online 05.08.16

talking politics

Obama's legacy: Trump and the Islamic State

by Yacov Ben Efrat

"Trump is unacceptable. Why are you still endorsing him?” Obama asked members of the Republican Party one hundred days before the next presidential election and six months before leaving office. It is a completely legitimate question, but it is no less legitimate to ask: How did the world's most important superpower get to a point where Donald Trump became the Republican presidential candidate after easily trouncing all other rivals? How can it be that after almost eight years, Obama leaves behind a conflicted, angry and divisive country in which one candidate constitutes a danger not only to America, but to the entire world?

Obama was elected by a large majority and a desire for change echoed across the continent. The Republican adventure in Iraq had cost a trillion dollars as well as the loss of thousands of dead and hundreds of thousands wounded. In addition, Wall Street was held accountable for the 2008 economic meltdown that threatened to bring down world markets, and left eight million Americans homeless and millions more without work and a pension. In the 2008 elections, Americans were outraged at the Washington establishment and called to punish banks and the financial sector for its greed, lies and rapacity.

Obama promised a lot but accomplished little. After almost two terms, Wall Street continued to grow and companies posted big profits. Obama saved the banks by a policy of quantitative easing – cheap money flowing to the wealthiest companies. The result was an ever-widening social gap and increasing anger. Within a short period of time, the Democrats lost control of Congress and the conservative Tea Party hijacked the Republican Party. This resulted in gridlock, political paralysis and lack of governance in the extreme.

The Democratic Party lost not only both houses of Congress but the support of blue-collar workers and trade-union members who had formed the pillar of its rule. They are the thousands who once had jobs in the steel mills in Pittsburgh, in car plants in Michigan and in coal mines in Virginia. There was a time when these people earned a respectable salary, had a high standard of living and a generous pension. This ensured a better future for their sons and daughters. However, the factories moved to Mexico, Canada and China as a result of free-trade treaties which had been backed by both Republicans and Democrats during the last twenty years. Yet no government bothered to provide retraining and alternative workplaces for those frustrated and humiliated workers who were left without jobs.

Moreover, Obama went into overdrive to expand free trade with Asia through TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, despite intense opposition within his party and trade unions who feared losing jobs due to the relocation of factories to countries with lower labor costs. Opposition to free-trade treaties is so great that it added fuel to the campaigns of both Senator Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The primaries leading up to the conventions revealed how the two mainstays of American society, the young and the elderly, lost faith in both parties and their leaders. The young are hostile toward Hillary Clinton and threw their weight behind Bernie Sanders, while white adults support Donald Trump. Although the president is black, blacks continue to be killed in the streets by the police, and they still make up the great majority of the prison population. This is the legacy Obama leaves after eight years in office: Obama may excel as an orator, but he has failed to bring about the desired change.

If domestic policies cause profound social inequalities, lack of governance, and support for extreme candidates like Donald Trump, Obama's foreign policy is an outrage of inaction and his lackadaisical approach to tyrants is an attempt to appease Vladimir Putin and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Obama and Kerry have brought US foreign policy to such absurdity that the August 3rd editorial of the Washington Post urged Obama to "stop believing Putin in Syria." This is just one of many editorials that repeatedly warned against non-intervention in Syria in light of widespread massacres and war crimes perpetuated by the Assad regime.

Obama also spoke loftily of the need to act to remove Assad from power and said that the use of chemical weapons would constitute a “red line.” But despite having crossed all lines, red and otherwise, Assad continues to butcher his citizens with impunity, and Obama has walked back his prior commitments. The Russians quickly filled the vacuum by militarily intervening in Syria, along with Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah militias. The result is millions of Syrian refugees knocking at Europe's doors; the rise of extreme right parties in Europe inciting against foreigners, and the unexpected fall of the government of David Cameron because the British did not heed Obama's pleas and voted to leave the European Union.

In Iraq, as a consequence of America's hasty retreat, there was increased support among the Sunnis for the Islamic State (aka IS, Da'esh and ISIS). Obama abandoned his Sunni allies who had helped him to fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq, and he went to war against the Islamic State. The Iraqi Sunnis were left to the mercy of the Shi'ite militias, who were backed by the Iraqi government and funded by Iran. Soon the Sunnis rebelled against the government of the Shiite premier, Nouri al-Maliki. ISIS captured Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, and advanced to the outskirts of the capital, Baghdad. Coordinating with Syrian President Bashar Assad, ISIS “invaded” Syria and took control of large swaths of land in the north-east of the country “vacated” by Assad.

Mosul is the capital of the oil-rich region. Once it fell, ISIS became Obama's sole obsession; the Iraqi regime and Iran have become allies; Putin has become a senior partner in the war against ISIS in Syria; the Syrian opposition was abandoned by Obama in favor of the Kurds, who are exploiting the civil war to establish an autonomous Kurdish regime on the border with Turkey. Obama lost interest in ousting Assad, as well as in the fate of millions of Iraqis and Syrians caught in the crossfire. Obama believes you can defeat ISIS without bringing about fundamental changes in Iraq and Syria. The Ayatollahs in Iran and the Shi'ite government in Iraq have turned a blind eye to Assad's war crimes. As for Putin, he has earned the disdain of the Sunnis in Syria and Iraq, who would rather be subject to ISIS than be massacred by Shiite and Alawite militias.

Today it is fashionable to say that Muslims are extremists who cannot be trusted because they support the Islamic State. But, in the same spirit, one could say that the Brits have abandoned democracy and are being led by extreme right-wing parties that preach racism towards foreigners. And what about the millions who throng after Donald Trump despite Obama's warning that he is unfit to be president? Extremists like Trump are the result of social inequality – that is, of a policy that caters to banks and multinationals. The growth of the Islamic State has been inevitable, given the suffering of the population while the West appeases Putin and allows Assad to massacre the Syrian people.

Upon withdrawing from the political stage, Obama leaves behind a conflicted, confused and humbled America in a chaotic, insecure world. The Islamic State and Trump are a wake-up call to world leaders and a warning to the next (anticipated) American president: If she continues with her husband Bill's policies, and with Obama's refusal to intervene, we shall have to cope, down the road, with another Trump, and Isis will grow stronger.