US-Saudi relations: still a marriage of convenience?

By Larissa Campbell in Sydney, Australia

9 November 2015

The blog is currently featuring posts written by post-graduate students from the USSC 6903 Foreign and National Security Policy class, taught by Centre lecturer Sarah Graham. You can see more of their posts here.

Obama, Salman

Has Washington’s relationship with the Saudi kingdom reached the point where it is no longer viable for US interests? The pros and cons of America’s decades-long alignment with Saudi Arabia has likely played on the minds of US foreign policymakers within the Obama administration recently, owing to what can only be described as increasingly divergent geopolitical interests between the two states. This places Washington at a crossroads in its Middle East policy, requiring reflection on the extent to which an estrangement between Washington and Riyadh would be detrimental to US interests in the region. A number of issues stand out as critical to any consideration of the matter.


Whether Saudi Arabia is more a help or a hindrance in the fight against Sunni extremism is debatable. Riyadh’s value in undermining terrorist plots must be weighed up against its persistent efforts to promote the strict Wahhabi branch of Islam that is the source of much extremist sentiment. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman noted just last month that “it is not an accident that several thousand Saudis have joined the Islamic State or that Arab Gulf charities have sent ISIS donations … ISIS, Al Qaeda, [and] the Nusra Front are the ideological offspring of the Wahhabism injected by Saudi Arabia into mosques and madrasas.” This paradox should cause Washington to seriously question whether Riyadh is proving enough of an asset in the war against ISIS to atone for its involvement in the manufacture of Islamic extremism. That certain elements within the Saudi kingdom might perceive ISIS to be a valuable counterweight to Iran’s growing influence in the region would suggest otherwise.

Yemen and US credibility

Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Yemeni civil war over the past months has seen war crime allegations levelled at Riyadh, and raised questions over the role of the US in the conflict and the resultant hypocrisy in America’s Middle East policy. As noted by Foreign Policy reporter Colum Lynch, Washington “has acknowledged that it provides some intelligence and logistical support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen [and] has also supplied the coalition’s air force with the overwhelming majority of rockets and bombs used in the campaign.” With Saudi Arabia evidently determined to act first and consult later in its campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen, US influence in the Gulf state appears to be waning. As a result, Washington has become a reluctant sponsor of indiscriminate bombing, thereby significantly undermining its ability to occupy the moral high ground on Syria and cultivate its soft power influence in the region.

Iran, oil, and state stability

Certain developments in 2015 have created a degree of uncertainty within Riyadh about its ability to maintain the regional status quo:

  • Whilst Riyadh has publicly accepted Washington’s limited engagement with Tehran, a degree of resentment exists within the Gulf state. The relaxation of sanctions provided by the nuclear deal ultimately has the potential to undermine the delicate balance of power in the region by allowing Iran the access it needs to grow its economy. Moreover, Iran’s regional influence has been confirmed in the past few days by its inclusion in multilateral talks on Syria — a US diplomatic gesture likely to unsettle Saudi authorities.
  • The downward trend in oil prices has serious implications for Saudi state stability. With oil exports providing 80 per cent of revenues, the monarchy’s capacity to retain control and legitimacy within its borders is largely dependent on its ability to sustain its distribution capacity.

The pros and cons of the Saudi relationship appear evenly matched. Unless Washington is willing to accept the spread of Iranian influence in the region and witness civil unrest in Saudi Arabia that would be sure to disrupt oil supplies, it would be wise to seek greater alignment with Riyadh on foreign policy in order to maintain both the regional and internal balance of power that has traditionally accommodated US interests. This does, however, come at great cost: in continuing its partnership with Riyadh, Washington must be willing to sacrifice its realisation of more effective counterterrorism and public diplomacy strategies.

Faced with a substantially different Middle East to that of the Cold War era, it is perhaps time for the US to rethink its commitment to traditional alliances in the region. A trial separation might be the best option for Washington, obliging the US to deviate from its path-dependent Middle East strategy. By negotiating with Iran, President Barack Obama has taken incremental steps toward such reform. Hopefully the next administration will follow his lead. 

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Down-ballot in the weeds

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

20 October 2015

Matt Yglesias has an excellent and rather fiery denouncement of Democratic complacency. His basic point? While the left celebrates its apparent advantage in the electoral college — usually attributed to the demographic skew resulting from the party's popularity among growing portions of the electorate such as young people, blacks, and immigrants — it's ignoring the importance of down-ballot races. It's not just that Democrats fail to win the House or the Senate; they also fail to win state houses and governorships across the nation:

The presidency is extremely important, of course. But there are also thousands of critically important offices all the way down the ballot. And the vast majority — 70 percent of state legislatures, more than 60 percent of governors, 55 percent of attorneys general and secretaries of state — are in Republicans hands. And, of course, Republicans control both chambers of Congress. Indeed, even the House infighting reflects, in some ways, the health of the GOP coalition. Republicans are confident they won't lose power in the House and are hungry for a vigorous argument about how best to use the power they have.

Not only have Republicans won most elections, but they have a perfectly reasonable plan for trying to recapture the White House. But Democrats have nothing at all in the works to redress their crippling weakness down the ballot. Democrats aren't even talking about how to improve on their weak points, because by and large they don't even admit that they exist.

This is incredibly important for Democrats to understand. Because the party's coalition tends to be more marginally interested in politics anyway, more of its numbers turn out during presidential years than any others. Republicans might have put their stock in the older, whiter, and wealthier segment of the country, but these are exactly the voters who not only have fiercely held beliefs, they're willing and able to devote the time to pursuing them more frequently than the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November every four years.

And it's the Republican success in down-ballot races that gives them the confidence in their partisan approach to contemporary politics that outsiders to the party find so befuddling. Think of the GOP point-of-view: Barack Obama might have won two elections in a row, but since 2010, Republicans have won landslide majorities in the House and subsequently taken the Senate, all while building their influence in state governments across the country. From this perspective, the party's major failing came from putting its faith in moderates like Mitt Romney or John McCain while strong conservatives like Scott Walker have been winning election after election even in a Blue state like Wisconsin.

Philip Klein delineates the difference in how the two parties view the national landscape:

Democrats figure that the coalition of unmarried women, minority groups and young voters aren't going to back a Republican nominee who wants to defund Planned Parenthood, support voter ID laws, crack down on illegal immigration, oppose efforts to combat climate change, protest gay marriage, and so on. Given their growing confidence that the changing face of America is with them, Democratic voters feel more comfortable letting their liberal flag fly in a way that Bill Clinton would have never dreamed of. His ever-calculating spouse has made the calculation, in the words of the New York Times' Jonathan Martin, that "there's no gen[eral] election downside in aligning w[ith] the left."

Republicans, on the other hand, are making a completely different calculation. Looking ahead to the 2016 campaign, they see Hillary Clinton's numbers steadily tanking under an ethical cloud, as a growing number of Americans say they don't trust her. Polls have shown Republicans ahead of Clinton even in Pennsylvania, a blue state that has eluded GOP nominees for decades. They're confident that her weaknesses as a candidate have made the presidency ripe for the picking. Given this sense of optimism, they see no reason to settle.

I asked Barry Jackson, a veteran of the Bush White House, about this Republican optimism when he visited the Centre earlier this year. This was his reply:

I think the Republicans, nationally and locally, are on an ascendancy. We hold more governorships across the country than has ever happened; we hold more state legislative houses than ever before; Speaker Boehner is presiding over the largest Republican majority since the 1920s, and that tells you an awful lot about the mood of the country. It doesn't mean that they've given Republicans a blank cheque in terms of governance, but it is sending a message on both sides of the aisle that we're uncomfortable with where things are — so we may give you a chance.

Both Americans and, especially, non-Americans have a habit of ignoring down-ballot races. But state legislatures, as well as city and county councils, are where a lot of American public policy gets made — particularly the type non-Americans find so foreign and incomprehensible about the country: gun regulations, abortion laws, labour and welfare policy. Democrats are making a big mistake when they focus on the White House to the exclusion of these less glamorous but just as important engines of government.

Yglesias chides liberals for focusing "on a competition between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton over whether they should go a little bit to Obama's left or a lot to his left, options that are unlikely to help Democrats down-ballot in the face of an unfriendly House map and a more conservative midterm electorate." He's right, and as much as I agree with some of Sanders's policy proposals, this ideological narcissism does frustrate me about his campaign. But the larger problem doesn't concern the ideology of Sanders's supporters, but that they're applying it to the wrong race. 

Bernie Sanders will not be the Democratic nominee because he is seeking to represent a party that, at the peak of its political powers, could only muster a coalition strong enough to pass the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as its health care reform and Dodd–Frank as its financial reform. It has not been able to pass meaningful climate change legislation or immigration reform. The problem is not the president at the top, but the rank-and-file representatives that make up the party.

Anyone who belives Bernie Sanders is the right thing for the Democratic Party should not be trying to get him elected president; they should be trying to vote more men and women like Sanders into the Senate — as well as the House, and in legislatures and governorships across America. Don't send Bernie Sanders to Washington; find the Bernie Sanders of Wisconsin or West Virginia and back them. 

After all, Barack Obama's success lay in good part on former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean's fifty state strategy: the nationwide electoral effort that gave the party major victories in the 2006 midterms. And it's that strategy that has ensured Republicans remain influential in American politics, even as they find control of the White House an increasingly elusive prospect.

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WPI whirlwind tour of the United States

By Leah Craven in Saint Paul, Minnesota

17 October 2015

Leah Craven is the recipient of the 2015 US Studies Centre–World Press Institute media fellowship and is contributing to the blog while in the United States. This post was originally published at the World Press Institute blog

WPI media fellows

What I've learnt so far...

Newsroom downsizing

It's happening, or has already happened, almost everywhere. During the five years I've been at my company we have had three rounds of redundancies. While we've been on this trip, two of the fellows have received news there will be layoffs at their organisation when they return home.

As we've toured various news outlets around the United States — from some of the biggest players in the world, like the New York Times, to smaller newsrooms like the Minnesota Star Tribune — it's clear that downsizing is the grim reality of the current media landscape. We're all grappling with reduced budgets, fewer resources, and staff layoffs.

However, in many parts of the United States, savvy journalists have found an alternative model: a nonprofit media organisation. The Texas Tribune and MinnPost are perfect examples. Their advice is: find a niche, excel at it, and the audience will follow. (It also helps to have a wealthy benefactor to help you get started.)

Embrace change

So, while we're all getting depressed about downsizing, there is also an opportunity to do things differently. Some news organisations are adapting and not just surviving, but thriving. Take The Atlantic magazine — it's repositioned itself successfully. The magazine produces ten high quality print editions each year, while the website puts up 100 to 150 stories from contributors around the world each day. It's an excellent example of expanding without destroying the brand.

Many news organisations we've visited on this trip are changing their work flow to deliver news in a more convenient way for consumers. Both the New York Times and CNN have identified that half of the traffic for their online content comes from mobile phones. And according to Pew Research, 61 per cent of millennials get their news from Facebook. The savvy media outlets are constantly repositioning themselves to make sure they can continue to connect with audiences.

The Trump Phenomenon

As a group of international journalists, Donald Trump has provided us with fantastic entertainment, but also a good deal of bewilderment. Is this guy for real? And is there any chance he will actually be the Republican nominee? We've posed these questions (and many more) to political correspondents and academics as we travel from state to state. Trump's endurance throughout the primaries has a left a lot of experts we've met scratching their heads. Many assumed he'd be the political equivalent of "summer television programming" — a tacky fad that people will only tolerate for a short period of time.

Here's what some of the analysts have to say about his staying power:

Read More

For the past 200 years the white Anglo Saxon population in the United States has never dipped below 80 per cent. But the United States is in the process of redefining itself, as the WASP population declines and the Hispanic population grows. By 2030, projections indicate that only 55 per cent of the population will be white. Donald Trump has seized on the trepidation that some segments of the electorate have about the idea that the country is changing. He's embarked on a campaign of low end race politics by declaring a war on Mexican immigrants. His catch phrase, "let's make America great again" — a not-particularly-subtle dog whistle to parts of the electorate — is code for "let's get everyone who doesn't look like 'us' out of here."

Here's another explanation that was offered to us: he's a reality TV star; his job is to entertain. He's making it easy for the media, particularly 24 hour news channels, to fill air-time with his controversial shenanigans.

Black Lives Matter

Police community relations has been one of the issues that has intrigued me most during this trip, as has the related issue of incarceration rates in the United States. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with more net total prisoners than China. Around 60 per cent of the prison population are people of colour.

In New York we visited the John Jay Centre for Criminal Justice and the Brennan Centre for Justice. Both think tanks agreed that the War on Drugs over the past few decades has been counter-productive and the "three strikes law" in states like California have destroyed lives and communities. The poorest parts of the population are also hit hard by "criminal justice debt," where police fine people for minor infringements. Those who can't pay the fine may end up in prison.

Such policies have had a really harmful economic effect on some communities, and the consequences have escalated into the kind of incidents we've seen in Ferguson and other cities. Making matters worse, many prisons are doing little to rehabilitate and many people have trouble re-assimilating, and are back behind bars within six months of being released.

One of the issues where there appears to be a degree of bi-partisan agreement between the Democrats and Republicans is that lowering the incarceration rate is in the nation's interest.

Career advice from the legends of the trade

Throughout this tour we've had access to editors of major newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times. Encounters like this have been extraordinary once in a lifetime opportunities. But we've also had some wonderful insights from fellow "foot soldiers," journalists who understand the daily realities of our work.

From a practical perspective, the most valuable advice came from Paul McEnroe, a veteran journalist with the Minnesota Star Tribune. "It doesn't matter who you work for, or the size of your publication, you can always do good work," Paul told our group. "A good story is a good story." It seems obvious, but the aforementioned downsizing and restructuring we're all going through is tough. Several of us agreed that his advice was uplifting and made us feel more positive about the future of journalism.

He also said when he looks back at the body of work he's produced over the past 35 years he thinks, "I tried to make a difference." I don't think there's a better goal to aspire to than that.

Learning the local lingo

The state we spent the most time in during this trip was Minnesota. Throughout our stay everyone in our group remarked on how Minnesota was full of friendly and incredibly hospitable people. But I was intrigued by the concept of "Minnesota nice," which was sometimes said tongue-in-cheek. My research revealed that "Minnesota nice" can either mean a tendency for most locals to be courteous, reserved and mild-mannered, or an aversion to conflict and confrontation — not wanting to say no! According to the Urban Dictionary it can be summed up as: "When I'm angry at someone, I don't let them know. I just smile pleasantly to his or her face and then proceed to talk about them behind their back. I will most likely hold a grudge too." Fortunately for me, I only encountered the former definition of "Minnesota nice!"


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American Daily: October 16, 2015

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

16 October 2015

  • Meet the man the Freedom Caucus is backing for House Speaker

Those conservatives in the House say they want a speaker who will not be a top-down leader, but will give members more of a say in what legislation sees action on the floor and who controls committees.

Webster says that is the mode in which he ran the Florida House of Representatives when he was the speaker in Tallahassee from 1996–98.

This is a Republican Party problem, which has serious implications for Congress as an institution and for American governance more broadly. Republicans are paying the price for having encouraged government-hating candidates to seek office with the expectation that they could undo Obama's 2009-2010 achievements. Their constitutional ignorance and political naiveté was breathtaking. But Republican establishment leaders, who had few policy differences with the new radicals, soon became victims of the forces they helped unleash. Their party reminds us of the nullification forces in the antebellum South. The champions of "The New Nullification," as we refer to it in our book, have left damage and chaos in their wake. More is likely to follow.

But the dynamic here shows why some of the scenarios people have been spinning these last few months, in which a Sanders victory in Iowa or New Hampshire sets in motion a cascade effect that costs Hillary the nomination, have always been so unlikely. The analogies to 1968, in particular, with Sanders playing Eugene McCarthy to Hillary’s L.B.J., ignore the fact that Johnson was at that point genuinely hated by a substantial portion of the Democratic base. But Hillary isn’t hated by Democrats; they still like her, even if the rest of the country doesn’t at the moment, and they like Sanders in part because liking him seems like a way to make her more likeable (that is, more liberal) as well. And that, in turn, puts a pretty hard-seeming ceiling on his insurgency, because the party doesn’t want to turn against the frontrunner in a truly fundamental way, and so the arguments that a normal insurgent would need to deploy against her — again, character arguments above all — are likely, if deployed, to hurt him as much or more than her.
  • The one question hawks need to answer about Syria.

Stephens’s attempt at an answer gets to the crucial distinction between foreign policy outputs and foreign policy outcomes that Spoiler Alerts has harped on in the past. When hawks talk about taking action in Syria, they tend to focus on their desired outcomes: checking Russian and Iranian power, ousting Assad, defeating the Islamic State and ending the slow-motion humanitarian disaster. These are attractive goals that the current administration is not pursuing. Hawks sound very good when they talk about foreign policy outcomes in Syria.

Is Donald Trump truly one of a kind—a sui generis sensation in U.S. politics? As Americans try to make sense of the businessman-turned-Republican presidential frontrunner and how he’s come to dominate the polls and the airwaves in the 2016 cycle, Politico Magazine decided to consult the archives: Is there a historical figure the Donald resembles—a model who can help explain his rise? We asked some of the smartest historians we know to name the closest antecedent to Trump from the annals of American history. Some maintained that he is a unique product of the era of reality TV, social media and the 1 percent. But others saw similarities to politicians, personalities and tycoons past, from Italy’s former bunga-bunga prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to the last billionaire to disrupt presidential politics, Ross Perot, to segregationist populists like George Wallace. If history repeats itself, consider this a preview of where Trump’s candidacy could go from here.

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Too many pies, not enough fingers

By Larissa Campbell in Sydney, Australia

16 October 2015

The blog is currently featuring posts written by post-graduate students from the USSC 6903 Foreign and National Security Policy class, taught by Centre lecturer Sarah Graham. You can see more of their posts here.

Is it time for the United States to retire as global sheriff? The maintenance of American primacy is in serious danger of overextending the US military and compromising its diplomatic ability.

Since Moscow’s assertive action in the Balkans in 2014, the Pentagon has sought to update its contingency plans for military conflict with Russia. Once again, the United States appears determined to encroach upon the regional interests of a rival power. With the Obama administration’s "rebalance" to Asia — a policy which saw American noticeably increase its military and diplomatic attention to the Asia–Pacific — potentially stoking tensions between a rising China and its US-allied neighbours, an important question today is whether the United States still acts as a stabilising force. 

Obama pie

The US Defense Department’s revision of its response to a hypothetical Russian challenge follows Washington’s decision in June this year to position tanks and other artillery in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. The melancholy view, expressed by hawks in the Obama administration, that economic sanctions are insufficient to deter Russia’s assertiveness in Eastern Europe, it would seem, is gaining traction.

As roughly a third of the population in Estonia and Latvia are made up of Russian-speaking ethnic minorities — a higher proportion to that of Ukraine approximately 17 percent — the fear that Russia will move to undermine the sovereignty of the Baltic states could quickly escalate.

Yet the benefits of restoring the dignity of Russian minorities and expanding the Russian sphere of influence would not offset the costs, with both Estonia and Latvia’s NATO membership making it extremely counter-productive for Moscow to attempt a blatant annexation of territory. Fears about the Kremlin’s potential to employ a hybrid warfare strategy are also somewhat overblown

The fate of Eastern Europe, and Europe in general, thus depends on how Washington and Moscow proceed from here. Does the revelation of new contingency plans act as a credible deterrent to Russia, or merely provoke the ire of its leadership? As Moscow has asserted in the past, the “eastward expansion” of NATO is the key destabilising factor in East–West relations — a factor now compounded by the presence of US artillery in Eastern Europe and NATO military drills.

Whilst one RAND analyst suggests that “over the medium and long term [US deployments in the region] will reduce the chance of miscalculation by Moscow and, hence, of war,” a number of Washington officials are increasingly concerned that US preparation for military conflict in Russia’s sphere of influence feeds Putin’s belief in an eventual confrontation between the former Cold War adversaries. 

As Paul Saunders, a State Department official during the George W. Bush administration, and now associate publisher of The National Interest, noted in June,  “America’s … ability to understand reality before making important policy choices is critical to our success in a complicated world where two rival major powers are dissatisfied with the Western-defined and US-led international order.”

Rather than prepare for war, it would be prudent for Washington to focus its energy on diplomatic attempts such as mitigating ethnic tensions in the Baltic states, and accepting Russia’s national interests as valid. Likewise, perhaps it is time for the United States to seriously reconsider its resistance to regional hegemons and evolve to accommodate a tripolar international system.

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American Daily: October 15, 2015

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

13 October 2015

It may be obvious in retrospect, but few people predicted beforehand just how thoroughly the debate atmosphere would play to Clinton’s advantage. The media has viewed her campaign message almost entirely through the filter of the email scandal. Clinton was able to use the poorly-disguised partisan excesses of her Republican tormentors in Congress to escape responsibility for a serious error in judgment on her part, framing the issue (not altogether inaccurately) as a partisan fight, so that Democrats would rally to her side. She further played off the campaign media, casting its email obsession as an unworthy distraction from the policy discussion that she, her fellow candidates, and nearly all the Democratic voters want to hear. Clinton, suddenly finding a moral ground on which to stand (which the news media had denied her for months), burst out in uncontrollable glee.
People will call tonight’s Democratic presidential debate boring, too issues-oriented, and lacking catchy moments. And that wasn’t a bad thing for Democrats. In fact, it was a good thing. The debate was not about a group of people tearing each other down; instead it was a debate about ideas. And that’s perfectly acceptable in a democracy. Viewers—prospective voters—heard candidates’ ideas, policy proposals, and the manner in which they differed from each other. What did they not see? Name calling, personal attacks, and petty politics.
Why, then, was the debate good for Biden? Because Martin O'Malley is probably his chief rival for Clinton's understudy. Bernie Sanders isn't right for the job. Even if he's barely within the party's mainstream in his positions on public policy, the Vermont socialist is widely (and probably correctly) viewed as too liberal to be a strong general-election candidate.

And while O'Malley's performance wasn't a joke or anything, he failed to stand out, and he's unlikely to receive a post-debate public-opinion surge.
  • The debate demonstrated just how far apart are the two parties.
That’s certainly true on immigration, where the GOP candidates all oppose Obama’s executive actions, and all focused on border security at their two debates; the only real disputes on the Republican side were whether it was feasible to try to deport the 11 million (as the candidates called them) “illegals” currently in the country, and whether it was appropriate for politicians to address the public in Spanish. But it is also true on just about every other issue that came up in the debates so far, and many that didn’t.

Digital information itself has all kinds of advantages. It can be read by machines, sorted and analyzed in massive quantities, and disseminated instantaneously. “Except when it goes, it really goes,” said Jason Scott, an archivist and historian for the Internet Archive. “It’s gone gone. A piece of paper can burn and you can still kind of get something from it. With a hard drive or a URL, when it’s gone, there is just zero recourse.”

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America's last major party businessman-candidate

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

9 October 2015

Wendell Willkie

One reason to disregard Donald Trump's bid for the presidency — and Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson as well, for that matter — regardless of what his present standing in the polls might suggest, is a look over the resumes of the men who captured the nominations of the major parties in previous elections. Here for example, is a rundown of the most recent position held by recent Republican nominees:

    • 2012: Mitt Romney, Governor of Massachusetts
    • 2008: John McCain, Senator for Arizona
    • 2004: George W. Bush, President
    • 2000: George W. Bush, Governor of Texas
    • 1996: Bob Dole, Senate Majority Leader
    • 1992: George H.W. Bush, President
    • 1988: George H.W. Bush, Vice President
    • 1984: Ronald Reagan, President
    • 1980: Ronald Reagan, Governor of California
    • 1976: Gerald Ford, President
    • 1972: Richard Nixon, President
    • 1968: Richard Nixon, Vice President
    • 1964: Barry Goldwater, Senator for Arizona
    • 1960: Richard Nixon, Vice President

And finally, in 1952, the pattern breaks, with Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had been the supreme Allied commander in Europe during the Second World War. Even the candidates with unconventional ideologies like Goldwater or backgrounds, like Reagan, had still campaigned for, and won, lower political offices. 

Lewis L. Gould looks at the most recent major party candidate to gain the nomination from a non-political background: Wendell Willkie, the Republican Party candidate opposing Franklin D. Roosevelt's third term–bid in 1940:

Here was a candidate for eastern Republicans who was an opponent of parts, but not all of the New Deal. On foreign policy, Willkie said, “it makes a great deal of difference to us—politically, economically, and emotionally—what kind of world exists beyond our shores.” Suddenly, Willkie seemed more exciting to Republicans than the blandness of Taft and the evasions of Dewey.

Seventy-five years ago, it was still possible for a candidate such as Willkie to seize the nomination. There were fewer primaries than today and the party structure was more fluid. Because there was no clear front-runner, Willkie divided and conquered. “Willkie for President” clubs sprang up across the nation. Every down-tick in the international news made Willkie more appealing. By the time the Republicans met in Philadelphia, the Willkie bandwagon was rolling. The crowds in the galleries chanted “We want Willkie,” and the delegates yielded to what seemed an irresistible tide.

Alas, Willkie’s campaign peaked the day he was nominated. In his acceptance speech he referred to “you Republicans.” A wag likened the disorganized Willkie campaign to “a whorehouse on Saturday night when the madam is out and all the girls are running around dropping nickels in juke boxes.” By October, with the polls showing him behind the president, Willkie played the isolationist card. “Our boys shall stay out of Europe.” Roosevelt countered with famous assurances that “your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign war.” When he heard Roosevelt’s words, Willkie said, “That hypocritical son of a bitch! This is going to beat me.”

And how did the Willkie experiment work out?

Roosevelt beat Willkie by five million votes and 449 to 82 in the Electoral College.


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American Daily: October 9, 2015

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

9 October 2015

  • Beau Biden's dying wish for Joe Biden to run for president was leaked by Joe himself.

Aug. 1, to be exact — the day renowned Hillary Clinton-critic Maureen Dowd published a column that marked a turning point in the presidential speculation.

According to multiple sources, it was Biden himself who talked to her, painting a tragic portrait of a dying son, Beau’s face partially paralyzed, sitting his father down and trying to make him promise to run for president because "the White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values.”

Sanders was defending his vote for a 2005 law that protected gun manufacturers from lawsuits by victims of gun violence in a manner that big corporations in no other sector of the economy have received. It’s the same law that has prevented parents of the Aurora massacre victims from suing the manufacturer who didn’t think twice about selling 4,300 rounds to James Holmes via the Internet without so much as a cursory check. Whether marketing guns to kids or bullets designed specifically to kill cops, there is no getting around the fact that Sanders joined Blue Dog Democrats and right-wing Republicans in giving arms-dealer conglomerates a get-out-of-jail-free card.

The Islamic State has drawn tens of thousands of people from around the world by promising paradise in the Muslim homeland it has established on conquered territory in Syria and Iraq.

But in reality, the militants have created a brutal, two-tiered society, where daily life is starkly different for the occupiers and the occupied, according to interviews with more than three dozen people who are now living in, or have recently fled, the Islamic State.

The political events of 2015 are a brutal reminder about how far this country is from embracing libertarianism and how alien those ideas are even to the purported shock troops of the freedom movement. While libertarianism’s opponents can take heart, its champions are setting their cause back by pretending that all is well.

“F— tha Police” is a song that came into being because of a popular need with an unpopular profile, a reasonably good definition of rock 'n' roll. The Hall of Fame deals mostly with the quieter stage of an artist’s career, when the violence has moved from the present into engravings and Ken Burns documentaries, but N.W.A is very much alive in 2015 and connected to a profoundly American moment of conflict.

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Airstrikes, refugees, and what Syria says about US leadership

By Karen Tong in Sydney, Australia

8 October 2015

The blog is currently featuring posts written by post-graduate students from the USSC 6903 Foreign and National Security Policy class, taught by Centre lecturer Sarah Graham. You can see more of their posts here.

Is it easier for the US to lead on airstrikes in Syria than it is to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis?

In just over a year, the US and Coalition forces have launched more than 2,500 airstrikes against the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria. In roughly the same timeframe, the United States has welcomed close to 1,500 refugees from Syria — not many at all considering there are 4 million Syrians who have fled their war-torn country.

While the jury is still out on whether US military intervention has been able to “degrade and defeat” IS, the increasingly complex conflict in Syria demands and deserves US attention. And so do Syrian refugees.

To be fair, the Obama administration announced it would scale up its Syrian refugee intake to 10,000 places for the 2016 fiscal year. It’s part of an overall increase to global intake of refugees by the United States to 100,000 per year over the next two years. But for Syrians, this response still resembles a drop in the ocean.

The majority of Syrian refugees have sought asylum in neighbouring countries such as Turkey (1.9 million) and Lebanon (1.1 million); in Lebanon, they make up almost one-third of the country’s entire population. Fewer than 10 per cent of Syrian refugees have sought safety in Europe; comparatively low percentage-wise but still accounting for more than 420,000 people.

The United Nations and other international bodies have repeatedly called on the global community to respond to the largest humanitarian emergency and refugee crisis of our generation. In December 2014, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres asked governments around the world to provide 130,000 places for Syrian refugees by the end of 2016. David Miliband, the president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, wrote an open letter to the US government stating: “By historical standards, the United States should be committing to take around 65,000 — or 50 per cent — of those identified by the United Nations for resettlement by the end of 2016.”

Miliband’s words were echoed in a statement signed by 14 Democrat senators: “… we urge [the Obama] Administration to work to accept at least 50 percent of Syrian refugees whom UNHCR is seeking to resettle, consistent with our nation’s traditional practice under both Republican and Democratic Presidents.” House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, has also urged the government to consider emulating Vietnam War–era refugee resettlement programs, when the United States led the way by receiving “14,000 refugees per month”.

But the Obama administration seems to be ignoring these voices and directing focus towards its $4.5 billion humanitarian assistance program, which provides healthcare, food, water, and basic necessities for “approximately 6.6 million Syrians per month” in Syria and surrounding regions. In a briefing by White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, almost every question about Syrian refugees was answered with a plug for this aid package.

When asked about the number of Syrian refugees that would be received into the United States, Earnest started by saying, “the best evidence I can direct you toward is the $4 billion in financial assistance that the United States has provided.” After eventually clarifying that the Syrian refugee intake for 2016 would be ramped up to 10,000, he reiterated, “the most urgent, immediate need of Syrian refugees is to make sure that we can provide basic medical care, basic shelter, basic food, and water.”

Being the largest financial contributor to humanitarian aid is, as Earnest suggests, “an example of the United States leading the way.” But this response is incomplete without committing to a significant increase in the number of Syrian refugees the United States will resettle.

With no end in sight to the Syrian civil war, it is also important to consider how the next president of the United States will respond to this refugee crisis.

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Looking first at the leading Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton says taking in 10,000 refugees is a good starting point, but 65,000 should be the ultimate goal.


Bernie Sanders says the United States should be a part of the international response, but is far less specific on the numbers: “It's impossible to give a proper number until we understand the dimensions of the problem.”

But the dimensions are clear. Again, there are more than 4 million Syrian refugees and the United Nations has called on governments around the world to resettle 130,000. The United States would do well to open 65,000 places for Syrian refugees.

Of the Republican candidates, Lindsey Graham has provided the most amenable response to the crisis, indicating that the US should accept more refugees. But his “we should take our fair share” approach does not actually commit to 65,000. Graham is currently polling at the bottom of the 2016 Republican field.

At the top end of the polling spectrum is Donald Trump, and he’s decided to put Syrian refugees on notice: “If I win, they’re going back. They’re going back. I’m telling you. They’re going back.”


On moral grounds alone, the act of sending Syrian refugees back to certain death in their war-torn country, or even just as far back to poverty and desperation in overcrowded and under-resourced refugee camps in Turkey or Lebanon, would be unconscionable. But it’s also a violation of international law. The United States has an obligation to comply with the principle of non-refoulement, not only as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, but also because it is a part of customary international law.

Other Republican nominees have raised concerns about accepting more Syrian refugees on two main grounds.

First, Republican candidates have argued that it’s not a US problem, it’s a European Union problem. Carly Fiorina says the Europeans “need to continue to step up,” while John Kasich claims, “this is fundamentally a European issue.” Ted Cruz suggests that it doesn’t make sense to move large number of Syrian refugees “to far-off countries like the United States.”

But how can the United States justify leading military intervention in Syria with airstrikes against IS while reneging on, or at least diluting, its humanitarian responsibilities? The United States has the resources and capacity to lead on both fronts, and has done so, to a degree, with the provision of $4.5 billion in aid since the start of the crisis, but there’s more to be done. While some EU states have been cautious and even reticent about receiving Syrian refugees, countries like Germany have demonstrated leadership by more than doubling their year-on-year intake of Syrian refugees to 800,000. Trump can say “Paris doesn’t look like Paris anymore”, he can claim that this is not what Europe wants, but he also can’t ignore the groundswell of public support to welcome refugees in Europe.


Yes, the European states are geographically closer to the Middle East, but Europe has only 10 per cent of the refugee population at its doors — there are still more than 3 million Syrians living in neighbouring countries facing hopelessness, deepening poverty, lack of work and education opportunities, and fear of safety.

This is where the United States can step in and step up. There is also an opportunity for the United States to engage its Gulf allies to do more for Syria’s refugees, which is what international organisations, like Amnesty International, are calling for.

Second, Republican candidates have also argued that increasing the Syrian refugee intake will increase the security threat on home soil. Marco Rubio, while saying refugees from the Middle East should be allowed to resettle in the United States, also adds a word of caution about terrorists who may “infiltrate themselves among the very innocent people that would also be coming.” Ben Carson calls it “foolishness” to “take in people from a region where we don't have any way in making a determination if this person is radicalized already or potentially radicalized.” In Jeb Bush’s appearance on Fox & Friends, he said that the US needs to make sure that refugees accepted into the country are “not part of ISIS”.

But calls to increase the Syrian refugee intake, or, at most, the implementation of emergency or fast-tracking measures, does not equate to a relaxation of the robust screening processes carried out by the United States and the United Nations to identify the refugees most in need of resettlement. This is a call for leadership to increase resources to solve the refugee crisis; it does not signal an increased threat to national security. The refugee pathway is also a highly ineffective way for terrorists to enter a country and carry out an attack — it’s a process that “typically takes 12 to 18 months.” 

So, should the United States leave it to the European Union? That’s shirking international responsibility. Is it not worth the security risk? There is little to no evidence to back this claim that comes from a posture of fear, not leadership.

The question is bigger than whether the United States can take in 65,000 Syrian refugees. It’s really about whether the United States is willing to take the lead on the humanitarian front when it comes to Syria.


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Old media and new newsrooms

By Leah Craven in San Francisco, California

7 October 2015

Leah Craven is the recipient of the 2015 US Studies Centre–World Press Institute media fellowship and is contributing to the blog while in the United States. In this blog for the Centre, she visits some of America's leading news outlets, from legacy mastheads like the Washington Post,the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, to upstart players Politico and Vice.

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