Senator Tim Hutchinson (Former US Senator of Arkansas)

11.05.2011 - Interview conducted by Alex Biggs & Richie Howarth

Q1. With reference to your legal and political background, what is your opinion on the arrival of North African refugees to the EU? Should they be considered as political refugees or illegal immigrants?

It is obviously a very tough question. I have not studied the issue in any great depth but my initial impression would be that they should be treated as political refugees. They are being forced to leave because of the political turmoil in their countries. I know it creates a terrible burden and terrible difficulties for the receiving countries, but simply from a humanitarian stand point, I think that we to try to have to provide exile for these refugees.

Q2. I once heard a phrase and I was hoping you could comment.  It was on American voting intentions.  They called it the mommy/daddy relationship. That is, when there are economic problems, they want health care, they want to be looked after, they want a mummy and they vote democrat. When they feel like they are in trouble and they feel like they are being attacked they need their daddy and they vote Republican.  Do you reckon that that is an accurate representation?

Well like most truisms, there is some truth to it and there is some oversimplification. But yes, it is going to be interesting because, for instance, the Tea Party supporters’ big issue was regarding the balance of the budget. But there was a recent study that showed that 70% of Tea Party members do not believe Medicare should be touched or cut at all. You are not going to balance the US budget unless you touch Medicare, Medicaid, social security, and defense spending.   

We were with a group of affluent retirees who were in a retirement home. If you mention touching Medicare, they suddenly sound like democrats and are going to vote democrat. So I think there is an element of truth to that. The real difference this time is that the United Sates have never faced the kind of budget crisis that we are now facing. I think that the American people are realizing that, while they had not before. So whether they continue to vote for security, vote for social programs, or whether they are concerned about the future of the country and they are facing these enormous debts that are not sustainable with the potential downgrading of our credit rating, it is going to be a really interesting test for the American people. It could go either way- it is unclear. But I do not disagree with the way you framed it. There is a tendency to vote for those who are promising things like “we are going to keep these programs intact.”

Q3. Do you think that cultural diplomacy can have a role in establishing peaceful relations between the US and Islamic countries where terrorism has been particularly prevalent?

Yes, I do. I think that you are always going to have, for the foreseeable future, a fringe element. Small communities that are radicalized and violent are willing to sacrifice themselves and their family to promote terror. But Islamic countries, for the most part, have the same desires for safe, secure, and prosperous lives, and opportunities for their families and their children to have a better future. I think to that extent, if the United States builds trust and tries to help them economically and help them develop, there can be much better relations in the future. Pakistan could be a prime example of where they have been a traditional ally. It has been a bumpy road, and there are ongoing tensions between the two, but nonetheless I think there is a great common interest in seeing terror defeated and both countries prospering.

Q4. There has been much talk about President Obama and the shift from hard power to soft power in US foreign policy. Do you think that he has really delivered this shift?

I think he has lived up to his campaign promise to try and change the emphasis of US foreign policy and place a greater emphasis on dialogue and being open to opinions. It has not always been successful however, like with Iran for example. We have not seen a lot of success through the president’s willingness to have an unconditional dialogue with Iran- he has actually backed off of that.  But I think yes, he tries to change the direction of American foreign policy. The US elections are going to hinge far more on the US economy, the unemployment rate, the jobs situation, or the price of gasoline, rather than the death of Bin Laden or other foreign events. Foreign affairs will have a back seat compared to domestic economic conditions.

Q5. However, do you think foreign policy objectives could be affected by this, inthat the US only focuses on its own problems? Furthermore, do you think it could lead to the US almost ignoring foreign policy objectives and focusing on itself more?

I think that President Obama has resisted that, so I don’t think he has turned the focus away or turned inward. He is the real director of the US foreign policy, so while it might be a temptation of congress, I do not think that is it going to be a problem.  The president will go on to travel overseas, and will continue to focus on his foreign policy objectives. I do not think it makes a difference in his domestic political standing. With the killing of Osama Bin Laden, Obama got about a six point bump in his approval rating in the polls which is not a whole lot. So I really do believe that it is going to be the economy, but there is not a whole lot the president can do at this point now on the US economy.  He has done a stimulus package and bailouts, for example.  He has tried everything in the world to try and get the economy back on track.  The tools in his toolbox are not very many in the economy right now.  So I don’t think that the President will become insular or turn away from his pretty ambitious foreign policy objectives.  Frankly, Secretary Clinton has been one of the strongest members of his administration.  I have told her I think she has done a very good job. I think with her, you are going to see proper attention given to foreign affairs.

Thank you very much for your time.