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Home > Opinion
 
The storm that wasn’t

Mahir Ali (Perspective) / 14 November 2012

THERE may be some substance to the claim that Hurricane Sandy — which had be downgraded to a superstorm by the time it struck New York and New Jersey — helped to propel Barack Obama over the line in last week’s presidential election.

No one has seriously suggested that its effect was anything more than marginal, though. But the loonies who are all too often eager to attribute Mother Nature’s interventions to divine wrath have been quieter than usual, perhaps realising that their spurious arguments would in this instance entail the conclusion that unseen powers were barracking for Obama.

What’s interesting, though, is the contrast with Hurricane Katrina. George W. Bush would undoubtedly have had a much harder time getting re-elected in 2004 had New Orleans been devastated a year earlier.

In the present context, meanwhile, it’s intriguing to contemplate what Hurricane Petraeus might have wrought had it broken cover on the eve of, rather than right after, the election. Sure, it wouldn’t exactly have been easy to pin it on Obama, but it’s likely at least some conservative commentators would have weighed in with potentially embarrassing questions about scandalous behaviour at the helm of the CIA.

But even the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives, which was alerted to David Petraeus’s indiscretions shortly before the election, decided to keep mum, quite possibly because it was uncertain what effect a revelation might produce. They may well have behaved rather differently had the CIA director been an Obama crony rather than someone hailed as a military hero by both sides of politics, an ex-general credited with masterminding the surge that “turned the tide” in Iraq (never mind the consequent volatile mess) and subsequently achieving something or the other (it’s never been clear exactly what) in Afghanistan.

The worshipful attitude towards Petraeus has been echoed among much of the media, with the ex-general attracting fawning tributes from the likes of CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and the BBC’s John Simpson. Hence the appellation “hurricane” is bound to be disputed. Hey, it’s not even a superstorm. Just a few ripples, at best — and don’t mention murky waters. Never mind the fact that as far as international terrorism is concerned, no competitor comes close to the CIA, and this was the case long before it acquired the lethal drone technology.

No, Petraeus is obviously not to blame for this. And the extramarital affair between him and Paula Broadwell probably ought to have remained a private matter—although it must be said that a spy chief’s inability to maintain a minor secret of this sort is, almost by definition, a failure at some level. It is also interesting that while Petraeus has acknowledged a lapse of judgement and deemed it appropriate to resign, it seems it wouldn’t have mattered had the FBI, almost inadvertently, not discovered what he had been up to.

An anonymous source reportedly close to the ex-general has informed the media that the affair began a couple of months after Petraeus had discarded his uniform, so to speak, and ended four months ago. Whether accurate or not, that’s a convenient story, given that adultery is a violation of military rules, but doesn’t worry the CIA.

The FBI launched an investigation following a private complaint by Jill Kelley, a State Department official in Florida, who was receiving anonymous emails that she considered threatening. They were traced to Broadwell’s account, which also yielded sexually explicit emails from a Gmail account that Petraeus had pseudonymously established. Some classified documents were found on Broadwell’s computer, but the FBI was apparently satisfied that Petraeus wasn’t the source. It was evidently reluctant to go public, but was obliged to do so after one of its operatives contacted Republican representatives without authorisation.

Legislators are now asking questions about why the matter was not brought to their attention much earlier, and concerns have been expressed about whether the resignation of Petraeus was timed to avoid congressional testimony on the September 11 events in Benghazi that cost the lives of the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.

It has never been entirely clear precisely what transpired in Benghazi but, intriguingly, speaking at the University of Denver last month, Broadwell claimed that the CIA was holding a couple of Libyan militiamen prisoner at the time, and the attack could have been an attempt to liberate the detainees. Petraeus, she said, was well aware of this. “Any suggestion that the agency is still in the detention business is uniformed and baseless,” a CIA spokesman responded this week. Doth he protest too much?

The vacancy at the top of the CIA has added another item to the re-elected Obama’s agenda, which already includes the task of finding a replacement for Hillary Clinton. Then there is the hyped-up “financial cliff”, whereby a broad range of spending cuts will kick in and tax cuts will expire at the turn of the year unless the White House and the Congress reach a compromise before then.

They probably will. And its dimensions might indicate whether the president’s second term will bode well for many of those who contributed to his re-election. The African American and Hispanic sections of the electorate proved crucial. Single women, too, opted overwhelmingly for the incumbent. Younger Americans favoured him. In economic terms, Obama won the working-class vote by a substantial margin.

It’s undoubtedly a better result than the obvious alternative, but ructions among the Republicans don’t necessarily translate into a more successful second term for Obama. If this instinctive middle-of-the-roader is not to be run over, if there is to be any chance of him leaving a progressive legacy, he will have to be pushed to the left by sustained grassroots pressure — a popular surge that could do America far more good than military misadventures abroad.

Mahir Ali is a journalist based  
in Sydney

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