The Legacy of Barack Obama

January 3, 2017

Barack Obama has been one of our most decent and intelligent presidents. I’ll miss him. Instead of simplification and slogans, Obama explained the complexities of everything from medical treatment to foreign policy. Instead of shooting from the hip, he studied problems carefully and reached mature, intelligent decisions.

But what will stick?

Starting with foreign affairs, Obama got most of the boots off Muslim lands. When Obama took office in 2008 we had close to 200,000 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now we have about 15,000 troops, combined, there and in Syria.

ISIS seems to have refocused on Europe but that’s still a problem for us. Europeans’ objectives are compatible with our own, so they are crucial allies, unlike the Russians. But Europe confronts many times more refugees than we do, with backlash and threats to democracy in several countries. American action in Syria added to the refugee flow, but much resulted from revolutions independent of us. More American militarization in the Arab world would inflame the refugee crisis and increase the terrorism directed at us.

Terrorists are fueled by militarization; nations are much more vulnerable to our military – that’s the difference between defeating Saddam Hussein, having him executed and trying to remain there. Trump may talk tough, but will he be fool enough to wade back into those trouble waters?

In Guantanamo, fewer than 60 prisoners remain of the nearly 800 who were imprisoned there.

Republicans dislike the Iran nuclear deal but so far they’ve nothing to show for their fears. Objections from the other signatories may prevent Trump from disavowing it. This may be the first real test of whether Trump has any grip on reality.

At home, Republicans have been yelling for years that they will tear Obamacare down the first chance they get. But their friends in the insurance industry will howl if they do, especially if Republicans leave features Americans like – a guarantee that you can get insurance, coverage for pre-existing conditions, tax credits for small businesses, etc. So it’s not clear what they’ll actually do. Obama took his health care plan from Mitt Romney’s Republican plan. I can think of improvements to the left of Obamacare, but not any that are more consistent with Republican free-market philosophy. Republicans are in a pickle.

Obama got a small stimulus soon after taking office. Terrified it might actually work, Republicans fought to keep it small. Obama’s stimulus worked, slowly, satisfying the cynicism of Congressional Republicans willing to hurt the country in order to make Obama look bad.

Dodd-Frank financial regulation still stands, reigning in a financial system that gambled with everyone else’s money and made a large number of us much worse off.

Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. One has become the conscience of the Court, the other quieter and more conciliatory. Together, they’ve made a the Court much more fair. The future depends on how long Ginsburg lives and how long Trump is in office. The difference Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan made could disappear in a heartbeat.

So, there’s a lot to celebrate in what Obama did or tried to accomplish. But I have real fears of what could be done in the effort to discredit him instead of making things better for the people of America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 3, 2017.


People bear the cost for rulers’ misbehavior

March 29, 2016

In a still unpublished manuscript on the way conservative economics has failed us, my friend Eric Zuesse remarked, “The ‘Greek debt’ is really not a debt of the Greek people.” He goes on to identify the “institutional creditors  … Euro-banks … high risk kleptocrats, oligarchs and bankers who siphoned most of the euros into overseas Swiss accounts …. [and other foreign investments] devoid of any capacity to generate income to pay back the debt.”

Eric’s statement is profound, pointing to the ways that those in power play with our lives and then displace the responsibility to their innocent victims. While I’m sure that some will argue that elections gave the Greek people some complicity, Eric accurately points to the ability of those primarily responsible to displace the costs of their own misbehavior.

I think we can see that pattern all over modern public affairs. What responsibility did the refugees in Syria or Iraq have for the wars that took their lives, homes and livelihoods? What responsibility did unemployed Americans have for the depression that was engineered by banks too big to fail, banks which traded worthless securities in an enormous Ponzi scheme for which they have not been prosecuted? The Supreme Court has cleared the manufacturers of failed medical devices for rupturing in our bodies but why is it somehow the responsibility of the victims to absorb the injuries and the costs? This is a pattern – the rich and powerful do the damage and outsource the costs to the rest of us.

Terrorists take advantage of that. They attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11. But the people of Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East have paid the price of our response, innocent men, women and children, polarizing regions and sweeping us into the worldwind. Our failure to calibrate the response had much wider repercussions.

The British, French, Germans and Spanish have suffered similar terrorist attacks, actually over many decades from many different groups, but they have managed to restrain their responses. England fought in the so-called “troubles” of Northern Ireland but finally learned that their response was devastating the wrong people and making the problem worse. The Spanish restrained their response to the Basques. All restrained their response to leftist terror. They responded with police work, ultimately capturing and trying many of the terrorists.

For many Americans anything but an all-out response seems unacceptable. Politicians attack restraint as weakness, not strength. And of course ordinary Americans pay the price. We pay it in the deficit, in taxes, in the lives of our loved ones in foreign wars, and in civil liberties at home. But those who benefit are immune. Major suppliers of paramilitary forces abroad like Blackwater and Halliburton get more contracts while they supply deniability to American leadership for their violations of human rights.

These are bad bargains. Will we have leadership capable of leading, capable of explaining to the American people and standing strong in the face of hotheads for whom an indiscriminate overreaction is the only so-called “manly” response. Will we have leadership capable of zeroing in on the perpetrators of economic collapse, mortgage failure, and malfunctioning products?

Isn’t it time to stop blaming the people for the misbehavior of the oligarchs? Or will the rulers, paraphrasing Thomas Hardy’s conclusion to Tess of the d’Urbervilles, end their sport with us?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 29, 2016.


War in the Middle East

November 17, 2015

The terrorists’ explanation for ISIS’ involvement in the Paris attacks, is that it was in revenge for the French participation in the war in Syria. Another explanation is that the attack was a recruiting tool – they’re stalemated in Syria and they use victory and the dream of an Islamic state as a recruiting tool, so they pulled off an attack that would be heard around the world, to say to young Muslims, come help promote the dream. Actually the two explanations are not inconsistent – they can both be true in the minds of different people, and sometimes even in the minds of the same people. But the two theories point in different directions. The revenge theory suggests that it would be better to stay out. The recruitment theory points to the value of simply defeating them. Recruits need something attractive to attach themselves to and losers aren’t very attractive.

Some Americans want to solve the problem by more fighting. History should make us skeptical. Our record isn’t very good in what are called asymmetrical wars, for some of the same reasons Americans were able to beat the British – warriors who are not in uniform and practice sneak attacks are very hard to beat.

And wars have unintended consequences. The Russian war on Afghanistan created the terrorist armies who later turned their arms against this country. Terrorists attacked the U.S. before we fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, foreign wars increase the recruitment of terrorists. In Iraq and Afghanistan we fought the wrong wars, in the wrong places, against the wrong enemies. We destabilized the region in ways that left much bigger problems for us. Syria is the latest maelstrom.

So I’m convinced Obama had the right instinct to get out and try to stay out of the Middle East, especially by not putting boots on the ground. If fighting us is a recruitment ticket, staying away should be a good idea.

But the larger question is whether there is a way to minimize our participation while defeating ISIS and al Qaeda? Unfortunately, the answer doesn’t depend on us. The Iraqis and the Syrians are deeply divided. And war doesn’t seem to be uniting people in either country. The contending forces seem to fear each other as much or more than they do ISIS.

If it’s going to take a major war effort to defeat ISIS, I doubt this country has a taste for it. The economic costs would be huge. What economists call opportunity costs, the value of what we could have done with the same resources, would be even larger. The lesson seems to be, if they can’t fight their own war, we shouldn’t be trying to fight it for them.

Then again, there’s the army of refugees. Immigrants have been offered citizenship in the past in exchange for joining in war efforts. Can the able bodied among the refugees be turned into a credible and united fighting force? Are enough of them willing? And against whom would they turn their weapons? Would they be a mirror of those already fighting or would they be the only people from the area who could fight for broader and more ecumenical objectives? The humanitarian in me says they’ve already been through enough. The utilitarian in me wants the most effective way to end the problem with the least damage in both the short and long term. The skeptic in me thinks it’s another bad idea.

So I think we have four options – withdrawal, a big war, a deal among the major powers in the region, including Iran, or arming the refugees while trying to stay away. But it’s a heck of a set of bad choices. Thanks George.

— Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran. This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 17, 2015.


More on Drones

February 20, 2013

In prior commentaries I have spoken about the moral and constitutional issues in targeting people for assassination, by drones or otherwise. Today I’d like to look at the problem coldly, and try to assess whether and when those moral arguments have consequences on our effort to end terrorism. In particular, what should we make of the Obama Administration’s use of drones abroad to kill those it labels enemies. Plainly al-Qaeda has few scruples; why should we? Should we “fight fire with fire” or “sink to their level” to use two common expressions? Read the rest of this entry »


War is Hell

March 20, 2012

We are all saddened by the sixteen people killed by an American soldier on a recent rampage. Clearly, he had lost his mind. Read the rest of this entry »


Don’t Bomb Iran

March 13, 2012

We’re hearing a lot of sabers rattling for war with Iran. The promoters have never been able to think past shock and awe to figure out what comes next. That’s blinders masquerading as courage. Read the rest of this entry »


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