Jessica Elgot   |   June 13, 2014    7:32 AM ET

The US has said that it will "not rule anything out" as it struggles to conjure up a strong response to an unexpected emergency in Iraq, as militants advanced towards Baghdad.

President Barack Obama is actively considering American airstrikes against the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), according to the Washington Post, quoting a senior source, but the White House has said that US boots on the ground is not an option.

“I don’t rule out anything because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter," Obama told reporters. “Iraq’s going to need more help. It’s going to need more help from us, and it’s going to need more help from the international community.”

iraq

Kurdish Iraqi Peshmerga forces deploy their troops and armoured vehicles on the outskirts of the city of Kirkuk

“In our consultations with the Iraqis, there will be some short-term, immediate things that need to be done militarily. But this should be also a wake-up call for the Iraqi government.”

On Thursday night, the Sunni-led Islamists advanced into the eastern towns of Saadiya and Jalawla in the Diyala province, with Iraqi forces fleeing. In Baghdad, Iraqi civilians queued in their droves to sign up to fight the advancing jihadists.

Airstrikes would be a hugely significant step, two years after the last American soldier left the battlefield. The US has so far dismissed requests from President Nouri Maliki to conduct the strikes.

"We are not contemplating ground troops," White House spokesman Jay Carney later clarified. "I want to be clear about that." But he dodged a question on whether the President would ask Congress before launching air attacks.

World leaders are rapidly losing what little faith they had in Iraq's military, even though government forces appear, for now, to be efficiently keeping the ISIS forces from the capital.

James Jeffrey, the US Ambassador until 2012, told CNN Iraq's military was "ill-trained, badly led and not particularly competent."

"They clearly cannot fire and maneuver," he said.

House Speaker John Boehner said the president was “taking a nap” as ISIS forces moved closer to the capital, and Kurdish soldiers were left as the last bulwark in the northern city of Kirkuk as the Iraqi army abandoned their posts.

The UK will not be getting militarily involved in Iraq, William Hague has categorically stated, saying it was "for the Iraqi leadership primarily to respond".

"We're very concerned about the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced, and with our very large humanitarian budget we may be in a position to assist with that, and we're looking at that now," he told the BBC.

"But we will not be getting involved militarily. We will support the United States in anything that they decide to do, we're in consultation with them. But I stress again it is for the Iraqi leadership primarily to respond to this."

Labour leader Ed Miliband told the BBC UK military intervention in Iraq was "not on the table".

"We have got to give all the non-military support we can to the Iraqi government to help them, but I don't think there is any question of going back into Iraq militarily."

ISIS, a radical splinter group whose tactics were once deemed too extreme even for al Qaeda, seized the northern city of Tikrit on Wednesday, the birthplace of Sadaam Hussein. They have driven 500,000 out of Mosul, Iraq's second city, after the country's army abandoned their positions and fled. Militants have also taken 48 hostages from the Turkish consulate in the city.

Story continues below slideshow

The UN Security Council said the humanitarian situation around Mosul is "dire and is worsening by the moment".

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on "the international community to unite in showing solidarity with Iraq as it confronts this serious security challenge".

In Britain, Iraqi-born Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi blamed the West's failure to intervene in Syria, which he said had help fuel the takeover of large parts of Iraq by Islamist extremists.

Iraq-born Nadhim Zahawi blamed US policy in the wake of the 2003 invasion to oust Saddam Hussein for sowing the seeds of the insurgency.

But he said the "divisive sectarian" rule of Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and the lengthy and increasingly extremist-led civil war in Syria were fanning the flames.

Sara C Nelson   |   June 11, 2014    9:14 AM ET

A staggering 74 school shootings have occurred in the United States since a gunman claimed 27 lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, 18 months ago.

The most recent occurred on Tuesday morning at a high school east of Portland, Oregon, where a gunman and a student are reported to have lost their lives.

That's more than one each week school was in session, with the longest gap between shootings spanning last summer's break, from mid-June to mid-August.

The figures were compiled by Everytown for Gun Safety, a group fighting to pass gun control laws.

The data comes as President Barack Obama made some of his most candid comments on the matter of gun control.

Speaking during a Q&A with Tumblr founder and CEO David Karp, Obama described it as his “biggest frustration so far” that America had been unwilling to take basic steps to end gun violence.

He said: “The country has to do some soul-searching on this. This is becoming the norm.

“Our levels of gun violence are off the charts. There’s no advanced developed country on earth that would put up with this.”

sandy hook shooting

Children are escorted to safety during the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School

Obama insisted he respects the right to bear arms, but lamented the fact that even a modest bill to expand background checks on gun owners failed to pass the Senate last year.

The legislation fell victim to a GOP-led filibuster and pressure from the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Obama added: "Most members of Congress are terrified of the NRA.

SEE ALSO:

“The only thing that is going to change is public opinion. If public opinion does not demand change in Congress, it will not change."

The Sandy Hook shooting saw 20 children and six adults killed on 14 December before gunman Adam Lanza turned the gun on himself.

Obama said the violence on that December morning amounted to the “worst day” of his presidency.

Lanza had earlier shot dead his mother Nancy. Police revealed the 20-year-old had an arsenal of weapons including guns, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, a bayonet and several swords in his home and car.

Investigators also found books on autism and Asperger's syndrome, as well as an NRA guide to pistol shooting.

Sara C Nelson   |   June 9, 2014    8:50 AM ET

Pope Francis was pictured locking lips with Israeli president Shimon Peres this weekend – in an image reminiscent of an advertising campaign that succeeded in enraging the Vatican and prompting it to bring legal action three years ago.

Peres was joined by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas at the Vatican where the pair prayed with the pontiff in the name of rekindling the Middle East peace process.

The image of Pope Francis and Peres embracing called to mind a United Colours of Benetton campaign in 2011 which showed a number of world leaders kissing.

pope peres

Pope Francis embraces Shimon Peres at the Vatican this weekend

The Photoshopped images saw US President Barack Obama kissing his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez and China's Hu Jintao, Abbas embracing Benjamin Netanyahu, Germany’s Angela Merkel smooching Nicholas Sarkozy and then-Pope Benedict XVI nuzzling up to Muslim leader Mohammed Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand sheikh of al-Azhar mosque in Cairo.

Executive deputy chairman Alessandro Bennetton was quoted at the time as saying: “The images are very strong, but we have to send a strong message. We are not wanting to be disrespectful of the leaders… we consider them the ‘conception figures’ making a statement of brotherhood with a kiss.”

But while the campaign attempted to preach tolerance, the Vatican was less than impressed, issuing strong condemnation and launching legal proceedings to prevent its wider use.

benetton unhate advert

Benetton was forced to pull the poster of then-Pope Benedict XVI kissing Mohammed Ahmed al-Tayeb

Press secretary Father Federico Lombardi said: "We cannot but express a resolute protest at the entirely unacceptable use of a manipulated image of the Holy Father, used as part of a publicity campaign which has commercial ends.

"It is a serious lack of respect for the pope, an affront to the feelings of the faithful and an evident demonstration of how, in the field of advertising, the most elemental rules of respect for others can be broken in order to attract attention by provocation."

Benetton hastily withdrew the poster and issued an apology.

A spokesman said: “We reiterate that the meaning of this campaign is exclusively to combat the culture of hatred in all its forms.

“We are therefore sorry that the use of the image of the pope and the imam has so offended the sentiments of the faithful.”

President Obama’s team wasn’t won over either. "The White House has a longstanding policy disapproving of the use of the president's name and likeness for commercial purposes," White House spokesman Eric Schultz told The Huffington Post.

Benetton is known for its controversial ads, including one of a young nun kissing a priest.

A further poster from the same Unhate campaign showing Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had to be scrapped after the controversial leader resigned.


D-Day and Bergdahl: Thoughts on the Forgotten Casualties of War

Robin Lustig   |   June 7, 2014   12:00 AM ET

Twenty years ago this Friday, on the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings, I was standing on a cliff-top overlooking the Normandy beaches on which so many men had died half a century earlier.

It was a deeply moving experience, looking down at the immaculately-choreographed ceremonies, and trying to imagine the carnage, terror and mayhem of the landings themselves. There can surely be few more total contrasts than between the reality of a battle and the commemoration of it so many years later.

By definition, those who mark these anniversaries are the survivors - and that means not only those who survived physically but also those who survived mentally. For every veteran proudly wearing his medals and remembering fallen comrades, there are others who wish they could forget. They are the ones whose war wounds are invisible.

When in years to come, US military veterans gather to remember the war in Afghanistan (2,000 US dead, 20,000 wounded), Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is unlikely to join them. He's the US soldier who was freed by the Taliban last weekend after nearly five years in captivity in return for five Taliban detainees freed from Guantanamo Bay.

According to the US military, "there are legitimate concerns about Bergdahl's physical and mental health" - so much so that even his family have been warned that he's in no fit state yet for a reunion. Judging by the video of his handover released by the Taliban - and with all the caveats about not making medical diagnoses based on sketchy video evidence - he may well be deeply traumatised by his ordeal.

Sgt. Bergdahl is reported to have walked away from his unit in Afghanistan on 30 June, 2009, five days after his battalion suffered its first casualty, a man to whom Bergdahl was reported to have been close. According to a report in the New York Times, "he left behind a note in his tent saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life."

The Washington Post yesterday quoted villagers who live close to the base where he was posted as remembering him walking through the village in a haze. "To them, it's clear something was wrong with the American. And he seemed to be deliberately heading for Taliban strongholds, they say."

Is Bergdahl a deserter? A traitor? Is he, as some critics in the US have implausibly suggested, a real-life incarnation of Nicholas Brody of the TV series Homeland, a captured US serviceman who may have switched sides? Or is he one more casualty of war, a man whose wounds can't be seen but are real nonetheless? It's perfectly possible, of course, to be both.

In 2012, more serving members of the US military committed suicide than were killed in action. Even more appallingly, 6,500 former military personnel committed suicide in the same 12-month period. In the UK, more British soldiers and veterans took their own lives in 2012 than died fighting in Afghanistan over the same period.

Post-traumatic stress is now a recognised medical condition. The military know the dangers, and, in so far as they can, they try to offer support for servicemen and women who need help. Even so, in both the UK and the US, it's estimated that more than one in 10 people who are homeless are military veterans.

Until relatively recently, the long-term human cost of wars to those who fight in them was something that both political and military leaders were anxious not to confront. It is harder to convince a country of the need for war if people know that even those who escape death or injury by bomb or bullet may still be scarred for life.

That's probably why there's been such an outcry from President Obama's political opponents over the deal to free Sgt. Bergdahl - it is an unwelcome reminder that wars are messy, nasty and cruel, and that they can often lead to good people doing bad things.

So should all wars be opposed, on principle? Are we all pacifists now? Or do we need to ensure that on those rare occasions when all available alternative policy options have been tried and failed, the men and women who are sent into harm's way are properly cared for, both on and off the battlefield?

Two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Horace wrote "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" (It is sweet and honourable to die for your country). In 1917, in a poem using Horace's aphorism as its title, the First World War poet Wilfred Owen called that a lie. Addressing the reader, he wrote that if you had seen, as he had, the horrendous effects of a gas attack:

"My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori."

I shall be thinking of those lines as I watch the 70th anniversary D-Day commemorations -- and as I ponder the fate of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

Sara C Nelson   |   June 6, 2014    9:04 AM ET

This is the dramatic moment a topless protester decapitated Russian President Vladimir Putin – while a handful of world leaders simply stood by.

Neither Barack Obama, Spanish King Juan Carlos, Francois Hollande nor Angela Merkel batted an eyelid as the terrifically violent assault took place – carried out by a Femen assassin with the words “Kill Putin” scrawled across her breasts.

Thankfully this Putin is made of wax – otherwise that might of stung a little.

Scroll down for more pictures of the 'attack'
femen attack on putin waxwork

World leaders idly stand by as Vladimir Putin is violently attacked by a member of Femen

The spectacle occurred at the Grevin museum in Paris on Thursday on the day Putin arrived in France for D-Day anniversary events.

According to French Daily Le Parisien, the protester screamed “Putin is a dictator” shortly before she was arrested.

It’s not the first time Putin has been confronted by the feminist organisation.

femen putin

Putin getting and eyeful last year in Germany

Last year he was ambushed by a topless activist as he accompanied German Chancellor Merkel during a visit to an industrial exhibition in Hanover, Germany.

And judging by his expression he was pretty happy about it.

SEE ALSO:

Of Thursday's protest, Femen leader Inna Shevchenko told Huffington Post UK: "That was a protest initiated by one of our Ukrainian members.

"It was a symbolic act - an attack on Putin to urge the world to crash Putinism, not to follow it and support his military interventions and more deaths - by ignoring him and not inviting him to international events like today's D-Day in France."

Mehdi Hasan   |   June 6, 2014    8:21 AM ET

Here are the five things you need to know on Thursday 5 June 2014...

1) NEWARK SAYS 'NO' TO NIGEL

The Newark by-election results are in and, as expected, it's a win for the Tories. My HuffPost UK colleague Ned Simons reports:

"The Ukip earthquake failed to shake the Conservatives out of Newark on Thursday, after Nigel Farage's party was unable capitalise on its stunning European election success by winning the parliamentary by-election in the Nottinghamshire constituency. But the ground did move a bit. Roger Helmer, Ukip's candidate who currently represents the area as an MEP, came in second place with 10,028 votes (25.91%). Robert Jenrick, the Tory candidate, held on to the seat for the Conservatives after winning 17,431 votes (45.03%). A majority of 7,403 votes. Ed Miliband's Labour Party candidate came in third place with 6,852 votes (17.68%). The result was another disaster for Nick Clegg, as the Lib Dem candidate finished a distant sixth with just 1,004 votes (2.59%)."

The poor ol' Lib Dems lost their deposit for the ninth time in a by-election since 2010. The Tories, as George Osborne put it on the radio this morning, enjoyed a "strong win" - though it was their seat to lose. Having said that, despite being a safe Tory seat now, back in 1997, Tony Blair's New Labour won Newark. Ed Miliband's One Nation Labour didn't come anywhere close in this by-election. Osborne called it a "disastrous" night for Labour.

Meanwhile, the big question is this: has the Ukip bubble been burst? Second-place isn't a bad result, of course, but the party did top the poll in Newark during the recent Euro elections so expectations were high. There does seem to be some evidence that locals voted tactically to keep Farage's 'People's Army' out. Those who argue that the voters are savvy enough to be able to distinguish between a protest vote for Ukip at the European elections and a vote for the next government at a general election do seem vindicated by yesterday's Newark by-election. Nigel Farage, meanwhile, may have to re-think his whole 'insurgent' strategy when it comes to parliamentary seats.

Bring on 2015...

2) MAY V GOVE, DAY 3

The chancellor of the exchequer has been weighing in on the row over extremism policy between the home secretary and the education secretary. Speaking on the Today programme, Osborne confirmed that Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, is now investigating the spat between the PM's two key lieutenants in cabinet. He said:

"The prime minister has asked Downing Street – and that includes the cabinet secretary – to establish the facts of who said what to who in the arguments we’ve seen over the last few days. We absolutely don’t want a distraction from the central issue here, the issue which the government is absolutely united on and the people listening to this programme I’m sure are concerned about, which is the infiltration of schools by Islamic extremists."

You'll note that Osborne didn't use the word 'alleged' before 'infiltration'. Talk about pre-judging the results of an official inquiry...

On a related note, a spokesman for the Department of Education yesterday told HuffPost UK: "The secretary of state does not support a ban on religious headwear for pupils in all state-funded schools."

Not in 'all' schools? Does that mean he's fine with it in some schools?

3) 'I WON'T GET ON MY KNEES FOR DAVE'

From the Guardian's splash:

"Jean-Claude Juncker, the embattled frontrunner to head a new EU executive, delivered a bitter attack on Britain on Thursday, vowing he would not get on his knees to secure backing as next president of the European commission. He also strongly criticised European leaders, complaining he was being ignored after the grouping of Europe's centre-right parties won the European election. Strongly opposed by David Cameron in his ambition to become the next president of the commission, Juncker declared he would not genuflect before the British, lambasted what he described as a British press campaign against his candidacy, and warned that he was running out of time to secure the most powerful post in Brussels... 'It is wrong if we give in to the British here," Juncker told a closed meeting of the EPP in the parliament in Brussels on Thursday. 'I will not be forced to get on my knees before the British.'"

BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR...

Check out this YouTube viral video, 'Brozen' - two brothers lip-synching to the song, 'Love Is An Open Door', from the Disney hit movie. It'll make you smile.

4) OBAMA IMPERSONATES DARLING

The 'Better Together' campaign must be delighted - the US president is their latest recruit. Will the 'cybernats' now go for Barry? From the FT:

"Barack Obama has waded into the fraught debate about Britain’s constitutional future by stressing US interest in a 'united' kingdom that remains a full member of the EU. With just over three months to go before the Scottish vote on independence, the US president stood beside David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, to praise the UK as an 'extraordinary partner' that looked from the outside like it had 'worked pretty well'."

The paper adds:

"Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, who is leading the independence campaign, shot back saying “yes we can”, in an echo of Mr Obama’s electoral slogan. “When Scotland becomes independent, America will have two allies instead of one,” he added."

5) GOODBYE WILLIE?

From the Times:

"William Hague has said that he hopes to have achieved his 'central mission' at the Foreign Office by next year in the strongest hint to date that he is considering stepping down from frontline politics. Mr Hague said the restoration of the Foreign Office's reputation as one of Whitehall's greatest departments was "well advanced and on track"... Asked directly about whether he wanted to remain foreign secretary in a Conservative-led government, Mr Hague said: 'I came back into politics specifically to do this job and I regard it as my last big job in politics. But I don't think any of us should be speculating about what happens after 2015 until we've won the election.'"

Does "last big job in politics" mean British politics? Could it be Hague, rather than Lansley, who Cameron nominates as Britain's next EU commissioner?

PUBLIC OPINION WATCH

From today's Sun/YouGov poll:

Labour 37
Conservatives 31
Ukip 15
Lib Dems 8

That would give Labour a majority of 76.

900 WORDS OR MORE

Philip Collins, writing in the Times, says: "The Tory split on Europe can’t be reconciled."

David Edgar, writing in the Guardian, says: "Labour should be chasing Green voters, not Ukip supporters."

Fraser Nelson, writing in the Telegraph, says: "You can’t reduce a 300-year-old union to a mushy peas analogy."


Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/gossip to Mehdi Hasan (mehdi.hasan@huffingtonpost.com), Ned Simons (ned.simons@huffingtonpost.com) or Asa Bennett (asa.bennett@huffingtonpost.com). You can also follow us on Twitter: @mehdirhasan, @nedsimons, @asabenn and @huffpostukpol

Ned Simons   |   June 5, 2014    3:07 PM ET

President Obama has intervened in the debate over Scottish independence, telling Scots that the United States wanted to see its closest ally remain "united".

The US president also urged Britons to vote to stay part of the European Union if they are given a say in the in/out referendum promised by David Cameron.

Speaking during a press conference with Cameron at the G7 summit Belgium on Thursday, Obama said it was up to the people of Scotland how to vote in September's referendum, but indicated he did not want to see the UK break-up.

"The UK has been an extraordinary partner to us. From the outside at least it looks like things have worked pretty well and we obviously have a deep interest in making sure one of the closest allies that we will ever have remains a strong, robust, united and effective partner," he said. Obama added: "Ultimately these are decisions to be made by folks there."

SEE ALSO: Coalition's Lego Anti-Scottish Independence List 'Stupid'

Asked whether he thought the UK should vote to quit the EU, Obama said he thought British voters would make the "right decision" and choose to stay in.

"With respect to the EU, we share a strategic vision with Great Britain on a whole range of international issues and so it's always encouraging for us to know that Great Britain has a seat at the table in the larger European project," he said.

"I think in light of the events that we are going to be commemorating tomorrow, it's important to recall that it was the steadfastness of Great Britain that in part allows us to be here in Brussels in the seat of a unified and extraordinarily prosperous Europe.

"It's hard for me to imagine that project going well in the absence of Great Britain and I think it's also hard for me to imagine that it would be advantageous for Great Britain to be excluded from political decisions that have an enormous impact on its economic and political life.

He added: "This is why we have elections, and we'll see the arguments made, and I'm sure the people of Great Britain will make the right decision."

Speaking on behalf of the Scottish anti-independence Better Together campaign, Labour shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said: "I welcome this important contribution by President Obama. His clear statement of support for the UK staying together will resonate with many of us here in Scotland.

"As a global statesman President Obama understands that interdependence is a defining feature of our modern world, and that building bridges, not putting up new barriers, is the challenge of our generation."

  |   June 5, 2014    1:41 PM ET

g7 reservoir dogs

Is Quentin Tarantino directing the G7 summit?


Thomas Tamblyn   |   June 4, 2014    4:39 PM ET

The Secret Service have a new remit, they'll be protecting the President against the potentially deadly effects of sarcasm. Thankfully though, they're buying a 'sarcasm detector' which can do just that.

Announced via a work order on Monday, the Secret Service confirmed it would be buying a special piece of software that can detect a range of emotions on Twitter, hoping to rule out incidents involving sarcastic threats.

Along with being able to detect what many (wrongly) describe as the 'lowest form of wit', the software can detect the level of influence a user has, how sentimental they're being and provide easy access to historical Twitter data.

Once an alert appears the Secret Service then has the option to send a notification to a user, warning them of the potential ramifications of their rant.

First discovered by nextgov.com, it appears as though the decision was made after the Homeland Security Department got in a spot of bother when it was found to be working on a program which would involve creating fake Twitter profiles to spy on normal users.

Between Two Ferns: Barack Obama's Presidential Step Forward for Politics

Owen Lee   |   June 3, 2014    1:58 PM ET

2014-06-03-ObamaBetweenTwoFerns.png
President Obama Sitting with Zack Galifianakis on Funny Or Die's Between Two Ferns. Full Video Viewable at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UnW3xkHxIEQ


In a bold effort to win over the American youth to the rejuvenated Healthcare.gov service, renowned cool cat President Barak Obama appeared on the satirical internet chat show series Between 2 Ferns[1]. Hosted by the deadpan yet venomous Zack Galifianakis, the recorded tirade of traded insults has to date obtained over 22m views globally[2], and directly resulted in a dramatic increase in healthcare sign-ups.

Some have seen Obama's actions as foolhardy and lacking the decorum befitting a man in Office. It is argued however that the acute awareness and foresight to appropriately reciprocate the communications of an increasingly digitised youth, is a huge step forward for global political communications.

Wasn't It Just a Video?

In the UK alone, people see on average over 3,500 marketing messages a day[3], all seeking to suggest, sway and ultimately sell a product or service, either overtly or covertly. This ever increasing volume of often conflicting communications inherently makes it ever more difficult to cut through and meaningfully connect with audiences.

Recognising that a simple press release or TV ad just wouldn't resonate with America's youth, Obama delivered something of genuine value that they'd actually want to engage with. Comedy. Real comedy too. Not the mildly whimsical PC jestings of an Oxbridge toff, but that of edginess and appeal - "So what's it like to be the last black President?"[4]
The emotional benefit received from the content ensured that by the time the - believed to be ingeniously deliberate - plug for healthcare.gov comes in at the end[5], the captivated audience were more than willing to partake in a value exchange (trading their attention for watching something funny) and listen to Obama's message.

So What Happened?

The fallout of this was phenomenal, with healthcare enrolment traffic increasing by 40% in the weeks succeeding the video's release[6] and America's uninsured rate now at its lowest point since 2008[7]. Most impressive however is the fact that the Youtube video page was the no.1 source of traffic to Healthcare.gov. Now this may not sound like a STOP PRESS revelation, but in showing that users went directly to the site having watched the video, it proves that comedy can result in action. No "I'll research it and see if it's a good idea," no Googling "USA Healthcare" a week later, and no millions of dollars spent on a nationwide TV campaign. Instead, by making politics fun Obama managed to get millions to go straight to their address bar and typing in H-e-a-l-t-h-c-a-r-e-.-g-o-v....[Enter]. Considering the tsunami of criticism that engulfed the unveiling of the service, proving that non-traditional means of political communication can induce a direct and immediate action at this scale is huge.

"But Lincoln Wouldn't Have Done It"[8]

As apparent self-appointed voice of the right wing, this was Bill O'Reily of Fox News' chief criticism in his lambasting of the "demeaning" interview,"[9] believing it to diminish Presidential dignity.[10] Obama has since successfully repudiated this stance, pointing to Lincoln's historic willingness to interact and joke with the public.[11] It is submitted however that his calm repost doesn't quite give O'Reily the deserved right handed slap in the face - deliverance corresponding political stance - for his ignorance of foresight. Whilst the video is prima facie a simple success at increasing youth sign-ups to healthcare.gov, it could well mark a new era of digi-politicised communications.

Back in 1922, Warren Harding broke new grounds in being the first President to politicise the airwaves with his sultry tones[12]. In a similar fashion, once an established broadcast method, FDR won the race to put his face in front of the camera. This considered, Obama following the presidential suits of his predecessors in seeking to utilise a young medium is an appropriately progressive move for political communications. It definitely doesn't make him a terrible leader.

But Will It Work for Something Bigger Than Curing a Healthcare Hiccup?

As was famously documented in the Kennedy-Nixon debates, those that tuned in on the radio believed Nixon won, whilst the 65-74m TV viewers[13] believed the reverse[14]. It was Kennedy's brilliant use of the medium that was credited to have wiped out Nixon's race lead, and ultimately led to his 0.1% victory over his Republican rival[15].
So with digital now primed as the next battleground, we could see a similarly savvy politician manage to sway the swathes of swingers and take to the Oval Office[16].

That said it's not all sunshine and roses. Whilst digital offers up a plethora of advantages over traditional media, those that act erroneously or in ignorance are quickly exposed. The vulturous press, supported by every Tom, Dick and Harry capable of clicking [create] on Tumblr[17] are for ever circling, waiting to gore and gouge any who slip up. A prime example of this is when a picture of married Congressman Anthony Weiner's wiener was made public after having tweeted the pic to a female admirer[18]. Eventually coming clean, he didn't learn his lesson, and his run for Mayor of New York was destroyed when he was found to be continuing his behaviour under pseudonym Carlos Danger[19]. In a few simple tweets, he went from a man of political standing and a bright future, to having the Congressional clout of candy floss. #SillyWeiner.

Conclusion

President Obama's use of comedy to progress the administrative agenda was bold. Very bold. However in displaying a true understanding of how his audience want to be communicated with, it was equally as brilliant.
Proving the full potential and versatility of digital as a communicatory medium, he has paved the way for others to follow suit in upcoming elections. That said, as we have and will continue to see, the road to the Oval Office is paved with dangers, and we can likely expect both blunders and successes as this medium is further explored. So with the stage set for a fairly open election in 2016, we will have to see how the candidates fair. If Kennedy is anything to go by, it could well be that whoever is more switched on digitally could be the candidate sworn in.

All this considered it would appear that only one question remains unanswered. Would Lincoln have indeed have recorded such a video? Well if Bill O'Reily can apparently speak on his behalf I guess anyone can. So yes. Definitely............From space.



References

1. Funny Or Die (2014), YouTube Channel, Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UnW3xkHxIEQ (Accessed 25.05.14).
2. Funny Or Die (2014), Website, Available at http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/18e820ec3f/between-two-ferns-with-zach-galifianakis-president-barack-obama (Accessed 15.05.14).
3. Gibson, O. The Shopper's eye view of the Ads that Pass us by, The Guardian Online, available at http://www.theguardian.com/media/2005/nov/19/advertising.marketingandpr (Accessed 28.05.14).
4. Op. Cit. no.1, at 1:15.
5. What's believed to be particularly clever here is the recognition that a jarring of tone would occur were they to seek to weave in something as politically pointy as Obamacare. Just as with many product placements, trying to sneak under the radar can cause messages to stand out even more - just watch any recent James Bond movie as evidence. If this occurs the immersion in the content can be disrupted, and viewers may reject the message almost out of principle - "I thought this was just a funny interview, but it's just another stupid attempt to get me to sign up to that crappy Obamacare." So instead, by deliberately drawing attention to the plug in a manner in keeping with the rest of the comedic piece, they retain the audience's attention throughout delivery of the message.
6. As noted by White House Senior Communications Advisor Tara McGuiness on her Twitter account. McGuiness, T. (2014), Twitter, Available at https://twitter.com/HealthCareTara (Accessed 17.05.14).
7. Levy. J (2014), U.S. Uninsured Rate Drops, Gallup, Available at http://www.gallup.com/poll/168821/uninsured-rate-drops.aspx (Accessed 30.05.14).
8. Isquith, E. (2014), Bill O'Reilly: Abraham Lincoln wouldn't Have Done "Between Two Ferns", Salon.com, Available at http://www.salon.com/2014/03/12/bill_oreilly_abraham_lincoln_wouldnt_have_done_between_two_ferns/ (Accessed 25.05.14).
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Johnson, T. (2014), President Obama Defends Doing Funny or Die's "Between Two Ferns", Variety.com, Available at phttp://variety.com/2014/biz/news/president-obama-defends-doing-funny-or-dies-between-two-ferns-1201140586 (Accessed 01.06.14).
12. Though Calvin Coolidge was the first to deliver a presidential address solely through radio in 1923.
13. High point of 74 Estimated by Nielsen - Webley, K. (2010), How the Nixon-Kennedy Debate changed the World, Time, Available at http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2021078,00.html (Accessed 31.05.14).
14. Granted there were external factors in play here, however the debates were widely believed to be a key factor in securing the Presidency.
15. Mary Ferrell Foundation (date unknown), Kennedy-Nixon Debates, Available at https://www.maryferrell.org/wiki/index.php/Kennedy-Nixon_Debates (Accessed 30.05.14).
16. A simple example of how this could be used in the next election race would be for a candidate to be able to reach swing state voters with topically relevant messages throughout a campaign. By targeting internet users via their IP addresses, Sarah Palin could send Ohio messages on climate change, whilst over in Virginia they're seeing videos on education. Being able to optimise the messages that are served based on interactions, social shares etc, allows her to understand what is hitting and missing in every state, whilst having the benefit of creating a consistent and more personal presence in each state, than the 2/3 visits she might be able to make on the campaign trail that are supported by broad national messages in debates etc.
17. Yours truly very much included here.
18. Smith, M. (2014), Political Twitter Gaffes: 8 Politicians for Whom too Many Tweets Made a T***, Available at http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/political-twitter-gaffes-8-politicians-3466777 (Accessed 31.05.14).
19. Ibid.

Why #BringBackOurGirls Isn't Just Another Slacktivism Campaign

Asher Wren   |   May 29, 2014   12:00 AM ET

2014-05-27-bringbackourgirls_CROP.jpg

On 14 April 2014, 276 Nigerian school girls were abducted by Boko Haram, to minimal outrage or global press coverage.

Two weeks later, a fire was lit in the form of the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag campaign, and three days later still John Kerry issued the first official US government response to the situation.

By 6 May President Obama had vowed to send 30 personnel to Nigeria to assist in the rescue of the remaining captive girls; and on 22 May a further 80 military personnel were committed to Nigeria.

There's no doubt at all that since the first #BringBackOurGirls mention by Nigerian lawyer Ibrahim M. Abdullahi on 23 April, the hashtag has pushed this crime from regional to global news and has contributed to Obama's decision to commit personnel to Africa.

Why, then, has the hashtag had such an impact?

Firstly, this is not a divisive issue. Unlike hashtag campaigns that have come and gone before, #BringBackOurGirls has unified a global audience and, apart from a microscopic percentage of Boko Haram supporters, the whole world is behind the message, if not the means, of the campaign. Hashtag campaigns about everything from Orca captivity, to gay marriage, to Invisible Children; even the #YesAllWomen hashtag have all divided national and global opinions (rightly or wrongly) where #BringBackOurGirls has united the world's population in solidarity.

Secondly, the message is clear and resonates: when Ibrahim M. Abdullahi first delivered the hashtag it was directly referencing the Vice President of the World Bank for Africa, Oby Ezekwesili's real-world press statement demanding the release of the abducted girls. Specifically she said 'Bring back our daughters' which translated to #BringBackOurGirls when posted to Twitter. There is no argument as to what the hashtag means or what it is asking you to do: share it, spread it, tell the world.

Thirdly, Boko Haram's abduction of the 276 Nigerian girls comes at a time of a global heightened sensitivity toward women's rights causes. Following such world news events as the horrific Delhi gang rape and in particular the Taliban's attempt on Malala Yousafzai's life, both in 2012, governments and IGOs have stepped up their focus on reducing a global education deficit. The UN Global Education First Initiative, established in 2012, seeks to put every child in the world in education by 2015. This is at odds with the ideals of Boko Haram (Boko Haram literally means 'Western education is sin') who have been known to target schools, killing and abducting teachers and students.

The #BringBackOurGirls campaign has helped to proliferate worldwide awareness of Boko Haram's ideals, and in turn forced the UN to take action against the group to avoid losing face and appearing impotent. The UN announced earlier this week that they would be imposing sanctions on Boko Haram; a symbolic gesture perhaps as the group lacks the kind of assets that the UN can realistically go after, but a gesture nonetheless.

Finally, support from celebrities and politicians; Michelle Obama in particular, has helped #BringBackOurGirls to gain incredible momentum. The First Lady's account tweeted the hashtag on May 7th, and pinned the tweet to the top of its feed. That tweet alone has since generated over 58,000 retweets. Angelina Jolie, Anne Hathaway, Amy Poehler, Leona Lewis, Cara Delevingne and Alicia Keys, to name a few, have all been instrumental in increasing the reach of the campaign on and offline, providing the catalyst for a sizable chunk of the 2 million mentions the hashtag has received and the billions of impressions it has made.

The chart below, courtesy of Brandwatch, shows the trend line for #BringBackOurGirls mentions.

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The first hashtag mention was posted on 23 April. For the next few weeks the hashtag generated next to no buzz whatsoever until on 5 May it was tweeted by @CNN, @BBC, @Time and @PiersMorgan. On 7 May it was tweeted by @FLOTUS (Michelle Obama) and on 8 May by @TheEllenShow. The timing of the US Government's decision to deploy advisers to Nigeria (6 May) followed by troops (22 May) is no coincidence.

Some of the millions of individual mentions of #BringBackOurGirls might constitute Slacktivism; they may not be entirely altruistic; they may in fact be entirely for the benefit of the poster. But #BringBackOurGirls has propelled the recent kidnappings into a global limelight where previous Boko Haram activity has gone unchecked by governments and IGOs. In doing so, the hashtag campaign has helped to force the hand of both the US Government and the UN, and therefore, short of literally joining the search yourself; tweeting the hashtag may just have been the best thing that you could have done to help #BringBackOurGirls.

Operation American Broken Spring...

James Christie   |   May 24, 2014    2:07 AM ET

In the course of an eventful week which featured a military coup in Thailand and democratic local elections in England, a retired U. S. Army Colonel successfully devised and led "Operation American Spring," which restored the Constitution and freed the American people from their government's "despotic and tyrannical federal leadership."

Except that isn't quite what happened.

Despite fervent belief and a flood of farcical Facebook posts promising that ten to thirty million "patriots" would descend upon Washington D. C. and force the President and most of his Cabinet out of office, only about 460 showed up.

And as far as I am aware, Barack Obama has not yet resigned.

It would be really, really easy to take the piss out of this one; but I've now crossed America four times (first in 1989 and more recently in 2010, 2012 and 2013), I've met Republicans and Democrats, hung around in Greyhound bus stations in the wee small hours, admired the Lincoln memorial, crossed the Rockies and nearly fallen into the Grand Canyon. I like Starbucks, I'd say the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the world's most beautiful structures, and most of all I like the folks. They really are, as Christopher Meyer, Britain's former ambassador to the U. S., commented in DC Confidential, "this most generous and hospitable of peoples."

According to Theodore Roosevelt, the American identity includes, "strength, courage, energy, and undaunted and unwavering resolution," while British characters have a great tendency to take the piss out of each other in pubs. However, as I had experience of both cultures and American Facebook friends from both sides of the political divide, I decided it would be fair simply to wait and see how the Colonel's dream of an "American Spring" turned out.

I didn't really expect to wake up on Saturday 17th May to see headlines proclaiming SUCCESSFUL COUP IN AMERICA! OBAMA OVERTHROWN! NEW WORLD ORDER! but I did wonder if this march on Washington might have some echo of Martin Luther King's 1963 gathering. I do think the people should hold governments to account by peaceful protest and/or civil disobedience, I don't agree with right or left wing extremism that expresses itself in intolerance and ends in violence. The rebel becomes that which he himself (or she) professes to despise.

In the end, "Operation American Spring" turned out exactly as I'd expected. 460 people came along and the media had a bit of fun with them with tweets like:

"No, we didn't say around 10 mill people ... we said 10 people mill around."

It would be easy to satirize this, and there are indeed elements in American society whose attitudes make no sense to those of us on the other side of the pond. But it's important to remember how little Americans and Europeans understood each other's viewpoints up until quite recently. In the foreword to Alistair Cooke's wartime American Journey (written in 1945, lost and re-issued in 2005), the editor commented that "nobody in Britain had much more than the foggiest notion then what the Americans might bring to the war, or indeed what Americans were really like." Cooke's weekly radio programme, Letter From America, which ran from 1946 to 2004, helped bridge the gap; but it may only have been with the birth of the internet and the blossoming of Facebook that for the first time Britain, America and pretty much everyone else were being exposed to each other's culture courtesy of video, audio and real-time un-edited interaction.

I'm old enough to remember the cost and rarity of international phone calls forty years ago. Back then I only heard of American affairs via Weekend World, Panorama or the Nine O'Clock News. I have an unfocused memory of an old-timer wearing a baseball cap saying THANK GOD FOR AIDS or some such in a documentary about the American right wing, but most of my information about the U. S. trickled through via traditional broadcasters' filters, Charlie's Angels and DC Comics.

It's a bit different now, and therein lies the rub. For America is still the world's only hyperpower and of colossal global importance. Thirty years ago, comment on an event like "American Spring" would have been confined to the inside pages of hard-copy broadsheets or quiet lampooning in Punch, and that would have been that.

Not today. Today we get shares and comments direct from some American citizens which liken Obama to Hitler and suggest he was not born in Honolulu...

So let's be as honest, unwavering and resolute as Roosevelt might have been about the outcome of "American Spring." The operation had its chance and it failed utterly. It was pretty stupid and rather embarrassing, both for the people involved and to some extent (I would argue), for the country as a whole. As the BBC's North America correspondent Mark Mardell said re the recent U. S. political brinkmanship over Obamacare, "governing by lurching from crisis to crisis, clutching a hostage, does not improve America's image in the eyes of the world."

America and the Americans are now under swift and new scrutiny via ultramodern social media, so (traditional and archaic as it may sound) I'd suggest true patriotism includes the obligation to remember you're representing your country, culture and values when you post online.

What you write will be there forever. Once the world was blind, but now it can see.

James Christie is the author of Dear Miss Landau. He was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism, at the age of 37 in 2002. He lives in the Scottish Borders.

Campaigner-in-Chief Bill Clinton Makes Way for Hillary

Jon-Christopher Bua   |   May 19, 2014   12:00 AM ET

Did anyone ever think that Bill Clinton, perhaps the greatest politician of our time, even rivaling LBJ, would ever go "gently into that good night"?

Not a chance!

The youngest Governor in the US at the time from the State of Arkansas - "Thank God for Mississippi"- has always had more political DNA running through his veins than anyone can imagine.

WJC now seems to be in his element, relishing the fact that GOP hitman-in-chief Karl Rove has thrown down his chain-mailed gauntlet and gone after his beloved Hillary, questioning her health and ability to serve as president.

Hillary's other defenders chalk it up as just another attempt to flood the "echo chamber" of divisiveness and hate... par for the course as things start to heat up and Hillary's new book "Hard Choices" hits the books shelves - already available on Amazon this week.

And what a month it has been for Hills.

Benghazi has resurfaced with the release of additional e-mails from The White House and yet another Congressional investigation is getting underway.

Alas! Here comes the icing on the cake, for those who make a living from this stuff.

Just when we all thought it was safe to go back in the water - MONICA IS BACK trying for a chance at redemption and another extended 15 minutes in the spotlight resurrecting her ill fated tryst with former President Bill.

All of this could be both good news and bad news for the so far un-declared candidate.

It could mean that all of the skeletons are out of closet a very long time before 2016 and by then it will simply be old news that no one really cares about.

The bad news is that the GOP Opposition Research nerds are in full gear, primed to uncover even more stuff that Team Hillary must deal with even if she decides NOT to run!

Let's face it! The Republicans are scared to death of Hillary Rodham Clinton if she does decide to run.

Aside from the fact that Hillary would be a formidable candidate, there are a lot of other good reasons they are shaking in their boots already.

If Hillary decides to run her team including "The Big Guy" aka "Elvis" will make sure she runs unopposed - no primary challengers.

Although this could be a mixed blessing, since it has been a while since Hillary has been on the debate stage - going head to head with Barack Obama back in 2008.

On the plus side it would mean she has plenty of time to raise lots and lots of money across the country and focus on making her case to the American voter while the numerous Republican Candidates - Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Rick Perry, Jeb Bush, etc. - rip each other to shreds in adds, debates, primaries and caucuses.

I am sure the Republican candidates and strategists have taken note, assessing the damage done to Mitt Romney in 2012 when he emerged as their Presidential Candidate - bruised and battered beyond repair by the endless debate season.

Although Hillary's age could be something of an issue.

As the charming Ronald Reagan did, she is more than capable of turning the so-called age issue to her advantage.

After all it was Reagan who famously quipped in his presidential debate against Minnesota Democratic Senator Walter Mondale - saying that he would not make age an issue in the campaign; "I will not exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."

Hillary would be the most experienced, high powered, highly identifiable woman who has ever run for the presidency.

She has been, the Secretary of State, a US Senator from the State of New York, The First Lady of the United States and of the State of Arkansas.

Hillary is a thoughtful and engaging "wonk."

This leaves little doubt that her domestic and foreign policy ideas will be well thought out and carefully crafted to appeal to the broad specturm of voters.

If she runs she is likely to all but own the female vote because young and older women alike believe it is well beyond time for this change.

America is decades and even centuries behind in acknowledging a women as a great leader.

After all there was Cleopatra, Ruler of Egypt, Eleanor of Aquitane, First Queen of France, Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth II, Indira Gandhi first female PM of India, Golda Meir first female PM of Israel, Margaret Thatcher, first female PM of Great Britain, Benazir Bhutto, first female PM of Pakistan - a Muslim Country - and the list goes on!

Appealling to women voters is already a challenge for the Republican Party and Hillary as a candidate would make this an insurmountable task.

It is hard to see Hillary's national book tour for Hard Choices as anything but a dry run for her candidacy.

Some say Hillary is "sucking all the air out of room" and it is unlikely that any other Democrat will take a serious stab at the 2016 nomination until she makes her intentions known.

The likes of Elizabeth Warren, Brian Schweitzer, Martin O'Malley, Andrew Cuomo, Kirsten Gillibrand, and even "Veep" Joe Biden seem reluctant to engage the "Clinton Machine".

Then of course there is Bill who probably wants this more for Hillary than she does for herself.

One can only imagine the plans Bill has as "First Man" in The White House"... Michelle's Oval Office drapes may have to go.

Number 42 is a formidable opponent and is clearly anxious to get back into the game!

In fact, he is already out there using his star power to help Democrats raise lots of dough in the 2014 Midterms and collecting political "I Owe Yous" for Hillary's possible 2016 run.

So although only Hillary's 'hairdresser,' hubby, daughter and inner circle know for sure, my money is on "a run for the roses" for this thoroughbred contender.

Years from now while scanning the roster of American Presidents our great grandchildren may pass the names Adams, Harrison, Roosevelt and Bush and stop at number 42 - William Jefferson Clinton and 45 - Hillary Rodham Clinton and say; "Hey look! Here are two more with the same name - Clinton."

Perhaps one day, years from now a grandmother with her own grandkids in tow, takes to the stage at the Democratic National Convention and introduces herself:

"Hi I'm Chelsea Clinton and both my parents were President of the United States."

Changing the World One Hashtag at a Time

Isabelle Younane   |   May 14, 2014   12:00 AM ET

Whether you've Instagrammed a #nomakeupselfie, Tweeted #bringbackourgirls or mourned for the #missingplane, no doubt you've felt a small sense of satisfaction in advancing a worthy cause. You've 'raised awareness' in trending a particular issue that has fleetingly grasped the attention of the public and now you can happily put the kettle on, get on with your day and avoid the pang of guilt that gnaws away at Western civilisation every time we confront a news flash of war-torn Syria, terror-struck Nigeria or the turbulent Ukraine.

But the danger of the hashtag is the accompanying sense that the hashtagger has 'done their bit' in a humanitarian crisis. No need to submit a monetary donation, volunteer for a charity or arrange a fundraiser like the good old days; the beauty of social media means that you just have to press a key and you've made somebody's life that little bit better.

But have you? Certainly social media has its benefits. Raising awareness to an issue is instrumentally important; new outlets pounce on Twitter trends and gear their stories to what they understand to be the most compelling topics of the time. This accumulation of press coverage could ultimately lead to what is commonly known as the 'CNN Effect'; studies have shown that mass media has the power to set the agenda at policy level. It's easy for politicians to ramp up their approval ratings by latching onto a public concern 'gone viral' and attempting to at least be seen to do something about it. It is no mistake that 25 countries joined the hunt for the #missingplane, or that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry vowed to take up his pitchfork and #bringbackourgirls. Kidnappings and other atrocities have been rampant in Nigeria for years thanks to the extremist group Boko Haram, but it's tricky to capture pervasive and deep-rooted cultural unrest in a hashtag.

We must concede, of course, that our aim is ultimately political, otherwise all we are doing is raising awareness for awareness's sake. This would imply a grotesque fetishism with the sufferings of others, akin to the public obsession with celebrity news which seeps from the right hand side of the Daily Mail online onto millions of Facebook pages. No, we must concede - for dignity's sake if nothing else - that the hashtag has a political motive.

But the irony is, by satisfying ourselves that a hashtag is enough activism for one day, what can we expect from the politicians we are supposedly trying to coerce? We criticise our government, foreign governments and the United Nations for being all talk and no action. US president Barack Obama has been denounced for his false promise to close Guantanamo Bay and the legal vacuum that his predecessor created with it. Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has been despised for promising an easier ride for students before backing the Conservatives' decision to triple university fees. Prime minister David Cameron has been laughed at for announcing that he would end the human rights violations in Syria, only to be outvoted by his own Parliament. But if a hashtag is enough for us voters, we can hardly criticise our leaders for settling for empty speeches.

There can only be two possible reasons for the rise of hashtag activism. Either we don't care about these issues enough and are thus too lazy to take 'real action', opting instead to make a visible stand just so our friends know we read the news. Or we truly believe that a hashtag can change the world. If the former, we are no better than the politicians we are half-heartedly criticising. If the latter, we can log off, get dressed for work and rest assured that Boko Haram are checking their Twitter feed and feeling suitably ashamed of themselves.