Tag Archives: Barack Obama

When US presidents meet Greek premiers: Tales of high significance and low expectations

White House photo by Joyce Naltchayan

White House photo by Joyce Naltchayan

As he rides up Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington on Thursday, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras might allow himself a wry smile. For so long an outcast of Greek politics and more recently a pariah among European peers, Samaras has seen international leaders rally around him since he came to power last June. And now, the big one: A meeting with Barack Obama in the White House.

Leaving aside the moment’s personal prestige, Samaras is actually following a well-trodden path, which has led Greek premiers from Athens to the White House over the course of eight decades. Since Konstantinos Tsaldaris left the civil war behind in December 1946 to visit Harry Truman and ask for financial and military assistance, eight Greek leaders have made a beeline to Washington in the hope of finding some succour. In fact, Costas Simitis, who met George W. Bush in 2002, is probably the only Greek prime minister who arrived with something to offer. The ex-PASOK leader gave Bush a new euro coin and a sweat shirt with the Athens2004 Olympics logo on it.

Samaras will be in Washington when Congress is not in session. Some have seen this, along with the fact he was not offered a working lunch with Obama, as a sign that his visit is of minor importance. The Greek premier, however, can take comfort in knowing that his arrival will be less of an inconvenience to the US President than the April 1961 visit of Constantine Karamanlis. The conservative leader was having lunch with John F Kennedy at the White House on the same day that the failed Bay of Pigs invasion was launched in Cuba.

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From the debt ceiling to the debt crisis

In conversation with Jeff Santos of AM 1510 Revolution Boston:


Et tu, Obama?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Having seen the caliber of some of the Republican Party’s presidential candidates, it’s hard not to want with every fiber in your body for Barack Obama to succeed during his first term in the White House. But this week, thanks to the comments he made aboutGreeceafter meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it was difficult not to feel respect for the American leader slipping away.

The headlines after the two politicians held their news conference inWashingtonrevolved around Obama and Merkel’s warning that the Greek debt crisis could bring the world economy to its knees if it’s not tackled properly. “America’s economic growth depends on a sensible resolution of this issue,” said Obama. “It would be disastrous for us to see an uncontrolled spiral and default inEuropebecause that could trigger a whole range of other events.”

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Ask not

Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” President John F. Kennedy’s words have been repeated, relayed and reinterpreted so many times since he uttered them on a chilly January morning in Washington in 1961 that their inspiration and impact has been severely diluted. They remain, however, relevant — but in a very different way now than they were almost 50 years ago.

The man who helped Kennedy construct this memorable sentence — his adviser Ted Sorensen – died just over a week ago. Apart from signifying the passing of someone who had a deep understanding of public service, his death also comes as a timely reminder that we have entered an era when the essence of “ask not” is being turned on its head. The financial crisis that emanated from the United States followed by the debt crisis that has battered many European countries, like Greece, is creating a new dynamic in the relationship between people and their leaders. Politicians from Washington to Athens are discovering that voters who have seen their livelihoods threatened and their quality of life compromised feel they have done enough for their countries; they now want their countries, and the people that lead them, to start giving something back.

This was one of the messages evident from the walloping that President Barack Obama’s Democrats received in last week’s mid-term elections. It’s clear many of those who voted for Obama two years ago feel there has been too little progress in terms of addressing day-to-day problems that stem from the state of the economy. No matter that Obama, in the words of New York Times opinion writer Timothy Egan, “saved capitalism.” After suffering the impact of the near-collapse of a system they helped build at the behest of their politicians and financiers, Americans aren’t concerned about theoretical arguments or long-term groundwork — they want the basics: jobs, prospects and security, or at least they want to be convinced that these basics are on the way. “Monetary stimulus is near exhausted; another big fiscal stimulus is now unthinkable. Obama has to stimulate something intangible: confidence,” writes the International Herald Tribune’s Roger Cohen.

Although PASOK did not suffer the “shellacking,” as Obama termed it, that the Democrats did at Sunday’s local elections, in what was effectively Greece’s version of the mid-term, it did receive a strong buffeting. It seems the source of this backlash, which saw PASOK’s share of the vote on a national projection fall by 9.5 percent compared to the 2009 parliamentary polls, was very similar to the fatigue that undid the Democrats. Even before Sunday’s elections, Papandreou and his government had demanded a lot from Greeks: They had asked them to put up more of their salaries for taxation, to give up jobs they thought were secure and to shut up if they disagreed. But ahead of the local elections, Papandreou had one more request to make: that Greeks vote for PASOK to avoid creating political instability in the country. He was asking too much.
Having pushed through the Kallikratis program, a much-heralded groundbreaking overhaul of local government, Papandreou and his team did not have the courage to stand by it. They tried to cajole the Greek people into voting not based on local issues – such as who would ensure their streets are clean or even preventing corrupt and ineffective mayors from being voted back into power – but along the same old tired party political lines.

The prime minister said that an unfavorable result would trigger snap national elections. He no doubt expected this to appear a bold move but it ended up looking like a childish stunt. There was absolutely no basis for seeking a fresh mandate: Having signed a three-year agreement with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, the government had made a public commitment to see through a package of reforms that would secure the loans Greece needs to avoid bankruptcy. To put this at risk with a show of supposed bravado, when there was absolutely no evidence of a mass public movement against the government or the memorandum, was an idea mined from the same vein of irresponsibility and self-absorption that brought Greece to the brink of collapse in the first place.

Having leveled the threat of snap polls, Papandreou said Sunday’s result proved Greeks still had “the same will for change” as at last year’s general election. How he arrived at this conclusion when PASOK garnered a million less voters than in October 2009 was never explained. Nor did he go into the details of how he derived a fresh mandate from the outcome when, for roughly every one person who voted for PASOK’s candidates, two people stayed at home, as abstention reached almost 40 percent. The near-record disinterest in the local elections was confirmation that, burdened by concerns about their immediate future, such as whether they will have jobs next year, few had the time or appetite for Papandreou’s power games.

It was not just Papandreou that showed he was completely out of touch with public sentiment. New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras also displayed a talent for getting carried away with trivialities. After campaigning on an ultra-populist anti-memorandum ticket supported by absurd claims such as being able to wipe out the public deficit in a year, Samaras suggested Sunday’s result, which helped the conservatives secure only a handful of municipalities and no regions, was a triumph. He said ND’s share of the national vote, which put the conservatives just 2 percent behind PASOK, was a “total reversal” of the conservatives’ fortunes since they hit rock bottom in last year’s general elections. Well, if Samaras thinks it was a total reversal, he should demand a total recount because the result shows that ND received about 550,000 fewer voters than it did last October and its share of the national vote was slightly beneath its record low.

At the end of a year of unprecedented austerity and abrupt reforms, rather than displaying respect for the electorate and regret for their part in leading Greece to the edge of oblivion, the country’s politicians had nothing to show but hubris and disinterest for people’s real concerns. The result of last Sunday’s local elections was the first sign that the public’s tolerance for making sacrifices when their leaders are not willing to give up their comfortable seats in the land of oblivion is being stretched to breaking point. Just as the Democrats’ defeat in the US mid-terms will focus Obama’s mind on achieving tangible results, so Greece’s local elections should force Papandreou and Samaras to concentrate on providing real solutions to real problems and not creating imaginary ones.
There is a closing line in the speech that Sorensen wrote for Kennedy’s inauguration that is rarely quoted, possibly because it is not in the interest of those in power. “… ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice that we ask of you.” Greeks have every right after being asked for months to do more for their country, to now ask what their country, its leaders and its political parties are doing for them.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on November 12, 2010.

Mission unaccomplished

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

There have been many occasions during the Iraq War when the conflict has felt like a badly stage-managed show rather than a chaotic, bloody affair: from the sound and light display of the “shock and awe” bombing campaign of late March 2003, to the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square the following month and George W. Bush landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 to declare “mission accomplished.”

There was another moment like this on August 19, when the 4th Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division, rolled over Iraq’s border with Kuwait to signal the end of US combat troops’ involvement in the war. Almost two weeks ahead of the deadline that President Barack Obama had set, American soldiers left the country they had invaded on March 20, 2003. In another piece of slick presentation work, Obama is due to deliver an address on August 31 from the White House, in which he will officially declare the USA’s participation in fighting in Iraq over.

Like the media-set pieces that went before it, though, Obama’s speech will ring hollow. At the same time that the President will be addressing the nation, there will still be about 50,000 US troops active in Iraq. Technically, they’re not “combat teams” but “advisory and assistance brigades.” But these soldiers will be accompanying Iraq troops on missions and if they come under fire from insurgents, I imagine the Americans will not hesitate to turn their “advice” on the enemy combatants and “assist” them to death.

Perhaps it’s fitting that a war born out of mendacity, falsehoods and exaggerations should be ushered into its closing stages – although clearly not its end – by half-truths and manipulation. Like his predecessor and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Obama, who is desperate for a public relations windfall, appears to be relegating the Iraq War to nothing more than a media spectacle. It also devalues his stance on ending US involvement in Iraq, making it seem a policy of convenience rather than an attempt to provide answers to the very profound and troubling questions posed by the conflict.

More than seven years after the first coalition troops moved in to find weapons of mass destruction and overthrow Hussein, the West – the countries that backed the war and those that opposed it – still desperately lacks self-knowledge. For all the flag waving on one side and the banner unfurling on the other, we are in a state of ambivalence about if or when it is right to use force. Apart from the deaths (between 97,000 and 106,000 civilians according to the Iraq Body Count website), the destruction and the geopolitical ramifications which have seen Iran and Turkey drawn into events, the Iraq War has had another devastating impact – it proved to be the moment when democratic politics broke down.

It failed on two accounts: firstly because Bush, Blair and several other leaders chose not to be straight with their electorates about an issue as important as going to war. This breakdown in the democratic process was compounded by the fact that, despite the attempts of their leaders to obfuscate, voters who knew they were being hustled still remained powerless to prevent the relentless march to war. Secondly, the right and the left both produced very shallow responses in the face of a complex situation. The neoconservative-led right claimed the moral high ground because it was supporting the ousting of a dictator and moves to bring democracy to not just a country but a whole region. The left felt it was superior because it was rejecting armed conflict as an option and drawing attention to possible ulterior motives for the conflict. To a small extent, both sides could claim to be right but in actual fact they were mostly wrong.

The moral bankruptcy of the neocons has long been proven. For all the bluster of bringing freedom to Iraq, it soon became obvious that there was no reconstruction plan to ensure its people were free to lead normal lives. For all the talk of wiping out “evil” with democracy, there was clearly never any intention of tackling dictators in other countries, such as Zimbabwe, or intervening to stop innocent people being slaughtered in places like Darfur.

The weakness of the left’s position took a bit more time to become evident but it’s clear now that it too has been guilty of treating the Iraq War as a zero-sum issue, when it’s actually a much more complex equation. Although the left clearly had plenty of fodder to support its argument against the war, it has not come up with a convincing alternative. As British journalist Nick Cohen wrote in “What’s Left?”, his 2007 critique of the antiwar movement: “They didn’t support fascism but they didn’t oppose it either. Their silence did not bode well for the future.”

Well, the future has arrived and the silence is still ringing in our ears. We have a Democratic president in the White House who appears to have no moral blueprint to guide him on US intervention around the world. We have European leaders who have plenty to say about fiscal deficits but nothing to say about democratic deficits. We have a feeble United Nations that seems unable to have an impact even in places where it has mustered up a presence – an investigation has been launched this week into how its troops missed the rape of 150 women and boys in the Democratic Republic of Congo when they were patrolling the area. In Greece, we have a prime minister who is a democratic idealist that wants to contribute to the Middle East peace process but is not willing to commit more than a few dozen troops to Afghanistan, where the specter of another brutal Taliban regime hangs over the country.

Iraq, many thought, was going to be the watershed moment for this generation, when beliefs would be honed and theories sharpened — but now that the dust is subsiding, it’s clear we’ve been left with only an ideological bomb crater. When lines were drawn over the invasion, it gave decision makers a chance to turn their backs on vital moral and political questions. More than seven years later, we have made no apparent progress in being clearer about when there is legitimate cause for intervention. In that sense, as well as others, Iraq has been a failure.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on August 27, 2010.

An accident waiting to happen

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

London – The world’s most powerful financiers emerged last Sunday from a meeting in the cosy surroundings of the World Economic Forum at the plush Swiss resort of Davos after agreeing that maybe, just maybe, they would consider some reforms to the global banking system. The same morning, a small group of less influential people braved the cold to gather in a corner of Hyde Park, beneath London’s steely winter sunlight, to hear a man who thinks the banks’ irresponsibility has gone too far.

Speakers’ Corner is an enclave of free speech unsurpassed anywhere in the world. Here, in the northeast corner of one of the world’s largest metropolitan parks, anyone with a step ladder or a soapbox, a good set of lungs and a cause to defend can speak out. Naturally, this pulls in eccentrics and jokers but having been around since 1866, it has also attracted luminaries such as Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. Both would have been fascinated, if not surprised, to see an English singer-songwriter addressing an audience of less than 200 people about the unfairness of bankers’ excessive bonuses and the folly of capitalism.

Billy Bragg, a 52-year-old London-born musician, is not a natural choice to pick up the socialist baton from the founding fathers of communism but his presence at Speakers’ Corner on Sunday perfectly reflected the failure of our political system to display a social sensitivity as well as a financial one. “I am standing here today because there don’t seem to be any politicians willing to take up this cause,” said Bragg who refused to pay his taxes on January 31 in a bid to draw attention to a campaign that has attracted more than 25,000 supporters online.

Bragg wants to pressure the British government to limit the annual bonuses the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) pays its employees this year to 25,000 pounds (26,600 euros) per person. The reasoning behind this request is simple: RBS was on the brink of collapse last year when it was bailed out by the UK government thanks to an injection of 25.5 billion pounds (29.2 billion euros), which was a bigger financial package than the one Greece put together to prop up all of its banks. This cash bought British taxpayers 84 percent of RBS’s shares. As part of the deal, the government negotiated a veto on RBS paying bonuses of more than 25,000 pounds to any of its bankers.

So, unsurprisingly, Bragg and many others were incensed when they heard the bank’s chief executive Stephen Hester say that – thanks to the profits RBS has made on the back of state intervention – it would be paying its employees a total of 1.5 billion pounds (1.71 billion euros) in bonuses this year. Presumably, this is the sort of amount US President Barack Obama had in mind when he labeled some of the bonuses being paid to American bankers “shameful” and “obscene.” Bragg argues that as the majority stakeholder in the bank, the British public should be able to have a say in whether these bonuses are paid.

“I understand that the Treasury had little choice but to use taxpayers’ money to safeguard our savings and stabilize and restore confidence in the financial system,” the singer told his audience. “I also understand that we will all benefit if and when RBS becomes solvent again. What I don’t understand is why the chief executive of our bank thinks that the best way to restore the company’s fortunes is to indulge in the irresponsible behavior that got us into this mess in the first place, by paying excessive bonuses at the first possible opportunity.”

This is where Bragg’s campaign strays beyond just convincing British Chancellor Alistair Darling to exercise the veto he retains on RBS bonuses and into much broader themes, such as the viability of capitalism in the wake of the financial crisis. Hester’s response to critics of the bank’s planned payouts is that he is “a prisoner of the market.” In other words, if RBS does not offer these kinds of incentives, then it will not attract the best bankers and therefore won’t make the kind of profits that will allow it to pay back the public money that kept the bank afloat and in turn generate tax revenues.

It’s an argument that would deserve serious consideration were it not for the fact that the markets ceased to exist, in the form that we knew them at least, when they fouled things up so badly that governments around the world had to rescue them for fear of the whole financial system collapsing. Bankers may argue, with some justification, that practices which are now seen as reckless or greedy were once encouraged by governments looking for a tax windfall. But this does not change the essence of the situation facing us now: Market rules are being rewritten and the banking system, despite the procrastination of the financiers in Davos, is in need of urgent reform.

“Someone should explain to Mr Hester that when the government bailed out RBS they broke the biggest rule of the market – that when a business fails, it should cease to exist. Isn’t that how Adam Smith’s invisible hand works?” asked Bragg. “If the invisible hand of the market has to be replaced by the helping hand of the people in the form of taxpayers’ money, then the market system is broken and the whole free enterprise experiment of the past 30 years has failed.”

Perhaps this last statement from Bragg is too sweeping – although the invisible hand and helping hand have often pulled at each other, they have also worked together to make some things better during the last three decades. But he’s right to question whether we’ve learned anything from the mistakes made during years that led to the brink of financial meltdown. The lack of action on the political and financial front to ensure that the irresponsibility of the past serves as a lesson for the future illustrates that many governments and bankers are willing to play the waiting game when the game is already up. Obama’s plan to tax bankers’ bonuses in a bid to raise 90 billion dollars (64.2 billion euros) over the next 10 years and his call for them to invest their efforts in “meeting your responsibility” rather than fighting the measure was a small step toward setting up a new, fairer system.

In Davos, regulators and bankers failed to agree on how the amount of risk in the banking system could be reduced, so a global system of financial regulation is still out of reach. The closest the world’s top bankers got to making any concessions was discussing the establishment of a global financial insurance levy so the next bailout would be financed by the industry, not by taxpayers. But this is hardly a solution – it’s the equivalent of a chain smoker saving up money for the inevitable cancer operation rather than making an effort to kick the habit.

Although the archons of the financial system appear to be unrepentant, or at least unwilling to make the first move, Bragg plans to be on his step ladder at Speakers’ Corner again this Sunday to keep up the pressure on them. Perhaps, though, instead of delivering a speech, he might dedicate a few bars of one of his songs to those who face tremendous responsibilities but choose to shirk them: “Goodbye and good luck / To all the promises you’ve broken / Goodbye and good luck / To all the rubbish that you’ve spoken / Your life has lost its dignity / Its beauty and its passion / You’re an accident waiting to happen.”

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on February 5, 2010.

Great expectations

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

A man who knew what power words can have, 18th-century English author Samuel Johnson, said: “As I know more of mankind I expect less of them, and am ready now to call a man a good man, upon easier terms than I was formerly.”

Coming 300 years after Johnson’s birth, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to US President Barack Obama confirms the potency of words and is evidence of a global society, which, after enduring demoralizing disappointments, is willing to embrace someone whose intentions are good even if he’s done little to back them up.

Similarly, in our corner of the world, Prime Minister George Papandreou is riding a wave of popularity thanks to the energetic manner in which he has approached the task of transforming Greece – but mainly because of the poor performance of the previous government.

The Nobel committee’s surprising announcement last week has provoked real debate around the world. In Europe, the reaction has ranged from mild surprise to concern that this will place an extra burden on Obama’s shoulders. In the United States, it was difficult to find anything but disbelief and derision.

“A Nobel for nothing,” said the Washington Times in its editorial; “A wicked and ignorant award” was Peggy Noonan’s take in The Wall Street Journal; and “A Nobel Prize for Moral Posturing” was the title of an article by Robert Tracinski, the editor of the Intellectual Activist and TIADaily.com.

Worse was to come for Obama when the political satirists and talk show hosts got hold of the news. Obama is already becoming a figure of fun among not just right-wingers but comedians as well, who prey on his inability to live up to the great expectations he created. “That’s pretty amazing, Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize,” said Jay Leno. “Ironically, his biggest accomplishment as president so far: winning the Nobel Peace Prize.”

The award challenges us to ask whether we should respect our politicians for their intentions or just their actions. The ensuing outpouring of frustration raises the question of whether we are justified in turning against the same politicians when their actions fail to match their intentions.

athens11These are questions Greeks should be considering at the moment. As Papandreou prepares to unveil his government’s policy program, voters must think about whether the PASOK leader should be applauded for his lofty ambitions or whether praise should be put on hold until at least of some of these goals are achieved.

There’s a fine balancing act involved here. Clearly, actions are ultimately what counts but they’re not enough on their own. Papandreou must set out bold intentions because it’s the only way he can unite people behind a common goal and it provides the measure by which the electorate can later judge him and his government.

To what extent we buy into these aspirations is what will determine our reaction when they’re not met. But that’s exactly the issue – we know they will not be met, at least not in full. Yet, like so many American columnists in recent days, when we experience reality getting in the way of political dreams, we react like a consumer who gets home and realizes that the plasma TV he bought is actually the screen for a shadow puppet theater.

Criticism of our politicians is a necessary part of our democratic system – its lifeblood, in fact – but accusing them of being false prophets is a bit rich, given that voters – not to mention the media – are now as savvy at political games as the men and women who play them.

If Papandreou’s ambitious agenda turns out to be a big act and the only award he’s in contention for is an Oscar for his acting ability, then he should be criticized. But those who take on this task while claiming their hopes have been shattered will be hypocrites, because we all know that these are expectations, as Johnson wrote, “created not but reason, but by desire” and which require “the common course of things to be changed, and the general rules of action to be broken.” We have come to expect some pandering and play-acting from our politicians. It needn’t be part of our repertoire.

“I know not any thing more pleasant, or more instructive, than to compare experience with expectation, or to register from time to time the difference between idea and reality,” wrote Johnson. “It is by this kind of observation that we grow daily less liable to be disappointed.”

It might be wise to heed his words, even if there is no award for doing so.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on October 16, 2009