When you're the President of the United States, on a visit to the Middle East, you don't want your car breaking down.
Luckily for Barack Obama, he was still on the plane when the specially-commissioned limo, nicknamed 'The Beast', broke down on a busy road and had to be towed back to Jerusalem.
Israel's Channel 10 said American and Israeli officials exerted "huge efforts" to bring another limo from Jordan. Obama had always been scheduled to fly by helicopter from Ben Gurion airport to Jerusalem.
Barack Obama's limo on the way to the garage on the back of pick up truck
“One of our vehicles is experiencing mechanical problems. This is why we bring multiple vehicles and a mechanic on trips,” Secret Service spokesman, Agent Edwin Donovan told ABC News.
Israeli media reported that the car had been accidentally filled with diesel, but the Security Service would not comment.
Moti Matmon, owner of a local tow-truck company, said the US Consulate in Jerusalem called him at around 10am local time to ask him to recover the stricken vehicle.
"I’m so honored to be here as you prepare to celebrate the 65th anniversary of a free and independent State of Israel. Yet I know that in stepping foot on this land, I walk with you on the historic homeland of the Jewish people.
"More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here, tended the land here, prayed to God here. And after centuries of exile and persecution, unparalleled in the history of man, the founding of the Jewish State of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history.
"Today, the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah are fulfilling the dream of the ages -- to be “masters of their own fate” in “their own sovereign state.” And just as we have for these past 65 years, the United States is proud to stand with you as your strongest ally and your greatest friend.
"As I begin my second term as president, Israel is the first stop on my first foreign trip. This is no accident. Across this region the winds of change bring both promise and peril.
"So I see this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bonds between our nations, to restate America’s unwavering commitment to Israel’s security, and to speak directly to the people of Israel and to your neighbors," Obama said at the welcoming ceremony .
"I am confident in declaring that our alliance is eternal, is forever."
Standing next to the prime minister, Mr Obama also spoke about the commitment between their two countries.
"I see this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bond between our nations, to restate America's unwavering commitment to Israel's security and to speak directly to the people of Israel and to your neighbours," he said.
Water, not settlements, should be President Barrack Obama's concern during his visit to Israel. Why? Because water is the one resource Israel and the West Bank Palestinians have in common with the Jordanians. And it's a project they are working on together.
The monumental Dead Sea Canal project could be nearing reality, with some Palestinian objections the main things holding it back at present. But unlike the issue of Palestinian statehood, the canal project has all party support and is realistically achievable even amid the peace stalemate.
The plan is to replenish the Dead Sea with water from the Red Sea via a pipeline and canal, one that would also generate electricity. Engineers figure the 420 meter drop from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea can be used to power hydroelectric plants that would generate electricity to operate the world's largest water desalinization facilities turning the salt water into drinkable water, most of which would go to Jordan.
The proposal would pump seawater 230 meters uphill from the Red Sea's Gulf of Aqaba then flow down by gravity through multiple pipelines to the Dead Sea and an open Canal to the Sea itself, which lies about 420 m below sea level.
The World Bank estimated the total cost at almost $10 billion, but said much of this sum could be financed out of the profits from selling the desalinated water and electricity.
If Obama got behind this plan it would help the region and possibly bring the Palestinians and Israelis closer together on the pressing issue of Palestinian statehood, something Israeli West Bank settlement activity has failed to do.
As it now stands, alleged illegal West Bank settlement activity may be the President's chief concern. Yet dwelling on this may be fruitless and needless. What westerners fail to realize is the horse-trading that is part and parcel of the Middle East. The main political reason for settlement building is to put pressure on the Palestinians to negotiate unconditionally.
Israel has been quite willing in the past to evacuate and dismantle settlements when it suited its negotiation stance. This has happened in the Sinai and Gaza Strip.
The Palestinian Authority of the West Bank might be willing to negotiate unconditionally with Israel if it weren't for the hype trumped up by the media on the settlement issue. As long as PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas has allies in the West to pressure Israel, he's content to wait and see.
On the other hand, there are many Israelis, especially those living in the settlements, who feel they have simply moved back to their ancient homeland of Samaria, which by the way is home to most of the few remaining Samaritans. It remains to be seen what militancy might result if they end up as part of a duplicitous political sell-out to the Palestinians.
Yet, these are "what if" possibilities in the distant future. The Dead Sea project is alive and now. It's a realistic achievable goal Obama should get behind with enthusiasm.
It is "highly probably" chemical weapons have been used in Syria, a US intelligence official has said, echoing the words of a senior Israeli who also said chemical warfare in the country was "apparently clear."
Their comments came as Barack Obama landed in Israel for his first trip there as US president. Syria is likely to be one of the topics near the top of the agenda, as Israel is concerned the chemical weapons could be seized by Assad's ally Hezbollah or Al Qaeda rebels believed to be operating in the region.
Both Assad and the Syrian rebels accused each other of using chemical weapon after an attack on the northern village of Khan al-Assal on Tuesday.
Pictures released by state news agency Sana show people being treated after an attack
The village in the wake of the attack
However White House spokesperson Jay Carney said of the accusations made by Assad's government: "We are deeply sceptical of a regime that has lost all credibility and we would warn the regime of making these kind of charges as a pretext or cover for its use of chemical weapons.
"The President has made clear that the use of chemical weapons would be totally unacceptable and there will be consequences and the regime will be held accountable."
There have been unconfirmed reports that chemical weapons have been used in Syria throughout the two year conflict. On Tuesday night Mike Rogers, the head of the US House of Representative intelligence committee, told CNN that if chemical weapons had been used, the US was “morally obligated” to act.
“I have a high probability to believe that chemical weapons were used,” Mr Rogers told CNN. “We need that final verification, but given everything we know over the last year and a half, I would come to the conclusion that they are either positioned for use, and ready to do that, or in fact have been used.”
“If it takes a limited military strike to do that, I think we are morally obligated to do that if, in fact, they have crossed the president’s ‘red line’ of chemical weapons use,” Mr Rogers said.
Victims of the attack in a makeshift hospital
His words echoed those of Israeli official Yuval Steinitz, the newly appointed minister of intelligence and strategic affairs, who told Army Radio "It is apparently clear that chemical weapons were used. The fact they apparently used chemical weapons against civilians needs to worry us and shows the urgency of taking care of the issue."
Republicans met this week just outside Washington DC at the Conservative Political Action 'CPAC' Conference. Many commentators say this was just a continuation of a Republican internal soul-searching effort to find their way out of the wilderness and back to a path towards victory.
Some factions of the Republican Party continue to push for an even more conservative agenda while the younger generation, for the most part, are pushing the party to abandon divisive issues like opposing gay marriage and contraception.
At the same time, Organizing For America 'OFA' - the Democratic PAC seems to be continuing the campaign to raise millions of dollars in an effort to overwhelm it's Republican rivals and aggressively push the passage of the president's legislative agenda without compromise. While other Democrats who worked hard to get the president re-elected hoped that he would be the great conciliator and deal maker in his second term.
These two organizing and fund raising efforts are symptomatic of the same problem. Legislating through compromise has become a 'dirty phrase'. The fine art of deal-making seems to have all but disappeared and a well designed system of checks and balances -the envy of the world - seems to have gone astray.
What went wrong?
Despite the denials of responsibility from both parties, a variety of forces including money, the Citizens United Supreme Court Decision, the Gerrymandering of both safe Republican and Democratic Congressional Districts have resulted in the public's general distrust of Washington.
Have we brought the Great American Experiment to its breaking point?
The system itself was originally created by the founding fathers to force compromise and achieve a balance of the best ideas. In fact, some of the best legislation that has moved the US forward was just that - a result of true compromise and raw politics - political horse trading, if you will. Just look at Abraham Lincoln's effort to abolish slavery or Lyndon Johnson's work to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and Voting Rights Act in 1965.
In fact, for most of the recent past Americans chose some form of divided government - with the president of one party and at least one or both Houses of Congress under control of the other. The few times this was not the case the American people moved back to this model once the excesses of one party control were revealed. Absolute power seems to corrupt absolutely without regard to party - the temptation is simply to powerful to resist.
Today we face even greater challenges. And yet we find that our system of divided government no longer seems able to function and achieve those grand comprises. I remember hearing John Kennedy say basically that in a democracy, referring to America, the people are the boss and they get the government they elect and deserve. These words certainly ring true today.
A failure of the citizenry to be engaged and understand the affects of a myriad of seemingly small changes to the system and their inability to look beyond their own backyard and see the challenges they all face together, may have resulted in a system that discourages the election of what we used to call statesmen.
As we continue to lose the few remaining statesmen and women in Congress who are brave enough to defy the Super PACs and interest groups and do what is right and the people's business, we may find our government unable to meet the supreme challenges we face today.
Instead of concentrating so much on maintaining control, both parties would be wise to engage in a little introspection and consider how they can answer the greater challenges of our time with meaningful compromise bringing the best and brightest ideas together.
Whichever party gets this formula right just might have the American people's support behind them.
Jon-Christopher Bua's blogposts for Sky appear here.
Smooth, sober and sensible – that’s how I’ve always viewed Chuka Umunna, Labour MP for Streatham and shadow secretary of state for business, innovation and skills. So I couldn’t help but chuckle when I saw him ‘getting jiggy’ with Hollywood movie star Will Smith earlier this month at a secondary school in south London; the duo sang and danced to the iconic theme tune of Smith’s hit 1990s sitcom ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ in front of a crowd of cheering pupils.
Does Umunna know all the words to the tune? He guffaws. “Not all of them…once you get going, I kind of remember them…”
How did the Labour frontbencher end up on stage with the star of ‘Men In Black’ and ‘Bad Boys’? The actor, visiting the UK with his son, “expressed an interesting in seeing a bit of the real London”. The politician obliged, taking him on a tour of Brixton with fellow London Labour MP Dame Tessa Jowell.
I meet the shadow business secretary in his Commons office in Portcullis House. Umunna is in a crisp white shirt and light blue tie, his right arm dangling over the back of his chair. He says he’s “buzzing”. The night before, he took another visitor to Brixton – Labour leader Ed Miliband – to promote the final report from the party’s Small Business Taskforce, which includes proposals for 90% of business customers to access broadband within one week and the introduction of German-style, local lending institutions.
“Blue-chip bosses report that Labour is listening to business right now,” wrote the Evening Standard’s city editor on 14 March, “in a way that the Tories didn't in opposition.” Much of the credit for this has to go to the energetic and charming MP for Streatham.
At the grand old age of 34, Umunna has perhaps the trickiest job in the shadow cabinet. By the end of Labour’s 13-year period in government - as Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and David Miliband, among others, have pointed out - business leaders had deserted the party in their droves. “At the last election, not a single major business endorsed Labour, and we cannot afford that again,” wrote the elder Miliband in the New Statesman in February 2012.
Does the shadow business secretary, who hails from the centre-left Compass wing of the party, agree?
“I think we need the support of businesses large and small, of all different sizes, and importantly, in all different parts of the country.” An interesting answer - but not to the question that I asked him. I try again. “I think it was a problem in 2010 that we went into that general election without there being clear, distinctive voices in business of all sizes backing us,” Umunna concedes.
Can he name a single big business leader or owner who backs Labour under Ed Miliband? “I have spoken in private to many who support us but they don’t generally want to get involved in party politics.” I guess that’s a ‘no’ then. In his defence, Umunna argues that “(a) a general election is not here right now, and (b) are we on a journey in terms of ensuring that at the next general election we have more people coming out for us? Of course we are.”
FORGET THE PRAWN COCKTAILS
He is, however, dismissive of the mid-1990s New Labour approach to winning over entrepreneurs: the so-called ‘prawn cocktail offensive’.
“The old way of doing business engagement is that you would get a bunch of leading FTSE 100 CEOs round the table with your leader for dinner,” says the shadow business secretary. “They would have an exchange and hammer out what needs to be done for British business and you would measure the success of your pursuit of that endeavour by how many of your dinner companions you could subsequently persuade to sign a letter in support of one of your policy positions in the Telegraph, the Times or the FT. Now that is an absurd way to go about formulating business policy and that era is over.” His voice gets louder as he continues: “It is a stupid way of measuring your success in delivering an agenda that’s right for business.”
Why? “Because FTSE 100 CEOs are an important constituency and of course we engage with them, but 99% or more of our 4.8m business population is made up of small independent businesses. And they, in the main, are unrepresented.”
Umunna takes great pride in having been the driving force behind Labour’s Small Business Taskforce. “We commissioned a group of business people to write a report… It’s a report by business people for business people on what they need. And its been led by the late Nigel Doughty [the venture capitalist] and then Bill Thomas [the former Hewlett Packard executive].”
So what is his party’s offer to small businesses? Isn’t their biggest complaint the alleged excess of ‘red tape’, which they largely blame on the last Labour government?
This, responds Umunna, is a “crude way of looking at it”. Reminding me how he spent eight years before he was elected to parliament as an employment lawyer “advising businesses on how to deal with regulation and so-called red tape”, he tells me that “this race to the bottom on quantity doesn’t reflect the fact that one of the biggest complaints by small business is the quality of regulation”.
So it’s quality not quantity? “Quality is incredibly important. Now on quantity, I think we should seek to reduce the regulatory burden where we can but we’ve also got to be careful to make the case for regulation where we can.” The shadow business secretary points to the popularity of the competition regime “which is there to ensure that there is a level playing field for small businesses when they’re taking on the large established players in markets”.
Umunna points out that small to medium-sized firms (SMEs) account for around 50% of GDP and almost 60% of all private-sector jobs. But what of the other 50% and 40%? What’s his offer to big business, to the members of the FTSE 100?
He’s unfazed by the question. “This is where having a proper industrial strategy is absolutely key,” he replies. “When you’re operating at scale as they are and looking to become world beaters and to capture market share globally, that is not something that people in different business sectors tell us they can do without government providing them backing in different ways.” What kind of backing? “We spend over £230bn a year [on] procurement; we should be using that to back British industry and helping them to become world beaters.”
Here, the shadow business secretary breaks off to take a not-so-subtle dig at both the civil service and the European Union – traditional bête noires of the Tory right. “Usually we have a civil service that says ‘Ooh, no you can’t do this because of EU state aid and other rules.’ Well the French, the Germans and the Dutch have adopted a more proactive attitude with respect to the use of procurement; they were taken to the EU Court of Justice and each of them won.”
He sounds like he sympathises with those Tory Eurosceptics in government, such as the education secretary Michal Gove and the cabinet office minister Oliver Letwin, who have complained that the coalition’s reforms are constantly stymied by the EU bureaucracy.
Umunna shifts in his seat. “I have a little bit of sympathy with that [view],” he says, before adding: “But I also recognise that there are lot of things we couldn’t do without the EU. We are in a much stronger position when we are sit around the table with new emerging economies, like China, when we’re part of a delegation of our EU partners representing almost half a billion people... than we are if we’re just sitting there on our own.”
FIGHTING FOR THE 'LITTLE GUY'
What does he say to those on the left who say looking after the interests of the business community is the job of the Conservative Party? That the Labour Party should be battling on behalf of the little guy, on behalf of workers, not owners? Umunna looks annoyed. “The two are not mutually exclusive.” What, never? His voice gets louder. “Look, they are not mutually exclusive… Ultimately, when you look at the big picture… the interests are the same.” The shadow business secretary is convinced that the Labour Party has to be a “pro-business and, above all, pro-small business party” because “small business provide more jobs in the private sector than any other group”.
What about the Beecroft report, commissioned by the prime minister, which advocated making it easier for companies to sack staff? No clash there? Umunna shrugs. “Adrian Beecroft is a business person… I don’t think he has a particular mandate. He himself admitted his report was not based on empirical research.”
He continues: “I think ultimately why [Beecroft] failed to fly with the business community is that they don’t want to be associated with some race to the bottom when they are acutely aware that the business community’s reputation has come in for a bit of a kicking.”
Umunna refers to his own backstory to highlight what he believes is the “power of business” to promote social mobility. His father Bennett arrived in the UK from Nigeria in the mid-sixties “with very little money [and] he started off washing plates and washing cars”. Umunna Snr ended up, in the words of his son, “a very successful import and export agent”.
“If you are starting up a new business,” he adds, “you are challenging the establishment, you are the little guy.”
The number of new private sector businesses in the UK increased to 4.8 million in 2012 – a record high. Nonetheless, growth has ground to a halt, businesses aren’t investing and unemployment stands at a whopping 2.5m. What’s gone wrong? Umunna prefers to avoid what he calls the “ossified” debate over austerity and instead attacks the business secretary Vince Cable for “tinkering” with piecemeal measures that don’t constitute “the kind of ‘Big Bang’ treatment the economy needs”.
It is easy to criticise from opposition – does Labour have a ‘Big Bang’ of its own? What would Umunna do? “I would, across the board, implement a comprehensive, active industrial strategy. That means, first of all on finance, ensuring that you set up urgently a state-backed investment institution to get money flowing to our small businesses and also [to] infrastructure. Secondly, it means transforming the skills ecosystem so that we have as much emphasis on non-academic as well as academic skills, which are both important to the economy. Thirdly, we will use procurement to back British industry. Fourthly, we do want proper regional economic devolution.”
He speaks confidently and fluently – and is refreshingly positive about the case for an activist government. “I am absolutely clear: we will be picking sectors where we think we’ve got a competitive edge and a comparative advantage, and working with those particular sectors to grow them so that they meet the demand coming from the south and the east.”
The details, however, are much harder to obtain. How much money would Labour’s proposed investment bank have available, for instance, to lend to struggling SMEs in the private sector? “You do need big bazooka treatment.” Well, how much cash then? “I’m not going to get into the figures… “ But he already has, I point out, by criticising the Treasury for allocating “just £300m” to the funding a government-backed bank in this parliament. How much would Labour set aside? Umunna won’t budge. “What we’re clear [about] is that there hasn’t been enough investment.”
What about a so-called ‘Robin Hood’ or financial transaction tax? Wouldn’t it help restrain irresponsible behaviour in the banking sector, as well as raise much-needed revenue in an age of austerity? “In principle, I am a fan of a financial transactions tax,” he replies. “But that is not something that we can go and implement unilaterally without having major financial centres - in particular, the US - also doing the same.” Such a move, he argues, “would be completely self defeating”.
Is Ed Balls, as some Labour insiders suggest, holding him back? Would it be fair to describe the shadow chancellor as a more conservative and cautious figure than Messrs Miliband and Umunna? “Not at all,” says the shadow business secretary, shaking his head furiously. “I totally refute any suggestion that he isn’t 100% onboard with the industrial strategy I have been advocating.”
Defending Balls from his critics on left and right, Umunna makes a pretty strong argument: “We will be going into the  general election with one very big plus point: we will have the most experienced party leader and shadow chancellor… [of] any opposition for many, many decades.”
But Umunna is cagey when I mention David Miliband’s name. Does the former foreign secretary have a future on the Labour frontbench? Perhaps in the economy brief? “I would very much like to see David come back to the frontbench but that is a decision for him. He is hugely talented…it’s a bit like having a striker on the subs bench and that’s why I would like to see him come back.” He laughs, before adding: “It’s far beyond my pay grade to be advocating what job he should do.”
The shadow business secretary’s even cagier when I turn to the issue of his own ambitions. Won’t the next party leader be from the 2010, rather than the 2001 or 2005, generation of Labour MPs? Umunna’s name is often mentioned alongside those of Rachel Reeves, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, and Stella Creasy, the shadow minister for crime prevention. “I think…” He stops himself. “How would I describe that kind of chat? That kind of chat is unhelpful.”
Umunna – who backed the younger Miliband for the Labour leadership in 2010, and has been rewarded with promotion after promotion ever since – is emphatic in his support for his boss: “I would trust Ed with my life.”
He begins reeling off a list of the Labour leader’s positive attributes – “steely”, “authentic”, “man of integrity” – before I interrupt him. Why isn’t any of this reflected in Miliband’s personal poll ratings, which remain pretty dire? The shadow business secretary falls back on the tried and tested response of politicians down the ages: “At the end of the day, the only polls that matter are election polls.”
In recent weeks, Vince Cable has made several high-profile, public interventions, calling for greater capital spending funded through higher borrowing. Does Umunna welcome the business secretary’s conversion to a more Keynesian stance on the economy? He doesn’t look too impressed. “Either [Cable’s] believed this all along, in which case it's totally reprehensible that only now, half way through the parliament, is he jumping up and down about it – or, he’s suddenly seen the light, in which case that leads you to question: why has it taken him so long?” There’s a pause before the shadow business secretary concedes: “I always think it’s welcome when politicians admit they’ve got things wrong and change course.”
Umunna, however, is keen to draw attention to the way in which the department for business, innovation and skils has become a “battleground”: “You’ve got Vince Cable saying one thing and his deputy, the Conservative Michael Fallon, saying very different things about economic strategy. One of business’s biggest complaints is uncertainty about the direction of the government and policy.”
I get the impression that he likes Cable, as a person if not as a politician. “I do like Vince,” says Umunna, grinning. “I get on well with him.”
Most senior Labour figures seem to have a soft spot for the business secretary – Ed Miliband has exchanged texts with Cable and Ed Balls has said he “could work with Vince”. Is Umunna’s opposite number the man who could lead the Lib Dems into coalition with Labour come 2015?
The shadow business secretary gives the standard politician’s answer – “We don’t want a hung parliament, we want a majority” – before admitting: “I would not dispute that personally I am closer to Vince Cable than I am [to] Nick Clegg.”
LOCK 'EM UP
I meet him the day after the former Lib Dem cabinet minister Chris Huhne and his ex-wife Vicky Pryce are sentenced to eight months in prison for perverting the course of justice. Shouldn’t we be locking away dishonest bankers, too?
“I agree with that,” he says. “I think, ultimately, one of the principal ways that we will effect a culture change in the financial services sector, which we need, is when people are put behind bars for what is attempted fraud and criminal practices on a grand scale.”
It’s an impressively forthright answer – one that many voters have been craving to hear from our politicians since the financial crash almost five years ago.
“The SFO [Serious Fraud Office], in particular, is looking at the attempted manipulation of Libor rigging,” Umunna tells me, referring to the recent scandal over the manipulation of the crucial London inter-bank lending rate. “I would be very surprised if there were not prosecutions that flow from the attempted rigging of Libor… I am reasonably confident that the SFO should be able to bring prosecutions. Individuals could end up being imprisoned.”
I turn the conversation to the subject of his family. The shadow business secretary’s father died in 1992 in a “mysterious” car crash, after announcing his candidacy for the governorship of the south-eastern Nigerian state of Anambra. Friends of Umunna Snr have speculated in the past that Bennett Umunna may have been assassinated.
Does his son agree? There’s an awkward pause. “Well I haven’t really gone into it…” Another pause. “We lost my father in very tragic circumstances and I have always said that, at the end of the day, there is nothing that will be able to bring him back.” He looks, understandably, upset and part of me regrets having asked the question.
I change the topic to his late grandfather on his mother’s side, Sir Helenus Milmo. What’s it like being the grandson of a former Nuremberg prosecutor, high court judge and MI5 agent? “He was also lead counsel in the Profumo inquiry,” laughs Umunna. “He was a real trailblazer, my grandfather. Both my grandfather and my father are really big inspirations to me.”
A young black politician, of mixed race, with a background in law, Umunna is often described in the press as the “British Barack Obama”. (Full disclosure: I’m one of those lazy journalists to have done so on more than one occasion.)
Does the Obama comparison annoy him? “It’s very flattering to be compared to President Obama… but it’s not a comparison I have encouraged,” he replies. “What I have found insulting is when commentators and people in the newspapers have suggested that is a comparison I have encouraged. I want to be defined by me…”
So it doesn’t bother him that every black politician these days seem to be tagged as a ‘British Obama’, with the recent headlines about the Tory MP – and alleged anti-Cameron plotter – Adam Afriyie being a case in point? Umunna will only say that such labels demonstrate how far western countries have to go “in ensuring that we have a politics that looks like what our countries have become. Even now in 2012, there are still few black and minority ethnic politicians in the higher and senior levels of politics.”
He points out: “When I was appointed as the shadow business secretary in 2011, I was the first black shadow cabinet member in Britain ever appointed… In 2011? That’s crazy. Absolutely crazy.”
It’s now 2013. Obama has been re-elected in the United States; attitudes are changing fast in the UK. Plenty of polls suggest the vast majority of Britons would vote for a non-white prime minister. And if there is going to be a ‘first black leader’ of a British political party, I'd bet that it won’t be Adam Afriyie - it’ll be Chuka Umunna.
"In a time of universal deceit - telling the truth is a revolutionary act" George Orwell.
Since 9/11, the US has instigated a number of conflicts in the Middle East in the war against terror. The civilian body count is high but the actual number is unknown. Some may argue that loss of life is acceptable during war.
"One form of privilege is the privilege of not having to care about the killing of others who live far away and look different than you"
What is the price of a civilian life?
Those of us who remain powerless to prevent such losses are simply observers by the wayside. Bradley Manning was in a different position. He was in a position to raise the alarm and do something about it. This US Army soldier was arrested in May 2010 for an alleged leak of classified documents to the website WikiLeaks . Hedges summarised the contents of the documents here
"Manning provided to the public the most important window into the inner workings of imperial power since the release of the Pentagon Papers. The routine use of torture, the detention of Iraqis who were innocent, the inhuman conditions within our secret detention facilities, the use of State Department officials as spies in the United Nations, the collusion with corporations to keep wages low in developing countries such as Haiti, and specific war crimes such as the missile strike on a house that killed seven children in Afghanistan would have remained hidden without Manning."
"Manning explains his motives, noting how he believed the documents showed deep wrongdoing by the government and how he hoped that the release would 'spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan'"
Having viewed short film, Providence and the alleged misconduct of the aerial weapons team, I asked a question on Twitter that was accompanied by a reality check. Mr John Cusack, actor, board member of FPF and tireless activist wrote
"Yet it's Manning facing life "@dr_rita39: If the aerial weapons team conducting in an unlawful manner, surely, they should be tried".
So we ask the question - why is Manning facing life and why has there been no investigation into those who may have committed alleged war crimes? Despite searching for evidence of an investigation into Manning's concerns, there appears to be little written about it.
"The extract below, from Manning's statement, deals with the 'collateral damage' video which Manning courageously leaked to Wikileaks, and which shows civilians, including two cameramen, being attacked and killed by a US helicopter gunship. The Pentagon repeatedly denied the existence of this video and refused to release it when requested under the Freedom of Information Act. Those responsible for this war crime have faced no justice."
Notably while there are endless petitions to free Manning, the US media and public have not demanded an investigation into the concerns raised by him. Instead, the attention of the US government has focussed - not on saving life but on character assassinating Manning. It is abundantly clear that part of the process is to put this 25-year-old through so much that he breaks. Manning has not broken.
The message the US government is sending out is that breaking protocol is more important than the protection of civilian life. It appears that civilian life during war is not given much importance.
Manning is young enough to have the idealism and innocence of wishing to 'make a difference to the world'. As we become older, our world view becomes rather more cynical and self obsessed. We care less and less about the world around us and most of us may even give up on trying to make a difference. Manning's reward for trying to make a difference may be a potential life sentence. This phenomena is essentially known as whistleblowing reprisal , demonstrating that no good deed goes unpunished.
Manning is a victim of the long poor track record of the Pentagon's mistreatment of whistleblowers. A report described here demonstrates that raising concerns may well get you punished if you serve in the US military. If you complain about unlawful reprisals, there is no protection. Time magazine went onto further outline the Pentagon's habit of prematurely closing whistleblower reprisal cases.
This is the 21st Century; witch hunting the whistleblower should be an outdated pastime. The Obama administration should develop the insight that the justified concerns raised by a whistleblower have to be investigated and those allegedly responsible for war crimes bought to justice. Manning provides us with a snapshot of potential violations. We do not even know the true extent of alleged crimes committed in the name of war.
Do you call your mother mammy? What does "sucking diesel" mean? Are you a flame haired warrior princess or prince?
If you know the right answers to these questions you could be more Irish than you think! And now all you St Patrick's Day revellers can find out, just in time for the big day!
I've been working with a local bakery, Irwin's here in Northern Ireland for the past eleven years so, when they contacted me about getting involved in a charity fundraiser I was all for it! You know me I like a bit of laugh and am always up for the banter (as we like to say).
I'm always really busy around St Patrick's Day - It's a great time of year! Everyone wants to get involved with, try and hear about Irish food and drink - whether it's a delicious toasted soda farl smothered in butter or a steaming bowl of Irish stew - and I'm more than happy to represent Ireland and Irish food across the world. We put our heads together and came up with a great way of using the St Patrick's Day buzz for a good cause and have a bit of fun along the way.
I read an article about how Barack Obama had traced his Irish ancestry and it struck a chord with me - so many people across the world have Irish roots and really want to feel Irish - even the President of the United States! So, the team behind Rankin Selection breads came up with the idea of creating a free app for the iPhone which asks a few quirky questions to work out what the user's % Irishness is - what we call your "Paddy Proof!" Everyone across the world wants to be even a little bit Irish on St. Patrick's Day, so an app which taps into this without 'taking the mickey' out of Irishness was what we were looking for.
We want to test how Irish people are by asking them questions like 'What's the Irish solution to all the world's problems?' and 'What would you need the most if you were trapped on a desert island?' The most Irish answers have been checked and double-checked with people the length and breadth of the Emerald Isle and we're happy that real Paddys will score 100%!
We're making a donation of 5p for every iPhone app downloaded to Macmillan Cancer Support, so here's the challenge... we really want everyone to share their 'Paddy Proof' on their Facebook and Twitter profiles to help spread the message to all of their family and friends.
Macmillan is a cause very close to the hearts of so many people who have lost someone to cancer and I'm hoping we can raise a great amount for it. To download the 'Paddy Proof' app for free from the UK app store click here
But if you don't have an iPhone, don't worry! You can join in the St Paddy's Day craic by playing another version of the app on Facebook through your browser (the Facebook app isn't available on Facebook mobile). Just search for the 'Irwin's Bakery' page to play along and get involved. I hope people all across the world will want to join in and help spread the word of both apps!
This has been a historic week for the Falkland Islanders. 1,518 ballots were cast during their recent referendum equaling 92% of the electorate. Of these, 99.8 percent voted to stay British - only three residents voted otherwise. The vote was considered to be both free and fair by election observers from South American countries. This outcome sent a clear message that the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands want to remain a part of the United Kingdom as a British Overseas Territory.
This referendum was not about a bunch of rocks and islands in the South Atlantic - it was about the people living there. Since the referendum results were announced, senior figures in the United Kingdom have called on the world to recognize the outcome as the final say regarding the status of the Falkland Islands.
David Cameron quickly congratulated the Falkland Islands government and said "Now other countries right across the world, I hope, will respect and revere this very, very clear result".
Foreign secretary William Hague said "All countries should accept the results of this referendum and support the Falkland islanders as they continue to develop their home and their economy".
Even before the referendum took place Her Majesty's Ambassador to the United States, Sir Peter Westmacott, wrote: "We hope that the entire international community, including our friends in the U.S., will join Britain in affirming the democratic rights of a small and peaceful island community".
So will the US back the Falkland Islanders' fundamental right of self-determination and recognize the outcome of the referendum as their wish to remain British?
Sadly, the answer is no.
On Tuesday afternoon, at the daily US State Department press conference, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the US took "note" of the outcome. She also parroted the Obama administration line of calling for negotiations by adding that all sides should "be constructive in their approach and focus their own efforts on a resolution".
Last month in London secretary of state John Kerry embarrassed the US when he said, "I'm not going to comment, nor is the President, on a referendum that has yet to take place and hasn't taken place". Now that the referendum has taken place, the US will still not back the Falkland Islanders' right to choose who governs them. This is another slap in the face of the Anglo-American Special Relationship.
Of course, neither the Falkland Islanders nor the UK need America's support for the referendum but the US should back its allies. All the Falkland Islanders are asking for is recognition of their right to self-determination - a right guaranteed by the United Nations Charter and a key principle on which America was founded in 1776. It is embarrassing to think that President Obama, the leader of the free world, will not back such a fundamental right.
The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, produced an excellent video regarding the US position on the Falklands. Perhaps it would benefit President Obama and secretary Kerry to take three minutes from their busy days and watch it.
On 6 March, Members of the European Parliament Ana Gomes, Rui Tavares, and Sarah Ludford co-sponsored an event titled 'The Human Rights Implications of the U.S. Targeted Killing Program' at the European Parliament in Brussels, at which they were briefed by UN Special Rapporteur for Counter Terrorism and Human Rights, Ben Emmerson QC. Director of National Security Policy for the American Civil Liberties Union Hina Shamsi explained that there is a massive lack of transparency from the US government on this issue.
Afterwards the MEPs made the following statement condemning the United States' targeted killing programme under which the CIA and the military hunt and kill individuals suspected of links to terrorism anywhere in the world. We are extremely concerned about the legal basis, as well as the moral, ethical and human rights implications of the United States' targeted killing programme, which does not respect due process or the rule of law and instead addresses terrorism as an act of war rather than a crime allowing the US to engage in wartime conduct and forego the legal system and transparent justice.
Statement by MEPs:
"We are deeply concerned about the legal basis, as well as the moral, ethical and human rights implications of the United States' targeted killing programme that authorises the CIA and the military to hunt and kill individuals who have suspected links to terrorism anywhere in the world.
Despite having abandoned the 'War on Terror' rhetoric, the US sticks to the notion that it is in the realm of a war, and not organised criminality, when fighting terrorism. It has a destabilising effect on the international legal framework. International law regulates both justification to engage in war and limits to acceptable wartime conduct. It foresees that in the context of armed conflict, states may use lethal force against individuals who are directly taking part in hostilities. We, however, contest the validity of the United States' legal capacity to justify the deadly force it is employing when compared to traditional definitions of war developed over centuries. In any case, international law demands that civilian bystanders must be protected from harm
We are, therefore, deeply concerned that the US is not abiding by its International Law obligations, under both International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law. Our concern is not only for the victims of this US policy, but also for the threat to international legal standards from this US attempt to undermine them.
There are a growing number of reports demonstrating that hundreds of civilians are being killed in the framework of the targeted killing program. This is being done without any transparency in justification of a 'wartime' policy. We urge our American allies to address the pressing questions over the legal criteria at the basis of a policy that, in targeting so-called militants, destroys both innocent human beings and our common legal heritage.
We cannot remain silent. The European Union and its Member States must speak up against a practice that will set a dangerous and unwelcome precedent for International Law. Europe has a critical role to play in global security. For that reason we must approach our American friends and allies in a transatlantic effort for stability founded on the fundamental principles of human rights, human security and the rule of law. We strongly believe that the US policy on targeted killings puts global stability and international order at risk, entails the proliferation of the technology used for that purpose, and also entails retaliation from state and non-state actors through selective killing, possibly of US and European citizens. We, thus, commend the efforts of all civil society organisations which are seeking to ensure US adherence to international legal obligations.
We will struggle to constructively engage with our US allies in all EU-US parliamentary fora and we will remain committed to keeping the issue of targeted killings on the EU agenda.
Up to this day, no EU Member State has supported the US legal analysis and justification for use of armed drones in targeted killings in responding to the threat of terrorism. EU Member States have chosen to respond to that threat in a way that is consistent with International Law, which is also, crucially, consistent with EU values and principles. We will be demanding from Member States that they reaffirm that commitment, internally and externally, and we strongly believe that this is the only approach that enhances global security and human rights without diminishing either".
I somehow doubt that Beppe Grillo would naturally see himself as a political soul-mate of Barack Obama's. But they do have at least one thing in common: they know what can be achieved by harnessing the power of social media data-crunching.
It's already been widely reported that Grillo's barn-storming success in the Italian elections last week was in large part due to the way he managed to form a potent political movement out of the inchoate noise of the internet. He has more than 1.2 million fans on Facebook and more than a million followers on Twitter. (The UK Labour party has 140,000 fans on Facebook and just 76,000 followers on Twitter.)
Barack Obama, who couldn't be more different from Grillo in personality -- cool, analytical and super-controlled, compared to the Italian comedian who is fiery, emotional and unpredictable -- shares with him, however, an understanding of how social media are revolutionising the art of political campaigning.
In an article last month, Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, suggested that in his State of the Union address last month, President Obama "combined the two most powerful tactics of modern politics - big speeches and big data - to spur political action."
He quoted the American journalist Sasha Issenberg, who in his recently-published book The Victory Lab, wrote that "Obama's team knows not only where its supporters live, shop and worship but even on which bus routes they travel, which video games their kids play and which TV personalities they respect."
Welcome to the world of Click Here politics. It's a world in which to win, you need first to gather your supporters online, then analyse who they are and what makes them tick, and -- most crucially -- tailor a message that fits their profile.
British politics is still in the dark ages. We are asked to admire the Liberal Democrats' organisational skills in Eastleigh because they were able to maximise their postal vote ahead of polling day. Postal vote? So 20th century.
As for the Conservatives, one of their campaign workers, writing on The Spectator's website, reported: "One of the practical reasons the Conservatives lost was a lack of data: banks of volunteers young and old spent hours on the phone and walking the streets pestering postal voters who'd already sent off their votes and we'd failed to record this fact. We called quite a few dead people."
Compare that with an account in the Washington Post last November, which revealed that the Obama campaign team targetted its TV ads not by which programme they interrupted, but by channel and time of day, based on detailed information obtained from both canvassers and cable TV set-top boxes, which analyse in minute detail who's watching what, when they're watching and where they live.
According to the Washington Post: "The [Obama] team bought detailed data on TV viewing by millions of cable subscribers, showing which channels they were watching, sometimes on a second-by-second basis ... [the team's] calculations showed that it would get the most bang for its buck in some strange places: the Family Channel, the Food Network and the Hallmark Channel, among others."
Perhaps it's not surprising that in Europe, new, non-parliamentary political movements are embracing the world of Click Here politics with far more alacrity than the traditional political parties. According to a recent report from the think-tank Demos: "New social movements are emerging using social media, and challenging existing parties in a way unthinkable a decade ago. The English Defence League in the UK, the Pirate Party in Germany, and the Occupy movement are all examples of movements that have employed social media to grow rapidly and create a significant political and social impact - all in the last three years."
Note those examples carefully: what they share -- with each other and with Beppe Grillo -- is a message of exclusion, that they and their ideas are locked out of conventional political discourse, that they have no place, and no chance of winning a place, if they play the game the old-fashioned way.
It's both a challenge to traditional politics, and a danger. The lesson? Don't mock Grillo, learn from him.
On 4 March the first Kenyan general election will take place since the disputed 2007 elections which resulted in the violent death of over 1,300 people and the internal displacement of up to 750,000 people.
With the polls just days away, the ethnic rivalry which contributed to the violence in 2007 has still not been eradicated. Human Rights Watch have warned that the "underlying causes of past election-related violence remain in place" and the former Secretary General of the U.N. - Kofi Annan - has stated that the "recent violent events and increasing tensions in the run-up to the elections are deeply worrying. Kenya cannot risk a return to those dark days".
Notwithstanding vast improvements to the country's governance since the 2007 elections, such as a new constitution, the Kenyan electoral infrastructure has also faced criticism, with worries that the likelihood of violence is increased if elections are not perceived as free and fair.
Despite these ominous predictions, the battle to prevent Kenya from returning to "those dark days" is being fought by a multitude of individuals and organisations throughout Kenya and beyond. Communicating messages in a country where access to media like TV is limited is not an easy task. Campaigners have therefore looked to diverse platforms to get their messages across.
Kenyan graffiti artists have covered a commuter train with messages of peace, and 50 million text messages will be used for the purpose of spreading the word about non-violence and encouraging participation in the elections. Joining the voices calling for peace, Barack Obama has posted a video message on the Whitehouse website saying the elections are "a moment for the people of Kenya to come together, instead of tearing apart".
The Kenyan NGO S.A.F.E. has garnered the support of Kenyan stars of stage and screen to produce film Ni Sisi, which was last week released to cinemas across Kenya and on DVD. The film's aim is to remind Kenyans that it is individuals who have the power to say no to tribalism, rumours and corruption - the critical factors in the post-election violence of 2007.
The story pivots around the theme of Kenyan identity, youth empowerment, forgiveness and personal accountability for keeping peace. As the characters say in the film:
"It is us who fought, it us who killed, it is us who spread rumours. But it is also us who can change things, it is us who have the power to challenge bad leadership, it is us who create our community'".
S.A.F.E. believe that performance has an unrivalled ability to reach into the hearts and minds of a community, arguing that when you can move people, and when you can make them laugh, you can impact on people's attitudes more powerfully than in any other way.
Discussing the film, Executive Director Nick Reading said, "Violence threatens everyone in Kenya and undermines the work being done to overcome other social challenges such as HIV/AIDS. Ni Sisi helps Kenyans explore the complex issues surrounding post-election violence, examine Kenyan identity, and to take individual responsibility for keeping peace this year."
Campaigns by organisations such as S.A.F.E. will hopefully go some way to encouraging peace at these critical elections. However, it is evident that for these efforts to make a difference the electoral infrastructure must also prove itself to Kenyans. As Kofi Annan has said, "The elections must be peaceful, free and fair. They must be conducted in accordance with the rule of law. They must be carried out with integrity, and must reflect the will of the people. Only then will national unity, stability and cohesion be safeguarded."
With CPAC's recent refusal to invite the most popular conservative politician in Christendom, one wonders if the Republicans really do care about winning another national election or if they have decided the role of rabble rousing outsiders is more their cup of tea.
Chris Christie, despite some obvious obstacles, has managed to successfully create a blue print for how a modern conservative leader can stay relevant and popular whilst seeing through real conservative policies.
Whilst many Republicans talk a good game about public sector reform, Christie is one of the few Governors who have actually delivered tangible results whilst not alienating the centre ground. Whereas Rick Scott in Florida was forced to abandon or water down many of his flagship reforms and Scott Walker in Wisconsin faced a recall election. Christie has fought his way through the storm of controversy and found himself on the other side with a number of flagship conservative achievements which all Republicans should be pleased to see.
Yet CPAC and the conservative entertainment complex has decided to make Christie a pariah and all for something that was completely out of his control. Super storm Sandy and Christie's response to the aftermath has redefined his image in the minds of many dogmatic conservatives from hero of the right to poodle of Obama and the liberal media.
The head of CPAC, Al Cardenas, came out after the furore of Christie's non-invite first broke and reasoned Christie's criticism of Republican speaker of the house John Boehner and his insistence on the Sandy Relief Bill being passed in a timely fashion somehow made him unsuitable to attend this year's conference. He was however gracious enough to say the door remained open for next year but only if Christie behaved like a good little conservative should.
Now there is a perfectly reasonable point to be made about how openly Christie embraced Obama immediately after the storm. You can look at how Mayor Bloomberg in New York was much less keen to have Obama tour New York in the immediate aftermath as an example of how Christie could have reacted differently whilst still getting the federal support that was needed.
Even so Super storm Sandy wrecked a level of destruction on New Jersey that no one had seen in their lifetime. The sheer uniqueness of the event meant all normal partisan politics was appropriately put to one side as the people of his state had the right to expect. When you're governor of a state where thousands of people are homeless and without basic amenities, you know the people expect a fierce relief response and if having the President of the United States fly in makes that response a fraction quicker then you're going to take it unquestioningly.
On top of this Christie had the 'gall' to expect the same level of federal aid to rebuild his state as was offered after similar natural disasters like Katrina and in the same time frame. John Boehner and the House GOP then decided to hold up the bill on purely political grounds as they were deep into the fiscal cliff negotiations with the White House. Later many of the House GOP, not from the north east, stated the excessive pork barrel spending in the relief bill was the reason it was held up. Many of these same House members were from southern coastal states who campaigned vigorously for similar federal relief aid in the aftermath of Katrina.
The hypocrisy on show was quite rightly outed by Christie in his famous press conference where he delivered a quite remarkable smack down to John Boehner. This public airing of private disagreements with fellow Republicans whilst boosting his standing in New Jersey obviously created a serious level of bitterness with Washington Republicans.
This justified criticism of the house Republicans also antagonised the conservative entertainment complex which in turn fed its anger at Christie down to grassroots tea party activists. The criticism of Christie's actions on all these three fronts was clearly behind CPAC's decision to not invite him. They were obviously paranoid that his brand of reasonable, problem solving conservatism wouldn't wash well with the hard line conservative ideologists that attend the conference.
A few clear thinking Republicans like Rep. Peter King have tried to downplay the significance of the CPAC snub. Unfortunately the selective hearing of the far right, which now has a stranglehold on the Republican party, just does not pick up these rare voices of sanity. Ideological purity has now trumped the idea of actually winning national elections.
The far right's grip on the selection of Republican candidates, in state and national elections, means these organisations like CPAC have been given more and more undeserved influence by Republican politicians cow towing to their desire for ideologically pure candidates. This is creating a circle of defeat and the squeezing out of all but a few select groups of people. If you're white, rich and Christian then come on in, otherwise you'll have the door slammed in your face by the sheer extremeness of their policy positions on everything from immigration to social issues.
The fact that a Republican like Christie who has managed to garner a 74% approval rating in a blue state like New Jersey is being shunned, shows just how little many conservatives want to actually win a national election. There is a dangerous belief that the only way you can stick to your political beliefs is by staying in opposition. Actually being in power is viewed as a grubby practice where constant compromising means you can never be a true conservative.
Christie has shown this not to be true. His battling reform agenda is conservative to the core and he's even pro life in a state where they haven't had a pro life governor in decades. What more is the guy supposed to do to get the backing of these idiots in the conservative movement. Well actually I know the answer. They want him to go down in flames espousing all the hard right conservative ideology that they advocate, because really they will always be suspicious of any Republican who can win in a Democratic heartland like New Jersey.
Many conservatives have given up on the idea of winning 50 states. They view it as a compromise too far and are happy to just concentrate on a few counties in Ohio and Florida. This narrow minded approach may have worked a decade ago but their supposed firewall of the south has now been breached in successive presidential elections. The loss of Virginia, for example, in 2008 and again in 2012 shows the Republicans have to reach out beyond their core vote if they've any chance of winning another national election. They have to at the very least push back against the Democrats in solid blue states. Lay the ground work for growth in places the Republicans haven't won since the eighties.
The issue still remains if there is the will on the part of moderate reasonable Republicans to fight back against the stupidity that is so prevalent in opinion formers of the conservative movement. Make no mistake if a group do decide to fight back it will be bloody and messy. Talk radio and certain sections of fox news will resist and will attempt to snuff out a significant change of direction before it can gain momentum.
This is where heavy weights like Christie need to front up and lead the transformation of the party. Alternative groups need to be formed to counter the influence of the likes of CPAC and the conservative entertainment complex needs to be pushed to the sidelines. Republicans need to re-engage with the mainstream media in a sensible way. Simply banging on about liberal bias in the media whilst on fox news doesn't achieve anything and only creates an unhealthy defensive attitude in the minds of conservatives.
Whether anything will change before 2016 remains to be seen and it could well be that the nadir of the Republican party has not yet been reached. It took the Conservative Party in Britain three successive election hammerings to start realising they needed to branch out beyond their core vote and even now the calls from inside the party to leave the centre ground are loud and vociferous.
Democrats of course can't believe their luck and are quite happy to camp out in the centre ground and lap up all the key voting demographics. Hillary Clinton will most likely wrap up the Democratic nomination with ease and sail into 2016 with a united, confident, big tent party firmly behind her.
In what shape the Republicans will meet her is completely down to them and whether they care about giving her a serious contest. If they decide to stick with the same tried and failed policies then I'm guessing they've decided it would be too ungentlemanly to get in the way of the first woman President. That's the only reason I can think of that makes any sense for carrying on the way they are.