America in the World
Though the usual trend in the waning years of a lame duck presidency is to shift focus away from foreign affairs to domestic issues, President Obama remained deeply invested in foreign affairs throughout 2015–partly out of necessity with respect to the rise of the Islamic State, and partly out of sheer nihilism as manifested by a desire to cooperate with our enemies to our detriment and by a deep-seated aversion to the industrial world generally (hence active participation in the eco-political talks in Paris). But before evaluating President Obama’s performance, both good and bad, one issue deserves special attention for its role in catapulting Donald Trump into the lead of the Republican primary: immigration.
Contrary to Donald Trump’s demagoguery, immigration has been a divisive issue for the Republican Party for a considerable number of years, and he deserves no credit for its persistent presence in the minds of Republican voters. Since at least President Obama’s first term, the Republican Establishment and its Chamber of Commerce allies have desired significant alterations to America’s immigration system, most notably including a pathway to citizenship for those who have already entered the country illegally. However, being pragmatists, Republican Leadership has generally preferred to avoid the issue so as sidestep any confrontation with their constituents that would require Establishment politicians to take a principled stand on the issue and to actually explain their stance to voters–heaven forbid. This aversion, perhaps, is due to the fact that the Establishment politicians do not support immigration reform on principle, but rather have to some extent accepted the left’s strategy based in “identity politics” and thought that the issue would be an easy path to winning the support of Hispanic supporters. Regardless, the desire to address the issue underhandedly–such as by hashing out the legislative details in private among a few Establishment politicians (e.g., the “Gang of Eight”) only to potentially stuff the legislation into some omnibus bill–has led to deep distrust and resentment among the Republican base. Couple this resentment with the intellectual disintegration that the Establishment has itself fostered through its pragmatism, and the stance of many in the Republican base developed into full-fledged collectivism in the form of nativism, xenophobia, and racism.
Enter Trump. While it is not uncommon for Republican politicians more attuned to their base to call for increased “border security,” Donald Trump made it a central part of his campaign platform, haranguing crowds of supporters with denunciations of “criminal” immigrants, avid support of a wall along the Mexican-American border (though, of course, not along our northern border with a principally European, English-speaking, affluent country), and delusional fantasies that Mexico can be “forced” to pay for said wall. Trump’s rhetoric on the issue galvanized those parts of the Republican Party that the Establishment had disregarded and taken for granted–namely, those remnants of the old “Southern Strategy” from decades past that incorporated some of the racist segments of the Democratic Party into the Republican Party by stoking their fears of, to put it bluntly, the “brownification” of the United States. Though these segments have largely aged, and do not represent the majority of Republicans, they still make up a significant portion of the Republican Party. Because the Establishment’s pragmatism burned any intellectual roadmap that such voters may have had out of their collectivist darkness, the darkness merely festered until the conditions were right for an opportunistic politician to take advantage of it.
Apart from Trump, the rest of the field has largely behaved as one would expect Republican politicians to behave on the issue. Some Establishment politicians have supported more rational stances toward immigration reform (with Jeb Bush defending his statement that illegal immigration was often an “act of love” in 2014) while falling short of defending reform on principle; Sen. Rubio avoided his participation in the Gang of Eight; many have called for increased border security; some have supported total deportation of those already here; others have noted the plain impracticality and expense of such a proposal.
All, however, opposed President Obama’s decision last year to essentially use his “prosecutorial discretion” as Chief Executive to grant “deferred action” status to any person in the country illegally who meets certain criteria, allowing them to apply for a number of government benefits. The decision is notable in that it essentially avoided the “individual review” required by the immigration statutes, and–opponents maintain–constituted an actual rewrite of the law that requires congressional approval rather than mere prosecutorial discretion that does not. Unsurprisingly, a lawsuit has followed. The suit, spearheaded by the state of Texas, has successfully enjoined the implementation of the changes following an appeal to the Fifth Circuit. The federal government has petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari.
But immigration is not the only issue on which President Obama has expanded executive authority in order to accomplish foreign policy goals. Earlier this, President Obama announced the reestablishment of foreign relations with Communist Cuba, reopening the American embassy in Havana while the same Castro brothers responsible for the oppression of the Cuban people remain in power. Additionally, President Obama announced the easing of several economic and travel sanctions against the island nation, a legally uncertain maneuver without Congressional consent (though one that no one will likely have standing to challenge in court).
Absent the method in which President Obama accomplished these changes, the changes themselves are not necessarily objectionable. Generally speaking, free trade should be the norm, and sanctions should only be levied when trade itself enhances the ability of a foreign threat to aggress against the United States. As Cuba poses no particular threat to the United States, trade should be permitted at the risk of the traders. Should Cuba, as Communist dictatorships are wont to do, seize the property of Americans who take the risk of sending it to Cuba, then the loss is theirs to bear. While the United States should still oppose such seizures and while regime change should still be the policy for Cuba and all states like it, the time may have come to permit American businesses to determine for themselves whether they trust the Castros to respect their property rights.
Nevertheless, the eagerness of the left to open trade with Cuba stems not from a general respect of individual rights and a desire from free trade. Rather, the intellectual left has always possessed a soft spot for the dictatorship, blaming the poor state of its citizenry on sanctions from the “imperialist, capitalist” United States rather than on the dictatorship that denies its citizens the most basic individual rights–the denial of which is excused or avoided by the left in infinite ways, to the extent that young leftists today proudly exhibit the face of the savage butcher Che Guevara on T-shirts. In light of such motive, the right should continue to engage in a vigorous denunciation of the Cuban regime and of the leftists who merely want to economically prop up a regime already surviving principally through the grace of Western welfare; and the right should similarly denounce President Obama’s unilateral decision to alter foreign relations with Cuba without Congressional approval. But the changes themselves should be welcomed–perhaps not enthusiastically, but at least proudly with full knowledge of the fact that the United States had prospered and outlived any significant threat posed by a Soviet-aligned Cuba.
Regarding the Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has continued an active campaign to extend his sphere of influence into the former Soviet Bloc and to maintain influence with the infirm dictatorships still aligned with his regime.
Though partisan debates and struggles between Congress and the White House have emerged this year over a number of foreign policy issues– the conflict in Syria and Iraq, the opening to Cuba, etc.– perhaps the most tangible battle sure to have the most immediate consequences was the battle over legislation approving the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major trade deal six years in the making that aims to establish better trade terms between the United States and numerous East Asian nations.
Overall, the TPP appears to be a good if imperfect deal in the sense that many modern free trade deals are able to attain, lowering some tariffs while preserving trade limitations in principle and, in the greater context of American trade, creating preferential treatment for some countries over others. However, the closed-door manner in which it was conducted prohibited open debate on the issue at a national level, leading to repeated injunctions from politicians to “trust us” and brewing suspicions among the American people on yet another issue. While the sensitive nature of trade deals must be respected, considering the number of issues on which legislators have faced public backlash for their closed-door tactics in the last two years, they would be well served to find ways to be more open with the American people or to better explain why they cannot. Leaving such resentments unaddressed is a dangerous choice in the long-run and could conceivably lead to the kind of unrest that upends long-sitting congressmen and senators.
Beyond political strategy, however, some disconcerting products of the debate over TPP are the way in which many conservatives still appear highly suspicious of free trade, the poor and unprincipled manner in which the TPP’s proponents in both parties worked to defend it, and the way in which its opponents continually choose special interest lobbying groups and their states’ businesses over the well being of the American people more generally.
Republicans made as mixed a showing as one could have asked for on the TPP and showed their feeble commitment to free trade in practice and principle. When referred to as such– “free trade”– they will rush to defend it and assure anyone listening that they are staunch supporters of “free trade,” but… and that is where their support ends, as they qualify it with any number of stipulations that nullify that profession of belief entirely: ‘I am all for free trade except when it sends jobs overseas,’ ‘I am all for free trade except when it disadvantages American-owned companies,’ or ‘I am all for free trade except for when it makes China stronger’, etc. In the process, what is revealed is how little most people truly understand about capitalism and the nature of trade itself. In a modern, developed economy in which people make multiple purchases every day without even thinking of it– from the coffee they drink to their groceries to their clothes to Christmas presents for their families– too many are still captive to the notion that trade is a zero-sum process in which the party who gets the money wins and the party who gets the goods loses.
Two-hundred-and-thirty-nine years after the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations put the boot to mercantilism and explained the misguided ideas that kept opulent monarchs of Western Europe in a state of war and stagnation, those same mercantilist ideas have yet to die. Conservatives must realize certain fundamental, economic truths if they are to ever wage a meaningful fight for capitalism. They must understand that trade is a positive sum gain, that when two parties exchange money and goods both are gaining by choosing to take what is more valuable to them over what is less valuable. They must understand that for all parties to specialize in what they produce most efficiently and to exchange what they have created is far superior to every man being a generalist who can produce only small quantities of everything at a formidable cost. And they must realize that these self-same principles apply just as surely to whole nations as they do to individuals within them. They must cease to view competition with other nations as equivalent to conflict and recognize that where economic freedom is protected the march of progress has always shuffled resources into their most productive uses and rewarded them most handsomely. People, machines, and finances are shifted from where they are less productive to where they are more. In the process, yes, this means that Americans must continue–as they always have– to learn new skills, to set aside old ways of operating, and to adapt or fail. But this is the way of nature as surely as it is the way of our economy, and there is no Divine Right of Stagnation that makes one immune from either. By fighting that process, we deny ourselves its rewards.
Conservatives would do well to abandon this luddite fear of free trade and recognize that every tariff is a tax that gets passed on to American consumers, that every protective regulation that benefits an American company over a foreign competitor forces the American people to pay more for the goods they buy, and that every time they support the preservation of an American company that cannot compete on a free market they are signing themselves up to subsidize it directly through a higher cost of living.
Free trade is a prime area for improvement in American economic policy, but it depends on conceptual clarity and fighting off the onslaught of smears and allegations leveled against those who defend it. This does not mean that we should support any and every deal that announces itself as “free trade”; many are red herrings or outright frauds, and it is often difficult to decipher their terms. But there is one question that Americans who value capitalism should ask ad nauseum of politicians on every deal and insist on a better answer every time: how many tariffs and regulations have you eliminated entirely? The more that Americans insist upon that standard, the more they will realize the benefits of actual free trade as their cost of living falls and the value of their dollar rises.
Despite tireless attempts to shift America’s foreign policy focus away from the Middle East and achieve his “pivot to Asia”, President Obama appears to have finally surrendered to the fact that, Trans-Pacific Partnership aside, his foreign policy legacy will be defined by his handling of America’s dealings with the Muslim world. Well he should. Until the threats and pressing concerns for American national security emerging from the region are dealt with assertively, no amount of wishing will secure us against the threat of Islamic Totalitarianism and the outpouring of violence that results from its continued state of turmoil. Unfortunately, President Obama’s way of crafting a MidEast legacy consists of rampant concessions to some of our most egregious enemies and continues capitulation to their demands.
The centerpiece of the Obama administration’s foreign policy efforts in 2015 was the Iran Nuclear Deal, a giveaway disguised as a negotiation in which Secretary John Kerry, clearly attempting to fashion himself as a Nobel Peace Prize candidate, led a negotiating team in engaging the Islamic Republic of Iran in the most lopsided exchange in memory. After months of sit-downs over how to handle the Islamic Republic’s nuclear arsenal in a manner agreeable to both Iran and the P5+1 negotiating team, Iran came away with over $100 billion in unfrozen funds and the removal of sanctions against it in exchange for the promise to inspect its own nuclear arsenal and to agree to foreign inspections so long as they are planned and arranged ahead of time (allowing ample time for the rogue state to cover up any violations of international agreements that it may have perpetrated in the interim). The deal, achieved as an executive agreement between the administration and a foreign government, did not require the approval of Congress and will be subject to unilateral repeal by the next administration. In the meantime, however, it allows the Iranian government to move further towards the development of nuclear weapons without notable interference. It is a most egregious capitulation to a volatile fundamentalist state in deference to primarily European business interests who stood to make considerable money in Iran upon the lifting of sanctions. In the end, however, the deal can only be viewed as a “failure” if one assumes that the Obama administration is primarily concerned with the safety of the United States and its allies. Unfortunately, this administration has proven time and again how under the influence of moral relativism and the idealization of Wilsonian “national self-determination” it prioritizes the rights of a theocratic dictatorship over the long-term security of the Western world.
As we wrote in July,
“The self-sacrificial character of our compromise with Iran is so stark, so articulated to any who wish to recognize it, that only one thing makes possible the charade of treating it as legitimate… Rather than embrace the right of all other countries to prohibit Iran’s advance toward nuclear weapons in any form, the Obama administration is endorsing conditions that top nuclear experts warn would make Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon easier and more difficult to monitor. Rather than consider the security of our best ally in the region, Israel, it has excluded them from the negotiations and created in Iran a new customer for Russia’s sale of ballistic missiles—sure to be used should Iran make good on its repeated threats to attack Israel. Rather than extol the virtue of Western values and condemn Iran’s barbarity to its own people and the world at large, thereby claiming the moral high ground against the morally lowest figures in the world, it has followed in the footsteps of Woodrow Wilson in 1919, treating the Iranian regime as an equal just as Wilson insisted the world do for Germany.”
We can only hope that the effects of this surrender are limited and that the incoming presidential administration, whoever it may be, has the clarity of vision and the strength to reverse it. In the meantime, this administration maintains a policy of weakness toward Iran, refusing to take diplomatic action against the Islamic Republic for firing missiles near an American naval vessel in the Persian Gulf. We wish that we could say we were appalled or surprised by its hesitancy, but so low are our expectations for the administration in defending the United States that no matter our disgust for its actions we cannot muster a sense of surprise.
To write of the ongoing war in Afghanistan at the end of 2015 is itself a tragedy and a disservice to the many lives that have been lost and the valorous effort made by so many American soldiers to serve their country in an effort that we were promised would make the United States safer. Instead, we face a continually rising body count after 14 years, with no clearly articulated goal or final exit plan. The Taliban, which the Bush administration pledged to defeat in 2001, is still alive and well after all of these years and two administrations’ efforts at defeating it through development and nation-building. What’s more: they have achieved a resurgence in 2015, increasing the frequency and severity of attacks with a strength not seen from the faction in years. Instead of committing to eliminating the group decisively and permanently, the administration is considering establishing a permanent base in Afghanistan to maintain stability and fend off its attacks. One wonders, observing this spectacle of moral capitulation, at what point it can be decisively said that the United States lost the war in Afghanistan, handicapped by a bipartisan lack of commitment to defeating America’s enemies there once and for all.
In the meantime, pervading thirty provinces of Afghanistan and adding to its instability is yet another Islamic Totalitarian faction: ISIS. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is undoubtedly the foreign policy story of the year for the United States. Its ascendancy has clearly come as a surprise to the Obama administration, which is desperately hoping against hope that it will not be forced to act against ISIS before the president leaves office in January of 2017. So great is its commitment to inaction that even in the face of multiple violent attacks against targets in France and the United States, the administration scarcely wants to even admit the connections as they are made apparent before the whole world.
On the night of November 13th, militants announcing themselves to be part of the Islamic State conducted a series of bombings and mass shootings throughout the city of Paris, targeting a concert hall, a shopping mall, and pedestrian centers. Their choices of targets only highlighted the group’s hatred for the positive, life-affirming qualities of Western civilization and its spirit of consumption and celebration. By the end of the night, over 160 people lay dead and yet another victory was achieved by a group whose formidable strength and insidiousness the United States remained reluctant to acknowledge. The attacks revealed the tragic consequences of fifteen years spent prioritizing cultural sensitivity and tolerance over a willingness to defend Western values.
[For more on the Paris attacks, see Slade Mendenhall’s “The Vengeance They Deserve,” the most widely read and shared article in The Mendenhall’s history to date.]
It would not be long before that very spirit of denial brought death to America’s shores in the form of a mass shooting at an office Christmas party on December 2nd in San Bernardino, California. The target was politically insignificant, chosen for being the workplace of one of the two shooters. It was that very lack of political or economic meaning, however, that made the setting all the more chilling; it showed the indiscriminate nature of such attacks and sent a message that anyone, anywhere in America could be targeted in a public place by a group of death-worshipping savages thousands of miles away. It was soon revealed that the couple who perpetrated the San Bernardino shooting had been radicalized by ISIS and carried out the attacks in the spirit of anti-Americanism and ISIS’s establishment of a caliphate in the Levant. Tragically, the Obama administration appeared far more enthused about responding to the attack when it was seen as an instance of workplace violence and the president could incorporate it into his campaign for increased gun control. Its enthusiasm quickly dwindled when the attack was revealed to be ISIS-related, and it took the president over two weeks to visit the victims’ families– contrasted with the 48 hours it took him to visit the victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012.
Tangent to the debate over whether, when, and how to respond to the threat of ISIS, there has emerged a stirring debate in the US as to which administration is responsible for the group’s rise to power: Bush or Obama? The debate typically divides along conveniently partisan lines, but the reality is far from being so clear-cut for either side. Bush defenders avidly proclaim that Iraq was in a relatively settled state by the time that Bush left office and that the rise of ISIS was precipitated by Obama’s decision to withdraw American troops, creating a power vacuum that allowed the group’s predecessors to establish themselves unperturbed. Obama defenders answer either by blaming the Bush administration’s ineffectiveness or by claiming that the rise of ISIS is a side effect of the Syrian Civil War, a separate phenomenon that could not have been anticipated. As with so many issues, the evidence proves both sides to be wrong in their own ways. The reality is that there was nothing stable about Iraq when President Obama withdrew troops and declared our efforts there to be over, but the instabilities it suffered from were the result of the errant strategy by the Bush administration of attempting to win Iraq by democratization and development rather than by thoroughly eliminating those who posed a threat to the United States and the West in general. President Obama, to his shame, refused to take the more assertive approach that was needed to eliminate the threats and, true to his campaign promise, sought to withdraw American troops as quickly as possible with a flagrant disregard for the consequences. Both parties and both administrations share blame in this catastrophe, and the United States will be best served going forward if we admit as much, end the partisan blame game, and pledge to take a more rational approach going forward.
Sadly, the kind of commitment that is needed from American politicians to defeat ISIS and other threats to American national security can be found only in many politicians’ efforts to preserve the surveillance state policies that have arisen since 2001. Fortunately, in 2015 we achieved both the expiration of the Patriot Act and the end of the warrantless NSA program of mass data collection on American citizens. The indiscriminate data fishing program was revealed publicly in 2013 but took two years to finally shutter (assuming that the NSA is not merely playing along and burying its data collection efforts elsewhere, outside of the public eye). The vigor with which politicians of both parties have opposed efforts to end these programs is shameful and disappointing. Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie, for whatever other disagreements they may have, appear to agree on the necessity of turning America’s power against our own citizens and infringing their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights rather than devoting those efforts to the elimination of our enemies abroad. At year’s end, the passage of CISA coupled with an emerging scandal in which NSA attempts to spy on Israeli diplomats inadvertently surveilled the communications of sitting legislators may bring the chickens home to roost for some of them and test the limits of their hypocrisy in supporting the furthered surveillance of the American people. Better sooner than later, as the continued policy of restricting the rights and freedoms of the American people instead of defeating our enemies is a policy that has led to the ruin of numerous great cultures throughout history and diminishes our strength and security with each passing year.
In the end, even after seven years of Barack Obama, the United States is far from weak, but under the guidance of morally weak leaders who lack conviction it flounders and waits for a new administration with the conviction to accomplish something. One hopes that the frustration that Americans feel with this president’s weakness does not drive us headlong into nominating (or, worse, electing) a candidate who pledges strength without wisdom or intelligence. An adolescent’s hastiness and cheap bravado is no improvement on a milquetoast nihilist’s moral relativism, nor is the violation of Americans’ individual rights any more just or tolerable by a Republican president than it is by a Democratic one. If conservatives are to achieve anything meaningful by gaining the White House in 2016, they will need to hold fast to rational moral convictions on all issues– surveillance, defense, economics, healthcare– and refuse to accept the same unjust policies simply because they come from a more palatable leader with the right letter beside his name. The security and enduring prosperity of a nation and, perhaps, the Western world depend upon it.
By the time of our next Review, the United States will have a new president elect and the era of Barack Obama will be effectively over. We will refrain from expounding here on what fundamental significance his time in office has had for the United States, as next year’s review will undoubtedly call for considerable analysis to that effect. Nor will we venture to guess what the next year will hold, as we have learned with each year the folly of trying to anticipate the workings of a vast, complex world and the tumultuous spirit of our nation. All that we can say confidently is what we have observed thus far and that as one year closes and another begins we find ourselves all the more convinced of the values that we set out to defend in these pages some five years ago: capitalism, a rationally self-interested foreign policy, and the assertion of fundamentally Western concepts of reason and secularism to preserve the idea of government that our Founding Fathers laid out nearly two-hundred and forty years ago.
Thus, it is with a renewed moral confidence that we go forth into 2016. It is hard for us to believe that this Review marks the sixth anniversary of The Mendenhall. What began as an idea between two cousins looking for a venue to publish their unfiltered views on the state of America and its development has not only maintained but continued to grow. As our staff of writers and editors develop their knowledge, experience, and skill, we commit to improving our offerings and presenting rational ideas, boldly stated for all to read. We wish to thank our devoted readers who have been with us from the start, we welcome new ones as friends and fellow travelers, and we ask that you join us for another great year of defending the country we love.
Happy New Year!