hree days after ISIS’s mass-casualty assault on Paris, Barack Obama proclaimed that the U.S. policy he had authorized to defeat the terrorist organization was nonetheless working. “We have the right strategy,” he told reporters who had come with him to Turkey for the G-20 Summit, “and we’re gonna see it through.” The international press was incredulous. The president seemed to be standing behind his claim, made the day before the attacks, that ISIS was “contained.” How could Obama still say that the fight was succeeding? Reporters fired back with a series of questions. An AFP correspondent set the tone: “One hundred and twenty-nine people were killed in Paris on Friday night,” he said. “ISIL claimed responsibility for the massacre, sending the message that they could now target civilians all over the world. The equation has clearly changed. Isn’t it time for your strategy to change?”
It was the thought on everyone’s mind—and it seemed to offend the leader of the free world. He became impatient, and assured one journalist after another he was correct. By the time CNN’s Jim Acosta asked bluntly, “Why can’t we take out these bastards?” Obama was in high dudgeon.
“If folks want to pop off and have opinions about what they think they would do, present a specific plan,” he said. “If they think that somehow their advisers are better than the chairman of my joint chiefs of staff and the folks who are actually on the ground, I want to meet them. And we can have that debate.”
Eighteen days later, on December 2, U.S. citizen Syed Farook and his Pakistani wife, Tashfeen Malik, shot up a party at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California. They killed 14 people, wounded 21 others, and were discovered to have built an arsenal of pipe bombs in their apartment. As information on the couple trickled in that Wednesday afternoon, Obama was giving an interview to CBS News about national security. “ISIL will not pose an existential threat to us. They are a dangerous organization like al-Qaeda was, but we have hardened our defenses,” he said. “The American people should feel confident that, you know, we are going to be able to defend ourselves and make sure that, you know, we have a good holiday and go about our lives.” Two days later, authorities discovered that Malik had pledged fealty to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
It is no longer in dispute that the president has been overtaken by events. While he alternately scolds and reassures, ISIS fights on, gaining power and claiming lives.
But Obama has not been blindsided; he has chosen policies that have emboldened ISIS and has rejected other options at every turn. In fact, his words in Turkey were patently false. Obama doesn’t need an introduction to those who would have done things differently; he knows them well. They include two of his secretaries of defense, his former under secretary of defense, his former secretary of state, his former head of the CIA, his former Army chief of staff, the last commanding general of forces in Iraq, his former ambassador to Syria, his former deputy national-security adviser, and, yes, even his former joint chiefs chairman—among others.
To the many officials, civilian and military, who have opposed Obama on strategy pertaining to Iraq, Syria, and ISIS, his remonstrance in Turkey was surely surreal. Posturing aside, Obama has rejected or marginalized virtually all dissent on these issues. And as a result of his persistent obstinacy, he has chosen poorly again and again, creating a linked set of escalating crises. They began with the misguided U.S. departure from Iraq. They continued with the meltdown of Syria and Obama’s persistently botched responses to it. And they have reached their apogee (so far) with the creation of more than 4 million refugees—the worst humanitarian catastrophe of our age—and ISIS’s establishment of an Islamic caliphate of increasing global reach.
Despite the president’s effort to frame his policies as coolly pragmatic, his decisions on Iraq, Syria, and ISIS fit a strict, even unbending, ideological pattern. His animating motivation has been to retract American power from the region and establish a new national consensus to ensure that the United States pursues a more humble foreign policy in the future.
This is a principled position, of a kind. It reflects a long-held belief in certain quarters that American military action in far-off lands and American meddling in those lands tend to do more harm than good, sowing dangerous resentment abroad.
But when a leader fails to balance this (or any) outlook against facts on the ground, principle becomes theology. And that is the situation in which the president now finds himself.
Obama’s inconsistencies have helped him evade traditional ideological labels. So perhaps it suffices to say he is foremost an anti-Bushist. His conception of America’s role in the world is most easily discerned in its opposition to that of his predecessor. He ran for president on a promise to end the war in Iraq—and when, as president, he told a Saudi Arabian news station, “all too often the United States starts by dictating,” he was talking about George W. Bush’s perceived “cowboy diplomacy.” When he told an audience in France that “America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive,” he was referring to Bush’s willingness to wage war without the support of the United Nations. And when in London he said, “With my election and the early decisions that we’ve made…you’re starting to see some restoration of America’s standing in the world,” he was touting his departure from Bush-era policy.
What Bush wrought he would undo. And he has undone much.
As conditions in the Middle East have deteriorated, the United States has progressively lost opportunities to act. The rush of events has now mooted many of the ideas Obama rejected. The actions that could have been taken to ensure that a functioning Iraq didn’t fall back into the hands of terrorists no longer apply now that ISIS controls massive sections of the country. The actions that could have contained the damage from a secular Syrian rebellion no longer have bearing on what has become an international war zone. And the actions that could have stopped a few hundred jihadists who crossed Iraq’s western border into Syria no longer matter, now that their number has grown to a few hundred thousand who have founded a state. Our viable options for defeating ISIS today are far more hazardous than the options we had only a few years ago, when we could have preempted its ascendance. But Obama has held fast—and in his effort to keep America out of the Middle East muck, he may well be ensuring an American reentry into a Middle East inferno.
resident Obama’s first order of business was bringing the Iraq War to a close. That was his signature campaign promise, and one cannot fault him for trying to fulfill it. But ending the war in the way he did would prove to be a serious mistake. Whatever one thinks about the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Iraq that Obama chose to abandon had been all but pacified. In 2011, the final year U.S. troops were on the ground, there were 54 American deaths in Iraq, a wartime low. The country suffered sectarian tensions, but nothing like those that had led to civil war in 2006. Most crucial was this: Coalition actions had defeated ISIS’s brutal predecessor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Iraqi jihad had become a bad memory.
But few of those close to the fight thought these achievements would be self-sustaining. Top Defense Department officials and military brass spent two years arguing for a continued U.S. presence in Iraq to ensure that the country didn’t relapse. Obama’s first secretary of defense, Robert Gates, was one such official. He hoped to leave 16,000 troops behind to consolidate American gains. Gates’s successor, Leon Panetta, had the same concerns about abandoning Iraq and tried to make his case to Obama. As he later wrote:
My fear, as I voiced to the president and others, was that if the country split apart or slid back into the violence that we’d seen in the years immediately following the U.S. invasion, it could become a new haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the U.S. Iraq’s stability was not only in Iraq’s interest but also in ours. I privately and publicly advocated for a residual force that could provide training and security for Iraq’s military.
So had others. Lloyd Austin, the last commanding general of forces in Iraq (and future commander of United States Central Command) recommended a residual American force of 23,000. Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno had made similar arguments in 2009, suggesting the U.S. keep 30,000–35,000 troops in Iraq after 2011. These were hardly minority opinions. At a 2011 Senate Armed Service Committee hearing, Senator John McCain asked Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey whether any military commanders supported a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops. “No, Senator,” Dempsey responded. “None of us recommended that we completely withdraw from Iraq.” Their objections were to no avail.
Obama, certain in his purpose, would take his first step toward inadvertently facilitating a jihadist renaissance.
When it came time to negotiate an extension on the U.S. Status of Forces agreement with Iraq, Obama didn’t secure a deal to keep American troops in the country. The president has claimed that he simply came up against Iraqi intransigence. But as Panetta explains, “Privately, the various leadership factions in Iraq all confided that they wanted some U.S. forces to remain as a bulwark against sectarian violence.” In fact, they wanted it more than Obama. Panetta writes that “Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy did her best to press [our] position, which reflected not just my views but also those of the military commanders in the region and the joint chiefs. But the president’s team at the White House pushed back, and the differences occasionally became heated.”
In the end, continues Panetta, “those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.”
Theology prevailed. In December 2010, Obama declared the war over. “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq,” he said. But without the United States present to exercise its leverage over then–Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, things immediately deteriorated. Maliki, a Shiite, began systematically cracking down on the country’s Sunnis. The Sunnis in turn were thrown into the arms of a revitalized Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was fast exploiting the absence of American security. During this jihadist revival, militants freed one Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from a Mosul jail. He would go on to become the leader of ISIS. By 2011, Iraq’s radicals were already spreading into Syria and capitalizing on a civil war that had begun months earlier. All the warnings that had gone unheeded were proving correct. But even then, no one envisioned just how massive the new jihadist threat would become.
nlike the Iraq War, the Syrian horror is entirely a creature of the Obama years. And here we have a much longer record of the ideas Obama rejected, the policies he chose, and the increasingly malignant repercussions of those choices.
One year into the Syrian civil war, dictator Bashar al-Assad had killed roughly 7,800 Syrians and the fighting had produced an estimated 35,000 refugees. The Obama administration had already called for Assad to step down, but had done nothing to make that happen. At the time, the central U.S. concerns were protecting Syrians from Assad’s onslaught and preventing the outbreak of a larger, destabilizing conflict. In March 2012, John McCain took to the Senate floor and made a half-hour speech calling for U.S.-led air strikes on Assad’s forces and the establishment of safe havens for Syrians under attack. McCain also appealed personally to Obama. “I told the president. I said, Bashar Assad is slaughtering people,” he later told PBS. “We are watching genocide take place, and it is eventually going to destabilize the entire region.”
At the time, McCain didn’t have much support. He was the first senator to call for U.S. force against Assad. And given his own defeat at Obama’s hands in the 2008 election and his growing unpopularity with the Republican base, he stood his ground alone. It is unquestionably true that American military action in the Middle East is and will always be risky and problematic. The region’s pathologies ensure a deluge of recriminations against the United States, even from those asking for our help. The pandemic combination of poor governance and sectarian tension increases the chance of clashes following a decisive American strike. And we rarely have a clear sense of friend and foe in lands where parties switch allegiances based on who seems most likely to outlast the latest calamity.
But if statecraft were informed solely by caution, the United States wouldn’t be standing today. There are always compelling reasons to steer clear of combat. A successful foreign policy means accounting for risk in determining what will secure the nation’s interests, not evading risk altogether. McCain’s warning about the coming destabilization was prescient; in any case, it’s hard to imagine that American action would have been worse than the path Obama chose.
After rejecting the first call to intervene in Syria, Obama stuck to inaction (or minimal action), no matter how bad the war got and no matter the nature of the threat it posed.He chose inaction. The president who said he was “elected to end wars, not start them” wasn’t about to go into Syria after pulling out of Iraq. What’s more, European leaders had already dragged Obama against his will into an air campaign against Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi a year earlier. Post-Qaddafi Libya was now giving way to chaos, partly because of Obama’s refusal to follow through with further American action. Obama’s anti-Bushism had been compromised by providing air support to Libyan rebels. He wouldn’t see it nullified entirely by going into Syria as well.
But the president also had other reasons for not acting in Syria. He was already working toward détente with Iran. Obama knew that the Iranian leaders were Assad’s closest allies, and he feared American action against Syria would jeopardize his chance for achieving a nuclear deal with Tehran. This too fit his anti-Bushism. Bush had labeled Iran a member of the “Axis of Evil,” a trio of dangerous rogue states that also included North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Obama’s predecessor saw the leaders in Tehran as inflexible theocrats bent on the destruction of Israel and the West. For Bush, the only real solution to the Iran problem was eventual regime change, a toppling of the mullahs, and the establishment of Iranian democracy. Obama, by contrast, sought to treat the Iranians as reasonable actors capable of good-faith negotiations with the United States. With the Iraq War over, diplomacy with Iran became his foreign-policy priority, and his fear of displeasing the mullahs would continue to hamper his Syria policy. Assad and his allies in Tehran took the president’s measure early and, assured of the new American constraint, would escalate the civil war with impunity.
After rejecting the first call to intervene in Syria, Obama stuck to inaction (or minimal action), no matter how bad the war got and no matter the nature of the threat it posed. As he stood pat, that threat changed. When McCain had called for helping the rebels, they were mostly secular Syrians trying to unseat a merciless dictator. The best hope among them was the Free Syrian Army, a non-radical group founded by military defectors seeking to oust Assad and replace his regime with a democratic one. They openly beseeched Washington for help, but Obama’s anti-Bush doctrine left them to fend for themselves.
Around the same time as McCain’s Senate speech, White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told the New York Times that the U.S. would begin providing “nonlethal assistance, like communications equipment and medical supplies, directly to opposition groups inside Syria.” Another administration official claimed that the U.S. had already begun sending supplies to the Free Syrian Army. But “nonlethal” ultimately meant ineffective. Supplies were meager, slow in coming, and would occasionally be seized by radical groups. Yet the administration would continue to tout such assistance, announcing new “boosts” in aid every year, even as the policy continued to fail. So while the United States stuck to fruitless gestures, the rebels increasingly looked to others who were providing them with tangible support. Those others turned out to be radical Sunni groups, such as al-Qaeda, the al-Nusra front, and ISIS. These trained jihadists were better organized than their non-radical counterparts and some enjoyed lavish funding from Gulf Arab states. The more Obama refused aggressive action, the greater the Islamist hold on the rebels.
As the anti-Assad rebellion morphed into a jihadist call to arms, Washington’s array of policy options narrowed, but they didn’t disappear. A new plan of action came from within the Obama administration in the summer of 2012. Then-director of the CIA, David Petraeus, proposed vetting and arming Syrian rebels covertly from bases inside Jordan. The covert element, he hoped, would allay White House concerns about being seen to meddle in Syrian affairs. Unlike McCain’s early proposition, this plan enjoyed significant support in the administration, from Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, and Samantha Power, who had been handpicked by Obama to head up a new “Atrocities Prevention Board.”
But the president vetoed the Petraeus plan, saying it would draw the United States into the conflict without decisively tipping the scales in favor of the rebels. His concerns here were not unwarranted, but they shouldn’t have been dispositive. A year and a half into the Syrian civil war, Obama didn’t accept that American inaction was itself a meaningful choice. Like action, inaction has real consequences. It gives both our allies and enemies a sense of our priorities, enabling them to recalibrate their plans accordingly. American inaction on Syria ensured that the country’s toxic trends would continue to gain momentum. For Assad, it meant he could wage war with impunity; for the rebels, it meant American help wasn’t coming; and for the jihadists among them, it meant an opportunity to recruit more of their dejected fellow Sunnis.
As things stood in the summer of 2012, the civil-war death toll was around 17,000 and there were more than 150,000 Syrian refugees.
n August 20, Obama held a press conference in the White House that was supposed to center on health care. Asked about Syria, the president gave an ad-libbed answer that would alter the course of history and take the administration on a bizarre foreign-policy detour. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” he said. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.” Presidential aides were reportedly baffled by Obama’s response, as it didn’t resemble anything they’d heard him say in private. But for all his practiced reticence, Obama had now accidentally warned Assad, on record, that America might intervene if chemical weapons came into play. He had also given the rebels hope. Unplanned or not, this became an opportunity for the United States to get on the right side of the war and thus deprive jihadists of the power they wielded in Syria as the best bet for toppling Assad.
A year later, on August 21, 2013, Assad called Obama’s bluff. The dictator launched a sarin nerve-gas attack in the suburbs of Damascus, killing 1,429 civilians—426 of whom were children. The Obama administration, on the hook to act, announced reprisals. At a press conference in London, Secretary of State John Kerry tried to keep the anti-Bush doctrine together. He described the “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort” the administration had in mind. But, in the end, “unbelievably small” wasn’t small enough for the president. Just days before the planned strike on Syria, Obama found himself too uncertain to give the order. After beginning a speech by saying he had the right as president to act against Syria on his own orders, he declared he was putting it up for a vote in Congress (then in recess).
This decision, it should be noted, went against the majority of Obama’s advisers, who feared the president would be severely weakened by a “no” vote. On the day Congress returned, Kerry gave a press conference and managed to extricate the administration from its dilemma just as accidentally as it had stumbled into it. Kerry said, rhetorically, that Assad could avoid a U.S. strike if he gave up “every bit of his weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay. But he isn’t about to [do that].” That afternoon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, picking up on Kerry’s comment, announced that Assad had accepted a Russian offer to hand over his chemical stockpile. Thereupon, the administration killed its plans for a strike on Syria.
Under the Russian arrangement, some but not all of Assad’s chemical weapons were shipped out of the country. He has since gone on to use chlorine gas. The plan, however, was a thorough success for the Kremlin, establishing Russia as a massive player in the conflict. At the time, the administration bragged that it had successfully made Syria Moscow’s problem. But Russian President Vladimir Putin would use his new leverage to expand his influence in Syria, eventually bringing Russia fully into the war on Assad’s side, prolonging the dictator’s reign, and further precluding American policy options. For Assad’s part, he was now legitimized as a cooperative partner in disarmament.
As ISIS began redrawing the map of the Middle East, Obama still saw no compelling case for U.S. action and fell back on anti-Bush insinuations to defend his policy.Finally, jihadists inside Syria used the American retreat as a recruiting tool among Sunnis who needed little more convincing that Washington would do nothing to help them. The radicals went into overdrive. And although the Obama administration began arming rebels in lieu of striking Assad, it was much too little and far too late. On the 12th anniversary of 9/11, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a communiqué denouncing the American-affiliated Free Syrian Army. ISIS, by now the strongest jihadist group in Syria, then declared war on what was left of the FSA, fighting it into irrelevance. Once again, Obama’s inaction had become a boon to America’s enemies.
At this point, more than 100,000 had been killed in the civil war and almost 2 million Syrians had been made refugees.
y the start of 2014, ISIS wasn’t merely the strongest of Syria’s jihadist groups; it had become the strongest party among all the country’s rebels. The organization had recently taken control of the city of Raqqa, which became a beacon for foreign fighters pouring into Syria to join ISIS. Yet the president showed little concern, remarking to the New Yorker’s David Remnick in January that “the analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a J.V. team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” That same month, the J.V. jihadists crossed back into Iraq and, with American troops withdrawn on Obama’s promise, seized Fallujah.
As ISIS began redrawing the map of the Middle East, Obama still saw no compelling case for U.S. action and fell back on anti-Bush insinuations to defend his policy. “A strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable,” he told a West Point audience in May. A month later, ISIS captured Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq.
That August, the world was gripped by televised images of desperate men, women, and children trapped on Sinjar mountain in northwestern Iraq. Advancing ISIS forces had surrounded tens of thousands of Yazidis, a Kurdish minority, and were waiting for them below. If the prey came down the mountain they would be slaughtered; if they didn’t, they would die of dehydration. Finally, the United States stepped up. With the world watching, Obama called for air strikes on the ISIS militants and saved the Yazidis from certain death. It was his first bold move against ISIS, and it was a success. Yet he was quick to follow up this show of strength with a disclaimer, saying the United States had no intention of “being the Iraqi air force.” His heroic act was a one-off.
Even as Iraq succumbed to carnage, things in Syria got worse. In June, ISIS declared a new Islamist caliphate and made Raqqa its capital. The organization had also become a rolling wave of sadism, enslaving and killing (sometimes by crucifixion) all who dared stand in its path. In July, the group took over a Syrian army base, beheaded 75 Syrian soldiers, and displayed their heads and bodies in the street. This was merely one of a string of ISIS beheadings that year. In August, ISIS released a video depicting the beheading of the journalist James Foley, the organization’s first American victim.
At this point, the Syrian death toll had risen to 191,000. Refugees numbered 3 million.
One American official could take no more. In May, Robert Ford, the U.S. Ambassador to Syria, stepped down from his post, disgusted with the failure to stop either ISIS or Assad. “I was no longer in a position where I felt I could defend the American policy,” he later said. “We have been unable to address either the root causes of the conflict in terms of the fighting on the ground and the balance on the ground, and we have a growing extremism threat.” Ford had long pushed for giving greater support to the moderate rebels. His was just another dismissed voice of dissent.
In September, with the parade of horrors too great to ignore, Obama expanded the effort to fight ISIS. He called for American air strikes in Syria and announced that the U.S. would begin training and arming moderate Syrian rebels—two years after dismissing David Petraeus’s plan to do so and one year after the Free Syrian Army had ceased to be a viable fighting force. Additionally, Obama would deploy 475 military advisers to Iraq, now that the country was overrun with ISIS militants.
n the 15 months since Obama called for greater action, it has become clear that the United States has still failed to adopt a winning strategy. ISIS has continued to make gains and export terror. Last May, it seized the Iraqi city of Ramadi. The same month, the group took over the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, killing locals door-to-door and destroying some of the most precious artifacts of multiple civilizations. Obama now says that ISIS is losing territory, but while updated color-coded maps tell different stories on different days, the general trend has been toward expansion. ISIS has also gained significant territory in Libya, Yemen, and South Asia.
Beyond its land claims, ISIS can now boast of a series of successful terrorist attacks. In October, the group killed 102 people in a suicide bombing at the Ankara central train station. That same month, ISIS blew up a Russian passenger plane, Metrojet flight 9268, killing 224 people over the Sinai. On November 12, two ISIS operatives blew themselves up in a Shia suburb of Lebanon, killing about 40 Lebanese. Then came the coordinated attacks in Paris and the San Bernardino shooting.
The strategy that Obama calls a success is, in reality, a combination of half measures and outdated ideas. Our air campaign in Syria has averaged a mere seven strikes a day. Almost 75 percent of planned U.S. bombing runs on ISIS never drop their payloads owing either to insufficient ground intelligence or overly strict rules of engagement. And Obama’s plan to train moderate Syrian rebels has already been retired because there were so few left willing to work with the United States that the program produced only four or five fighters (at a cost of $42 million).
Consider those sad facts in light of the enemy. Whatever language one wishes to use, ISIS now bears an inescapable resemblance to a state. It has established a set of laws and a means of enforcing them on a population of millions. It boasts a capital, designated provinces, and outlying governorates. Between collecting taxes, extorting money, seizing banks, ransoming kidnap victims, and selling oil, ISIS takes in billions of dollars annually. It has training outposts throughout the Middle East and, as we found out on November 13, organized operatives in the West. None of these achievements have taken a serious hit since the president claimed in 2014 he was stepping up the fight.
Last September, Gen. John Allen, the man Obama had picked to lead the coalition fight against ISIS, stepped down from his post. In announcing his exit, Allen cited his wife’s health problems. But it did not go unnoticed that his repeated calls for increased U.S. action had also long been ignored by the White House. Allen wanted to deploy tactical air-control teams in Iraq and establish a safe zone in Syria. Even Obama’s so-called ISIS czar, however, had been unable to persuade the president.
After the Paris attacks, the U.S. increased air strikes, instituted a more permissive targeting policy, and announced that “a specialized expeditionary targeting force” will help Iraqis and Kurds in raids against ISIS. But such measures are mostly cosmetic attempts to dress up a stale policy. They aren’t turning the tide, and they won’t do so any time soon.
bama’s repeated delays have precluded many formerly viable policy options. The rebel-training program is one example. No-fly zones over Syria are another. This plan, rebuffed years ago by the president, is no longer a possibility because of Russia’s new air campaign over the country.
Another concern is that we may have been working from faulty intelligence. The Pentagon’s inspector general is now examining the claims of more than 50 intelligence analysts who came forward in September, charging that their superiors had forced them to alter reports that didn’t portray ISIS as definitively losing. While we await the results of the investigation, we can only wonder who in the chain of command may have been responsible for vetting intelligence for good news. But if the claim is true, it certainly fits in with the culture of the Obama administration.
The White House has refused to see the problem for what it is. It has become clear that Assad and ISIS are complimentary parts of the same nightmare. They are perversely dependent on each other for survival: While ISIS thrives, Assad can play the role of Syria’s “good cop,” effectively offering a choice to those looking on: Do you want me or the apocalyptic army of decapitating slave traders? It’s a role he has exploited to great advantage, and it’s in his interest to keep ISIS in play so long as the world falls for the ploy. At the same time, ISIS can be destroyed only if Assad is taken out of power. So long as Assad is killing Syrians—and he’s killed far more than ISIS has—Sunnis won’t make ISIS their number-one target. The truth is that the United States needs to destroy ISIS and push to depose Assad simultaneously. But with John Kerry attempting to bring Assad and Syrian opposition parties into more talks about “power sharing,” we’re a long way off from getting the policy right. Obama, for his part, has contented himself with berating Americans who are wary of taking in an infinitesimal fraction of the refugees his own policies helped displace. “They are scared of three-year-old orphans,” Obama chided. “That doesn’t seem so tough to me.”
All these issues, however, are but manifestations of the larger encumbering reality: Barack Obama’s theological opposition to exercising effective American power abroad. The president’s inflexibility on that point has nurtured the rise of ISIS and tied our hands in the fight against it. But, with so few prudent options left, his stubbornness may have made a larger conflict with ISIS inevitable, either during the remainder of his term or after it. If so, Obama will have worked for eight years to avert a fate his very actions have summoned.
Today, the president still dismisses significant “boots on the ground” in Iraq and Syria as a nonstarter. On December 6, Obama spoke from the Oval Office, saying, “We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria.” He then added this bizarre coda: “That’s what groups like ISIL want. They know they can’t defeat us on the battlefield.” ISIS wants to engage the United States in a war in order to lose? And we should therefore resist the fight? This is theology outweighing logic.
Perhaps in this period of post-Bush America, however, a ground war against ISIS really is out of the question. But we should be clear about something. ISIS controls vast swaths of land, out in the open. In adopting the structure of a state, the group has given up some measure of the asymmetrical advantage enjoyed by terrorists who traditionally “melt away” into the shadows after an attack; ISIS, in short, can be targeted and defeated like a state. If an American commander in chief cannot even countenance deploying ground soldiers and Marines to defeat a state comprising the worst terrorist threat we’ve ever faced, then we might have finally forfeited our last defense against evil. We are in the final year of a presidency that unwittingly midwifed a monster.
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On His Watch
Must-Reads from Magazine
Last year, we asked experts to examine Candidate Trump’s policy proposals. This year, we’ve asked them to examine how he has executed these proposals in office.
On Trade By Scott Lincicome
Last year, economic, legal, and geopolitical calamity lurked in the shadows of almost every trade-policy promise made by presidential candidate Donald Trump. Eight months into the Trump presidency, those problems have—thankfully—not yet materialized. Instead, Trump trade policy has been a mixture of bluster, disappointment, relief, and uncertainty. This last category warrants close attention: In the coming months, Trump’s dangerous trade ambitions could remain in check, thus keeping a global trade system alive. Or politics, legal ambiguity, and Trump’s own emotional impulses could deal that system a fatal blow.
There is no doubt that President Trump has already done serious damage to the United States’ longstanding position as a world leader on trade policy, the American political consensus in favor of trade liberalization, and Republican views of trade and globalization. His constant vituperation has offended U.S. allies and trading partners, causing them to turn to Europe, Asia, or Latin America in search of alternatives to the once-welcoming and predictable U.S. market. He has accelerated (not started) the American retreat from the World Trade Organization, further wounding a multilateral trading system that was a U.S. invention—an invention that has, contrary to popular belief, served U.S. economic and foreign-policy interests well since the 1940s.
Trump’s day-one withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership—the flawed-yet-deserving Asia-Pacific trade agreement started by President Bush and ultimately signed by President Obama—has left vacuums in both Asia-Pacific trade and international economic law. TPP was far from perfect, but it was widely supported by U.S. trade and foreign-policy experts because of its economic and geopolitical benefits. The deal contained important new rules for 21st-century issues such as e-commerce, GMOs, and state-owned enterprises. Moreover, it would have provided small but significant benefits for U.S. workers and the economy, while cementing the United States’s influence in a region increasingly covered by China’s shadow. Now, TPP parties are working to complete a “TPP-11” deal that excludes the United States, while China is negotiating its own version of the TPP—the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. And many of TPP’s novel provisions are being relitigated in contentious NAFTA renegotiations with Canada and Mexico (both TPP parties).
All of this is disappointing, but it’s probably survivable and hardly the fire and brimstone of the Trump campaign trail (hence, the relief). Trump has repeatedly threatened tariffs and other forms of dangerous unilateral protectionism, but economic, legal, and political realities have intervened. For example, when Trump promised new “national security” tariffs on steel and aluminum under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, the opposition from Congress, business groups, strategic allies, NGOs, and even members of Trump’s administration was unrelenting. As a result, planned tariffs have quietly been shelved (for now). Other presidential threats have similarly come and gone without major action, giving market participants some heartburn but little long-term pain. Only in the opaque area of trade remedies—antidumping, countervailing duty, and safeguard measures—has there been a marked uptick in U.S. protectionism. But this is the result of long and technical administrative proceedings initiated by U.S. industries or unions that formally petitioned the government under relevant domestic law—hardly the wave-of-the-hand actions that Trump promised.
Some measure of relief is warranted, but we’re not out of the woods just yet. Indeed, in the last eight months, Trump has publicly threatened to
- block steel and aluminum imports for national-security reasons or bring new cases against semiconductors and ships, under the aforementioned Section 232;
- withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement and the U.S.-Korea FTA;
- slap tariffs on Chinese imports under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 because of alleged Chinese intellectual-property-rights violations; and
- impose onerous new “Buy American” requirements on U.S. pipelines and government-funded infrastructure projects.
And those are just the public threats. Behind closed doors, Trump has reportedly considered enacting sweeping import restrictions under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The president reportedly yelled, “I want tariffs. Bring me some tariffs!” when told by his “globalist” advisers that legal and economic realities prevent him from imposing broad-based protectionism on a whim.
None of the threats on Trump’s wish list is officially off the table, and any one of them would have serious economic consequences: Steel tariffs alone would put more than 1.3 million American jobs at risk; NAFTA withdrawal could destroy 250,000 more; and several nations have promised immediate retaliation against American goods, services, or investment in response to Trumpian protectionism. Trump’s actions would also raise major legal issues. For example, the World Trade Organization’s broad, subjective “national security” exception wasn’t intended to be used as a get-out-of-jail free-card for steel tariffs, and a dispute over a member’s right to invoke it could imperil the multilateral trading system. Meanwhile, Trump’s withdrawal from a free-trade agreement without congressional consent would raise major constitutional questions as to whether the president had that authority and what would happen to the myriad U.S. tariffs and other commitments that were embedded in legislation and passed into law. Lawsuits over these and other issues surrounding presidential trade powers would throw billions of dollars of cross-border trade and investments into legal limbo.
The president’s unpredictability, political weakness, and clear affinity for protectionism, combined with ample (though ambiguous) legal authority to act unilaterally, mean that any one of his trade threats could still materialize in the coming months. The White House’s internationalists may have won the early battles, but the war will rage for as long as Trump is president. Continued vigilance and advocacy for the benefits of freer trade remain critical.
And congressional legislation clarifying and limiting the president’s trade powers might not be a bad idea either…just in case.
Click here to read what Scott Lincicome wrote about Candidate Trump and trade last year.
Scott Lincicome is an international trade attorney, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and visiting lecturer at Duke University Law School. The views expressed herein are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.
On Taxes By James Pethokoukis
At some point in his first term, President Donald Trump will likely sign legislation that cuts taxes by some amount for somebody. This modest prediction is based less on reading the political tea leaves than understanding conservative politics. If any issue made the modern Republican Party, it was tax cuts. Not surprising, then, that candidate Trump promised big cuts for individuals and businesses. And with the GOP now holding the White House and Congress, failure to deliver is almost unimaginable.
Of course it’s almost equally unimaginable that the Trump tax cuts will at all resemble the ambitious plans devised by Trump advisers during the campaign. There were two of those blueprints. The first, rolled out September 2015, proposed lowering the top personal rate to 25 percent from the current 39.6 percent, and cutting the corporate rate to 15 percent from the current 35 percent. Along with other changes, including eliminating the alternative minimum tax and estate tax, this initial plan might have lowered annual government revenue by a whopping $1 trillion a year or more (even if one assumes much faster economic growth).
This was, in other words, more a fantasy proposal cooked up by Reagan-era supply-siders than a serious effort to reform the tax code without worsening our historically high federal debt. Indeed, Trump’s sole purpose in signing on to the plan may have been to win over that very same group, still influential among base voters. Trump himself talked little about the plan while on the hustings, especially compared with immigration, trade, and The Wall.
The Trump campaign’s second bite at the apple a year later was a scaled-back plan, but still a colossal one. Instead of losing a trillion bucks a year, maybe the government would be out just a half trillion or so. Again, since the plan was unaccompanied by spending cuts elsewhere in the budget, it was more a set of glorified campaign talking points than a serious proposal. And like the first, Trump didn’t talk much about it.
So after Trump’s shock election, there really was no realistic Trump tax plan. No worries, however, since there was a House Republican tax plan all ready to go, with an enthusiastic House Speaker Paul Ryan ready to push it hard through the lower chamber. It was an ambitious proposal but one within reality, especially with a bit of fiscal tweaking. That plan called for, among other things, lowering the top personal rate to 33 percent and the corporate rate to 20 percent, immediately expensing new capital investment, and expanding the child tax credit.
And more so than the Trump campaign plans, the House plan intended to reform the tax code, not just cut taxes. For example, it eliminated all personal itemized deductions other than mortgage interest and charitable contributions. The House plan also made a stronger attempt to pay for the tax through a border-adjustment tax and limiting business-interest deductibility. All in all, the plan cost a couple of trillion dollars over a decade, not assuming economic feedback. On such a dynamic basis, according to Tax Foundation modeling, the House plan would reduce 10-year revenues by just under $200 billion.
So if Republicans really wanted to make their plan revenue neutral, it was certainly doable through relatively minor changes, such as less dramatic corporate or personal rate cuts. Yet the plan would still be a massive improvement over the status quo, both in terms of encouraging more domestic investment and providing middle-class tax relief.
With a detailed plan at the ready and Republicans running Washington, it is easy to understand why many in the GOP thought it reasonable to predict that Trump would be signing a mega tax bill by August of this year, just as Ronald Reagan did in the first year of his first term. Reagan did it from his ranch in Santa Barbara, California. Maybe Trump would repeat the feat from his Trump Tower penthouse in Manhattan.
But that did not happen. Then again, very little of Trump’s ambitious domestic agenda has happened as planned. Repeal and replace was promised by Easter, leaving plenty of time to hash out the fine details of tax reform and move legislation through the House and Senate. But the GOP health reform was a long slog consuming valuable time, attention, and political capital. Also deserving blame was Trump’s inability to focus on pushing policy priorities rather than pounding political opponents on Twitter. As of now, it seems highly unlikely that significant tax reform will occur in 2017. And 2018 looks challenging as well.
Yes, Trump has provided more distraction than leadership on this issue. And trying to pass major legislation in a midterm year only adds to the political difficulties. But the biggest problem is that there is no tax-reform plan for Republicans to push.
What happened to the ready-to-serve House plan? It suffered from not being a fantasy. It acknowledged both political and policy constraints, something the populist president almost never does. For instance: the House plan tried to pay for the tax cuts—a political necessity to placate debt-hawk Republicans. That requires making somebody somewhere unhappy. Ryan knew that without such an effort, it would be extraordinarily difficult to reduce the corporate tax rate to anywhere close to 20 percent. But while exporters supported the border tax, importers hated it, complaining that it would raise costs. Nor was the Trump White House happy about axing business-interest deductibility.
Still, as problematic as those pay-fors were, the alternatives—limiting tax breaks for mortgages, 401(k)s, and state and local taxes—are equally if not more so. The state and local tax deduction is a case in point. Pushed hard by Republican leaders as the primary revenue generator to replace border adjustment, it seems unlikely to survive criticism from blue-state Republicans. Eventual legislation is likely to be a far smaller and less comprehensive bill than first envisioned—more cut than reform—with some temporary parts designed to satisfy congressional budget rules. Indeed, Senate budget writers cleared room for just a $1.5 trillion tax cut, and even that might be overly ambitious. Expect Trump and his people to call whatever passes a “down payment” on true tax reform. Pro-growth conservatives should call it a missed opportunity.
Click here to read what James Pethokoukis wrote about Candidate Trump and taxes last year.
James Pethokoukis is the DeWitt Wallace Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is also an official CNBC contributor.
‘The Wall’ By Linda Chavez
“We’re going to build a wall. That wall will go up so fast, your head will spin.” Donald Trump made this promise on August 23, 2016, repeated it throughout his presidential campaign, and has reiterated it in tweets and at press conferences and rallies ever since. But the only spinning going on lately has been the president’s own efforts to assure his base that he will eventually build a wall, or a fence, or some barrier along the U.S. border with Mexico, except maybe for those areas that don’t need one or already have one. Oh, and someone will pay for it—preferably Mexico, as he promised—but if not, Congress, unless Democrats or even Republicans refuse to go along. A year after winning the presidency, Trump’s most ubiquitous pledge, The Great Wall separating the U.S. from Mexico, remains largely a figment of his imagination and evidence of his supporters’ gullibility.
No issue defined Trump’s campaign more viscerally than immigration, and on none was his position less ambiguous. Trump’s presidential record on immigration enforcement and policy, however, is decidedly more mixed. He continues to promise that construction of the wall is going to start soon: “Way ahead of schedule. Way ahead of schedule. Way, way, way ahead of schedule,” he said in February. But the cost, with estimates as high as $70 billion, and the sheer impracticality of erecting a solid barrier along 1,900 miles make little sense in light of recent trends in illegal immigration. Illegal immigration is at historically low levels today (roughly the same, in absolute numbers, as it was in the early 1970s) and has been falling more or less consistently since the peak in 2000, mostly because fewer people are crossing the border from Mexico. Apprehensions of Mexicans are at a 50-year low, as are all apprehensions along the southern border. Year-to-date in 2017, apprehensions at the Mexican border have dropped 24 percent compared with those in 2016, when a slight uptick occurred as more people tried to cross in advance of a feared Trump victory and border crackdown. The population of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. is down as well and now stands at roughly 11 million, from a peak of 12.2 million in 2007; and two-thirds of these unauthorized immigrants have lived here a decade or longer. More Mexicans—whom Trump described as “bringing drugs. . . crime. They’re rapists”—are now leaving the U.S. than arriving. In 2013, for the first time since the 1960s, Mexico fell as the top source of immigrants to the U.S., behind both China and India.
Trump’s pledge to build a wall, of course, wasn’t his only promise on immigration, but he hasn’t lived up to his own hype in other areas either, which is a good thing. He said he’d end on day one the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program that provided temporary protection from removal for young people who arrived here illegally before age 16. Instead, Trump waited until September 5 to send his beleaguered Attorney General Jeff Sessions out to announce that DACA would end in six months unless Congress acted. Trump then almost immediately backtracked in a series of tweets and offhand statements. Polls show that large majorities of Americans, including some two-thirds of Trump voters, have no interest in deporting so-called Dreamers, half of whom came before they were seven years old and 90 percent of whom are employed and paying taxes. Trump’s own misgivings and the backlash over the policy’s announcement led him into a tentative deal with Democratic leaders Representative Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer in September to support legislation granting legal status for Dreamers who complete school, get jobs, or join the military. Trump’s most nativist supporters have already dubbed him “Amnesty Don” for even suggesting that Dreamers should be allowed to remain and gain temporary legal status, much less earn a path toward citizenship. But whether such legislation will make it through Congress is still uncertain. Similar bills have repeatedly passed one chamber and died in the other over the past 10 years, but the potential threat that the administration might begin deporting many of the 800,000 young adults who signed up for DACA should concentrate the minds of the Republican leadership to allow legislation to move forward. One of the complications in the House is the “Hastert Rule,” named after former Speaker Dennis Hastert, an informal agreement that binds the speaker from bringing a bill to the floor unless a majority of the majority party supports it.
To be sure, Trump’s rhetoric and his appointment of hard-line immigration restrictionists to posts in his administration have led to fear among immigrants, as have the administration’s erratic, irrational enforcement policies. Previous administrations, including Barack Obama’s, gave priority to detaining and deporting aliens convicted of serious crimes, but in one of his first executive orders and Department of Homeland Security memoranda, Trump broadened the priorities for detention and removal to include anyone even suspected of committing a crime, with or without charges or conviction. As a result, arrests for immigration offenses have increased under Trump and have swept up hundreds of individuals who pose no threat to safety or security, some picked up outside their children’s schools or when seeking court orders against domestic abuse. Actual deportations, on the other hand, are down slightly in Trump’s first eight months compared with the same period in Obama’s last year. This is largely because the overloaded system isn’t equipped for mass deportation. Trump promised to rid the country of a greatly exaggerated 2 million criminal aliens and “a vast number of additional criminal illegal immigrants who have fled or evaded justice.” But his boasting that “their days on the run will soon be over” has always been aimed less at promoting sensible immigration policy than at stoking nativist anger in pursuit of his own brand of identity politics. Trump’s America will be a less welcoming place for immigrants—legal as well as illegal—if Trump gets his way on proposed legislation to reduce legal immigration by half over the next decade. But labor shortages and an aging population make it unlikely that Trump’s efforts will succeed. The simple fact is that we need more, not fewer, immigrants if the economy is to grow. Building walls and deporting workers is exactly the wrong way to go about needed immigration reform, whether Trump and his hard-core base can admit it or not.
Click here to read what Linda Chavez wrote about Candidate Trump and ‘The Wall’ last year.
Linda Chavez is the president of the Becoming American Institute and a frequent contributor to Commentary.
On Infrastructure By Philip Klein
A massive infrastructure bill was supposed to be one of the early triumphs of President Trump’s administration. Instead, Trump’s inability to advance the ball on one of his signature issues has highlighted the lack of focus, inattention to detail, and difficulties working with Congress that are emblematic of his presidency to date.
The idea of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, though overshadowed by daily controversies during the wild 2016 campaign, wove together several elements of the Trump phenomenon.
His experience in building projects such as luxury hotels, resorts, skyscrapers, and golf courses became central to his argument that he had the skills required to get things done in Washington. By touting the economic benefits of infrastructure during his campaign, Trump also signaled that he was an unorthodox Republican, breaking with decades of conservative critiques of Keynesian stimulus projects. Trump also spoke of infrastructure in nationalist terms, integrating it into riffs about how the United States was constantly losing to China. “They have trains that go 300 miles per hour,” he said during the campaign. “We have trains that go: Chug. Chug. Chug.”
When Trump pulled off his election-victory upset, Washington insiders quickly focused on infrastructure as one issue on which he could get a legislative win and box Democrats into a corner. After all, could Democrats really resist passing a major policy priority that had eluded them when one of their own was in the White House?
In his Inaugural Address, Trump threw a jab at Bush-era Republicanism, declaring that the U.S. “spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.” Going forward, he said, “America will start winning again, winning like never before.” He promised: “We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation.”
Now in the fall of the first year of his presidency, any effort to advance infrastructure legislation has been drowned out by daily controversies involving White House intrigue, the investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election, and Trump’s raucous Twitter feed. Congress, meanwhile, spent much of the year focused on repealing and replacing Obamacare.
This isn’t to say that the Trump administration didn’t try, in fits and starts, to push infrastructure. In May, with the release of his first budget, Trump included $200 billion in funding for infrastructure as the first step in his $1 trillion infrastructure initiative. He also released a six-page fact sheet outlining his vision for infrastructure, which remains the most detailed resource on his infrastructure goals.
The document, broadly speaking, argues that current infrastructure money is spent inefficiently. It proposes greater selectivity in using federal dollars for infrastructure investments that are in the national interest and recommends giving state and local governments more leeway over their own projects. It also calls for more public-private partnerships.
Specifically, the proposal would create a nongovernment entity to manage the nation’s air-traffic-control system. It would also support private rest stops, give states the ability to work with private companies to manage their toll roads, and streamline the environmental-review process. The proposal received little attention, as it was rolled out during a week when Russia hearings took center stage in Congress and Trump was traveling in Europe and the Middle East.
Such inattention was supposed to end in early June, when White House officials announced “Infrastructure Week.” This was a carefully orchestrated campaign in which Trump was supposed to deliver speeches and lead staged events to highlight different aspects of his infrastructure initiative. But during this week, Washington was captivated by testimony of fired FBI Director James Comey, and Trump veered way off message in his speeches and on his favorite social-media platform.
He went on a Twitter tear. Trump attacked his own Justice Department for pursuing a “watered down” travel ban, took a shot at the mayor of London in the wake of a terrorist attack, unloaded on “fake news” outlets, and hit Comey as a liar. During a speech meant to make the case for both parties to get behind his infrastructure effort, Trump went off on a tangent, blasting Democrats as “obstructionists” on health care.
In truth, any hope of getting Democrats on board for the Trump infrastructure push had been fading even before this implosion. Liberals had already pressured lawmakers to pursue a policy of total resistance to Trump. But during Trump’s big policy push, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer declared overtly that Democrats had no appetite for his infrastructure initiative due to its reliance on privatization.
Before long, the phrase “Infrastructure Week” had become a punch line—an ironic metaphor for a presidency gone off the rails.
Trump has made little progress on infrastructure since then, beyond issuing an executive order in August aimed at making the permitting process for building roads, bridges, and pipelines more efficient. But again, this announcement was overshadowed, as it came during the same news conference in which he blamed “both sides” for the violence in Charlottesville and complained about the slippery slope of removing the Robert E. Lee statue.
On the other hand, by striking a deal with Democratic leaders on the debt ceiling and negotiating with them on immigration, Trump has revived talk about the possibility that he could be ready to compromise with them to get infrastructure legislation passed as well. It is important to note, however, that in both cases—DACA and the debt ceiling—there was a ticking-time-bomb element that forced action. No such urgency exists when it comes to infrastructure.
From the perspective of a limited-government conservative, Trump’s inability thus far to negotiate a trillion-dollar federal infrastructure package with Democrats is nothing to shed tears about. But if we’re looking at the issue through the broader lens of whether or not Trump has been able to deliver on his ambitious campaign promises and make the transition from being a bombastic reality-television star to governing, it’s a case study in failure.
Click here to read what Philip Klein wrote about Candidate Trump and infrastructure last year.
Philip Klein is managing editor of the Washington Examiner.
On NATO By Tod Lindberg
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump was unsparing in his disparagement of U.S. alliances. In a word, allies were freeloaders—complacent in their reliance on the United States to provide them security, contributing nothing like their “fair share” of the cost of their defense, and lavishing the dividend on their domestic needs. Maybe that was acceptable when they were flat on their backs after a war that left the United States on top, but now that they are prospering and the United States has pressing needs of its own, it’s time for the allies to pay up. He also mused about NATO being “obsolete.”
This was alarming (to put it mildly) to most American foreign-policy specialists—to say nothing of the reaction of U.S. allies. The postwar alliance structure in Europe has been the backbone of security on a continent where the United States fought two wars. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization underpinned the postwar revival of Western Europe and subsequently, after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the demise of the Soviet Union, of Central and Eastern Europe. The relevance of the alliance has gained renewed salience with Russia’s aggression against its neighbors, first in Georgia in 2008, then in Ukraine in 2014.
At the heart of the alliance is Article 5 of the Washington Treaty of 1949—the commitment of each member to regard an armed attack on any as an attack on all. In practical terms, the meaning of Article 5 is that American power provides a security guarantee for Europe, a commitment upheld and explicitly reiterated by U.S. presidents since Harry S. Truman. The treaty is binding, yet equally in practical terms, it is the
American president whose commander-in-chief powers will dictate the response of the U.S. military to any attack—and by extension, the sincerity of his commitment determines the deterrent value of Article 5 against potential aggressors. Would a President Trump abrogate the U.S. commitment? Or hold it hostage to defense-spending increases by allies—perhaps even by demanding the payment of a much larger past-due bill, as the candidate suggested on at least one occasion?
In Asia, the biggest long-term challenge is the rise of China; the U.S. alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines (as well as the more complicated commitment enshrined in the Taiwan Relations Act) represent the underpinning of Pacific security. Would this, too, be up for grabs under Trump? Was “America First” shorthand for an isolationist retooling of U.S. relations with the rest of the world? The short answer to these questions turns out to be no. Trump has no apparent intention to do away with U.S. alliance relationships, however cumbersome and expensive he perceives them to be, and he evinces no intention to try to replace the postwar security architecture with something new and different, whatever that might be. So what happened? Were his many critics sounding the alarm therefore wrong about his intentions? Did he change his mind? Is the question of alliances now settled? Since Trump has taken office, alliance policy seems to have operated on two tracks within the U.S. government. The first track is the president’s own. He has continued to warn allies that they need to pay up—though his demands have moderated considerably, coalescing around the 2 percent of GDP that allies have pledged to spend on defense (though very few do). And although he has reaffirmed the U.S. Article 5 commitment on some occasions, on others when it would have been appropriate for him to do so, he has declined, apparently intentionally. Still, he has never repudiated the commitment. There seem to be two possibilities here: either a deliberate exercise in ambiguity, or incompetence and confusion of the kind his critics have long diagnosed.
I think the evidence points distinctly toward the former. That evidence is the second track of policy within the government. Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis—as well as officials junior to them—have been on something close to a nonstop reassurance tour of U.S. allies and partners since the beginning of the administration. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has joined the chorus since he stepped in to replace the ousted Michael Flynn. Their message has been unambiguous: The United States stands by its security and alliance commitments, and allies must contribute more to collective defense. True, some allies continue to harbor doubts centered on the persona of Trump. Yet—therefore?—many are moving to spend more on defense.
Now, the simple fact is that Trump could order his Cabinet members and senior staff to desist from repeating the first half of their message—the reassurance. Trump might have had some resignations to cope with, but it is well within his power to issue such an edict, and he hasn’t done so. The most likely reason he hasn’t is that he has concluded that too much is riding on these alliances. To continue in this speculative vein, what Trump knew to be true about U.S. allies during the campaign season was that they weren’t contributing enough; that’s a message that Washington has been sending with little effect for decades. What he didn’t know on the campaign trail and has since determined is how central these alliances are to U.S. national security. U.S. alliances aren’t quite so fragile as some feared. The case for them, competently made by the likes of Mattis, must be compelling, including to the skeptic in chief.
It’s here that we may be getting a little lesson in the cunning of history. From his skeptical premise, Trump sparked a very broad debate over alliances. Senior officials of his administration have probably devoted more time and energy to making the public case for NATO and our Pacific alliances during his first 10 months in office than their predecessors did in the previous 10 years. The latter had taken the utility of alliances to U.S. national security as a given.
All this attention has had an effect on public opinion. But the effect has not been, as many feared, a groundswell of support for isolationist or anti-alliance sentiment. Just the opposite. For the past three years, the Chicago Council Survey has asked, “How effective do you think [maintaining effective alliances is] to achieving the foreign-policy goals of the United States?” In 2015, 32 percent of all respondents responded “very effective.” In 2016, the figure was 40 percent. In 2017? Forty-nine percent. Specifically on NATO, 69 percent say the alliance is “essential” to U.S. security, a slight increase from 65 percent in 2016 and well above the 57 percent who said the same when the Chicago Council first asked the question in 2002.
For the first time in the history of the survey, a majority of Americans, 52 percent, say they would support “the use of U.S. troops…if Russia invades a NATO ally like Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia.” The Trump administration has had little to say about the Russian threat to the Baltics but a great deal to say about the danger of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile program. A year ago, 47 percent said they would favor “the use of U.S. troops…if North Korea invaded South Korea.” That was the view of 26 percent of Americans in 1990. Today, it’s what 62 percent think.
Finally, on the question of allies paying up, the survey asked which comes closer to the respondent’s views: “The United States should encourage greater allied defense spending through persuasion and diplomatic means” or “The United States should withhold its commitment to defend NATO members” until they actually spend more. Overall, 59 percent said persuasion and diplomacy; 38 percent (including 51 percent of Republicans) would put Article 5 at risk. Maybe I’m hearing things, but that sounds to me more like a warning to our allies to take seriously American insistence that they spend more on defense starting now than it does an abrogation of the commitments at the center of U.S. national-security strategy for 70 years.
Click here to read what Tod Lindberg wrote about Candidate Trump and NATO last year.
Tod Lindberg is a member of the Chicago Council Survey’s foreign policy advisory board.
On Asia By Michael Auslin
Despite continued Russian threats in Eastern Europe and the lurking danger of an Iranian race to a nuclear bomb, it is Asia that has vaulted to the top of the national-security agenda. Barack Obama had warned Donald Trump that North Korea would be the major national-security threat he would face, and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has proved him right. Kim is on the threshold of fielding a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can reach U.S. territory in the Pacific and even the American homeland. He is within striking distance of achieving his family’s long-held dream of possessing the ultimate weapon. Not since 1994, when Bill Clinton initially ordered and then called back an air strike on Pyongyang’s nascent nuclear facilities, has the region seemed so close to war.
Beyond the Korean peninsula, Asia has arguably been Trump’s central foreign preoccupation since his entry into politics. He talked during his campaign about a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods. And despite his noninterventionist affect, he began his transition phase by getting tough on China for its increasingly assertive actions during the Obama years, including the successful building and militarization of islands in contested waters in the South China Sea.
Then Trump retreated from his tough stance toward Beijing, initiating a period of seesawing between cooperation and confrontation and mixing together trade and economic concerns with security and diplomatic issues. His explicit linkage of the two, carefully separated by previous presidents, has been particularly unnerving to Beijing. China’s regime has warned of the risks of a larger trade war if Trump continues to threaten economic retaliation for disagreement on security issues. Of equal concern to Beijing has been his recent willingness to permit more frequent freedom-of-navigation operations by the U.S. Navy in the disputed South China Sea waters off the Spratly and Paracel Islands.
Trump’s initial hard line, including an unprecedented transition-period phone call to Taiwan’s president, put Beijing on its back foot. But his subsequent inconstancy has led to a reassertion of Chinese activism on economic and diplomatic issues. His withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and general anti-free-trade stance have allowed Chinese President Xi Jinping to claim the mantle of global economic leadership—promoting free-trade alternatives and grandiose policies such as the “Belt and Road Initiative,” in which Xi has promised more than $1 trillion of infrastructure investment to link the world in a trading network centered in China.
In contrast, Trump’s relations with America’s Asian allies, particularly Japan and South Korea, have been surprisingly smooth. Again backing down from campaign rhetoric, Trump early on reaffirmed the importance of both alliances, and buried talk of making the two pay more for hosting U.S. forces on their territory. His bond with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been particularly close, and his conversations with South Korea’s new left-leaning president, Moon Jae In, have gone better than some expected. Far from scaling back the alliances, Trump and his top officials, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis, have put them at the center of American strategy in the Pacific, especially with respect to North Korea.
It is North Korea, however, that remains the first great test of the Trump administration. Trump clearly inherited a failed policy, stretching over past Democratic and Republican administrations alike, and was doubly cursed in coming to office on the eve of Kim Jong Un’s nuclear and ICBM breakout.
Yet despite Trump’s heated rhetoric, he and his team have actually moved cautiously on North Korea. Like its predecessors, the administration has combined shows of force, such as flying B-1 bombers over the peninsula, with appeals to the United Nations for further sanctions on Pyongyang. Two new rounds of sanctions, in July and September, may indeed have been harder than those previously levied, but, just as in the past, the administration had to settle for less than it wanted. More worrying, Trump appears to be adopting the long-held goal of presidents past: North Korean denuclearization. This is a strategic mistake that threatens to lock him into an unending series of negotiations that have served over the past quarter-century to buy time for Pyongyang to develop its nuclear and missile capabilities. I believe it would be a far more realistic move for Trump to drop the chimera of denuclearization and instead tacitly acknowledge that North Korea is a nuclear-weapons-capable state. This would free up the administration to focus on the far more important job of deterring and containing a nuclear North Korea. Since Trump is almost certainly sure to avoid a preventive war to remove Kim’s nuclear weapons, given the associated military and political risks, he will be forced in the end to accept them. That then mandates a credible and comprehensive policy to restrict North Korea’s actions abroad while making clear that any nuclear use will result in a devastating counterstrike. Washington has been deterring North Korea ever since the end of the Korean War. This new approach explicitly makes deterrence the center of U.S. policy, dropping the unobtainable goal of denuclearization or the imprudent goal of normalizing relations with North Korea. To be successful, Trump will need to get the support of both Seoul and Tokyo, which is a tall order. The alternative, however, is another round of Kabuki negotiations and the diversion of U.S. attention from the far more necessary task of ensuring that Kim Jong Un is kept in his nuclear box.
Click here to read what Michael Auslin wrote about Candidate Trump and Asia last year.
Michael Auslin is the Williams-Griffis Fellow in Contemporary Asia at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of The End of the Asian Century (Yale).
On Israel By Daniella J. Greenbaum
As a candidate, Donald Trump’s positions on Israel were a blend of incoherence and inconsistency. He was an isolationist, except he was also Israel’s biggest supporter; he would enforce the Iran deal, except he wanted to rip it up on day one; he was the most pro- Israel candidate on the stage, except that he wanted to be “the neutral guy”; he wouldn’t commit to a policy on Jerusalem, except he declared his plan to immediately move the American Embassy to Israel’s eternal and undivided capital.
Words—especially a president’s—matter, but until Trump took office, it was impossible to predict how his administration would treat the Jewish state. Some Israel advocates became convinced that Trump’s victory would lead to the fulfillment of their bucket list of Middle East dreams—in particular, resolution of the long-simmering issue involving the location of the U.S. Embassy in Israel. The Jerusalem Embassy Act, which became law in 1995, recognized that “each sovereign nation, under international law and custom, may designate its own capital” and that “since 1950, the city of Jerusalem has been the capital of the State of Israel.” It ordered that “the United States Embassy in Israel should be established in Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999.”
And yet, despite all that, the American Embassy has remained in Tel Aviv. (Presidents were given the power to push the date back on national-security grounds.) Much like then-candidates Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Trump pledged to move the embassy if elected president. In a March 2016 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Policy Conference, Trump said unequivocally: “We will move the American Embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.”
The American Embassy belongs in Jerusalem, and Trump’s evolution on the issue was, for the most part, encouraging. (Early on in his candidacy, he was booed at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual meeting after refusing to take a position on Jerusalem’s status.) But for Israelis, who face myriad threats on a daily basis—both physically, from their many hostile neighbors, and economically, through an international boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign—the location of the embassy ranks low on the list of urgent political matters. Even the most ardent proponents of this policy shift acknowledge it has the potential to inflame tensions in the region. Like his predecessors, Trump signed the waiver and suspended the move.
Next on the bucket list: discarding Barack Obama’s cataclysmic Iran deal. When Trump was a candidate, his intentions for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) were anything but clear. He told AIPAC, “My number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” But he also said, “We will enforce it like you’ve never seen a contract enforced before folks, believe me.” It’s hard to know which part of his schizophrenic speech the audience—and the country—was supposed to believe. The schizophrenia has continued during his tenure, with Trump certifying the Iran deal twice before announcing in October his decision not to recertify a third time. Despite signaling his extreme displeasure with the deal, Trump has so far opted not to terminate it. But, by refusing to recertify, he has instead left to Congress the decision whether or not to reimpose sanctions.
Most important, perhaps, to pro-Israel forces was Trump’s choice of foreign-policy team. While Jared Kushner’s lack of political experience made him an odd choice for Middle East maven—Trump exclaimed at an inauguration event: “if [he] can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can”—there is no denying that Kushner is a Zionist. Along with Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s envoy to the Israeli–Palestinian peace process, Kushner visited Israel this summer to determine whether restarting peace talks was a viable course of action. The duo have articulated their desire to refrain from repeating the mistakes of previous administrations: “It is no secret that our approach to these discussions departs from some of the usual orthodoxy. … Instead of working to impose a solution from the outside, we are giving the parties space to make their own decisions about the future,” Greenblatt explained. Maybe that’s why Benjamin Netanyahu seems so elated. Bibi’s friction with Obama was well documented, and the prime minister has expressed his jubilation at the changed nature of his relationship to Washington. During the United Nations General Assembly, he tweeted: “Under your leadership, @realDonaldTrump, the alliance between the United States and Israel has never been stronger.”
During the campaign, it was hard to imagine that might be the case. Trump’s repeated use of the phrase “America First,” a classic isolationist trope with anti-Semitic overtones, was deeply concerning to pro- Israel voters. He continually insisted that foreign governments were a drain on the American economy: “I want to help all of our allies, but we are losing billions and billions of dollars. We cannot be the policemen of the world. We cannot protect countries all over the world…where they’re not paying us what we need.” According to a 2016 report from the Congressional Research Service, “Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II.” The report calculates that the United States has, over the years, provided Israel with more than $127 billion in bilateral assistance. If words and campaign promises meant anything to Trump, the candidate who insisted that Israel could pay “big league” would have metamorphosed into the president who ensured that it did.
But Trump’s campaign promises seem to have had no bearing on his actions. In an appropriations bill, Congress pledged an extra $75 million in aid to Israel, on top of the annual $3.1 billion already promised for this year. As part of negotiations for the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding, the Israeli government promised to return any funds that surpassed the pre-negotiated aid package. In what was doubtlessly a major disappointment to Trump’s America-first base, the State Department confirmed it will not be asking the Israelis to return the additional funds.
His behavior toward Israel during his eight months in office has confirmed what was evident throughout the campaign: Donald Trump’s words and actions have, at best, a haphazard relationship to each other. So far Israel has benefited. That may not always be the case.
Click here to read what Jordan Chandler Hirsch wrote about Candidate Trump and Israel last year.
Daniella J. Greenbaum is assistant editor of Commentary.
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Of Hobbes and Harvey Weinstein
In man’s natural state, with no social or religious order to impose limits upon his hungers and passions, “notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, force and fraud are…the cardinal virtues.” Thus did Thomas Hobbes, in 1651, anticipate and describe the sordid story of the film producer Harvey Weinstein.
The reason Weinstein’s three decades of monstrous personal and professional conduct are so appalling and fascinating in equal measure is that he was clearly functioning outside the “social compact” Hobbes said was necessary to save men from a perpetual state of war they would wage against one another in the state of nature. For that is what Weinstein was doing, in his own way: waging Hobbesian war against the women he abused and finding orgasmic pleasure in his victories.
And Weinstein did so while cleverly pretending to leadership within the social compact and disingenuously advocating for its improvement both through political change and artistic accomplishment. Hobbes said the life of man in the state of nature was nasty, brutish, and short, but he did not say the warrior could not be strategic. Rochefoucauld’s immortal declaration that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue is entirely wrong in this case. Weinstein paid off feminists and liberals to extend his zone of protection and seduction, not to help support the virtues he was subverting with his own vices.
Hobbes said that in the state of nature there was “no arts; no letters; no society.” But if the man in the state of nature, the nihilistic warrior, coexists with people who live within the social compact, would it not be a brilliant strategy to use the arts, letters, and society as cover, and a means of infiltrating and suborning the social compact? Harvey Weinstein is a brutal thug, a man of no grace, more akin to a mafioso than a maker of culture. And yet as a movie producer he gravitated toward respectable, quality, middlebrow, elevated and elevating fare. People wanted to work with him because of the kinds of movies he made. I think we can see that was the whole point of the exercise: It was exciting to be called into his presence because you knew you would do better, more socially responsible, more praiseworthy work under his aegis than you would with another producer.
And then, garbed only in a bathrobe, Weinstein would strike.
Weinstein was universally known to be a terrible person long before the horrifying tales of his sexual predation, depredation, and assault were finally revealed. And—this is important—known to be a uniquely terrible person. His specific acts of repugnant public thuggishness were detailed in dozens of articles and blog items over the decades, and were notable precisely because they were and are not common currency in business or anywhere else. It was said of him after the latest revelations that he had mysterious abilities to suppress negative stories about himself, and perhaps he did; even so, it was a matter of common knowledge that he was the most disgusting person in the movie business, and that’s saying a lot. And that’s before we get to sex.
To take one example, Ken Auletta related a story in the New Yorker in 2001 about the director Julie Taymor and her husband, the composer Eliot Goldenthal. She had helmed a movie about Frida Kahlo produced by Weinstein. There was a preview screening at the Lincoln Square theater in Manhattan. The audience liked it, but some of its responses indicated that the plotline was confusing. Weinstein, whose hunger to edit the work of others had long since earned him the name “Harvey Scissorhands,” wanted to recut it to clarify the picture. Taymor didn’t, citing the audience’s favorable reaction. Then this happened:
He saw Taymor’s agent…and yelled at him, “Get the fuck out of here!” To Goldenthal, who wrote the score for Frida, Weinstein said, “I don’t like the look on your face.” Then, according to several witnesses, he moved very close to Goldenthal and said, “Why don’t you defend her so I can beat the shit out of you?” Goldenthal quickly escorted Taymor away. When asked about this incident, Weinstein insisted that he did not threaten Goldenthal, yet he concedes, “I am not saying I was remotely hospitable. I did not behave well. I was not physically menacing to anybody. But I was rude and impolite.” One member of Taymor’s team described Weinstein’s conduct as actually bordering on “criminal assault.”
Weinstein told the late David Carr in 2002 that his conduct in such cases had merely been the result of excess glucose in his system, that he was changing his diet, and he was getting better. That glucose problem was his blanket explanation for all the bad stories about him, like this one:
“You know what? It’s good that I’m the fucking sheriff of this fucking lawless piece-of-shit town.” Weinstein said that to Andrew Goldman, then a reporter for the New York Observer, when he took him out of a party in a headlock last November after there was a tussle for Goldman’s tape recorder and someone got knocked in the head.
Goldman’s then-girlfriend, Rebecca Traister, asked Weinstein about a controversial movie he had produced. Traister provided the predicate for this anecdote in a recent piece: “Weinstein didn’t like my question about O, there was an altercation…[and] he called me a c—.”
Auletta also related how Weinstein physically threatened the studio executive Stacey Snider. She went to Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and told him the story. Katzenberg, “one of his closest friends in the business,” told Weinstein he had to apologize. He did, kind of. Afterward, Katzenberg told Auletta, “I love Harvey.”
These anecdotes are 15 years old. And there were anecdotes published about Weinstein’s behavior dating back another 15 years. What they revealed then is no different from what they reveal now: Weinstein is an out-and-out psychopath. And apparently this was fine in his profession…as long as he was successful and important, and the stories involved only violence and intimidation.
Flash-forward to October 2017. Katzenberg—the man who loved Harvey—publicly released an email he had sent to Weinstein after he was done for: “You have done terrible things to a number of women over a period of years. I cannot in any way say this is OK with me…There appear to be two Harvey Weinsteins…one that I have known well, appreciated, and admired and another that I have not known at all.”
So which Weinstein, pray tell, was the one from whom Katzenberg had had to protect Stacey Snider? The one he knew or the one he didn’t know? Because they are, of course, the same person. We know that sexual violence is more about power than sex—about the ultimate domination and humiliation. In these anecdotes and others about Weinstein, we see that his great passions in life were dominating and humiliating. Even if the rumors hadn’t been swirling around his sexual misconduct for decades, could anyone actually have been surprised he sought to secure his victory over the social compact in the most visceral way possible outside of murder?
The commentariat’s reaction to the Weinstein revelations has been desperately confused, and for once, the confusion is constructive, because there are strange ideological and moral convergences.
The most extreme argument has it that he’s really not a unique monster, that every working woman in America has encountered a Weinstein, and that the problem derives from a culture of “toxic masculinity.” This attitude is an outgrowth of the now-fashionable view that there have been no real gains for women and minorities over the past half-century, that the gains are illusory or tokenish, and that something more revolutionary is required to level the playing field.
As a matter of fact in the Weinstein case, this view is false. Women have indeed encountered boors and creeps in their workplaces. But a wolf-whistler is not a rapist. Someone who leers at a woman isn’t the same as someone who masturbates in front of her. Coping with grotesque and inappropriate co-workers and bosses is something every human being, regardless of gender, has had to deal with, and will have to deal with until we are all replaced by robots. It’s worse for women, to be sure. Still, no one should have to go through such experiences. But we all have and we all do. It’s one of the many unpleasant aspects of being human.
Still, the extreme view of “toxic masculinity” contains a deeper truth that is anything but revolutionary. It takes us right back to Hobbes. His central insight—indeed, the insight of civilization itself—is that every man is a potential Weinstein. This clear-eyed, even cold-eyed view of man’s nature is the central conviction of philosophical conservatism. Without limits, without having impressed upon us a fear of the legal sanction of punishment or the social sanction of shame and ostracism, we are in danger of seeking our earthly rewards in the state of nature.
The revolutionary and the conservative also seem to agree there’s something viscerally disturbing about sex crimes that sets them apart. But here is where the consensus between us breaks down. Logically, if the problem is that we live in a toxic culture that facilitates these crimes, then the men who commit them are, at root, cogs in an inherently unjust system. The fault ultimately is the system’s, not theirs.
Harvey Weinstein is an exceptionally clever man who spent decades standing above and outside the system, manipulating it and gaming it for his own ends. He’s no cog. Tina Brown once ran Weinstein’s magazine and book-publishing line. She wrote that “strange contracts pre-dating us would suddenly surface, book deals with no deadline attached authored by attractive or nearly famous women, one I recall was by the stewardess on a private plane.” Which means he didn’t get into book publishing, or magazine publishing, to oversee the production of books and articles. He did it because he needed entities through which he would pass through payoffs both to women he had harassed and molested and to journalists whose silence he bought through options and advances. His primary interest wasn’t in the creation of culture. It was the creation of conditions under which he could hunt.
Which may explain his choice of the entertainment industry in the first place. In how many industries is there a specific term for demanding sexual favors in exchange for employment? There’s a “casting couch”; there’s no “insurance-adjustor couch.” In how many industries do people conduct meetings in hotel rooms at off hours anyway? And in how many industries could that meeting in a hotel room end up with the dominant player telling a young woman she should feel comfortable getting naked in front of him because the job for which she is applying will require her to get naked in front of millions?
Weinstein is entirely responsible for his own actions, but his predatory existence was certainly made easier by the general collapse of most formal boundaries between the genders. Young women were told to meet him in private at night in fancy suites. Half a century earlier, no young woman would have been permitted to travel alone in a hotel elevator to a man’s room. The world in which that was the norm imposed unacceptable limitations on the freedoms of women. But it did place serious impediments in the paths of predators whose despicable joy in life is living entirely without religious, spiritual, cultural, or moral impediment.
Hobbes was the great philosopher of limits. We Americans don’t accept his view of things; we tend to think better of people than he did. We tend to believe in the greater good, which he resolutely did not. We believe in self-government, which he certainly did not. But what our more optimistic outlook finds extraordinarily difficult to reckon with is behavior that challenges this complacency about human nature. We try to find larger explanations for it that place it in a more comprehensible context: It’s toxic masculinity! It’s the residue of the 1960s! It’s the people who enabled it! The truth is that, on occasion—and this is one such occasion—we are forced to come face to face with the worst of what any of us could be. And no one explanation suffices save Hamlet’s: “Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?”
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The education-reform outfit’s hard-left shift
In remaking itself, TFA has subtly downgraded the principles that had won it allies across the spectrum. George W. Bush, Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn, Chris Christie, and Meg Whitman are a few of the Republicans who championed TFA. The group attracted such boldface names, and hundreds of millions of dollars from some of the largest American firms and philanthropies, because it stood for a simple but powerful idea: that teacher quality is the decisive factor in the educational outcomes produced by schools.
Judging by its interventions in recent debates, it isn’t all that clear that senior TFA executives still believe this. These days, TFA’s voice on charters, accountability, and curricular rigor is decidedly muffled. Such education-reform essentials have been eclipsed in TFA’s discourse by immigration, policing, “queer” and transgender-identity issues, and other left-wing causes. TFA’s message seems to be that until numerous other social ills are cured—until immigration is less restricted, policing becomes more gentle, and poverty is eliminated—an excellent education will elude the poor. That was the status-quo defeatism TFA originally set out to challenge.
Wendy Kopp conceived TFA when she was a senior at Princeton in 1989. Unable to get a New York City teaching job without a graduate degree and state certification, Kopp wrote a thesis calling for the creation of a nontraditional recruitment pipeline that would bring America’s most promising young people to its neediest classrooms. TFA members would teach for two years, applying their energy and ambition to drive achievement at the classroom level. She speculated that some would stay in education, while others would go on to careers in law, medicine, business, journalism, etc. But all would remain “lifelong leaders in the effort to end educational inequity.”
The following year, Kopp launched TFA with a corps of 489 new teachers who were dispatched to schools in six regions—a virtuoso feat of social entrepreneurship. Since then some 50,000 teachers have completed the program. This year’s corps counts around 6,400 members, serving 53 regions from coast to coast.
By the time I joined, in 2005, TFA had distilled the experience of its best corps members into a theory of educational transformation called “Teaching as Leadership.” Most people, it said, aren’t natural-born educators. But they could rise to classroom greatness by setting “big goals” for all students, planning engaging lessons, continually assessing their students, maintaining tough discipline, and investing parents and the wider community in their goals.
Mostly, great teachers work hard—really hard. TFA brought the work habits usually associated with large law firms and high-end management consultancies to America’s K–12 failure factories. Its “summer institute” for new recruits was a grueling ordeal of tears, sweat, and 16-hour days. When I was a corps member, we were told that this is what it would take to overcome the forces of the status quo, which were chronically low expectations; broken homes and criminality in the streets; messy, undisciplined classrooms; and bloated bureaucracies that put the needs of adults above those of children.
The TFA worldview diverged sharply from the one that predominated in the education industry. The leading lights of the profession held that the achievement gap was a product of inadequate funding and larger social inequalities. Thus they transferred blame for classroom outcomes from teachers to policymakers and society at large. Teachers’ unions were particularly fond of this theory, since it provided cover for resisting accountability and high expectations.
TFA raged against all this. The assumption that some kids were doomed to underachievement was wrong and, indeed, bigoted. Ditto for the notion that inner-city children couldn’t be expected to behave like young scholars. These children could pull themselves up, provided they had dedicated educators who believed in them. This wasn’t to say that external factors were discounted altogether. But TFA concentrated on the things that educators and school leaders could control. It would emphasize self-help and uplift. And it would accept friends and allies across political divides to fulfill the promise of educational equality.T oday’s Teach for America is a different story. TFA’s leaders have now fully enlisted the organization in the culture war—to the detriment of its mission and the high-minded civic sensibility that used to animate its work.
This has been most visible in TFA’s response to the 2016 election. TFA chief executive Elisa Villanueva Beard, who took over from Kopp four years ago, doesn’t bother to mask either her progressivism or her revulsion at the new administration. When, a couple of weeks after the election, the president-elect announced his choice of Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education, Beard’s response was swift and cold.
A November 23 TFA news release began by decrying Trump’s “indisputably hostile and racially charged campaign” and called on DeVos to uphold “diversity, equity, and inclusiveness.” The statement went on to outline 11 TFA demands. Topping the litany was protection of the previous administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which granted legal status to certain illegal immigrants brought into the country as children. Then came the identity-politics checklist: “SAFE classrooms for LGBTQ youth and teachers,” “safe classrooms for students and teachers with disabilities,” “safe classrooms for Muslim students and teachers,” “culturally responsive teaching,” and so on.
Of the 11 demands, only three directly touched core education-reform areas—high expectations, accountability, and data-driven instruction—and these were couched in the broadest terms possible. Most notably, there wasn’t a single kind word for DeVos: no well wishes, no hope of “working together to achieve common goals,” no call for dialogue, nothing but angry demands. This, even though the secretary-designee was a passionate charter advocate and came from the same corporate philanthropy and activism ecosystem that TFA had long inhabited.
It is true that inner-city educators were horrified at the election of a candidate who winked at David Duke and suggested that a federal judge’s Mexican heritage was disqualifying. TFA’s particular concern about DACA makes sense, since many corps members work with illegal-immigrant children in border states. (My own stint took me to the Rio Grande Valley region of South Texas.)
Even so, TFA’s allergic reaction to the Trump phenomenon reflects faulty strategic thinking. Beard isn’t Rachel Maddow, and TFA isn’t supposed to be an immigration-reform outfit, still less a progressive think tank. With Republicans having swept all three branches of the federal government, as well as a majority of statehouses and governors’ mansions, TFA must come to terms with the GOP. Condemning the new education secretary as barely legitimate wasn’t wise.
Beard is also making a grave mistake by attempting to banish legitimate conservative positions from the reform movement. In the wake of the bloody white-nationalist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, she blasted an email to the organization that denounced in one breath opposition to affirmative action and “racist and xenophobic violence.” Some two-thirds of Americans oppose race-based affirmative action. Will these Americans give TFA a fair hearing on educational reform when the organization equates them with alt-right thugs? In a phone interview, Beard said she didn’t intend to link white nationalism with opposition to affirmative action.
As for DACA, the amount of attention TFA devotes to the fate of those affected is out of all proportion. TFA has a full-time director for DACA issues. A search of its website reveals at least 31 news releases, statements, and personal blogs on DACA—including a 2013 call for solidarity with “UndocuQueer students” that delved into the more exotic dimensions of intersectionality. As one education reformer told me in an interview, “They are super-concerned with ‘can’t wait’ issues—DACA and so on—and so much of their mental space [is filled up] by that kind of thing that less of their attention and time is being spent” on central priorities. “Personally, I think that’s such a shame.” (This reformer, and others I interviewed for this article, declined to speak on the record.)
By contrast, TFA didn’t call out Mayor Bill de Blasio on his attempts to roll back charter schools in New York. The organization has rarely targeted teachers’ unions the way it has ripped into Trump. But it is the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers that pose the main obstacle to expanding school choice and dismissing ineffective teachers. It is the unions that are bent on snuffing out data-driven instruction. It was a teachers’ union boss (Karen Lewis of Chicago), not the 45th president, who in 2012 accused TFA of supporting policies that “kill and disenfranchise children.”T
each for America’s turn to the harder left predated Trump’s ascent, and it isn’t mainly about him. Rather, it tracks deeper shifts within American liberalism, from the meritocratic Clintonian ideas of the 1990s and early aughts to today’s socialist revival and the fervid politics of race, gender, and sexuality.
Culturally, TFA was always more liberal than conservative. Educators tend to be liberal Democrats, regardless of the path that brings them to the classroom. But education reformers are unwanted children of American liberalism. They are signed up for the Democratic program, but they clash with public-sector labor unions, the most powerful component of the party base.
As TFA went from startup to corporate-backed giant, it sustained withering attacks from leftist quarters. On her influential education blog, New York University’s Diane Ravitch (a one-time education reformer who changed sides) relentlessly hammered corps members as “woefully unprepared,” as scabs “used to take jobs away from experienced teachers,” as agents of “privatization” and the “neoliberal attack on the public sector.” It was Ravitch who publicized Lewis’s claim that TFAers “kill” kids.
Michelle Rhee, the Korean-American alumna who in 2007 was tapped as chancellor of the District of Columbia system, became a lightning rod for anti-TFA sentiment on the left. Rhee’s no-nonsense approach to failing schools was summed up in a Time magazine cover that showed her holding a broom in the middle of a classroom. When D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty didn’t win reelection in 2010, it was seen as a popular verdict against this image of TFA-style reform.
In 2013, one university instructor, herself a TFA alumna, urged college professors not to write letters of recommendation for students seeking admission to the organization. Liberal pundits took issue with TFA’s alleged elitism and lack of diversity, portraying it as the latest in a long line of “effete” white reformist institutions that invariably let down the minorities they try to help. TFA, argued a writer in the insurgent leftist magazine Jacobin, is “another chimerical attempt in a long history of chimerical attempts to sell educational reform as a solution to class inequality. At worst, it’s a Trojan horse for all that is unseemly about the contemporary education-reform movement.” By “unseemly,” the writer meant conservative and corporate.
The assaults have had an effect. Applications to TFA dropped to 37,000 last year, down from 57,000 in 2013. Thus ended a growth spurt that had seen the organization increase the size of its corps by about a fifth each year since 2000. Partly this was due to more jobs and better salaries on offer to elite graduates in a rebounding private sector. But as Beard conceded in a statement in April 2016, partly it was the “toxic debate surrounding education” that was “pushing future leaders away from considering education as a space where they can have real impact.”
The temptation for any successful nonprofit crusade is to care more about viability and growth than the original cause. Wounded by the union-led attacks, TFA leaders have apparently concluded that identity politics and a progressive public presence can revive recruitment. With its raft of corporate donors and the massive Walton-family endowment, TFA would never fit in comfortably with an American liberalism moving in the direction of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But talk of Black Lives and “UndocuQueers” might help it reconnect with younger millennials nursed on race-and-gender theory.
Thus, TFA leads its current pitch by touting its diversity. Beard opened her keynote at last year’s 25th-anniversary summit in Washington by noting: “We are more diverse than we have ever been. . . . We are a community that is black, that is Latino, that is white, that is American Indian, that is Asian and Pacific Islander, that is multiracial. We are a community that is lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and trans.” The organization’s first priority, Beard went on, will always be “to build an inclusive community.”
It makes sense to recruit diverse teachers to lead classrooms in minority-majority regions, to be sure. But one can’t help detecting a certain liberal guilt behind this rhetoric, as if TFA had taken all the attacks against it to heart: We aren’t elite, we swear! Yet the 90 percent of black children who don’t reach math proficiency by eighth grade need good math teachers, period. Their parents don’t care how teachers worship (if at all), what they look like, or what they get up to in the bedroom. They want teachers who will put their children on a trajectory out of poverty.
Minority parents, moreover, fear for their kids’ well-being in chaotic schools and gang-infested streets. Yet to hear many of the speakers at TFA’s summit, you would have thought that police and other authority figures represent the main threat to black and Hispanic children. At a session titled “#StayWoke,” a TFA teacher railed against the police:
I teach 22 second-graders in Southeast D.C., all of them students of color. Sixteen of them are beautiful, carefree black and brown boys, who, despite their charm and playfulness, could be slain in the streets by the power that be [sic], simply because of the color of their skin, what clothes they wear, or the music they choose to listen to.
Educators must therefore impart “a racial literacy, a literacy of resistance.” Their students “must grow up woke.” Another teacher-panelist condemned anti-gang violence initiatives that
come from the same place as the appetite to charge black and brown people with charges of self-destruction. The tradition of blaming black folk keeps us from aiming at real sources of violence. If we were really interested in ending violence, we would be asking who pulled the trigger to underfund schools in Philadelphia? Who poisoned our brothers and sisters in Flint, Michigan? Who and what made New Orleans the incarceration capital of the world? We would teach our students to raise these questions.
Throughout, he led the assembly in chants of “Stay Woke!”
Talk of teaching “resistance” represented a reversion to the radical pedagogy and racial separatism that left a legacy of broken inner-city schools in the previous century. TFA’s own experience, and that of TFA-linked charter networks such as the Knowledge Is Power Program, had taught reformers that, to thrive academically, low-income students need rigid structure and order. Racial resentment won’t set these kids up for success but for alienation and failure—and prison.
Another session, on “Academic Rigor, Social and Political Consciousness, and Culturally Relevant Pedagogy,” pushed similar ideas. Jeff Duncan-Andrade, an associate professor of “Raza studies” at San Francisco State University, urged teachers to develop an ultra-localized race-conscious curriculum:
Don’t even essentialize Oakland’s culture! If you’re from the town, you know it’s a big-ass difference between the west and the east [sic]. We talk differently, we walk differently, we dress differently, we speak differently. The historical elements are different. So if you use stuff from the west [of Oakland] you have to really figure out, ‘How do I modify this to be relevant to the communities I’m serving in East Oakland?’ Develop curriculum, pedagogy, assessment that is responsive to the community you serve. You gotta become an ethnographer. You gotta get on the streets, get into the neighborhoods and barrios…talk to the ancestors…
If your curriculum is not building pathways to self-love for kids who at every turn of their day are taught to hate themselves, hate the color of their skin, hate the texture of their hair, hate the color of their eyes, hate the language they speak, hate the culture they come from, hate the ‘hood that they come from, hate the countries that their people come from, then what’s the purpose of your schooling?
Other sessions included “Native American Community Academy: A Case Study in Culturally Responsive Pedagogy”; “What Is the Role of White Leaders?”; “Navigating Gender Dynamics”; “Beyond Marriage Equality: Safety and Empowerment in the Education of LGBTQ Youth”; “A Chorus of Voices: Building Power Together,” featuring the incendiary Black Lives Matter activist and TFA alumnus DeRay McKesson; “Every Student Counts: Moving the Equity Agenda Forward for Asian American and Pacific Islander Students”; “Intentionally Diverse Learning Communities”; and much more of the kind.
Lost amid all this talk of identitarian self-love was the educator’s role in leading poor children toward things bigger and higher than Oakland, with its no doubt edifying east–west street rivalries—toward the glories of the West and the civic and constitutional bonds that link Americans of all backgrounds. You can be sure that the people who participate in TFA see to it that their own children learn to appreciate Caravaggio and Shakespeare and The Federalist. The whole point of the organization was to ensure that kids from Oakland could do the same.
Twenty-seven years since Teach for America was founded, the group’s mission remains vital. Today fewer than 1 in 10 children growing up in low-income communities graduate college. The basic political dynamics of education reform haven’t changed: Teach for America, and the other reform efforts it has inspired, have shown what works. The question is whether Teach for America is still determined to reform schools and fight for educational excellence for all—or whether it wants to become a cash-flush and slick vehicle for the new politics of identity.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Review of 'iGen' By Jean Twenge
n 1954, scientists James Olds and Peter Milner ran some experiments on rats in a laboratory at McGill University. What they found was remarkable and disturbing. They discovered that if electrodes were implanted into a particular part of the rat brain—the lateral hypothalamus—rats would voluntarily give themselves electric shocks. They would press a lever several thousand times per hour, for days on end, and even forgo food so that they could keep pressing. The scientists discovered that the rats were even prepared to endure torture in order to receive these shocks: The animals would run back and forth over an electrified grid if that’s what it took to get their fix. They enjoyed the shocks so much that they endured charring on the bottoms of their feet to receive them. For a long time afterward, Olds and Milner thought that they had discovered the “bliss center” of the brain—but this was wrong. They had discovered the reward center. They had found the part of the brain that gives us our drives and our desires. These scientists assumed that the rats must have been in a deep state of pleasure while receiving these electric shocks, but in reality they were in a prolonged state of acute craving.
Jean Twenge’s important new book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, talks about a new form of electronic stimulation that appears to be driving young people to extreme distraction. A professor of psychology at San Diego State University, Twenge has built her career on looking at patterns in very large samples of people across long periods of time. She takes data from the General Social Survey, which has examined adults 18 years and older since 1966; the American Freshman Survey, which has questioned college students since 1991; the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System; and the Monitoring the Future databases. She looks to see whether there have been any changes in behavior and personality across time for people the same age but from different generations. Prior to iGen, she was the author of The Narcissism Epidemic (2009), co-written with psychologist W. Keith Campbell, and Generation Me (2013), a book about self-entitled Millennials. Twenge knows whereof she speaks.
Unlike previous patterns of rising narcissism, the trends of self-regard and self-entitlement associated with those born after 1995 appear to have petered out. What Twenge does find, however, is that reversals in trends of narcissism have been replaced by sharp increases in anxiety. Rates of anxiety and depression are spiking rapidly in young people, while at the same time their engagement with adult behaviors is declining. Using dozens of graphs, Twenge shows the reader how teenagers today drink less, go out less, socialize less, are less motivated to get their driver’s license, work less, date less, and even have sex less.
At first glance, the data seem counterintuitive, because the social pressures to abstain from alcohol and casual sex have never been more relaxed. But, on further reading, it appears that young people’s avoidance of adult behaviors has at least something to do with the addictive and distracting nature of smartphones and social media. Of course, Twenge is careful to point out that this is all “correlational.” She does not have a smoking gun and cannot prove causality. But the speculation seems plausible. All of the changes she observes started accelerating after 2007, when smartphones became ubiquitous. She writes:
I asked my undergraduate students what I thought was a very simple question: “What do you do with your phone while you sleep? Why?” Their answers were a profile in obsession. Nearly all slept with their phones, putting them under their pillows, on the mattress, or at the very least within arm’s reach of the bed. They checked social media websites and watched videos right before they went to bed and reached for their phones again as soon as they woke up in the morning (they had to—all of them used it as their alarm). Their phone was the last thing they saw before they went to bed and the first thing they saw when they woke up. If they woke up in the middle of the night they often ended up looking at their phones. They talked about their phones the way an addict would talk about crack: “I know I shouldn’t, but I just can’t help it.”
Recent experiments also lend support to the hypothesis. In an experiment carried out in 2013, psychologists Larry Rosen and Nancy Cheever brought 163 university students into a room. Some students had their phones unexpectedly taken away and others were told to put their phones on silent and out of sight. All students were then asked to fill out a brief anxiety questionnaire in 20-minute intervals. Those who were the heaviest smartphone users and heaviest social-media users recorded anxiety levels that kept climbing over the 90-minute period. The kids who used their smartphones the least did not have any increase in anxiety. This experiment lends strong support to the hypothesis that smartphones, by their propensity to promote constant use, do in fact cause agitation.
Twenge’s chapter on mental health in the generation born after 1995 makes for the book’s most disturbing reading. Heavy smartphone and social-media use correlates with higher anxiety and increased feelings of loneliness, particularly in girls. Social media seems to allow girls to bully one another in much more subtle and effective ways than were previously available. They constantly include or exclude one another from online activities such as group “chats,” and they are forever surveilling their peers’ presentation and appearance. This means that if girls aren’t vigilantly checking their social-media accounts, they won’t know if they’re being gossiped about or excluded from some fun activity. Like the electrodes placed on Olds and Milner’s rats, this new technology seems to activate the reward center—but it does not induce states of contentment, satisfaction, or meaning. It also takes time away from other activities such as sports and in-person socializing that would induce feelings of contentment and satisfaction. For a young person who is developing his personality and his competencies in the real world, this could have a profound and long-lasting effect.
Twenge tries not to be alarmist, and she presents her findings in a cautious, conscientious manner. She takes care to make caveats and eschew emotionally laden language. But it’s hard not to be alarmed by what she has found. In the six years between 2009 and 2015, the number of high-school girls who attempted suicide increased by 43 percent and the number of college students who “seriously considered” ending their lives rose by 51 percent. Suicides in young people are carefully tracked—there can be no ambiguity in this data—and increasing rates of children killing themselves are strong evidence that something is seriously amiss. From 2007 (the year smartphones became omnipresent) to 2015, suicide among 15- to 19-year-olds rose by 46 percent, and among those aged 12 to 14, it rose by half. And this rise is particularly pronounced for young girls. Three times as many 12- to 14-year-old girls killed themselves in 2015 as in 2007; among boys that age, suicide doubled in the same period. The suicide rate is always higher for boys (partly because they use more violent methods), but girls are now beginning to close this gender gap.
Another startling chapter in Twenge’s book focuses on sex, relationships, and family formation. We all know that young people are putting off marriage and child-rearing until later years, often for sensible reasons. But what is less well known is that young people are dating a lot less and spending a lot more time alone. It appears that old-fashioned romance and courtship norms are out the window, and so too is sex among young people. Twenge writes:
[M]ore young adults are not having sex at all. More than twice as many iGen’ers and late Millennials (those born in the 1990s) in their early twenties (16 percent) had not had sex at all since age 18 compared to GenX’ers at the same age (6 percent). A more sophisticated statistical analysis that included all adults and controlled for age and time period confirmed twice as many “adult virgins” among those born in the 1990s than among those born in the 1960s.
But if 16 percent are virgins, that means 84 percent of young people are having sex. Perhaps, then, there’s only a small segment bucking the trend toward more libertine lifestyles? Not so. Twenge writes:
Even with age controlled [in samples], Gen X’ers born in the 1970s report having an average of 10.05 sexual partners in their lifetimes, whereas Millennials and iGen’ers born in the 1990s report having sex with 5.29 partners. So Millennials and iGen’ers, the generations known for quick, casual sex, are actually having sex with fewer people.
For decades, conservatives have worried about loosened social and sexual mores among young people. It’s true that sexual promiscuity poses meaningful risks to youths’ well-being, especially among women. But there are also risks that manifest at a broader level when there is a lack of sexual activity in young people. And this risk can be summed up in three words—angry young men. Anthropologists are well aware that societies without strong norms of monogamous pairing produce a host of negative outcomes. In such populations, crime and child abuse increase while savings and GDP decline. Those are just some of the problems that come from men’s directing their energies toward competing with one another for mates instead of providing for families. In monogamous societies, male-to-male competition is tempered by the demands of family life and planning for children’s futures.
These trends identified by Twenge—increased anxiety and depression, huge amounts of time spent on the Internet, and less time spent dating and socializing—do not bode well for the future of Western societies. It should come as no surprise that young people who struggle to connect with one another and young men who can’t find girlfriends will express their anxieties as political resentments. Twenge’s book reveals just how extensive those anxieties are.
Like the rats that forgo food to binge on electric shocks, teenagers are forgoing formative life experiences and human connection in order to satiate their desire for electronic rewards. But the problem is not necessarily insurmountable. Twenge identifies possible protective factors such as playing sports, real-life socializing, adequate sleep, sunlight, and good food. Indeed, phone apps designed to encourage good habits are becoming popular, as are those that lock people out of their social-media accounts for predetermined periods of time. Twenge also argues that iGen has several positive indicators. They are less narcissistic and are more industrious than the generation before them, and they are also more realistic about the demands of work and careers. But harnessing those qualities will require an effort that seems at once piddling and gargantuan. IGen’s future well-being, and ours, depends on whether or not they can just put down their phones.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Playwrights and politics
No similar incidents have been reported, but not for lack of opportunity. In the past year, references to Trump have been shoehorned into any number of theatrical productions in New York and elsewhere. One Trump-related play by a noted author, Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall, has already been produced off Broadway and across America, and various other Trump-themed plays are in the pipeline, including Tracy Letts’s The Minutes and Beau Willimon’s The Parisian Woman, both of which will open on Broadway later this season.
The first thing to be said about this avalanche of theatrical activity is that these plays and productions, so far as is known, all show Trump in a negative light. That was to be expected. Save for David Mamet, I am not aware of any prominent present-day American playwright, stage actor, director, or technician who has ever publicly expressed anything other than liberal or progressive views on any political subject whatsoever. However, it appears one can simultaneously oppose Trump and still be skeptical about the artistic effects of such lockstep unanimity, for many left-of-center drama critics have had unfavorable things to say about the works of art inspired to date by the Trump presidency.
So even a political monoculture like that of the American theater can criticize the fruits of its own one-sidedness. But can such a culture produce any other kind of art? Or might the Theater of Trump be inherently flawed in a way that prevents it from transcending its limitations?F rom Aristophanes to Angels in America, politics has always been a normal part of the subject matter of theater. Not until the end of the 19th century, though, did a major playwright emerge whose primary interest in writing plays was political rather than aesthetic. George Bernard Shaw saw himself less as an artist than as a propagandist for the causes to which he subscribed, which included socialism, vegetarianism, pacifism, and (late in his life) Stalinism. But Shaw took care to sugar the political pill by embedding his preoccupations in entertaining comedies of ideas, and he was just as careful to make his villains as attractive—and persuasive-sounding—as his heroes.
In those far-off days, the English-speaking theater world was more politically diverse than it is today both on and off stage. It was only in the late ’40s that the balance started to shift, at first slowly, then with steadily increasing speed. In England, this ultimately led to a theater in which it is now common to find explicit political statements embedded not merely in plays but also in such commercial musicals as Billy Elliot, a show about the British miners’ strike of 1984 in which a chorus of children sings a holiday carol whose refrain runs as follows: “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher / We all celebrate today / Cause it’s one day closer to your death.”
As this example suggests, postwar English political theater is consumed with indictments of the evils arising from the existence of a rigid class system. American playwrights, by contrast, are typically more inclined to follow in the footsteps of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, both of whose plays portray (albeit for different reasons) the spiritual and emotional poverty of middle-class life. In both countries, most theater is neither explicitly nor implicitly political. Nevertheless, the theater communities of England and America have for the last half-century or so been all but unanimous in their offstage political convictions. This means that when an English-language play is political, the views that it embodies will almost certainly be left-liberal.
This unanimity of opinion is responsible for what I called, in a 2009 Commentary essay about Miller, the “theater of concurrence.”1 Its practitioners, presumably because all of their colleagues share their political views, take for granted that their audiences will also share them. Hence they write political plays in which no attempt is made to persuade dissenters to change their minds, it being assumed that no dissenters are present in the theater. In the theater of concurrence, disagreement with left-liberal orthodoxy is normally taken to be the result either of invincible ignorance or a deliberate embrace of evil. In the U.S. and England alike, it has become rare to see old-fashioned Shavian political plays like David Hare’s Skylight (1995) in which the devil (in this case, a Thatcherite businessman in love with an upper-middle-class do-gooder) is given his due. Instead, we get plays whose villains are demoniacal monsters (Tony Kushner’s fictionalized portrayal of Roy Cohn in Angels in America is an example) rather than flawed humans who, like Tom in Skylight, have reached the point of no moral return.
All this being the case, it makes perfect sense that Donald Trump’s election should have come as so disorienting a shock to the American theater community, which took for granted that he was unelectable. No sooner were the votes tallied than theater people took to social media to angrily declare their unalterable resistance to the Trump presidency. Many of them believe both Trump and his supporters to be, in Hillary Clinton’s oft-quoted phrase, members of “the basket of deplorables . . . racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it.”
What kind of theater is emerging from this shared belief? Building the Wall, the first dramatic fruit of the Trump era, is a two-character play set in the visiting room of a Texas prison. It takes place in 2019, by which time President Trump has been impeached after having responded to the detonation of a nuclear weapon in Times Square by declaring nationwide martial law and locking up every foreigner in sight. The bomb, it turns out, was a “false flag” operation planted not by terrorists but by the president’s men. Rick, the play’s principal character, has been imprisoned for doing something so unspeakably awful that he and his interlocutor, a sanctimonious black journalist who is interviewing him for a book, are initially reluctant to talk about it. At the end of an hour or so of increasingly broad hints, we learn that Rick helped the White House set up a Nazi-style death camp for illegal immigrants.
Schenkkan has described Building the Wall as “not a crazy or extreme fantasy,” an inadvertently revealing remark. It is possible to spin involving drama out of raging paranoia, but that requires a certain amount of subtlety, not to mention intelligence—and there is nothing remotely subtle or intelligent about Building the Wall. Rick is a blue-collar cartoon, a regular-guy Texan who claims not to be a racist but voted for Trump because “all our jobs were going to Mexico and China and places like that and then the illegals here taking what jobs are left and nobody gave a damn.” Gloria, his interviewer, is a cartoon of a different kind, a leftsplaining virtue signal in human form who does nothing but emit smug speeches illustrating her own enlightened state: “I mean, at some point in the past we were all immigrants, right, except for Native Americans. And those of us who didn’t have a choice in the matter.” The New York production of Building the Wall closed a month ahead of schedule, having received universally bad reviews (the New York Times described it as “slick and dispiriting”).
The Public Theater’s Julius Caesar, by contrast, received mixed but broadly positive reviews. But it, too, was problematic, albeit on an infinitely higher level of dramatic accomplishment. Here, the fundamental problem was that Eustis had superimposed a gratuitous directorial gloss on Shakespeare’s play. There have been many other high-concept productions of Julius Caesar, starting with Orson Welles’s 1937 modern-dress Broadway staging, which similarly transformed Shakespeare’s play into an it-can-happen-here parable of modern-day fascism. But Eustis’s over-specific decision to turn Caesar into a broad-brush caricature of Trump hijacked the text instead of illuminating it. Rather than allowing the audience to draw its own parallels to the present situation, he pandered to its prejudices. The result was a quintessential example of the theater of concurrence, a staging that undercut its not-inconsiderable virtues by reducing the complexities of the Trump phenomenon to little more than boob-baiting by a populist vulgarian.
Darko Tresjnak committed a venial version of the same sin in his Hartford Stage revival of Shaw’s Heartbreak House (1919), which opened around the same time as Building the Wall and Julius Caesar. Written in the wake of World War I, Heartbreak House is a tragicomedy about a group of liberal bohemians who lack the willpower to reconstruct their doomed society along Shaw’s preferred socialist lines. Tresjnak’s lively but essentially traditional staging hewed to Shaw’s text in every way but one: He put a yellow Trump-style wig on Boss Mangan, the bloated, parasitical businessman who is the play’s villain. The effect was not unlike dressing a character in a play in a T-shirt with a four-letter word printed across the chest. The wig triggered a loud laugh on Mangan’s first entrance, but you were forced to keep on looking at it for the next two hours, by which time the joke had long since grown numbingly stale. It was a piece of cheap point-making unworthy of a production that was otherwise distinguished.How might contemporary theater artists engage with the Trump phenomenon in a way that is both politically and artistically serious?
For playwrights, the obvious answer is to follow Shaw’s own example by allowing Trump (or a Trump-like character) to speak for himself in a way that is persuasive, even seductive. Shaw himself did so in Major Barbara (1905), whose central character is an arms manufacturer so engagingly urbane that he persuades his pacifist daughter to give up her position with the Salvation Army and embrace the gospel of high explosives. But the trouble with this approach is that it is hard to imagine a playwright willing to admit that Trump could be persuasive to anyone but the hated booboisie.
Then there is Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, which transferred to Broadway last March after successful runs at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater. First performed in the summer of 2015, around the time that Trump announced his presidential candidacy, Sweat is an ensemble drama about a racially diverse group of unemployed steel workers in Reading, the Pennsylvania city that has become synonymous with deindustrialization. Trump is never mentioned in the play, which takes place between 2000 and 2008 and is not “political” in the ordinary sense of the word, since Nottage did not write it to persuade anyone to do anything in particular. Her purpose was simply to show how the people of Reading feel, and try to explain why they feel that way. Tightly structured and free of sermonizing, Sweat is a wholly personal drama whose broader political implications are left unsaid. Instead of putting Trump in the pillory, it takes a searching look at the lives of the people who voted for him, and it portrays them sympathetically, making a genuine good-faith attempt to understand why they chose to embrace Trumpian populism.
Sweat is a model for serious political art—artful political art, if you will. Are more such plays destined to be written about Donald Trump and his angry supporters? Perhaps, if their authors heed the wise words of Joseph Conrad: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.” Only the very best artists can make political art with that kind of revelatory power. Shaw and Bertolt Brecht did it, and so has Lynn Nottage. Will Tracy Letts and Beau Willimon follow suit, or will they settle for the pandering crudities of Building the Wall? The answer to that question will tell us much about the future of political theater in the Age of Trump.
1 “Concurring with Arthur Miller” (Commentary, June 2009)