would like it to be – but he’s more than passing that test, And its enough of a referendum on Bush-McCain and the economy for him to be an increasingly confident as front-runner.

So he is now running down the clock from here until November 4th, I guess that means we’ll be hearing much more of nothing much new from this new, boring Barack Obama.

As long as he gets to take the rhetorical fireworks out of the box again on January 20th 2009, then what is there to complain about?

Friday, October 3, 2008

Sarah Palin: unqualified, but still alive

I couldn't quite stay up for the VP debate in St Louis (full transcript), but was grateful for our two year old daughter waking us up at 6am so I could watch the recording as live before hearing anything about it.

Campaigns always try to manage expectations downwards: none can ever have played quite such a blinder in the expectations game as Sarah Palin. And no politician since Al Gore has done quite so much for the internet as Palin.

Her CBS interviews have conclusively proved that she is not yet qualified to be President. But Palin's lack of knowledge is perhaps less scary than her confidence in spite of this. In her clarity, certainty and lack of all nuance, she very much resembles the current President George W Bush. And like Bush in 2000, she performed confidently and well, by combining her talking points with a folksy anti-politics appeal, in the controlled debate format in which it was relatively easy to duck specific questions.

Joe Biden's strategy was a smart and effective one. He never challenged Sarah Palin and was wary of contradicting her directly - though he was very clear in his rebuttal of the Cheney doctrine of the vice-presidency. But he hammered McCain again and again. Biden won the debate comfortably according to the immediate polls of viewers and undecided voters, with clear and focused advocacy of Obama's domestic and foreign policy platform. And the weakness of the McCain-Palin ticket in current conditions came across too: on domestic policy, the answer is always for government to do less and get out of the way.

But Republicans will be relieved too. Palin's performance - an honourable defeat - will end the question of whether she can remain on the ticket.

As she gets back to energising the base, Palin is unlikely to be exposed to much more media scrutiny during the rest of the campaign. The PalinSpeak interview generator will have to suffice.

If the faltering McCain campaign were to recover and win, then there would be an immediate priority for development assistance to our long-standing ally: Gordon Brown should ensure that Britain urgently sends the best heart surgeons we have to Washington to be on permanent stand-by for the next four years. Any 'special relationship' would demand no less.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

'When was the last time America elected an angry President?'

Karl Rove asked that of Howard Dean's surge last time around.

Joe Klein contrasts the Obama and McCain temperaments in an excellent Time column.

McCain, playing the underdog, is getting angrier as the race closes. But he risks confirming the growing impression that Obama is President-elect.

But Klein also warns against the idea that the race is over, and suggests some possible game-changers on the Time Swampland blog.

Above all, let's hope Osama bin Laden - following his somewhat machiavellian contribution in 2004 - can not seek to intervene in America's democratic choice,

As the Washington clocks strike twelve on 20th January 2009, listen carefully and you might just hear a swooshing sigh of relief travel around the world. The Bush Presidency will not leave the legacy its architects intended. But a critique of what should have been done differently since 2001 is not enough. This blog is about the new ideas which can create a 'new multilateralism' to tackle the global challenges we face.