In case you were previously unaware, White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller is soulless human garbage in a suit and shouldn’t have a role anywhere near the President of the United States. But Donald Trump is our president, Miller has been one of the longest-tenured members of his administration, and here we are.
You may not know much about Miller other than that he has a receding hairline and pretty much every photo of him makes him look like an insufferable dick. He also can claim the dubious honor of having his own uncle call out his hypocritical douchebaggery in an essay that made the rounds online. His own uncle. Let that sink in for a moment.
Of course, resting bitch face and do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do behavior do not a monster necessarily make. Promoting white nationalist propaganda and conspiracy theories, obsessing over conceptions of “racial identity,” and invoking Hitlerian attitudes on immigration, though, are more conclusive signs.
In a series of E-mails between Miller and Breitbart News editors first leaked to the Southern Law Poverty Center by Katie McHugh, a former editor at Breitbart, the depth of Miller’s affinity for white nationalism is laid bare. SLPC’s Hatewatch blog, in reviewing more than 900 E-mails which span from March 2015 to June 2016, characterizes the subject matter of these messages as “strikingly narrow,” unsympathetic, and biased. Regarding immigration, Miller focused only on limiting if not ending nonwhite immigration to the United States. That’s it.
To this effect, Miller’s correspondence included but was not limited to these delightful exchanges and messages:
Sending McHugh stories from white nationalist websites known for promulgating the “white genocide” theory as well as those emphasizing crimes committed by nonwhites and espousing anti-Muslim views
Recommending Camp of the Saints, a 1973 novel depicting the destruction of Western civilization through mass immigration of nonwhites, as a point of comparison to real-world immigration and refugeeism trends
Pushing stories lamenting the loss of cultural markers like the Confederate flag and Confederate monuments
Embracing restrictive American immigration policies of yesteryear, the likes of which were based on eugenics theory and were referenced favorably in Mein Kampf
Offering original conspiracy theories as to why the “ruinous” history of the Hart-Celler Act wasn’t covered in “elitist” publications
Hatewatch also revisited Miller’s history with prominent white nationalist figures to provide context for these E-mails. Specifically, Miller has connections to Peter Brimelow, founder of VDARE, a white supremacist website, and Richard Spencer, like, the poster child for white nationalism and the alt-right, from his time at Duke. He and Spencer worked together to organize a debate between Brimelow and journalist/professor Peter Laufer on immigration across our southern border. Miller has sought to refute this relationship, but Spencer has acknowledged their familiarity with one another in passing. Miller’s denial is, as far as the SPLC is concerned, implausible.
As noted, these E-mails are several years old and his time at Duke yet further back. Still, not only are these messages not that far behind us, but Miller’s fingerprints are all over Trump’s immigration policy directives. As Hatewatch has also documented, Miller was one of the strongest advocates for the “zero tolerance” policy which saw a spike in family separations at the border with Mexico, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis there. In addition, alongside Steve Bannon, he was a chief architect of the so-called “travel ban,” which is a Muslim ban in everything but the name.
Again, as the leaked E-mails and SPLC’s additional context hint at, there is a path to these policies in Miller’s past associations. As recently as 2014, he attended an event for the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a conservative foundation which traffics in Islamophobia, introducing his then-boss Jeff Sessions as a speaker.
There’s his involvement with the Center for Immigration Studies, too, a anti-immigrant think tank (if you can call it that; the inclusion of the word “think” seems like a stretch) whose very founders subscribed to white nationalist and eugenicist world views and of which misleading/false claims about immigrant crime are a mainstay. Miller was a keynote speaker at a CIS conference in 2015 and has repeatedly cited CIS reports in publicly defending Trump administration policy directives.
As always, one can’t know for sure how many of Miller’s professed beliefs are true to what he believes deep down. After all, he, like any number of modern conservative grifters, may simply be leveraging the prejudices of everyday Americans as a means of bolstering his own profile.
Ultimately, however, as with his current employer, it is immaterial what he truly believes. His words and (mis)deeds shared with the outside world are what matter, and the zeal with which he has pursued bigoted, racist, and xenophobic policies and rhetoric conveys the sense he really means it. Like the saying goes, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. Stephen Miller walks like a racist and quacks like a racist. I don’t know about you, but that’s good enough for me.
At this writing, 107 Democratic members of the House of Representatives and Mike Coffman, a House Republican, have called for Stephen Miller’s resignation or firing. It’s not just members of Congress either. Over 50 civil rights groups, including Jewish organizations (Miller is Jewish), have likewise condemned Miller’s bigotry. Predictably, the White House has used these calls for the senior adviser’s head as fodder for charges of anti-Semitism, much as the man himself has tried to use his faith as a shield from criticism in the past.
The two concepts are not mutually exclusive, though. You can be a Jew and still suffer from prejudice. None of us are immune herein regardless of our religious or political beliefs. Besides, the nature of the White House’s defense obscures the intent of the growing resignation demand. This isn’t a bunch of totalitarian leftists trying to exploit the E-mail leak as political weaponry. Miller has given his critics across the political spectrum plenty of ammunition throughout his tenure in the Trump administration. The leak is just the racist, Islamophobic straw that broke the camel’s back.
Does all of this outrage matter, though? Will President Donald Trump turn a deaf ear to the controversy surrounding Miller, more concerned with his own concerns over his ongoing impeachment inquiry? Would he consider keeping Miller in his present role just to signify his stubborn will and/or to “own the libs?”
It’s hard to say. On one hand, some of the worst crooks and liars have seemed to do the best (that is, last the longest) in the Trump administration. Betsy DeVos is still carrying water for Trump as Secretary of Education despite a history of evidenced incompetence and notions she, like Trump, is using her position to enrich herself. Kellyanne Conway continues to be employed despite being a professional author of “alternative facts.” And don’t even get me started about Jared Kushner. If that guy has any personality or foreign policy know-how worth sharing, it is unknown to the rest of Planet Earth.
So, yeah, Stephen Miller is a natural fit for the Trump White House and this bit of public outrage may just be a blip on the radar of his career as a political influencer. Then again, it may not. While several Trump administration officials have resigned, Trump has let the ax fall on occasion. Among the figures identified by CNN as either “fired” or “pushed out” are high-profile names like Jeff Sessions (Attorney General and Miller’s one-time employer), John Bolton (National Security Adviser), John Kelly (White House Chief of Staff), Michael Flynn (also National Security Adviser), Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State), and Steve Bannon (White House Chief Strategist), not to mention holdovers from the Obama administration like Andrew McCabe (FBI Deputy Director), James Comey (FBI Director), and Sally Yates (Deputy Attorney General). Heck, Anthony Scaramucci only lasted 10 days as White House Communications Director.
When not striking a defiant tone, Trump and Co. have also exhibited a sensitivity to low public support. That zero-tolerance immigration policy championed by Miller which will forever serve as a black mark on an already-checkered American legacy? It has been formally ended, though it has been reported that children continue to be separated by their parents and logistical problems facing the reunification of families remain. Alas, nothing goes smoothly with this administration, especially not when cruelty is on the agenda.
The president has additionally and vocally wavered on Syria, not only with respect to withdrawal of troops but whether to support the Kurds fighting there or to roll out the proverbial red carpet for Erdogan and Turkey after widespread bipartisan condemnation of abandoning our allies there. Trump’s not a smart man, but he can tell when the prevailing sentiment is against him. (Hint: If the chowderheads at Fox & Friends and 2019’s version of Lindsey Graham are disagreeing with you, you know you screwed up.)
All this adds up to the idea Stephen Miller’s job may not be as safe as we might imagine. Whatever the outcome, the pressure for him to be fired or resign should continue as long as he is one of the worst examples of what the Trump White House has to offer and one of the ugliest Americans in recent memory given his personally- and professionally-stated beliefs. As his leaked correspondence with Katie McHugh shows, Miller is even worse than we thought. It’s time to get him out before he does any more damage to the country than he already has.
There is only so much time in a day, and only so many resources that news services can devote to the coverage of the pressing matters of the world. Still, the relative sparsity of mainstream attention to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is a phenomenon that a lack of manpower, time, or money can’t explain. Indeed, there’s a conscious effort to sanitize the news and downplay the U.S.’s role in perpetuating the violence that has made for such a catastrophically deadly situation for civilians, and one that has otherwise led to widespread malnutrition and massive displacement of people.
Yemen has been in the throes of a civil war for more than three years, in which Shia-led Houthi rebels backed by Iran have been fighting against the Yemeni government of exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and yes, the United States of America. With the insinuation of the likes of the Saudis and the UAE into this conflict as part of a coalition designed to ostensibly reinstate Hadi to power, the nature of the violence being inflicted on the people of Yemen has only gotten worse.
Shireen Al-Adeimi, a Harvard University graduate and Yemeni by birth, writing for In TheseTimes, explains the magnitude of the turmoil there, as well as the extent of the U.S.’s involvement:
Both the Obama and Trump administrations have provided the Saudi-led coalition with extensive military support, selling hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, deploying U.S. Special Forces to the Saudi-Yemen border and providing midair refueling of Saudi and Emirati jets during bombing campaigns. American support has continued as more than a million people have been infected with cholera, tens of thousands have been killed by violence, and at least 113,000 children have perished from malnutrition and preventable illnesses.
The publication of Al-Adeimi’s piece comes on the heels of two significant developments relating to the situation in Yemen. One is the August 2 airstrikes carried out by coalition forces on the city of Al-Hudaydah which killed upwards of 55 civilians, strikes that targeted a market and a hospital and of which coalition leadership denies any involvement.
This sort of crime against humanity is difficult, if not impossible, to hide, and of course, is a bad look for the coalition forces supporting Hadi, hence their disavowal. Yet even much of the reporting of this catastrophe tends to overlook America’s role in arming the Saudis who lead the coalition. UPI speaks of the U.S. providing “logistical support” to those responsible for the strikes, but this omission covers for the fact that the U.S. is dealing weapons to Saudi Arabia.
The other relevant development here is the recent passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorized a $717 billion defense budget for 2019. This legislation and its language are what especially draws Ms. Al-Adeimi’s focus, language that by itself is insufficient to either limit the scope of America’s complicity in war crimes or to prevent deadly airstrikes against civilians like the ones that ravaged Al-Hudaydah. Al-Adeimi writes:
Senators Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), as well as Representatives Adam Smith (D-Wash.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.)—all of whom oppose the United States’ unauthorized military involvement in Yemen—successfully included provisions in that aim to limit the NDAA’s use toward the war on Yemen. These include measures requiring the Secretary of State to verify that the U.S.-backed coalition is taking steps to alleviate the humanitarian disaster, minimize harm to civilians and end the civil war. According to the bill, such certification is required for the United States to engage in midair refueling to support bombing campaigns. However, the Secretary of State could issue a waiver to allow midair refueling for “security reasons,” so long as a detailed justification is submitted to Congress.
These stipulations are better than nothing, given that, in the words of Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), there is “an American imprint on every civilian life lost in Yemen.” The cooperation between House and Senate lawmakers on including the “Yemen provision” stems from growing concern about U.S. complicity in apparent war crimes.
These caveats, however, pose a significant problem for a coalition that has consistently denied bombing civilians and infrastructure outright despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, or dismissed such bombings as “mistakes.” The August 2 attack conducted by the Saudi-led Coalition on al-Thawra Hospital and a popular fish market in the embattled city of Hodeidah has been described by locals as a “massacre.” The airstrikes killed at least 55 civilians and left over 124 people injured, many of whom are fighting for their lives in health facilities that are barely functional due to repeated airstrikes and medicinal shortages resulting from the Saudi/UAE-imposed blockade. Whatever “protections” U.S. lawmakers are extending to Yemeni civilians, those protections did nothing to prevent this assault.
It stands to reason that massacres like the attack on Al-Hudaydah are liable to happen if we sell aircraft and weaponry to Saudi coalition forces backing the Yemeni government. Sure, the U.S. government might ask real nicely for the Saudis not to bomb civilians, but as long as the Saudis possess such superior military capability, and as long as Iran is invested in the Yemeni civil war, shows of force like this are eminently possible, if not probable. After all, if the Saudi-led coalition can carry out attacks on fish markets and hospitals without acknowledging its culpability and without proportionate censure from the international community, there’s no real risk for it to operate with anything other than impunity.
To stress, however, even if America isn’t the one pulling the trigger, they’re still implicated in the devastation in Yemen. What’s more, the United States’ involvement preceded President Donald Trump’s tenure, and has continued despite the absence of a formal authorization by Congress to engage in hostilities there.
How does this happen? How does the United States of America provide “logistical support” for years to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—and thus serve as party to human rights violations—in relative obscurity? As Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone tells, the cone of silence surrounding the atrocities in Yemen is owed to a perfect storm of factors that lend themselves to sparing media coverage and limited interest from Jane and John Q. Public. He writes:
Ultimately, the ancillary humanitarian disaster that has grown out of the war has become a distinct tale in itself. The U.N. puts the number of displaced persons at over 2 million, with more than 22 million people “in need.” Yet still the Yemen crisis has received little attention, likely because it represents a whole continuum of American media taboos.
For one thing, the victims are poor nonwhite people from a distant third-world country. Also, our involvement is bipartisan in nature, which takes the usual-suspect cable channels out of the round-the-clock-bleating game (our policies in the region date back to the Obama presidency, and have continued under Trump).
Thirdly, covering the story in detail would require digging into our unsavory relationship with the Saudi government, which has an atrocious human rights record.
In just a few sentences, Taibbi outlines a number of elements lying behind the failure of much of the news media to adequately address the situation in Yemen. There’s a racial component (likely aided by a distrust, for many, of Muslims and a sense of hopelessness about peace in the Middle East), the specter of classism, a shared sense of blame for representatives of both parties (which doesn’t help generate clicks in an era of partisanship), and a long-standing material financial relationship with the Saudi government buttressed by a mutual distrust of communism and a mutual love of oil.
This is all before we even get to discussing the possibility that the U.S. starts selling drones to the Saudis, a concern Taibbi addresses. As part of our aversion to being associated with Saudi violations of international law, we’ve, until now, refused to supply Saudi Arabia with killer drones (although we’re happy to sell them F-15s and help them re-fuel in mid-air). With China already supplying the Saudis and the UAE with drones, meanwhile, there is a push within the United States government to ease restrictions on the sale of these machines. If you were thinking President Trump is leading this push, you were right. It’s unfortunate, and yet wholly predictable.
At the end of the day, America’s penchant for meddling in other countries with military might alongside Yemen’s status as an unsexy topic in this Trump-oriented age of clickbait news has pushed the crisis there to the back pages at a point when Yemeni civilians are the most vulnerable and their plight merits a more robust response from the international community. As Taibbi writes in closing, “Until [Yemen] becomes a political football for some influential person or party, this disaster will probably stay at the back of the line.”
As part of a line including American farmers hurt by Trump’s trade war, immigrant families deported and separated as a function of the administration’s “zero tolerance exercise in cruelty, victims in Puerto Rico of Hurricane Maria and the government’s woefully insufficient response to the storm, and a water crisis in Flint of which the impact stands to be felt for decades to come, that’s a wait that Yemenis in need can ill afford.
What makes matters worse—yes, it does get worse—is that Yemen is home to one of the most dangerous wings of al-Qaeda in the form of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, and the bombings/drone attacks and substandard living conditions there only give rise to an increased ability for this terror network to recruit new members.
In this respect, the United States is apparently caught between competing interests. On one hand, in its ongoing (and amorphous) war on terror, it wants to combat the influence of extremist elements in the Arab world and in other countries where Islam has a significant number of followers. On the other hand, it is loyal to a Saudi government engaging in a proxy war with Iran in Yemen, a government that is notorious as a sponsor for jihadism. If the cautionary tale of Syria is any indication, then inaction presents its own consequences. As is always the case, there is no perfect solution to a problem marked by hostilities between groups along international and sectarian divides.
Complicating this power struggle and U.S. involvement is the notion that Saudi-Emirati coalition forces are actively negotiating with al-Qaeda to leave key areas in exchange for cash, equipment, and weapons. An Associated Press report by Maggie Michael, Trish Wilson, and Lee Keath details the nature of these arrangements, as well as the anger in certain circles that America is prioritizing coalition concerns with Iranian expansionism over fighting terrorism and stabilizing Yemen.
To be clear, the AP report states there is no evidence that American money has gone to AQAP militants, and the U.S. government has denied complicity with al-Qaeda. This notwithstanding, the gist one gets is that we’re at least aware of these deals. In all, it’s a big mess of factions and interests, and what’s more, the indication in the report that AQAP’s numbers are on the rise suggests there is some degree of comfort for the group in Yemen. At any rate, it runs counter to a narrative that coalition forces are stamping out al-Qaeda’s influence in the region, and for a war we’re involved in that hasn’t even been met with a congressional declaration, that’s not encouraging.
At the heart of the trouble with the Yemen situation is the overwhelming humanitarian need, it should be emphasized. Sadly, and while not to dissuade aid efforts, until real progress can be made to curb open hostilities, treating the victims will only temporarily assuage their wounds and will only help a portion of those impacted. Accordingly, due notice must be paid to the suffering of the Yemeni people, and with that, the United States’ hand in this state of affairs.
Based on principle alone, Yemen deserves more attention, and noting the U.S.’s assistance to the Saudi-Emirati coalition, it’s yet more incumbent upon our nation to accept responsibility. Whether or not the prospects of such recognition are particularly good, however, is another matter entirely.
In the era of President Donald Trump (still jarring to read or hear, by the way), every piece of news—good or bad—runs the risk of being exaggerated or sensationalized, especially when and where there are issues to sell and clicks to generate. Of course, there is also the risk of underselling the danger Trump presents to America, to democracy, and to the world at large, among those who either fail to comprehend this threat, or fail to be able to confront it in all the terror it induces. As it must be stated and restated, Trump and his presidency are not normal. His war against the media is not normal. His personal gain from use of his properties because of his refusal to divest is not normal. His nationalist rhetoric and the hate and violence he encourages is not normal. Pres. Trump, in obscuring, obstructing, and distracting from his ties to Russia, is potentially at the heart of a scandal yet worse than Watergate. He’s a fraud, and details like fake covers of Time magazine with his image on them hanging in his golf clubs would be laughable and piteous if this man weren’t such a prick and President of the United freaking States. Donald Trump can and should be resisted for these reasons and more.
As specifically regards attributing good news to Trump, caution should be taken before ascribing any boon to him or any other POTUS, for that matter. In the weeks after Trump’s election, the stock market was on the rise, prompting chatter about a “Trump bump.” That bump extended even to his first 100 days, with Trump enjoying the biggest increase in stock prices since George W. Bush. The seeming justification for this was the perception or prediction that Trump’s policies would generally favor business, hence reason for optimism on Wall Street. Since then—and not merely to kill one’s buzz—the Trump bump, as measured by the “yield curve” plotting the difference between 10-year and 2-year Treasury bond yields, has flattened out, and if analysts like Steve Denning are accurate in their assessment of what’s going on economically in the U.S., this kind of rise in stocks and shareholder value does nothing for jobs and stands to depress the real economy. Not to mention that “much of the markets’ movements arises from circumstances beyond any president’s control.” As #45 would have us believe, he inherited a real mess from Barack Obama, and the initial upward surge we saw was nothing short of miraculous, but the truth is Trump stepped into a better situation than either of his predecessors. Dubya was dealing with the dot-com bubble burst when he began his tenure. Obama was dealing with the financial crisis of 2007 to 2008 to 2009 to whenever one presumes it actually ended. Ol’ Cheeto Voldemort has had to deal with—what?—BuzzFeed and CNN being mean to him?
Along these lines, the recent announcement of a move by NATO members to increase defense spending by some $12 billion has less to do with Donald Trump than he or his supporters might otherwise lead you to believe. In a piece for Foreign Policy, Robbie Gramer suggests it is another autocratic strongman at the heart of this 4.3% uptick: Vladimir Putin. According to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, this increase, part of an ongoing upward trend, is specifically designed not only to confront terrorism and extremism in the Middle East, but to handle Russian aggression. According to sources cited in Gramer’s piece, the 2014 invasion of Crimea, in particular, was a catalyst for a pledge for NATO members to raise their level of spending to at least 2% of GDP spending by 2024 if not there already, with a number of governments putting plans into motion before November’s upset presidential victory. (It should not surprise you to know that the United States has already long since eclipsed that threshold.) Per Mr. Stoltenberg, these monies will be used for new military equipment and exercises better designed to address emergency situations and other unexpected events (like, um, invasions), as well as to fund pensions and salaries for troops.
In enumerating the justifications for this more robust commitment to defense spending, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg actually acknowledged President Trump’s focus. No, seriously. He is quoted thusly: “I welcome the strong focus of President Trump on defense spending and burden sharing, because it is important that we deliver. European allies should invest more in defense not only to please the United States, but they should invest more in defense because it is in their own interests.” OK, give the devil his due—even if to be merely diplomatic about the whole situation—but how much credit do we give a man for being right for the wrong reasons? Let’s assume Donald Trump has progressed, shall we say, in his thinking about NATO. It’s not a high bar to clear, mind you, but it would be an upward trajectory. As Robbie Gramer outlines, Trump not only characterized the North Atlantic Treaty Organization once upon a time as “obsolete,” but criticized its various members for essentially owing back dues and for intimating that the U.S. might not come to the rescue if they didn’t pony up. Ivo Daalder, former American ambassador to NATO, took to Trump’s favorite medium to drop some knowledge on him. Among his salient points:
The United States decides how much it wants to spend for NATO’s benefit. That is, no one forced America to spend the way it has.
The other member nations don’t pay the U.S. for its services. It’s not a transaction.
All NATO signatories have pledged to spend 2% or more of their GDP on defense spending. Besides the U.S.A., four already do (Estonia, Greece, Poland, and the United Kingdom), and the others are on their way.
America does commit a fair amount of financial resources to the purpose of NATO, but this is because it is in the country’s best interest to make sure Europe is safe. Much in the same way European leaders see increasing defense spending as vital for their own sense of security—and not merely to appease the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”
In short, sharing is caring, and for Trump to envision the rest of NATO as taking advantage of the United States’ hospitality is for him to seriously mischaracterize the whole situation. It should be noted, however, that Pres. Trump has since backtracked on his wholesale condemnation of NATO and has committed to endorsing Article 5, the NATO mutual defense clause. The administration has also earmarked nearly $5 billion in its 2018 defense budget for activities amenable to NATO’s cause and Europe’s protection.
Still, while the above elements are promising signs, let’s not lose sight of the 800-pound Russian dancing bear in this equation. On the subject(s) of Russia, Vladimir Putin, hacking, and trying to influence our presidential elections, Donald Trump, as he and other Republicans are wont to due when deflecting, has pointed to Barack Obama’s culpability in these matters. To be fair, the sanctions and other remedial actions approved by the Obama administration in response to evidence of Russian hacking have been criticized by any number of experts as fairly tepid. Nevertheless, as seems to be the pattern with Trump, his lashing out at anyone who is not a staunch loyalist is almost certainly a case of the pot proverbially calling the kettle black. At a recent hearing in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Nicholas Burns, a former State Department official and your company’s computer guy, testified with respect to Russian meddling in America’s elections. At one point, James Risch, Republican senator from Idaho, pressed Burns ever-so-partisanly on his statement that the “Obama administration should have reacted more quickly and vigorously” to Russian hacking, as it was aware that such attempts to undermine American institutions were going on.
Burns, however, maintained that part of the problem in Obama’s dilatory response was resistance from top congressional Republicans, notably the toad-faced Mitch McConnell, in going further on action against Russia despite the administration informing them of the hacking. Furthermore, he offered, while Obama and Co. could have done more, at least he did something to address the Russian threat. Pres. Trump has downplayed the seriousness of Russia’s involvement in our affairs, with he and some of his spokespeople even going so far as to call it all a “hoax,” but while buffoons like Tom Cotton may paint Trump as a superior Commander-in-Chief to Obama because of action in Afghanistan and Syria and for calling for steep (and overstated) domestic defense spending increases, Nicholas Burns is right to be concerned that not only will Trump refuse to act against his BFF Putin, but will even roll back those sanctions approved by Barack Obama, tepid as they were.
What’s striking about this exchange between Risch and Burns is that this is an example of a conflict that is being fought along the lines of the political divide, when matters of national security and defense should be above such posturing. If Cotton, Risch and their Republican colleagues in Congress were really concerned about protecting our homeland and holding people accountable, they would go after Donald Trump just as hard as they rail against Obama. You know, provide some checks and/or balances. After all, if this were Hillary Clinton in the White House instead of Trump, these kinds of hearings would be incessant and aimed directly at her actions. Just look at how the marathon hearing on Benghazi played out, a public event which was as much spectacle as it was legitimate inquiry into what happened to our diplomatic mission in Libya. And Hillary wasn’t even in office at that time! While we’re at it, let’s relitigate other questionable uses of our defense capabilities. Like, for instance, that time we got involved in a war in Iraq based on intelligence that proved faulty. That was a real humdinger.
Indeed, pretty much everything points to the assertion that we as Americans should be concerned about Russia’s attempts to weaken the United States of America, such that a unified defense on the domestic front (Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike) as well as a cooperative approach on the international front (i.e. NATO) is advisable. It is therefore highly disconcerting that, in advance of an upcoming planned meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, the former doesn’t have a set agenda. Because, as Yochi Dreazen, deputy managing editor of Vox’s foreign affairs wing, and others have illuminated, the latter definitely does. Among the things Putin seeks for himself and Russia are 1) that prized roll-back of sanctions for the invasion and annexation of Crimea, which prompted NATO’s rush to increase defense spending in the first place; 2) allowing him to operate more freely in Syria (nothing about a freer Putin sounds good, but maybe that’s just me); 3) the U.S. distancing itself from NATO (ol’ Vladdy is, as it turns out, not a huge fan); and 4) kindly look past trying to influence the 2016 United States presidential election. Presumably, then Putin would shrug his shoulders as if to say, “Come on—you know you want to.”
Almost objectively, one should expect, irrespective of political leanings, the answer to the above requests should be: 1) No; 2) No; 3) No; and 4) F**k no—why? But this is 2017, this is Donald Trump, this is Vladimir Putin, and honestly, do you have any great confidence that Trump will do what is in the United States’ and Europe’s best interests? Whether because Trump has admiration for Putin as a leader who rules with an iron fist and who uses his stature to neutralize the opposition—permanently, even—or because there is some illicit connection between Trump and Russia which compels him to kowtow to Moscow’s whim, or both, there is every reason to worry that the end result of this heart-to-heart will favor Russia at our expense. Despite his contention that he is the consummate deal-maker, if Donald Trump’s ability to “negotiate” a credible replacement of ObamaCare through Congress given majorities in both the House and Senate is any indication, then he’s, um, not all he’s cracked up to be. Now put him up against the likes of Vladimir Putin, a man Dreazen refers to as a “master tactician,” and one’s imagination may wander down some dark paths if one lets it. Or it could be a Putin-Trump love-fest. Anything could happen, which both inspires a small amount of optimism Trump might stumble upon the right course of action, and well-justified terror.
There’s another dread-provoking level to the drama inherent in U.S.-Russia relations, though, in addition to what Trump and his administration won’t do, and what Putin wants. As Yochi Dreazen explains, it’s how Vladimir Putin and others who think like him view the United States—and it’s not merely as a patsy, either. Citing intel by the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, there apparently is a laundry list of “offenses” for which Russia suspects the U-S-of-A, including but not limited to the Arab Spring; the ouster of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, currently in exile in Russia and wanted for high treason; revolutions in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and the Ukraine; and wars in Iraq, Kosovo, and Libya. Oh, and Putin thinks we are actively plotting to kick him out, too. In other words, Vladimir Putin sees the United States as an enemy. This is the man that Donald Trump has consistently exempted from criticism. This is the kind of threat that Trump has largely downplayed and over which he has resisted the credibility of the very intelligence agencies designed to furnish him with viable information. This is more than a passing concern, but it’s doubtful that our President fully grasps the very concept.
Returning to the beginning discussion of bad news vs. good news, the ultimate bad news is Donald Trump is still President of the United States, as it has been every week since he’s been elected. With respect to our relationship with our allies, both in Europe and elsewhere, Trump apparently likes to test the bounds of our diplomatic relations by very publicly calling out our allies, particularly when he feels that the United States is being taken advantage of. Which is pretty much all the time. Gotta keep producing those sound bites and playing to the base, eh? Trump’s most recent victim, if you will, is South Korea and newly-elected president Moon Jae-in, chosen to fill the void left by the impeachment of Park Geun-hye. Given his rhetoric on North Korea, there was some degree of expectation that Kim Jong-un and his nation’s ever-present threat would be more of a centerpiece of this meeting. Instead, very little was said by #45 in terms of specifics on a strategy for how to deal with North Korea, and the South Korean president was made to be lectured about its trade policies. With reporters entering the room just as Trump was essentially dressing down his South Korean counterpart. Yeah. Moon Jae-in agreed insofar as being open to revisit KORUS, the five-year-old treaty between the two nations, but what this means for the fate of the treaty and the reception of these events in Seoul is unclear. I know if I were on the South Korean side of things, I would certainly be hesitant to want to deal with President Trump—or even invite him to my country. And you could forget about buying any crappy Trump Home products.
The good news is that Congress may actually be willing to push back against Donald Trump on certain aspects of foreign policy, particularly regarding Russia. Maybe. The Senate just approved by an overwhelming margin a bill which would prevent Trump from rolling back sanctions on Russia. This still has to clear the House without getting watered down significantly, mind you, but that this measure had so much Republican support in the Senate may be telling of what GOP lawmakers think of the President’s temperament. Even more surprising was a vote of the House Appropriations Committee to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force that has allowed the United States to essentially continuously fight wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, with the thinking that this now-15-year-old provision is too broad and should be debated/updated to reflect the current situation with ISIS and al-Qaeda. Of course, when not being criticized for being all but symbolic gestures, some of the actions taken in departure from Trump’s proposals would actually increase the defense budget. That doesn’t exactly enthrall me as a progressive. Still, that there is thinking outside Trump’s proposals and outside blind party loyalty gives one the minutest sense of hope.
Outside of Trump. Invoking this piece’s title, that seems to be the optimal perspective to take, especially when it comes to the global economy and defense spending. Don’t assign Donald Trump more blame than he deserves for factors largely outside his control, but certainly don’t give him more credit when our European allies are bolstering their defense spending—not when they already have made plans to do so and when the shadow of Vladimir Putin looms largest of all. And for the sake of our country’s national security, pray that whole G20 meeting goes well. Fingers crossed.
When President Donald Trump announced his intention to back the United States out of participation in the Paris climate accord, what was most startling was not the potential negative ramifications this move might have for climate change on Earth—which are not to be merely undersold, mind you—but the tone this set in terms of America’s relationship to the rest of the globe. As was largely established in his espousal of an “America First” ideology during his Inauguration speech and throughout his campaign, Trump’s abdication of the U.S.’s environmental responsibilities was essentially a “f**k you” to anyone who was not the U-S-of-A. What made Trump’s announcement particularly galling was the idea the Paris agreement is a voluntary, non-binding treaty. That is, if any signatory nation violates the terms of the accord, it is not as if the rest of the nations in the form of some super big army would come in and, say, force the violator to use hybrid cars.
In fact, prior to Pres. Trump indicating he was opting to pull out—cue salacious wink—the U.S. has been by far the worst offender when it comes to carbon emissions, and has further hampered international efforts to effect a set of environmental standards with some teeth, thanks in large part to opposition on the part of Republican leaders and lawmakers who have refuted the science on climate change, or simply have favored weakening regulations as part of their vague conservative pro-business agenda. Climate change—pshaw! It’s ISIS we should be worried about! They want to take over the world and force us all to live under sharia law! I’m sure as shit not giving up pork! Hell, no, we won’t go!
The United States of America has long viewed itself a cut above the rest, something special. To a certain extent, those who feel this way are right—in terms of its history as a fabled melting pot and as a haven for democratic values, not to mention one of the world’s richest countries, the home of the red, white, and blue has a unique place in the international community. Then again, we are long since removed from the days of the American Revolution and Ellis Island serving as a major hub for entry in the United States. Besides, regardless of what era we’re living in, it’s seemingly a fine line between a proclamation of national pride and individuality, and patriotism to the point of stubbornness. Metric system? Forget that! Why would we want a system based on the number 10 which makes all kinds of sense? Better to have some mess of measurements based on the British imperial system that you either have to memorize or constantly look up! And while we’re at it, screw soccer! Football is way better—because you use your hands—which makes it strange that it’s called “football”—but screw it some more! Because America!
Attitudes like those set forth by Donald Trump which would place America first and all others second—presumably this includes Russia, but you are free to draw your own conclusions in this regard—by their nature appeal to the ultra-conservatives and nationalists among his base. Of course, this is Donald Trump we’re talking about here, so his positions on this dimension have been anything but consistent. For all his bluster about keeping out of other countries’ affairs, especially in the Middle East, it certainly knocked the alt-righters who bought a four-year pass on the Trump Train for a loop when he went and authorized the use of the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan. As enthusiasts of the military-industrial complex instead would be concerned, America under #45 has already seen its fair share of meddling and flex of military might.
Soon after his Trump’s tenure began, the administration proceeded with an operation in Yemen, the success of which is very much debatable. For all the supposedly “helpful intelligence” that was gathered and despite 14 al-Qaeda militants being killed, according to U.S. officials, the Yemen raid also resulted in the death of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens, the destruction of a $90 million aircraft, and the deaths of 23 civilians. John McCain, a man who, ahem, knows something about serving his country, even went so far as to label the mission a “failure.” Once we dispense with the usual self-serving talk from Trump, Sean Spicer, and other flatterers within the administration, we are presented with a case where—surprise!—our President’s judgment and flippant approach to foreign policy can and should be scrutinized.
It’s not just in Yemen, however, that we as a country collectively have blood on our hands under Donald Trump, and as with the botched raid on high-ranking al-Qaeda members in Yemen, the collateral damage and overall questionable utility of certain operations merits more attention than it otherwise has received by the mainstream media. In April, multiple reports confirmed that the United States bombed a mosque in Syria, killing 40 civilians and wounding dozens more, a notion which flew directly in the face of U.S. officials’ accounts that it had targeted an al-Qaeda stronghold. This incident fits in with a disturbing pattern of the use of military force under #45: lower insistence on safeguarding civilians in Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere; spikes in the number of civilian casualties disproportionate to the actual number of airstrikes being carried out; and general lack of oversight by the Commander-in-Chief and leadership by the Armed Forces in general. And this is before we even get to the matter of spending and cost overruns, which have been an issue with the Department of Defense even prior to Trump’s tenure. Just recently, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) published a report which found that the DoD blew upwards of $28 million on uniforms for the Afghan Army that not only were inappropriate fits for camouflage given the surroundings (roughly only about 2% of Afghanistan is forest), but were much more expensive than comparable options. Again, whether it’s human lives or millions or dollars, that these are not larger concerns or more publicized is disconcerting. Oh, well. Just put it on our tab. What’s that? A bunch of brown people died in the Middle East? No biggie. They were only Muslims—no big deal.
America First—but just for kicks, let’s bomb the shit out of ISIS and al-Qaeda. Sure, we have tons of things to fix right here at home, but let’s focus on who can and can’t come into the country. President Trump’s professed inclination toward isolationism alongside his apparent hard-on for upping our defense spending and bolstering our nuclear capabilities only hints at an administration of which its foreign policy direction in any given area or region is marked by maddening inconsistency and positions that are far from fully-formed. Trump entertains a call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen—and then goes ahead and agrees to uphold the “One China” policy that has existed in America for decades. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggests Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states overstepped in their blockade of Qatar—and then Trump commends the use of that same blockade. Trump derides NATO as “obsolete”—then backpedals on that assertion. It’s one thing to use the “keep them guessing” strategy so as to try to bolster your position in negotiations or to ward off your enemies. Heck, North Korea relies on this as its default way of interaction with the rest of the world. Do we have nuclear capabilities? Can we fire a missile and obliterate you as you’re sitting and sipping on your latte? Not sure? Guess you better watch out! It’s another, however, when you confuse your allies and members of your own Cabinet with your remarks. The administration is already hampered by inefficiency owing to the number of positions Mr. President has yet to fill or for which to even provide a nominee. Add the inability of Trump and Co. to effectively communicate within their own circle, and it’s no wonder this presidency has been characterized as, as the kids would say, a “hot mess.”
More recently, two overt policy shifts with respect to specific nations have drawn widespread attention, and though they are very different, one begins to wonder whether they are both motivated by a legitimate belief that they are the best option, or perhaps more likely, that they are concessions to his supporters and/or deliberate attempts to do the exact opposite of what Barack Obama did, especially toward the end of his second term. The first is Cuba. Marking a 180 from the previous administration’s renewal of bilateral relations, Pres. Donald Trump’s restrictions on travel and business with the island nation are intended expressly to cripple its Communist-led government—as well as to appeal to the portion of the Cuban-American delegation resentful of decades of rule under the Castros and a voting bloc that has generally and traditionally opted red (though there is evidence that tendency is eroding). Moreover, in the demand for the extradition of Assata Shakur/Joanne Chesimard—who escaped prison after being convicted for the murder of New Jersey state trooper Werner Foerster, fled to Cuba, and has remained there as a political asylee ever since—Trump is looking to solidify his support from the men and women who wear the badge.
You may agree with Trump that Cuba’s government is not an ideal arrangement. You may yourself favor Shakur/Chesimard being “brought to justice.” Even noting these may be principled stances, though, whether or not to engage in a reversal of America’s course to renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba deserves to be talked about. David E. Wade, former Chief of Staff of the State Department, penned an opinion piece critical of this change. Calling the move “the wrong policy in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Wade, noting the odd juxtaposition of lashing out at Cuba despite Trump’s apparent affection for the likes of Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte, first questions the utility of taking a hardline stance with Raul Castro set to step down next year and the Cuban government becoming increasingly unpopular with its own people. But that’s our Donald—a man who seems pathologically incapable of thinking about the long term as opposed to what’s directly in front of his face or what he watches on FOX News.
Secondly, Wade argues, this hurts the Cuban people and does little to disadvantage the regime in power; the spike in tourism from the United States experienced since President Obama effected a thawing of diplomatic relations between the two nations has benefited everyday Cubans, since Americans stay predominantly using Airbnb, while other foreign visitors use government-controlled resorts. Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, this move is bad for American economic and diplomatic interests. According to a study cited by Mr. Wade, over $6 billion and 10,000 jobs stand to be lost in Trump’s policy shift, and aside from this, there has been improvement in agreements between Cuba and the U.S. on how to handle drug trafficking, environmental disasters, human trafficking, and other issues of a human rights tint. Not to mention our loss may well be China’s or Russia’s gain. Unless that’s really the whole point—particularly on the side of the latter.
The other big bugaboo is Iran, which was already on the GOP hit list because of the nuclear deal orchestrated with its government, a perhaps imperfect but viable framework for bilateral relations between the two nations. Amidst fighting ISIS in Syria, U.S. forces, which have long advocated removing Bashar al-Assad from power, and Iranian forces, which have lent support to the Assad regime, have found themselves on opposing sides when not trying to root out extremism. Donald Trump, for his part, has thus far only insisted on spewing anti-Iran rhetoric and being buddy-buddy with Saudi Arabia, also notably, ahem, not a big fan of Iran (something we would believe is not-so-coincidental given his business interests there). And while he hasn’t dismantled said nuclear deal yet, Trump’s comments have made it evident where he thinks Iran stands, relatively speaking: he equates the nation with ISIS and al-Qaeda in terms of its danger to the rest of the world. Apparently, all those “Death to America!” chants are not exactly endearing to Iran’s cause—shocking.
This political posturing exhibited by the Trump administration bereft of a concrete strategy in the Middle East, coupled with competing interests that seem difficult, if not unlikely, to reconcile, makes various outside onlookers concerned that an all-out conflict with Iran is not only possible, but probable. In a recent piece which appeared in Politico, Dennis Ross, an experienced U.S.-Middle East negotiator, accedes to as much from the jump by stating that “Trump is on a collision course with Iran.” In laying out the state of affairs in the region which concern both the United States and Iran, Ross goes into depth about the forces and motivations behind what has happened and potentially will happen. Admittedly, much of it is beyond my ken as a humble blogger, but a significant point in his analysis involves the notion that Iran is seeking to create a land corridor to Lebanon through Iraq and Syria. Ross is not the only one to suggest this direction for Iran as an extension of its foreign policy, but regardless of who is supplying this intelligence, if you will, this adds a bit of a wrinkle to American aims in this region. While there clearly is no love lost for Iran within the United States, nor is Assad a popular figure (rightfully so), the U.S.’s priority is ISIS and al-Qaeda. Add Iran’s interference and the presence of the Russians, and we’ve got quite the situation on our hands. On one hand, we want to fight jihadists and don’t want to go looking for trouble with Iran or Russia. On the other hand, though, by letting Iran operate unchecked, this could make it harder for us to fight extremism in and around Syria.
Simply put, and as Dennis Ross elaborates, things are not so simple in this neck of the woods. The YPG, a group of mostly Kurdish fighters who has been most effective alongside the U.S. Armed Forces in fighting ISIS, also has ties to Assad’s government, and there is the risk that clearing militants out of certain areas within Syria will be an immediate boon to the regime and will lead to the kind of oppressive conditions for Sunnis that helped produce ISIS in the first place. The powers-that-be in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf states, while certainly concerned with the fate of Syria and ISIS’s influence, are presently more absorbed by the blockade of Qatar, with the Saudis in particular making demands of Qatar to cut ties to Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, to close a Turkish military base stationed there, and to disband al-Jazeera, among other things, as well as making unspecified threats should its leadership not comply within a short span. Meanwhile, Iran and Turkey are helping Qatar weather the blockade with food supplies. Each country seemingly has its own agenda, if not multiple reasons for its behavior, at that.
In light of this, as Ross explains in closing, the United States is tasked with trying to navigate the morass of conflicts and clashes of worldviews in the Levant and surrounding areas in forming a strategy moving forward. Saudi Arabia and the UAE need to be convinced to help reshape Syria given a defeat of ISIS and an end to the Assad regime. Turkey has to work with, as opposed to against, the anti-ISIS coalition, and has to be assuaged about its concerns about the growing Kurdish/YPG presence at the Turkish border. And Qatar has to stop supporting extremist groups and giving voices to, for instances, those who condone violence against Israelis by Palestinians—even if there are legitimate issues with the relationship between Israel and Palestine, including our own blanket support for Israel despite the proliferation of West Bank settlements. As Dennis Ross puts this succinctly: “In a confusing landscape, the administration must leave little doubt about its objectives and priorities.” And yet, there are so many doubts about our objectives and priorities, chief among them whether the presidency, for Donald Trump, is merely a vanity project and means by which to enrich himself. Or to try to gain access to certain resources in the region. Just saying what many of us were thinking.
Pres. Trump’s tough talk on Cuba and Iran—and for that matter, Mexico or the Paris agreement—may play well with specific segments of the American electorate. Let’s build a wall! Let’s put a boot in the ass of those who don’t like freedom, baseball, apple pie, and the rest of ‘Murica! Where it doesn’t go over so well is in those countries at which Trump is pointing his freakishly small fingers. In response to Trump’s announced policy shift, Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez referred to it as a “grotesque spectacle,” vowing his country will “never negotiate under pressure or under threat,” and scoffing about Trump and America lecturing them on their human rights records—of all countries. Ali Akbar Salehi, Iranian vice president and head of the country’s atomic energy organization, has similarly warned the U.S. about siding with Saudi Arabia, selling them guns, and threatening to upset the balance of power in the region while ignoring its security concerns. In other words, these countries are not cowed by Trump’s rhetoric, nor would we expect them to be particularly jazzed up about being all but coerced into behaving a certain way. Donald Trump’s brand of “diplomacy,” as a subset of his professed ability as the consummate deal-maker, seems to be little more than a combination of transactional stick-and-carrot appeals and vague militaristic threats, as if a simple token of appreciation or show of chutzpah will be enough to get the other side to acquiesce. Whether it’s because the United States has lost its standing somewhat, whether other leaders believe #45 is only interested in idle gestures, or both, however, they appear more than willing to stick by their principles. Especially when, you know, they’re in the right.
Donald Trump’s vision of America is one of the greatest country in the world continuously being taken advantage of for our riches and generosity. This coming from a man who wears designer suits and claims to speak for the downtrodden among us, and who experiences delusions of persecution in his own life, imagining himself as the subject of the greatest witch hunt in our history. You mean, more so than the actual Salem Witch Trials, Donald? Although that was before we were technically a country, and you’re only getting off with a technicality with this sort of logic. It doesn’t take long before Trump’s claims, unsupported by verifiable evidence, fall apart like a flaky French pastry, and either way, you figure it would behoove him to act with a little more dignity. Though America is great for the ideals on which it was founded, it is not without its excesses and hypocrisies, the likes of which are surely not lost on its critics around the world. As such, it is arguably worth very little to cry about being a victim when we have and continue to throw our weight around economically and militarily.
Alas, Mr. Trump can only pout and stamp his feet, and work to squander, in record time, the credibility and goodwill Barack Obama, the imperfect President that he was, worked to foster. In a framed conflict of America vs. the world, we all lose. What’s more, if prevailing trends in international relations continue as they are, we evidently have much more to lose in the coming days, weeks, and years.
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.