Say this for Barack Obama: He was personally untarnished by scandal and he was consistently dignified and thoughtful. Those are all qualities we may miss before long. But it’s hard to judge his presidency as a tremendous success when voters chose to succeed him not his former secretary of state, pledged to continue his policies, but rather a candidate who has lambasted him and his administration in the harshest terms imaginable.
In the realm of foreign policy (I leave domestic policy to others), Obama deserves credit for continuing many of the war-on-terrorism policies launched by President George W. Bush. Indeed, Obama actually ramped up drone strikes and continued most of the Bush-era surveillance programs more or less intact. That he refused to engage in torture was merely a further codification of changes that had already been made in Bush’s second term. When it came to North Korea, he proved more hawkish than Bush by refusing to make any concessions to Pyongyang in order to jumpstart negotiations, a strategy that has consistently proven futile.
The achievements—at least from my perspective—pretty much end there. Certainly Obama never lived up the early promise of his presidency. One wonders if the Nobel Prize committee would still award him the Peace Prize that he received in the first year of his presidency. It seems doubtful. There has been precious little peace on Obama’s watch. His promise to end America’s war in Iraq resulted in an ill-advised pullout in 2011 that was far from inevitable. Within less than three years, American troops were back on Iraqi soil, but under far less advantageous circumstances. It is possible that the rise of ISIS may have been avoided altogether if only Obama had maintained a troop presence in Iraq and done more to stop the Syrian civil war.
Wary of repeating what he perceived to be Bush’s mistake of over-interventionism, Obama instead veered toward extreme non-interventionism, with the exception of Libya and Afghanistan, where he imposed such severe limitations on American action that it made success impossible to achieve. In Libya, he employed American airpower to topple Muammar Gaddafi but refused to sanction any follow-on peacekeeping forces to help a new, pro-Western government establish its authority. The predictable result: a vacuum of authority that allowed militias and terrorist groups to flourish. U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three of his colleagues paid with their lives for that failure. In Afghanistan, Obama tripled the U.S. commitment to 100,000 troops but imposed a crippling 18-month deadline on their deployment which encouraged the Taliban to wait them out and made it impossible to solidify security gains. The result: The Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since 2001.
Obama’s failure to act in Syria will stand as his greatest short-coming, and it will haunt him in the same way that the failure to stop the Rwandan genocide haunted Bill Clinton. On Obama’s watch, at least 500,000 people have been killed in Syria and at least 10 million have fled their homes, with at least half of those becoming refugees in neighboring states. The knock-on effects of that refugee crisis have been to destabilize states not just in the Middle East but also in Europe, making it possible for the Brexit referendum to win in Britain and undermining Angela Merkel’s position in Germany. But the most parlous consequences of Obama’s inaction, aside from the obvious humanitarian cost, has been to allow terrorist groups such as ISIS and Hezbollah to flourish. Syria has been effectively divided between Shiite and Sunni jihadists, who are united by one thing: their loathing of America.
The signal failure in Syria was Obama’s unwillingness in 2013 to enforce his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. By backing off at the last minute, he undermined allies like France, which were ready to take military action, and he greatly strengthened not only Bashar Assad but also his patron in Moscow, Vladimir Putin. Beyond that, he sent a message of American irresolution that may well have encouraged Russia to engage in aggression against Ukraine and China to engage in aggression in the South China Sea. Both Europe and East Asia face security situations that are far worse than those that Obama inherited, and he cannot escape blame for this fact.
In both cases, the American response has been hobbled by the decline in our military strength in the face of Russian and Chinese rearmament—a result of the unwise budget cuts known as “sequestration” agreed to by the president and Congress. The “pivot to Asia” that Obama touted amounted to not much at all, because U.S. military strength in the Western Pacific has continued to decline relative to China.
Obama, for all his fine talk, also did far too little to stand up to aggressors or to champion human rights. He looked the other way while Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin imposed dictatorships on their countries, locking up and killing those who dared to oppose their rule. He had virtually nothing to say about human-rights in China. He reopened relations with Cuba, despite a lack of improvement on human rights on the part of the Castro dictatorship, and more recently tightened refugee policy to make it harder for Cubans fleeing communism to find a safe haven in America.
Obama imagines that his greatest achievement is the nuclear deal with Iran, but it will look even worse in retrospect because it does not end Iran’s nuclear program. Rather it merely delays it for a decade, while flooding Iran’s coffers with oil revenues that will be used to extend the sway of the new Persian Empire across the Middle East. Obama has looked the other way as Tehran has supported extremist militias in countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. To take action would have risked blowing up the nuclear deal. The result has been to encourage Shiite extremism, which in turn has led to a backlash by Sunni extremists.
If there is one inadvertent benefit to Obama’s weak Middle East policy, it is that he has united Israel and Saudi Arabia in mutual opposition to American policy. But it does Obama no credit to note that his consistent hostility to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the democratic state he leads—exemplified by UN Ambassador Samantha Power’s unwillingness to veto a one-sided, anti-Israel resolution in the Security Council—has done nothing to advance the cause of peace. The prospect of a “final” deal between Israelis and Palestinians remains farther away than ever and the very idea of a “two-state solution” is now in doubt. Obama’s actions, designed to spur peace talks, only encouraged more terrorism.
Where It All Went Wrong
Must-Reads from Magazine
Sleepwalking toward a revolution.
The most important news of the week was buried underneath an avalanche of dispatches involving palace intrigue in the White House and the Republican Party’s effort to deconstruct the Affordable Care Act. A team of scientists at the Oregon Health and Science University had, according to the MIT Technology Review, used a relatively new gene-editing technique to alter the DNA of a single-cell human embryo.
“Although none of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days—and there was never any intention of implanting them into a womb—the experiments are a milestone on what may prove to be an inevitable journey toward the birth of the first genetically modified humans,” the report read. This represents the first known (emphasis on known) effort to genetically modify a human embryo, and it won’t be the last.
The speed with which this scientific milestone was reached has outpaced society’s ability to process it. Already, the outlines of a conflict over the nature of this practice—its ethicality, its utility, and its displacing effects on the American workforce—are visible, but no one seems prepared to talk about them. What was once science fiction is perfectly thinkable today. It’s time to do some thinking.
First, it is incumbent upon Americans of all political stripes—not just conservatives or the faithful—to consider the moral implications of embryonic genetic engineering. In April of 2015, National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins issued a statement pledging that “NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos,” but this prohibition does not apply to private endeavors. Public ethos guides private industry, but what is public philosophy regarding the interference with genetic destiny?
Are we obliged to eradicate genetic disorders? Is it unethical not to intervene in the development of an embryo if we have the capacity to alleviate future suffering and hardship? Is it morally questionable to select for various cosmetic traits that prospective parents might find desirable? Do we engage in this process of upending the natural order without knowing the long-term effects of genetic manipulation? Is a modified population a form of eugenics?
This leads us to ponder the public-policy implications of a world in which genetic modification is a fact of life. NIH guidelines will constrain some in the United States from overreaching, but every nation will have its own standards, and genetic medical tourism is undoubtedly the industry of the future. Should Congress seek to limit or even prohibit the practice of elective embryonic genetic engineering? Is such a notion constitutional, to say nothing of economically and socially advantageous?
The American right is guaranteed to be suspicious of an activity that intervenes in the spheres of natural life previously exclusive to the divine. “I don’t trust ‘the scientists’ to regulate themselves,” wrote National Review’s Wesley Smith. “Mr. President: We need a presidential bioethics/biotechnology commission now!” A commission is fine, but one with an eye toward restricting technological advance is swimming against the tide. Scientific achievement cannot be prevented—Pandora’s Box cannot be un-opened, and it is far better that the person doing the opening is someone subject to laws and mores than someone beyond those constraints. Smith’s fear is, however, valid. It’s reminiscent of the way in which automation crashed over the American economy like a tsunami.
Simple robots have been stealing away from Americans the ability to be paid for the completion of rote tasks for over a generation, but it was the onset of artificial intelligence that truly upended the economy. Only in the last few years were occupations previously thought immune to the effects of technology imperiled; office administration, sales and service jobs, and transportation may all headed for the chopping block. In February of 2016, Citibank in coordination with the University of Oxford predicted that automation will threaten 47 percent of existing U.S. jobs.
The effect of this radically disruptive technological revolution on American politics is only just beginning to be felt. What seemed like science fiction only a few years ago—for example, increasingly ubiquitous self-piloted commercial and military vehicles and self-service kiosks at food and retail outlets—are a reality today. And they will create an army of otherwise unemployable low-skilled workers who demand some legislative remedy for their condition. Is the prospect of a stratified, dystopian society envisioned in films like “Gattaca” so hard to envision? If not, how can it be prevented before those class structures become intractable? Is genetic modification at birth a privilege reserved for the nation’s wealthiest, or should all Americans have access to a potentially life-saving therapy?
These all seem like far-fetched questions today, but they might be standard in only five or ten years. Society’s capacity to cope with technological advance is not infrequently outpaced by the speed of those advances, and genetic modification will surely not buck that trend. It is, however, incumbent upon us to think about the consequences of that civilization-shaping breakthrough; what could go wrong, how it will benefit mankind, and how best to guide its development. The American right has as many modern Ned Ludds as do their progressive counterparts. There will be those who rage against technological advance as though it could be stopped, but it cannot. Therefore, it’s time to ask a number of uncomfortable questions. They’ll be answered one way or another, with us or without.
Podcast: Is it a purge or a plan? Or both!
On the second of this week’s podcasts, I get into it with Noah Rothman on whether the president’s behavior toward his attorney general and the new White House communications director’s conduct toward the White House chief of staff constitute a “plan” of action or whether we are just living through nihilistic chaos. Where does Abe Greenwald come out? You’ll have to give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
Posturing, not policy.
On Wednesday morning, at 8:55 a.m., President Trump tweeted: “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow…” Many in the Pentagon wondered if he was announcing military action against North Korea, which, according to new intelligence estimates, is set to field a nuclear-tipped ICBM as early as next year. Not until nine minutes later was the suspense lifted with another presidential tweet: “…Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.”
Alarm in defense circles soon turned to befuddlement: Why was Trump making this announcement? And why now? There was no immediate indication that the president had consulted with Defense Secretary James Mattis, who is on vacation, or notified other senior military leaders. The Pentagon referred all inquiries to the White House. When pressed for details, the White House had none. “That’s something the Department of Defense and the White House will have to work out,” a spokesman told reporters.
So the president is tweeting first and then leaving it to someone else to work out the actual policy he just announced.
This is all the odder because Mattis had committed to a comprehensive, six-month study, not due to be finished until December, of whether the military should accept new transgender recruits. Several GOP congress members, meanwhile, had introduced legislation to prevent the military’s health insurance plan from paying for gender reassignment surgery (which costs ten times less than what the military spends annually on erectile dysfunction medications—$84 million). What Trump announced is far broader—a ban not only on new transgendered recruits or on future gender reassignment surgeries but also a ban on existing transgendered personnel.
The only comprehensive study on transgendered service personnel, conducted by Rand last year, found that roughly 2,450 are currently serving and that they have a “minimal impact on readiness and health care costs.” “The limited research on the effects of foreign military policies indicates little or no impact on unit cohesion, operational effectiveness, or readiness,” Rand reported. “Commanders noted that the policies had benefits for all service members by creating a more inclusive and diverse force.”
The leadership of the Defense Department is certainly not agitating to boot out transgendered personnel who serve honorably and bravely. In fact, they’d rather not deal with this issue at all. Sen. John McCain, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, spoke for many, especially younger military personnel, when he said, “Any American who meets current medical and readiness standards should be allowed to continue serving. There is no reason to force service members who are able to fight, train, and deploy to leave the military—regardless of their gender identity.”
So why would President Trump, out of the blue, issue a momentous policy pronouncement for which there is no pressing need and no preparation? It is hard to explain this other than to suggest that it is Trump’s way of distracting attention from the multiple crises besetting his presidency—from his bizarre feud with Attorney General Jeff Sessions to his inability, so far, to pass health-care legislation through a Republican-controlled Congress. Trump’s attacks on Sessions, a favorite of his nationalist-conservative base, have been especially costly, leading even longtime allies such as Newt Gingrich to criticize him.
The transgender ban is a symbolic way to try to stay in the good graces of the religious right and to simply change the subject. Indeed, Zeke Miller of Time tweeted: “White House official tells me admin[istration] is thrilled media is focusing on transgender service member issue.”
This may be good politics, but it’s bad policy. If Trump really cares about enhancing military effectiveness, rather than simply grandstanding for his populist rooting section, he would focus on repealing the sequestration act that, as Sen. Tom Cotton noted, makes defense budgeting arbitrary and unpredictable. Trump also needs to work with Congress to simply increase the defense budget to make up for years of neglect. But that would require the kind of heavy legislative-lifting in which the president has shown no interest.
A double standard is, in fact, a standard. Just an immoral one.
Really it should come as no surprise that the scientist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins is the latest public figure to have fallen victim to a disinviting mania. After all, if a darling of the left feminist like Germaine Greer can face a campaign to silence her over her views on transgenderism or a woman of color like Ayaan Hirsi Ali can face similar attempts to have her free speech on campus canceled, why should Dawkins be spared?
The English geneticist was slated to give a talk in Berkeley, California in August on his new book Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist. Over the weekend, however, the organizers (the local community radio station KPFA) announced that they are canceling the event because, apparently, it had been discovered that Dawkins is, in fact, an Islamophobe. They explained that, while their station “emphatically supports serious free speech,” that nevertheless KPFA “does not endorse hurtful speech.”
Disappointingly, the statement from KPFA Radio doesn’t elaborate on what constitutes serious free speech. Nor does it define where the bounds of hurtful speech lie. Of course, it should go without saying that those who wish to do away with all speech that might ever be deemed hurtful to someone don’t actually take the value of free speech that seriously at all.
For what little good it will do him, Dawkins has hit back by insisting that his criticism of the “appalling misogyny and homophobia of Islam” has been made in defense of the rights of Muslims. As he put it in an open letter to the radio: “far from attacking Muslims, I understand–as perhaps you do not–that Muslims themselves are the prime victims of the oppressive cruelties of Islamism, especially Muslim women.”
Given Richard Dawkins’s pretty damning view on religious belief in general, you would have thought the event organizers might have anticipated that this arch-secularist wouldn’t have anything very complimentary to say about Islam either. Yet there is something rather troubling in KFPA’s statement on their discovery of Dawkins’s “hurtful speech.” As the radio station explained: “We had booked this event based entirely on his excellent new book on science, when we didn’t know he had offended and hurt–in his tweets and other comments on Islam, so many people.”
This leaves a question. If Dawkins’s incriminating tweets on Islam eventually came to the organizer’s attention, what about all of his other pronouncements on religion? As in, the many writings and speeches that deal with insulting all the other religions. Are KPFA Radio still yet to stumble upon Dawkins’s international best-selling The God Delusion? Imagine their sense of horror when they learn of all those hurt Jewish and Christian feelings. After all, Dawkins has had some pretty fiery things to say on the “God of the Old Testament”.
Unless, of course, the organizers already knew all about Dawkins’s past comments on the other religions, but it only became a problem for them when they found out that Dawkins had been saying similar things about Islam. Had Dawkins been silent on Islam and only derided Christianity and Judaism, would he then have still been welcome at the Berkeley event? It rather sounds like it.
Presumably, few would claim that because of his views on the Hebrew Bible, Richard Dawkins is an anti-Semite? Yet these days it seems that it is rather easier for militant secularists to fall foul of the Islamophobia charge. Dawkins has himself spoken out against the Islamic practice of serving apostates with the death penalty. Would calling such things barbaric cross the line into Islamophobia?
And what of atheists more generally, who presumably believe that without exception, all the prophets of the world’s great religions were either wildly self-deluded, or otherwise shamelessly and knowingly fabricated their various holy texts? Would making such a claim about the founder of Islam be classed as insulting the prophet? Judging by previous cases, making such a claim would steer one dangerously close to the borders of Islamophobia, or worse.
Canceling an event with an internationally renowned atheist on the grounds that he has offended the feelings of religious people is, of course, absurd.
That KPFA Radio in Berkeley feel they would like to impose something akin to blasphemy laws now is no less bizarre. Acting in defense of the hurt feelings of one religion is a far more concerning development.
Hopefully, whoever’s job it is at Berkeley to safeguard equal opportunities for religious and ethnic groups will be taking this matter in hand.
Democrats will regret treating this as a partisan issue.
Whenever a former Obama administration official’s name comes up in the process of investigating the Trump campaign’s alleged links to Russian sources, Democrats take the position that the right’s penchant for “whataboutism” neutralizes the implication of wrongdoing. The Democratic objective is to shame those who are committed to crafting a full and unbiased portrait of the events of 2016 into ignoring inconvenient facts, but the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee remains unintimidated.
This month, the committee has met with a variety of senior Obama officials behind closed doors amid its probe of the Russia affair, including former Chief-of-Staff Denis McDonough, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The committee will meet with former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power on Friday.
These interviews are apparently being conducted in the effort to get to the bottom of why incoming Trump administration officials who were inadvertently captured in intelligence intercepts of foreign targets were conspicuously “unmasked” with their names and the details of their conversations leaked to the press. Trump administration opponents call the issue a distraction, but it’s a matter of grave national importance.
Those who are disinclined to look too deeply into the issue of “unmasking” have latched onto a comment from Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr like flotsam in a shipwreck. “The unmasking thing was all created by Devin Nunes,” Burr said of the House Intelligence Committee chairman whose reckless conduct compelled him to recuse himself from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s conduct. “I’ll wait to go through our full evaluation to see if there was anything improper that happened,” he added. Fewer have, however, paid much attention to Burr’s full quote. “Clearly,” he added, “there were individuals unmasked. Some of that became public which it’s not supposed to, and our business is to understand that, and explain it.”
Indeed, there is a lot to explain. Only weeks into the new Trump administration, unnamed former Obama administration officials began telling reporters to expect to see details involving the surveillance of administration officials and Trump associates’ communications with their Russian counterparts. The New York Times, for example, revealed how these Obama officials left a “trail” of evidence of these contacts for investigators to uncover.
A month earlier, the Washington Post disclosed that former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn had privately discussed U.S. sanctions with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, in phone calls prior to the inauguration. The transcript of those intercepted communications was related to reporters, despite its highly classified nature. This revelation contradicted the transition team’s repeated denials that any such conversations between Flynn and Kislyak took place and it served as just cause for Flynn’s termination.
Flynn was a liability and should never have been placed in such a sensitive role. His dismissal was a relief, but the methods by which he was discredited established a dangerous precedent. If a private citizen swept up in routine intercepts of communications with foreign agents can be “unmasked” to achieve a political purpose, even if that purpose is defensible, it won’t be long before that precedent is applied toward more ambiguous ends.
Now, Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears to have been the target of a politically motivated intelligence reveal. As reported by, again, the Washington Post, the attorney general apparently misled U.S. officials and members of Congress with regard to the nature of his contacts with Russian officials. According to communications intercepted by “U.S. spy agencies,” Kislyak related the details of two conversations he apparently had with then-campaign advisor Sessions to his superiors in Moscow. Sessions was not personally swept up in those intercepts, but Kislyak mentioned his name and the substance of those intercepts was related to Post reporters.
The outlet stressed that it could not confirm the authenticity of the intercepts as they could in Flynn’s case, but President Trump went ahead and did that for them. “A new INTELLIGENCE LEAK from the Amazon Washington Post, this time against A.G. Jeff Sessions,” the president declared on Twitter. “These illegal leaks, like [former FBI Director James] Comey’s, must stop!”
This particular leak was widely viewed within the context of the ongoing public feud between the president and his attorney general, but it should not be so quickly dismissed. In cryptic testimony before Congress, Comey revealed that Sessions’s recusal from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s links to Russia had nothing to do with Justice Department rules. He said he knew that recusal would be forthcoming, but he could not say why in an unclassified setting. Comey’s disclosure and this leak may not be unrelated.
Trump administration opponents who celebrate these unprecedented disclosures because they damage the administration are being extraordinarily parochial. This is an assault on the American social compact. The precedent being established now erodes the prohibitions on using intelligence gathering as a tool to discredit your political enemies. Democrats can bet that this practice will be deployed against them in the foreseeable future. In the process, political actors will render intelligence products suspect, weakening their utility for policymakers and, thus, making America less safe.
It is a tragedy that Democrats have not followed the lead of Senator Burr and other Republicans who are treating the issue of “unmasking” as seriously as they are the unprecedented efforts by Moscow to shape the course of American political affairs in 2016. Like the hacks of Democratic targets, this is not a partisan issue. The “unmaskers” will one day come for Democrats, and they will regret their silence in this pivotal hour.