Category Archives: Communication and Conflict Resolution

Israel and the US Gun Debate

I feel pretty strongly about gun control. And I take a purely statistical position meaning that the more guns that are available the more they will be accessible and therefore used. Consequently, the primary solution to the problem of gun violence is to have fewer guns available and this can only be accomplished through control and a legal system that makes it difficult to acquire a weapon. One counter response to this argument is to ask, “what about Israel? Guns seem to be a natural part of everyday life in Israel but they don’t have the problems we have.” School shootings, which are so prevalent in the United States, are almost unheard of in Israel.

The comparison to Israel is a good one and I get asked about it often. Guns are simply naturalized in Israel: Citizen-soldiers are ever present carrying their M-16. Guards with side arms are performing security functions at movie theaters, train stations, malls, and government buildings. The killing of 22 school children in 1974 at an elementary school in Ma’alot is not comparable because it was done within the context of a political conflict and the result of a series of mistakes and panic reactions. These are quite different from the “lone wolf psycho killer” who fires randomly.

So, you might say that the differences are cultural and you would be mostly correct except other issues are pertinent. Gun deaths in Israel in 2009 were 1.8 per 100,000 people. In the US it is six times that figure. So it’s easy enough to see how gun rights advocates could encourage others to look at Israel and point out how there is very little or no correlation between the presence of guns and the likelihood of their use. If it is a cultural difference that separates the US and Israel what are those differences and what can we learn from them?

The first is the distinction between a right and privilege. Gun rights advocates in the United States maintain that it is constitutionally and even religiously guaranteed that you have a right to protect yourself and bear arms. The Second Amendment has been enshrined as protecting and guaranteeing the right to have individual firearms. Israel does not recognize such a right so even though military weapons are common citizen ownership of weapons is controlled and relatively uncommon. Many people do not understand that Israel controls weapon ownership strictly and makes it more difficult to acquire a firearm. The Israeli culture is, in fact, more consistent with those who oppose gun rights in the United States and want additional regulation.

In order for a citizen to own a gun in Israel they must be 27 years old if they did not serve in the military. They need to pass a check that involves health, clean criminal record, and regular training. Gun owners are limited to how many bullets they can acquire, and they need to provide proof that they actually need a weapon. The “fun” of firing and target practice is not a sufficient explanation. According to Yakov Amit, head of the Firearms Licensing Department, as reported in the Jerusalem Post Magazine (March 23, 2018) 80% of those who apply for gun licenses are turned down.

In the United States weapons are a commodity associated with macho performance stances and personal identity. Guns in the United States have lost their sole pragmatic function and are no longer a “tool” for self-defense but a “toy” to play with.

Israel does not fit the image of the right wing gun advocate. The US should learn something from them anyway. Of course, gun violence will never be completely eliminated and some differences between cultures are impossible to close up. Still, Israel has much stricter regulations that all seem to be directed toward managing the possibilities for violence and are more rationally directed toward sensible control. Israel does not have a problem with guns in comparison to the United States because Israel does not fetishize a historical principle (the Second Amendment) in such a manner as to protect an abstraction rather than the actuality of a community.

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The Biggest Political-Religious Issue in Israel Today

Well, it might not be the biggest issue because there are so many in Israel but it is certainly a leading contender and currently capturing regular headlines. And that is the matter of yeshiva students or Torah scholars serving in the military. Israel, of course, has a high need for security and the burden of maintaining that security should be a community value. But the study of Torah is also central to Judaism and thought by many to be part of the process of bringing about the coming of the Messiah. Religious leaders argue that these Torah scholars should be exempt from military service.

During the beginning of the state David Ben-Gurion came to an agreement with religious leaders that a specified number of yeshiva students would be exempt from military service, but since then that number has been growing. These exemptions arouse tremendous resentment especially in secular society. The strongest and most emotionally compelling charge is that secular and non-Orthodox young men and women go off and fight and die protecting the lives and rights of yeshiva students who don’t serve.

There are strong and defensible positions on both sides: cases can be made on the basis of authoritative texts for both compelling military service and being exempt from it. A good review of the issues appears here.

The Best Case for Military Service and the Ultra-Orthodox

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox students avoiding the military – sometimes on the basis of pretty thin claims for Torah scholarship – is simply unfair and can be justified on religious grounds. There are four main arguments for why yeshiva students should serve in the military.

  1. There is a commandment to study Torah called Bilul Torah and the argument is military service will detract from such study. But there are other commandments and performing one does not take automatic precedence over the other. Protecting the land of Israel is also a commandment and military service would be supportive of such a commandment. There remains the question of how much Torah study constitutes a sufficient amount. It is probably possible to both serve in the military, just like working at any job, and still study Torah even though this is not the definition of “full-time” Torah study.
  2. A second argument is that Torah students are special in that they are separate from the empirical world and are set aside to serve God. For yeshiva students their full-time occupation is the service of God and the study of Torah. Once again, a commitment to studying Torah does not remove all secular obligations. Concluding that yeshiva students live separately in a special relationship with God confers saintliness on them, which is quite contrary to Torah scholar identity.
  3. Another claim is that yeshiva students are in constant training to protect the spiritual world and not protection of the physical world. But Torah scholars are still obligated to take part in protection of the community. This means service in the military because they do not have the right to demand that others protect them.
  4. A final argument is much more practical in that the Orthodox community points to the incompatibilities between their life and the military. Problems with keeping kosher, separation of men and women, religious obligations, and interpersonal relations all pose almost insurmountable difficulties. But the military already has experience in meeting the individual needs of certain groups. Although there will be certain challenges the more orthodox Torah students enter the military the more the military will adjust and adapt to their needs.

The answer to this problem is not clear-cut. As of now it looks like the conscription bill will pass and more religious students will enter the military. The secular-religious divide is one of the widest in Israel and it is clearly exacerbated by military exemptions for Torah students. I think it’s important that these religious students do not stand on the sidelines while Israel struggles with issues of defense and security. It is already the case that their alienation from political society produces difficult conflicts. Military service is the most potent route to the type of integration necessary to close up this divide.

The Irish and the Jews

Israel, even with all its difficulties and enemies, is making progress with respect to its relationship with some other countries. Saudi Arabia, for example, just allowed flights to Israel to go through its air space. These new routes for India Airlines cuts over two hours off the trip, makes the trip cheaper, and saves fuel. This is really pretty amazing given the contentious relationship and the long history of animosity between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

But surely enough Israel is losing ground and growing farther part from other cultures and in a few cases cultures you would expect to be more resonant with the Jewish state. Ireland is a good example.

The Jewish News Syndicate (JNS) reported a couple weeks ago about the curiously poor and deteriorating relationship between Ireland and Israel. In the article, which you can read here, the author defends the position that Ireland is one of Israels most ferocious critics.

Why would this be? What is it about Ireland that would set it so against Jewish culture and politics? At first blush you might accept the premise that the Jews and the Irish have common history, a history of oppression and suffering at the hands of a dominant and racist culture. Both the Irish and the Jews have sought redemption and strained for generations for acceptance. Both cultures have experienced war and violence in an effort to maintain their own culture and develop political independence. This is the essence of Zionism and compares to the Irish struggle for their own state as well as independence.

Still, it is Ireland whose voice is the loudest and most critical of Israel. Recent legislation from the Irish Senate prohibits the import of products from “illegal” settlements with very little if any definition or decisions about which settlements are illegal. This is one more example of singling out Israel and holding them to standards others do not have to meet. Of all the repressive governments in the world, of all the illiberal and authoritarian political systems brutalizing their own people, it is Israel that gets selected out for punishment.

This kind of legislation is a gift to BDS and those of that ilk and is in stark contrast to ethical and productive commerce. On another level this is simplistic politics designed to show solidarity with the Palestinians through what will amount to be ineffectual policies.

So, in the end, the Irish and the Jews should sympathize with one another on the basis of common historical experiences. But it turns out that the Irish see Israel in the same role as the United Kingdom before Irish independence in 1921. Like others in the EU Ireland increasingly sees Israel as an occupier just like the United Kingdom “settled” in Ireland. Before 1948 Jews were a struggling minority seeking the integrity that accompanied national recognition. But now the Palestinians have assumed that role.

Once again, Israel has a story to tell and they just cannot seem to tell it well enough.

 

 

 

 

 

The Real “State of the Union”

Donald Trump is leading this country into a dark place.  Let us remember what Sinclair Lewis said in the 1930s: when fascism comes to America that it will be wrapped in the flag, sing the national anthem, carry a cross and be called, “Americanism”. But I won’t even use the loaded word “fascism.” We can just go down the list of typical qualities associated with the nativism and corruption of justice associated w1ith such political philosophies. Many points in Trump’s “State of the Union” signal a dangerous conservative trend and potential constitutional crisis.

 

  1. Powerful and Continuing Nationalism.Trump makes use of patriotic mottos and symbols. Trump’s phrase “make America great again” is the most typical example and seeks to capitalize on the sense of decline in America, a decline that is mostly indefensible..
  2. Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights.Trump fears enemies and has simplistic categories of either “loyalty” or “disloyalty” and everybody must be fit into one category or the other. And if you are in the disloyal category then your human rights get compromised.
  3. Identification of Enemies as a Unifying Cause. Trump’s base of supporters are unified over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat which is typically either someone from a different ethnic or ideological group, or some enemy actual or perceived.
  4. Supremacy of the Military. Soldiers and military service are glamorized. This glamorization is different than paying respect and recognizing sacrifices made by veterans. Trump prefers military people and is in the process of directing massive increases in funding to the military, money that will not be available for health care subsidies.
  5. Sexism. Need we say much more about this. His crudity with respect to women knows no boundaries.
  6. Controlled News. His labeling of the news as “fake news” is an attempt to muzzle the press and control the information environment. His effort to delegitimize the most basic sources of information  necessary to a democracy is unprecedented.
  7. Obsession with National Security.Trump uses fear and the threat of criminal immigrants  to scare people into stricter immigration laws.
  8. Religion and Government are Intertwined. Surprisingly, and even though Trump is far from an upright religious person, he has the support of Christian groups partially because of his willingness to blur the line between government and religion.
  9. Corporate Power is Protected.The industrial and business aristocracy in Trump’s world often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite. Note his tax bill which is more beneficial to the wealthy than the average citizen.
  10. Labor Power is Suppressed. to corporate greed. He opposes labor unions because they are the only real threat to corporate greed.
  11. Rampant Cronyism and Corruption. Trump’s appointment of groups of friends and associates who appoint each other to government positions and use governmental power and authority to protect their friends from accountability is blatant. He perhaps will not appropriate national treasures but has begun the process of appropriating the legal system (e.g. tax laws) in order to benefit himself.
  12. Fraudulent Elections. Again, we need to say little more. Talking with the Russians about dirt on Hillary Clinton is about as debased as you can get with respect to election fraud.

Even at the risk of exaggeration, which I prefer to avoid, Trump “bumps up against” fascist qualities rooted in right-wing nativism. His criticism of law enforcement agencies is unprecedented and a potential danger of considerable importance. All the signs were in his State of the Union speech and should be a serious warning about the real “State of the Union.”

More Jerusalem for Dummies

The legal and political standing of Jerusalem remains unclear and subject to confusion. Recall from last week’s post that when the United Nations decided to divide Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state Jerusalem was not included. It was to be administered by an international group until some equitable agreement could be reached as a result of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Some such third-party administering unit is still a viable idea that may be a part of an end-of-conflict solution. It recognizes the importance of the religious sites for all groups and keeps the various sides engaged with one another. Still, the likelihood that Israel will forgo sovereignty over the old city is slim.

But the Arabs did not accept the partition plan and war was the result. At the end of the war in 1948 Israel had taken West Jerusalem and Jordan East Jerusalem including the old city, the center of the religious life. During the 19 years that Jordan occupied East Jerusalem the Palestinians grew into a nationalist movement and made increasing demands on Jerusalem as a future capital. But after 1967 Israel expanded the city’s borders and added Jewish residents to the neighborhood. As of 2015 Arabs made up 38% of the population (Central Bureau of Statistics) of Jerusalem.

The incorporation of Arab neighborhoods into the municipality of Jerusalem has created a regular tension between Palestinians and Israelis. For example, the Palestinians do not participate – or participate minimally – in civil society governance and therefore suffer from poor services with respect to roads, schools, garbage collection etc. The Palestinians are designated as permanent residents but such a status can be revoked at any time.

In East Jerusalem Israel has also incorporated some neighborhoods that were never a part of Jerusalem in the first place, and has built new neighborhoods intended for Jews only. This, of course, is the settler problem along with the aggressive appropriation of land designed to create “facts on the ground.” Interestingly, much of this policy has made things even worse as it becomes increasingly difficult to divide Jerusalem and assign sections of the city to the Palestinians and others to the Israelis. And Palestinians consistently maintain that there will be no Palestinian state that does not include Jerusalem as its capital.

Finally, any future Jerusalem that has the Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and Israel’s capital in the West must be the result of mutual agreement and acceptance because there cannot be a dividing line strictly separating the two sides. There must be free and easy movement if the religious sites of the old city are to be available to everyone.

The notion that the two state solution is dead because the United States will move (not until 2020) its embassy to Jerusalem is indefensible. A two state solution with Jerusalem as a capital for both sides has been a part of just about everybody’s proposal from Clinton, to Barak, to Olmert.

Trump’s speech did recognize a reality that negotiations and discussions between Israelis and Palestinians are still viable. And, on the contrary, this move by the United States does not distort the peace process but stimulates it.

 

Jerusalem for Dummies

The essay title “Jerusalem for Dummies” has been taken (go here) but I thought it was sufficiently descriptive so I appropriated it. There are of course any number of places where one can read about the history of Jerusalem and its various twists and turns with respect to legal standing, cultural icon, religious center, and capital. But below is a brief overview that helps place Trump’s announcement in context. You can listen again to Trump here: Trump’s bold statement about Jerusalem and the Jews.

Historically, Jerusalem was a small town on the outskirts of the Ottoman Empire. It was mostly significant for religious reasons as water and natural resources were scarce and not particularly strategically located. But as time went on Jerusalem became symbolically more important and a tense mixture of politics and religion. One of the nearby hills in Jerusalem was called “Zion” and it became the term to refer to the entire area and the base of the word Zionism which is the modern movement calling for the reestablishment of the Jewish people and state.

Still, Jerusalem was never automatically assumed to be “Jewish” because of its significance for both Christianity and Islam. Jerusalem is significant to the three Abrahamic religions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount is believed to be the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven. There is no denying the significance and importance of these religious sites and whatever ends up happening Jerusalem must ensure access to these holy places.

The Zionist leaders were mostly secular and were unsure about the significance of Jerusalem Or, shall we say, they were uncomfortable with the power of the religious connection to Jerusalem and did not want a future Jewish state to be overly religious.

It is significant that when the United Nations divided Palestine into two states (one Arab, one Jewish) in 1947, it left Jerusalem out of this equation. Jerusalem and its surroundings were designated as a separate territory to be overseen by an international body. Many Jews were unsure about this but were satisfied with relinquishing Jerusalem in order to establish the state. But when the Arabs rejected the plan to divide Palestine and attacked Israel Jews considered themselves no longer bound by the UN partition plan and moved in on Jerusalem militarily. At the end of the war of independence Israel had taken the Western part of the city, the Jordanians the Eastern part including the old city and significant religious sites. By now the significance of Jerusalem was increasingly apparent and Jews fixated their identities more on Jerusalem. The city was divided by the new state of Israel and Jordan.

Israel declared Jerusalem as its capital after annexing West Jerusalem. The Jordanians annexed East Jerusalem and there were two capitals up until the Six-Day War in 1967. For 19 years, 1948-1967, tensions between Israel and the Arab world remained and no progress was made on the status of Jerusalem or its unification. The city was not recognized as either Israeli or Jordanian. During the Six-Day War Israel captured East Jerusalem along with a few neighborhoods that were not historically in Jerusalem. Israel has moved all of its government offices to Jerusalem including the Knesset and has consolidated their presence in the city.

Israel’s position is that they are not bound by the UN partition plan or the original partition of Palestine because they acquired Western Jerusalem while defending themselves. The two sides have hardened their position as Israel would now never give up Jerusalem as its capital and the Palestinians maintain a belief in their rights to the city also. Very little progress has ever been made on the status of Jerusalem and the city remains confused according to international law as well as the contradicting claims of each side.

For these reasons official recognition of Jerusalem has been moot for most countries. But Donald Trump changed all that.

Incomplete Theorization: A New Way to Think about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Some problems can’t be solved. The fundamental assumptions and philosophy of two competing sides ensnared in the problem cannot be reconciled. Let me elaborate with an example:

There is a concept used by myself and conflict resolution specialists, a concept in particular associated with work by Cass Sunstein, called incomplete theorization. Sunstein, as a lawyer, is concerned with constitutionalism and how you write such constitutions that are effective when people disagree about so many things. Here is how Sunstein poses the issue. Again, he is talking about constitutions but tell me whether or not incomplete theorization sounds like the primary conundrum for the Israelis and Palestinians.

Incompletely theorized agreements help illuminate an enduring constitutional puzzle: how members of diverse societies can work together in terms of mutual respect amidst intense disagreements about both the right and the good.

People often agree on practices but not on theories. Therefore many problems have to be solved as incompletely theorized agreements. Sunstein continues:

The agreement on particulars is incompletely theorized in the sense that the relevant participants are clear on the practice or the result without agreeing on the most general theory that accounts for it. Often people can agree that a rule—protecting political dissenters, allowing workers to practice their religion—makes sense without entirely agreeing on the foundations of their belief.

Incomplete theorization has the advantage of turning attention away from difficult philosophical issues which are typically a combustible mix of foundational beliefs that cannot be reconciled. Moreover, attention to concrete practices has a better chance of success and acceptance which can likely lead to other areas of agreement as participants practice the habits of agreement.

So, let’s incompletely theorize an issue for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The division of Jerusalem into municipalities will not be solved by weighty discussions of Jerusalem’s history and who has rights conferred by kings or gods. But East Jerusalem neighborhoods are home to 300,000 Palestinians–and no Jews. The parties can’t wait for philosophical issues to be solved about historic Jerusalem. Separating the neighborhood would reduce the number of West Bank Palestinians subject to direct Israeli rule and remove a serious point of contention. Also, it would lighten Israel’s economic burden. Moving the security fence away from a hostile population, rather than moving people, would certainly be easier and less traumatic. Both Israelis and Palestinians would benefit without agreeing to any kind of philosophical supporting rationale.

Here’s another incompletely theorized condition.

Israel has serious security issues and must remain in control of the “West Bank.” However, Palestinians should have full autonomy as an “unincorporated territory.” Until the Palestinians agree to peace with Israel, they could be welcomed as partners in the Israeli economic system and should be able to fully participate in Israel’s commercial and creative life. Even without statehood, in less than a generation the Palestinians could become more prosperous and prepare one day for peace.

If one thought this through I would expect there are many practicalities that could be achieved without the burden of deeper philosophical rationales.

 

Are Things the Same Between Hezbollah and Israel?

Hezbollah (“the Party of God”) continues to cast its extremist rhetoric in Israel’s direction but we are at a confluence of events that make war possible. Typically, Hezbollah devotes much of its time to overheated rhetoric directed toward Israel and the Zionist enterprise. It is possible to ignore or at least pay little attention to Hezbollah’s bloated rhetoric. But some differences are morphing into a political environment that just might ignite violence from Hezbollah or perhaps Israel.

First, Hezbollah has been a powerful and overwhelming presence in Lebanon such that Israel is convinced that there is little difference between Lebanon and Hezbollah. The political and government structures of Lebanon have been thoroughly penetrated by Hezbollah. Consequently, Israel is threatening violence against Lebanon on the assumption that there is no difference between the two and attacking Lebanon is by definition attacking Hezbollah.

Furthermore, Hezbollah poses a number of genuine threats to Israel some of which Israel has not taken seriously enough yet. Hezbollah, for example, has built up a weapons cache that can inflict considerable pain and damage on Israel. Hezbollah keeps claiming that damage to Israel in the next war will be greater than ever and they are potentially right.

Hezbollah’s agenda has been reinforced by its victories or gains in Syria and Lebanon and they just might be “feeling their oats.” Still, Israel does not respond to Hezbollah with overwhelming force with the goal of defeating it thoroughly. Critics in Israel keep turning their attention to the military and saying, ”what are you waiting for?” The time to deal a final blow to Hezbollah is now and Israel should not wait until Hezbollah damages cities and destroys infrastructure. It appears that Israel has already conceded the first strike option – at least that’s what Netanyahu wants you to think.

There are, however, good reasons for avoiding war with Hezbollah and that has to do with the fact that this would essentially mean a war with Iran also. For starters, Hezbollah does not need a war with Israel while it is making progress in places like Syria and Iraq. Moreover, Hezbollah is spread out over large geographic areas and in no coherent position to deploy militarily against Israel. And Israel might know it has to engage Hezbollah one day but also knows that such engagement has a high cost attached to it. Hezbollah has an increasingly large arsenal of rockets and they will do plenty of damage. Additionally, Hezbollah has been working with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard to form Shiite militias which can be called upon to join forces with the core Hezbollah military units.

The average Hezbollah or Quds recruit grew up on “divine victory” and the “glorious battles” in the name of Allah. Given the interpenetration of religion and the state in Iran fighting battles and dying is a religious experience. But even the most compliant Hezbollah recruit knows that he sees more blood, loss of livelihood, and dim future than any “divine victories.” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy reports that many members of Hezbollah are disillusioned and there is discontent.

In the end, both Hezbollah and Israel have serious issues to consider. Neither wants to initiate a first strike but neither side wants to be the recipient of a first strike. Both sides will inflict considerable damage on the other but also suffer it. And both sides, with the use of violence, will initiate a sequence of events that have implications for other countries and unknown consequences. This is all to say, I suppose, that nothing has changed.

 

 

Danger to the U.S. Drips from Trump

You know you’re under the jackboot of second-rate leadership when that leader invokes the cartoonish and overheated rhetoric of Armageddon or the Apocalypse. Trump’s threat to hit North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” is ignorant, unhelpful, potentially dangerous, and represents little talent and sophistication with respect to international affairs. He has done nothing more than put himself on the same plane as pathetic terrorists who mistake their rhetorical fury for reality. I suggest the readers of this blog get together with a few friends for drinks and see how many of these puerile hyped-up platitudes they can come up with. Here, I will get you started.

“Allah will unleash the fires of hell to consume the infidel in Allah’s glory.”

“The Jewish trickster conspires to mongrelize White America by pumping black blood of Africa into his veins.”

“The coming race wars will scorch and then cleanse the earth as it awaits the rebirth of the white race.”

You get the picture. Even these exaggerated for humor sayings can’t seem to avoid some common themes: typically, something is “contaminated” and it is “cleansed” by fire. For the racist it’s the nonwhite race that is contaminated and fire will wipe it away until the new dawn of White supremacy awakens. For the Muslim extremist the “fires” consume the enemy rather than cleanse the earth, as the terrorists see the destruction of the world. Jews are not typically associated with fire but they are with blood given the historic blood libels. And the Jew is a “trickster.” He is clever and manipulative and not to be trusted.

Trump, of course, has no more to offer than the standard apocalyptic refrain of “fire and fury.” He has probably seen too many movies. But his discourse is consistent. It’s the rhetoric of nativism and certainly aligned with slogans to “make America great again” or “America first”.

This nativist discourse is relatively standard and on par with the profiles of intergroup conflict. That is, there is (a) a clear ingroup-outgroup distinction where the ingroup is favored and the outgroup as disfavored along with all of the exaggerations and distortions that accompany an ingroup-outgroup distinction;(b) the outgroup is demonized; and (c) the outgroup is rhetorically conquered. There is nothing wrong with trying to rhetorically control the outgroup – that is essentially what campaigns and social movements do but within the confines of normative democratic discourse.

Trump is frighteningly irresponsible. For the President of the United States, not some tin can leader, to engage in this brinkmanship with his shallow knowledge of the target culture, and the fact that fire will be returned with near certainty, can only be explained by the President’s personal macho and certainly not by any coherent policy of international relations.

And the childishness of it all. There is not even what anyone would consider to be even a remotely justifiable reason. This is just name-calling. Of all the sophisticated conflict resolution work and research, the answer in this case is simply to shut up and stand down.

 

 

Evaluating Obama’s Presidency

Sure, it’s early to pass much reliable judgment on Obama’s presidency but I’m going to do it anyway. Obama was a young and relatively inexperienced political leader who, on balance, had a more successful presidency than not. A few books are already beginning to appear (Peter Baker’s Obama, Jonathan Chait’s Audacity) and many of the judgments coming from seasoned journalists and observers are positive. Obama made some mistakes and had his share of failures like any president.

But he was a gifted campaigner who promised hope and change through moderate political ideology. Obama was the darling of the liberal left and the bane of the conservative right. His most notable success was the Affordable Care Act which originated in conservative think tanks. It should have been a first-rate piece of social policy providing medical coverage for people who couldn’t afford it. But the rank polarization and competitive hate between the two parties meant that the nature of the Affordable Care Act would be distorted (calling it “socialized medicine”) and it would be subject to extreme ideological clashes.

The Affordable Care Act was flawed and needed fixing but it was fixable. Currently 20 million people have health insurance who would not have had it without the Affordable Care Act. Continued progress needs to be made on cost containment, financial incentives for health exchanges, and coverage that’s more attractive to young people but none of these represents a fatal blow and the acrimony and contentiousness surrounding them is testimony to the level of disgust each side as for the other.

Opponents of the Affordable Care Act have convinced the public (mostly by the incessant use of the term Obamacare) that the legislation is more extreme and damaging than it actually is. The fact that most polls show that the public approves of the Affordable Care Act, and the absolute failure of the Republicans to repeal and replace it, is testimony to the quality of the legislation.

Obama made progress in early childhood education programs, seeking sources of alternative energy, and helped make climate change an issue for serious consideration.

When it comes to foreign policy Obama looked around and saw messes everywhere. The Middle East, Israel-Palestine, radical Salafists, unstable countries with nuclear weapons (Pakistan, North Korea), religious extremist countries who wanted nuclear weapons (Iran), al Qaeda, ISIS, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are all potentially dangerous. There is something to be said for his cool demeanor and conclusion that an armed United States meddling in these problems would probably make matters worse. He used special operations and limited warfare strategically. He was not afraid to use the military (bin Laden) when necessary and clearly appropriate.

Obama did make a mistake with Bashar Assad. His statement about a “redline” was naïve and foolish and he stood on the sidelines while hundreds of thousands of Syrians were killed in the Civil War.

In the end, Obama was a diligent and elegant political leader who was knowledgeable and informed. He could be “cool” and therefore thought to be aloof but I prefer that to Trump’s exaggeration of threat. And we should not forget that his political enemies (e.g. Mitch McConnell) made it their life’s work to see the President of the United States failed. Mitch McConnell was so quick to announce that he was going to guarantee Obama’s failure, regardless of the issues, that I figured something other than policy had to be motivating McConnell. I’m just sayin’.

 

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