All posts by Patrick McGhee

Patrick is reading BA History at the University of Birmingham and is an Editor for the university newspaper.
Mali Islamist Militants

Mali: Intervention, Invasion, and Invention

Broadly, it may be that intervention is a limited and fundamentally flawed approach, but to say that some invented Western Empire marches on Africa to secure its dominance is to simplify a complex internal crisis, and to ignore the appeals of the Malian government for help.

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Mali Islamist Militants

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Ten years since the West’s intervention in Iraq and in the midst of a new French and British presence in Mali, it is right to emphasise that failing to appreciate the complexities of any international conflict is always costly. Deciding whether or not to commit to military intervention requires extensive deliberation and patience. Whatever one decides, there must be no doubt as to the seriousness of the implications, no question as to the responsibilities assumed as a consequence. Interventionists are often urged to keep these warnings in mind before they choose to support a foreign military conflict, but it should be remembered that this counsel must also apply to those opposed to intervention.

Not long after the French intervention in Mali, a number of voices on the left denounced what they saw as a provocative invitation to Islamist violence and a failure to learn from the West’s intervention in Iraq ten years ago. However, it is arguably these voices that appear to be repeating past mistakes. Opposition to the Iraq War, while vociferous, never received the scrutiny and interrogation it truly deserved, and since it so frequently characterised itself solely in terms of what it was against, it is crucial to keep in mind what the anti-war movement was for.

Broadly speaking, we can infer that many of those opposed to the Iraq war would have preferred the continuation of Saddam Hussein’s rule over Western intervention. There was little and remains little to suggest that his regime could have been toppled from within the country, and in any case, this was not a hope articulated by some within the anti-war movement at the time. In particular, we should note that George Galloway, one of the most prominent members of the Stop the War Coalition, openly praised the dictator and the operations of insurgent forces in Iraq. The Stop the War Coalition’s erroneous unease around efforts to thwart fascism in Iraq and elsewhere have been disappointing, but by failing to offer a credible approach to the tangible dangers of the Islamist influence in Mali, some are perpetuating the notion that to be anti-war is to abdicate responsibility for the consequences of non-intervention. The impact of intervention is important and deserves continuous scrutiny, because this impact is severe and often bloody, but the potentially destructive impact of inaction in the face of the dangers present in Mali are not receiving the attention they deserve.

It would be in error to say that alternatives to intervention do not exist. Here at The Risky Shift, Alex Clackson has identified a number of suggestions, including the provision of development aid and increased support for domestic governments. However, a deeper misunderstanding often characterises opposition to intervention. There is a tendency among many, particularly on the left to locate intervention by the West in general and, in the case of Mali, France and Britain in particular, in a neo-imperialistic/colonialist narrative. Journalist John Pilger has gone so far as to say that ‘A full-scale invasion of Africa is under way,’ which he compares to the Scramble for Africa of the nineteenth century. This is a limited and ultimately ahistorical view of the kind of Western intervention we have seen in the region.

The sovereignty of Mali is not under threat from ‘the West’ but from several Islamist groups including Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), both of which demand the imposition of Islamic law throughout the country. It is also worth noting that it was Mali’s interim president Dioncounda Traore who requested military aid from France in January of this year to counter these groups. Broadly, it may be that intervention is a limited and fundamentally flawed approach, but to say that some invented Western Empire marches on Africa to secure its dominance is to simplify a complex internal crisis, and to ignore the appeals of the Malian government for help.

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Photo Credit: Magharebia

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What Noughties Labour Left Behind

Ed Miliband sometimes sounds like he’s running against Tony Blair for the leadership rather than against David Cameron for the premiership; Miliband’s speeches should emphasise the persistent values at the heart of his party and the principles on which it was founded.

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One of the key defences used by both Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg is that obstacles such as the deficit have been left behind by the Labour Party and must be ‘cleaned up’ by the Government. Cameron used his first House of Commons speech as Prime Minister to emphasise this argument, and it has remained a frequent response to criticism from the opposition during Prime Minister’s Questions. However repetitive this argument might be, the coalition’s desire to emphasise the inherited failings of its predecessor is politically understandable. What is more curious is Labour leader Ed Miliband’s apparent enthusiasm for doing the same thing.

Upon assuming the role, a new party leader might be expected to give a speech or two in which, by criticising old policies or established members of the party, they attempt to create a sense of renewal and innovation. But Miliband has repeatedly introduced Labour’s record – and, in his view, its failings – into the discourse on numerous issues over the course of his leadership. There have been frequent admissions by the Labour leader regarding the mistakes he believes were made by his party’s government. According to Miliband, Labour was wrong on issues such as the economy, immigration and Iraq. Leaving aside what one may thinking about Labour’s previous approaches to these and any other issues, it seems reasonable to wonder why Miliband is so keen, insistent even, on reminding everybody about his party’s failures, real or perceived.

It has been suggested that Miliband’s recent remarks to the Fabian Society, which took a similarly apologetic approach, are part of an ‘attempt to distance himself from elements of the last government’s record considered toxic by many strategists.’ While it is important for Miliband to be honest and self-critical about his party’s shortcomings, there is something self-defeating about his constant referral back to New Labour’s record if his aim is to disassociate himself from it. These kinds of apologies can be useful in the first year or so of opposition as a way to rebrand, but after three years out of power, Labour needs to focus on establishing its new approach and produced a clear pitch to the electorate about its policies. Labour’s Policy Review should eventually shed more light on the tangible elements of the party’s approach, but Miliband should nevertheless emphasise the future rather than dwell on the past in the meantime.

Of course, Labour has already made policy suggestions on various issues, but these often focus on ‘learning lessons’ and accepting hard truths about Labour’s past efforts. For example, on immigration, Miliband told the Fabian Society that during the premierships of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown ‘high levels of migration were having huge effects on the lives of people in Britain – and too often those in power seemed not to accept this. The fact that they didn’t explains partly why people turned against us in the last general election.’ And on the economy: ‘One Nation Labour has learnt the lessons of the financial crisis. It begins from the truth that New Labour did not do enough to bring about structural change in our economy to make it work for the many, not just the few. It did not do enough to change the rules of the game that were holding our economy back.’ In these remarks, Miliband is trying to demonstrate the heightened self-awareness and self-improvement of ‘One Nation Labour’ in contrast to the old and often mistaken ‘New Labour’. Yet this ploy, along with the attempt to play down Labour’s record by giving it extra attention in speeches, treats the electorate with little respect. Voters remember New Labour, favourably or not, and they will not be convinced that there are no similarities at all between the brands ‘New’ and ‘One Nation’ any more than they will forget the successes and limitations of Blair and Brown.

Perhaps most disappointing, however, is that Miliband and his strategists seem to have assumed that the argument over New Labour’s record was lost along with the 2010 election. Indeed, Miliband’s tone contains none of the positivity exhibited by his predecessor in the last days of the 2010 campaign, during which antipathy towards the party was exceedingly high. Despite Labour’s damaged image at the end of thirteen years in power, Gordon Brown retained a sense of pride in his party’s accomplishments in this speech, without any of the obligatory qualifiers and ‘howevers’ that seem to accompany the current leader’s reminiscing monologues. Both the content and the delivery of Brown’s speech demonstrate that celebrating New Labour’s record is politically credible and potentially convincing. Even if Miliband feels morally or politically obliged to remind everybody of how poor he believes Labour’s performance has been in the past, he should also feel more confident about celebrating such political events as the minimum wage, the renovation of thousands of schools or the cancellation of developing world debt.

Ed Miliband sometimes sounds like he’s running against Tony Blair for the leadership rather than against David Cameron for the premiership. To correct this, Miliband’s speeches should emphasise the persistent values at the heart of his party and the principles on which it was founded. Crucially, he should not be afraid ask David Cameron what the coalition is doing to maintain and build on the progress in healthcare and education left behind by the Labour government.

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Photo credit: Policy Network

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Marriage Equality & The Government’s ‘Legislative Boot’

By proposing to implement this restriction on the Church of England and Wales, the government risks alienating those religious people in favour of equal marriage and provides further ammunition for its opponents, many of whom now claim that legislative developments on the issue have appeared muddled and erratic.

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Responding to government proposals on the implementation of marriage equality earlier this week, Conservative MP Richard Drax stated in the House of Commons, ‘I would like to ask the Secretary of State and the government what right have they got, other than arrogance and intolerance, to stamp their legislative boot on religious faith?’ It is in an attempt to safeguard religious institutions from legislative intolerance that the government made its announcement this week that the Church of England will be prohibited from performing same-sex marriages should they be introduced.

Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, explained the policy in Parliament, stating, ‘European law already puts religious freedoms beyond doubt, and we will go even further by bringing in an additional “quadruple legal lock”. But it is also a key aspect of religious freedom that those bodies who want to opt in should be able to do so.’ Despite this mention of the opt-in, one of the four parts of the ‘quadruple legal lock’ includes legislation explicitly preventing the Church of England from carrying out same-sex marriages. This threatens to inhibit rather than ensure religious freedom for religious institutions wishing to marry same-sex couples and risks alienating religious individuals in favour of equal marriage.

It would seem that the government has failed to distinguish the many shades of difference of opinion within the Church of England and in Wales on the issue of equal marriage. The assumption that same-sex marriage is necessarily oppressive to religious groups as though they are a monolithic whole can be dispelled by looking at both the Church of England and the Church in Wales, prominent members of which have expressed disappointment in the last week over the government’s announcement.

The Bishop of Leicester, Tim Stevens, as well as a spokesperson for the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, have both criticised the apparent lack of consultation regarding the ‘quadruple legal lock’. But in her address to Parliament, Maria Miller said, ‘Because the Church of England and Wales have explicitly stated that they do not wish to conduct same-sex marriages, the legislation will explicitly state that it would be illegal for the Churches of England and Wales to marry same-sex couples.’

Even if prominent figures within either Church had indeed articulated this ‘explicit’ opposition to equal marriage during the consultation period, Miller’s reasoning for the plans seems too simplistic, not only in light of the variety of views on equal marriage among religious individuals but also given its many proponents within the Conservative Party itself. Just last week, the Telegraph reported on a group organised by key Conservatives including London Mayor Boris Johnson and Education Secretary Michael Gove in support of same-sex marriage within religious institutions. Prime Minister David Cameron has also announced that he favoured equal marriage within the Church.

These complications are making it easier for outright opponents of marriage equality, such as those within the Catholic Church, to more easily undermine the government’s progress on the issue. In response to Miller’s announcement, a statement released by the the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales said that the government’s approach ‘can only be described as shambolic’ and went on to complain that, ‘There was no electoral mandate in any manifesto; no mention in the Queen’s speech; no serious or thorough consultation through a Green or White paper, and a constant shifting of policy before even the government response to the consultation was published today.’ Arguably, the response among outright opponents of equal marriage was always going to be negative, but confusion over the legal impact on religious institutions widens the scope for further criticism and doubt over the government’s competence over the issue.

By proposing to implement this restriction on the Church of England and Wales, the government risks alienating those religious people in favour of equal marriage and provides further ammunition for its opponents, many of whom now claim that legislative developments on the issue have appeared muddled and erratic. In an attempt to prevent equal marriage from being forced upon religious institutions, the government now suggests that the Church should be forced to turn same-sex couples away. Religious believers who support equal marriage may now be inclined to ask of their government, ‘What right have they got to stamp their legislative boot on religious faith?’

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Photo credit: renaissancechambara

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The Episcopal Question: The Role Of Women In The Church

The nature of the Church’s enduring internal disagreement is the consequence of a belief, perhaps now held only among a few extremists, that an omnipotent authority has made demands of the sexes and that to ignore his will is to invite punishment.

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The General Synod’s failure to grant women the right to episcopal equality in November has ensured that the long-debated issue over women bishops will remain vociferously debated among believers for years to come. The problem is considerably important, not only to the faithful but also to British politics and society, in a number of ways. Firstly, as Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society has argued, the Synod’s vote is further evidence that the Church of England is not an appropriate political mechanism with which the state should be constitutionally intertwined. Sanderson highlights that denying the privileges and opportunities associated with the Church according to gender – a public institution – is a policy incompatible with the British government and its laws. However, secularists must be cautious before rushing to criticise the Church as a whole for the failures of its evangelical minority.

The Houses of Bishops and Clergy overwhelmingly approved consecration rights for women, while the House of Laity was short of the two-thirds majority required by six votes. While there is some considerable conflict between the evangelical and moderate wings of the House of Laity, it is appropriate to say that the Church as a whole has decided to support women in their pursuit of episcopal equality. Indeed, figures in the church have grown increasingly critical of the Synod’s voting system in light of the influence such a small opposition seems to have had on the result of the vote. In this case, it would seem that the theology and faith of a minority within the church has acted as a barrier to the wishes of the majority, in detriment to the pursuit of wider well-being for the believing community. This presents a fundamental problem for religious institutions that must be dealt with honestly and soon. Secular institutions have no divine mandate to separate men from women or to promote men above women, but the minority of evangelicals opposed to episcopal equality insist on deferring to God, who has apparently decided that each gender must have ‘different roles’ in the Church as in society. It is this deference that has prevented women from enjoying the same opportunities as men within the Church.

The struggle for equal rights in the Church serves as a reminder that religious belief is no guarantee of moral superiority or social foundation, precisely because of residual traditionalism and the sway still afforded to hardliners. The suggestion by Eric Pickles that we should ‘embrace the religious character of our nation’ – both that of the Church of England and of Catholicism – cannot be taken seriously when the Church’s long struggle to grant equality to its own members is kept in mind. Moreover, the wider hypocrisy of Christianity’s claims to moral authority is reinforced whenever we hear of some or other cleric’s spiteful remarks about homosexuality and marriage equality. Some may argue that opponents of equal marriage and episcopal equality take their positions for moral or spiritually important reasons, but who can measure the pain and frustration caused by these remarks and the petulant obstructionism than accompanies them? Are we really to say that these enduring struggles are evidence of a divinely inspired belief system?

Justin Welby, the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury, expressed his dismay following the House of Laity’s decision, tweeting, ‘Very grim day, most of all for women priests and supporters, need to surround all with prayer & love and co-operate with our healing God.’ These remarks mean well, but they highlight a lack of understanding as to the fundamental conflict between secular equality and religious privilege. If those in favour of episcopal equality are to eventually triumph in this particular struggle, they must speak honestly about how the debate emerged in the first place. The nature of the Church’s enduring internal disagreement is the consequence of a belief, perhaps now held only among a few extremists, that an omnipotent authority has made demands of the sexes and that to ignore his will is to invite punishment. Secular institutions are unshackled by such beliefs and can make moral decisions based on human compassion without heavenly guidance. Given the largely male-dominated focus of religious doctrine and the kinds of authority it prescribes, it is no coincidence that religious institutions such as the Church of England are forced to grapple as they have with the prospect of powerful women.

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Photo credit: Alan Stanton

Big Ben and Westminster Abbey

The Peculiar Influence Of The Church of England

Given the influence of the Church of England and the claims it makes on issues such as the law and equal marriage, its new Archbishop has a responsibility to provide a transparent account of his views so that they can be properly scrutinised.

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While it is often said that the United States is politically and socially religious to a considerable extent, it is worth remembering that it is constitutionally secular. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment protects the right of every religious group to practice their faith privately, while ensuring that no one group receives advantageous treatment over others via funding or expressions of support from the state. It has also allowed for the establishment of non-religious executive, legislative and judicial branches of the US government, each free from the prejudices inherent in theocratic systems. This luxury, however, is not afforded to British citizens, who are instead expected to accept that the clergy of the Church of England, the dominant sect, will sit in the legislative house adjacent to that of the country’s elected representatives. Moreover, the monarch rather than the Prime Minister is the ultimate head of state and of the state religion, and while this intimate relationship between our democratic and royal institutions is often viewed as little more than a benign tradition, it remains a potential risk to political representation and social equality.

One of the by-products of this fusion of church and state has been the prominence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose commentary on social and political issues is often given a generous amount of coverage in the media. Dr Rowan Williams, who is now stepping down from the post, has frequently commented on issues ranging from economic justice to western foreign policy. However, while Dr Williams is entitled to express his views on these and any other issues, his responsibilities as a political as well as a religious figure mean that his opinions deserve the same critical scrutiny afforded to other political leaders.

Dr Williams’ suggestion in 2008 that elements of Islamic law should be accommodated in the UK provides a useful example of why this scrutiny is so important. While ultimately inconsequential, these comments nonetheless reflect claims about the nature and development of the judicial system. They also reflects a need among advocates of church and state cooperation to accommodate numerous religious groups, in a similar sense to the proposed inclusion of multiple faith representatives in the House of Lords. On the surface, such suggestions may seem to appeal to representation and fairness, but in reality they reinforce the exclusion of minor faiths and unbelievers while empowering major religious traditions undeservedly. Avoiding this discrimination is one of the main advantages of the US political system, which, instead of trying to cater for numerous faiths, separates all religion equally from the state. Far from constituting oppression of religious freedom, this method succeeds in preventing it. Crucially, Dr Williams’ comments on Islamic law suggest that the Archbishop of Canterbury is not only a participant in political discourse but can also seek to influence and develop it in ways that other religious and non-religious individuals cannot.

This unique influence can also be seen in religious resistance to equal marriage. On its website, the Church of England describes ‘the enduring place of the established church in providing marriages that have full state recognition,’ and has also claimed that marriage equality could threaten religious establishment in the UK. Moreover, Dr Williams’ replacement Justin Welby has maintained his opposition to equal marriage while simultaneously offering a vague commitment to re-examining his views ‘prayerfully and carefully’. In light of this, it is clear that while religion in the UK may resemble a ceremonial oddity, the views of leading figures on the validity of marriage could have a direct impact on the civil rights of individuals in society. These individuals, as well as advocates of an equal and fair legal system, deserve better than ambiguous spiritual statements of reflection and prayer from the leadership of the Church.

The political prominence of this leadership is indicative of a constitutional framework that places one religious doctrine above all others and insists on fusing it with the operations of the state. This structure is more than a mere historical peculiarity, and exists in opposition to the ideals of a modern and inclusive democracy. Given the potentially tangible influence of the Church of England, and the bold claims it makes on issues such as the law and equal marriage, Justin Welby has a responsibility, not only to religious believers but to every citizen, to provide a clear and transparent account of his views so that they may be properly scrutinised.

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Photo Credit: Better Than Bacon

US Presidential Election Roundup 3/11 – 10/11

US President Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term in office on Tuesday after a close race against Governor Mitt Romney.

Polls in the final days before Election Day suggested ties in the crucial states of Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Colorado with both President Obama and Mitt Romney making final appeals to voters on Monday. President Obama spoke to 20,000 supporters in Iowa, saying, ‘This is where our movement for change began. Right here’, while Mitt Romney rallied with 12,000 voters in New Hampshire, saying that, ‘This is a special moment for Ann and for me because this is where our campaign began. You got this campaign started a year and a half ago at the Scammon Farm.’

Talking to reporters Romney revealed that he had not written a concession speech, saying, ‘I just finished writing a victory speech. It’s about 1,118 words. And, uh, I’m sure it will change before I’m finished, because I haven’t passed it around to my family and friends and advisers to get their reaction, but I’ve only written one speech at this point.’

As exit poll results emerged, both Obama and Romney remained tied for some time in Florida and Virginia, while Obama was said to have a 3% lead in Ohio.

NBC became the first network to call the election for President Obama, with Rachel Maddow confirming that, ‘We have just learned that in the state of Ohio, NBC News has projected that President Obama has won the state of Ohio. President Obama has been re-elected for a second term.’

Despite campaign staff preparing to challenge the result in states they deemed too close to call Romney eventually decided to concede, thanking his wife Ann, his running mate Paul Ryan and his campaign staff in a short concession speech in Boston and stating that, ‘The nation, as you know, is at a critical point. At a time like this we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work, and we citizens also have to rise to occasion.’ He added that, ‘I so wish that I had been able to fulfil your hopes to lead the country in a different direction, but the nation chose another leader, and so Ann and I join with you to earnestly pray for him and for this great nation.’

Advisers later describes the atmosphere in the Romney campaign as the result became clearer,  while Conservative commentators such as Bill O’Reilly were quick to analyse the Republican failure as it emerged. On Fox News, O’Reilly commented that, ‘The white establishment is now the minority,’ adding that, ‘And the voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff. You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama. Overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?

President Obama delivered his victory remarks in Chicago, saying, ‘I want to thank every American who participated in this election, whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time. By the way, we have to fix that. Whether you pounded the pavement or picked up the phone, whether you held an Obama sign or a Romney sign, you made your voice heard and you made a difference.’ The President also thanked Vice-President Joe Biden, and also said that, ‘I wouldn’t be the man I am today without the woman who agreed to marry me 20 years ago. Let me say this publicly: Michelle, I have never loved you more. I have never been prouder to watch the rest of America fall in love with you, too, as our nation’s first lady.’ The President went on to praise his campaign staff, stating, ‘To the best campaign team and volunteers in the history of politics. The best. The best ever. Some of you were new this time around, and some of you have been at my side since the very beginning. But all of you are family. No matter what you do or where you go from here, you will carry the memory of the history we made together and you will have the lifelong appreciation of a grateful President.’

Meanwhile, in the Congressional elections, Republicans retained control of the House of Representatives, while the Democrats increased their majority in the Senate. In addition, equal marriage propositions were successful in Washington state, Maine and Maryland, leading to speculation as to the implications for the Supreme Court, while recreation marijuana was legalised in Washington state and Colorado.

Following the presidential election results, footage emerged of the newly re-elected President Obama wiping tears from his face as he thanked his campaign staff. The media also picked up on the accidentally published Mitt Romney ‘Victory’ splash page and transition website.

Since the results, ABC News has drawn up a list of economic issues that President Obama will have to deal with in his second term, including the situation in Europe, payroll taxes and unemployment benefits, while Global Post has reported the international reactions to his re-election. The National Journal has scrutinised the accuracy of polling during this year’s election cycle  while the New York Times has investigated shifts in voting patterns, and the Washington Post has looked at what exit polls reflect about the concerns of voters. In addition, the Huffington Post has speculated about the President’s plans for the Supreme Court, suggesting that his re-election may allow him ‘to deepen his liberal imprint’ on the Court’. Meanwhile, the New York Times has also explored Mitt Romney’s post-election plans.

This week, The Risky Shift’s Anastasia Kyriacou wrote a piece questioning the power of the US presidency, David Schaefer explored the ambiguity of recent polling data, and Peter Kelly has analysed the difficulties President Obama may face in his second term.

SWAT Valley, Pakistan

Malala Yousafzai & The Fight For Education

It would be a grave mistake to blame some ‘Western’ focus on education for these religious assaults on learning when young people across Asia are expressing a desire for knowledge and understanding no less eagerly.

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The shooting last week of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai in the Swat valley, Pakistan, further demonstrates that incidents of religiously-justified terrorism cannot be adequately explained as merely angry responses to a growing influence of ‘Western’ values. Members of the Swat Taliban were ordered to carry out the attack in response to Malala’s writings on the group, which she had articulated in a series of defiant diary entries in 2009. In her writing, Malala describes a life characterised by daily fear of reprisals from the Taliban for the crime of attending school. On one day, a friend anxiously asks her, ‘Is our school going to be attacked by the Taleban?’ It is disturbing for many of us to imagine the antithetical fusion of innocent intellectual inquiry with this unpredictable terror of religious tyranny, but for Malala and her friends the feeling has been commonplace for years.

Commenting on the shooting, a spokesperson for the Swat Taliban has stated that, ‘We have a clear-cut stance. Anyone who takes side with the government against us will have to die at our hands,’ adding that, ‘Other important people will soon become victims.’ The New York Times reports that while Malala is currently in critical condition in hospital, the people of Pakistan are showing their support for her by condemning the attack. Moreover, the violence has drawn a negative reaction from Islamic leaders and groups, including the Kashmiri nationalist terrorists Lashkar-e-Taiba, described by the New York Times as ‘militant’ but adhering to ‘a different strain of Islam from the Taliban.’ In this sense, the assault has been a considerable failure in more ways than one, yet perhaps the most significant aspect of the shooting is that it represents an unwarranted and unprovoked assault not only on Malala Yousafzai but also on the notion of intellectual freedom and the right to learn.

Another Taliban spokesperson attempted to justify the attack by explaining to Al-Jazeera that Malala ‘is a Western-minded girl.’ However, the extremism Pakistan has witnessed and denounced in the last week represents hostility towards all those who wish to live and learn freely and equally, regardless of cultural background. This is especially true because Malala Yousafzai is not alone in her struggle. Girls in Afghanistan have long been at risk of deadly terrorist attacks if they attend school, while last month universities in Iran imposed new rules aimed at restricting the options or outright banning women from studying.

It is thus a grave mistake to blame some ‘Western’ focus on education for religious oppression of education when young people across Asia are expressing a desire for education no less eagerly. Their bravery in the context of both physical violence and relentless civil oppression indicates that a yearning for knowledge is not a ‘Western’ value or a ‘liberal’ ideal but a human passion, making it all the more resilient against those who would see them buried beneath a charred and oppressed landscape. Malala’s only crimes were to document her experiences in a diary and to go to school. Her courage, along with the violence she has endured, demonstrates that there exists an intellectual culture among young people, and indeed human beings in general, entirely independent of geography or religious belief. Intellectual curiosity is not, as has been claimed, a ‘Western’ precept. It is a human one, and one that must be defended wherever it is threatened.

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Photo credit: isafmedia

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Circumcision & The Dangers Of Force-Fed Belief

While undoubtedly more of a challenge, affording young people the opportunity to learn for themselves is far more rewarding than force-feeding them their beliefs in infancy.

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In early September, a demonstration took place in Berlin to protest the decision of a German court in June that prohibited circumcision on the grounds that the practice amounts to ‘bodily harm’. The ruling, which argued that the ‘fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents,’ has been met with animosity by Jews and Muslims, with additional anger aimed at German Chancellor Angela Merkel. There has since been much debate over the medical benefits and dangers of circumcision, with a report in August by the American Academy of Pediatrics suggesting that ‘the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks.’ However, the medical debate around circumcision is only one aspect of a much deeper issue regarding the implications for a child’s development once the procedure is complete. Indeed, when medical issues are left to one side, circumcision still deserves our critical attention because it presents a number of important ethical and intellectual problems.

Perhaps most importantly, performing religious circumcision violates the intellectual privacy of the child. By surgically altering or damaging the genitals for religious reasons, the child is forced to enter into a relationship with a particular god before he is even made aware of spiritual concepts or ideas. As it is morally reprehensible to force an adult to worship a particular way or pray to particular god, and it should be no different for those who cannot yet speak for themselves. The decision to enter into a special bond with a deity is not one to be taken lightly by the most intellectual developed and mature of us, so it is unlikely that a baby could make such a decision convincingly.

Equally unconvincing is the claim that circumcision represents some kind of sacrifice or proof of community with the deity. Even if the virtue of faith and religious servitude is granted, neither of these attributes can be sincerely awarded to a circumcised infant, precisely because the child did not decide for himself. A sacrifice made without consent is hardly a resounding endorsement of faith by the child, rendering false the religious claim of humility or the idea of giving oneself to God by the act of circumcision. The act of entering into the religion in question becomes a meaningless gesture over which the child has no control. It would mean more to allow the child room to grow intellectually, and then to present to him the theological and philosophical choices on offer at a more mature age. The decision to enter into Judaism or Islam would arguably be far more impressive and sincere in that case, and would presumably point more convincingly to the credibility of the chosen religious doctrine.

As Church of England priest and Guardian contributor Dr Giles Fraser concedes, religious circumcision is primarily about ignoring the notion of choice in favour of compulsory religious identity. Fraser argues that choice is simply an expression of liberalism, which, as he puts it, represents ‘a diminished form of the moral imagination’, but what he fails to notice is that the power of choice still plays a role in circumcision. Fraser simply transfers the power of choice from the child to the parents. It is not the decision of the affected individual to be circumcised but the decision of the parents and religious officials to enter the child into a religious doctrine. The fact that adults control choice in the matter undermines the argument that religion is a statement of what a person is rather than what a person believes, because it means that the child did not arrive at his faith naturally; rather, was entered into it by his elders.

Many may find it strange or even disturbing to read of Fraser’s disappointment that his own son is not circumcised, and he best demonstrates the negative emotional impact that practices like circumcision can have when he says, ‘I have always found this extremely difficult to deal with. On some level, I feel like a betrayer.’ This is unfortunate, because allowing children to think for themselves should be considered a source of pride, rather than guilt. While undoubtedly more of a challenge, affording young people the opportunity to learn for themselves is far more rewarding than force-feeding them their beliefs in infancy.

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Photo Credit: paul nine-o

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Sleepwalking Into Segregation?

As part of our series on multiculturalism, Patrick McGhee questions Trevor Phillips’ statement that we are ‘sleepwalking into segregation’. 

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In 2005, the now outgoing Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips (pictured), responded to the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London by suggesting that Britain was ‘sleepwalking into segregation,’ adding that ‘we are becoming strangers to each other and leaving communities to be marooned outside the mainstream’. Phillips’ warnings about the dangers of segregation were met with scepticism by academics citing a lack of evidence behind his claims, but his arguments have unfortunately been more broadly undermined by the wider preferential views he has expressed towards religion over secularism.

In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph last year, Phillips expressed concerns about growing criticism of religion, commenting that ‘faith identity is part of what makes life richer and more meaningful for the individual. It is a fundamental part of what makes some societies better than others in my view’. He later added that religion is ‘an essential element of being a fulfilled human being’. The statements overtly suggested a superiority of faith over non-faith, not only as a means to live an individual life, but to excel as a society. These views have prompted condemnation from the British Humanist Association, and are disappointing given Phillips’ supposed commitment to equality. Crucially, the comments are also symptomatic of a wider imbalance between religion and the state. As Phillips himself has since suggested, far from facilitating improvement, the prioritisation of religion in society can often have dangerous consequences for both societies and the individuals within them.

There are numerous instances of religious interests denying important medical treatment to those most in need. Just this week, doctors have argued that faith in miraculous solutions is directly undermining efforts to ease the suffering of terminally ill children. Meanwhile in Russia, the trial of three punk band members over a protest at Moscow’s central Orthodox church has paid a disproportionate amount of attention to often farcical spiritual testimony at the expense of a fair trial. Both healthcare and the judicial process are aspects of society that have repeatedly been undermined by religious interference, frequently with the support of a close relationship between church and state. Perhaps most relevant to Britain and the debate around multiculturalism, however, is the issue of faith schools.

A piece for The Guardian by the chief executive of the British Humanist Association Andrew Copson makes the case against faith-based schools, citing exclusivity and fraudulent teachings as evidence that they are detrimental rather than conducive to human fulfillment. In this sense, educational institutions formed around religious traditions are directly and necessarily responsible for the segregation Trevor Phillips talked about. Separating young people into religious categories can promote lasting division and undermines the idea of real community. Instead, only a series of insular units are offered, and young people are often required to accept the tag they are given. More broadly, this system suggests that religion serves some special moral or intellectual function that cannot be performed adequately by schools unsupported by religious doctrine.

It is this notion of the moral superiority of religion that individuals such as Trevor Phillips have openly supported. It is claimed that societies are better or worse depending on how spiritual they can be, and that attempts to critique religion or its doctrines must be an attack on society itself. In reality, placing a protective shield around religion hinders our understanding of different faiths because it prevents open discussion around the merits of each tradition and its role in society. Institutions requiring objectivity, such as medical care, justice and education do not benefit from the intrusions of any special interest. If we are unable to make responsible judgements about how spirituality and faith affect these institutions, we risk failure in the pursuit of human well-being.

Just as political opinions should be open to scrutiny and criticism, so too should religious traditions, and while we are bold to desire diversity, we should not assume that faith is off limits to debate. If this assumption is not dispelled, we may yet become strangers to one another: Trevor Phillips’ preference for religion is contributing to our communal sleepwalk into segregation.

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The Pussy Riot Trial: Russia’s Resurgent Religious Right

Crucially, the Pussy Riot trial is important not only because it carries implications for the integrity and credibility of the Russian judicial system, but also because it is evidence of the country’s resurgent religious right wing. 

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The BBC Trust ruled last week that Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman’s use of the phrases ‘religious hogwash’ and ‘stupid people’ during an interview about religion ‘breached the editorial guidelines on harm and offence’ because the words may have unintentionally upset religious viewers. The ruling was the result of just one complaint, raising serious questions about the disproportionate weight of the offended individual in swaying the process of open debate, but the apparent power of religious upset in manipulating rational decision-making can have even more dangerous consequences for justice and those it should serve around the world.

In the same week, it was reported that a 23-year-old mother had been sentenced to death by stoning in Sudan after being found guilty of committing adultery. The sentence comes after the Sudanese President articulated support for an entirely Islamic constitution in July, and has been condemned by Amnesty International. In a statement, Amnesty has specifically called attention to the unfair nature of the woman’s trial, in which they say ‘she was convicted solely on the basis of her confession and did not have access to a lawyer.’

Meanwhile, three members of the punk band Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina, have been detained in Russia since early March after performing an anti-Putin dance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The women have been charged with ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ by the court, facing up to seven years of imprisonment if convicted for their brief demonstration.

The trial began on 30th July and an interesting account by Pyotr Verzilov, husband of one of the accused, has described court proceedings from his perspective, detailing the court’s attitude towards the press and the conditions in which the three detainees are being tried. The Guardian reports that lawyers for the defendants have openly criticised the reportedly exhausting and unfair trial environment, with one stating: ‘this is one of the most shameful trials in modern Russia. In Soviet times, at least they followed some sort of procedure’.

Crucially, the trial is important not only because it carries implications for the integrity and credibility of the Russian judicial system, but also because it is evidence of the country’s resurgent religious right wing. As the writer Wayne K. Spear argues, it is important to note that this resurgence has been reinforced by the cosy relationship between President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Orthodox Church, reflected in early February by Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill’s description of Putin’s previous two terms in office as ‘a miracle of God’.

Despite an unconvincing call for leniency from Putin, the distinctly religious nature of the complaints made against the accused demonstrates the dangers presented by influence of religion in Russia’s legal framework. Witnesses for the prosecution have repeatedly implied a paranoid fear of the supernatural, as well as belief in literal hell, ‘black energy’ and divine judgement. Verzilov’s diary notes that one witness described the ‘devilish twitching’ of the protesters, while another complained of ‘spiritual trauma’ in the wake of their demonstration. It has also been reported that one witness deplored the role of the internet in spreading Satanism, accusing the three women of having ‘lowered themselves into hell’ with their actions. Questions from the prosecution have been no less focused on trivial expressions of offence, with the Guardian reporting that witnesses were asked about the meaning of their faith and how offended they were at the clothing worn by the protesters.

The tone of this dialogue underscores a religious sentiment that may have persisted in Russia since the Tsarist era, as the late writer and journalist Christopher Hitchens often suggested. In this sense, state support for the Orthodox Church may not be directly responsible for the faith-based fury surrounding the trial, but the overtly spiritual content of the prosecution’s case is a symptom of deterioration within Russia’s constitutional separation of church and state. As the verdict draws closer, it is clear that the increasing power and influence of the Orthodox Church is denying the Russian people a strong legal system blind to the special interests of religious tradition and uninterested in accusations of blasphemy, no matter how many claim to be offended by it.

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Sexual Health & The Need For Secularism

Despite the absence of a codified constitution in the UK that explicitly separates religion from the state, it would nonetheless be heartening to see the Education Secretary take a more objective and inclusive approach to education, especially when the sexual health of young people hangs in the balance.

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As the International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. draws to a close, it is worth keeping in mind not only the efforts being made in the struggle against the disease but also the obstacles that have attempted to undermine these efforts. In a sense, little has changed since 2003 when the Catholic Church was discouraging people across the world from using condoms as a means of protection against HIV, with patent disregard for the scientific evidence against their claim that the infection could pass through the contraceptives.

In 2010, the Vatican was forced to vociferously reemphasise the Church’s opposition to contraception after the Pope suggested that condoms may be of benefit to male prostitutes, an offer of compromise hardly worthy of the serious conversation being had by medical professionals, scientists and coordinators about how best to tackle the epidemic. This case, in addition to Catholic opposition to the Affordable Care Act in the United States, suggests that healthcare would benefit from a secular outlook that prioritises wellbeing and safety over theological interests. It could be argued, however, that education is in need of a similar non-religious framework in order for these priorities to be realised.

Last week, it emerged that some schools in England have been not only discouraging but also actively preventing students from receiving important cervical cancer vaccinations as a direct consequence of religious belief. Explaining its decision to withhold vaccines from its students, one school said that its ‘pupils follow strict Christian principles, marry within their own community and do not practice sex outside marriage’. The news prompted criticism from numerous commentators, as well as calls for calm from others, but the debate itself should be seen as a symptom of a wider conflict inherent in the relationship between religion and education.

This conflict is perhaps best illustrated by the establishment of the Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) Council in May this year. The Council seeks to ‘promote the best possible sex and relationship education both at home and at school’ and is comprised of seven founding organisations, all of which have been found to support positions associated with the Christian right-wing and several of which have declared religious intent outright. Last week, one of the Council’s member organisations, Lovewise, was found to have given presentations containing misinformation to schoolchildren in order to discourage abortion, prompting condemnation from Labour MP Dianne Abbott.

The values of the Council in general and the actions of Lovewise in particular demonstrate the irreconcilable differences between elements of religious tradition and education, especially as it relates to sexual health. It may be true that, as the director of Lovewise Dr Chris Richards has said in defence of his organisation, young people ‘have a right to hear and discuss what might be positive about keeping sex for marriage and keeping their unborn child’, but schools have a more important obligation to deliver evidence and fact-based education to their students.

This can often mean dialogue and debate, but only in a secular environment can credible and objective conclusions be reached without the risk of unfairly promoting the beliefs of one faith above human wellbeing. Young people deserve to be educated in an environment that promotes multiple voices and a variety of ideas, but they also deserve a structure of learning that values the search for truth above all else. It would be a mistake to forgo that structure in order to facilitate the interests of particular religious traditions.

It is worth noting that the SRE Council has received the personal support of the Education Secretary Michael Gove, who has said, ‘I look forward to working with you all in ensuring that the interests of families are put at the heart of our policies’. Despite the absence of a codified constitution in the UK that explicitly separates religion from the state, it would nonetheless be heartening to see the Education Secretary take a more objective and inclusive approach to education, especially when the sexual health of young people hangs in the balance.

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Guarding The Liberties Of The People

Healthcare should be a secular concern, and the animosity expressed towards birth control by religious institutions thus far is a crucial example of why the separation of church and state is so valuable: churches have never guarded the liberties of the people.

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[dropcap]A[/dropcap]fter the Supreme Court decided to uphold President Obama’s healthcare reform legislation as constitutional late last month, debate over the ‘individual mandate’ remained animated, especially given the divided nature of the court’s ruling (five votes to four). The majority opinion held that Congress has the constitutional power to implement the mandate because, as Chief Justice John Roberts explained, ‘the mandate can be regarded as establishing a condition – not owning health insurance – that triggers a tax – the required payment to IRS’. However, while the Supreme Court decision focused primarily on the economic arrangements of the legislation, it is its social implications that are likely to remain an important area of constitutional debate.

Even prior to the court decision, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) began a ‘Fortnight For Freedom’ from 21stJune in a bid to combat what it perceives as vulnerability in the wake of the administration’s healthcare reform. The organisation argues in a statement on its website that ‘our right to live out our faith is being threatened – from Washington forcing Catholic institutions to provide services that contradict our beliefs to state governments prohibiting our charities from serving the most vulnerable.’ This complaint refers in part to the government’s incorporation of contraception into health insurance requirements.

While the statement from the USCCB seeks to portray the government as directly targeting religious institutions with insensitive requirements, the administration has arguably remained consistent with the First Amendment that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. The integrity of this amendment, the most important in any debate about religious freedom in the United States, has been maintained by the legislation, which does not specify or single out any religious establishments and focuses instead on medical and insurance-related issues. If anything, the executive branch has made extra effort to comfort believers, with a statement from the White House in February specifying that insurance companies rather than religious employers must provide birth control to employees for free.

A more recent announcement by the Obama administration means that self-insured religious institutions will also be required to provide birth control, but that this could be arranged by a separate body. Again, this announcement suggests that, far from threatening religious freedoms, the government has made what concessions it can to ensure that faith-based groups need not directly fund practices they do not agree with.

Given the broader constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the issue of birth control also serves as an example of how the Establishment Clause should be interpreted. The separation of church and state should seek to prevent one religious tradition from being prioritised over another, so that laws and rights can remain secular insomuch as they cannot favour one faith at the expense of an individual’s well-being. The birth control provisions of the healthcare law are consistent with the Constitution and should remain entirely separate from religion. In this case, the law is interested in the right of women to have access to free birth control. It does not seek to offend the beliefs of religious people, but, in keeping with the constitutional framework, it should make no special endeavour to appease them either. To do so could threaten the separation of church and state and undermine a broader humanitarian obligation to provide care and treatment to all those who need it.

Healthcare should be a secular concern, and the animosity expressed towards birth control by religious institutions thus far is a crucial example of why, ultimately, the separation of church and state is so valuable. An architect of the Bill of Rights, James Madison perhaps best underlined the rationale for this separation when he observed that, ‘In no instance have…the churches been guardians of the liberties of the people.’

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The Implications Of Immigration Reform United States v. Arizona

While immigration reform may be less salient an issue than the economy in this election year, the relationship between the executive and the legislature over the course of President Obama’s first term is set to be a recurring feature of debate

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[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n Monday, the Supreme Court upheld a provision of an Arizona state law that requires the police to check the immigration status of individuals they stop for offences of any kind.  Simultaneously, however, the court struck down provisions that would, amongst other things, authorise the arrest of immigrants without a warrant for crimes that could lead to deportation. Explaining the decision to strike down elements of the law, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that ‘Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration while that process continues, but the State may not pursue policies that undermine federal law.’ Despite this watering down of Arizona’s law, the court’s decision has nonetheless been met with various criticisms.

On the one hand, conservatives such as Justice Antonin Scalia have gone so far as to argue that all provisions should have been upheld by the court. On the other hand, the Mexican government has articulated concerns that the remaining provision alone could threaten the civil rights of its citizens. Meanwhile, in the context of the US presidential election, the ruling has provided Republican hopeful Mitt Romney with an opportunity to both criticise President Obama’s lack of action on the issue of immigration and defend the right of states to take matters into their own hands.

Romney has responded to the Supreme Court ruling by suggesting that it is the result of states being forced to act because of dithering at a federal level. Romney has argued that because President Obama ‘didn’t act, state and local governments have had to act, the courts have got involved and it’s a muddle.’ As highlighted by commentators, this analysis suggests significant disagreement with the Supreme Court given that the court opinion explicitly prioritises federal law over state law. Moreover, Romney has  advocated state legislation on the issue whilst simultaneously criticising the President for failing to pursue national solutions, stating ‘I would have preferred to see the Supreme Court give more latitude to states, not less’, adding in a statement that ‘I believe that each state has the duty – and the right – to secure our borders and preserve the rule of law, particularly when the federal government has failed to meet its responsibilities.’ The statement, which also maintains the need for a ‘national immigration strategy’, thus reveals an attempt to emphasise both a reverence for small government and the importance of federal involvement.

President Obama’s reaction to the decision shifts emphasis away from state legislation and towards federal solutions, focusing on the importance of progress on the issue in Congress. In a statement, Obama responded to the court decision by saying, ‘What this decision makes unmistakably clear is that Congress must act on comprehensive immigration reform. A patchwork of state laws is not a solution to our broken immigration system – it’s part of the problem.’ This statement follows a speech to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) last week in which the President said that, ‘In the face of a Congress that refuses to do anything on immigration, I’ve said that I’ll take action wherever I can,’ in reference to an executive order to stop the deportation of young people enacted in mid-June. The President’s remarks can be viewed as a part of his wider effort to motivate Congress into action on the economy, recently centred around a five-point ‘To-Do List’ for the legislature to work on before the summer recess. More broadly, however, there is also an attempt here to draw attention to obstructionism in Congress as an explanation for what Obama’s critics label as his own inaction.

While immigration may be less salient an issue than the economy in this election year, the relationship between the executive and the legislature over the course of President Obama’s first term is set to be a recurring feature of debates until the polls close in November. The ruling in United States v. Arizona has undoubtedly drawn attention to the interlinked relationships between the separated powers, and has served as another point of political contention between President Obama and Mitt Romney.

Romney Meets With Small Business Owners During Colorado Campaign Swing

Romney & China: Continuity Or Change?

Many political commentators have noted the clear similarities between the foreign policies of President Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney, and recent disputes over the South China Sea only strengthen this perception.

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[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Romney campaign has articulated a number of key policies with regard to China. On its website, the campaign states that ‘the United States should maintain and expand its naval presence in the Western Pacific’, adding that ‘Mitt Romney will also pursue deeper economic cooperation among like-minded nations around the world that are genuinely committed to the principles of open markets through the formation of a “Reagan Economic Zone”’, in order to strengthen relations with other countries in the region. Each of these policies should be viewed in light of the Republican candidate’s fascination with all things Reagan as well as his overarching vision of an ‘American century’ to counter what he perceives as an apologetic foreign policy from President Obama. Indeed, in an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal in February, Romney attempted to demonstrate weaknesses in the Obama administration’s approach to China by accusing the President of ‘almost begging it to continue buying American debt so as to finance his profligate spending here at home.’ This is a key example of Romney’s attempt to present the President as not only weak, but also supporting the strength of other nations at the expense of the United States. Instead, Romney suggests that the United States should ‘maintain a strong military presence in the Pacific.’

The article goes on to suggest that the administration has been hesitant in approaching the problem of human rights abuses in China. The recent case of Chen Guangcheng, a Chinese civil rights activist who escaped from house arrest in April, does seem to demonstrate a measured approach from President Obama. Refusing to speak about Chen specifically, the President instead argued more broadly that, ‘We think China will be stronger as it opens up and liberalises its own system’ while reaffirming that, ‘we’re very pleased with all the areas of cooperation that we’ve been able to engage in.’ The statement also included a reminder that the human rights was a frequent feature of US talks with China.

This attempt to balance positive economic relations with criticism of human rights abuses may have left the administration open to further criticism from the Romney campaign, but both Romney and the President have similar policies on China in other contexts. A dispute over an area of the South China Sea between China and the Philippines is an interesting example of this. Last week, President Obama articulated sympathy for the President of the Philippines in the dispute, and the US has taken steps to reassert its influence in the Pacific. These measures include the strengthening of relations with other powers in the region, such as Australia, in addition to a deal facilitating the movement of US military personnel across the Philippines and improvements in Philippine defensive equipment.

While these details suggest a stark contrast between Romney and Obama, the overall picture is one of similarity. An emphasis on building relationships with other countries to limit China’s influence, combined with some form of limited military measure as a deterrent. These are a few of the ideas suggested by Romney both on his website and in his piece for the Wall Street Journal. Despite this, the debate over Iran has already demonstrated that Romney will likely continue to criticise current policy in an attempt to distance himself from the President.

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US Election: The Race Is On

As the presidential election race solidifies into a direct confrontation between Romney and Obama, Republican foreign policy attacks on the president are likely to intensify.

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[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he announcement earlier this week that Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum would be suspending his campaign looks to have established what many thought was already the case – the race for the US presidency will be between former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and current president Barack Obama. This was most vociferously confirmed by the Obama campaign’s manager Jim Messina, who focused on Romney in a statement responding to Santorum’s departure: ‘It’s no surprise that Mitt Romney finally was able to grind down his opponents under an avalanche of negative ads. But neither he nor his special interest allies will be able to buy the presidency with their negative attacks. The more the American people see of Mitt Romney, the less they like him.’

In addition to this apparently growing tension, the changing nature of the presidential race has also heightened interest in public perceptions of the Romney campaign and the Obama administration. A new poll conducted by Washington Post and ABC News between the 5th and the 8th April, has found that 51% of registered voters would vote for Obama, compared with 44% for Romney, were the election ‘being held today’. Surveying a range of political issues, the poll found Obama to be leading in most areas but, as an accompanying Washington Post article highlighted, lagging behind on the crucial domestic issues of handling the economy and the federal budget deficit.

Despite these dips, President Obama leads the poll on the majority of the issues, including both foreign policy areas. On the issue of handling international affairs, 53% of respondents supported Obama, compared with 36% supporting Romney. On the question of handling terrorism, Obama scored 47%, compared with Romney’s 40%. The Obama administration has exhibited strength in these areas, and many pointing to the assassination of Osama bin Laden and other tactical military offensives against al-Qaeda, as well as increasing economic sanctions against Iran.

However, it appears that the Romney campaign is eager to weaken Obama’s foreign policy lead, pointing to the US relationship with Russia, a lack of assertiveness in Libya and cuts to the military as evidence of the president’s weakness. In addition, a recent Reuters article quotes Richard Williamson, a Romney campaign adviser, as saying: ‘Governor Romney believes in American exceptionalism, that we are great not just because of our military and economic power but also because of our values. The current president does not.’ This criticism has been reiterated throughout Romney’s campaign thus far, reinforcing his persistent attempt to revive a Reagan-style foreign policy.

Most recently, the attempt by North Korea to launch a long-range rocket has prompted further attacks upon the Obama administration. Responding to the launch, which ultimately failed to propel the rocket out of the Earth’s atmosphere, Romney said: ‘Instead of approaching Pyongyang from a position of strength, President Obama sought to appease the regime with a food-aid deal that proved to be as naive as it was short-lived.’ Romney’s website outlines a characteristically more aggressive alternative to the Obama administration’s stance, stating that ‘Mitt will work with allies to institute harsher sanctions on North Korea, such as cracking down on financial institutions that service the North Korean regime and sanctioning companies that conduct commercial shipping in and out of North Korea.’

This latest criticism indicates what has been and will continue to be an attempt on behalf of the Romney campaign to expose what it perceives as weaknesses in the Obama administration’s foreign policy. As the presidential race solidifies into a direct confrontation between Romney and Obama, Republican foreign policy attacks on the president are likely to intensify.