Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Divide and Be Conquered

“When President Obama took office, Iraq was calm, al-Qaeda was weakened and ISIS did not exist. Iran, meanwhile, was under pressure from abroad … and at home … The Obama administration threw it all away.”
 —Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, writing in USA Today
Here is an observation that is guaranteed to please no one. Despite their personal and political differences, President Obama and Donald Trump are strangely more alike than not in their underlying rhetorical strategies.

Trump has clearly mapped out a segment of the electorate to which he wants to appeal, and he is making that appeal by setting up other segments as the enemy. Whether he is slandering Mexicans or Moslems, he is tapping into a rich vein of insecurity among white working class Americans and it has kept him high in the polls—so far.

But hasn’t President Obama has been employing the same tactic, albeit from the other end of the political spectrum? Since he has gotten past the point of needing to contest elections ever again, he has increasingly directed his rhetoric ever more specifically toward his own Democratic base at the expense of the rest of the country. As numerous commentators noted, in his press conference in Turkey, he showed much more passion in his criticism of Republicans—and by extension the majority of voters who sent them to Congress—than he did in condemning ISIS.

This politics of division is not at all appealing in a primary candidate like Trump, but—to tap into John Kerry’s mindset vis-à-vis terrorism—at least it is understandable. He is trying to win a presidential nomination. It is, if anything, even less appealing in a sitting president, who occupies the highest office of the land and is meant to represent all citizens—not just his own party.

When it comes to the issue of admitting refugees, the president certainly has reason and sanity on his side. Yes, taking in Syrians fleeing their homeland’s civil war is the civilized and humane thing to do. Yes, the vast majority of them are people like anybody else who only want to survive and provide safety for themselves and their families. And, it is worth noting, they are fleeing a terrible situation that possibly (of course, we can never know for sure) could have been ameliorated by a firmer grasp of foreign and military policy by the administration. Let us not forget that the vast numbers of refugees are not fleeing ISIS but the onslaught of Syria’s own wanton president, Bashar al-Assad, and that President Obama has deferred to Russia’s lead in that violent civil war—even though Russia’s aim is to keep Assad in power at a terrible cost to the Syrian people.

Two-thirds of Americans, according to polls, are against admitting the refugees. This is because they are fearful—and not completely without reason. One or two of the terrorists who attacked Paris on November 13 apparently slipped in through refugee queues. This represents a drop in the bucket in terms of the numbers involved, but it demonstrates that the fear of terrorists masquerading as refugees is not crazy. And it doesn’t help that the president’s own FBI director told a House committee last month that there is precious little data against which incoming refugees can be scanned.

So how does the president react to this pervasive—and not unreasonable—fear among the American people? When asked about it, rather than explain and reassure, he siezes the opportunity to attack Republicans and, by extension, a majority of the citizens he is supposed to be leading. In other words, he does what Donald Trump does. He divides the country into groups and pits one against the other in an attempt to whip up political support. The mystery is, to what end? It certainly doesn’t help grow support for admitting refugees. It might rally those who already agree with him, but he gains no political advantage because he will not be seeking office again. And it is hard to see how this helps his party. Hillary Clinton already has more than enough to deal with, rationalizing and separating herself from an administration’s foreign policy about which few, if any, have found much to praise.

If the House of Representatives provided a veto-proof majority in voting to cripple the administration’s refugee plan, it might be because they have little confidence in the president’s assurances about the efficacy of its security. They may be remembering other assurances—from the situation in the Middle East to the ongoing execution of the Affordable Care Act—that turned out to be overstated. What is really interesting and, I think, has not gotten the attention it deserved was the president’s stated rationale for not worrying about terrorists coming in through the refugee program. It is much easier, he said, for them to simply come over as tourists. He is certainly right about that. If a terrorist happens to hold a European passport, he or she can travel to the U.S. under the visa waiver program with only cursory scrutiny. What an interesting way to reassure people!

Violence in the Sinai Peninusla, Beirut, Paris and Mali—plus security alerts in France and Belgium and a worldwide travel advisory from the U.S. State Department—have put the western world on edge. And when western Europeans feel on edge, that is good for nativist and isolationist parties—the likes of the UK Independence Party and France’s National Front. Is Donald Trump their American equivalent? That’s very hard to say—at least in terms of political consequences. He hasn’t exactly been consistent ideologically. He may be the only contender of either party for whom it is harder to predict what he would actually do as president than Hillary Clinton.

But on an emotional level, Trump is indeed the equivalent of the anti-immigration parties of Europe. Like them, he is obviously saying things in which a lot of people—whether justifiably or not—find some level of comfort and reassurance, which they are not getting from their current leaders.

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