In recent days, Michel Coulombe, the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), took the unusual step of printing an op-ed in both French and English dailies in Canada warning Canadians of the threat of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He notes that Canadian “nationals” who have joined “nationals” of other Western countries in fighting for the Islamic State represent a threat, not only to the Canadian homeland, but to their respective countries. Coulombe concludes by asserting that involuntarily exporting terrorist acts is just as serious as having it on our homeland.
In the United States, war hawks, such as Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, appear on talk shows criticizing the Obama administration for being weak and employing half-measures with respect to ISIS, in a fashion similar to the 2003 pre-Iraq invasion buildup. Talk of escalating U.S. air aids in Syria is now a daily reality. The second beheading of an American journalist will not reduce the pressure.
Even Democrats are beginning to criticize the Obama administration, which has not shown the kind of sure-footedness expected in a time of crisis. Granted, the world is more complicated these days: a war in Gaza—currently in ceasefire, but for how long?—Russian aggression in the Ukraine, a serious outbreak of the Ebola virus in Africa and potentially beyond, and now the barbaric, self-declared caliphate—ISIS. Surely, it is difficult to have a textbook response to multiple and diverse crises. Yet, the civil war in Syria has gone on with extremists building their forces, and the U.S. wielding little influence. The ISIS threat of attack is now real and may be what U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently called “imminent.”
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.
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.