Sunday, January 29, 2017

Isolationism Without the Peace

One week into his term, President Donald Trump is shaping up to be an isolationist. Unfortunately, he is omitting isolationism’s only redeeming quality–peace.
The term isolationism is often misunderstood. It’s mostly used as a slur for one’s political opponents–especially libertarians and antiwar folks–instead of being openly promoted by a particular group. Indeed, I know of no sitting US politician who self-identifies as an isolationist.
That said, the basic tenets of a truly isolationist political system are easy to infer. They are as follows:
  • Highly restricted international trade
  • Highly restricted immigration
  • No involvement in the internal affairs of other nations
The arguments used to justify each of these planks will vary, but nationalism is likely to be an overriding theme. This description fits well with Trump and his goal to “Make America Great Again”.
Already, he has taken ambitious strides towards achieving the first two planks of the isolationist program.
On international trade, it actually started before Trump even took the oath of office. The most prominent form of this has been his public heckling of individual US companies on Twitter, demanding that they build more factories in the US. After taking office, Trump quickly doubled down by proposing a 20% tariff on goods from Mexico.
The purpose of these policies is explicit economic nationalism. Trump’s goal, whether he knows it or not, is to help US producers (and their workers) by punishing US consumers. On net, economic theory clearly tells us this will be a net loss for Americans overall. And since US workers in the affected industries are also US consumers, it’s not even clear whether that subset of Americans Trump is trying to help will actually be helped. Most likely, this group will have its own winners and losers created by the policy.
On immigration, Trump has also taken several steps forward on his campaign promises. The infamous border wall now has a cost estimate attached to it–some $15B to be paid for by the tariff noted above. However, most of Trump’s plans along the US’s southern border require Congress to appropriate funds to actually be implemented, so it remains to be seen what policy will ultimately emerge.
In areas of immigration wher the Trump Administration believed it had a freer hand, it took more aggressive and controversial actions. Chief on this list is a new executive order issued Friday that reduced the number of refugees the US plans to accept in 2017 and temporarily cut off immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries–Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Syria.
The executive order was made effective immediately. This caused many travelers from the afflicted countries to be detained when they arrived in the US, until an emergency court order required them to be released. Another bizarre feature of the order is that the wording was not clear regarding whether it applied to permanent US residents. Depending on who was interpreting it, this meant that people who had been approved to live in the US full-time might no longer be able to travel to and from it. This ambiguity ultimately led the White House to issue further guidance on Sunday, clarifying that permanent residents from the affected countries are not covered under the ban.
But while Trump has made significant progress–if one can call it that–on the first two isolationist planks, his actions on foreign policy have proved largely conventional. On just his first full day in office, we got confirmation that the US drone assassination program was still ongoing, when Trump’s first drone strike was carried out in Yemen. Additionally, Trump ordered a special operations raid this past weekend, also in Yemen, apparently resulting in the deaths of several suspected militants, civilians, and one US soldier.
Trump’s actions so far in the Middle East have shown considerable continuity with the Obama years. At least for now, the policies of endless war and anywhere assassinations appear to be intact.
The net result is that Trump’s policies offer one of the worst combinations available. He’s willing to harm the US economy and arbitrarily limit the freedom of those who seek to come to the US for a better life. But he’s unwilling to pursue the sole virtue that isolationism has to offer.
The US is still going to be interacting with the world in a destructive way–with bombs, night raids, and occupation–but the constructive interactions of trade and immigration are going to be limited.
The only upside here is that Trump’s dismal approach may finally help draw a distinction between isolationism and the policies of noninterventionism, espoused by libertarians like Ron Paul. Trump is pursuing isolation without peace; noninterventionism promotes the opposite–peace without isolation. After 16 years of endless, unwinnable wars, noninterventionism is what we need.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

President Trump Becomes a War Criminal

It didn’t take long.
Just a day after President Trump was sworn in, a US drone strike was carried out in Yemen on his authority, killing three people. As usual, the individuals killed were reported as suspected Al Qaeda militants.
Like most drone bombings, there wasn’t much information available on this latest strike. The US government doesn’t publicly discuss specific strikes (unless Westerners were killed), and the general state of chaos prevailing in Yemen at the moment means there are very few journalists in the region that could investigate the strike first-hand. We’re left to rely on the claims of anonymous security and tribal officials, which serve as the source for the report above.
But while we don’t have all the facts on this particular case, we know enough to conclude that Trump probably just committed his first war crime.
Of course, opinions vary on precisely what constitutes a war crime. But among things that generally make the list are the following:
  • Initiating wars of aggression against another country–i.e. striking first
  • Endangering or killing a disproportionate number of civilians relative to the military objective achieved
A ‘successful’ drone strike on Yemen likely fits both of those parameters.
For the first one, we should note that the country of Yemen has not committed any act of war against the US. Individuals from Yemen’s Al Qaeda branch have been connected to terrorist attacks in the US, but the country itself has not been involved in such attacks. Moreover, it cannot even be said that Yemen was giving safe haven to terrorists when those attacks occurred, which was the justification for the war against the Afghan government in 2001. In fact, Yemen’s government, until recently, was conducting its own internal War on Terror against Al Qaeda with the US’s participation.
If the US were still simply involved at the request of the Yemeni government, this in itself would not violate international law. However, Yemen’s governing situation has gotten considerably more complicated since then. The previous US- and Saudi-backed dictator was overthrown by a rebel group, known as the Houthis, and then Saudi Arabia launched a war to try to reinstall said dictator. That war started nearly two years ago and is still ongoing. The Houthis appear to have the most control and popular support in the country at this point, but Yemen still doesn’t have an established government in the way that most countries do.
All of which is the long way of explaining the US doesn’t have permission from Yemen’s government to intervene. In part, this is because it doesn’t have a normal government to grant such permission. And even if the Houthis could conceivably grant such permission, the US has taken Saudi Arabia’s side in the war against them, so that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. So when the US conducts airstrikes in Yemen, it is clearly a violation of Yemen’s sovereignty and an act of aggression.
That brings us to the second category–endangering or killing a disproportionate number civilians relative to the military objective.
Under laws of war, killing is obviously allowed but some circumstances are still off-limits. Killing combatants in the midst of battle would be permissible. Bombing the military base of another country in the middle of a war would be allowed. Bombing military targets and killing civilians in the process, is also allowed under the laws of war, provided civilian harm is proportional to military objective (unsurprisingly, countries always seem to conclude the collateral damage caused was indeed proportional).
It is this last requirement that is routinely violated by the US in the drone assassination program.
The reason is that even the US government acknowledges, if only internally, that the assassination program serves essentially no military objective. Indeed, a leaked CIA study from 2009 noted that the drone strikes may not only be useless but actually counterproductive. In the words of the study, drone strikes “may increase support for the insurgents, particularly if these strikes enhance insurgent leaders’ lore, if non-combatants are killed in the attacks, if legitimate or semi-legitimate politicians aligned with the insurgents are targeted, or if the government is already seen as overly repressive or violent.” Obviously, one or more of these conditions applies in essentially every drone strike. If the strike succeeds in hitting an actual terrorist, it creates a martyr, enhancing the “insurgent leaders’ lore.” If it kills civilians instead, then their family members become potential recruits for terrorist organizations.
So going off the CIA’s own assessment, drone assassinations achieve no meaningful military objective. It then follows that a proportional amount of civilian casualties associated with achieving that useless objective would be none at all.
As noted above, we don’t know whether the strike in question actually killed civilians. And since none of the slain went through any kind of due process, it’s tough to establish their crimes or perhaps even their identity. The lack of a meaningful US troop presence on the ground in Yemen means that the targeting is relying overwhelmingly on signals intelligence; in turn, this increases the likelihood that even the US government itself isn’t entirely sure who it targeted or killed in the strike. The combination of all this uncertainty means that drone strikes necessarily endanger civilian life and would appear to constitute a war crime as such.
Even if we generously assume for argument’s sake that this particular strike did not kill civilians, it would still be a war crime as an aggressive violation of Yemen’s sovereignty (the first type of war crime discussed above).
Based on the above, we can be confident in saying that Donald Trump became a war criminal on his first full day in office.
Of course, being a war criminal isn’t very unique among US presidents. But while Trump has limited notoriety in that regard, he may have set a new record with how quickly he accomplished it. President Obama didn’t get around to committing his first war crime (a drone strike in Pakistan) until his third full day in office.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Should Renters Subsidize Homebuyers and Banks?

Should renters subsidize homebuyers and banks?
That question may sound rhetorical. But judging by the reaction to President Trump’s action on the subject, a surprising number of people would answer it in the affirmative.
Last Friday after the inauguration, the Trump Administration announced that it was canceling a planned 0.25% cut in Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage insurance premiums. The cut had been announced by the Obama Administration less than two weeks earlier, but had not yet been implemented. Thus, Trump’s action was a return to the status quo that existed at the start of 2017.
It’s a complicated issue, so it’s easy for politicians and journalists to obscure the reality of what’s going on here and advance a political agenda.
For instance, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) used it the opportunity to attack Trump for being a hypocrite. “One hour after talking about helping working people and ending the cabal in Washington that hurts people, he signs a regulation that makes it more expensive for new homeowners to buy mortgages,” Schumer said.
Meanwhile, left-leaning media outlet The Intercept described Trump’s decision as a tax increase on middle-class homebuyers that helps the banking industry.
Both of these takes are misleading, but it’s not obvious why unless we understand the underlying mechanics of the FHA program.
What Does the FHA Do?
The FHA does not give out mortgages directly. Instead, it offers mortgage insurance to borrowers that protects lenders if the borrower defaults. In other words, the FHA provides a government guarantee that a loan will be repaid.
This government guarantee allows FHA-insured borrowers to get generous and forgiving loan terms that probably would not be available otherwise. Borrowers can qualify for an FHA-insured loan with as little as a 3.5% down payment and with a credit score as low at 580 (on a scale from 300 to 850). In this way, the program expands the opportunity to own a home to more people–people with less savings and/or riskier credit histories.
FHA mortgage insurance is not given away for free. Borrowers pay for the FHA mortgage insurance as part of their monthly mortgage payments, as a percentage of their overall loan. But the American taxpayer is on the hook as well. If  the FHA has to pay out more in default claims than it has received from insurance premiums–because it has charged premiums that are too low–then taxpayers are left with the bill.
Importantly, a taxpayer bailout is not just a theoretical outcome. The FHA actually received bailout to the tune of $1.7B as recently as 2013, as it struggled to recover from the repercussions of the Great Recession.
Who Benefits?
The generous terms offered under FHA-insured loans expand the pool of potential borrowers and homeowners, in line with the FHA’s mission. At least on the surface, this directly helps those borrowers. To the extent that FHA insurance allows these borrowers to get access to financing on better terms than the private sector would offer on its own, the program acts as a subsidy to those borrowers.
The insurance premiums paid by the borrower to the FHA offset the value of the subsidy. If the insurance premiums are higher, all things equal, the net value of the subsidy is lower and vice versa. Thus, Obama’s decision would have increased the value of the subsidy and Trump’s decision canceled it.
That said, it is worth debating whether the FHA program is really helping borrowers in the long run. It helps them afford something they could not otherwise afford. That sounds like a benefit, but we must remember that it’s not making the house itself cheaper or increasing their own income. In effect, it’s just allowing them to take out a much larger loan, with a lower down payment, than they otherwise could.
If house prices suffer even a modest decline, that means these same borrowers could quickly find their mortgage underwater, owing more than the house is worth. Similarly, if they lose their job, they might find themselves falling behind on mortgage payments. In other words, just because the FHA makes more people able to buy a house, it doesn’t mean they can actually afford it. In the last crisis, there was certainly no shortage of people who stretched to buy expensive homes and got wiped out because of it.
While the overall impact on borrowers is up for debate, the FHA program offers clear benefits to other groups. Banks and mortgage lenders benefit from having an expanded pool of borrowers that come with a government loan guarantee. Reducing the mortgage fee premium would have expanded the pool of borrowers further by reducing the monthly mortgage payment required. All else equal, this means more borrowers would have been able to buy a house, and borrowers who could already afford a house could have afforded a larger one.
In this way, Obama’s decision to cut premiums would have benefited banks by giving them more potential customers. Trump’s decision to cancel the cut means that banks will no longer receive that benefit.
The same story applies to real estate professionals and the homebuilding industry. These groups would prefer FHA premiums were as low as possible because it maximizes their potential customer base. Therefore, Trump’s decision to cancel the premium reduction prevented them from getting an additional benefit.
As noted above, the taxpayer is ultimately on the line if the FHA fails. Accordingly, one group that is harmed by reducing FHA premiums is the taxpayer. Lower premiums would cause the FHA to be in a less stable financial position, which in turn makes a future bailout more likely. Taxpayers thus benefited from Trump’s decision to cancel the premium reduction.
Obviously, the best scenario for the taxpayer is if the FHA didn’t exist to demand a bailout in the first place. But the next best thing is having the FHA run in a financially conservative way.
Why Renters Lose
The other group impacted is renters. This group is unambiguously harmed by the FHA program. And the degree of the harm increases as the premiums charged decline. This occurs in two ways.
First, renters are harmed by the FHA as taxpayers. If the FHA requires another bailout like it did in 2013, renters will ultimately be paying for a share of it.
Second, renters are forced to pay inflated rent prices that are caused by the FHA. The mechanism here is less obvious, but no less real. Recall that the FHA enables people to buy homes who could not otherwise afford it. This results in a higher effective demand for homes than would otherwise exist, driving housing prices higher. And as housing prices rise, rent prices follow. Thus, renters are paying higher rent each month than they would be in the absence of the FHA program.
This leads us to the very perverse effect of the FHA program. Generally speaking, renters tend to be poorer than homeowners. Similarly, people (renters) whose low income and/or poor credit histories render them ineligible for FHA loans are poorer than people (homebuyers) who are eligible. So when the FHA benefits homebuyers and banks at the expense of renters, this amounts to an upward redistribution of wealth from the poor to the less poor. As the insurance premium rates are decreased, this upward redistribution effect is increased.
So finally, we arrive back at our original question:
Should renters subsidize homebuyers and banks? Or said another way, should the relatively poor subsidize the relatively rich?
Whether you’re a libertarian, a progressive, or something in between, the answer should be no.
And it follows that Trump’s decision to cancel the FHA premium reduction warrants praise, not criticism. Knowingly or not, he just prevented an unjust system from becoming more unjust.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Obama Finally Spares a Whistleblower

On Tuesday, President Obama decided to commute the sentence of whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s remaining prison sentence. Although rumors of the decision had been circulating for weeks, it was a very surprising change of heart for an administration that has earned a reputation for zealously prosecuting whistleblowers.
It’s easily the best news of the year so far, and Obama deserves credit for granting Manning freedom. Manning is rightly hailed as an American hero after leaking thousands of secret documents to Wikileaks, including US diplomatic cables,  war logs from Iraq War 2, and a video feed from a US helicopter raid on civilians during Iraq War 2 that came to be known as Collateral Murder. Manning’s releases are credited with helping bring an earlier drawdown in Iraq (which unfortunately proved to be temporary) and sparking the Arab Spring.
All of which is the long way of saying that the commutation could not have happened to a more deserving individual.
But while Obama certainly deserves praise for this decision, it must be noted that he’s really just undoing some of the harm his administration caused previously. After all, Chelsea Manning’s conviction happened on Obama’s watch. And her prosecution was unprecedented, both in terms of the severity of the sentence and the nature of the charges.  Indeed, the reason that Chelsea Manning’s future looked so bleak–driving her to attempt suicide twice while in custody–is because the Obama Administration threw the book at her, in an apparent bid to deter future whistleblowers.
For now, we should be grateful that Manning’s sentence has been reduced. We can also be grateful that President Obama is concerned enough about his own legacy that he wants to repair some of the damage he caused.
Finally, we can also delight in the new spectacle of watching Democrats and Republicans try to figure out which side of Wikileaks they’re supposed to be on this week. Do they celebrate/condemn Wikileaks for publishing Manning’s documents, which revealed corruption and wrongdoing in the Bush years? Or should they condemn/celebrate Wikileaks for publishing documents that exposed corruption in the DNC and the Clinton campaign? Personally, I feel bad for them. Choosing the right position is hard when you don’t have any principles.

Misdiagnosing the Election

After the election of Donald Trump, the American people have been subjected to several different theories to account for the outcome. These theories have been offered by leading political figures and major media outlets. And each time one theory fails to prove sufficiently persuasive, it is either ratcheted up further or replaced–usually by a claim that is more sensational.
To date, the most prominent theories offered to explain the election have been the following, each proceeding in quick succession after the other:
  • FBI Director James Comey deliberately threw the election to Donald Trump by announcing new investigations into the Clinton email server were occurring a week prior to the election.
    • (Preemptive) debunking here.
  • So-called “Fake News” sites, which were either run or duped by Russia, dutifully reprinted and shared false news that cast Clinton in a bad light.
  • And finally, Russian President Vladimir Putin directed the Russian government to hackthe DNC and John Podesta’s Gmail account and shared embarrassing emails with WikiLeaks in order to help Trump win.
As shown in the links above, there is good reason to be skeptical of each of these claims. True or not, however, I would argue they are also irrelevant. In fact, there is a much simpler explanation for why the Democrats lost the presidential election–namely, they nominated Hillary Clinton.
Now, I have nothing personal against the good Secretary–at least no more than I do against any comparably dangerous warmonger. But she was a very weak candidate for the general election. She brought all the scandal of Bill Clinton with a fraction of the charisma. She also had an active FBI investigation ongoing, which regardless of whether one thinks that was legitimate or not, remained a substantial political liability. This was never going to be a strong political combination.
Of course, it is true as her supporters often noted, that she was qualified–if by qualified we mean that she held many high governmental offices previously. Unfortunately, that doesn’t count for much in US politics. Al Gore had considerably more experience and qualifications than George W. Bush in 2000, and he still lost. The same would be true of John McCain who lost to a first-term senator, Barack Obama, in 2008.
Importantly, it should not be a surprise that Hillary Clinton turned out to be a weak candidate. Polling data throughout the primary season consistently indicated this. Clinton’s main opponent, Bernie Sanders, consistently performed better in hypothetical match-ups against Republicans than Clinton did. Notably, Sanders performed best against Donald Trump. Additionally, Sanders’ favorability ratings grew as the campaign proceeded and more people learned about him while Clinton’s favorability decayed as the public gained more exposure. Over at The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald compiled a helpful summary of this data from February 2016 here, laying out a prescient case that Clinton had an electability problem. I’ve included a few key updated charts through the end of the election below:
Sanders vs. Trump over time
Clinton vs. Trump over time
Sanders favorability ratings over time (black is positive)
Clinton favorability ratings over time (black is positive)
From these charts, a few observations emerge. Sanders’ lead against Trump was generally and more consistent than Clinton’s–thus, he was comfortably ahead for all of 2016 as the primaries finished. And unlike Clinton, his favorability ratings grew over time and then held constant.
From these simple observations, it also seems reasonable to conclude that Sanders would have almost certainly won the election if he received the Democratic nomination. Clinton supporters might suggest that Sanders fared better in polls only because he wasn’t victimized by the allegedly Russian-sponsored leaks and Comey’s conduct regarding the private server email investigation. But that’s sort of the point. It should not have been altogether surprising that there was additional fallout from the Clinton Foundation and the private server. The degree of the damage could not have been known, but the risk was certainly there at the beginning of the primary. Democrats nominated her anyway, and lost because of it.
Critically, this suggests the election result was not about policy. Republicans may want to believe the election was a repudiation of Obama’s legacy, but at least in the presidential race, the evidence doesn’t support that. If voters were reacting against Obama’s decisions and policies, why would they be poised to overwhelmingly support a candidate in Sanders who wanted to double-down and expand on those very same policies? Clearly, they would not.
It’s also good news for Democrats and center-left elites in the media that have spent the last two months grasping for an explanation of Trump’s victory. It seems they were afraid that voters really were rejecting Obama’s legacy. So as an alternative, they promoted external factors as the cause instead–eventually settling on Russian hacking as a preferable alternative to believing that US public opinion had shifted dramatically right. In the process, these same officials and pundits have been willing to significantly escalate tensions between the US and Russia, as a political coping mechanism.
In fact, there was no need for this hysteria. The reality being avoided is not worth avoiding. Democrats did not lose because Americans suddenly rejected the Democratic policy agenda; Democrats lost because they nominated a bad candidate.
Once more people understand this, maybe we can all take a step back from the political ledge and start focusing on what matters. Donald Trump becomes president this week. The chance that he might ease tensions with Russia is one of the only things we have to look forward to.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Reject the Binary in US Foreign Policy

On Twitter over the weekend, Donald Trump issued a series of tweets on Russia that were a cause for both relief and frustration:

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Of course, he is right that it is important for the US to have a good relationship with Russia. Amidst all the hysteria over alleged Russian hacking, it’s a very good sign that the President-elect still seems to be holding firm on his plans to improve relations.
The problem is that the improvement only needs to go so far. The goal is trade and peace with Russia, not an overt alliance. Trump’s suggestion, here and previously, that the US and Russia should work together is an ominous one.
The worst case scenario is a new and expanded War on Terror with Russia as a partner. This would be useless as far as counterterrorism is concerned, since the War on Terror itself has proven to be one of the most effective recruitment tools for jihadists. And it would require the US getting in bed with yet another repressive government–and one that happens to have its own reputation for using heavy-handed tactics against predominantly Muslim populations.  Few things would be more useful for fulfilling the extremist narrative of a modern-day crusade against Islam.
The risk of a US-Russian alliance exists, in large part, because of US politicians’ unwillingness to pursue relations outside the bounds of “either with us or against us.”

It’s high time for some imagination here. There is a third way between alliance and animosity. That third way is simply peace. And it should be the goal with Russia and everyone else.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Obama’s Legacy: Symbolism Over Substance

President Obama’s decision not to veto the recent UN resolution on Israeli settlements generated significant outrage on both sides of the aisle. Lost in the furor, however, was the simple fact that the resolution did not actually do anything. It was just another symbolic gesture without substance.
In this way, it was also the perfect capstone for Obama’s presidency. When it came to the controversial issues where Obama’s personal position appeared to be aligned with peace and civil liberties, he was unwilling to take a stand. He saved his political capital to push through destructive policies and took symbolic half-measures on the few issues where he could have made a meaningful positive difference.
As Obama’s tenure draws to a close, this must be viewed as a key part of his legacy. In nearly every case where political courage was required, President Obama consistently chose symbolic actions over substantive ones. It’s as if he wanted to be on the right side of history–just not enough to do anything about it.
This pattern is evident across many different issues. We’ll consider a few of the most significant ones to make the case:
  • Refugee crisis
  • Marijuana prohibition
  • Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Refugee Crisis
As the Republican primary season heated up in 2015, there was an intense competition to see which candidate could take the most extreme position on refugees from the Greater Middle East (and Muslims generally). Donald Trump emerged as the champion of this unfortunate contest when he suggested banning admission of all Muslims to the US. But Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush were close on his heels by contemplating religious tests for Syrian and Iraqi refugees–reject them if they’re Muslim, accept them if they’re Christian.
Because the bar was set this low, it was easy for Obama to take a more reasonable position, and he did. The Obama Administration successfully pushed to increase the number of refugees that would be accepted. Obama also worked to capitalize on the issue politically, strongly denouncing the Republican rhetoric as contrary to American values and arguing that we can’t “have religious tests to our compassion.
Unfortunately, Obama’s actions on refugees were decidedly insufficient. The US accepted roughly 70,000 refugees in FY 2015, and the plan was to increase this total to 100,000 annually by FY 2017. In percentage terms, it’s impressive–a 43% increase over two years. But in terms of the overall scope of the refugee crisis–which US foreign policy precipitated–these numbers were wholly inadequate.
Using the most recent figures available from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at the end of 2015, the total population of concern, which includes refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), was 63.9 million. If we restrict our focus to seven countries where US intervention played a significant role in bringing about the present crisis, the total is still an incredible 28.6 million as shown in the table below:
OriginTotal population of concern
Syrian Arab Rep.11,690,327
*Source: Annex Table 2 from the UNHCR Global Trends 2015 report.
These numbers put the US pledge of taking 100,000 refugees into perspective. Compared to the total number of people that US foreign policy has helped put at risk, the US pledge amounts to 0.35% of the need–in other words, a rounding error.
The US policy on refugees is actually even more useless than this paltry figure would suggest, however. This is because the vetting process for refugees takes an estimated 18 to 24 months. People in desperate situations can scarcely afford to wait that long.
Based on this, it’s clear that President Obama’s actions on this issue were always meant to be a symbolic gesture. He gave a speech and implemented a policy that appeared meaningful on the surface–if only because Republicans’ reaction exaggerated its effects for political gain. But in fact, it did little or nothing to address the underlying problem.
More serious (and politically feasible) proposals might have included significant increases in aid directly to the countries hosting refugees right now or perhaps stopping US intervention in the region. Unfortunately, these policies were not adopted.
Marijuana Prohibition
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, President Obama expressed his view that marijuana should be regulated as a “public-health issue,” rather than as a criminal issue. While not quite the libertarian ideal, this would represent major progress on the status quo regarding marijuana because it would mean eliminating a huge number of victimless crimes.
In addition to expressing this view, President Obama has also made the controversial move of offering numerous pardons and sentence commutations–primarily to nonviolent drug offenders. As with the refugee situation, the numbers involved here (1,324 at last count) are minute relative to the massive population of such offenders that could be helped.
This is better than nothing, but it falls far short of the progress Obama could have made on this issue if he’d made it a priority. In the interview cited above, Obama attempted to blame his inaction on a lack of public support for reform on marijuana laws. But as Reasonpoints out, this just isn’t true. Recent opinion polls show a significant majority of Americans (70%) support some form of legalization for medical marijuana, and a somewhat smaller majority (60%) supports outright legalization. Granted, it’s unlikely these same majorities would exist in the House of Representatives or the Senate–otherwise such legislation could have already been implemented. But what these polls show is that, if Obama wanted to make a push on this issue, he could have prevailed.
If Obama was unwilling to have a public fight with an obstructionist Congress, he could have also improved matters directly by rescheduling marijuana. The rescheduling process is somewhat convoluted, but it can be done by the Executive Branch without any input from Congress. If successful, this would have moved marijuana from a Schedule I substance with no recognized legitimate usage to a lower level, such as those used for prescription drugs. The end result would be to effectively legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, an enormous step in the right direction.
But Obama was unwilling to take this administrative action, even though he showed no reluctance exercising executive power elsewhere. Either due to a lack of courage or a lack of interest, Obama chose token actions and rhetoric over meaningful reform.
Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Finally, there’s the most recent example at the UN. To his credit, Obama did allow the UN resolution to pass without a US veto. Secretary of State John Kerry’s follow-up speech to defend this action was a refreshingly blunt and honest description of the conflict, especially by US standards.
On balance, these are positive developments. But they come so late in Obama’s term that they are also basically meaningless. The resolution itself had no actual effects, and there is almost zero chance that President-elect Trump will follow in Obama’s footsteps. Meanwhile, the substance of the US’s policy towards Israel remains the same as it has been. The US still gives Israel disproportionate amounts of foreign aid, and under Obama, it blocked every UN action that Israel objected to–except for the toothless resolution in question.
The problem here is that nothing of substance changed in the last eight years. The UN resolution and the speech given by Kerry would have been every bit as applicable at the start of Obama’s presidency as they are today. Over at Mondoweiss, Philip Weiss sums up this frustration very effectively:
The speech repeated warnings that President George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state made to the Israelis 25 years ago, when the illegal Jewish settlement project was a mere stripling of 25. And though the UN Security Council resolution of last week condemning settlements is a victory for Palestinians, and may well precipitate a crisis inside Israeli politics, it is not as if Obama succeeded in his 8-year quest to make a Palestinian state. No, he and Kerry failed.
Obama waited eight years to break with the US status quo on Israel-Palestine. And when he finally got around to it, he no longer had any real power to make a difference.
President Obama will soon leave office with few accomplishments worth bragging about. Most of his campaign promises went unfulfilled, he routinely abused and expanded executive power, and the national debt is higher than ever, and the US is still involved in multiple unwinnable wars–just as it was at the start of his presidency.
Of course, most of the above could be said about previous US presidents as well.
The real disappointment about President Obama is his failure to take meaningful action on the few issues where his private position appeared reasonably sound. When he was elected, there was at least some cause for optimism that the constitutional law scholar would make a positive difference on some issues. But in the end, he chose to settle for symbolism over substance in order to save his political capital for something worse.