Tag: obama

Was the Rise of ISIS Inevitable?

In the latest issue of Survival, Hal Brands and Peter Feaver address an important debate in American foreign policy circles. Was the rise of ISIS inevitable, or was it the result of misguided U.S. policies? Most agree it is the latter, but the dispute gets fraught on the question of whether it was U.S. military interventionism or inaction that deserves the blame. Some say it was the invasion of Iraq that led to the rise of ISIS. Others insist it was Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq in 2011.

Brands and Feaver use counterfactual analysis to assess whether different U.S. policy decisions at four “inflection points” could have nipped the rise of ISIS in the bud. The first of these points was the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. The other three occurred during the Obama administration and include the decision not to press Iraq to allow the United States to leave behind a significant number of U.S. troops, the decision not to intervene aggressively early on in the Syrian civil war, and the decision not to intervene more forcefully to help the government of Iraq defeat ISIS before it took the city of Mosul.

The authors take a middle road, arguing that, “the rise of ISIS was indeed an avertable tragedy,” but that both restraint and activism share the blame. Had U.S. policymakers not invaded Iraq in 2003, or been more aggressive in Iraq and Syria from 2011-2014, they argue, “ISIS might not have emerged at all.”

With suitable analytic humility, however, the authors warn against overconfidence that any of the alternatives would have made a decisive difference to the eventual outcome:

We find, for instance, that limited intervention in Syria in 2011-13 might have had benefits, but it probably would not have shifted the course of the conflict so fundamentally as to head of ISIS’s rise. Likewise, not invading Iraq in 2003 would have left the United States saddled with the costs of continuing to contain that country, whereas striking ISIS militarily in late 2013 or early 2014 might have weakened that organization militarily while exacerbating the political conditions that were fueling its rise. Intervening more heavily in Iraqi politics in 2010 in order to bring about a less sectarian government than that which ultimately emerged, and leaving a stay-behind force in Iraq after 2011, represent a fairly compelling counterfactual in the sense that such policies could have had numerous constructive effects. But even here, choosing a different path from the one actually taken would have meant courting non-trivial costs, liabilities, uncertainties and limitations (p. 10).

We applaud Brands and Feaver, who served in the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, respectively, for their attempt to “move away from polemical and polarized assessments focused on assigning blame, and toward more granular, balanced analysis based on a fairer-minded view of what went wrong (p. 10).” At the same time, there is plenty of room for disagreement over their interpretation of the “what ifs” of such a complex historical question.

President Obama’s Farewell Speech

Yesterday in this space Gene Healy previewed last night’s farewell speech by President Barack Obama before an arena of supporters in Chicago’s McCormick Place. I wrote up my own reaction to the address for the National Interest and the results are here. The speech had little policy and less law in it, but the President did take up some themes of national unity and not demonizing opponents that – timed as they are amid confirmation season – may turn out to have a short shelf life.   

As I note, “Obama’s words have always held broader appeal than his policies.” And this President shows at best limited self-awareness of why his initiatives have met with so much opposition, as on topics of economic intervention: “his administration’s implacably pro-union policies, along with its many new mandates on employers and heavy regulatory hand in general, played a key role in driving business-oriented voters home to the Republican Party in recent elections.”

In his post-Presidency Obama plans to take up the worthy cause of redistricting reform, where I am cautiously optimistic he may do some good. And I also liked the passage in which he lauded the Founders’ “essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving,” a spirit

born of the Enlightenment, that made us an economic powerhouse – the spirit that took flight at Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral, the spirit that cures disease and put a computer in every pocket.

It’s that spirit – a faith in reason, and enterprise, and the primacy of right over might, that allowed us to resist the lure of fascism and tyranny during the Great Depression, and build a post-World War II order with other democracies, an order based not just on military power or national affiliations but on principles – the rule of law, human rights, freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, and an independent press.

That order is now being challenged – first by violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam; more recently by autocrats in foreign capitals who see free markets, open democracies, and civil society itself as a threat to their power.

With perhaps a word or two changed here or there, that’s a passage I would have been happy to write myself. I hope it augurs well for his public service as a former President. Read the whole thing here.

No Mr. President, Mexico Is Not “Absorbing a Great Number of Refugees”

On Tuesday, President Obama delivered a short address to the Leaders Summit on Refugees at the United Nations.  He went out of his way to praise the Mexican government by stating:“Mexico … is absorbing a great number of refugees from Central America.” 

In reality, the Mexican government has done very little to absorb refugees.  From 2013 to 2015, Mexico only recognized 720 refugees from Honduras, 721 from El Salvador, and 62 from Guatemala.  During the time period, Mexico granted asylum to 129 Hondurans, 82 Salvadorans, and 17 Guatemalans.  That’s a total of 1,731 refugees and asylum seekers from those countries.  Only 83 of them were children. 

In 2015 alone, Mexico deported 175,136 people to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador - more than 100 times as many as were accepted by the humanitarian visa programs from 2013 to 2015.    

Instead, President Obama should have thanked the Mexican government for enforcing American immigration laws in a way that shields his administration from criticism.  Mexico has improved its immigration laws in recent years but refugee and asylum laws are one area still in desperate need of reform.  Let’s not let flowery speeches obscure the reality.

Thanks to Bryan Johnson for bringing this to my attention and Guillermina Sutter Schneider for her translation of Mexican government documents. 

Modern Slavery, More Important than Who Built the White House

When Michelle Obama delivered her address at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia, she created a stir when she cried out that America’s story was “the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”

That last line, “…I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” was the focus of much attention, with some conservative critics calling the claim false or misleading. The record was set straight in a New York Times article of July 26th, “Yes, Slaves Did Help Build the White House”.

While it important to address sins of the past, it is always wise to focus on today’s indiscretions too. Yes, a forward-looking perspective is always prudent. The slavery problem that is pressing today is modern slavery, and it’s a shockingly huge problem.

In 2013, the Walk Free Foundation, founded by Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest, created the Global Slavery Index (GSI) to track and report modern slavery worldwide. The GSI defines modern slavery as “situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power or deception, with treatment akin to a farm animal.” With data on 167 countries, the Global Slavery Index estimates that over 45.8 million people find themselves in some form of modern slavery today.

According to the Global Slavery Index, over 58 percent of slaves today live in just five countries. India’s embrace of slavery is astounding, with over 18 million Indians enslaved today – over 4.5 times more than the U.S. had during its peak decade of the 1860s.1  China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan round out the top five offenders. Seventeen countries have at least one percent of their populations living in modern slavery, with North Korea leading the pack, as the accompanying table shows.

 

While it might be politically correct to exclusively spend time gazing into the rearview mirror and speaking only about the history of slavery in the U.S., it would be wise to speak of the 45.8 million who are enslaved today. It’s time to shine a light on today’s slave trade and the countries where slaves reside.

The Dissent Channel Goes Public

This morning, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal published excerpts and summaries of an internal memo by 51 State Department officials calling for airstrikes against the Assad regime in Syria. The key idea expressed in the memo is simple: take military action immediately to stem the tide of violence in Syria. It’s an understandable sentiment, especially from those who have been dealing with Syria’s barbaric civil war on a daily basis, as many of the signatories have. Unfortunately, it is also an exercise in wishful thinking, ignoring the concrete problems with further U.S. military commitment in Syria which have formed the basis for the Obama administration’s refusal to overthrow Assad.

The memo criticizes the Obama Administration’s decision to eschew military action in Syria, arguing instead for the “judicious use of stand-off and air weapons” against the Assad regime. Though such internal memos contesting the administration’s official policy – known as a ‘dissent channel cable’ – are not uncommon, the large number of signatories is more unusual. The memo blames the Assad regime’s violence towards civilians for both Syria’s instability and the appeal of ISIS, arguing that the moral rationale for airstrikes “is unquestionable.”

Slow Jammin’ the TPP, Baby

Last week I criticized President Obama for his failure to sell the Trans-Pacific Partnership to the public and to Congress.  Ratification of trade agreements has always relied on consistent and unequivocal advocacy from the White House.

Well, the president heard me loud and clear and decided to take my advice.  Here’s his pitch to the American people via Jimmy Fallon (TPP lyrics begin around 4:50, but the whole thing is pretty darn funny).

 

Topics:

Playing the China Card Wisely Is Obama’s Last Best Chance to Sell the Trans-Pacific Partnership

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is the economic centerpiece of the Obama administration’s much ballyhooed “strategic pivot” to Asia, which – in 2009 – heralded U.S. intentions to extricate itself from the messes in Iraq and Afghanistan and to reassert its interests in the world’s fastest-growing region. After six years of negotiations, the comprehensive trade deal was completed last year and signed by its 12 charter members earlier this year. But the TPP must be ratified before it can take effect – and prospects for that happening in 2016 grow dimmer with each passing day.

One would assume TPP ratification a policy priority of President Obama. After all, he took office promising to restore some of the U.S. foreign policy credibility that had been notoriously squandered by his predecessor. If Congress fails to ratify the agreement before Christmas, Obama will leave office with American commercial and strategic positions weakened in the Asia-Pacific, and U.S. credibility further diminished globally.  The specter of that outcome would keep most presidents awake at night.

In Newsweek today, I put most of the blame for this precarious situation on a president who, throughout his tenure, has remained unwilling to challenge the guardians of his party’s anti-trade orthodoxy by making the case for trade liberalization generally, or the TPP specifically:

Superficially, one could blame election-year politics and a metastasizing popular antipathy toward trade agreements for the situation, but the original sin is the president’s lackluster effort to sell the TPP to his trade-skeptical party and the American public. In the administration’s division of labor, those tasked with negotiating the TPP kept their noses to the grindstone and brought back an agreement that reduces taxes and other protectionist impediments to trade…

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