This is Part II of the two-part 2014 Review. Part I can be viewed here.
America in the World
The subject of America’s relationship to the outside world in the twenty-first century remains an unsettled one. Whether it is to retain the position of political, military, and moral leader in world affairs will be decided by the struggle between those who, guided by moral relativism and a nihilist drive to see her undermined, would deliberately destroy her capacity to act; those who hold no moral standard for action and lead her blindly into conflicts and causes on behalf of other nations, betraying the fundamental purpose of government; and those few but righteous voices that ask critical questions and expect rational justifications before pursuing a diplomatic mission, declaring allies and enemies, or risking the lives of American soldiers.
Unfortunately, in 2014, smears and mischaracterizations too often took the place of rational discussion, and those who challenged many politicians’ eagerness to get involved in distant foreign conflicts were wrongly smeared as “isolationists.” The term itself, which in recent decades had been refashioned into ‘unilateralism’ but is now reverting to its World-War-Two-era moniker, is an anti-concept intended to smear any who question the wisdom of involving the United States in any foreign conflict. Thus, the much-needed debates about America’s role in the twenty-first century, how best to retain its strength in a changing world, and the moral purpose of our government in engaging the international community are put on hold as petty politicking takes the day. The failure to address the issue candidly and intellectually is a loss that America suffers every day as the current administration enters its seventh year of governing without a consistent, comprehensible foreign policy. Yet again, however, to the extent that our foreign policy is seeing some glimmer of substantive debate, it is occurring almost entirely between members of the Republican Party. Democratic politicians have been intriguingly quiet on the subject of America’s military engagements, trapped between a failing administration and a shortage of cohesive alternatives to offer. If on this issue, as others, Democrats believe that they are being strategic by letting Republicans tatter one another, they may be surprised in 2016 to find that they have lost the leading edge in debates on American foreign policy and allowed Republicans to be, in one more way, a more interesting party of ideas. As politicians struggle to define their views at home, however, the rise of multiple threats and destabilizing forces abroad heighten the urgency of their decisions and threaten to spiral beyond our control.
It is always difficult to say what a given year will be remembered for in years to come, but certainly in America’s foreign and military policy the effective ending of our engagement in Afghanistan will be seen as a pivotal event in 2014. Sadly, after thirteen years of engagement there, our efforts have been unsuccessful, and the war is, in retrospect, a lesson in how the misjudgments of policymakers can undermine the tireless efforts and commitments of our soldiers on the ground. The Taliban, which we set out to destroy thirteen years ago, now enjoys a subtle, unpublicized diplomatic arrangement with the United States; the US-established government in Kabul is unsteady; and Afghanistan’s tribal factions have already been arming up in the last two years as their rivalries and hatred of the Taliban hold the potential to tear the country apart as soon as America’s remaining peacekeeping forces depart. Even if that unfortunate outcome does not materialize and Afghanistan is able to maintain some form of peace, the government that the US helped to establish there is a fundamentally Islamic one with little regard for secularism. This fact alone means that when an Islamist faction does rise to challenge the government, there will be no principled argument that can be made against their desire to nationalize the kinds of Sharia law provisions that exist now only in marginal, rural areas.
Likely the greatest threat to peace and security in 2014 was the emergence of a terrorist super-faction operating initially under the title of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria but soon rebranding itself as simply the Islamic State. In the midst of the Syrian Civil War and lingering political instability in Iraq, the group has grown to command tens of thousands of adherents and killed unknown numbers of people in both countries, including Christians, Kurds, and fellow Muslims who might challenge their campaign to unify the Levant into one brutal theocracy under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The ranks of ISIS (or IS) are not populated by novices. Many of its soldiers are jihadists inherited from al-Nusra and the now-defunct Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Some are former inmates of Bagram Prison allowed to leave as the US and UK ended the greater part of their involvement there. A few among its leaders are former inmates of Guantanamo Bay released and returning to the fight.
The ordeal is a tragic result of the US’s lack of commitment to defeating its enemies before attempting to rehabilitate them and reconstruct their homes. The effort to democratize and develop Iraq without defeating and dispelling the guiding Islamic totalitarian ideology that threatens America has resulted in a newly emboldened enemy who feels not only the ideological motive that sent planes into the World Trade Center towers thirteen years ago but also a sense of vindication and resolve as the United States’ nation-building venture there resulted only in the institution of an Islamic constitution and the increased involvement of theocrats and tribal leaders in the country’s governing structure. Until the United States can muster an ideological condemnation of Islamic totalitarianism from its political leaders and abandon the unprincipled, conciliatory course of the Bush and Obama approaches to the threats we face there, entities like ISIS may come with increasing frequency and unpredictability.
Unfortunately, ISIS is but one of the factions of Islamic totalitarianism within the MENA, and not alone in styling itself as a “state.” in particular, Hamas has proven uniquely aggressive towards western-style governments, periodically firing missiles into Israel and using its own citizens as shields when Israel fires back. Though Hamas is not unique in its anti-semitism and brutal ideology, it differs from its counterparts in its willingness to confront Israel directly while the majority of its neighbors — even Egypt under Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood — have declined to do so in recent years. Most distressing, however, is the level of open support it has received from westerners, and the level of vitriolic condemnation Israel has received from the same.
When Israel briefly invaded Gaza, the outrage from the west’s left was virtually (though not entirely) unanimous. Whether resulting from a nihilistic hatred of the United States and its allies, from a failure to evaluate the nature of the two sides of the conflict, or from a reckless failure to discover the facts of the situation, the left (particularly its youth) has repeatedly run to the aid of the vicious terrorist organization over a western-style republic. Bemoaning the civilian casualties caused by Israel (which goes to altruistic lengths to avoid them) and coddling Hamas (which deliberately causes them), the left has once again postured itself as the opponent of the civilized world. Whatever the the legitimate complaints levied against Israel — and there are legitimate complaints to levy — Israel is hardly more condemnable than Hollande’s socialist administration in France, or the inept government of Greece. Moreover, any assertion by the left that they support merely “Palestinians” and not Hamas, such a distinction carries little weight when the former elected the latter as their own oppressors, and when Israel is more than justified in using all means necessary to eliminate it.
To the north of Israel, Putin’s Russia took advantage of instability in Ukraine and effectively erected a satellite state in Crimea. Though Putin is a detestable character and undoubtedly relishes any opportunity to expand his political sphere of influence, the west nevertheless shares responsibility for feeding Russia’s desire for expansion through its own international lack of direction. From “Russia, China, and the Need for New Diplomacy”:
The West, for its part, has done little to improve the situation. Rather than seizing upon the collapse of the USSR as an opportunity to begin integrating Russia into the international community, Western powers have behaved so erratically and so detrimentally to their own interests that their actions may easily be construed as nothing but attempts to stifle Russian influence in favor of their own. Why else, the average Russian may ask, would the West invade Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein? Or arm terrorists to depose al-Assad in Syria? In such cases, the West’s professed support for individual rights seems nothing more than a façade used to justify their actions, rather than a real conviction worthy of consideration.
Nevertheless, as the Obama Administration has sufficiently frozen US-Russian relations for the foreseeable future, it has at least responded to Russia’s behavior in an appropriate and somewhat effective manner. Western sanctions, coupled with a fortuitous increase in North American shale oil production, have crippled the Russian economy and sent the ruble into a steep spiral. Whether this damage will lead Russia to reevaluate its actions or not, hopefully the economic ramifications will at least inhibit Russia’s ability to incite further instability.
Amidst the variety of crises and ordeals that the media had to cover in 2014, one would think that it would have no need for exaggeration, hyperbole, and sensationalism. That assumption would be wrong, however, as news outlets’ responses to the ebola outbreak this year revealed. The term “outbreak” should be qualified. Certainly the presence of even a single individual contaminated with such a deadly disease is worthy of attention and appropriate concern, but in this case the volume of coverage was entirely disproportionate to the number of victims affected by the disease. As journalists used terms like “epidemic” and “panic in the streets”, Americans waited for disaster to strike. Fortunately, only four individuals in the United States were infected–an initial carrier who brought the disease into the country from Liberia, two medical professionals who treated him, and a fourth man, a doctor who unknowingly carried the disease over after treating patients in Guinea. The carrier from Liberia tragically died, though the three medical professionals were treated, cured, and released. End of story. While the media’s predilection for sensationalism on this story was well-noted by commentators, perhaps the biggest complaint to be lodged is not simply the way in which a threat was exaggerated but especially the way in which round-the-clock coverage of the disease crowded out legitimate stories. Surely in a year so full of international issues, conflict, and lackluster political performance on economic issues, cable news in particular could have used its pulpit more wisely in applying pressure where it is needed rather than bogging down the news cycle with an endless series of what-ifs and laboriously repeated commentary. With a country in dire straits in so many economic and political respects, surely the power of the press could be more wisely used.
The end result of this media campaign was the too-mild, then overeager response of the administration as the president sent US troops with no medical expertise to West Africa on a “humanitarian” mission, risking their lives in what the president intended to portray as a generous gesture and show of concern but which amounted only to subjecting Americans to unnecessary risk in a situation to which they could only marginally contribute. Incomprehensible from the perspective of a rationally self-interested foreign policy, Obama’s choice was yet another instance of US military policy being dictated by the political necessities of presidential administrations and the lives of servicemen and women being placed at risk in the process.
Immediately to America’s south, the Obama Administration announced a massive reevaluation of a decades-old nuisance: the Communist island of Cuba. In what was apparently the result of lengthy negotiations between Cuba and the United States, the Obama Administration issued an executive order reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba and loosening some travel restrictions — precisely what the United States gained apart from the prisoner exchange is still largely undetermined. Though President Obama could not end the economic embargo without legislative approval, he nevertheless urged Congress to dismantle it. The Republican Congress, with two notable descendants of Cuban immigrants among its ranks (Sens. Cruz and Rubio) generally dismissed the idea, with Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Justin Amash (R-OH) being some of the few exceptions. However, a brief analysis of both sides is in order.
First, economic and diplomatic sanctions are a legitimate means for a nation to protect the rights of its citizenry from foreign aggressors. To the extent that an dangerous state is enabled by the wealth it obtains through sympathetic or reckless parties within outside of its own borders, that commerce can and should be halted. To the extent that a rogue state violates the rights of a legitimate state, that rogue state should be punished to achieve justice.
At the same time, when totalitarian state — however brutal — does not pose a significant threat to the rights of legitimate states, then the sanctions have little purpose. The citizens of both states can trade as would the citizens of free states, provided that the totalitarian state initiates no force against the free citizens. In such cases, the exchange actually facilitates the collapse of the totalitarian regime, as the commerce between the two inadvertently provides a glimpse of something better to the individuals living under totalitarian conditions. Given that Cuban no longer possesses the military support of the Soviet Union and that the existing embargo has failed to achieve the regime change we seek, perhaps this reason enough to end it.
However, one should not credit President Obama with weighing such considerations. More likely, the President — per his nihilism — took this position because he admires the regime, as the left has for decades. Che Guevara has become something of a folk hero of the young left, and the left has long exhibited a misplaced sense of admiration for the Communist healthcare system. (For example, examine a report by the British House of Commons citing poor facilities, poor equipment, and the “[f]requent absence of essential drugs” as causes for concern — hardly concerns anywhere in the United States except in the government-run VA hospitals, but that is a separate matter.) Moreover, the left frequently blames the US embargo, rather than the Communist regime, for the squalid living conditions in Cuba. This proposition is particularly ridiculous considering that the embargo is not enforced upon third parties, and that US and other western food and medical aid (which are permitted) are probably the only reasons that the Cuban people are not completely destitute. One may legitimately doubt whether the President believes, or even cares, whether a policy shift will lead to improvements on Cuba’s record on individual rights. Indeed, given the Obama Administration required no concessions on these matters in exchange for the embargo, one should believe quite the opposite.
The Waning Executive
In the midst of it all, as America faces profound challenges abroad–challenges not only to its security and its particular interests but to its very stature in the world in the twenty-first century–one cannot help but sense that that stature is most diminished by the stature of its executive. Certainly the inefficiencies of Congress have been an obstacle, but the increasingly visible frustration of the president and his choice to express that frustration through a sort of pouting surrender has cemented America’s problems and prolonged her wait for productive negotiations. Protected by a sympathetic media, the Obama administration has grown accustomed to waiting out stalemates until Republican leaders in Congress feel enough pressure to succumb. In this way, the president has had to endure very little compromise in his two terms– a luxury that he now seems to insist upon but one that offers no benefit to the American people.
In 2014, this approach took a new form, and the president’s plummeting popularity inspired a bizarre withdrawal from the public. His appearances seemed fewer, less inspired, and more bitter. The White House press corps was forced to lodge a complaint with Press Secretary Josh Earnest regarding their diminishing access to the president. The weekly press conferences that he has started to give in answer to their objections are symbolic of the state of the administration: casual, slouching, short-winded, and often conducted outside against the backdrop of a waiting helicopter ready to take the president away for a weekend golf excursion. Though diminishing the fervor with which the administration pursues its more heinous policies is a win for its opponents, being left with a president who is simply going through the motions and biding his time is good for no one. As Slade Mendenhall wrote in August, “the overtness of the president’s despondency and inaction pose a threat to the country as a whole. A president being politically isolated for pursuing a nihilistic policy at the expense of our economy and national well-being is one thing; a president who appears weak and disinterested to such an extent that he makes the whole country appear so with him is quite another.” Unfortunately, if Obama remains unwilling to give ground on any major issue and opts to take measures into his own hands with executive orders, his vacillation between wrath and sloth may be the only remaining option for this president.
The question thus arises: at the end of 2014, with an incoming Republican legislature, only one major piece of legislation to its credit (which is again being challenged before the Supreme Court), and a diminished capacity to effect change in diplomatic efforts, is the Obama administration essentially over? Can it be said to have ended in 2014, and are the next two years merely fallout? As always, only time will tell, but a lame duck president with an oppositional congress and low approval ratings certainly begins to make it seem so. And if the president is counting on executive orders to be his way out of that gridlock, the American people’s expressed disapproval for that method of action may mean that he will proceed along that line at the expense of what legacy he has left. Even George W. Bush, for all of his administration’s hardships, was able to muster (economically irrational and fundamentally immoral) bipartisan action in response to the crash of 2007-2008. At this point, with a Republican Party increasingly conscious of free market values and a Democratic party veering ever further to the left, it appears unlikely that this president could match that kind of eleventh hour response to a crisis.
Another question thus arises: if the Obama administration could be considered effectively over when Congress reconvenes in January, what would be this president’s legacy? Unpopular bailouts and stimulus legislation, ObamaCare, and his recent executive actions on immigration and opening to Cuba. The bailouts and stimulus are met with general disapproval by Americans today, ObamaCare is one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in American history, even Americans who agree with the need for immigration reform disagree with the use of executive orders to achieve it, and the opening to Cuba is as yet an unknown value. Overall, even if we are to set aside ideological disagreements with the president’s policies and consider only the effectiveness with which he achieved them, his scorecard is a sorry one. The leader who we were once told was a great communicator, an analytical thinker in foreign relations, and a consensus-builder at home never showed up. In his place has come a surly bully with an indecipherable view of diplomacy and a spoiled insistence on getting everything exactly as he imagined it as a freshman senator in 2007. To say “we told you so” would show an inappropriate callousness and disregard for the many ways in which his failure affects the lives of Americans in very real ways, but certainly his early critics are afforded a sense of vindication; his early proponents, good reason for reflection.
Conclusion: The Tasks Before Us
It would be wrong to say that the condition of the United States at the turn of 2015 is a good or secure one, and the challenges ahead with regard to our entitlement programs, threats from the Middle East, relations with China and Russia, and an immigration problem in need of serious reforms will not be easy. Sadly, we are handicapped in our search for solutions by a petulant executive and the remaining difficulty in persuading conservatives to morally embrace capitalism and a rationally self-interested foreign policy. We have yet to see whether the incoming Republican legislature will bring with it any greater measure of effectiveness or simply shift the locus of conflict from being between the House and Senate to being between Congress and the White House. Thus, the tasks before defenders of individual rights at the beginning of 2015 are few but crucial. They are to prevent the whitewashing of the Obama administration by exposing its failures, indiscretions, and immoral policies; to send a message to the GOP in the coming presidential primaries that we have no desire for another Republican candidate with so little regard for free markets and individual rights as they have offered us in years past; and to continue putting forward the argument for capitalism as not simply a practical necessity but also a moral ideal capable of preserving and continually improving human life. As always, these challenges will not be easy nor the efforts always fruitful, but with an enduring belief in the justness of our cause and the confidence of rational optimists we are tempered to endure great obstacles in the hope that America might one day be restored to that ideal that in times of harrowing difficulty great men have dared to dream and, through steadfast commitment and the strength of their characters, achieve.
We wish you well in 2015, and may you continue to join us as we chronicle–and critique–the living history of a nation we love.
Happy New Year!