Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 October 2012
Issue No. 1117
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

Grumpy old Romney

Black and blue, red and wrong-footed, locked in a ridiculous clash over disconcerting semantics, neither Obama nor Romney will reshape Washington's foreign policy, grieves Gamal Nkrumah

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"American capitalism must open up ways for itself through the length and breadth of our entire planet... A high coefficient of productivity denotes also a high coefficient of destruction" -- Leon Trotsky

"The more the United States puts the whole world under its dependence," Leon Trotsky extrapolated, "all the more does it become dependent upon the whole world, with all its contradictions and threatening upheavals." Is this a wisecrack from an outdated communist? No, it the bitter truth.

US President Barack Obama's rhetoric on human rights and democracy is as sharp as ever. Obama, after all, is a seasoned politician adept at self-promotion. His way with words and erudite elocution may go down well in America, but it is doubtful that African, Asian and Latin American countries will find Obama's oratory or political discourse palatable. That said, what is crystal clear is that Obama -- as America's first black president, and as exceptionally persuasive and politically savvy -- is the American politician best equipped to handle the prickly puzzle of how Washington comes to terms with the global power shift.

"I hope this doesn't harm Obama, but if I was from the United States I'd vote for Obama," Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez summed up when he spoke on behalf of many developing countries. The international community is largely in favour of Obama. Western nations, too, appear to prefer Obama as US president. "Are you aware that Mitt Romney never ceases to attack socialist Europe at his campaign rallies? So I suppose I should endorse Mitt Romney, but I won't," French President François Hollande jested, tongue-in-cheek at the UN General Assembly in New York.

Obama's Democratic Party, too, is widely perceived as better capable of commiserating with Washington's reduced international status in a polycentric world. The Republicans, plainly put, are out of touch with reality.

Much of this is down to the widely perceived relative solidity of the Democrats. Yet the ideological positions of the Democrats and the Republicans dovetail, with positions on foreign policy priorities appearing remarkably alike to the political elite of emerging markets.

However, it is not only Trotsky who links rapacious American capitalism with military adventurism abroad. The anti-globalisation movement that became, in the early 2000s, the largest anti-war movement in history, sees the links too.

What will happen come November? A month is a long time in politics. If America embarks on any military adventurism abroad, the Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney could revive his prospects and the incumbent, President Obama, could lose precious votes. Fortunately for Obama, Romney guffaws with incredulity.

Recently, in his address to the Clinton Global Initiative, Mitt Romney delivered an awkward speech worthy of ex-president George W Bush when he described the Arab Spring as a mass movement for economic rather than political rights.

Curiously, Romney cited the case of the Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. Bouazizi's desperate act of self-immolation in December 2010 proved the spark that not only led to the demise of the regime of the former Tunisian President Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali, but also paved the way for uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East.

The Republican nominee upheld "economic freedom" as the summum bonum and derided the Democrats for championing liberal interventionist policies. Moreover, Romney proposed signing "Prosperity Pacts" with nations prepared to remove barriers to free trade.

Romney's stock is probably set to fall. Though outspoken, his gaffes are excruciatingly embarrassing. Moreover, Romney leaves the Republicans in a bind. "The devil is in the detail," Romney raged. Yet his arguments appear to be not particularly convincing to most Americans, and not to the international community either.

If Obama pulls back hard on economic reforms, he will look as craven as Romney and cowed by a rival not even half as articulate as he is.

"It takes a lot of patience to be president and I am not that patient," US First Lady Michelle Obama confessed in a widely televised broadcast this week. Presumably, her husband does have patience.

The Republican nominee, in sharp contrast, seems rather impatient. He urges America to toughen its stance on Iran's nuclear programme. Obama, on the other hand, fancied a more diplomatic approach to the Iranian nuclear conundrum. "America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe there is still time and space to do so," Obama said at the UN General Assembly this week.

Again, patience is of the essence. He stressed that time to resolve this prickly question was "not limited".

Obama appears to be fighting hard to dilute the imperialist grimace of America. "We respect the right of nations to access peaceful nuclear power, but one of the purposes of the UN is to see that we harness that power for peace," he declared.

Romney, however, advocates a typically and openly aggressive imperialist policy abroad. "Obama has allowed leadership to atrophy," Romney wrote in The Wall Street Journal. "Our military, tested by a decade of war, is facing devastating cuts thanks to the budgetary games played by the White House," Romney ranted.

And the Republican presidential nominee is viciously anti-Palestinian and unabashedly pro-Israeli. "Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace," Romney pontificated recently.

"If the Middle East descends into chaos, if Iran moves toward nuclear breakout, or if Israel's security is compromised, America could be pulled into the maelstrom," he seethed.

On the other hand, Romney thrives on goofs and gaffes, erratum and oversight. His overly prolonged outburst did nothing to endear him to America's adversaries.

But the truth of the matter is that domestic economic issues predominate. Here, Romney's personal tax disclosure boomeranged. Runaway healthcare costs by the Obama administration do not appear to be sufficient grist for the mill either.

Romney was probably hoping that America's economic mood clouds over with the onset of autumn. On the contrary, economic prospects appear to be brightening, much to the Republicans' chagrin. According to The Washington Post, America's manufacturing sector unexpectedly expanded in September after three months of contraction.

"Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke renewed a pledge to sustain record stimulus even after the US expansion gains strength," the paper noted. "We expect that a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy will remain appropriate for a considerable time after the economy strengthens," the Post quoted Bernanke as saying.

Romney in all probability will not be amused by such news.

The trouble, however, is that the prospect of recasting America as open for economic and financial reforms and higher growth rates could dim in the days leading up to the presidential election.

Out-hawking Obama on questions of national security will not get Romney into the Oval Office. And if the American economy continues to be buoyant, at least given the picture painted by the press, then Obama's chances of re-election will soar. Romney's chances of getting into the White House now revolve around the economy. He has lost the battle on the foreign policy front. Most Americans are convinced that military adventurism will get them nowhere.

The election now boils down to economic arguments. Healthcare, too, is a crucial issue, with Republicans and Democrats diametrically opposed. "Healthcare is more than just one-sixth of the American economy," Romney delineated in his "Repeal and Replace Obamacare" stance condensed in an article he penned for USA Today.

"Obamacare was unpopular when passed and remains unpopular today," Romney stated. "While Obamacare may create a new health insurance entitlement, it will only worsen the system's existing problems," he extrapolated. "Obama's trillion dollar federal takeover of the US healthcare system is a disaster for the federal budget and a disaster for the American people," Romney remonstrated.

According to Romney, "Obamacare" makes "America a less attractive place to practice medicine, discourages innovators from investing in life-saving technology and restricts consumer choice".

So what is his alternative to "Obamacare"? Romney's course of action and counter-arguments are vague. He vows to issue an executive edict to "help markets work by creating a level playing field for competition", whatever that means, and to "issue Obamacare waivers to all states". Not surprisingly, such utterances do not wash with most Americans.

And then there was the bumbling blunder of Romney's summary dismissal of the 47 per cent of Americans who do not pay income tax and who Romney reckons "believe that they are victims". They "believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you name it �â and they will vote for this president no matter what," he said, rather contemptuously.

The Republican presidential nominee tried his best to undo his mistake. "It is not elegantly stated -- I'm speaking off the cuff in response to a question," Romney conceded.

Foreign policy may be important for us in Africa and the Middle East, but the American voter is especially concerned with domestic concerns, such as medical care and economic fundamentals.

The Republicans are banking on draconian spending cuts and that is likely to lose them the support of the 47 per cent that Romney himself conceded will vote for Obama anyway. The question is whether he will lose the support of another 10 or 15 per cent if he does not win key elements of the electorate over to the Republican side. So far the Obama legacy looks secure.

Foreign policy is bound to play a more prominent role in the American presidential campaign in the weeks ahead. Obama's foreign policy priorities will come under increased scrutiny and Romney, too, will be subject to something of an inquisition, especially after his business dealings with China came under public scrutiny as simultaneously he ramped up his anti-China rhetoric.

The question of Romney's double talk raises serious concerns among a considerable sector of American voters, those who abhor hypocrisy. When news circulated about Romney's investments in the China National Offshore Oil Corporation many feathers were ruffled.

China bashing is a staple of the American presidential election stale act. But not only were the media intrigued by Romney's dalliance with China, worse was the Chinese petroleum giant's multi-million dollar dealings with Iran.

The combustible combination of Romney's reckless statements and slipping into a series of political minefields has certainly tarnished his image.

Romney, however, is not the only Republican to goof. "People loved it or hated it, and that's fine. I figure if someone is dumb enough to ask me to go to a political convention and say something, they're gonna have to take what they get," Clint Eastwood boasted following his infamous one-man act at the Republican convention.

Obama is keen to keep a cool head as far as Iran is concerned, even though like the Republican presidential nominee he believes that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is evil incarnate.

It is against this backdrop that the Obama administration's decision to remove the exiled Iranian opposition group Mujahideen-i-Khalq from the list of international terrorist organisations raised eyebrows in a number of world capitals. The timing of the proclamation was particularly curious because of Mujahideen-i-Khalq's peculiar ideological concoction of revolutionary Shia Islam, Marxism and Iranian nationalism. Whether Obama desires to use Iran as a ruse, a political gimmick of sorts, or as some kind of bogeyman is unclear.

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