Two black swans prepare for take off

When I was running the cross-party campaign opposing UK membership of the euro (‘europe yes, euro no‘, 2000-03), the things that used to keep me awake at night were the things over which I had no control. I wasn’t worried about raising enough money, or winning the daily skirmishes against our opponents, or building our coalition of business people, politicians, greens etc. – this is what I and others were paid to do; if a campaign team is worth its salt, everything feels possible. What worried me most were factors outside my control – when the government would schedule its referendum plans, how the (opposition) Conservative Party might spoil our careful positioning, what Washington DC might say about what it wanted from Britain in Europe. Each of these things had the potential to change our fortunes, and for all the preparations we had made – the referendum war book, the advertising campaigns, our network of activists up and down the country, the protocols agreed with our allies, the patiently nurtured relationships with the media  – we could do nothing to prevent these things; only worry, and prepare to put out the fire as best we could.

President Obama’s campaign team, well funded and now driving towards 6 November at full throttle, finds itself  similarly – and perhaps surprisingly – vulnerable to events beyond their control.  Dr John Hulsman, a geopolitical analyst and an old friend of mine, sees two ‘black swans’ endangering Obama’s re-election. This race is Obama’s to lose, and though it may well end up a dirty and close run fight, I would still bet on him coming through (and I hope he does). He is the incumbent, the economy should continue to improve, he appears to have trumped the Republicans on foreign policy (a coup for a Democrat) and Jim Messina and David Axelrod’s Forward campaign will be ruthless in exposing Mitt Romney’s weaknesses.

But as well as running for President, Obama is also running to be leader of the free world, and it is developments outside the US that threaten to knock his campaign off course, and even lose him the race.

Hulsman’s first black swan is Iran. Although the underground uranium enrichment facility at Fordow in the mountains of north west Iran is a long way from Obama HQ in Chicago, the danger of an Israeli strike against it, and other facilities, with potentially catastrophic consequences for regional stability and the global economy, is closely synced with the campaign grid Messina and Axelrod are plotting. While it hasn’t ruled-out leading a strike of its own, Obama’s White House  refuses to condone unilateral action by Israel, arguing that recently tightened US and EU economic sanctions should be given a chance to bite. So far, US will has prevailed, despite the difficult relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But as he swings into campaigning mode, Obama’s grip on the situation will loosen.

Hulsman thinks an Israeli strike in September is now 70% likely. He believes there are two key determinants. The first is the US election cycle. By September, the Party Conventions will be over, and the election will be weeks away. Its result is likely to hang on the votes of a few crucial states such as Florida. By September, Obama will be heavily committed to the race. He is also likely to be stretched thin as he reaches out to swing voters; many of these voters will be pro-Israel. After November, presuming he wins, Obama will be regain the authority needed to control the situation. Netanyahu may decide September is his last opportunity to act unilaterally.

Hulsman’s second determinant is military technology, linked to the passing of time. The Israelis fret that defences at facilities like Fordow may over time become impenetrable to their air power; they fear Iran achieving what Ehud Barak, Israel’s Defence Minister, called a “zone of immunity”. The US  reassures the Israelis that its military possesses bunker-busting ordinance capable of boring through up to 200 feet of dirt and rock before exploding, and strategic bombers capable of disrupting a nuclear weapons programme at any time. But this capability is American, not Israeli. The Israeli’s fear the initiative slipping out of their control.

[Note that Knesset elections scheduled for September have been postponed by Netenyahu’s surprise alliance with Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima party. Mofaz is a former Defence Minister who now leads the largest party in the Knesset and just weeks ago insisted “Kadima under my leadership will remain in the opposition. The current government represents all that is wrong with Israel, I believe. Why should we join it?” Netenyahu now finds himself in charge of a stable coalition government which looks secure until October 2013; but Kadima pulls him into the centre, and Mofaz has always been cautious on Iran. Has Mofaz changed his mind on Iran, and is Netanyahu now building a broad platform from which he can launch an attack on Iran; or is the Prime Minister being forced to soften his plans in order to stay in power?]

Hulsman’s second black swan is the intensifying crisis in the Eurozone. The worse case scenario sees the Greek situation deteriorate quickly, with a second election creating more confusion than the first; this triggers a meltdown in market confidence that attacks Spain and smashes the notion that the Eurozone is permanent. An immediate crisis in global confidence would be felt in US homes and factories, something that might be fatal to Obama as he nurses the narrative of US recovery.

Holding this scenario at bay is Germany. Berlin finds itself in a difficult position, and despite Athenian caricatures of Chancellor Merkel as a colonising Nazi, neither she nor her government nor the majority of Germans relish their leadership role. “Germany is Hamlet, not Macbeth” argues Hulsman, who now lives in Bavaria and has advised the German government on trans-Atlantic relations. Berlin has no appetite for European dominions; Germans want to be left alone, they want to enjoy peace and prosperity. What they don’t want is to pay the rest of Europe’s tax bill, which is what Francois Hollande is advocating with his eurobond. Like Merkel, like most democratically elected politicians, Hollande is a pragmatist. So while Hollande’s supporters feel like being left alone too, they may find out he is less of a radical departure from Sarkozy than they had hoped. France’s anti-globalisers, like the thrifty Germans, have run out of time.

We may by now have entered a period in the Eurozone crisis in which the instincts of politicians doesn’t much matter. In Athens, desperate Greeks, seeing no way out, are voting for Marxists and the far right rather than for parties committed to keep Greece in the Eurozone. Spain’s 4th largest bank, Bankia, reveals that it holds €32bn in distressed property assets; one half of Spain’s young people are unemployed. Italy’s structural problems are unchallenged by Prime Minister Monti’s programme. Here’s Tony Blair, who when Prime Minister itched to take Britain into the euro, demonstrating his ability to simplify something most people find baffling “… there’s a battle between politics and arithmetic, and my experience is that in the end you’ve got to get the arithmetic right … ultimately, the arithmetic beats the politics.”

For the politics (preserving the Eurozone) to beat the arithmetics (European sovereign debt), Germany needs to accept the principal that Eurozone debt should be pooled (eurobonds, etc.), the ECB needs to guarantee this debt, and Eurozone governments need to complete a new phase of integration which will enable future transfers of funds between the currency zone’s rich countries and its poor ones (as currently happens in the United States). If these options prove politically impossible, expect the Eurozone to look dramatically different in 18 months from now. The project will have failed.

This is Europe’s conundrum, for Europe’s leaders to try and solve. But this is a problem for the world, and until November 6th, it is Obama’s problem.

One thought on “Two black swans prepare for take off


    As my British Airways flight touched down at JFK Airport yesterday evening, an electioneering visit to New York City by Barack Obama was just coming to an end. As we taxied to our stand we passed Air Force One, tucked away in a remote corner of the airfield, guarded by a solitary patrol car. We were through passport control quickly, and while our line shuffled forward we enjoyed a special film of Americans grinning and each saying welcome. A bunch of hoary old Hells Angels whizzed passed the camera, and pointed at it. “Welcome” they all shouted, inaudibly. Hockey moms and cute kids and firemen and chefs and middle managers spread wide their arms. The world’s fading super power is on its best behaviour. Outside the terminal we queued in a canyon of grey concrete, a little stained, and filed into city cabs. Each drove up and, when full, drove away silently. They were all hybrids – Ford Escapes and Toyota Prius’s; each was painted with a small green apple near the trunk (according to Wikipedia, as of July 2011, New York City had 4,980 hybrid taxis, representing almost 38% of the city’s overall fleet.).

    From the highway heading towards the traffic jams into Manhattan I saw Obama’s aerial caravan coming in to land. Two Sea Kings flew over the highway and circled the airport; one of them (Marine One) was carrying the President. They were separated by two khaki green Chinooks. The sight of the aircraft flying low against the evening sky was formidable, and I could hear, with minimal effort, the radio exchange between the pilots and the control tower, the secret service listening in, the chinooks on standby. No Drama Obama gazing out of the window at another piece of US infrastructure which could do withn a lick of paint.

    It made me think of the advantages available to an incumbent US President fighting re-election. He is always first in and first out, his entourage makes a deep impression on everyone, he is – at every rally, debate, lecture and interview – the Chief Executive, and the principal target. In comparison, the British system gives the incumbent Prime Minister no badge of office, and his security remains low key. He must slum it on a bus or borrow someone else’s plane like the other party leaders. His most powerful ministers have been booted out of their Departments for the duration. The country is in the hands of civil servants treading water between the fag end of one mandate and the endorsement of the next.

    Is one system ‘better’ than the other? Well, they are different: Presidential vs. Prime Ministerial; massive land mass vs. small island; global super-power vs. European power.

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