The Final Presidential Debate, 2016

The third and final debate (October 19) is over amid more women coming out with revelations of Donald Trump’s sexual transgressions. The final countdown to the 2016 presidential election on November 8 has begun. The campaign this time is generating an unusual amount of salacious gossip on television, radio, print and social media. Hostility between the two sides is intense. It means passions among the partisans, and entertainment for the more detached observers.

US presidential elections have global significance. Therefore, substance over form matters. The entertainment value of scandalous accounts of Donald Trump’s groping of women over many years, his opaque business affairs, exploitation of workers and childish tantrums aside, the 2016 presidential campaign can be summed up in one sentence. This election is about character, integrity and competence of the two main candidates much more than any election in the last 40 years, for Clinton and Trump are both highly controversial figures.

Each has staunch supporters who think their candidate can do no wrong, and a phenomenon that will change America and the world. Then, there are detractors, convinced that a victory for the other candidate will bring disaster. On balance, Trump’s political liabilities appear to be greater because of the nature of his comments about women, minority groups, foreigners in general, just about anybody. The critical question is whether he can he win after offending so many groups.

Trump and his supporters have also raised old accusations about former President Bill Clinton’s private life; unsubstantiated claims of corruption; “botched political judgments” by the couple. These attacks may have reinforced her opponents’ views. Whether they will attract significant numbers of undecided voters to support Trump is doubtful.

So it is down to how voters see each candidate’s character (mental and moral qualities), integrity (adherence to their moral and ethical code) and competence (knowledge and ability) when they finally make up their minds.



Post-Bush Scenarios

Deepak Tripathi

After war comes peace. With peace must come justice, or it will be meaningless. It is one of the most enduring lessons of history.

With the end of the Bush presidency in sight and the desire for change strong, the next president’s inauguration on January 20, 2009 will be a turning-point. George W. Bush will retreat from the White House into retirement, leaving America exhausted, confused and polarized after eight years of foreign wars and domestic crises. His legacy will pass on to his successor. The conduct of the Bush administration has affected the lives of numerous people at home and abroad. As we approach something new and historic, a number of scenarios come to mind. The future not only depends on who will succeed Bush – John McCain, the old warrior, or Barack Obama, who increasingly looks like a renaissance man in the 21st century. It also depends on the nature of events to follow. They could force the hand of the incoming president.

Energy and the economy have become the main concerns in America and around the world. Seven years on, Americans, in growing numbers, have turned against the ideologues who manipulated fear to advance their own expansionist ambition. Americans want the next president to concentrate on rebuilding the economy and improving their lives. They remain conscious of the terrorist threat. But they are no longer willing to support foreign wars at great cost.

The Bush-Cheney administration has tormented hundreds of millions of innocent people around the world in the ‘war on terror’, although Afghans and Iraqis have borne the brunt. An unsettling realization has been building up among Americans of the extreme hardships and strong resentment this has caused abroad. It is time to make peace with the alienated and try to recover at least some of the wasted capital of sympathy the United States had earned immediately after the 9/11 attacks.

I am reminded at this point of something said by Mahatma Gandhi, who inspired the American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela of South Africa, among others. “What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless,” Gandhi asked, “whether mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?” The Bush administration’s wars are an expression of a mindset seriously infected with arrogance, reckless ambition and a passion for warfare, even against its own people.

What if, therefore, the next administration decided in favor of a rapid military withdrawal from Iraq to concentrate on the task of economic recovery? Iraq was invaded on a false pretext and against the advice of the U.N. weapons inspectors. Kofi Annan, then U.N. secretary-general, said the invasion was illegal. But a hasty retreat would be fatal, whether it was triggered by the new American president’s desire to cut the losses or because the Iraqi government told the U.S. occupation forces to leave. A swift withdrawal would leave the present Iraqi regime more vulnerable and it might not survive. The Iraqi regime is dominated by the Shi’a majority. Its relations with Iran are close – contrary to the original U.S. designs for the oil-rich Middle East. If the Iraqi regime found itself in imminent danger, it would become even more dependent on Tehran.

The creation by the United States of a-hundred-thousand-strong Sunni militia, described as the Awakening Council movement, evokes memories of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, armed and financed by the CIA in the war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Until recently, many of these Sunni tribesmen belonged to Al-Qaeda. But they were lured with money and weapons by the Americans around 2006. In October 2008, America transferred the responsibility of paying their salaries to the Shi’a-dominated Iraqi regime, which has strongly resisted pressure to incorporate them in the armed forces. If the militiamen were not paid in future, with or without the occupation forces being there in Iraq, they could change their uniform. They could just as easily turn against America and its allies as the Mujahideen did in Afghanistan at the end of the Cold War in 1991. The risks of what the Bush administration has done for short-term gains are huge.

The conflict in Iraq and the broader ‘war on terror’ have added great uncertainty in the region. They have contributed to the energy crisis and the worldwide economic slump. If the internal conflict in Iraq escalated again, the consequences would be catastrophic. The Iraqi state structure would be threatened. The military and the police, already fragile, would find that they are no match to a rebellious Awakening Council and other armed groups.

Extreme caution would therefore be required on the part of the incoming administration in Washington. A sudden, rapid withdrawal would involve great risks. So would the insistence on maintaining the U.S. military presence ‘for a hundred years’, as John McCain said. It is obvious that the Iraqis do not want U.S. troops. And the American economy cannot bear the drain caused by foreign military adventures. Withdrawal has to come, but the timing is of the essence. The next president must avoid a repeat of the 1990s Afghan scenario, total lawlessness and the rise of the Taleban, in Iraq.

We will have to wait and see whether the new president can show a capacity to relax a little and not be so obsessed with having client regimes everywhere. The persistent stubbornness of President Bush to reshape Afghanistan and Iraq in his own vision has been like pouring oil to fire. A perilous consequence of the Iraq war has been the neglect of Afghanistan. Seven years after the Taleban were removed from power, Kabul and other towns are under siege. It is a reminder of the period when Afghanistan was under Soviet occupation and Mujahideen guerrillas encircled the main population centers. The present conflict has spread throughout Pakistan and spilled over into India. Western experts admit the situation is spiraling out of control.

It would be refreshing if the next U.S. president decided that stability was more important than intervention to impose and maintain puppet regimes abroad. Instead of the edict of George W. Bush – ‘with us or against us’ – his successor allowed governments which fell short of offering total support to America, always. The tendency to prop up dictators around the world was no longer rampant in Washington. There was a long-term strategy to encourage stability, not coercion to turn vulnerable nations into satellite states. The U.S. administration understood that war and economic renaissance could not happen together, but were alternate scenarios.

Conflict in the Middle East, high oil prices and economic downturns have had an unhappy relationship since the 1973 Arab-Israel war. Political turmoil and record energy prices have once again brought an economic slump with them. And the Palestinian problem, the main cause of the broader crisis in the region and beyond, remains unresolved. The urgent need to reduce America’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil is at the center of the national debate. America has the necessary technological expertise and financial muscle to push for rapid progress towards alternative sources of energy. But its resolve has been weak ever since the 1973 Middle East war and subsequent oil crisis. Today, calls like ‘Drill, Baby, Drill’ may appear to provide short-term answers, but will play havoc with the environment. Their real cost would be very high.

Solar and fuel-cell energy technologies must be among tomorrow’s solutions. Would the incoming president have what it takes to make America ready for a giant leap in a relatively short period? Would he take on the corporate world? Even if it turned out to be the case, I do not believe that the consequences of an energy revolution within a decade are fully appreciated. The impact of such a revolution on the oil-producing countries would be serious. To deprive them suddenly of their main – in many cases the only – source of income would be to leave them on the road to state failure. Saudi Arabia comes to mind immediately, but there are others in Asia and Africa. To make sure that they do not join the league of failed states, potential terrorist havens, would be as important for the successor of President George W. Bush as reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil and rebuilding the economy.

Remember the words of the English philosopher and statesman, Francis Bacon: “He that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils.”

The above article appeared in CounterPunch and ZNet on 23 October 2008.

Imperial America: success or failure

Deepak Tripathi

In a period of unprecedented financial upheaval, the recent surge in violence in South Asia is perhaps receiving less notice in the west than it deserves. The audacity of attacks by the Taleban and their Al-Qaeda allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan has implications for the region and beyond. The bombings of the Indian embassy in Kabul in June 2008 and the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on September 20 have been devastating. Large swathes of Pakistan’s frontier provide militant groups with sanctuaries, from where they launch attacks in both countries. The targets are chosen with precision and the campaign of violence has spread to India. A few days before the Islamabad bombing, a series of explosions in the Indian capital, Delhi, killed and maimed scores of shoppers at several locations. There have also been attacks in other Indian cities in recent months. 

These events have caused tension between the Bush administration and Pakistan, America’s main ally in the ‘war on terror’. On more than one occasion, U.S. helicopters carrying troops have attempted to land inside Pakistani territory, without authorization. Pakistani troops have fired on them and the helicopters have had to retreat. The anti-U.S. sentiment has rarely been so strong in the region. The authorities in Pakistan cannot afford to allow American troops on their country’s soil. The authorities in India, with a Muslim minority nearly as large as the entire population of Pakistan, struggle to decide how far to move towards imposing draconian measures. How have things come to such a pass? 

The origins of today’s crisis rest in the past. For almost half a century after the Second World War, the United States had been at the forefront in efforts to contain communism. By December 1991, the Soviet empire had collapsed and America was in search of a new role. America’s proxy war with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan had ended. Billions of dollars worth of weaponry was left in the devastated country.  The strategic importance of Afghanistan had diminished for the United States. The army of Islamic groups, financed and equipped by America, turned bitter. In their eyes, it was a deliberate act of abandonment.

The American economy had suffered years of decline, to which vast military expenditure on foreign wars had contributed. There were new opportunities to achieve economic renaissance at home and reshape the international order abroad. Bill Clinton, who won the presidency in November 1992, was keen to seize these opportunities.

However, there was a problem. Following the breakup of the Soviet state, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus had found themselves with almost all long-range nuclear weapons. Smaller tactical arms were scattered all over the territory of the defunct state. Every republic except Kyrgyzstan had inherited them. One nuclear state had suddenly become many. Unless these weapons were dismantled and Russia was helped to transform itself into a democracy in control of the ex-Soviet nuclear arsenal, the world would be a dangerous place.

When Clinton assumed the presidency in January 1993, America had already liberated Kuwait after brief Iraqi occupation. Clinton moved on to his agenda to stabilize the former USSR and rebuild the American economy. He was aware that a conservative takeover in Russia could start a new arms race and sink his plan for American renaissance. Clinton told his advisers to help Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president, in the transformation of his country. The focus of Clinton’s policy was to be investment in Russia.

One of its consequences was a move from Afghanistan, left in a Hobbesian ‘state of nature’ – war of all against all. The policy to rescue Russia continued until the end of the Clinton presidency. In the darkest period of Russia’s economic crisis, Yeltsin was forced to default on repayment of foreign debt and devalue the Russian currency in 1998. Clinton pushed the International Monetary Fund to support a recovery program. Within two years, Russia’s income from oil sales had risen substantially, helped by an increase in the world prices. The crisis had subsided.

It was in late1994 that a little-known Islamic militia, described as the Taleban, came to prominence in southern Afghanistan, amid the destruction of what was left of the Afghan state. The country was split into numerous fiefdoms run by rival warlords. Afghan and foreign Mujahideen had spent years fighting the Soviet Union and its client regime in Kabul. Now, they had nothing to do. Foreign money had dried up. Weapons were plentiful and America had walked away.

Murder, rape, looting and plundering became the way of life for these fighters, as Pakistan’s rival agencies tolerated or collaborated with the Taleban to impose a brutal regime in Afghanistan. The civilian government of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the most important U.S. ally in the region, were the staunchest supporters of the Taleban regime, which gave sanctuary to Al-Qaeda. America had, in effect, handed over Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia, which represents the most totalitarian brand of Sunni Islam. Its junior partner was Pakistan. 

The 9/11 attacks prompted the United States to return to Afghanistan to overthrow the Taleban regime and destroy Al-Qaeda. Overthrowing the Taleban regime was the easy task. But the stabilization and reconstruction effort has suffered a calamitous failure. The Taleban and Al-Qaeda are regrouped and reinforced. Their top leaders continue to elude capture. Afghans at first welcomed their liberation from the Taleban. They are now very resentful of the Americans and their use of overwhelming force, resulting in large numbers of civilian casualties.

Afghanistan has been at the center of great power games for centuries. But outsiders have always failed to tame the spirit of resistance of its people. At the peak of their dominance, the British and Russian empires played the Great Game. In the Cold War, it was between America and the Soviet Union. Today, as the United States, the only hyperpower in the world, tries to reshape the Afghan state, it finds the new game as difficult as ever.

As the turbulent presidency of George W. Bush comes to a close, claims are heard about the ‘success’ of America’s military surge from the administration and the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain. There is talk of a similar surge in Afghanistan to suppress the violence by the Taleban and their allies. However, the reasons behind the decline in violence in Iraq are many, including the fact that tens of thousands of Sunni tribesmen, erstwhile Al-Qaeda supporters, are now paid three hundred dollars a month each not to fight the occupation forces and the Shi’a-dominated government in Baghdad. Their alliance with America is tactical and temporary. Their long-term intentions are uncertain, especially if America withdraws or they are no longer paid. It all reminds me of the U.S.-Mujahideen alliance in Afghanistan, before it fell apart almost twenty years ago.

The American military presence in Afghanistan today is about a third of the size of the Soviet occupation forces in the 1980s – a total of a-hundred-and-twenty-thousand soldiers. Many experts agree that the strength of the U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan is woefully inadequate and reinforcements are needed. But in the unique conditions of Afghanistan, it is much less certain that a surge there will bring lasting success.

The battlefield now extends from the Gulf all the way to India. The problem requires a different solution involving regional powers, Iran and Syria included – an idea loathed by the neo-conservatives who have been in power for eight years.

The above article appeared in OpEdNews on 30 September 2008.

The Stakes in the 2008 Election

Deepak Tripathi

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power,” said Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, almost a hundred-and-fifty years ago. 

Today, the presidency of George W. Bush is in its twilight months. The season of presidential debates of 2008 has begun. America is in the midst of Palin-mania. Opinion polls predict a tight race between John McCain and Barack Obama. And I am reminded of the eternal truth spoken by Lincoln all those years ago.

The conduct of the Bush administration has affected the lives of countless people in America and around the world. As American voters approach polling day on November 4 to elect his successor, the outside world ponders with them. What have the last eight years been like? Where is America headed and what would it mean?  

President George W. Bush was never a subtle politician. His personal charm and southern directness attracted many Americans and helped him win two elections for the White House. Each time, he also had a stroke of luck. The Bush victory in November 2000 was one of the most controversial, and disputed, presidential election results in the history of the United States. Just five electoral college votes separated him from his Democrat opponent, Al Gore. The state of Florida, with 25 electoral votes, gave that victory to Bush. Overall, Bush got half a million fewer popular votes than Al Gore, his defeated rival. The legal battle after the election went right up to the American Supreme Court, which decided that the recount of ballots by hand in Florida was unconstitutional and the Republican Secretary of State of Florida could certify the result. 

The Florida vote count which gave George W. Bush the victory was so controversial because his brother, Jeb, was Governor there. The Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, who certified the Florida vote, was not only a member of Governor Jeb Bush’s cabinet. She was also co-chairman of the presidential campaign of George W. Bush in the state. In the end, a majority of just 537 popular votes out of a total of nearly six million ballots cast in Florida decided the result. It was certified by a close ally of Bush and a recount by hand was declared unconstitutional in a U.S. Supreme Court dominated by conservative judges.  

Four years later, it was his ‘war on terror’ that, despite serious doubts, convinced America that it was not the time to reject an incumbent president. The 2004 presidential campaign was particularly nasty, just as the 2008 campaign is turning out. The neo-conservatives, who ran the Bush campaign, focused on national security. Bush was projected as a decisive leader. His Democrat rival, John Kerry, was depicted as a ‘flip-flopper’ by none other than the Vice President, Dick Cheney, to many the most powerful figure in the administration. One of Kerry’s slogans ‘Strong at home, respected in the world’ drew accusations that Kerry would pay more attention to domestic concerns, implying that defense would be ignored. Questions were raised about the legitimacy of the medals Kerry had been awarded during his military service in Vietnam. Bush had never fought in any war. But the 2004 Republican campaign was vicious. Kerry stood little chance.  

Today, John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, lives in the glory of the Vietnam War, in which he endured abuse after capture and America lost. What was his achievement? The Republicans would not tell.

A president who has served eight years in office is bound to leave a legacy. The single issue that defines the legacy of George W. Bush is ‘the war on terror’, pursued relentlessly during all but a few months of his presidency. It is tempting to suggest that the nature of American foreign policy under his administration was the consequence of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. But the explanation is simplistic. It provides no more than a convenient, and not entirely accurate, context to the ‘war on terror’.

In truth, the fundamental characteristic of the Bush presidency has been an uncomplicated view of the world and America’s role in it. Behind the jingoistic frenzy, whipped up by the McCain-Palin ticket in the 2008 campaign, there is a much more profound question. What will a McCain-Palin administration, with an uncomplicated worldview and America’s role, mean for the country and the world?

The retaliation against the Taleban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks was understandable. But the scope of American ambition under Bush was something else. The campaign to overthrow the Iraqi regime in March 2003 on the basis of false assertions, the countless civilian deaths, the abduction, incarceration and abuse of tens of thousands of innocent people amount to crimes for which the leaders of many lesser countries would face trial. For a while, it looked as though Iran and Syria would be the next targets in the ‘war on terror’. Reckless threats of military action against Iran still continue. McCain and Palin may well carry on the same path, even though America remains bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq.  

The ideological vehicle used to get George W. Bush elected to the White House in November 2000 was the Project for the New American Century. By 2006, it had become a discredited and disbanded organization. However, a new band of Republicans aggressively pushing the same ideology has risen again in support of the McCain-Palin ticket. The old and discredited neo-conservatives like Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Bolton and Jeb Bush sought to link domestic controversies surrounding the Clinton administration to what they described as a drift in American foreign and defense policy. While domestic critics focused on the personal conduct of Bill and Hillary Clinton, the Project for the New American Century attacked the President’s agenda for economic recovery. The implication was that Clinton’s economic program had a cost – weaker defense.

It is an irony that many enthusiastic supporters of Hillary Clinton should now contemplate switching to the McCain-Palin ticket, given that it represents the opposite of Clinton.

The message of the neo-conservative constituency of George W. Bush was unmistakable – a more interventionist America, referring back to ‘Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity’. But the ambition of the new right went further – ‘to build on the successes of the past century and to ensure our security and our greatness in the next’. From the beginning, neo-conservative associations like the Project for the New American Century believed that American power was absolute in its potential and that its use was inevitable. The language of McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, echoes the same aggressive sentiment.

At this point, I want to discuss the general disposition of America’s political right in recent years. In broad terms, it is an ideological movement representing a range of political and social organizations, which can be divided into two streams – neo-conservatism and the religious right. On the one hand, there are the new conservatives. Their rise in the late 1990s can be attributed to the rebirth of the coalition that came together under Ronald Reagan twenty years before. Many leading figures of the neo-conservative movement were younger politicians and thinkers who had been out of power during the Clinton presidency. The other stream of the political right is religious.

There are significant differences in the American Christian right, ranging from Lutheranism and Catholicism to the more conservative Evangelical, Pentecostal and Fundamentalist Churches. White Evangelical voters account for more than 20 percent of the American electorate. Their overwhelming support for George W. Bush was largely responsible for his success in the two presidential elections. He received 68 percent of the white Evangelical vote in the 2000 election; it was 78 percent four years later.

There are differences, but there is also common ground, between those who make up the American political right. Differences are easier to identify on social issues. Moderate right-wingers tend to be less vehement in their opposition to abortion, stem cell research and homosexuals and less staunch in their support of the death penalty. At the other end of the religious right, there are those whose views on marriage, women’s rights, abortion and homosexuality are extreme.

One of the most controversial personalities of the religious right, preacher-politician Reverend Pat Robertson, has called feminism as a form of ‘socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians’. In 1998, Robertson claimed that acceptance of homosexuality could result in hurricanes, earthquakes and terrorist attacks. In the wake of the outcry after these remarks, he returned to the topic and, quoting from the Bible, sought to justify them. 

Such demagogy, and attempts to resort to selective use of religious texts to legitimize extreme views, are not exclusive to the political right or left. Nor are they limited to the Christian right. We hear a lot about Islamic fundamentalism, far less about Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist fundamentalisms. They, too, have been responsible for so much unrest in the Middle East, South Asia and other parts of the world. However, we must not lose the focus of discussion here. Our discussion is about the mass movement responsible for the presidency of George W. Bush. 

Three main aspects characterize that movement. First, a strong belief in America’s power and its right to exercise that ability. Second, a conviction in the superiority of Judeo-Christian values. And third, a strongly pro-Israel and anti-Muslim agenda. I referred earlier to the views of Pat Robertson, the preacher-politician. The rhetoric of another leading figure on the American right, Bill O’Reilly, is also worth mentioning. During a radio discussion about an opinion poll showing that most Iraqis did not see American troops as liberators and wanted them to leave the country, O’Reilly told listeners that he had ‘no respect’ for the Iraqi people; they were a ‘pre-historic group’ and the lesson from the Iraq War was for America not to intervene in the Muslim world again, but ‘bomb the living daylights out of them’. His support for coercive techniques to extract information at detention centers such as Guantánamo Bay, trial in military tribunals and opposition to offering the detainees protection under the Geneva Conventions is well documented.

The rhetoric of people like Robertson and O’Reilly cannot be dismissed as irrelevant and unrepresentative. Both command huge audiences through their television and radio programs. Many aspects of the ‘war on terror’ show the influence such views have had in the Bush administration. It is undoubtedly America’s war. But to bypass its obligations under the Geneva Conventions, the Bush administration invented a new concept of ‘enemy combatant’ for detainees at Guantanamo Bay and other detention centers.

After sustained international criticisms and legal battles in the United States, the White House announced in July 2006 that it would comply with the third convention which guarantees the basic protection to detainees. The administration had no other choice after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the special military commissions set up to prosecute detainees violated U.S. law and the Geneva Conventions. It was a symbolic victory for opponents. Administration officials continued to argue about what really amounted to degrading and inhuman treatment, which is illegal under the fourth convention. The White House and the Pentagon maintained that the detainees were already treated humanely in the light of legislation passed in Congress barring ‘cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment’ of detainees.

The overall disposition of the Bush administration since January 2001 reflects the instinctive belief across the new political right that American power is unlimited and unaccountable and the United States could decide unilaterally whether, when and to whom an international treaty would apply. The essence of such a mind-set is ‘we will do it because we can’. In this respect, there is considerable unity of purpose across America’s political right. It is driven by a domestic agenda. Foreign policy is an instrument to satisfy the conservative coalition at home for the sake of power.

As Americans approach polling day on November 4 to elect the next president, Lincoln’s axiom assumes profound importance. Nearly all men can stand adversity and John McCain undoubtedly endured torture after being taken prisoner in Vietnam. That should not be the real issue, however. The real issue should be the character of the man who would be president – John McCain or Barack Obama. For, as Lincoln said, he is going to be tested by economic and foreign-policy problems unparalleled since America’s withdrawal from Vietnam more than three decades ago.


The above article appeared in OpEdNews on 26 September 2008.

John McCain as John Major: Politics, Morality and the GOP

Deepak Tripathi

The gloom of Hurricane Gustav was promptly blown away by the arrival of Sarah Palin, the running mate of John McCain, at the Republican Convention in St. Paul. The partisan delegates seemed genuinely thrilled by her acceptance speech. But developments of the past week across the country remind me of an historic truth of politics. Almost fifty years ago, Harold Macmillan, then British prime minister, was asked what he thought was the greatest obstacle to political achievement. “Events, dear boy, events,” came the reply from Macmillan. His words seem to have a powerful resonance in the US presidential campaign today.

The historic nature of Palin’s nomination and her galvanizing effect on the Republican faithful cannot be dismissed. But new revelations about herself and her family almost every day are impossible to ignore either. Some of these are acknowledged. Others are contested. Complaints of exaggeration and distortion abound and threats of legal action fly. Republican advisors are irritated at the questions raised about Palin’s selection by McCain, her qualifications and her views. In the face of persistent questioning by Justine Webb, the BBC Washington correspondent, a senior McCain advisor, Carly Fiorina, seemed angry, calling Palin’s treatment by the media ‘sexist’. With a Democratic presidential candidate of mixed white-African lineage and a female candidate for the vice presidency on the Republican side, race and gender cannot be far from the debate. 

It is the unexpected and unwanted events, which I referred to earlier, that represent ‘red lights’ for the Republican campaign. As soon as McCain had announced his surprise choice of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate, the troopergate controversy blew up. It involves the dismissal of the Public Safety Commissioner, Walter Monegan, of the state of Alaska by Governor Palin. Was Monegan sacked because he was no good in the job? Or because of his reluctance to fire the Governor’s ex-brother-in-law?  On September 4, the Washington Post reported that it had seen an e-mail from Governor Palin, harshly criticizing Alaska state troopers for their failure to sack her former brother-in-law and ridiculing an investigation into her own conduct in the affair.

Then the announcement came that her teenage daughter was pregnant with her boyfriend. Palin is a strong advocate of sexual abstinence before marriage. So the episode was bound to pose a serious dilemma, as well as cause discomfort, for the Palin family. America is a country of fascinating contrasts. It is a nation where state and religion are supposed to remain separate. But religious and moral debate has acquired an increasingly important role in politics, most notably, but not exclusively, on the Republican side. The risks of this phenomenon are obvious. For those humans who fail to live by what they preach may be accused of inconsistency and hypocrisy.

It gets more embarrassing. According to the New York Times of September 3, Palin’s husband, Todd, is a former member of the Alaska Independence Party – a party which wants to hold a referendum to secede from the United States. And the newspaper quoted officials as saying that she had attended the party’s conventions in 1994 and 2006. As governor, she sent a video-taped message to the convention last year.

How Palin’s religious faith shaped her worldview was illustrated by an address she gave to a church gathering as recently as three months ago. She told the congregation that America sent troops to fight in the Iraq war on a “task that is from God.” Imagine the effect of these words on the people of Iraq, where hundreds of thousands of men, women and children have perished for no fault of their own and millions have been displaced internally or gone into exile.

The Republican Party’s counter-attack on the probing media has begun. But questions about Palin’s past are unlikely to go away. The more appearances Palin makes on the campaign trail, the more interest there is going to be in her. And the more questions both McCain and Palin are going to face. From tabloids like the National Enquirer to highbrow papers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, a range of news outlets have deployed extra staff. Alaska has become a favorite haunt for many reporters.

The problem the Republicans face in this campaign is simple, yet considerable. There is so much interest in Governor Sarah Palin, because so little is known about her. It is a problem which is easy to understand, but difficult to tackle as ‘events’ unfold.

I have witnessed political storms caused by events in my time. In his address to the Republican National Convention, John McCain ran through his military record, which thousands of party faithful applauded and more admire across America. As the speech went on, I heard the words ‘back to basics’. They instantly reminded me of Britain in 1993. The government of Margaret Thatcher’s successor, John Major, was weak and tired. Major was struggling with the grim state of the economy and social unrest. At a time of need for a huge investment of new ideas and money, the governing Conservative Party launched, perhaps fatally, the ‘Back to Basics’ campaign. It was filled with high moral tone, at a time when the baggage of divisive, failing policies was heavy.

The campaign sparked intense public interest in the private lives of elected politicians in Britain. It was unfair to individuals. But the public interest was legitimate, precisely because it was an attempt to impose a set of rules on the vast majority of people that the imposers themselves did not respect. Exposé after exposé followed and powerful figures were forced to resign. The tide overwhelmed the Major government, ending in a resounding defeat in the 1997 general election – a humiliation from which the Conservative Party has only recently begun to recover. 

There are episodes of history in America and elsewhere that mirror the fate of the Major government and shout out loud the lesson to be learned. When politicians bring prescriptive solutions to moral and ethical questions, they do so at their own peril. These questions are best left to the law and the courts.

The above commentary was published in CounterPunch on 5 September 2008.