Post #123: Donald Trump—A “Unique and Present Danger”

“There can be no prosperity without law and order.”  If you saw Donald Trump delivering those words—he repeated “law and order” three more times—you had every reason to think you were watching another tin pot dictator in action.  (If you can bear it, the full text is at  He stood before Republican delegates as the great leader, the one who would singlehandedly lead America out of the darkness. “I am your voice,” he declared.  It was, in all, a frightening spectacle.

Like many other observers, including plenty of prominent Republicans, I believe Donald Trump is a dangerous man.  Not merely for his ideas, which run the gamut from empty to unconstitutional to outlandish, but for his character and values: megalomania, disregard for other viewpoints, racism, sexism, and demagoguery, just to cite a few.  People like Trump come along once in a lifetime in American politics—the person who truly believes he has been anointed to save his people and the world.  See Charlie Chaplin’s “The Dictator” to reacquaint yourselves with this aberrant behavior pattern.

Progressives may be disappointed in the Democratic Party’s ticket.  But when we consider what the US might become under a Trump-Pence administration, it seems to me that we must do everything we can to ensure a Clinton-Kaine victory—including not supporting a third party, which might take precious votes away from the Democrats.  We thought electing Ronald Reagan would be a calamity and McCain-Palin even worse.  But a President Trump would be “a unique and present danger” to our democracy.

Those words come at the end of a superb July 22 Washington Post editorial that brings together the many disturbing facets of Trumpism and captures the key reasons why he must be defeated.  I can’t do any better, and so reproduce below the full editorial.  You might want to do the same for your friends and colleagues.


DONALD J. TRUMP, until now a Republican problem, this week became a challenge the nation must confront and overcome. The real estate tycoon is uniquely unqualified to serve as president, in experience and temperament. He is mounting a campaign of snarl and sneer, not substance. To the extent he has views, they are wrong in their diagnosis of America’s problems and dangerous in their proposed solutions. Mr. Trump’s politics of denigration and division could strain the bonds that have held a diverse nation together. His contempt for constitutional norms might reveal the nation’s two-century-old experiment in checks and balances to be more fragile than we knew.

Any one of these characteristics would be disqualifying; together, they make Mr. Trump a peril. We recognize that this is not the usual moment to make such a statement. In an ordinary election year, we would acknowledge the Republican nominee, move on to the Democratic convention and spend the following months, like other voters, evaluating the candidates’ performance in debates, on the stump and in position papers. This year we will follow the campaign as always, offering honest views on all the candidates. But we cannot salute the Republican nominee or pretend that we might endorse him this fall. A Trump presidency would be dangerous for the nation and the world.

Why are we so sure? Start with experience. It has been 64 years since a major party nominated anyone for president who did not have electoral experience. That experiment turned out pretty well — but Mr. Trump, to put it mildly, is no Dwight David Eisenhower. Leading the Allied campaign to liberate Europe from the Nazis required strategic and political skills of the first order, and Eisenhower — though he liked to emphasize his common touch as he faced the intellectual Democrat Adlai Stevenson — was shrewd, diligent, humble and thoughtful.

In contrast, there is nothing on Mr. Trump’s résumé to suggest he could function successfully in Washington. He was staked in the family business by a well-to-do father and has pursued a career marked by some real estate successes, some failures and repeated episodes of saving his own hide while harming people who trusted him. Given his continuing refusal to release his tax returns, breaking with a long bipartisan tradition, it is only reasonable to assume there are aspects of his record even more discreditable than what we know.

The lack of experience might be overcome if Mr. Trump saw it as a handicap worth overcoming. But he displays no curiosity, reads no books and appears to believe he needs no advice. In fact, what makes Mr. Trump so unusual is his combination of extreme neediness and unbridled arrogance. He is desperate for affirmation but contemptuous of other views. He also is contemptuous of fact. Throughout the campaign, he has unspooled one lie after another — that Muslims in New Jersey celebrated after 9/11, that his tax-cut plan would not worsen the deficit, that he opposed the Iraq War before it started — and when confronted with contrary evidence, he simply repeats the lie. It is impossible to know whether he convinces himself of his own untruths or knows that he is wrong and does not care. It is also difficult to know which trait would be more frightening in a commander in chief.

Given his ignorance, it is perhaps not surprising that Mr. Trump offers no coherence when it comes to policy. In years past, he supportedimmigration reformgun control and legal abortion; as candidate, he became a hard-line opponent of all three. Even in the course of the campaign, he has flip-flopped on issues such as whether Muslims should be banned from entering the United States and whether women who have abortions should be punished . Worse than the flip-flops is the absence of any substance in his agenda. Existing trade deals are “stupid,” but Mr. Trump does not say how they could be improved. The Islamic State must be destroyed, but the candidate offers no strategy for doing so. Eleven million undocumented immigrants must be deported, but Mr. Trump does not tell us how he would accomplish this legally or practically.

What the candidate does offer is a series of prejudices and gut feelings, most of them erroneous. Allies are taking advantage of the United States. Immigrants are committing crimes and stealing jobs. Muslims hate America. In fact, Japan and South Korea are major contributors to an alliance that has preserved a peace of enormous benefit to Americans. Immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans and take jobs that no one else will. Muslims are the primary victims of Islamist terrorism, and Muslim Americans, including thousands who have served in the military, are as patriotic as anyone else.

The Trump litany of victimization has resonated with many Americans whose economic prospects have stagnated. They deserve a serious champion, and the challenges of inequality and slow wage growth deserve a serious response. But Mr. Trump has nothing positive to offer, only scapegoats and dark conspiracy theories. He launched his campaign by accusing Mexico of sending rapists across the border, and similar hatefulness has surfaced numerous times in the year since.

In a dangerous world, Mr. Trump speaks blithely of abandoning NATO, encouraging more nations to obtain nuclear weapons and cozying up to dictators who in fact wish the United States nothing but harm. For eight years, Republicans have criticized President Obama for “apologizing” for America and for weakening alliances. Now they put forward a candidate who mimics the vilest propaganda of authoritarian adversaries about how terrible the United States is and how unfit it is to lecture others. He has made clear that he would drop allies without a second thought. The consequences to global security could be disastrous.

Most alarming is Mr. Trump’s contempt for the Constitution and the unwritten democratic norms upon which our system depends. He doesn’t know what is in the nation’s founding document. When asked by a member of Congress about Article I, which enumerates congressional powers, the candidate responded, “I am going to abide by the Constitution whether it’s number 1, number 2, number 12, number 9.” The charter has seven articles.

Worse, he doesn’t seem to care about its limitations on executive power. He has threatened that those who criticize him will suffer when he is president. He has vowed to torture suspected terrorists and bomb their innocent relatives, no matter the illegality of either act. He has vowed toconstrict the independent press. He went after a judge whose rulings angered him, exacerbating his contempt for the independence of the judiciary by insisting that the judge should be disqualified because of his Mexican heritage. Mr. Trump has encouraged and celebrated violence at his rallies. The U.S. democratic system is strong and has proved resilient when it has been tested before. We have faith in it. But to elect Mr. Trump would be to knowingly subject it to threat.

Mr. Trump campaigns by insult and denigration, insinuation and wild accusation: Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; Hillary Clinton may be guilty of murder; Mr. Obama is a traitor who wants Muslims to attack. The Republican Party has moved the lunatic fringe onto center stage, with discourse that renders impossible the kind of substantive debate upon which any civil democracy depends.

Most responsible Republican leaders know all this to be true; that is why Mr. Trump had to rely so heavily on testimonials by relatives and employees during this week’s Republican convention. With one exception (Bob Dole), the living Republican presidents and presidential nominees of the past three decades all stayed away. But most current officeholders, even those who declared Mr. Trump to be an unthinkable choice only months ago, have lost the courage to speak out.

The party’s failure of judgment leaves the nation’s future where it belongs, in the hands of voters. Many Americans do not like either candidate this year . We have criticized the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, in the past and will do so again when warranted. But we do not believe that she (or the Libertarian and Green party candidates, for that matter) represents a threat to the Constitution. Mr. Trump is a unique and present danger.


Post #122: China’s Bad Day in Court

As had been widely expected, the Permanent Court of Arbitration under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruled on July 12 in favor of the Philippines’ suit to declare Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS) illegal.*  On every particular, the court found that China’s claims—defined by the so-called “nine-dash line”— to an expansive maritime zone and its undersea resources are illegal, and therefore that its land reclamation and construction projects in the islands encroach on the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.  Though the ruling did not extend to the issue of sovereignty over the SCS islands, it clarified the boundary dispute.  The ruling also found China guilty of harming the marine environment by building artificial islands, of illegally interfering with Filipinos’ fishing  and oil exploration, and “aggravating” the dispute with the Philippines by its construction activities.  (Text of the ruling is at

China had determined its response many months ago.  The foreign ministry declared the arbitration court’s decision “null and void and without binding force.”  The statement repeated China’s sovereignty claims over the SCS islands.  It asserted that China’s stance is consistent with international law, a view that hardly squares with its denial of the arbitration court’s jurisdiction, much less its decision.  China is committed to direct negotiations with the interested parties and to peaceful settlement of disputes, the statement says; but “regarding territorial issues and maritime delimitation disputes, China does not accept any means of third party dispute settlement or any solution imposed on China” (Xinhua, July 12, 2016, “Full Statement.”)

In all, it was a bad day in court for the People’s Republic.  Though it promises not to abide by the ruling, meaning China will continue to militarize the disputed islands and defend its “core interests” there—its navy held its first live-fire exercises in the SCS the day before the court’s decision—the spotlight is on China’s claim to be a “responsible great power.”  President Xi Jinping had indicated in 2014 that China needed to have “its own great-power foreign policy with special characteristics,” which he called “six persistents” (liuge jianchi).  These principles supposedly would create a “new type of international relations,” and included ideas such as “cooperation and win-win,” a major voice for developing countries, and defense of international justice.  But the six persistents also included “never abandoning our legitimate rights and interests” (zhengdang quanyi), which all too often is pretext for acting in ways directly opposed to international responsibility.  (See

China’s leaders surely expected that signing and ratifying the UNCLOS would be advantageous to the country.  It would demonstrate China’s commitment to international agreements, show China’s respect for the maritime rights of others (especially its Southeast Asia neighbors) as well as legitimize its own rights, and facilitate undersea exploration for resources.  But agreements don’t always turn out as expected.  Now that the law has turned against it, the Chinese suddenly seek to disqualify the UNCLOS court and reinterpret the convention’s intent.  Not many governments are likely to support such backsliding.

The US, though having always supported the Philippines’ position, has nothing to cheer about here.  First, the US has neither signed nor ratified the UNCLOS, and thus is in a weak position to argue on its behalf or appeal to international law and a “rules-based system’ when governments violate either (such as Russia’s seizure of Crimea).  Second, like China, the US has always taken a dim view of international law when “national interests” are at stake.  Whether with regard to the International Court of Justice or any other international court, the US has never accepted the idea of compulsory jurisdiction, and in fact has often behaved as though it is exempt from laws and rules.  Thus, also like China, US responsibility as a great power does not consistently embrace respect for and adherence to international treaties and conventions, international legal bodies (such as the International Criminal Court), or international legal norms (such as those regarding nonintervention, genocide, and torture).  (See  Both the US and China, in a word, talk the talk but don’t walk the walk—unless law serves its policy.

And that is the real lesson here—the irresponsibility of great powers, their self-serving approach to international law, and the limited capacity of legal institutions to constrain their behavior.  Perhaps in the SCS case China and the Philippines, now under a new president, will find their way back to the negotiating table and work out a deal that skirts the always-difficult sovereignty issue.  (See my last post on the subject:  That would be fine; but it would not address the fundamental problem of how law-abiding behavior can be promoted and enforced in an often anarchic world.

*The court, whose work on the SCS case began in 2013, is composed of justices from Ghana, Poland, Netherlands, France, and Germany.





Post #121: Unintended Consequences and the Warfare State

“The danger is, as ever with these things, unintended consequences.”  So wrote Prime Minister Tony Blair to President George W. Bush in 2002, as Bush prepared to invade Iraq (  Blair’s unstinting support of US policy, notwithstanding numerous unknowns and acknowledged large-scale obstacles, is more than a case of over-optimism or misplaced friendship.  For as the Chilcot Commission has just concluded after a seven-year long investigation of British policy, bad judgment was multiplied by hubris, a deeply flawed decision-making process, and an unquestioned faith in the ability of military power to resolve political and economic problems.

The essential message from the Chilcot Report goes well beyond British policy in Iraq, or even beyond US policy under Bush, which suffered from the same problems.  The report, to my mind, is a commentary on certain diseases that infect foreign policy decision-making processes everywhere.  Decision-making groups are always subject to misjudgments, blunders, and misperceptions; but the bigger picture has to do with what Sen. J.W. Fulbright called “the arrogance of power.”  Powerful likeminded members of a leader’s inner circle (far more often men than women), meeting in secret, with enormous destructive power at their disposal, and believing their country is invincible and their arguments infallible, make for a dangerous combination.

In 2002-2003, we know for a fact that Bush and Blair were determined to go ahead with invading Iraq regardless of any evidence or argument to the contrary.  The decision for war, far from having been due to an intelligence failure, was predetermined.  War was the answer to “getting” Saddam Hussein, the first and last resort, and the job of both governments’ leaders was to sell the war, in large part by massaging intelligence concerning weapons of mass destruction and outright lying to the public.  Opposition to war—in legislatures, in public opinion, in the UN, in domestic and international law, among allies and other friendly governments—was simply a problem to be overcome.  This was the Vietnam story for thirty years.  It is likely to be the Afghanistan story (if the US ever gets out of there), China’s South China Sea story, and Russia’s Crimea story—if we ever gain access to the relevant documents.

The Chilcot Report points up another policymaking failure that is fairly universal when it comes to questions of war and peace: an unwillingness to consider alternatives to the use of force.  The inner circle of decision makers simply never goes there.  Peace is unthinkable, at least not until victory has been achieved.  That means avoiding planning for negotiations and post-conflict rebuilding.  It’s a time for warriors, not diplomats.  Officials who argue against aggressive policies thus find themselves sidelined; they are “soft,” hence no longer useful members of “the team.”

At least one writer, Trevor Timm in The Guardian, has already called for a Chilcot-style report on George W.’s Iraq policy (  But we all know that such an investigation is not going to happen, even under a Democratic leadership.  As Barack Obama has made clear in not pursuing criminal charges against CIA and other torturers, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the lot are free to enjoy their retirement. After all, Iraq is history, and besides, we must always value social stability over punishment when the criminal behavior of state leaders is concerned.  The International Criminal Court is for others.

The Chilcot Report provides a public service by reminding us that there will always be “unintended consequences,” and that those consequences may prove considerably greater than the policy problem everyone had originally addressed. One look at the Middle East today compared with 2002 makes that assessment plain enough.  Failing to stop the war train long enough to consider what those unintended consequences might be, and whether they might be formidable enough to keep the train in the station, is the Achilles heel of great powers.  How to overcome that dilemma requires much more than tinkering with the decision-making system, for at bottom the arrogance of power is the enemy, and the Chilcot Report provides no antidote for it.



Post #120: Is Brexit the End of the World?

To judge from a New York Times front-page article that appeared two days after the British vote to withdraw from the EU, the entire post-World War II global financial and political structure that the United States led into existence is now imperiled (  Western democracy, financial institutions, liberal trade and immigration policies, and alliances are all under challenge now.  Right-wing populism is pushing forces opposed to all these arrangements, especially when they are presided over by a supranational structure such as the European Union (EU) that may impinge on national interests.  In short, the article contends, Brexit will not only dramatically reduce Great Britain’s influence, economic growth, and even size (if Scotland gains independence); it will turn the world as we know it upside down.  I think it is much too early to sound the alarm bell.

To be sure, the impact on the United Kingdom is bound to be severe and long-term.  It will now be “on the other side of the negotiating table” from the EU, as one observer said.  That means prolonged and potentially painful new trade, travel, and work arrangements that will end up costing British consumers and firms dearly. Both the Conservative and Labour parties will be in turmoil for some time, their leaders blamed for failure at the polls and new leaders struggling to find a way out of a huge mess.  Social conflict may escalate, particularly anti-immigrant violence.

But will Britain’s pain extend to others?  The EU may well be weakened as it loses a major international player, particularly when it comes to dealing with Russia over Ukraine and Syria, China over human rights and trade, and large-scale economic assistance to troubled economies such as Greece’s.  Even more fundamentally, Brexit may be imitated, as nationalist parties in France, Netherlands, and Sweden gain followings for closing their doors to refugees and pulling out of the EU.  In the worst case, we might see the renewal of autarky and the emergence of dominant right-wing, neo-fascist parties (look at the recent vote in Austria and Marine Le Pen’s rising popularity in France)—echoes of prewar Europe.

It is far too early, however, to indulge in worst-case thinking.  At the least, it remains to be seen whether Britain and other countries embrace trade protectionism or liberalization.  It remains to be seen whether the UK becomes “Little Britain,” a bit player on international political and economic issues, or continues to be a strong voice in NATO, the World Bank, and other multilateral organizations.  It remains to be seen whether Britain’s economy shrinks badly or, as the chancellor of the exchequer maintains, has in place the tools to weather the coming storm and sustain a strong economy.  It remains to be seen if the EU can close ranks, demonstrate the value of integration, and continue to be a prominent international voice on climate change and human rights.  It remains to be seen whether the imitation effect of Brexit actually comes about elsewhere in Europe, not to mention in the UK itself.  Le Pen may appear to have a clear road to the prime ministership in France, for instance, but she, like Trump, may face strong reactions against the National Front’s thinly disguised racism, France-first sloganeering, and promises to overturn the ideals of multiculturalism and community.

And if you want to think about worst cases, consider the possibility—slight now, but perhaps much greater in coming months—that Brexit causes so much pain for the British people that populism turns against it.  According to the Washington Post, 3 million Brits (and climbing steadily) want another referendum on leaving the EU. That’s very unlikely at the moment, but if negotiations with the EU result in a further dramatic fall of the pound, sliding middle-class income, high unemployment, and other developments that put the British economy in the tank, might not the next British PM have to call for new elections and another referendum?

(Key figures in the “leave” EU campaign are already walking back some advertised promises, such as that the approximately £350 million a week that Britain sends to the EU would be used to fund the national health system, or that immigration to Britain would actually go down (  An intriguing comment in the Guardian under the name “Teebs” raises another possibility: that David Cameron, having resigned without giving official notice of British withdrawal under Article 50 of the EU treaty, has left his successor with the option of treating the Brexit vote as a nonbinding referendum which Parliament, dominated by “remain” members, can ignore (  Well, who knows?  Even Boris Johnson, a vociferous Brexit supporter and likely Cameron successor, has said there’s no need to hurry about invoking Article 50.  Maybe he wants to see if his optimism about Brexit during the leave-or-remain campaign was actually warranted!)

What about the impact of Brexit on the US?  Yes, there will be an impact: the Trans-Pacific Partnership may be dead whoever wins the presidential election, since Hillary Clinton had long since promised to renegotiate it and now must contend with Bernie Sanders’ pressure to abandon the TPP altogether.  US exports are likely to suffer some (though Britain is not among the top US markets), the US trade deficit will widen some, and Tea Party-ers may feel a surge of energy.  But most observers I’ve read do not see a major threat to the US economy from Brexit; and people who believe that Donald Trump’s “America First” message will get a great boost from Brexit are going to be sorely disappointed, since virtually every day he says something that reminds us of just how un-American his message is.

We also ought to consider Brexit’s potential silver linings for the US, at least “silver” from a human-interest point of view. One is that Britain will probably substantially reduce its concrete support of US policy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.  Such a shift, though disputed by some leaders of the “leave” campaign, would be desirable, since it might prod the next US president to reassess commitments to endless war in the Middle East.  On the US domestic side, ditching TPP and reassessing the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would be welcome news for US workers, unions, and many workers abroad, as well as for the environment (see Post #76).  A refocusing of the globalization debate on social and economic justice in the US is sorely needed.  Thanks to Brexit, not to mention Bernie Sanders and many progressive nongovernmental organizations, that debate may finally get somewhere.





Post #119 – Too Close for Comfort: The Dangerous US-China Maritime Dispute

The Background

             Two recent close encounters between US spy planes and Chinese jets spell trouble for relations between Washington and Beijing.  The first occurred over the South China Sea (SCS) near China’s Hainan between a US EP-3 spy plane and two Chinese jets, strikingly similar to the 2001 incident in the same area in which a Chinese jet and an EP-3 collided, resulting in the death of the Chinese pilot, the forced landing and detention of the US crew, and a tense diplomatic row.  The second involved a US RC-135 plane that was closely tracked by a Chinese jet over the East China Sea (ECS).  Such incidents, which also bring US and Chinese ships in close proximity, are happening with greater frequency these days.  Two reasons: China is backing its claims of “indisputable sovereignty” over the islands—the Spratlys (Nansha) and Paracels (Xisha) in the SCS, Diaoyudao (Senkaku) in the ECS—with military construction and personnel, and US naval and air maneuvers are deliberately challenging Chinese activity. Leaders of both countries are now issuing thinly veiled warnings, demanding acceptance of their respective positions and disputing details of the encounters.

Map of South China Sea

The dispute cannot be separated from other developments, domestic and international, involving the US and China.  In the American case, those developments surely include the presidential campaign politics, in which tough posturing on China is expected of the candidates; the Pentagon’s dismissal of Chinese claims by announcing it will send naval and air forces anywhere it chooses; and alliance politics, particularly in support of the Philippines and Japan (which has its own close encounters with Chinese vessels in the ECS) but also in strengthening ties with Vietnam and India.  The Chinese position is influenced by rising nationalism; Taiwan’s election of a new leader from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, leading to pressure by Beijing to insure against a declaration of independence; pro-democracy activism in Hong Kong, most recently fueled by China’s seizure of five journal editors contrary to law; and the Beijing leadership’s assault on civil society, which has created a backlash against President Xi that surely troubles his inner circle.  These are all sources of actual or potential pressure on political leaders not to stray from their tough stances on international issues.


Containment of China?


Like the Philippines, Vietnam is a big fan of a larger US military presence in Southeast Asia.  How ironic that the one-time US base at Cam Ranh Bay may soon be regularly visited again by the US Navy for resupply, while US multinational corporations eagerly pursue investment opportunities—this, despite Vietnam’s serious human rights problems and growing rich-poor divide.  In return for US access, Obama announced an end to the US embargo on arms sales to Vietnam at the time of his visit to Vietnam in late May.  Though he explicitly stated that the decision was part of normalization of relations with Vietnam and unrelated to China, of course it had everything to do with reining in China (and, unfortunately, set aside US human-rights concerns).

The official Chinese response to the US-Vietnam agreement was subdued; a foreign ministry spokeswoman said China “welcomes normal relations between Vietnam and the United States” (   Likewise, the China Daily found nothing amiss in Obama’s agreement, but only so long as China’s interests are not harmed:


It is worrying to note the three-day visit has been described by some as a pivotal move in the US’ strategic rebalancing to curb the rise of China. The US, they say, is using Vietnam as an offset to China’s growing strength in the region, especially after tensions increased in the South China Sea because of regional countries’ competing sovereignty claims. This, if true, bodes ill for regional peace and stability, as it would further complicate the situation in the South China Sea, and risk turning the region into a tinderbox of conflicts. (


India is a newcomer to US maritime strategy, though you will not find the Pentagon officially classifying India as a partner in containing China.  But how else to interpret India’s signing of “a Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region with the United States, a Special Strategic and Global Partnership with Japan and a Framework for Security Cooperation with Australia,” frequent visits to India since 2008 by US defense secretaries, a pending logistics support agreement that would enable repair and resupply of US air and naval forces on Indian territory, and official Indian statements with the US and Southeast Asian countries about the “destabilizing” effects of (read China’s role in) the South China Sea dispute?  (“India Buys Into Deeper, If Restrained, US Defence Ties,” East Asia Forum Weekly Digest, May 23, 2016,;  As US relations with Pakistan deteriorate—the drone strike that killed the Taliban leader on May 21 was conducted without Pakistan’s approval—ties with India become more crucial to Washington.

Though no one is talking about a formal alliance, cooperative ties with India, highlighted by Prime Minister Nahendra Modi’s visit to Washington in June, stretches US military arrangements around China’s rim, notably with a longtime adversary of China’s.  During his visit, Modi was quite effusive about mutual security concerns, among them “freedom of navigation on seas.”  Analysts in Beijing surely did not miss that reference.


Getting to “Yes”


China’s leaders should also pay attention to the thinly veiled criticism of its actions by the G7 meeting in Japan on May 26-27 and the IISS Shangi-La Dialogue from June 3-5.  Though the G7 Leaders’ Declaration does not specifically mention China and does not deal with maritime security until nearly the end of the document—it is buried on page 25 of 32 total pages—it leaves no doubt about its target:


We reiterate our commitment to maintaining a rules-based maritime order in accordance with the principles of international law as reflected in UNCLOS [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea], to peaceful dispute settlement supported by confidence building measures and including through legal means as well as to sustainable uses of the seas and oceans, and to respecting freedom of navigation and overflight. We reaffirm the importance of states’ making and clarifying their claims based on international law, refraining from unilateral actions which could increase tensions and not using force or coercion in trying to drive their claims, and seeking to settle disputes by peaceful means including through juridical procedures including arbitration. We reaffirm the importance of strengthening maritime safety and security, in particular the fight against piracy, through international and regional cooperation. We are concerned about the situation in the East and South China Seas, and emphasize the fundamental importance of peaceful management and settlement of disputes. (


China’s foreign ministry responded by reiterating its standing position on sovereignty and rejecting outsiders’ involvement in the territorial dispute. A spokesperson made the unsupported statement that “more and more countries and organizations” agree with China’s position.  The ministry condemned the G7 declaration, saying it went beyond the organization’s purposes and did not contribute to peace and stability.  China, it said, will be holding a G20 meeting that is “more representative” to focus on the world economy (

The annual Shangri-La Dialogue produced much the same discord, with China coming up for considerable criticism from Southeast Asian countries as well as the US.  Against the background of an anticipated ruling against China by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which will rule on the legal validity of Chinese boundary claims (not the sovereignty issue but the nine-dash line seen on the map above), the Chinese delegation—again led by Admiral Sun Jianguo, a deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department under the Central Military Commission—rather heatedly contended that China would not recognize or comply with the court’s ruling.  He denounced the Philippines for violating a bilateral agreement with China by submitting the dispute to the court (  Sun was particularly upset with US defense secretary Ashton Carter’s assertion at that China is erecting “a great wall of self-isolation” (  His speech, as well as a milder PRC foreign ministry comment (, sought to pin the blame for all the trouble on US “ulterior motives.”



A Shared Responsibility


Both the US and China must bear responsibility for the ratcheting up of tension in the SCS and East China Sea.  Washington clings to “freedom of navigation” as its principal reason for challenging Chinese claims even though unencumbered passage has not been denied US or any other country’s ships.  US “show the flag” maneuvers are a clear provocation that the Chinese cannot but answer. The PRC foreign ministry and various Chinese officials have issued reassurances about freedom of navigation, saying it is China’s duty to protect it as the region’s main riparian state as well as in conformity with international law.  Moreover, while the US takes no official stand on sovereignty, its increasingly close military ties with the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, and India are defining a US security interest that did not previously exist.  Finally, as the Chinese are quick to remind everyone, the US, unlike China, has failed to sign and ratify the UNCLOS, which dilutes the frequent American argument on behalf of a common “rules-based” approach to the dispute.

On the Chinese side, the stubborn insistence on an unassailable historic right to the islands, and an absolute refusal to adhere to whatever decision the arbitration court reaches, are weak positions at best. The insistence that its strategic purpose in building runways, ports, and supply facilities is for self-defense is risible, for where is the threat?  Beijing should be consistent in recognizing that a legitimate dispute exists, just as it demands that Japan acknowledge a sovereignty dispute over the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands. China should give up its insistence on bilateral talks with the ASEAN countries as the only acceptable format for peaceful resolution.  (The European Union has recently published its own critique and conflict-resolution proposals, based on well-founded international legal principles, in a new report,

The latest close calls, and war of words, need not lead to an open collision.  But they certainly are worrisome.  US naval and air probing of China’s SCS buildup, and Chinese land reclamation and military construction on disputed territory, are all on the increase, reason enough for concern.  France has added to the volatile mix by calling on European navies to have a “regular and visible presence” in the SCS.  Nationalistic bravado and internal political factors in both countries are also ingredients for a miscalculation that could lead to use of deadly force.  Ashton Carter’s call at the Shangri-La Dialogue for a “principled security network” for the region is thus premature, but it does have potential common ground with Chinese military confidence building efforts that Admiral Sun cited involving the US, Japan, and India.

There is no good reason for China and the US to be this close to an armed confrontation.  The cat-and-mouse game now being played is dangerous.  A firefight, whether by accident, design, a collision of aircraft or ships, or the impetuous action of a military commander on the scene—these are all increasingly possible, regardless of the intentions of national leaders.  Direct talks between senior military and political leaders, such as the Security and Economic Dialogue, are necessary and desirable, but in the meantime US and Chinese air and naval leaders need to take a step back.  They should follow the practice of “peace by pieces”: as the Chinese saying goes, search for common ground while reserving differences, and tackle the least difficult issues first while putting the most difficult issues on the back burner (求 同 存 异, 易 先 难 后).

There are several options, including no close-in US surveillance fly-bys or ship passage, in return for cessation of Chinese air and sea maneuvers near the disputed islands.  China should reduce military personnel there and freeze military-related construction, as should all other parties; it should stop plans to begin new construction, such as has been reported in Scarborough Shoal; and it should not contest fishing by Filipinos in the disputed area.

China should also step back from declaring an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea, which a Chinese news report indicated was being considered (  The Chinese defense ministry has said imposing the zone “will depend on whether China is facing security threats from the air, and what the level of the air safety threat is.”  China tried this tactic in 2013 when it declared a ADIZ over the East Sea.  The US, Japan, and South Korea protested, and the US sent bombers over it.  It would be foolish to see that scenario repeated in the SCS.

China and the US must also tackle the longer term challenge, which is to allow the rule of law to prevail in this as in any other dispute.  All sides, starting with China, should abandon the useless historical arguments over sovereignty—useless, because they persuade no one.  The UNCLOS court’s involvement is an opportunity for China to demonstrate that it is a “responsible great power,” while for the US it is an incentive to finally push for Senate ratification of the UNCLOS.  Implementing existing codes of conduct is also a very important assurance to the ASEAN that its giant neighbor prefers negotiating to use of threats or force.  Lastly, the oil and gas riches that lie beneath the sea ought to be shared by the stakeholders, an idea that the Chinese once put forward (in the early 1990s) and Taiwan’s previous president recently reiterated.  But exploration must take into account the fragile undersea ecology and overfishing, both of which already threaten to make the SCS an environmental disaster.

Continue reading Post #119 – Too Close for Comfort: The Dangerous US-China Maritime Dispute

Post #118: Cowgirl Diplomacy? Foreign Policy Under Hillary Clinton

America’s mainstream media, ever attracted to the splashy rather than the serious, has a new topic to occupy the time until Election Day: President Trump.  What will he do first?  How will he translate his hazy “America First” theme into policy?  Who will be in his inner circle?  (Specifically, will he appoint people who really know something about foreign affairs?)  There’s just so much room for playful speculation about Donald Trump that something important has been lost sight of: He’s going to lose—big time, as Trump would say.

So let’s get real: We need to be thinking about another Clinton presidency.  Granted, it’s early, but then again, we already know a good deal about Hillary Clinton’s perspectives on the world, the advisers she relies on, and the policies she advocated while secretary of state. We also   know she is not going to simply carry on where Barack Obama left off.  In fact, on some important foreign-policy matters, we may look back nostalgically on Obama’s record.

Like Obama, Hillary Clinton is a liberal internationalist and a strong believer in American exceptionalism, meaning she is convinced that the world looks to America for leadership, that US involvement everywhere is unavoidable as well as desirable, that US-based multinational corporations are a positive force for global development, and that the US should be ready to commit force in support of humanitarian ideals and American values—but not necessarily in accordance with US or international laws—as much as because of concrete strategic interests.  It’s the traditional marriage of realism and idealism that we find in every president (though a Trump presidency would drop the idealism).  But each president, as Henry Kissinger once said, inclines somewhat to one side or the other, and in Hillary Clinton’s case, she is more the realist than Obama—more prepared, that is, to commit US power, unilaterally if she believes necessary, in support of a very broad conception of national security.

When Hillary Clinton was a presidential candidate, she strongly criticized George W. Bush’s unilateralism, penchant for resorting to force over diplomacy, and rejection of international treaties on nuclear nonproliferation and climate change ( But her proposed alternative—restoring US leadership—was not really a departure at all: “To reclaim our proper place in the world, the United States must be stronger, and our policies must be smarter. The next president will have a moment of opportunity to restore America’s global standing and convince the world that America can lead once again.”  After listing the multitude of threats facing the US, Clinton proclaimed: “We must return to a pragmatic willingness to look at the facts on the ground and make decisions based on evidence rather than ideology.”  Yet later in the same essay Clinton cited the need to couple pragmatism with promotion of American “values that our founders embraced as universal,” precisely the language that Condoleezza Rice was using.

In the name of “smart power,” Clinton at that time spoke confidently about withdrawing US forces from Iraq, “stabilizing” the Middle East, and creating the basis for an Israeli-Palestinian accord.  But she also thought it would be possible to “win” the war on terrorism and, with a greater military effort in Afghanistan and cooperation from Pakistan, defeat terrorists there.  She took a hard line on Iran, proposing incentives only if Iran renounced support of terrorism and ended its nuclear-weapons program.  On the other hand, she was hopeful about engaging Russia and finding common ground with China, setting a positive example on lowering carbon emissions, promoting deeper international collaboration on energy, and pressing governments on equal rights for women.  Thus, she concluded, if the US can live up to its ideals, “we can make America great again.”  Sound familiar?

As secretary of state, Clinton often took positions contrary to those she had taken while campaigning.  As is well known, during the Obama administration’s early debate over how to support anti-Assad fighters in Syria, Clinton wanted to arm the rebels and establish a no-fly zone in northern Syria.  Later, she would criticize Obama for not acting decisively, arguing that he left the field open for ISIS and enabled Assad to remain in power.  But to Obama, ever mindful of George W. Bush’s downfall, Hillary’s hawkishness violated his cardinal rule: “Don’t do stupid shit” (Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview of Obama in  But he did do “stupid shit” in Libya after the overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi, intervening on the unwise advice of Hillary Clinton, who saw democratic potential in a few of the feuding factions that are still feuding today (  Clinton also sided with the Pentagon in urging more troops in Afghanistan and a residual force in Iraq, drawing “likes” from defense secretary Robert Gates.  She urged against inducements to Russia and advocated a hard line on North Korea.

Writing in 2013 on Hillary’s legacy as secretary of state, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution stated that though Hillary “cannot claim a signature accomplishment,” she can claim responsibility for the US “pivot” of naval and air power to East Asia, her “work with European leaders to hammer out tighter sanctions on Iran and a new missile defense strategy that would provide greater protection against ballistic missiles while antagonizing Russia less” (  But are these success stories?  The “pivot” to Asia was the starting point of China’s uncompromising stance on the disputed South China Sea islands.  Pushing for tighter sanctions on Iran only obstructed the difficult path to a nuclear accord.  And missile defense (against Iran) seems like quite a waste against a nonexistent threat.

Another observer writes that “Clinton does not seem particularly eager to continue Obama’s rapprochement with Iran and has generally adopted a tougher line on Iranian policies in the region” (Fahad Nazer,  But not tougher, this writer continues, when it comes to Saudi Arabia: “Clinton might thus represent an opportunity for some marginal gains in U.S.-Saudi relations; she seems to have a greater appreciation for the value of relations with Saudi Arabia than Obama.” Being too quick to use sanctions against Iran and too willing to cozy up to an unfaithful Saudi ally—not to mention maintaining the usual US support of Israel—leave no room for creating a new Middle East paradigm.

What may most fundamentally separate Clinton from Obama are his much touted doubt and caution.  When Obama retreated from imposing his “red line” on Syria’s chemical weapons, he was reportedly motivated by lack of clear support from the US public, Congress, and some allies such as Germany and Britain, and by concerns that air strikes would not only fail to accomplish the job of destroying the chemical facilities but might suck the US into another long-term fight.  As Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview reports, Obama endured shock and criticism among his inner circle and abroad for deciding at the last minute not to attack, thus supposedly hurting US “credibility.”  But to this day he’s convinced he made the right choice. Hillary Clinton evidently would have gone ahead, not just in order to preserve US credibility and out of belief in the efficacy of military power, but perhaps also because of “pressure to exaggerate her foreign policy experience to establish her ‘toughness’ in the foreign policy arena” (Regina Lawrence and Melody Rose, Hillary Clinton’s Race for the White House, 2010, p. 74).

In short, Hillary is an armchair warrior, to the right of Trump when it comes to international entanglements (see Mark Landler’s piece,  Some leading conservatives who have come out against Trump, such as Eliot Cohen, the hawkish former State Department official under George W. Bush, consider Clinton the superior choice in foreign policy precisely because she “believes in the old [realist-idealist] consensus and will take tough lines on China and, increasingly, Russia” and may well return to supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (  There is every reason to believe he’s right, not only because Hillary Clinton has said she believes in that consensus, but also because her views closely match those of her husband, another liberal internationalist whom she has already told us will be a key economic adviser if she is elected.  Indeed, most of Hillary’s top advisers are holdovers from Bill Clinton’s administration, virtually guaranteeing no major departures from traditional foreign-policy commitments and principles.

What to make, then, of her emphasis years ago on energy and environmental cooperation, improvement of relations with China and Russia, and concern about global poverty?  What about dramatic reductions in nuclear weapons and the military budget, and raising the profile of human rights in the conduct of foreign policy?  These are worthy elements of a progressive agenda, but Clinton has had very little to say about them during the current campaign. Will they be priorities in her administration, or will she fall prey to cowgirl diplomacy?

My sense is that we have reason to doubt how much Hillary Clinton has learned from events in Syria, as well as from her vote to authorize war in Iraq and her lack of faith in engaging Iran.  That doubt leads me to think she will respond incautiously and perhaps audaciously to provocative developments such as China’s military construction in the South China Sea, incidents between Russian and US forces along Russia’s western border, North Korea’s expanding nuclear weapon arsenal, and ISIS advances in Libya.  She will also have to address a potentially even more dangerous phenomenon: the deeply disturbing popularity of the far right all across Europe (France, Austria, Hungary, Greece) as well as in Israel and here at home (;  Fascism will be a serious challenge for the next president. We’ll see how all this plays out soon enough.

Post #117: Evaluating Obama’s Foreign Policy Record

So you’re not excited by Donald Trump’s announcement of his first foreign-policy acts as president: building the Mexico Wall, the No-Muslims Wall, the End-of-NATO Wall, and the China Trade Wall.  And that’s just for starters.  The more Trump talks, the better Barack Obama looks.  As the president nears the end of his term, we might take a look at his record, keeping the Trump Doctrine of “America First” in the back of our minds.  Not that Trump is going to succeed Obama; that job will go to Hillary Clinton.  But an evaluation of Obama’s record is useful considering the choice between an incoherent and willful Donald Trump on one side and an experienced but fairly hawkish Clinton on the other.  (Note: I will discuss Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy views in the next post.)

How should we evaluate Obama’s record?  Right-wing critics will of course excoriate Obama for all the usual things—weakness against adversaries like Russia and China, negotiating with instead of subverting Cuba and Iran, eviscerating the US military, undermining relations with Israel.  On the left, Obama is already being cast as another liberal leader whose actions failed to deliver on his promises, from Guantanamo to the Middle East.  Historians will have plenty of things to quarrel about, but we need not wait.

Let’s start with the positives: two major victories for engagement of adversaries, and some progress on environmental issues.


The Positives




In his extraordinary visit to Cuba in March, Obama signaled the end of the Cold War in the Americas and, while criticizing Cuba’s human rights record, promised nonintervention: “I’ve made it clear that the United States has neither the capacity nor the intention to impose change on Cuba. What changes come will depend upon the Cuban people. We will not impose our political or economic system on you. We recognize that every country, every people must chart its own course and shape its own model” ( The speech was carried live throughout Cuba. Obama acknowledged Raul Castro’s own criticisms but argued that democratic debate and social protest in the US had resulted in major changes for the better.  Thus, to President Castro he said: “I want you to know, I believe my visit here demonstrates that you do not need to fear a threat from the United States. And given your commitment to Cuba’s sovereignty and self-determination, I’m also confident that you need not fear the different voices of the Cuban people and their capacity to speak and assemble and vote for their leaders.”  In all, it was a speech full of hope that the future would bring deeper engagement.

Engaging Iran has been much more difficult.  Some members of Congress, and right-wing groups such as United Against Nuclear Iran, continue to pressure the administration and US businesses to maintain remaining sanctions and stay away from Iran.  Iran’s economy has yet to benefit significantly from the nuclear deal, and the ayatollah is still taking potshots at the US.  Unless liberal Democrats gain the upper hand in Congress, and President Rouhani wins next year’s election in Iran, the trade embargo on Iran (and on Cuba too) will continue, endangering Obama’s engagement effort (see Roger Cohen’s article at  Still, signs are that the nuclear deal is being fulfilled.  Unfortunately, US diplomacy is not trying to build on that deal by ending the trade embargo and bringing Iran into a bold Middle East peace process that would include Iraq’s and Syria’s civil wars.


The Environment


On Earth Day 2016 the President, along with China’s president Xi Jinping, signed the Paris Agreement on climate change, committing the US to reduce greenhouse gas emissions between 25 and 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.  Whether or not that target can be achieved depends on a Supreme Court decision that will not be handed down until well after Obama leaves office: his administrative act to curb emissions from power plants, which the Court blocked in February.  Responding to environmental pressure groups, Obama has rejected the Keystone XL fracking project, imposed a three-year moratorium on coal mining on public lands, and, in a policy reversal, banned drilling along the Atlantic coast for five years.


The Negatives




The cause of peace in the Middle East has not advanced under Obama.  His decision to follow Hillary Clinton’s advice rather than his own inclinations and intervene in Libya after the overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi was disastrous (  Libya is fast becoming a failed state.  The civil war in Syria has emptied the country.  As many as 400,000 people have died, perhaps ten times as many have become refugees, and millions more are internally displaced.  No further military investment can make life better for the remaining population and anti-Assad fighters.  There, as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan, the peace process has collapsed and good governance is a distant dream.  Yet the administration, far from developing a strategy to extricate the US from Iraq and Afghanistan, has already stated that it will keep more than 5,000 troops in Afghanistan into 2017 and gives every indication that the US will resume a combat role in Iraq despite the endless political squabbling, corruption, and sectarian violence there.  Obama’s reliance on elite forces and drones may reduce US casualties, but it still amounts to intervention and avoidance of creative peacemaking.

The failed promise of the Arab Spring virtually everywhere has been equaled by the US failure to find faithful partners amidst extremists.  (See Liz Sly’s excellent article at  Truth is, the US has no reliable allies in the Arab Middle East.  Making matters worse, the Obama administration has followed the traditional American path of supporting anti-democratic regimes that thwart US policy goals but win US favor by proclaiming their anti-terrorism. (If this sounds familiar, it is: merely a twist on the Cold War scenario in which the US extended support to dictatorships that trumpeted their anti-communism.)  The US continues to feed the Pakistan military with billions of dollars in aid, carries out drone strikes that kill civilians (and expands drone bases in Africa), and turns the other way while Pakistan’s intelligence service cultivates ties with the Taliban operating in Afghanistan.  Saudi Arabia’s criticism of US engagement with Iran and Syria policy has not stopped the US from providing the Saudis with intelligence and material support of a horrendous bombing campaign in Yemen (  The civilian toll in death and destruction is running very high, and al-Qaeda has gained as a result.  Obama’s celebrated “rebuke” of the Saudis and his urging that they accept a “cold peace” with Iran has not fundamentally altered the US-Saudi relationship, testimony to a failure of will.

US support of authoritarian, military-backed regimes extends to other countries, such as Thailand, where the military is rewriting the constitution with what the UN human rights commissioner calls “dangerously sweeping laws and order” while the economy sinks; Egypt, where the military under President Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi has practically dismantled the constitution and conducted widespread repression; and Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is eviscerating the secular democracy step by step.

Finally, Obama has proven unwilling, not just unable, to craft a new approach to Israel based on social justice and respect for human rights. Though the Netanyahu administration is very unhappy with Obama over policy in Iran and Syria, it has nothing to complain about regarding US policy toward Israel. Obama, like every president before him, will not take the crucial step of sanctioning Israel over its expansion of settlements and denial of basic rights to the Palestinians.


Weapons Always Welcome


Nothing has changed when it comes to the Pentagon slush fund.  Instead of a breakthrough on creating Obama’s nuclear-free world, we see the continued development of new weapons of mass destruction (, including nearly $20 billion on nuclear weapons this year alone as part of a $1 trillion Pentagon plan for weapons upgrading generally.  That direction hardly improves prospects for reducing the nuclear danger, for example with regard to North Korea.  The Obama team is unwilling to come up with a new package of incentives for North Korea, “the rogue state that got away” (according to a NY Times article of May 7), which (see Post #116) continues to develop nuclear weapon capabilities: four nuclear tests so far, and a fifth likely sometime soon; a missile capable of being fired from a submarine; and probably a miniature nuclear weapon.  Why the administration has made no serious effort to engage North Korea, a move that would also help improve relations with China, and instead keeps insisting that the DPRK must first terminate its nuclear-weapons program, defies logic.


Worsening Relations with Russia and China


Relations with Russia have turned opposite of the “reset” that Obama envisaged early in his first term.  Of course, Russian behavior is half the explanation—the absorption of Crimea and the intervention in Ukraine (which continues)—but the other half is the needlessly provocative US behavior along Russia’s western frontier.  What has resulted is a dangerous cat-and-mouse game, characterized by three recent close encounters in the Baltic Sea, plans for a large-scale US-NATO military exercise, and a huge US military buildup in Europe that includes significant aid to countries bordering Russia (  The fallout of this tension may be seen in Syria, where hopes have been dashed for a reliable US-Russia agreement that might turn a cease-fire into a lasting political solution.

With China, the relationship continues to be one of “strategic mistrust.”  As with Russia, danger lurks in US and Chinese maneuvering and posturing in and around the South China Sea.  China claims sovereignty over the tiny islands and the US claims freedom of navigation, setting the stage for a confrontation as each country escalates shows of force to make its point.  (The election of a Filipino president who rivals Donald Trump for bluster and lack of foreign affairs experience adds to the potential for a miscalculation, since the US has revitalized military ties with Manila.)  Contentious US-China relations extends to many other issues, such as China’s crackdown on civil society, its military modernization, differences over trade and currency values, and most recently a new Chinese law that restricts the activities of foreign NGOs.

On one hand, prospects for deeper US-China engagement are worsened by the structural and nationalistic relationship between a rapidly rising power and an ascendant power used to being number one.  But on the other hand, the US and China interact extensively and at multiple levels on climate change, economic issues, people-to-people exchanges, and military confidence building.  In theory, US relations with China should therefore be more manageable than relations with Russia; there is more at stake and significantly greater interaction.  But miscalculations leading to violence are entirely possible.  Mutual understanding has suffered in both cases, replaced by US recourse to sanctions against Russia and warnings to China via gunship diplomacy.  Predictably, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have responded in kind.


Law, Secrets, and Ethics


The use of drones has dramatically expanded, and with it the unanswered question as to their effectiveness and lawfulness.  Many commentators have questioned the former on the grounds that more terrorists are created than killed by drone attacks.  As to the latter, James Downie of the Washington Post writes: “Obama’s decision to expand the drone war has led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a disturbing expansion of presidential power and harm to the country’s ability to fight terrorism” (  The same conclusion applies to Obama’s reliance on Special Forces and intelligence agents; under current Pentagon planning, their use will expand from a few (Syria and Libya, for instance) to numerous locales in coming years (

Also shameful is the administration’s timid response to Europe’s refugee crisis.  Obama isn’t building walls, but he is only taking in a tiny number of Syrian and other refugees fleeing war.  The President promised to admit around 10,000 Syrians in the current fiscal year, far more than the pitifully small number in years past.  Granted, the US permanently resettles more refugees per year than any other country.  But the US can afford to be far more generous, and not only with Syrians, especially since US interventions abroad have contributed to the refugee crisis.  I suspect that election-year politics has everything to do with sharply limiting admissions from the Middle East.

Obama’s legacy on lawfulness extends to the undeclared wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq over the last eight years, and the support of Saudi Arabia’s bombing in Yemen.  At the least, he has failed to uphold his promise to support the War Powers Resolution and its 60-day requirement to seek Congressional approval of the use of force.  He’s repeating the Vietnam model of incremental intervention, using Special Forces “advisers,” “trainers,” drones, and other devices in lieu of major combat forces.  But the scale of involvement aside, US forces are still in combat, and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are remiss in their duties by failing to challenge the President’s succumbing to mission creep.

Obama’s tough line on whistleblowers, most notably Edward Snowden, is just the tip of the iceberg.  No president in recent memory has pursued leaks with more vigor.  Occasionally, his administration has surprised us by declassifying once-sensitive material, such as US support of Argentina’s “dirty war” against leftists during the Nixon-Kissinger era.  (The National Security Archive has published quite a few other once secret documents from that era that the Obama administration has declassified: see  But that was then. Coinciding with his declassification decision was a visit to Argentina that, according to human-rights activists, lent support to an authoritarian regime that has overturned various democratic reforms (

The administration’s push to revise the infamous Patriot Act, in response to strong Congressional and public outrage over the National Security Agency’s collection of telephone metadata, resulted in passage of the USA Freedom Act in 2015.  Some privacy rights groups hailed the new law, but others are not so sure.  The Act actually shifts the data collection to the telephone giants, but gives the NSA the power to petition a secret court for approval to examine select data.  The government’s access to private Internet data, challenged in Europe, remains intact under the Act.  Thus, the balance between government surveillance and privacy still favors the former in our age of terrorism.


In Sum


Obama’s foreign policy has been long on progressive rhetoric and (engagement with Iran and Cuba excepted) short on substantive accomplishment.  To be sure, we need to make allowance for the backward-looking Congress with which he has had to contend; and we should give more than a little credit to Obama for going over its head on Iran, Cuba, and climate change.  But we had come to expect more, much more, from him, especially on issues of war and peace.  After all, he was supposed to have learned from the George W. Bush years that you “don’t do stupid shit” and get yourself bogged down in hopeless foreign adventures (  But he hasn’t learned.  A foreign-policy legacy that includes a costly and irremediable quagmire in the Middle East as well as hostile relations with Russia, considerable contention with China, and very modest advances on climate change is not much to crow about.  The most positive prediction I can make is that by 2020, another Clinton presidency will make us feel much better about Barack Obama’s foreign policy record.

Critical appraisals of foreign affairs from a global-citizen perspective.


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