Summer has never been an uneventful period for U.S. President Barack Obama, ever since becoming a candidate for the Presidency in 2007. His dip in political support and public approval often occurs during the sunny months of the summer. This year is no exception.
Events in Ferguson, Missouri, showed that the racial divide in America persists despite the twice-elected African American to the White House. It has been reported continuously in newscast that African Americans have the highest rate of unemployment, the greatest levels of incarceration, and are the most likely to be victims of police brutality. This did not end with Obama’s election and will unfortunately continue beyond. Hopefully, the lessons learned from Ferguson will lead to some improvements in the short to medium term.
Events beyond the borders of America, including the war in Gaza, the conflict in the Ukraine with Russian interference and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—a radical Sunni jihadists group intent on creating an Islamic state in the territory of Syria and Iraq—have also affected Obama’s current approval ratings (around 40 percent), as well as his presidency and likely, his legacy.
The war in Iraq, started under the Bush administration, has not resulted in stability as the ISIS has taken large portions of land and destabilized the Iraqi government. In Syria, the civil war has morphed into the rise of a self-declared caliphate by the ISIS terrorists with greater implications for security concerns in Europe and North America. Efforts by the U.S. government to achieve a two-state solution peace settlement between Israel and Palestine are now mired in war. And the crisis in the Ukraine remains unresolved as U.S.–Russia relations worsen.
As we approach the commemoration of the unspeakable tragedy of 9/11, is the world safer? Clearly, the answer is no. I was present in New York City at the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and I can attest to the lasting scar on the American psyche. With foreign recruits possibly involved with the ISIS, the Western world, and American security officials in particular, cannot believe that the worst has passed. The fact that the U.S. is now conducting multiple air attacks on ISIS targets in Iraq and in support of the Kurds is indicative that America is changing course in this volatile part of the world. The Obama Administration and the American people have every right to be worried about future homeland attacks or greater involvement in ground conflicts in the Middle East.
In the weeks ahead, it is likely that the Obama administration will ask for wider war powers. It is also possible that U.S. air raids will take place against the ISIS on Syrian soil. In short, we can anticipate an extension of the current conflict.
The savage death of American journalist James Foley has brought the potential horror of the ISIS closer to home. While the Republicans and even to some extent Democrats, Hilary Clinton included, have been critical of Obama’s approach to foreign policy in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, we can expect a closing of the ranks as the threat of the ISIS becomes more imminent to the security of the American homeland.
Events in the Middle East have received their share of coverage in Canada, but never to the same extent as in the United States. This, however, is about to change as Obama addresses the latest turning point—greater U.S. involvement. Certainly, all this could have negative implications for his presidency and his legacy. More important, however, it will also have more serious consequences for U.S. allies as the conflict will surely escalate.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon traveled to St. Louis yesterday to address the tense situation developing in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, after Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, was killed by a white police officer on Saturday. Gov. Nixon faces criticism for his slow response to the crisis following four nights of protests that have resulted in police firing teargas and rubber bullets at protestors.
Journalists from Al Jazeera America were also targeted with tear gas on Wednesday night forcing them to abandon their cameras. Two other reporters, Ryann J. Reilly from the Huffington Post andWashington Post reporter Wesley Lowery, were arrested at a McDonald’s. A St. Louis City alderman, Antonio French, and the legislative aid to the president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen were also arrested.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama responded to the events unfolding in Ferguson by criticizing protestors who have taken advantage of the “tragedy” for vandalism and looting, but also said that “police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs.” Georgia Congressman John Lewis, himself a victim of police brutality in a 1965 march in Selma, Alabama, has called on the president to “declare martial law” and “federalize the Missouri National Guard to protect people as they protest.”
Ferguson police accused Michael Brown of being combative, but eyewitnesses say that Brown had his hands up and was unarmed before being shot several times. The Ferguson police department has not yet released the name of the officer responsible for the shooting. As the situation has escalated, Gov.Nixon removed the St. Louis County Police from Ferguson, placing Missouri Highway Police in charge of the situation instead.
The situation in Ferguson became calmer on Thursday night as the Missouri Highway Police took over, but vigils and demonstrations were carried out in several other cities including Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Baltimore, New York and Miami—where eight people were arrested.
Last Friday at 8:37 pm, 223 members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted to expedite the deportation process for unaccompanied Central American children by revising the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, even though doing so would deport and endanger children, many of whom would otherwise be eligible for asylum. Shortly thereafter, at 9:55 pm, 216 House members voted to end President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and deport more than 700,000 current beneficiaries, known as DREAMers.
This ended—for the time being, at least—the saga that had been brewing for weeks over how Congress would address the surge of unaccompanied minors to the border, and the larger immigration reform debate that has been stalled since House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) refused to bring last year’s bipartisan Senate comprehensive immigration reform bill to the floor for a vote.
Now the House has left for summer recess, having passed legislation that the Senate would never approve, and President Obama is left to deal with the mess through executive action.
Three U.S. conservative political groups are organizing over 300 anti-immigration demonstrations across the country on Friday and Saturday to protest the federal government’s decision to relocate unaccompanied minors in Texas to other states.
The American Legal Immigration Political Action Committee (ALIPAC), Overpasses for America and Make Them Listen are coordinating efforts along with other Tea Party-associated groups to protests in front of state capitols, Mexican embassies and elsewhere.
“Our goal is to unify Americans of every race, political party, and walk of life against this Obama-inspired invasion of our American homeland,” said Paul Gheen, president of the North Carolina-based ALIPAC. The groups are frustrated over what they perceive as a deliberate lack of enforcement of current immigration laws, as 57,000 youth from Central America and Mexico have entered the U.S. illegally thus far this year.
The protests come one week after a bipartisan group of governors expressed concern about the relocations and how much they will cost their respective states. Many local governments officials have complained about a lack of communication coming from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol about whether buses of immigrant children would be coming and, if so, when.
Protests are also being planned far from the U.S.-Mexico border. The conservative group Oregonians for Immigration Reform is also organizing protests in five cities, including Portland.
The botched April 29 execution of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett made headlines throughout the world, leading to appeals to either abolish capital punishment in the United States or revisit the methods used to execute by lethal injection (in this case, the nature of the drugs).
Since 1976 (after a brief suspension of the death penalty by the U.S. Supreme Court), over 1,000 people have been executed and over 3,000 are currently on death row. Presently, there are only 18 U.S. states that have abolished the death penalty altogether.
U.S. President Barack Obama has asked Attorney General Eric Holder to look into the circumstances surrounding the execution in Oklahoma. However, there will likely be little change resulting from this initiative. Obama is not an abolitionist himself, and individual states have the upper hand on this issue.
Proponents for or against capital punishment weighed in on Sunday talk shows, such as “Meet the Press” and “This Week”. The views ranged from limiting the categories of murders subject to the death penalty to the use of drugs tested and approved to avoid future botched executions—not too encouraging for those who oppose capital punishment and want a wider debate.
As the North American leaders Stephen Harper, Barack Obama and Enrique Peña Nieto meet in Mexico City this week, we can expect smiles and all the rhetoric about intensifying the relationship between the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) partners. While the trade numbers justify applauding and celebrating the NAFTA agreement 20 years after its inauguration (January 1994), there remains a lot of “behind the scenes” tension, conflict and unresolved issues.
For Canada, NAFTA has been a positive development. In 2010, trilateral trade represented $878 billion, which is a threefold expansion of trade since 1993. Mexico now represents Canada’s first Latin American partner in trade, and we are Mexico’s second most important trade partner in the world. Bilateral trade has expanded at a rate of 12.5% yearly to attain $30 billion in 2010. Canadian investment in Mexico is now estimated at over $10 billion. In short, both countries have benefitted from the deal.
This being said, it is generally acknowledged that both Canada and Mexico invest more time, energy, and resources in pursuing bilateral relations with the world’s number one economy, the United States. As a result, some outstanding issues such as Canada’s imposition of visas on Mexican tourists continue to be a major irritant for the Mexican government. The continuing disputes on respective beef import bans also continue to create tension between the two countries.
Just this past weekend, Canada’s highly respected Globe and Mail had the following headlines: “Mexico has stern messages for Harper” and “Canada-Mexico relations merit more than forced smiles”. Clearly, the relationship is strained.
A Representative from California became the third Republican in the House of Representatives to pledge support for comprehensive immigration reform legislation proposed by House Democrats. Rep. David Valdadao of California’s twenty-first congressional district joins Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) in publicly supporting H.R. 15 this week, the House version of the bipartisan bill that passed the Senate in June.
Similar to the Senate version, H.R. 15 includes a 13-year pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but includes a distinct border security measure approved by the House Homeland Security Committee in May. "By supporting H.R. 15 I am strengthening my message: addressing immigration reform in the House cannot wait," said Rep. Valadao, who represents a largely Latino district and was targeted in an online ad campaign last week highlighting that public opinion in his district overwhelming favors comprehensive reform. The bill currently has 190 cosponsors, short of the 218 needed to get a majority in the House. So far, Speaker of the House John Boehner has declined to allow a vote on the Senate bill or H.R. 15, unless a majority of his Republicans colleagues support it.
Rep. Valadao’s announcement comes on the heels of a “fly-in” on Capitol Hill on Tuesday by 600 advocates, including conservatives, evangelicals, and business leaders who lobbied their representatives in support of immigration reform. While the chances of comprehensive reform passing the House this year still appear slim, the fallout from the government shutdown may make it more politically difficult for House Republicans to opt for inaction on the issue.
Next up on the world’s stage of Theater of the Absurd: Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro. Like his predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, Maduro has as his mentors—in things big and small—Fidel and Raul Castro of Cuba. Always the masters of deception, the Castro brothers were caught red-handed this summer trying to ship weapons to North Korea. Now it is Maduro whom might have been caught red-handed, or should we say “red-faced,” trying to sneak Cuban intelligence agents into the United States.
Maduro had planned a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. He never made it. Traveling on Cubana Airlines with a Venezuelan delegation that included his wife, son and daughter-in-law, a hair dresser and a bevy of Cuban security experts carrying Venezuelan passports, his plane landed in Canada for refueling, on a return flight from China. ABC, Madrid’s daily broke the story reporting that the United States denied visas to the Cubans, part of Maduro’s entourage. But according to U.S. government sources, what happened was that Maduro ordered his aircraft “to turn away when the US wouldn’t give them assurances that they would not be denied entry.” The State Department spokesman said that “No visas have been denied for the Venezuelan delegation to this year’s UN General Assembly.”
Maduro left in a fury vowing retaliation and “drastic actions.” Caracas’ El Universal quoted Maduro saying that “he dropped his trip to New York in order to safeguard his physical integrity.” El Universal also reported that the Venezuelan president “fingered former US officials Roger Noriega and Otto Reich for allegedly planning ‘a provocation’”. The possibility of Noriega and Reich, two Republican political appointees, directing any initiative of any kind by the Obama administration is zilch.
There was also some speculation that the Venezuelans feared the Cuban 767 would be seized, as Cuban vessels have been detained in various foreign countries in the past due to Havana’s failures to fulfill financial obligations.
In recent weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made headlines in harboring and eventually granting asylum to National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden, resisting U.S. overtures for a peace initiative in halting the Syrian civil war and passing anti-gay rights legislation in the buildup for next year's Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
A few days ago, President Barack Obama cancelled an upcoming summit with Putin in Moscow. Meanwhile, after condemning the Russia government for its pre-Olympic anti-gay stand, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has just indicated its willingness to look favorably on gay Russian asylum seekers who claim to be the victims of persecution.
The deterioration of the Russia-U.S. relationship has led some observers to question whether we are entering a new era of Cold War politics. Some politicians, such has U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham, have also hinted about a boycott of the Winter Games in Sochi.
Clearly, the relationship has not been as frosty since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but a new Cold War is not and should not be on the horizon. In the last decade, the U.S. and Russia have agreed on a number of key issues, including backing the war in Afghanistan in 2001, ratifying the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) on nuclear weapons, and imposing important sanctions on Iran.
Those who never voted for Barack Obama when he ran for President in 2008 or when he sought reelection in 2012 will conclude that Obama’s current second-term blues are just a case of the “chickens coming home to roost.” They never liked him and may actually rejoice in his misfortunes. All of the Republicans’ post-2012 election defeat soul-searching has since given way to more of the polarization and the dysfunctionality associated with the political gridlock of recent years.
Important elements of Obama’s second term agenda—gun control, climate change and immigration reform—appear to be in trouble. Meanwhile, events in Syria—mired in its two-year sectarian civil war—have led a reluctant U.S. president to arm the different factions associated with the rebel forces against dictator Bashar al-Assad. Instability is spreading throughout the Middle East, leading some observers to question the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy in the region.
Add to this context, the ongoing conflict over the Benghazi talking points, skepticism of the Internal Revenue Service decision to target Tea Party groups, and the controversy surrounding National Security Agency and its surveillance programs, and a growing perception emerges that Obama might have lost control of his agenda at a crucial period in a second term. We are often reminded of scarred second-term administrations since 1960—Johnson (Vietnam), Nixon (Watergate), Reagan (Iran-Contra), Clinton (Lewinsky scandal/impeachment), Bush (Hurricane Katrina/ financial meltdown).
The past two months have seen the Obama Administration go from alleged scandals, to defeat on key proposals—such as gun control—to controversy about privacy and security. Considering that the mid-term elections are but 18 months away and the 2016 presidential stakes will begin shortly after, time does not seem to favor the president.
Yet, despite this somber picture, many of Obama’s problems have to do with the normal course of events in any political mandate. Governing is not a picnic in the park and it is full of surprises and obstacles. Obama certainly understands from his first term that the Republicans will not make his life easier in a second term. But crisis management is very much a part of his job.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.