The activities surrounding the 70th anniversary Normandy landing commemorations on June 6 displayed the tensions between western leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper avoided meeting Putin altogether, while other leaders, including President Obama, participated in the minimum photo-ops to honor the sacrifice of those who liberated Europe.
Maybe it is a sign of the times, but I am perplexed by some of the western media’s treatment of Putin. Never mind that he violated international law by unilaterally annexing Crimea this past spring or that he systematically used his Security Council veto to avoid a possible alternative to the atrocious civil war in Syria in its early stages. Now we have a humanitarian crisis that is out of control.
Last September when it was discovered that the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons, President Obama was faced with a real challenge to his “red line” ultimatum about the use of such weapons in the conflict. With Obama unable to get Congressional endorsement for air strikes to counter Assad’s regime and its tactics, Putin took the lead in the removal of chemical weapons operation, with backing from the UN. The result was interpreted as a successful outcome for Putin and an embarrassing moment for both the Obama administration and the western powers. The general consensus was that Putin put one over on Obama, but few questioned Putin’s real role in the conflict.
Last summer whistleblower Edward Snowden was making the headlines about the U.S. security apparatus’ illegal surveillance on American citizens. Not only did he divulge the National Security Agency (NSA) policy, but he may have revealed information considered damaging to national security. We know the rest. Snowden escaped to Hong Kong, was charged by the U.S. government under the Espionage Act, and eventually received refuge in Russia. An ironic twist, given the repressive nature of the Putin regime, that Russia is now harboring a U.S. charged criminal.
President Barack Obama is expected to announce changes to the United States’ ongoing surveillance program on Friday at the Justice Department. The address will likely focus on the National Security Agency’s (NSA) spying program, which gathered data on billions of telephone calls made to, from or within the United States. While President Obama has the executive authority to unilaterally abandon certain surveillance practices, many of the more nuanced reforms he is expected to endorse will require Congressional approval.
Friday’s announcement is another attempt by the Obama Administration to mitigate the fallout from the top-secret documents detailing the U.S. surveillance program, leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden last May. The leaks drew international outrage from U.S. allies like Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and German Chancellor Angela Merkel—all of whose private communications were targeted by the NSA. In another blow to the program, a federal judge ruled in December that the surveillance program violated privacy rights, deeming it unconstitutional.
The long-term implications of the NSA spying on U.S. diplomatic and economic relations is the subject of the Winter 2014 Americas Quarterly’s Hard Talk Forum, penned by U.S. Army War College professor Gabriel Marcella and former State Department and National Security Council official William McIlhenny, which is available for preview here.
Author's Note: A year ago, I wrote a blog about a handshake between U.S. President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba. While the gesture was one of courtesy and little else, I expressed the hope that the relationship of isolation and embargo, started in 1960, would be replaced by one of engagement. Today, both countries restored full diplomatic relations. One of the remaining relics of the Cold War era is now a matter of the past. This is an historic day .
Pope Francis, who did some significant behind-the-scenes diplomacy , was quick to express his support. Canada is also said to have played a significant role, and this should not be a surprise. Canada has maintained a relationship with Cuba despite the U.S. embargo.
There remain some outstanding issues to be resolved. There may have been a humanitarian component behind the release of Alan Gross, the imprisoned American aid worker, but this was, above all, a political event and diplomacy at its best.The embargo remains with some easing, but the future is most promising. This will be part of Obama's legacy and marks the beginning of a new dynamic in Latin America.
I invite you to re-read my blog post on December 16, 2013. It is still relevant.
During the course of the first leg of the Mandela funeral celebrations last week, one event made news around the world—U.S. President Barack Obama shaking hands with Cuban President Raul Castro. Speculation immediately surfaced about whether it was a planned event, and whether it meant an eventual new beginning for Cuban‒U.S. relations.
Judging from the reactions of both presidents’ spokespeople, it was a circumstantial meeting. To not shake hands would have been more significant.
Back in the spring of 2012, both Canada and the United States could not agree with their Latin American and Caribbean partners on a communiqué about the outcome of the sixth Summit of the Americas—in part because both the Canadian and American leaders opposed the formal inclusion of Cuba at the next summit. Last week’s event between Obama and Castro should not be interpreted as a change of heart.
Yet, basking in the accolades and homages to Nelson Mandela and his spirit, one cannot escape the thought that Mandela himself would have approved of the gesture as a first step to an eventual normalization of relations between these two antagonists.
Obama’s sinking approval numbers one year into his second term have led some observers to conclude that the presidency has seen its best days. For the first time, the President’s “trustworthy” factor is deficient, and talk of the second-term curse has already made its way into the daily media jargon.
The Obamacare computer glitch has since been compared to Bush’s Katrina—and because it is the president’s signature achievement, pundit talk has already surfaced about a failed presidency. We in Canada have always liked Barack Obama and hoped he would be a successful president, but now many are asking, “Is it too late for Obama?”
Clearly, this has been a difficult year for the Obama administration–the IRS targeting of the Tea Party, a return on the Benghazi fiasco, the Edward Snowden and National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance controversy, the government shutdown in September, and the failed Obamacare rollout.
As we are about to enter 2014, midterm elections and potential lame-duck status for the sitting president are on the horizon. Some of it is self-inflicted, but despite the Republicans’ failed strategy related to the government shutdown, they still believe that they have cornered Obama and ensured for themselves a pathway to maintaining the House and capturing the Senate next November. Only winning the White House in 2016 would remain to complete the trifecta.
It has been said that if Iran develops a nuclear bomb, the world will become more dangerous than at any time since the height of the Cold War. The interim accord between Iran, the five members of the UN Security Council and Germany is meant to address this fear. The accord sets specific and significant limitations on Iran’s nuclear capability and development (that is, to freeze Iran’s nuclear program) with UN inspections in return for some temporary sanction relief for the Iranian government. The six-month agreement is temporary and is intended to provide a foundation for a long-term settlement beyond this deadline.
Already, the reactions approving or opposing the deal have come forward swiftly. From U.S. media coverage, one would think that the deal is only between the U.S. and Iran, ignoring the work and commitment of the other partners. Remember Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany are partners to this agreement. Sure, the Obama Administration is at the center of this high stakes game and Secretary of State John Kerry has played an instrumental role. However, it must be emphasized that the deal remains a first step involving the UN’s permanent Security Council members, and the dialogue is meant to continue.
The strongest and most strident voice opposing the accord has come from Israel and its Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. This was not unexpected, and may not be totally negative. Iran must realize that this recent development is not a free pass to sanction relief as it has earned the mistrust through its past actions. Israel, however, cannot lose sight of its ultimate objective—no nuclear weapon has been developed by Iran yet, and the dialogue has begun. Israeli President and Nobel Peace Laureate, Shimon Peres, was more balanced and constructive in his reaction, saying that results will matter more than words.
A Washington, DC-based advocacy organization began running pro-immigration reform advertisements on the websites of local newspapers in Republican Congressional representatives’ districts on Thursday. In order to pressure the House of Representatives to vote on pending immigration reform legislation, Americas Voice’s web ads target news outlets in Republican members’ districts that, according to recent polling data, overwhelmingly support such reform.
Ads ran on the two California papers’ websites—the Fresno Bee and the Modesto Bee—highlighting data from a poll conducted by Magellan Strategies showing that the majority of voters in the state’s congressional districts 10, 21, and 22 support immigration reform along the lines of bill proposed by House Democrats on October 2. The bill, titled the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (H.R. 15), is similar to a bi-partisan bill passed in the Senate in June and includes a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States.
The ads implore the Republican representatives from these districts—Representatives Jeff Denham, David Valadao, and Devin Nunes, respectively—to vote for H.R. 15. Similar ads will be run in local newspapers in Nevada and Colorado next week targeting Republican Representatives Mike Coffman (CO-6) and Joe Heck (NV-3), whose constituents similarly polled to show overwhelmingly support reform. Seventy-four percent of likely voters support legislation along the lines of H.R. 15, including 71 percent of Republicans in both Representative Coffman and Hoff’s districts.
In a televised speech on Thursday, President Obama urged House Republicans to vote for a comprehensive overhaul that includes a path to citizenship, noting that “anyone still standing in the way of this bipartisan reform should at least explain why.”
Last week’s address to the nation by U.S. President Barack Obama showed the complexity of the debate regarding Syria and the chemical attack of August 21. Military strikes were still on the table during Obama’s address, but at the end of week Russia and the United States had come to an agreement regarding chemical weapons in Syria and the renewed role of the United Nations in eventually eliminating them. While still open to doubt and debate about its impact and its results, it is easier to deal with diplomacy, even if it fails, than a potential war with no clear objectives or exit strategy.
Less than a month after the atrocious use of such weapons against a civilian population, Bashar al-Assad’s government now acknowledges the possession of such weapons when he spent years denying he had them. This is no small feat, since Russia—the prime supplier of such armaments—began the process with the U.S. after days of attributing the attack to the rebels.
U.S. domestic politics, being what they are, are once again the subject of renewed partisanship (the GOP still has no coherent policy on Syria), division on means and objectives, and a general lack of public support for any military enterprise against Syria. Obama’s decision to ask Congress may have been in line with his campaign rhetoric of 2008, but it had a lot to do with the British government losing a vote for the first time in 150 years on military action. Since then, Obama’s detractors in Congress have given Russian President Vladimir Putin the credit for getting Obama “off the hook.” They go a step further by calling Obama weak.
The fact is that the U.S. population is war-weary and skeptical about its leaders in both parties, as well as claims about the national interest. When we go back to Lyndon Baines Johnson and the Vietnam War, Reagan and the Iran-Contra saga, or Bush’s claims of weapons of mass destruction to bring about regime change in Iraq, it is not surprising that Obama was facing an uphill battle with the general public to get an endorsement for military strikes.
With the G20 summit completed, the world is now focused on the United States Congress, and whether it will vote in favor of a resolution authorizing President Barack Obama to launch military strikes on Syria. Since the British Parliament voted down a similar motion by Prime Minister David Cameron to involve Britain with the U.S. in a military enterprise against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons, Obama decided to ask for Congressional support. The outcome for support in the war-weary United States is far from certain.
Normally, the United Nations would be the ideal forum to debate any contraventions to the 1925 Geneva Convention, which made the use of chemical weapons a war crime. However, both Russia and China have indicated they will use their veto power over any American resolution. With UN inspectors soon to divulge their findings following the chemical attack on innocent victims, it may be a wise course for the U.S. to share its intelligence with the UN on who perpetrated this heinous act. From all indications, the U.S. case is solid.
Clearly, President Obama understands the stakes. He, who made the whole Iraq war imbroglio a defining element of his candidacy back in 2008, knows that his countrymen would remind him of his views regarding the Bush years. To go to Congress was a wise and necessary choice. And it gives him needed time to explore backchannel diplomacy.
With polls showing little support for military action in Syria, the Obama administration will have to present a much more compelling case for engagement. International support, while significant in some quarters, remains elusive. Eleven of the G20 countries, including Canada, support the U.S. president’s intention to use military force, but a closer reading indicates the support is varied in tone and conditional in practice. History can also be a guide in making the case, but it cannot be a doctrine, a strategy nor a policy. It can only serve as a reference.
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.
Yesterday, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala began a three-day visit to the United States, marking the first official visit since he took office two years ago. Today, Humala met with U.S. President Barack Obama as well as other U.S. officials; he will also visit the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to tour the school and sign agreements with school administrators.
Peruvian officials see the visit as coming at an opportune time, when Peru-U.S. relations are at a peak. Harold Forsyth, the Peruvian ambassador in Washington, called the visit “historic,” and said it “marks a new level of bilateral support between Peru and the United States.” Many Peruvians believe that the meetings will not only strengthen the two countries’ relationship, but will also help promote Peru’s emergence as a global player.
President Humala kicked off his visit yesterday with a public speech in Washington that highlighted the importance of Peru’s diverse natural resources, including agricultural and mineral exports, to the international economy. But he also acknowledged the country’s struggle with corruption and inequality.
“Today we are talking about creating a good government,” Humala said. “We’ve had to work to create trust, because Peru is in a place where the citizens do not believe in their government. They are not seeing the tangible results that will allow them to develop.”
Today, Humala met with President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other U.S. officials. The conversations revolved around key topics such as education, security, energy and climate change, support for micro and small businesses, science and technology, and the fight against drug trafficking. Climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions are particularly pertinent to Peru, as the country seeks to solve its massive pollution and urban transport issues.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.