This is turning out to be probably the dirtiest political campaign that America has known until now, with two frontrunner Republican candidates, namely Donald Trump and Ted Cruz engaged in more than just a battle of words about each other’s wives. With other Republican candidates making pitching in to try and bring back some normalcy, the Republican Party seems to be undergoing an inevitable split, and it is uncertain whether the candidates will support the eventual nominee that comes out of the primaries, as they had pledged to do earlier. Naturally this weakens the party, which is not speaking with one voice or, even if views may be accepted to be different, at least coherent on issues of national importance.
Thus, although Donald Trump leads by a wide percentage margin over the other candidates, his ‘flip-flop’ posturings over some critical matters have been criticized. The latest is his position on termination of pregnancy: first he said that women who underwent the procedure should be punished; a few hours later he changed his view and said that no, it is the doctors who performed the termination who ought to be punished. Such ‘flip-flops’ are too frequent, said one commentator, coming almost daily.
This is not the case with the Democratic candidates, who may give a different opinion perhaps one in a month. Nevertheless, with them also, that is Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, there are rather sharp differences that are the cause of friction, although they have not sunk, thank goodness, to the low level of attacking each other personally and have broadly stuck to issues.
Bernie Sanders has said loud and clear that he has never been sponsored by Wall Street, and is therefore not under the influence of vested interests, and thus considered to be for the masses and particularly those ‘at the margins’. He is thought to be less strong on foreign policy though, because Hillary Clinton has had more experience as Secretary of State.
But then comes Rudolph Giuliani, ex-mayor of New York who says that Mrs Clinton may have been one of the ‘founders’ of ISIS for having supported the administration’s Iraq policy when she was in post!
To this negative perception must be added the raking up afresh of her tangle with official emails that she dealt with from her personal address, as also the fact that is supported by corporates and is deemed close to Wall Street – the very ones who were held responsible for the financial meltdown of 2009.
So there is a real hot brew simmering out there, and the outcome will be watched with interest, concern, and perhaps even alarm!
* * *
Battlefield Europe and North America
‘Battlefield Belgium and France’, the ‘new normal’ – these are some of the terms that are being used to describe the state of living under the fear and ever-present threat of terrorist attacks in Europe at the moment, with France and Belgium being the main targets. In fact, a leader in the latest issue of The Economist (whose cover headlines ‘Europe’s new normal’ on the backdrop of a photograph of armed hooded terrorists) matter-of-factly notes the new reality at the top: ‘Europe has suffered another series of murderous attacks by jihadists. They will not be the last.’ It concludes with a fearsome ‘Welcome to the new normal’.
This conclusion follows as a logical corollary to the eventual ‘weary resignation’ stage of the aftermath of terrorist attacks as the leader outlines, something akin to the stages that have been defined following the death of a person. Described as ‘terrorism’s stages of grief’, they are 1) despair over innocent lives cut short, 2) anger towards young men and women jihadists who kill, and 3) questions about the efficiency of police and intelligence services.
Even in America, which has not had any major attack since 9/11 but has had a few though infrequent smaller ones, analysts have come to a similar conclusion, that this state of heightened fear and constant threat of probable other attacks is to be accepted and prepared for by both governments and civil society. No need to say that this risk adds to the other ongoing one specific to the US: mass shootings which have now become a regular feature in schools and tertiary education campuses, and lately even the workplace.
An ominous new feature of these attacks is that they are perpetrated not by imported elements coming from afar, but by ‘home grown’ terrorists, meaning that they are nationals and citizens of the countries that they attack. Salah Abdesalam, for example, belongs to Belgium; similarly the others have grown up in either France or Belgium, which were generous enough to give their families refuge and citizenship for whatever reasons (fleeing conflicts or as economic migrants when they came over). They are part of the thousands that went to Syria and Iraq for training under the ISIS, then were sent back to carry out smaller attacks as part of their ‘training’ and ‘rehearsal’ before under the direction of handlers in Syria they perpetrated the coordinated and synchronized attacks that killed people by the tens and hundreds. The one objective: terrorize the population, especially the ‘filthy French’ as one of them stated.
On the other hand, the major issue of contention among the target countries is that of interagency coordination, which is pitching collective security concerns against privacy policies of individuals – vide the recent faceoff between Apple and the FBI regarding accessing the information in the iphone of the San Bernardino (California) attacker. It is a private firm that eventually had to do the job.
In a BBC interview after the Brussels attack, an ex-head of Europol dryly observed that the criminals are better networked than security and intelligence agencies! – to the utter consternation of the interviewer, naturally! The idea of creating a European equivalent of CIA has been mooted by the EU, but already legal and other obstacles are surfacing, and if it does at all come up that is going to be a long time and also its functioning is not likely to be smooth. Add to this the ‘antiquated IT systems’ (in Europe and US!!) and one can see that potential jihadists have a number of loopholes and weakness that they can gleefully exploit. Unless there is a concerted and coordinated effort as efficiently networked and functional as that of Isis, the new normal is likely to be protracted. And hence the warning.
* * *
Myanmar installs new president
As against all these dystopian scenarios challenging Europe and America, comes a breath of fresh air from the East, where a new president has been sworn in, in Myanmar. He is Htin Kyaw, a close aide of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and the country’s first civilian President in more than 50 years.
It will be recalled that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Demcracy won a three-fourths majority in Parliament in last year’s general election, and will cohabit with the military, which has ruled since 1962 and will still have 25% of the seats in Parliament.
After his swearing-in, the 69-year-old leader Htin Kyaw has suggested that the military-drafted Constitution, which barred Ms Suu Kyi from becoming the President, be changed, and added that ‘We have a duty to work for the emergence of a Constitution that is appropriate for our country and also in accordance with democratic standards’.
He promised national reconciliation and enhancement of the living standard of the people, one third of whom are under the poverty line. In the meantime, Ms. Suu Kyi has been appointed as a minister in Htin Kyaw’s government. But she has said that ‘this is just the beginning of a road’, namely the country’s democratic transition.
While the armed forces will control the ministries of home, defence and borders affairs, Ms Suu Kyi will be Minister for Foreign Affairs, the President’s Office, Education and Energy and ‘in practice, the buck will stop with her on all non-security matters in the new administration’.
Both she and her country deserved this transition to peace and reform in the new democratic atmosphere that has been ushered in, after these long years of repressive rule of which she herself has been a direct victim. Just as she has surmounted the onslaught, both at a political and personal level, she will no doubt guide her country along a saner and safer road towards a better future for her people.
* Published in print edition on 1 April 2016