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Boiling political rice

By Martin Daly

In the course of their regular tirades the current crop of wash-mouth ministers call those who disagree with them liars, drunks, (a bit of a boomerang that one), cults, midnight bhaji eaters, PNM agents and other choice names.

A Bajan MP went one better recently and conjugated that country's health minister's mother's anatomy, not knowing that his parliamentary microphone was on when he sat down after a bruising exchange.

In this fetid and dangerous atmosphere, in which (as Internet joke purveyors know) when ordering doubles it is necessary to specify the amount of pepper but no planasse, it might be useful to see how US President Obama's political opposition is boiling his Rice, bearing in mind that political division in the US is extremely deep at the moment.

Susan Rice is currently United States ambassador to the United Nations appointed by President Obama during his first term. It is reported that President Obama strongly wishes to appoint Ms Rice to be secretary of state (Foreign Minister) to replace Hilary Clinton who is retiring from the post.

Senator John McCain together with two other Republican senators have threatened to oppose any such appointment because of misinformation Ms Rice gave the American public about an attack on the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya. The attack killed the ambassador to Libya and some others. For some days after the attack Ms Rice stated on national television that the attack was a spontaneous reaction to an insulting film about Islam and did not disclose that it was in fact a terrorist act. She explained that she made the comments based on intelligence reports with which she was provided at the time.

The embassy attack happened on the emotive date of September 11 and there was a firestorm of criticism of the Obama administration, critics claiming that the US embassy in Libya has been asking for more protection. Shortly after President Obama's re-election the three Republican senators signalled their intention to seek to block Rice whose proposed appointment would have to be confirmed by an affirmative vote in the Senate.

Readers will recall that in the US political system the legislature is more genuinely separate from the executive and on many important matters it is necessary for the these two branches of Government to negotiate a conclusion. That is why there is so much talk at this time about the fiscal cliff over which the US economy may topple if no budget deal is struck.

The opposition to Rice has been very public but no personal insults have been traded and McCain indicated that they would be willing to hear Rice's further explanations of why she gave wrong information. As a result last Tuesday Rice attended a private meeting with the three antagonistic senators, McCain, Graham and Ayotte.

At the meeting Rice reportedly apologised for not describing the embassy attack as a terrorist attack but was not able to pacify the senators so it is likely that opposition to any proposed appointment will continue.

We will see whether civility over Rice will continue but the odds are good because the US electorate has often dealt harshly with candidates who have insulted sections of their society, such as the Congressman who spoke of "legitimate rape" and lost his bid for a Senate seat in Missouri. He will be out of work in two months time when the new Congress convenes.

We have little civility in politics in our country. We boil our political rice until the pot burns, not ever pausing to consider that we are burning the country as well. Many candidates and appointees to important public positions in Trinidad and Tobago must be torn down by bad mouthing both outside and inside Parliament, even though the Parliament has little or no power to affect the outcome except in those rare cases where an affirmative vote is required of the majority governing party sheep.

What is particularly troubling when we remember the fate of candidates in the recent past for head of the Financial Intelligence Unit, Commissioner of Police and DPP is the whispering campaign which ensues if somebody "have something with the candidate". A malicious word in equally malicious ears cancels competence and track record at whim, without the victims of the mauvais langue even knowing what has hit them. These victims get boiled into sappy rice or bun bun.

This year 2012 has been a particularly bad year for divisive political exchanges. Our politicians are stirring hatred, odium and contempt, unaware of the infectious nature of such exchanges. There does not seem to be one single voice of conscience, in either major party, urging restraint and the COP has sacrificed any credibility it may have had by empty mouthings when it briefly lifts its face from the trough of power.

This is my second appeal to take the temperature down. There is urgent need to boil our political rice more moderately.

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