Since Senator John McCain passed away after a protracted battle with brain cancer, the tributes have been pouring in from members of the media and political figures on both the left and right. He’s being hailed as a war hero, a maverick, a politician who put country first, and someone who brought dignity to his position as a legislator. He’s also being lauded for changing the way presidential campaigns are run, in that he provided journalists with more access than was the standard at the time.
Hop on Twitter and start digging, however, and you’ll find no shortage of comments from his detractors who, if not downright gleeful about McCain’s death, are devoted to dispelling the myth the media has created about the senator from Arizona. As author Dan Arel tweeted, “He was a monster who killed civilians in Vietnam, voted to kill civilians as a senator, tried to block Martin Luther King Day, sang about bombing Iran…I can keep going. He was a horrible human being and we should be celebrating his death.” But please, Mr. Arel—tell us how you really feel.
In no uncertain terms, therefore, John McCain was a divisive figure in U.S. politics, and since the mainstream media already has the extolling of his supposed virtues covered, let’s get another viewpoint from the vocal minority who has little, if any, praise to spare.
Paul Blest, news editor for Splinter News, wrote a piece shortly after McCain’s passing detailing “the myth of John McCain.” As Blest explains, the media helped McCain craft his image as a “maverick” and “honorable statesman” because, aside from his status as a war hero, he was “always willing to give the media access, the thing it craves above all.”
As such, the press lionized him for doing, as Blest characterizes it, the “bare-ass minimum.” One instance highlighted within is when, during a 2008 town hall, one of McCain’s supporters professed that she was worried Barack Obama might become president because he is “an Arab,” to which McCain replied by taking the microphone, shaking his head, and saying that he’s not an Arab but a “decent family man.”
Members of the media point to this example as emblematic of his extraordinary character, viewing the decade-old clip through rose-colored glasses. Blest and others have pointed out, meanwhile, that a truly meritorious response would’ve been to point out that even if Obama were an Arab, this would not be reason to fear or loathe him, i.e. being an Arab and a decent family man aren’t diametrically opposed.
Another instance of the press celebrating John McCain occurred when he cast his vote against the GOP’s attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act. In keeping his proverbial cards close to the vest until the last minute, McCain brought a wealth of media attention his way, and prior to entering the Senate chamber, reportedly told reporters to “watch the show.” McCain’s tone here belies the seriousness of the vote about to be cast. Over 20 million Americans were projected to have their health care plans disrupted by a repeal of the ACA. That’s not something to equate with popcorn entertainment.
Thus, while McCain’s willingness to stand apart from his fellow Republican lawmakers when it suited him (see also his opposition to confirming Gina Haspel as CIA director) shouldn’t go unmentioned, as Blest argues, that cases like these were few and far between should give us pause and force us to reconsider his legacy.
One area that really sets John McCain apart—and not in a good way, mind you—is his history as an unrepentant hawk. McCain’s was a leading voice in pushing for intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, even past the point when people were considering it a failure and waste of resources, human or otherwise. He also advocated for war with Iran, and celebrated President Donald Trump’s reversal on the Iran nuclear deal. To many, McCain is, simply put, a warmonger, and the decision to name the bill authorizing an exorbitant defense budget for 2019 after him is therefore apropos.
In addition to his beating the drums of armed conflict, and for all his ballyhooed departures from Trump—which the president has treated with his characteristic pettiness in affronts to him beyond the grave—McCain still voted in league with Trump some five-sixths of the time. This included supporting the nomination of Neil Gorsuch and the ability of a Republican-led Congress to block Obama’s pick, as well as voting for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a bill that primarily favored the super-wealthy.
And then there’s John McCain as presidential candidate. His correcting the record on Barack Obama aside, he still agreed to name Sarah Palin, someone clearly not suited to be next in line to run the country (or perhaps any public office of relative import), his running mate in 2008. Arguably, Palin’s rise in prominence gave way to the ascendancy of Donald Trump, for both have been elevated to national political stature owing to rhetoric steeped in factual inadequacy and prejudicial attitudes.
Plus, there’s his whole unapologetic commitment to use of the term “gook,” a racial slur directed at Asians. Even if he meant it primarily for his North Vietnamese captors, it’s still an epithet that Asians and non-Asians alike find offensive. Context notwithstanding, words matter, even (read: especially so) in the era of Trump.
In light of all of the above, and despite tribute after tribute in newspapers and on cable news, Blest suggests McCain’s place in American political history shouldn’t be so highly esteemed. He writes:
McCain’s political legacy should be largely that of someone who frequently and loudly toyed with doing the right thing and yet decided to do the other thing almost every single time, and who was a willing and active participant in the destruction of one country and helping the racist, authoritarian right rise in his own. What John McCain’s legacy will be, however, is the one crafted by the reporters and peers who loved him, who bought hook, line, and sinker that McCain was a different kind of politician, and not the fraud he actually was.
This is blunt talk coming from Blest, and in the immediate aftermath of McCain’s death, his words may come across to some as disrespectful, notably given McCain’s bipartisan acclaim. Just the same, though, Blest’s dissent appears more firmly rooted in patriotic concerns than Pres. Trump’s personal grudge, and at any rate, is authentic to how many Americans feel, particularly those of a progressive bent. These feelings, of course, may be magnified given the day’s tense political climate. But it doesn’t make them any less valid.
It’s admittedly difficult to approach John McCain’s memory with anything but reverence if we focus only on how much the man suffered while imprisoned during the Vietnam War. Certainly, if one recalls the late David Foster Wallace’s extensive profile for Rolling Stone of McCain while on the campaign trail circa 2000, his recounting of the physical abuse the man endured as a naval officer tells of a man committed to his principles and exhibiting a resolve few could hope to match. From Wallace’s piece:
In October of ’67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and ﬂying his 23rd Vietnam combat mission and his A-4 Skyhawk plane got shot down over Hanoi and he had to eject, which basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, which ejection broke both McCain’s arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies right over Hanoi. Try to imagine for a second how much this would hurt and how scared you’d be, three limbs broken and falling toward the enemy capital you just tried to bomb.
His chute opened late and he landed hard in a little lake in a park right in the middle of downtown Hanoi, Imagine treading water with broken arms and trying to pull the life vest’s toggle with your teeth as a crowd of Vietnamese men swim out toward you (there’s film of this, somebody had a home – movie camera, and the N.V. government released it, though it’s grainy and McCain’s face is hard to see). The crowd pulled him out and then just about killed him. U.S. bomber pilots were especially hated, for obvious reasons. McCain got bayoneted in the groin; a soldier broke his shoulder apart with a riﬂe butt. Plus by this time his right knee was bent 90-degrees to the side with the bone sticking out. Try to imagine this.
He finally got tossed on a jeep and taken five blocks to the infamous Hoa Lo prison – a.k.a. the “Hanoi Hilton,” of much movie fame – where they made him beg a week for a doctor and finally set a couple of the fractures without anesthetic and let two other fractures and the groin wound (imagine: groin wound) stay like they were. Then they threw him in a cell. Try for a moment to feel this. All the media profiles talk about how McCain still can’t lift his arms over his head to comb his hair, which is true. But try to imagine it at the time, yourself in his place, because it’s important. Think about how diametrically opposed to your own self-interest getting knifed in the balls and having fractures set without painkiller would be, and then about getting thrown in a cell to just lie there and hurt, which is what happened.
He was delirious with pain for weeks, and his weight dropped to 100 pounds, and the other POWs were sure he would die; and then after a few months like that after his bones mostly knitted and he could sort of stand up they brought him in to the prison commandant’s office and offered to let him go. This is true. They said he could just leave. They had found out that McCain’s father was one of the top-ranking naval officers in the U.S. Armed Forces (which is true – both his father and grandfather were admirals), and the North Vietnamese wanted the PR coup of mercifully releasing his son, the baby-killer. McCain, 100 pounds and barely able to stand, refused. The U.S. military’s Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War apparently said that POWs had to be released in the order they were captured, and there were others who’d been in Hoa Lo a long time, and McCain refused to violate the Code.
The commandant, not pleased, right there in the office had guards break his ribs, rebreak his arm, knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to leave without the other POWs. And so then he spent four more years in Hoa Lo like this, much of the time in solitary, in the dark, in a closet-sized box called a “punishment cell.” Maybe you’ve heard all this before; it’s been in umpteen different media profiles of McCain. But try to imagine that moment between getting offered early release and turning it down. Try to imagine it was you. Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would have cried out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer. Can you hear it? If so, would you have refused to go? You simply can’t know for sure. None of us can. It’s hard even to imagine the pain and fear in that moment, much less know how you’d react.
But, see, we do know how this man reacted. That he chose to spend four more years there, in a dark box, alone, tapping code on the walls to the others, rather than violate a Code. Maybe he was nuts. But the point is that with McCain it feels like we know, for a proven fact, that he’s capable of devotion to something other, more, than his own self-interest.
It’s episodes like this that John McCain’s backers can easily point to as evidence as a man of a certain character. I don’t know about you, but I don’t suspect I would fare particularly well under these circumstances. I mean, I’m the kind of person who freaks out when I can’t log into Pokémon Go because the server is down momentarily. By this token, four-plus years of physical and psychological torture seems like an impossibility.
And yet, it’s precisely because of what McCain saw and survived during wartime that makes his less savory political stances all the more frustrating. For him to witness or even be party to the atrocities of armed conflict and to turn around and to embrace a foreign policy that prizes indiscriminate bombing of foreign lands and wanton regime change is hard to process. It’s incongruous with the image of the younger man holding strong in a strange land against a hostile enemy, and surely flies in the face of the glowing portrait the mainstream press appears keen to paint.
John McCain’s hagiographic appeal in an era in which Donald Trump and current Republican leadership evidently seek to drag the party down to its darkest depths is such that even the likes of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have paid him tribute, much to the chagrin of their supporters.
It’s disappointing and frustrating, especially since it’s hard to know whether these champions of progressive ideals legitimately believe his “legacy represents an unparalleled example of human decency and American service,” as Ocasio-Cortez phrased it, or if they feel compelled to do so for fear of reprisal—and for that matter, which of these is worse. Maybe it’s just that they respect our Armed Forces like most Americans do, even in the face of the military’s ugliest acts, or that from working alongside him (in the case of Sanders and Warren), their sense of personal attachment prevents them from viewing his record more objectively.
Lapses like these are why, in the pursuit of a more progressive vision for the United States of America, it is often more rewarding to be invested in individual issues rather than individual candidates. In this regard, the postmortem borderline deification of Sen. McCain is already excessive, much in the way, for instance, liberals’ elevation of Barack Obama obscures his less commendable devotion to centrism and capitulation to Wall Street and other moneyed interests.
Suffice it to say, then, that not everyone was thrilled with the political career of John McCain, and as far as his legacy is concerned, it should be mixed. Alas, the whitewashing of that legacy appears already underway, a subset of the larger tendency to view long-tenured lawmakers like McCain as sacrosanct, the kinds of leaders we want to see rather than the complicated, flawed humans they are.
At points during the 2016 presidential campaign and in the onset of his tenure as President of the United States, Donald Trump emphasized an “America First” mentality. Never mind that the phrase “America First” is evocative of a movement circa World War II that resisted America’s involvement in the war and counted Nazi sympathizers among its ranks. Even if there were no historical subtext behind this newfound use, the abstract concept behind the phrase is bigoted enough to invite condemnation. This line of thinking, after all, helps explain a dangerously intensified attention to illegal immigration that has resulted in mass deportations and raids, often involving undocumented immigrants whose only crime has been immigrating illegally, as well as a thinly-veiled ban against Muslims entering the country—well, at least from those Muslim-heavy countries in which Trump doesn’t do business. Aside from keeping out or booting out those brown people many of Trump’s supporters don’t seem to like too much, the America First mantra also is designed to guide the U.S. economically. We’re going to encourage consumers to buy American goods and for companies based in the United States to produce their goods here—you know, even if our President has relied on foreign labor and capital to satisfy his own manufacturing needs. We’re going to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. We’re going to dismantle those awful regulations that have been holding back our energy production and killing jobs—you know, even though renewable energy is a much better job creator than fossil fuels. And one more thing: we’re not going to get involved in more costly wars. This coming from a man who didn’t support the Iraq War—you know, even though he totally f**king did.
With this all considered, it was vaguely surprising that President Trump would authorize the launch of close to 60 Tomahawk missiles at a target in Syria. As a retaliation against the apparent use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against the Syrian people, observers across America and even internationally supported the move, assuming this was the intent of the strikes. Shortly after that, Trump OK’d dropping the so-called “mother of all bombs” on an ISIS stronghold in Afghanistan, which certainly was an impressive show of military might on our country’s part, although the justification for this attack is less evident than with the aforementioned use of force against the Syrian government. Certainly, though, one group which was not too thrilled with these operations, which is fairly significant given its steadfast support of Trump heretofore, is the alt-right. As Matt Kwong reports for CBC News, Donald Trump’s behest of military intervention in the Middle East goes against the alt-right belief in isolationism, and as such, numerous prominent far-righters consider these acts a betrayal of sorts. Alex Jones, Kevin MacDonald, Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer—all have made their disappointment in #45 explicit. The essence of their discontentment lies in their rejection of neo-conservative hawkishness, of which the missile strikes and MOAB deployment are clearly evocative, as well as their disenfranchisement with the newly-reduced role of Stephen Bannon in the Trump administration in favor of the likes of Jared Kushner, whom they regard derisively as a “globalist.” Of course, for those not enmeshed with the alt-right movement, the hurt feelings of a group synonymous with unabashed racism and xenophobia inspires little pity. Still, the idea that Pres. Trump’s support could be eroding from a part of his base that has been among his most entrenched and enthusiastic followers is some measure of encouragement for those who count themselves among “the Resistance.”
To what extent the alt-right’s outrage at Trump’s policy about-face compares to, say, that levied against the all-female remake of Ghostbusters is hard to say, not being a member. If their reaction is one of shock, however, it seemingly is a response that they and a select other few would possess, for while at times Trump has expressed sentiments of non-intervention in foreign entanglements, on other occasions, he has espoused the characteristic views of a strongman. McKay Coppins, staff writer at The Atlantic, asserts that it was only a matter of time before Donald Trump went full hawk based on his worldview. Coppins explains his reasoning, while addressing the feelings of betrayal from Trump’s buddies on the far-right, accordingly:
President Trump’s decision this week to launch airstrikes against the Syrian regime has come as a bitter disappointment to those who cast their votes last November for “America First”-style isolationism. But the betrayal shouldn’t come as a surprise. While this episode may have been the one to finally debunk the pundit-pleasing myth of “Donald the Dove,” the truth is that Trump’s mutation into a missile-lobbing interventionist was, most likely, always inevitable.
That’s because, as with everything else, Trump’s approach to matters of war and peace appears to be more attitudinal than philosophical—motivated by instinct, manifested in tough talk, and rooted in a worldview that holds up the cultivation of fear as the most effective way to win respect and obedience.
Though Trump lacks the level of knowledge and grasp of history necessary to form an all-encompassing foreign policy doctrine, he has consistently articulated a belief that America’s enemies around the world can be terrified into submission—if the commander-in-chief is willing to send a strong message. Even if Trump had opted to stay out of the Syrian conflict, that belief of his—paired with a general aversion to the compromises of diplomacy—likely would have led him to abandon whatever isolationist tendencies he harbored sooner or later.
If Coppins’ assessment of the President is accurate, he (Trump) might respond much as Michael Scott of the U.S. version of The Office did when asked about whether he, as a leader, would rather be feared or loved: both—he wants people to be afraid of how much they love him. Indeed, it appears that most of Donald Trump’s interactions exist somewhere between looking to inspire admiration or seeking to instill a sense of terror in the other. Thus, as regards dealings with North Korea or Syria, the non-specific vow that the United States will act if need be—that Kim Jong-un and his regime has “gotta behave” and that “something should happen” regarding Bashar al-Assad’s control over his country—Trump seems to be relying on his unpredictability and his proven willingness to use military weaponry in a game of chicken with the despots of the world, one bully to another. In other words, he is trying to get these leaders to realize that he is every bit as crazy as they are, and that his finger is on the button. The thought scares me, and in theory, I wouldn’t even be on the receiving end.
Again, though, if one has been paying attention to Donald Trump’s comments on foreign policy within the last year, this is consistent with what he has been saying, as McKay Coppins underscores in his piece. He claimed he would “bomb the shit out of ISIS.” He has waffled disturbingly on whether or not he would go after the families of terrorists to send a message to other would-be jihadists. He vividly described the mass execution of Muslims by General John Pershing and bullets dipped in pig’s blood—which was totally false, mind you, but it got the point across. He has even refused to take nuclear weapons off the table. In light of these things and more, we should not be flabbergasted by the salvo in Syria or the attack in Afghanistan.
What’s more, if we look at our presidential history, the trend toward hawkishness dictates that based on the odds, Trump was likely to make the jump from isolationist to interventionist regardless of his fickle nature. Julia Azari, associate professor of political science at Marquette University, recently penned an essay about the established path from isolationist to hawk among American presidents, detailing the history of policy shifts to reflect more flexing of military muscle. It’s not as if Azari is short on modern examples either. Barack Obama preached the virtues of not getting involved in “dumb” wars, only to expand the use of drone strikes and to preside over lengthy occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq. George W. Bush obviously got us to Iraq in the first place, despite campaigning on the notion that we would be seeing less involvement in the development of other nations if he were President. LBJ promised not to escalate the conflict in Vietnam—and then did. Woodrow Wilson stood for neutrality—that is, until World War I rolled around.
One might interject by saying that circumstances often changed over the course of these presidents’ tenures—in my lifetime, 9/11 certainly stands out above the rest—such that objections to necessarily lumping certain iterations of POTUS into this category are not unfounded. Regardless of arguing the merits of individual presidents’ engagement in armed conflict, there are points to be made regarding both the role of politics in these decisions and where bipartisan enthusiasm for throwing America’s weight around, metaphorically speaking, lies. Some additional and perhaps critical observations made by Julia Azari:
Disagreements over isolationism vs. interventionism have caused rifts even within political parties: Azari cites the examples of William Jennings Bryan’s resignation as Secretary of State of the Wilson administration and the debate over foreign intervention as a critical divide between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Robert Taft in the running for the 1952 Republican Party nomination, but even as recently as the 2016 presidential cycle, the contrast between Hillary Clinton, a Democrat even more hawkish than her Republican nominees, and Bernie Sanders, critical of his primary opponent for being too fond of regime change, was a salient one. Thus, even with Democrats tending to be more “dovish” and Republicans more “hawkish,” there are layers to attitudes toward interventionism within both parties.
That said, politics still matters: Especially when considering the role of a congressional majority to dictate or thwart the direction of the executive’s authority as Commander-in-Chief. Both sides are guilty, so to speak, in this regard. Prof. Azari points to prominent Dems criticizing Dubya for plunging us into war in Iraq and then getting awfully quiet about our involvement there once Obama ascended to the Oval Office. Today, numerous members of the GOP in Congress are gung-ho about intervening in Syria and perhaps even ousting Assad by force, but back in 2013, they voted against retaliation when the Syrian government reportedly used chemical attacks similar to the ones alleged in recent weeks on its own people. Given this, while there are subdivisions within the Democratic and Republican Parties, frequently enough, the identifying party in the White House can arguably matter more than the substance of the policy being contemplated.
And yet, Congress tends not to be much of a roadblock concerning military intervention: Pres. Trump made headlines when he requested a $54 billion increase for the defense budget, but this figure was an inflated one, calculated based on the cap referenced in Pres. Obama’s proposed defense budget for his final year in office, a number his administration moved to exceed anyway. As is often the case with Trump, this is meant to influence perception as much as it is to author distinctive foreign policy. Though Congress alone has the power to declare war, over the years, POTUS has been given an increasingly large amount of leeway over authorization of military operations—both with and without congressional consent. As Julia Azari muses, it is easier for presidents to execute foreign policy and utilize said defense budget than to pass reforms related to domestic policy. Hence why we can drop a $16 million bomb on ISIS, but we can’t guarantee health care for millions of Americans. Le sigh.
Over the short term, President Donald Trump may have received the support of political figures on both sides of the political aisle, especially as it regards Syria, and he, um, has yet to piss off enough world leaders or the kinds of bat-shit crazy totalitarians necessary for World War III—and I stress, yet. Over the long haul, however, there’s everything to suggest his strategy or lack thereof regarding the Middle East and North Korea may damage his political prospects and his already-sinking approval rating. Going back to McKay Coppins’ essay, the author opines that Trump, for all his bluster, lacks the qualities that have made past presidents perhaps better-suited for protracted conflict abroad. Per Coppins:
Beyond fighting terrorism, Trump has often said the U.S. needs to be more “unpredictable” on the world stage. While running for president, he pointedly refused to take the potential use of nuclear weapons off the table, even in places like Europe. That probably wasn’t because he had big plans to bomb Estonia; it was because he wanted to place as few constraints on himself as possible, believing that the more nervous he made the world as commander-in-chief, the less likely it was that adversaries would mess with America. Some have identified this approach as a return to the “Madman Theory,” Richard Nixon’s belief that if his enemies thought he was unbalanced, he would have a stronger negotiating position against China on the Vietnam War.
But, of course, Trump does not have Nixon’s discipline or depth of knowledge, nor does he have George W. Bush’s level of conviction, or Barack Obama’s cerebral patience—all qualities that could have come in handy for a president who hoped to defy the vast Washington establishment in pursuit of a radical departure from foreign policy orthodoxy. Instead, Trump entered the Oval Office with a bone-deep belief in vengeance, a tendency toward impulsiveness, and a history of saber-rattling rhetoric.
To recall, Coppins’ main thrust of his article concerns what he sees as Trump’s “inevitable” hawkish pivot in line with #45’s identified personality traits, but if we are thinking long-term, and to invoke the disillusionment of Milo et al., “the Donald” has already begun along a slippery slope toward eroding his enthusiastic base. Now let’s factor in the impact prolonged operations in foreign lands can have on the perception of a president’s handling of policy—particularly as it may turn negative. Julia Azari ends her discussion of trends in presidential deviations from isolationist promises with the following:
While presidents enjoy a great deal of leeway in the short term, however, the long term is another story. Sustaining a prolonged military engagement requires support in Congress and, ultimately, the electorate. If Trump’s actions turn into longer-term involvement in Syria, the country will need to pay for these interventions, and Congress ultimately holds the purse strings. Lingering military involvement can drag down a president’s esteem with the public, as Johnson found out with Vietnam and Bush found out with Iraq. Democrats, already eyeing the 2018 midterm elections, could try to go back to some of the anti-war appeals of the 2006 and 2008 campaigns.
Trump also leads a generally hawkish party, but his own campaign promises rested on the idea that he wasn’t a typical Republican. The evidence is mixed as to whether his core supporters in the Republican coalition are likely to support foreign interventions. FiveThirtyEight’s Dan Hopkins noted last spring that Trump supporters were less likely to support staying in Iraq than Rubio or Cruz voters but were more hawkish overall. A YouGov poll found that Republicans in general, but especially Trump voters, were more likely than others to cite terrorism as a top concern. Linking military action to the prevention of terrorism might persuade those voters to support longer-term involvement. Recent history suggests, however, that voters sour on military action the longer it continues. If Trump pursues this course in Syria, it will likely open up opportunities for other candidates to enter the 2020 field with promises to end the fighting.
To make a long story about the long term short, war is costly. It requires a considerable investment of money, time, and human beings, the first two of which people feel they never have enough, and the last of which any loss is regrettable. Besides the politicians on the left who would use an ill-conceived military campaign as fodder for their own political campaigns, many everyday Americans are apprehensive to downright resistant to invading another country, even if for primarily humanitarian reasons. What’s more, seeing as Señor Pussygrabber isn’t exactly known for being a humanitarian, and seeing as his refusal to divest of his assets or even show his tax returns puts his every motivation into question, it is not unreasonable to think he—and, by proxy, we—have other reasons for involvement in Asia. I believe you know where I’m going with this, and that’s deep into the ground.
Before Trump even took the reins of the country, he already had oil on the brain. As Michael T. Klare writes for Foreign Policy magazine, on the campaign trail and in the nationally televised Commander-in-Chief forum with Matt Lauer—remember that dumpster fire?—Donald Trump expressed the view that while we occupied Iraq, we should have “taken the oil.” Just like that. He has also spoken about seizing oil in Libya. As Klare outlines, however, while this idea has been bandied about at different points in American history, most recently by the George W. Bush administration, the notion that “taking the oil” in Iraq specifically would be an easy prospect is a fallacy. He writes:
It is abundantly clear, then, that there never was a time when the United States could have “taken the oil.” Even at the peak of American power, in the spring and summer of 2003, such a move would have led to disaster; to think it could have been accomplished at a later date, as Trump asserts, is sheer madness. Consider his greatest folly: the claim that Bush, in his last months in office, or President Barack Obama, in his first, should have left a residual force in Iraq to guard the oil fields (presumably under U.S. control) as America’s main combat units began their withdrawal. This would have ignited rebellion from every faction of Iraqi society, requiring not only a halt in the troop withdrawal but also a second “surge” of American forces on an even grander scale than the first. Whether or not the Islamic State would have arisen under these circumstances is difficult to determine, but there is no doubt we would have seen the emergence of many other insurgent groups, equally deadly.
So, President Trump’s aptitude for war is a poor one, his involving the U.S. in a bloody conflict stands to further drive down his approval rating and threaten the GOP’s position elsewhere in government circles, and his potential reasons for invading foreign countries are perilously ill-advised. Beyond the silver lining for those of us who have stopped supporting Trump or never supported him in the first place that more and more Americans are waking up to the realization he sucks, though, this obvious does little to inspire confidence or enthusiasm. Moreover, all this military might makes you wonder—or at least should make you wonder—just how much of it is intended to put “America First” and how much is purely designed to serve Trump and his ego first. What great boon did we experience from the President’s authorization of a raid in Yemen that got Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens and several civilians killed? What tremendous benefit did we receive from bombing a mosque in Syria last month, an attack which killed at least 38 people, involved a failure of the forces involved to take necessary precautions, and reportedly included the targeting of civilians with Hellfire missiles as they fled the mosque? Unless we’re striving to lead the world in civilian casualties. A dubious honor that would be, to be sure.
Sadly, while Donald Trump is American jingoism and a hard-on for things that go boom in the worst and most absurd extreme, irrespective of party and even outside of the spheres of influence of Congress and the White House, our national fetish for defense spending and for serving as the world’s self-appointed protector makes it such that while Trump should and must not go unchecked for the military interventions he signs off on, the stronghold that the military-industrial complex has on our government and on our economy also needs to be addressed at the same time. When there are lucrative contracts to be awarded to manufacturers and when Brian f**king Williams of all people can live on air describe the firing of Tomahawk missiles with a perverse sense of splendor, it is no wonder that we as a nation are perpetually embroiled in war. “America First?” Not when the war hawks are at the top of the food chain.
2016 was largely seen as a shitty year. I alluded to as much in my own end-of-the-year recap, telling 2016 to kindly go f**k itself. Of course, with so many people claiming 2016 to be a patently awful 366 days, it led critics to wonder whether or not it truly was the nadir of human civilization. Lorraine Ali, writing for the Los Angeles Times, mused about what has led folks to proclaim 2016 the worst on record. Certainly, the presidential election and all the rancor building up to it (and now spilling over), as well as all the celebrity deaths that seemed to affect so many observers, were strong influences. Concerning those lost in 2016, Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Gene Wilder, Muhammad Ali, and Prince are but a few of the names on the list—and the likes of Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds and George Michael joined them in just the last week of the year. Ultimately, though, Ali closes her commentary by aiming to put things in historical perspective:
We’ve had better years, to be sure. But humanity has survived the Crusades, the Black Death, the Civil War, the Great Depression, world war. It survived 2016, just as it survived the last.
Was it the worst year ever? No, but it was bad enough.
In other words, President Donald Trump is pretty terrible, but not bubonic plague terrible. Fair enough, Ms. Ali. Fair enough. If this historical perspective doesn’t grab you, though, maybe a more expansive worldview is more your speed. To be fair, Lorraine Ali does consider troubling events beyond unfortunate domestic political outcomes and fallen entertainers, although mainly as an aside. Nonetheless, it is here where we pivot to the heart of this post. Ali writes in her opinion piece:
There were those whose names we didn’t know, but they left a lasting impression as footage from the Syrian war and the immigrant crisis made headlines and news cycles. Children pulled lifeless from bombed-out buildings in Aleppo or washed up on the shores of whatever safe haven their families were seeking.
To mourn their deaths is to embrace the humanity we ought to be preserving rather than ripping down. Their passing was a brutal reminder that empathy should not be another causality of 2016. No wonder we wanted to hold on to whatever glimmers of hope we could find.
Humanity. Empathy. Hope. For immigrants and Syrians, no less. It all sounds wonderful. But, um, and don’t take this the wrong way—these do not sound like prevailing sentiments of a sizable cross-section of the U.S. population right now. Nor do they seem like hallmarks of a growing segment of the international community. In Italy, Paolo Gentiloni, who became Prime Minister in December after serving in the role of Minister of Foreign Affairs for two-plus years, indicated intentions to move forward with the first major policy shift of his tenure: enacting a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal migration into the country, which is likely to result in more precise attempts to identify economic migrants who do not have a legitimate claim to asylum within Italy and subsequent mass deportations to deal with these types. Reportedly, prior to deportation, the undocumented migrants will be held in detention centers, more of which are being opened pursuant to this policy shift. This expansion of detention centers, in particular, is a notable shift from the stance of Gentiloni’s predecessor Matteo Renzi, who opposed such facilities in the hopes that undocumented migrants could successfully be integrated within Italy.
There are any number of directions in which we can go with this news. Certainly, the “let’s build a wall” crowd supporting Donald Trump throughout the 2016 election campaign season is probably cheering on Paolo Gentiloni’s new path forward for Italy with vicarious zeal, seeing strong parallels between Italy’s situation and that of the United States, and not-so-secretly wishing authorities here would enact something similar. Realistically, Italy has a more legitimate claim to a need for border security. According to statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Italy surpassed Greece as the site for the highest number of arrivals by sea for migrants and refugees among European Union states, seeing more than 180,000 reach its shores in 2016 alone. That’s a lot of humanity to accommodate—no matter how big the place of arrival.
Additionally, while Germany especially is coming to grips with a terror attack within its bounds, that of an assault at a Christmas market in Berlin by a man driving a tractor-trailer which left 12 dead and 48 injured, Italy can count one of its native-born among the casualties in the person of Fabrizia Di Lorenzo, a 31-year-old ex-pat with multiple Master’s degrees and a love for her adopted home. One person living outside the country’s borders, and yet undoubtedly Italians everywhere, not to mention those non-Italians with even a shred of empathy, feel sadness at the revelation of her passing. As do the relatives and compatriots of the Czech, German, Israeli, Polish and Ukrainian nationals also lost to the senseless violence of the massacre in Berlin.
In effecting a policy of this nature and of its potential scope, Italy naturally makes a theoretical distinction between those who legally seek asylum within the country and those who migrate there to seek a more advantageous situation. Accordingly, we should also be explicit and precise in how we delineate two classes of people who would cross into Italy to seek refuge. On the one hand, we have refugees, defined by the UNHCR thusly:
A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.
Those who have fled their homes in Syria, for example, would well qualify, especially in light of the travesties experienced in eastern Aleppo as Syrian government forces regained control of most of the city. There are definite exigent circumstances at work here and in similar cases of war, genocidal violence, and other life-or-death situations. Migrants, on the other hand, are individuals who relocate to improve their situation and that of their family. The critical distinction, therefore, and one that carries over to applicable international law, is the idea migrants choose to move to secure a more advantageous position for themselves, whereas refugees are forced to move or else risk persecution, bodily harm, or even death, and because of this, effectively have choice taken away from them.
Of course, this does not imply that so-called “economic migrants” are leaving a life of luxury behind them, nor are they re-locating to an area and status denoted by wealth and privilege. Just because someone doesn’t witness civilians getting shot in the streets doesn’t mean his or her life isn’t hard, or that or he or she doesn’t have aspirations of a better life. Still, with hundreds of thousands of people potentially showing up at a country’s man-made borders or natural geographic dividers, it would stand to reason that a line would have to be drawn somewhere. Moreover, with many of these migrants posing as asylum-seekers and gumming up the works of the immigration and vetting process, it is that much slower and more laborious for would-be refugees in direst need. And this does not even begin to consider those individuals who would play the part of the refugee only to infiltrate a nation and move to harm the citizens already residing there as an agent of ISIS or a similar-minded group—however remote the possibility.
So, is Italy’s intended policy shift a much-needed method of bolstering order and security within the nation, or an unnecessarily draconian and logistically unfeasible turn of domestic policy? Well, not merely to defer to the will of the individual so as to avoid taking a definitive stance, but I think the merits of either argument are in the eyes of the beholder. That is, if you’re a proud nationalist who doesn’t feel a strong need for growing multiculturalism or generally feels as if his or her country is on the downslide, you might be enthusiastic to Paolo Gentiloni’s new direction for Italy. However, if you yourself immigrated to the country you’re in or even got to where you are as a refugee/asylum-seeker, you might be more sympathetic to the plight of those risking life and limb to secure access to a destination country, regardless of their legal status. Outside of, say, ramming a truck into a crowd of unsuspecting Christmas shoppers, there does not seem to be any wrong way of how to think and feel in our personal lives about the refugee and migration crisis. At the very least, unless you turn a blind eye, ear or other sense organ to this worsening problem, you stand to have some sort of unconscious reaction to the events that unfold daily in Europe and in the surrounding areas.
Ay, though, there’s the rub. How easy it is to turn a blind eye to the suffering that persists in war-torn parts of the globe, the strife that manifests so strongly in regions such as Africa and the Middle East, as well as in parts of Asia and eastern Europe. The Simpsons has had so many great individual moments in its 20+ years on television, but one which comes to mind relevant to the above pursuits is when Homer and Marge are sitting in the kitchen reading the newspaper, and the cover story concerns refugees fleeing from an oppressive situation. Marge, the consummate worrier, sighs and says to Homer, “Sheesh. Look at these refugees.” Homer, ever the warm-blooded working-class American male indifferent to their plight or, quite frankly, the plight of anyone beyond his immediate person, however, angrily asks rhetorically, “How about a smile?” Marge, taken aback, insists, “They’ve undergone terrible hardships.” To which Homer scoffs, “Well, moping won’t make it better.”
And that’s the unfortunate paradox of the refugee/migrant epidemic, if you will. These displaced peoples possess some of the most genuine need of anyone on Earth, and therefore, should inspire compassion and pity. However, many well-meaning Americans, relatively well-off, see the enormity of the issue, and judge any contribution they may make as inconsequential. Or they simple lose sight of the problems faced by asylum-seekers worldwide with their own situations to manage. Bills need to get paid. The kids need to get fed. We all need to get throughout the day without killing ourselves or strangling one of our co-workers. There’s only so much time in the day, and when the drudgery of our waking life is behind us, how many of us are willing to confront a topic that is, well, so depressing?
Well, a lot of us aren’t. It’s as with those commercials for the ASCPA or the Humane Society which aired so frequently during the holidays, featuring funereally slow versions of your favorite Christmas tunes and shots of the saddest puppies and kittens shivering in the cold you have ever witnessed. You can’t turn away. You want to reach into the television, unlock to the door to the cage, put your arms around that helpless animal, and bring it right into your living room. And then? The commercial ends. Back to Breaking Bad, or whatever show is playing in a marathon. There’s not enough room in your mind for both thoughts of helpless canines and Walter White building a meth-cooking empire in New Mexico, and unfortunately, one of them has to go. Often, it tends to be the former.
So, what’s the point? Economic refugees and migrants are essentially just a bunch of cats and dogs without a home? No, not exactly, although refugees in particular, like the aforementioned freezing animals of the commercials, are deserving of compassion in their own right. As easy as it is for you and I to turn away from the morning paper with its troublesome headlines, or the nightly news replete with images of the struggles faced by asylum-seekers worldwide, it’s surprisingly straightforward for the target countries of these various peoples who have strayed from home to turn them away or pass them off on a neighboring country. Italy, by planning mass deportations, would have its newfound migrants and refugees become someone else’s problem. Other European nations have taken similar stances toward surging numbers of asylum-seekers, keeping them at bay with physical barriers or otherwise inviting criticism from international human rights watchdogs who have decried both the negation of appeals from these would-be refugees, as well as the all-too-common deplorable conditions at camps designed to hold their numbers.
Even Germany, which has chastised other EU nations for their handling of refugees in the past, is suffering from a bit of an identity crisis, torn between the kind of more permissive policy Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrat supporters have by and large embraced heretofore, and a hard cap embraced by opposing forces in the rival Christian Social Union, itself facing pressure from growing numbers among the nation’s far-right, with the intensity of this internal conflict magnified by present concerns with the nation’s security and terrorist threats after the Berlin attack. In consideration of this, Merkel and her allies have in the past few days floated the notion of a more flexible limit to impose upon acceptance of refugees, as somewhat of a compromise between competing interests in Germany. One would hope this policy shift, should it come to pass, would fare better as a compromise than, say, David Cameron’s concession to the UK Independence Party while still serving as British Prime Minister, which, if you’ll recall, led to a referendum vote on whether or not to leave the EU and a subsequently poor decision by a slender but sufficient majority of UK voters to do just that. Either way, though, that the measure is even being considered is reflective of the larger attitude toward refugees in Europe and elsewhere on Planet Earth, one which appears to be increasingly geared toward isolating them from the rest of the international community. Whether we speak of Germany or Greece or the United States of America, no country is free from ideological differences which put the most vulnerable groups among us in the middle of any discord.
A December 2016 feature by Anealla Safdar and Patrick Strickland for Al Jazeera English proclaimed 2016 as the year the world stopped caring about refugees. A bold statement, but perhaps not wholly undeserved either. The expansive report considers the viewpoints of representatives from a number of interested parties, including experts who work with refugees, representatives from human rights organizations, those concerned with the safe passage of asylum-seekers across waterways and other borders, and even the refugees themselves. And overall, the outlook for 2017 is not all that rosy given what these sources encountered in 2016. From the refugees’ perspective, the general attitude they perceived was one of ambivalence to their situation—countries and their leaders made an outward show of the humanitarian response for which they were apparently responsible, but still essentially wanted the recipients to stay out and/or go back home, even though the literal definition of them being refugees stems from them fleeing destruction and violence. Per Preethi Nallu, editor of Refugees Deeply, an online publication devoted to news about the refugee crisis and the complex issues facing migration, fortifying barriers and militarizing migration hot spots is no long-term solution when smuggling networks would seek to circumvent these controls, further endangering vulnerable peoples.
The hits just keep on coming after that. MSF Sea, Doctors Without Borders’ Mediterranean wing, bluntly assesses 2016 as the year politics and ego won over moral and legal responsibilities to protect migrants and refugees. Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights program, criticizes the types of deals made by the EU and specifically Pakistan to throw Afghani refugees back into the throngs of the displaced, the latter of which went largely unnoticed by the global media in spite of some 400,000 refugees and 250,000 undocumented migrants being ejected from the country. Alarmphone, an activist network and resource for refugees facing distress at sea, highlighted the danger facing those who cross waterways in makeshift craft seeking asylum while affirming their commitment to an inclusive environment for refugees independent of national borders. Milena Zajovic, spokesperson for Are You Syrious?, an informational resource for refugees, expresses her disappointment from those Balkan nations who have undergone the same sorts of violence and situations which have led to refugeeism in the past, only to turn around and refuse refugees in the present. Ramy Abdu, chairman of Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, points to the ongoing but often overlooked, at least in the context of refugeeism, plight of Palestinians, and highlights the depth of the gulf between a growing consciousness of the refugee crisis for some and a knee-jerk tendency to blame refugees for terroristic violence. Simon Cox, a migration lawyer, like Abdu, sees room for optimism in the determination of refugees and solidarity from non-refugees who defend and support them, but underscores this with a call for serious discussion about issues such as corruption within the foremost origin countries among officials, the revolving door of refugees who are sent to their homeland only to return to where they initially sought asylum, and the tendency of wealthy nations to demand that poorer countries accommodate refugees—all the while obstructing refugees and refusing to accommodate them just the same.
As Safdar and Strickland depict the worldwide refugee situation, then, in terms of 2016 being the “worst year ever,” as far as the sheer numbers of those drowned in the Mediterranean are concerned, this claim is accurate, with more than 5,000 losing their lives to failed crossing attempts. More broadly speaking, though, the response of prominent nations—including that of the United States, which elected a candidate in Donald Trump who has espoused an unkind attitude toward immigrants and refugees—has been characterized by a focus on vague notions of border and economic security at the expense of empathy. Italy, despite its unique challenges owing to its geographic location, seems to be exhibiting signs of the same, if Paolo Gentiloni’s new decree is any indication, and Germany runs the risk of following suit.
So, how do we, as ordinary people, help prevent 2017 from being an even worse than worst year ever for the disenfranchised asylum-seekers of the world? Though national governments and international coalitions should yet be entreated to do their part to care for refugees, as usual, waiting on them to act in substantive, meaningful ways alone seems to be hoping for too much. Awareness and visibility of the refugee/migrant crisis is part of the solution, as is material support for refugees and the organizations that support and defend them. Though I’m sure you’ve seen the advertisements for AT&T featuring Lily, the cute and bubbly sales associate, you may not know the actress who plays her, the Uzbek-born Milana Vayntrub, and her family fled persecution themselves in the Soviet Union before coming to the United States. Not until seeing the waves of refugees and migrants trying to make their way to relative safety in Greece, though, did the extent of the crisis begin to make an impression on her. Her subsequent creation, alongside entrepreneur Eron Zehavi, of Can’t Do Nothing, a charitable organization designed to help everyday individuals assist and make a positive impact on refugees worldwide, is just one of the avenues to facilitate social media outreach, volunteering and donations to benefit those affected by the global refugee crisis.
In talking of those affected by the global refugee crisis, of course, I speak of those directly and personally impacted by the conditions which inform it. But we are all affected by this crisis, as well as the factors which mediate it—climate change, conflict, economic deprivation, statelessness—whether we realize it or choose to ignore it. The question is: which camp are you in?
As part of his presidential duties, Barack Obama pardoned, in time for Thanksgiving, the final turkeys of his tenure from the highest political office in the nation. As a lame duck president, if Obama wants more than the sparing of two birds to add to his legacy in his final days as POTUS, he should stand with the people of Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota and their supporters—before it’s too late.
Let’s walk things back a bit, though. What exactly is President Obama’s legacy, and what do we make of all this business in Standing Rock? On the first count, well, it’s complicated. Ask five different people what they think about Barack Obama’s eight years in office, and you’ll likely get five different responses. According to the most recent Gallup polling, at any rate, on approval of the job President Obama is doing, from the period spanning November 14 to November 20, 2016, 56% give the man a thumbs-up. This figure is under the high watermark of 69%, the average set across the three-day period from January 22 to January 24, 2009, when Obama was just settling into his new role as leader of the free world, but significantly better than the 38% nadir he registered numerous times after that 69% zenith, most recently in September of 2014. To put this in historical perspective, Barack Obama’s 32nd-quarter rating is about four percentage points higher than that of U.S. presidents across history. It is roughly equivalent with the approval rating enjoyed by President Ronald Reagan at the same point in his presidency (57%), a few points behind that of Bill Clinton (63%), and, ahem, leaps and bounds ahead of George W. Bush (29%). So, per the vox populi, Pres. Barack Obama is in line with what we’d expect from a person of his stature, and even slightly better.
While public opinion can inform history’s larger judgment of a president’s impact on the country, perhaps it would prove more instructive to view Obama’s two terms through the lens of major events within them. Accordingly, let’s review his seven-plus years and change and see what stands out:
Stimulus package/Economic policy
Even the most hard-hearted Republican critics of Barack Obama as President of the United States would probably tend to acknowledge the guy was handed a pretty rough deal in light of economic happenings at the time. The country was reeling from the global financial crisis known here in the U.S. as the Great Recession, and in a move designed to prevent the American economy from complete collapse, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, which authorized $787 billion in spending to combat the negative effects of the recession. The Obama administration contended that the various measures enacted under ARRA were necessary to avoid an even worse fate for the nation. Of course, this argument seemed all but lost on GOP lawmakers; in an example of the kind of partisan conflict Barack Obama’s initiatives would experience throughout his time in office, ARRA would only make it to his desk to be signed on the strength of Democrats’ votes, with just three Republican senators voting yea as the bill worked its way through Congress. Emergency spending bills, threats of government shutdowns—Jesus, the GOP really likes to play chicken with the U.S. economy, don’t they?
The Obama administration lobbied for a second such “stimulus package” later in the year, but this would fail to pass. By this point, Republican assassination of the legacy of the ARRA was well under way, with the idea of a “stimulus” bill proving wildly unpopular with the public. Still, it is not as if President Obama’s policies didn’t make an impact even beyond the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Speaking of large cash infusions to institutions, Obama presided over a second auto bailout to the tune of $9.3 billion more. Pres. Obama also signed into law a federal minimum wage increase up to $7.25, which is great for the workers it affects but falls well short of the $12 minimum wage Barack Obama himself had sought and which Hillary Clinton had stressed as a part of her economic plan during her campaign.
As for post-recession trends during Obama’s two terms, median income has yet to rebound from its 2007 pre-recession rate, prompting fears those incomes will never return. GDP growth has been positive, but not overwhelming. Short-term interest rates only recently increased after staying near zero for most of the Obama presidency. Finally, unemployment has seen a decline from its 10% peak in 2009, and lately has been hovering around a rate of 5%, but this figure is somewhat misleading owing to things like comparisons between part-time and full-time workers as well as inability to account for those who have given up looking for work. Broadly speaking, one might judge Barack Obama’s presidency, in economic terms, as one which averted disaster, but otherwise has been uneven to minimal in the benefits it has promoted in these key areas.
Other economic policy stances
The political hot potato that it always seems to be, the national debt has also been a topic of considerable discussion during Obama’s tenure as POTUS. While other countries faced austerity measures related to the global financial crisis, U.S. government debt has grown under Barack Obama’s watch, paving the way for conflicts along politically ideological lines concerning whether or not spending should be slashed in key areas. The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, or the Simpson-Bowles Commission, was commissioned in 2010 to address ways in which the United States might significantly lower its debt. Numerous individual measures were suggested as part of this report, though the analysis that resulted from the Commission was broadly encapsulated by calls for spending cuts (e.g. cutting into our bloated military spending) and tax increases. Of course, suggesting we spend less on the military and take more from wealthy Americans generally doesn’t sit well with the GOP, so perhaps unsurprisingly, these proposals never received a vote of approval in Congress. Oh, well. The academic exercise was fun, wasn’t it?
Even before Barack Obama took office in 2009, Republican lawmakers were primed to give him hell on matters of the nation’s debt ceiling. When the GOP, buoyed by surging popularity of Tea Party Republican politics, cleaned up in the 2010 mid-term elections, and their voice got that much louder in the House of Representatives, debates over whether or not to raise the debt ceiling and/or effect significant cuts in areas like entitlement programs and military spending grew that much more contentious. Obama, to his credit, tried to negotiate with John Boehner and the other House Republicans on these matters. Predictably, that didn’t work in terms of a “grand bargain.” Instead, we got the Budget Control Act of 2011, which raised the debt ceiling, kicking the proverbial can down the road as per the usual, as well as established the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, which also didn’t work, and provided for budget sequestration, which would automatically take effect in case Democrats and Republicans couldn’t reach an agreement through the Committee. Which, of course, it did.
Later on in Obama’s presidency, in October 2013, there was a fun little government shutdown, again resulting from an impasse on concerns of a budgetary nature—this time, over whether or not to defund ObamaCare. The end result of that political kerfuffle was a resolution to end the shutdown, fund an omnibus spending bill, and raise the debt ceiling—again. The above conflicts, viewed out of context, can be viewed as a hallmark of a presidency helmed by a divisive leader. In reality, though, it takes two to tango, and since achieving a majority in the House and the Senate, Republicans have been every bit the stubborn obstructionists we might expect from lawmakers deferring to party politics. In other words, for all the griping about Batack Obama’s failure to reach across the political aisle, GOP lawmakers were awfully quick to slap at his hand on the occasions he did eke it out.
There’s so much material here it’s difficult to know where to begin. We might have to look at some of the highlights within the highlights, so to speak. Here are just some of the areas that helped define Barack Obama’s time as the so-called leader of the free world:
1) Afghanistan and Iraq
Much as President Obama inherited an economic shit-storm with the advent of the Great Recession, the man inherited a veritable quagmire in the Middle East after George W. Bush plunged us headlong into armed conflict in not one, but two, countries. Noting the challenges presented by America’s continued involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama should be afforded some understanding with respect to the tough decisions he was forced to reckon with as Dubya’s successor. Of course, this is not to absolutely meant to exonerate him either. On one hand, Barack Obama, a vocal critic of the Iraq War during his initial campaign, was instrumental in the substantial drawing-down of troops stationed in Iraq, at least prior to the rise of ISIS.
On the other hand, as advised by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen, Obama authorized the expansion of American servicemen and servicewomen to a high mark of 100,000 in Afghanistan before signing an agreement to leave major combat operations to Afghan forces. If there’s one major criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the ongoing situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, from my perspective, it is that it has been too eager to spin a narrative of success and close the book on our efforts in these countries when the ever-present threat of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and, within the former, the Taliban, exists and causes unrest. By the same token, this is not to meant to overstate their danger, but only to consider that the way in which we fight wars is changing, and to put a timetable on completion when deep ideological divisions lie behind conflicts on international and national levels almost invites that schedule’s destruction.
2) China/East Asia
China has been a toughie for Barack Obama as President, no lie. While more recently, the emerging power has seen a slowing of its economy, its overall improvement in stature on the world’s stage has meant that President Xi Jinping and Co. have been eager to whip their dongs out and swing them around. In particular, the U.S. and China have shared a rather tentative relationship of late, with periodic spats over issues like arms sales to Taiwan, climate change, cyber-security, handling of North Korea, human rights, and territorial disputes. If nothing else, though, the apparent declining support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—an agreement meant, if nothing else, to assert American economic presence in Asia alongside the People’s Republic—seems to have saved Obama from a potential stain on his legacy.
Speaking of North Korea, by the way, um, it’s still there, and still working on nuclear weaponry. Sweet dreams.
So, that whole thing about Cuba being on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list is done with. Also, recently, diplomatic relationships have been restored between Cuba and the United States, and economic restrictions have been loosened. Shit, Obama even went to see a baseball game down there! Cuban-American relations, in short, seem to be on the upswing. Then again, if Fidel Castro’s parting words before his recent passing are any indication, the U.S. would be wise to proceed with caution, and perhaps vice-versa. Castro wrote caustically that Cuba does not need any gifts from “the Empire,” and furthermore, that Barack Obama has not tried to understand Cuban politics. While it may seem as if everything is hunky-dory now, seeds of resentment toward America may yet exist in Cuba and elsewhere in lands touched by communism.
4) Drone strikes
Perhaps one of my biggest gripes with Barack Obama’s foreign policy stances over his tenure was that his administration saw an expansion of the drone warfare program set upon by George W. Bush. The predominant criticism with this bit of policy shift is that for all the terrorist figureheads “neutralized” by strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Middle East, numerous civilian casualties have resulted, including those of American citizens. A drone strike was even used to intentionally take out Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American citizen and Muslim cleric with ties to al-Qaeda, controversial in its own right for essentially being an extrajudicial killing OK’d by the Commander-in-Chief.
It seems more than vaguely hypocritical for the United States to police the world and portray itself as a white knight of sorts when it goes around bombing other countries, killing innocent people, and apologizing with a note saying “Oops!” We may not be terrorists per se, but indiscriminately flexing our military muscles with little regard for collateral damage is a sin in its own right. And Obama is guilty in his own right, to be sure.
The obstruction of Republicans notwithstanding, that President Obama has been unable to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay as intended—a goal he has reaffirmed year after year, at that—has got to feel like a disappointment for both he and human rights advocates. Sure, strides have been made in reducing the number of captives at the naval base there, as well as ending the practices of “enhanced” interrogation techniques and referring to those being held in detention as “enemy combatants,” but that detainees can still be held indefinitely without being charged is gross overreach on the part of the United States government. From where I’m sitting, Gitmo’s legacy is a stain on our national character, and potentially giving Donald Trump and his appointees broad access is deeply troubling.
Republicans tend to get all worked up about where we are in our relationship with Iran, with two main triggers in this regard. The first is America’s resolution with Iran concerning the latter’s agreement to limits on its nuclear program and access to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in return for reducing sanctions. To be fair, it doesn’t exactly warm the cockles of one’s heart to have to negotiate with a country that has more or less made “Death to America” a national slogan. Nonetheless, outside the realm of Congress and with no disrespect to Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu, it would seem as if there is high approval for such an accord, and I, for one, feel better about having some sort of understanding in place and approaching the situation with a greater sense of diplomacy than George W. Bush and his hawkish administration did.
The other issue that gets GOP politicians and conservative theorists alike all hot and bothered is a supposed $1.7 billion “ransom payment” (includes interest) to the Iranian government in return for the release of three American prisoners. The timing was suspicious, as I’m sure many on both the left and right can agree, but not merely to minimize this controversy, but I also don’t know what evidence there is that these monies were wired for the express purpose of hostage release. It’s bad optics, yes, but there is the possibility it is just that.
By now, most of America’s fixation on Libya seems to involve the events surrounding the attack on Benghazi. I remain critical of the Department of State’s handling of this situation, as I believe requests for more security and resources at the diplomatic mission were ignored by Hillary Clinton’s department, and suggesting she isn’t culpable because she wasn’t made aware of the deteriorating situation in Libya rings hollow when it can be argued that she should have been more aware, especially when she and others within the Obama administration were instrumental in pushing for Gaddafi’s deposition. While perhaps not the most egregious chapter in the book of Barack Obama’s presidency, America’s involvement in Libya during his two terms also doesn’t do much to allay concerns about our nation’s “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude when it comes to addressing international and national disputes.
8) Osama bin Laden
Oh, yeah. We killed that f**ker. Moving along.
Relations between the United States of America and the Russian Federation seemed to be moving in a positive direction, at least during Obama’s first term. Our president and their president signed a major nuclear arms control agreement. Russia joined the World Trade Organization, and the two countries were doing business again. The U.S. and Russia—Russia and the U.S.—we were like BFFs! And then Vladimir Putin took the reins again in Russia, and that got shot to shit. With actions such as the annexation of Crimea, repeated incursions into the Ukraine, and propping up the deadly regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Putin’s militarism has put his country on a course directly at odds with the “reset” Barack Obama had envisioned for U.S.-Russia relations. Most recently, probable interference of the Russians in American electoral affairs—needless to say, so not cool. Obama has caught a lot of flak for not meeting Putin’s shows of force with the same contentious spirit, but I applaud his administration’s levelheadedness, as too much fuel on the fire could lead to an escalation of any conflict, armed or otherwise. Sometimes, restraint is the best policy. Looking at you, President-Elect Trump.
Speaking of Syria, it’s a mess. Assad, insurgent forces, ISIS, Russia, and the U.S. launching airstrikes—and the proud people of a country with a rich history caught in between. It’s a devastating situation, and no doubt you’ve seen some of the photos of the carnage. In November of last year, Barack Obama announced a plan to resettle some 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States. If you ask me, the number should probably closer to 100,000—conservative Republican rhetoric be damned. Though the civil unrest is a conflict of a military nature, the suffering within Syria is a fundamentally human issue. Pres. Obama did not cause this war. He and Hillary Clinton did not give rise to ISIS. As such, he alone cannot solve the complex problems within the Syrian state. Alongside cooperation with neighboring countries, what we sorely need is compassion for the people affected by the fighting in Syria.
Social policy/domestic initiatives
Again, there’s a lot of ways we could go with topics under this heading, but seeing as we’ve already been through a lot of material, I’ll try to be briefer on this end. The domestic initiative most synonymous with Barack Obama’s presidency is, of course, the Affordable Care Act, known colloquially as ObamaCare. There are a lot of ObamaCare haters out there, and in light of this antipathy, even staunch Democrats have found themselves hard-pressed to defend the ACA. For my part, though the initial execution may have been flawed (recall all those early problems with Healthcare.gov), this initiative does put us closer to where we need to be in terms of universal healthcare—which is a right, mind you, or should be. The notion of any sort of mandate, be it required of employers or individuals, it would seem, really sticks in the craw of its detractors, but despite the hooting and hollering about government overreach from the right and railing about the burden on small businesses, having large numbers of uninsured Americans creates its own costs, and potentially larger ones at that down the road. ObamaCare is not perfect, but to label it an outright failure is more than a little misleading.
On other dimensions of domestic policy, Pres. Obama’s initiatives, if not particularly far-reaching, can be once more understood within the context of an obstructionist Congress. Barack Obama signed into law a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but only on the strength of support from Democratic lawmakers. Though the Obama administration saw a record number of deportations, Obama himself has been a vocal supporter of the DREAM Act, and signed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy into law—even though he has been fought tooth-and-nail on both issues. Attempts to pass sensible gun law reform have been, in a word, cock-blocked by Republicans’ subservience to the NRA. And anyone thinking Obama’s ascendancy to the presidency would magically fix what ails the nation in terms of racial prejudice has full permission to go screw. As recent political events have brought to the forefront, there is a lot of deep-seated racism present in the United States, the likes of which Jesus Himself couldn’t hope to overcome. To those who would brand Barack Obama as a divider and not a uniter, I must express my doubts about how seriously you were willing to be united in the first place—that is, on terms other than your own.
Full disclosure: I used and thank Wikipedia’s page on Barack Obama’s presidency for serving as a template for my personal opinions on his administration’s policies in light of the challenges he has faced. If you do check that link, you’ll notice I omitted two sections. One is science, technology, and the environment, a lot of which I found to be dry and uninteresting, quite frankly, and since this post is long enough already, I opted to scrap it, though environmental concerns are related to the discussion soon to follow. The other section, meanwhile, is ethics, and it is at this point which I’ll strive to make the connection to Standing Rock. Overall, I feel Barack Obama, who easily outpaces George W. Bush in leadership skills and sound foreign policy navigation (not exactly the most difficult achievement), if I may say so myself, has done a fairly good job at steering the nation along a path of incremental progress, a job made that much more difficult by the obstinacy of the GOP.
This notion of the virtue of incremental progress, however, in itself a limiting factor, and thus, in general terms, is at the same time a major criticism of the Obama occupancy of the White House—that his policies haven’t gone far enough, even noting Republican resistance. Don’t get me wrong—I like Barack Obama. As a person, I think he’s got a great personality, not to mention a beautiful family and a wife and First Lady in Michelle who may be as capable a leader as he, if not more so. Nevertheless, there are points where I disagree with the President, a notion some Democratic Party loyalists treat as tantamount to disrespect or even heresy. On an economic front, as alluded to earlier, I disapprove of Obama’s stubborn adherence to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. As a true Bernie Sanders devotee, I also find fault with his administration’s seeming unwillingness to go beyond the provisions of Dodd-Frank, as many would agree is necessary to keep Wall Street in check, including but not limited to reinstatement of Glass-Steagall, not to mention his extension of the Bush-era tax cuts. Within the sphere of social policy, too, for all the reforms made in the intersection of the criminal justice system and drug laws, the war on drugs still rages on, and the DEA is still wont to equate marijuana with a drug like heroin, while substances like alcohol, opioids and tobacco are easily accessible.
Additionally, invoking again matters of ethics, for a president who vowed that lobbyists wouldn’t find a place in his White House and that his administration would be the most transparent in history, Barack Obama has waffled if not deliberately violated these precepts. If we add the revelation of the existence in 2013 by Edward Snowden of the PRISM mass electronic surveillance program as a function of the NSA, the willingness of the Obama administration to cross ethical lines, if not legal and constitutional lines, is all the more unsettling. If we bring contemplations of social and moral responsibility into the mix, meanwhile, while, again, Obama has fared significantly better than his predecessor, as regards the environment, it’s yet a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, Pres. Obama has identified climate change as the biggest threat the nation and world faces, and has set forth legislation on numerous occasions designed to cap carbon emissions and overall reduce the United States’ emissions footprint. On the other hand, Obama has only nixed domestic offshore drilling and other projects like the Keystone XL extension because they weren’t economically viable, not for strict adherence to environmental principles. Do as I say, not as I’d do if the money were better.
Enter the Dakota Access Pipeline and Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Some background information, first. Energy Transfer Partners, a Fortune 500 natural gas and propane firm, seeks to construct a pipeline that would run from the Bakken Oil Fields in North Dakota to a point in southern Illinois, going underneath the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and part of Lake Oahe near Standing Rock in the process. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the proposed pipeline would have little to no impact on the surrounding area. This assessment, however, has been judged by outside observers as being rather limited in scope, failing to analyze the situation in terms of a potential area-wide environmental impact, and since being asked to conduct a full-scale review by various related agencies, even the Corps has acknowledged it needs more time to make an adequate assessment on the impact the Dakota Access Pipeline could have.
That’s the good news, the delay. The bad news comes with how little attention the progress of the Dakota Access Pipeline project and the protests of its completion have received until recently, and just how severe the backlash has been against protestors from security guards contracted by those involved with the pipeline project as well as law enforcement siding with the corporate entity. There have been reports of guard dogs and pepper spray used on protestors, as well as concussion grenades, rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons in freezing conditions, not to mention the use of the criminal justice system to intimidate and silence journalists. Even if some protestors were being unruly, though, as North Dakota state police have alleged, this use of force appears disproportionate and harsh. What’s more, this treatment would seem to run at odds with how other superficially similar situations have unfolded. Making an allusion to the extended occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by armed militants, the coiner of the term Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza had this to say:
So let me get this correct. If you’re white, you can occupy federal property … and get found not guilty. No teargas, no tanks, no rubber bullets … If you’re indigenous and fighting to protect our earth, and the water we depend on to survive, you get tear gassed, media blackouts, tanks and all that.
The disparity seems pretty telling. In America, the sanctity of Indian lands and water sources evidently pales in comparison to the whims of the fossil fuel industry and white privilege. If you’re pumping vast sums of oil or you’re Caucasian and packing heat in vague protest of government overreach, you stand to fare better than a Dakota Access Pipeline protestor or, say, a black person stopped by the cops for a minor traffic violation.
Thankfully, in light of the apparent brutality shown toward these protestors, along with the sheer number of people who have stood with Standing Rock, not to mention several entertainers and other celebrities who have drawn attention to the plight of the reservation’s Sioux citizens and others who have suffered for the cause (for Christ’s sake, they arrested Shailene Woodley, of all people! Shailene Woodley!), average Joes like you and me are taking notice. One voice above all, though, would carry considerably more weight, and since I spent some 3,000 words talking about him just now, I think you know to whom I’m alluding. Barack Obama has been notably silent on matters of Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline, as were Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton once it became, for all intents and purposes, a heads-up contest for the presidency.
It’s not like his involvement hasn’t been sought, either. Chief Arvol Looking Horse, a spiritual leader and voice for the Great Sioux Nation, has pleaded with Pres. Obama to keep his word with recognition of treaties with native peoples and to act when they are violated. Bernie Sanders has spoken at a protest in front of the White House and personally appealed to the President to act against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and other senators have urged him and his administration to do a more thorough environmental assessment of the project’s impact, as well as consider consulting more directly and openly with tribal representatives. Obama himself has even acknowledged Standing Rock Reservation and the associated protests by name on more than occasion.
Acknowledgment of the problem helps, and I encourage those of you who support resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline to use the hashtag #NoDAPL in your social media posts and dialogs. But we need action—not just from people like you and I—but from our leaders, those with the most direct path and power to affect change. And Barack Obama is at the top of the list. As noted, Obama and Co. has killed offshore drilling projects and the Keystone XL extension—though not necessarily for the purported altruistic reasons. Going back to his legacy, though, if ever there were a time to stand for something on principle, it would be now, and standing with the people of Standing Rock and the future of the planet over the Dakota Access Pipeline and the fossil fuel industry. President Obama, if I may address you directly, sir—you are a lame duck president. Your political party just had its ass handed to it in the election, despite the results of the popular vote for the president, in part because people are fed up with politics as usual and the incremental progress paradigm of yesteryear. And while party loyalists and more moderate liberals may support you no matter what, those of us disenfranchised with the status quo are asking for more, and to boot, those on the extreme right are intent on destroying the best points of your legacy.
Which is why, Mr. President, now is the time to act. Stand with Standing Rock, because Donald Trump almost certainly won’t. Re-write the narrative. Leave one final meritorious page in the storybook of your presidency. I, concerned citizens around the world, and the planet itself will thank and remember you for it.