The Year in Review – Part 1: Domestic Politics

From Republican campaigns to Occupy Wall Street protests to terrorist assassinations, 2011 has been a news-packed year. Over the next few days, join me as I take a look back at some of this year’s key events:

Republican Campaigns Begins:

The campaign got off to a roaring start as conservatives clamored for their party’s nomination and a chance to beat President Obama in November 2012. Familiar faces from past elections, such as Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Tim Pawlenty, threw their hats in the ring, but not all had the stamina to continue. Tim Pawlenty, finding little favor with the growingly influential Tea Party and struggling to get adequate funding, became the first candidate to withdraw from the election just shy of three months after he announced his candidacy

Hot debate topics this year include the economy, abortion, health care and gay marriage. Herman Cain proposed a seemingly attractive flat tax ‘9-9-9 plan’ (9% corporate tax, 9% income tax and 9% national sales tax) but the simplistic plan quickly came under scrutiny since it was dubious financially and would not benefit the average American. Instead, it would do away with tax code deductions that aid the poor (such as the Earned Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit) and result instead, as Eric Toder, from the Urban Institute, explained, in a “massive tax increase on low-income working people”. It would only benefit the wealthiest Americans, who would no longer have to pay estate and capital gain taxes. Even Kevin D. Williamson, from The National Review, wrote that the plan was little more than “wishful thinking that borders on fantasy”.

Perhaps because of the recent strides made by gay civil liberties this year, it seems that anti-gay sentiment was especially rampant among this year’s candidates. From Rick Santorum comparing gay sex to pedophilia and bestiality, Michelle Bachmann (married to a prominent ‘reparative’ therapist) remarking that being gay is “a very sad life” and “part of Satan” and Rick Perry’s campaign ad that suggests that gay rights are ‘un-American’, homophobic remarks seem to have gained several of the candidates notoriety and support. It even won Santorum the backing of influential evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats. It is sad that more tolerant conservative candidates, such as Jon Huntsman (who supports gay civil unions) seem to be falling by the way side in such a Christian-Right dominated party.

This year was not without embarrassing blunders and scandal. Early frontrunner Michele Bachman lost her lead after calling Russia the Soviet Union and Rick Perry blanked in a debate, failing to remember the three federal agencies he was promising to eliminate. The memory lapse made him easy pray for ridicule and may have cost him the nomination. Herman Cain had a similarly embarrassing lapse during a videotaped interview with the editorial board of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He became flustered and unable to answer the question about what he thought of President Obama’s policy towards Libya. The interview gave rise to serious questions about his command of foreign policy, but Cain was already on a sinking ship. Accusations of sexual misconduct from 4 women and the discovery of a recently ended 13-year extramarital affair created frenzy around the candidate who claimed to be a deeply devout Christian. Despite Cain’s attempts to argue that he was the innocent victim of a smear campaign by the liberal news media and/or another rival candidate, his campaign ultimately conceded that there was no evidence that the accusations were the result of a conspiracy. The blunder and scandals lead to Cain withdrawing from the race.

Mitt Romney, businessman and former governor of Massachusetts, continues to flirt with being a possible front-runner despite concerns that he is a ‘flip flop’ and too moderate for the GOP base. In particular, questions have arisen about his controversial Massachusetts health plan, which bears a strong resemblance to the Obama Health care plan. Enacted in 2006, Romney’s plan mandated that nearly every resident of Massachusetts obtain a minimum level of health care insurance coverage that met a state-government requirement. The plan also provided free health care insurance for residents who earned less than 150% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) and were not eligible for Mass Health (Medicaid), as well as partially subsidized health care for those earning up to 300% of the FPL. However, Romney has defended his plan and vehemently argued that his plan “was a state solution to a state problem” and that it is inappropriate for the federal government to prescribe such a sweeping measure to all states. If he wins the election, he promises to repeal Obama’s health plan and instead install a market-based reform that empowers states and individuals, all while still reducing health care costs.

Newt Gingrich recently increased in the polls, but has been heavily criticized for his temperament and some of the inflammatory statements he has made. In particular, his claim that the Palestinians were an “invented people” led rival Mitt Romney to assert that Gingrich has thrown “incendiary words into a place, which is a boiling pot”. Regardless, as of December 28th, Gingrich and Romney are tied in the Gallup poll with 25% support.

Occupy Wall Street:

The editors of the Vancouver-based anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters (an ad-free international magazine for activists) called for a Tahrir Square “moment” on September 17th in Zuccotti Park, located in the financial district of New York City. They called for a protest of what they called the ‘disproportionate power of the US corporate elite’. They claimed that the protest was intended to be a peaceful occupation to end the “monied corruption of our democracy”.

The movement was originally labeled a bust because turnout didn’t meet expectations, but it continued to grow. According to TIME magazine, the facebook sign-up data suggested that their numbers doubled, on average, every three days from mid-September. The movement quickly grew, acquiring tents, bike-powered generators and even their own ‘Occupy Wall Street Library”. By late fall, according to LIFE, more than 70 cities and 600 communities in the US, as well as 900 cities worldwide had seen Occupy movements.

The Occupation is a leaderless movement, populist at its core and meant to represent a coalition of interests. While there’s not really a clear, concrete set of demands for this leaderless movement, the overarching goal of the protest is to represent the outrage and injustice suffered by the 99% that are languishing economically while the wealthiest 1% of the population flourish. According to TIME’s Rana Foroohar’s article, the incomes of the top 1% of Americans accounts for 21% of the USA’s income and 35% of its wealth. In addition, Noreen Malone from New York magazine pointed out that only 55.3% of people aged 16-19 have jobs – the lowest percentage since World War II.

Shortly after midnight on November 15th, 2011, the New York Police Department gave protesters notice to leave Zuccotti Park for supposed unsanitary and hazardous conditions. About an hour later, riot police began removing the protestors. However, despite the uprooting, Occupy Wall Street appears not to have lost its support.

A TIME/Abt SRBI poll found that 54% of Americans have a favorable view of the Occupy protest movement and a NY1-Marist Poll from November 1st showed that 44% of New Yorkers supported the Occupy Wall Street movement. Occupy Wall Street and other political protests this year led TIME magazine to name the ‘Person of the Year‘ as ‘The Protester’, showing how prominent and important protests such as Occupy Wall Street have been to both domestic and international politics this year.

Assassination Attempt:

On January 8th, 2011, Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was due to host a meet-and-greet with her constituents, was shot in the head by 22-year-old Jared Loughner with a Glock-19 pistol. Loughner first fired on Giffords, then sprayed an additional 30 rounds into the crowd before he was subdued. A total of 18 people were wounded. Six, including 9-year-old Christina Green, were killed. The bullet that struck Giffords tunneled through the left side of her brain and exited, and, against all odds, she survived. She gradually is regaining her mental, vocal and motor skills over the past year, and on August 1st, she received a standing ovation on the floor of the house when she returned to cast a vote in favor of the controversial agreement to raise the US Federal debt ceiling.

A federal grand jury indicted Jared Loughner on 49 counts, including the attempted assassination of a US congresswoman and several murder charges. However, he may never stand trial. On May 25th, Federal Judge Larry Burns ruled Loughner incompetent to stand trial due to mental reasons and Loughner was sent to a federal hospital.

Political Corruption:

Two former politicians were in the news this year because of court cases involving political corruption.

In June, former presidential candidate John Edwards was indicted on 6 felony charges related to allegations that he and his aides spent $925,000 to keep his mistress and their baby secret during the peak of the 2008 campaign. The felony charges could endanger his ability to keep his license to practice law. The investigation centers on money privately provided by two Edwards supporters – Fred Baron and Rachel Mellon – that eventually went to paying for Edward’s mistress Rielle Hunter’s living and medical expenses, chartered airfare, hotels and rental of a Santa Barbara house. Prosecutors believe the gifts should have been considered campaign contributions because they aided his candidacy by perpetuating his public image as a ‘devoted family man’. Failure to declare them as such was a violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act.

Impeached Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was sentenced to 14 years in prison on December 7th by a federal judge. Blagojevich was convicted of 18 corruption charges, including the scheme to peddle the vacated Senate seat of Barack Obama following the President’s election. Defense lawyers made a case for mercy and attempted to argue that because the governor had received no money for his schemes to peddle his power, he did not deserve extended time behind bars. Regardless, the Judge was not convinced. Blagojevich will be the fourth Illinois governor sent to prison since the 1970s.

Political Appointments and Retirements:

2011 brought some changes in key positions in the government:

Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense, retired this past June. The former Director of the CIA under President Bush was appointed Secretary of Defense by President Bush in 2006, replacing Donald Rumsfeld. As a show of bipartisan continuity, President Obama kept Mr. Gates in his post, making him the only defense secretary in history to be asked to remain in office by an incumbent president of a different party. President Obama awarded Gates the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the country’s highest civilian honor) at his farewell ceremony and lauded him as “a humble American patriot” and “one of our nation’s finest public servants”. Robert Gates is credited with saving the lives of many US Troops through his push for more mine resistant vehicles, unmanned drones and shorter evacuation times for soldiers wounded in battle.

Following Gates’ departure, CIA Director Leon Panetta was appointed the new Secretary of Defense. Leon Panetta, who has served a House of Representatives member, budget director and the White House Chief of Staff under President Bill Clinton, was widely praised for his successful handling of the mission to find and kill Osama bin Laden. In addition, during his term as CIA director, he was largely credited with improving the tarnished reputation of the agency following the allegations of torture and intelligence failures.

Finally, David Petraeus, the retired 4-star general who headed US strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq and served 37 years in the army, became the new director of the CIA. General Patraeus was sworn into office on September 6th, 2011.

Terrorists Assassinated

This year was marked by several Al Qaeda terrorists being assassinated by US Seals and unmanned drones.

Of course, the most highly publicized and celebrated of these deaths was that of Osama bin Laden. On May 1st, President Obama sent Navy Seals into Pakistan to capture or kill Osama bin Laden (code name ‘Geronimo’). The entire operation took only 38 minutes for bin Laden to be declared E-KIA (‘Enemy-Killed in Action’). The death was called a “momentous achievement” by former President Bush, marking “a victory for America, for people who seek peace around the world, and those who lose loved ones on September 11th, 2001” and President Obama called the killing “the most significant achievement to date”.

Also significant, however, was the death of radical American-born Muslim cleric Al-Awlaki who had been perhaps the most prominent English-speaking advocate of violent jihad against the United States on the Internet. Al-Awlaki was killed by a CIA-operated, unmanned drone on September 30th. He was the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and is believed to have been involved in at least two foiled plots against the US.

This strike appears to be the first time in the ‘War on Terror’ that an American citizen was the deliberate target of American forces. Al-Awlaki has previously survived at least one earlier missile strike. In 2010, the Obama administration authorized the targeted killing of Al-Awlaki even though the step provoked lawsuits and criticism from human rights groups. The administration’s legal memorandum that was circulated at the time argued that it would be legal to kill him only if it were not feasible to capture him alive.

Furthermore, on August 22nd, another CIA drone killed the Libyan terrorist Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, who had taken over as Al Qaeda’s top operational planner. The death of Al Qaeda’s No.2 was considered a significant success because he was one of the new generation of leaders that the networks had hoped would assume greater control after the death of bin Laden. The death of al-Rahman, who had joined Al Qaeda as a teenager, was officially confirmed on the 26th of August.

Both of these drone attacks were part of a clandestine Pentagon program to hunt members of Al Qaeda. In the months since bin Laden’s death, the CIA has kept drone missiles in Pakistan. Drone strikes have been Obama’s preferred means of hunting Al Qaeda operatives.

Ending USA Wars:

On December 15th, the war in Iraq finally officially came to an end, as Obama said, ‘not with a final battle but with a final march home for US troops’. Soldiers lowered the command flag that flew over the Iraq capital, rolled it up and cased it in camouflage in accordance with the Army tradition. The final convoy of American troops crossed the border into Kuwait early in the morning of December 18th and the 9-year military presence came to an end. At the height of the war, more than 170,000 troops were in Iraq at 505 bases, but from now on, only 150 troops will remain with the US embassy. Around 16,000 diplomats will also remain in diplomatic missions to Iraq.

The Iraq war has cost the United States more than $800 billion, and nearly 4,500 soldiers were killed and over 30,000 were wounded. No one knows how many Iraqis have been killed since March 2003. However, the independent public database Iraq Body Count has compiled reports of more than 150,000 killed between the invasion and October 2010, and places the documented estimated civilian deaths between 104,462 and 114,127 between 2003 and 2011 (approximately 4 out of 5).

Despite the fact that only half of Americans believe the US achieved its goals in Iraq, according to a CNN/ORC International poll, 61% still favored the withdrawal of all troops by the end of the year. In fact, many found the withdrawal, a campaign promise made by President Obama, long overdue and 68% said they opposed the war in Iraq in general. More than half of the respondents believe that the Bush administration deliberately misled the American public about the existence of weapons of mass destruction and 7 out of 10 believe that the money spent on the war is one of the reasons for the severe economic problems we are facing today.

In 2011, the War in Afghanistan officially became the longest war in US history, and yet, the region is still unstable, as demonstrated by the series of Taliban attacks that rocked Kabul on September 13th and the assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Regardless, President Obama, on June 22nd, announced that 10,000 US troops would be withdrawn by the end of 2011 and an additional 23,000 would depart by the summer of 2012. More than 65,000 troops will still remain, however, in Afghanistan as the US and NATO allies continue to try to achieve their goals. There have been 1708 US fatalities in Afghanistan.

In Memoriam:

Sargent Shriver (born 1915), the idealist, activist and public servant, died on January 18th at the age of 95. Husband of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and part of the Kennedy family, Shriver served in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, as well as US Ambassador to France from 1968 to 1970. He is credited as the creator and first director of the Peace Corps, as well as creator of several other ‘War on Poverty’ programs, including the Job Corps and Head Start.

Warren Christopher (born 1925) died on March 18th at the age of 85. Christopher was Deputy Attorney General under President Johnson, ran President Clinton’s vice-presidential search committee and his presidential transition team and was Secretary of State from 1993 to 1997. As Secretary of State, he is credited with ending the war in Bosnia and forging the Dayton peace accords, increasing investments in Africa and raising public awareness about Global Warming. Clinton described Christopher as having “the lowest ego-to-accomplishment ration of any public servant I’ve ever worked with”.

– Simone M. Scully

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