Charles “Chas” Freeman, Jr. is an American diplomat, author, and writer. He served as the US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1989 to 1992 during Gulf War and was the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs from 1993 to 1994. From 1997 to 2009, Freeman served as the president of the Middle East Policy Council, a leading think tank in Washington, DC.
For its Middle East foreign policy, the United States has historically relied on unconditional alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel. Many assert, however, that this is no longer in America’s best interest. What are your views on this argument?
No two countries have identical interests. The interests of Israel and Saudi Arabia have never been identical with those of the United States, despite the tendency of supporters of those partnerships to make that claim. Today, the interests of Israel and Saudi Arabia are markedly different and quite at odds with the interests of the United States. Israel pays no attention to international law or United States’ desire for a halt of settlement expansion in the occupied territories. Israel acts as it will towards its neighbors without regard to American advice.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia, after many decades of a quiet and unassertive approach to affairs in the region, is now acting on its own without regard for the United States and demanding, as Israel does, that the United States back it. Is it in the United States’ interest to enable such behavior and to create moral hazard by covering the risks of such behavior? I would say that [such behavior] is emphatically not in the interest of the United States, and it is a major problem in our relationships in the region. We need to focus on our own interests and not automatically back actions by others that contradict those interests.
How can we justify maintaining a strong alliance with Saudi Arabia, despite its human rights record and private funding of radical Islamist groups?
Well, I’d like to start by taking issue with the word “alliance.” The United States has no treaty obligation to Saudi Arabia, or Israel for that matter. Saudi Arabia has no obligation to the United States whatsoever. We have unilaterally extended our protection over them — that is not an alliance, although that word is bandied around with great abandon in the press and universities these days.
As far as whether there is an inconsistency between offering protection to Israel, Saudi Arabia, or others in the region despite disagreements with their human rights practices, the fact is that we have never been consistent on that score. We have talked a lot about human rights, but we have never made it the principal deciding factor in our foreign policy, not even at the height of the Cold War. Are there other interests that justify our cooperating with Saudi Arabia? I think there are, and we have chosen to give priority to those matters.
What are those specific interests that justify our relationship with Saudi Arabia?
Historically, we have had six major areas of converging interests [with the Saudi’s]. The first is the famous bargain of American preferred access to Saudi energy supplies in return for our protection of Saudi Arabia from its external enemies. That bargain, which was struck in 1945, is now greatly weakened by many factors, not least of which is that the United States is now a competitor in the market of oil exports with Saudi Arabia. The second interest has been cooperation on Islamic interests, and that has been overtaken by the growth of Islamophobia in the United States and the estrangement of the Saudis from the United States’ policies. We have also been dependent on the Saudis in a third area, which is transit through Saudi Arabia’s airspace and adjacent seas as part of our global power projection. That dependence continues, as there is no formal agreement on our use of Saudi airspace or sea space.
Saudi Arabia has also been the largest US commercial market between Morocco and India for years, by quite a large margin. That position has now been taken by the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia remains an important source of revenue for the US and its companies, including its universities, where over 70,000 students are studying in the United States at the Saudi government’s expense. We also have had a close cooperation on foreign policy and intelligence matters. That has largely gone away, as the Saudis who used to pay for that no longer are able or inclined to do so. We are left only with the sixth area of convergence, which is an interest in combatting Islamist terrorism, and there the cooperation is quite robust. These are all important interests, but most of them are, at the moment, in a state of uncertainty.
It seems as if the United States no longer has a cohesive strategy in the Middle East. What should our overall foreign policy goals be in the region?
I agree that we have no cohesive strategy, but frankly that does not distinguish the Middle East from any other region where we currently operate. We have an extremely dysfunctional political situation in the United States with a government that is not governing. It is unrealistic to expect that a government that can’t make decisions domestically would be able to do so in the foreign policy arena. The United States has lost a great deal of influence in the Middle East for precisely that reason. Our interests, which once converged with those of our partners in the region, now diverge. Our partners are frustrated that we no longer back them unconditionally, and we are essentially estranged from many of our former stalwart partners in the region. This provides an incentive for them to diversify their international relationships, and it provides an opening for others like India, Russia, China, and major members of the European Union.
Part of the weakening of our position in the Middle East is due to our own rigidity and ineptitude. We have no relationship to Iran which we can use to influence Iranian policy. We have a bad relationship now with the Saudis, who are the principal rivals of Iran, and do not have much influence over their policy. Israel has essentially decided to go its own way without regard to our views on key issues of war and peace in the region. Egypt, having undergone turmoil and a political and military coup, is also not paying much attention to the views of the United States. Iraq is in a state of turmoil as is Syria, and neither have met US expectations. The entire situation is in flux. A good part of the reason for that can be traced for the knock-on effects of the US invasion, occupation, and destabilization of Iraq, which catalyzed sectarian warfare in the region.
In your view, what is the best immediate course of action for President Obama and Secretary Kerry to take regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
The United States is no longer in a position to mediate the conflict. Our [previous] mediation turned out to be part of an essentially fraudulent diplomatic posture by Israel. The United States does not have much credibility with Israelis these days and has even less with Palestinians and other Arabs…Israel is currently resisting attempts at mediation by the French and other Europeans, suggesting that it does not want any outside hand to help shape the contours of Palestine…If we were serious about promoting a settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, we would use the leverage of our aid programs to Israel, as we have done in the past, to compel the Israelis to confront the need to reconcile with their fellow Arab inhabitants of Palestine.
Given the current facts on the ground, what do you believe is the ideal solution to the conflict moving forward?
At this point, a two-state solution, which would have been the best for both Israelis and Palestinians, is impractical. The issue is coming down to a human rights and civil rights struggle within the area controlled by Israel, which encompasses all of Palestine now. We are talking about a one-state solution in which it is likely that over time Jews will cease to be a majority.
In this one-state solution, how do you envision governance structures changing? How can the occupation end?
Israel does not face any serious military threat. The threats to Israel are primarily internal and derive from its own actions within the area it controls. It is unrealistic to expect Palestinians to remain docile when they feel oppressed, and therefore we see spontaneous eruptions of violence by young people primarily directed at the occupiers and the settlers, and if they can’t reach the settlers, ordinary Israelis. This is making life in Palestine extraordinarily insecure for everybody. It is making life for Israeli Jews insecure in much the same way that it has for Palestinians, including Arab Israelis, for a long time. This is not a situation that can continue and endure.
What current actions should the United States take regarding the Syrian Civil War?
There is a basic rule in dealing with civil strife that there often comes a time, usually early in the conflict, when it matters less which side wins than stopping the fighting and the misery it produces. There are now between 300,000 and 450,000 dead Syrians. There are over 11 million who have been displaced or forced to flee abroad, and Syria has essentially been destroyed. It has been destroyed with the collusion of many outside powers, including the United States. The priority in Syria should be ending the violence and restoring Syria to a form of domestic tranquility where people can live their lives and not have to flee to foreign lands for safety. That means cooperation between the United States and Russia in brokering a peace between Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and other supporters of Syrian factions…It requires the involvement of the United Nations to put together a coalition of Western and Islamic powers to deal with [ISIL], an embodiment of extremism and evil, to which everyone should be willing to cooperate to remove from Iraq, Syria, Libya, and the other places where it has taken root. Stopping the war would involve overlooking other differences with opposing countries, like Russia, and trying to broker some sort of ceasefire between the regional actors so that the parties on the ground in Syria can be encouraged to make local ceasefires and bring some degree of stability out of the current anarchy and chaos. That is a difficult task, but it is not undoable. As part of this, the United Nations should take up the issue of terrorism for which there is no agreed international definition. Terrorism should be dealt with like piracy or any other criminal activity. Although it sometimes does require a paramilitary or military response, it is primarily a law enforcement and rule of law issue, and it needs to be returned to that realm.
The majority of our readers are currently Brown students. Do you have anything specific you wish to say to them as a college audience? The generation now at Brown has an opportunity to fix the peculiar inversion of military means and diplomacy in US foreign policy. Normally, the use of force is considered a last resort. That has not been the case in the United States recently, where the first refuge of decision makers has been to call on the military. The United States needs to be clever in our democracy…Diplomacy is a great deal cheaper, less bloody, less risky, and more predictable than the use of force. Therefore it is very much in our interest to rediscover it as a tool of foreign policy. This generation at Brown has an opportunity to better understand how the United States should make use of its two broad oceans, its enormous human and physical resources, and its potential to lead not with force, but with diplomacy.
Joel Berg is the executive director of Hunger Free America, formerly known as the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. Before joining Hunger Free America, Berg worked under President Bill Clinton’s Administration in senior executive positions at the US Department of Agriculture.
How has the landscape for hunger and homelessness changed in recent years?
It depends on how you define recently. There was a huge jump in hunger during the recession, and it hasn’t gone down. And that is the most remarkable thing — this is the first so-called recovery in modern history in which there has not been a decrease in hunger, poverty, or homelessness. Before the recession, there were 36.1 million people [facing] food insecurity — that’s the wonkish federal term for “hungry” — and now the number is 48.1 million. And so I fight back mightily against the notion that this is the new normal, that this is acceptable, and that this is just how it is. [48 million] is about the populations of California and Michigan combined. The structural inequalities in our economy and the cutbacks in the social service safety net are appalling.
Have you found that there are new methods, policies, or programs that have been at least somewhat successful or effective at reducing rates of hunger in New York City?
Our organization is nationwide now, and we recently changed our name to Hunger Free America to reflect the fact that we do work nationwide. The United States almost ended hunger entirely in the 1970s, and we did it by having a more inclusive economy, higher wages, and a more robust antipoverty safety net. So we, in fact, know exactly what works. The problem is that the country is doing the opposite, and it’s not because the programs don’t work — it’s that our politics are fundamentally broken and that we need immediate national leadership. We need a national fix to this problem, led by the president, Congress, and the national business community.
You mentioned that the challenges are mostly political in nature. How can there be political opposition to a seemingly nonpartisan issue such as ending hunger and homelessness?
We basically need to do three things. We need to mobilize the people most affected — there are 48 million Americans…so if we better organize low-income people to fight for their own futures, we will have a lot more success soon. Second, we need to convince people in the middle. We need to help the middle class know that the poor are not some “other” — and that there’s a very good chance statistically that at some point in their life they’re going to fall into poverty. A good portion of Americans fall into poverty at some time in their life. And three, we have to isolate, contradict, and disprove the opposition…Every time [the other side] says: “SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program]…people don’t work,” you have to point out that the vast majority of people on SNAP are children, senior citizens, people with disabilities, veterans, and working parents. Over 80 percent of adults receiving SNAP benefits were working the year before and the year after receiving SNAP. I do think there is some hope that even some conservative, fundamentalist Christians are coming around to understanding that both the New and the Old Testament have a significant amount of language regarding fighting hunger — arguably far more language than on some of the social issues on which they seem upset. I do think there are glimmers of hope where we can find common ground with people on the other side.
How will the presidential election affect the landscape of hunger and homelessness in America?
This presidential election is a key determinant. We are a nonpartisan group. We do not pick sides in elections. But the claim that some people make [is]: “Oh, both parties are the same.” If you watch a Democratic presidential debate and a Republican presidential debate and make that claim, you’re just being preposterous. [At] no time in American history have the parties been more different. So for people who care about these issues, I hope they understand that this election is a watershed moment.
What is your assessment of what President Obama has done to improve rates of hunger and homelessness in the country?
I have a new book coming out this fall, [and] I have a whole chapter on why President Obama broke his promise [to end child hunger]. But his administration has done a lot of work administratively to increase participation in existing programs — that’s great. And his last budget has proposed some truly progressive things for hunger.
But I do fault him for compromising too readily with the Republicans, particularly when the Democrats still controlled the House and Senate and then still controlled the Senate. The bottom line is that he pledged to end child hunger by 2015, and by the end of 2015 there was at least as much child hunger, and possibly more, than the day he started. I want to acknowledge all of the forces arrayed against him — the big money against him, the racism against him. That being said, the record is the record. He pledged to end child hunger, and the problem is just as bad as when he started. So I would say that it’s a decidedly mixed record, although the point I make in my new book is that…it is wrong to blame the system or the politicians, when it is really all of our faults as citizens.
What can ordinary citizens do to help alleviate the problems of hunger and homelessness? They should be informed voters. If they can, they should be active on campaigns. They should call their representatives in Congress regarding specific bills. Right now there’s a bill in the Senate that would fund school breakfast and school lunch, and there’s not a penny of new funding [for] that. In contrast, they found an extra $64 billion dollars for the latest undeclared war in the Middle East. The entire federal funding for summer meals for kids is about half a billion dollars. One year of fighting equals 128 years of summer meals for kids.
Power without diplomacy is blind, diplomacy without power is impotent,” said Robert Lieber, professor of government at Georgetown University, at a recent event hosted by the Alexander Hamilton Society. This poetic, Bismarckian admonition capped a brief, but impassioned, lecture devoted to the careful enumeration of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy errors – namely, his predilection for nonintervention and inaction. Lieber, who is in the process of writing a book entitled Retreat and its Consequences, was principally frustrated by Obama’s adoption of a global “binary,” whereby the only two international options for America were doing nothing or total war. And, for Lieber, American indecision was not costless: “The more critical the problem, the important the U.S. is to its resolution,” he declared.
Lieber, of course, is not wrong. The United States, endowed with tremendous material security and uncontested military strength — a combination deemed “hyperpower” by some international relations experts — is uniquely capable of engendering innovative solutions to pressing global challenges. But protracted conflict and horrific violence are, more often than not, the true results of American adventurism, not constructive problem-solving. As Professor Stephen Kinzer, who also lectured at the event, observed: “We have the ability to change the fate of nations… [but] the temptation of intervention is the great downfall of American power.” Thankfully, American primacy and peace are not irredeemably irreconcilable aspirations; with a little change, the United States can have its cake and eat it, too.
The debate between Lieber and Kinzer comes at the denouement of President Obama’s term in office. The President’s foreign policy, often criticized as excessively cautious and impractically detached, can be appropriately summed up with a single mantra: “Don’t do stupid shit.” This simple strategy, a cosmic departure from the tendencies of President George W. Bush, has come under fire from members of his own cabinet. The Obama administration’s last three Secretaries of Defense – Leon Panetta, Robert Gates, and Chuck Hagel, none of whom completed a full term with Obama – have publicly criticized his policies. (Hagel, a veteran of the Vietnam War, toldForeign Policy magazine last December that, “I don’t think many times [the White House] ever actually got to where we needed to be. We kept kind of deferring the tough decisions.”) Hillary Clinton, who was Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013, was flustered with Obama’s reluctance to train more moderate Syrian rebels, a move she believes opened the door for “jihadists,” like those championing the Islamic State. And John Kerry, who inherited Clinton’s State Department mantle in 2014 and grew particularly enraged by Basher al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, had hoped Obama would enforce his “red line” for intervention. Obama, once again, decided against getting U.S. involvement.
Despite her imperial, and oftentimes carnivorous, global joyrides, America still stands for meaningful ideals: incorruptible freedom; inexhaustible opportunity; and, above all, the central notion that anyone foolhardy enough to dream vivid dreams and hope without hesitation can make it.
It’s understandable why Obama’s patience — or uncompromising lethargy, depending on who you ask – is so unfamiliar and unnerving, even to his closest confidantes. War, for the United States, is a historical constant; in his lecture, Kinzer quipped, “We never end wars. We only start them.” More importantly, many Americans are imbued with the notion that they’re entrusted with a “providential mission” to help non-Americans along with the congruent processes of democratization and economic liberalization. On the surface, such a belief appears self-involved and narcissistic. (It is.) But, upon further examination, American exceptionalism isn’t so unreasonable a worldview. The United States is, after all, the richest, strongest, and most experienced democratic society on the face of this planet. Despite her imperial, and oftentimes carnivorous, global joyrides, America still stands for meaningful ideals: incorruptible freedom; inexhaustible opportunity; and, above all, the central notion that anyone foolhardy enough to dream vivid dreams and hope without hesitation can make it.
This rhetoric may appear to be in direct contradiction with recent discussions about the phenomenon of American dissolution. “Fulminating about America in decline is fashionable today across the political spectrum,” John Bolton, the former American ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in The American Spectator in 2011, long before a certain Donald Trump began promulgating his obstreperous conception of America as a nation of “losers.” The notion that the United States is falling apart or lagging behind, in some kind of cosmic competition for glory and prestige, is entirely unfounded. Just look at the United States’ recent contributions to the fields of science and technological development. Philip Greenspun, the famed Internet entrepreneur whose blog is hosted by Harvard Law School, notes:
“Some of the most valuable assistance that we provide to other nations is not accounted for either in military or foreign aid spending. For example, we have spent a high percentage of GDP on funding scientific research that is published and available to anyone worldwide who can afford the price of a journal subscription. We have spent our tax dollars on standards such as TCP/IP that can be used at no charge by people worldwide. A lot of free Web services, such as Wikipedia, Hotmail, Yahoo!, and Gmail, were built and are run by Americans. A foreigner who learns from Wikipedia and uses Gmail has received very useful aid.”
Yet, while the United States has practically defined the architecture and culture of today’s electronically connected world, it is also true that American preeminence need not be delivered through napalm canisters, screeching attack jets, and flamboyant ordinance tests. Warfare is, however counterintuitively, the worst way to manifest and demonstrate American power. After all, tanks can’t educate Afghan schoolchildren; air strikes don’t reform ruthless dictators; and columns of armored troops can’t export legitimate democracy. And, when push comes to shove, the great game of interventionism goes full circle: Paradoxically, societies born out of violent upheaval, like a spouse incensed with Stockholm’s syndrome, remain committed to the perpetuation of that upheaval. The United States of America is no exception. Since the Revolutionary War, the conflict that brought the thirteen colonies liberation from repressive British rule, the country has been on countless militaristic crusades, all over the world, in the mystical hopes that American-style independence and government will work seamlessly for everyone else. Unfortunately, as Kinzer commented, not everyone in the world is “an American in the making.”
But if the United States doesn’t go to war, or proselytize its ideology, then what should it do? The answer comes right out of Obama’s strategic playbook: Anything but stupid stuff. If that means doing nothing, so be it. Action isn’t always worthwhile — especially if the price is the senseless loss of human life and the evaporation of an entire people’s collective future. The United States might even try reigning in its bloated defense budget and investing in its people, not military contractors, for a change. Mature leadership on the international stage isn’t just about showing off large muscles or flashy toys; it’s about understanding geopolitical limitations, managing visceral impulses, and recognizing the simple fact that those who callously play the world like a game of chess, more often than not, suffer the worst checkmates.
As spring fast approaches, 42 million American households are beginning to plan and design their gardens. Over the last five years, Americans have planted 17 percent more home gardens, an indication that an increasing number of families place an importance on growing their own food. One such family is the First Family. The Obamas’ 1,000 square foot garden on the South Lawn features 25 varieties of herbs, fruits, and vegetables from four different growing seasons, including okra, sweet potatoes, and raspberries. This extensive plot clearly differs from the majority of home gardens in America, but not just due to its proximity to the Oval Office. Michelle Obama’s garden is a physical manifestation of her Let’s Move campaign, and has grown to represent its commitment to combatting obesity and educating Americans about nutrition.
The Obamas are only the latest in a chain of presidents who have used the design and diversity of the White House garden to reflect their goals and promote political change. The policies surrounding the White House garden reflect one of the major challenges every president faces — how to balance the dual roles of being a leader and a follower of public opinion. Since Americans in the past were more entrenched in the agrarian lifestyle and home gardens were more ubiquitous, presidents followed suit by planting their own gardens. Originally, the White House garden was not meant as a political statement or a model for the rest of the country to follow. Rather, the presidential family, like the majority of American families before the industrial revolution, relied on its home garden as a main supply of produce.
Presidents soon capitalized on this connection with everyday people and began to engage with the White House garden to promote their goals. During the Civil War, Mary Todd Lincoln gave leftover vegetables to wounded Union soldiers. In the midst of World War I, Woodrow Wilson’s “Victory Garden” encouraged Americans to support the war effort by growing their own food. Eleanor Roosevelt even regrew the Victory Garden during World War II as a similar reminder of American duty and loyalty. In the 1970s, Jimmy Carter installed solar panels among his vegetables to demonstrate his commitment to renewable energy during the OPEC oil embargo.
Today’s iteration, dubbed the White House Kitchen Garden, demonstrates the Obama Administration’s commitment to enhancing the health and nutritional education of both the Obama sisters and schoolchildren nationwide. Michelle Obama’s choice to center her policy legacy on combatting obesity and promoting children’s health stems from her own challenges in raising her now-teenage daughters, Sasha and Malia. When the First Family moved into the residence in 2009, Michelle Obama followed in the footsteps of former influential first ladies, like Eleanor Roosevelt, by linking the White House garden with her political agenda. The Kitchen Garden represents her commitment to bettering her own family’s health and providing a model for the rest of the country to follow. The modern revival of American gardening — a 200 percent increase since 2008 — both guides the Obamas’ aims and is encouraged by them. While the Obamas look to inspire young families, the largest population of new gardeners, they also reflect these voters’ interests.
While the Obamas looks to brand themselves as an example of a healthy family, the average American clearly does not have the time, money, or lawn space to grow the majority of his or her own produce. The White House garden, in its diversity and abundance, could reasonably be seen as representing the elite foodie movement, alienating those without the privilege to focus so heavily on their own nutrition. Food writer Julie Guthman writes that many Americans have subscribed to “healthism,” a doctrine that devolves nutritional responsibility to the individual. The media often propagates this image that all people should be engaged in a daily diet and exercise routine — ideally one filled with yoga and smoothie bowls.
Before long, the White House garden became intertwined with the president’s political agenda.
Arguably, the White House Kitchen Garden’s decision to plant trendy produce such as kale does assume some aspects of “healthism.” However, the Let’s Move campaign counters the devolution of responsibility to the individual by increasing federal policy regarding health guidelines. The 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA) heightened governmental control over school lunch programs by authorizing the Department of Agriculture to set nutritional standards for all foods sold in schools. While the Obama’s garden could be perceived as a symbol of presidential opulence, the reality of the Administration’s stance on food is much more distributive, as it promotes the nutrition of all Americans through federal guidance, not abandoning individuals to craft healthy lives on their own.
These actions have also received criticism of a different nature. The increased USDA regulation of school lunch may be a sign of government paternalism; individual families, not the Obamas, should be the judges of what their children should eat. However, the Obama Administration’s larger — and arguably more sustainable — goal is to counter obesity not through standards and regulations, but through education. The HHFKA’s $4.5 billion in funding also contributes to an expansion of wellness and Farm-to-School programs that provide local produce to schools while also teaching students about where their food comes from and how to prepare healthy meals from that produce. The White House Kitchen Garden itself provides a model for Farm-to-School programs: Groups of students and teachers can register for free guided tours of the garden just by visiting the White House website. In 2009, a group of Washington, D.C. 5th graders helped Michelle Obama plant the first garden, and other school groups from across the country are invited to participate in the harvest of the first crops every summer. By shifting the focus from top-down federal control to grassroots educational empowerment, the Obama Administration neither abandons nor commands American families, but instead promotes healthy living for current and future generations.
After only eight years, it remains difficult to measure the Obama Administration’s long-term impact on reversing the tide of American childhood obesity, or even determining what role the Kitchen Garden has played. However, the immediate successes of Let’s Move are evident in the number of government agencies, corporations, and organizations that have incorporated produce consumption and nutrition into food policy enhancement. In 2012, the Department of Defense announced a major update to its nutritional standards, ensuring that food served in military dining halls now includes more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Even family-friendly chain restaurants like Olive Garden have committed to improving their kids’ meals by offering a fruit or vegetable as a side dish and low-fat milk instead of soda.
However, just because a restaurant offers a healthier option doesn’t mean that the child will choose it. The Obama Administration’s commitment to nutritional education, alongside federal policies that guide Americans and organizations toward making healthy decisions, increases the likelihood that that kids, and their parents, will pick fresh fruit over fries. This scenario becomes even more probable if the child belongs to the ever-increasing number of families who tend their own gardens and therefore have direct identification with their food.
As the Obamas shape and follow public opinion by expanding the White House garden, the Kitchen Garden nevertheless remains an integral part of teaching Americans the important connection between nurturing food and nurturing their bodies. Hopefully, the president who inherits the garden in 2016 will not let it go to seed.
On July 31, 2009, American journalist Sarah Shourd was hiking in Northern Iraq with friends when she was captured by Iranian soldiers and placed in solitary confinement. She spent the next 410 days in a tiny metal cell, pacing around her cage and staring up at bright fluorescent lights that never turned off. “After just two months my mind began to slip…There was a slow disintegration of my personality, my sense of who I was,” Shourd recounts in an interview with the American Civil Liberties Union. “I knew that isolating a person was a cruel form of punishment. Still, it was not until I experienced it myself that I realized it was torture,” she added.
Countless Americans taken hostage have attested to the torture of solitary confinement. Senator John McCain, spent more than two years in isolation as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Subjected to regular beatings, denied adequate medical treatment for chronic dysentery, and tortured to the point of bones breaking, McCain reported that solitary “crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”
As human beings with a sense of compassion and empathy, the media, the government, and the public at large provide individuals taken hostage with the greatest support. They become heroes and role models. McCain was awarded with a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star Medal, and a Silver Star when he returned, and Sarah Shourd was interviewed by NBC, Oprah Winfrey, and the Huffington Post. But what of the 80,000 criminals being held in solitary confinement across America at this very moment? They may not deserve our admiration, per se, but their circumstances certainly deserve our attention.
Shourd’s experience in solitary confinement is quite similar to the typical conditions of so-called super maximum prisons: high security prison systems designed to isolate prisoners from social contact. In fact, journalist Shane Bauer, who was captured alongside Shourd and spent four months in solitary, visited California’s Pelican Bay State Prison and found conditions to be even worse. “I had a mattress, and they have thin pieces of foam…I got 15 minutes of phone calls in 26 months, and they get none,” he wrote in an article. “Here, there are no windows.”
A typical supermax cell is around 11 by 7 feet. A 4-inch thick concrete slab serves as a bed and an even smaller slab serves as a desk. There is a toilet, a metal sink, and a speaker with a microphone mounted on the door to allow for faceless interactions with correctional officers. Prisoners are usually confined to their cells for 23 hours a day and permitted out only for “recreation” in an outdoor cage (known as ‘the dog kennel’) or a shower. The worst part, according to those who have lived in solitary, is not necessarily the small metal cell or the unpalatable “food brick” served as every meal, but rather the lack of social contact.
The harmful psychological consequences of solitary confinement are well documented. Psychologists who study this issue have found a broad range of harmful psychological reactions for those kept in isolation including anxiety, panic, rage, paranoia, hallucinations, self-mutilations, and suicidal ideation and behavior. Letters written by New York State prisoners lend a voice to these clinical findings: “I feel like I am developing some kind of skitsophrinia [sic] behaviors….I hear voices echoing as I try to fall asleep,” one man wrote. Another wrote that his mind “rots” with “thoughts that are uncommon or unnatural.”
Solitary confinement may then qualify as “cruel and unusual punishment” by most standards, and yet the Supreme Court refuses to consider such treatment unconstitutional. Millions of Americans cling fervently to the Constitution as the backbone of the American government, citing it, for example, as a valid reason to own a semi-automatic rifle or a flamethrower. Yet, when it comes to society’s underclass of prisoners, these same Americans are silent. One person’s constitutional right to own a gun has become more important that another person’s constitutional right to not endure torture.
A typical supermax cell is around 11 by 7 feet. A 4-inch thick concrete slab serves as a bed, and a smaller slab serves as a desk. There is a toilet, a metal sink, and a speaker with a microphone mounted on the door to allow for faceless interactions with correctional officers.
The purpose of the supermax segregation unit is to supposedly cull out the worst of the worst from the prison population in order to reduce violence and disorder. Prisoners may be placed in supermax for a number of reasons, ranging from attempted escape and potential gang membership to prisoner assault and extreme violence. Advocates of solitary confinement argue that there is no other place for these individuals — they are violent, disruptive, and too dangerous to be housed with others. Yet, a 2003 analysis that examined the effect of supermax following its implementation across several states found that levels of inmate-on-inmate violence were unchanged and that there was no correlation with levels of inmate-on-staff violence, with rates rising in some states and falling in others. And in June of 2006, a bipartisan national task force released a report calling for the termination of long-term isolation of prisoners, noting that a number of studies have demonstrated that supermax conditions if anything make it more likely that prisoners will commit crimes when they are released.
There is no clear benefit that comes with solitary confinement. It seems not only unconstitutional, but also simply unethical. After all, Americans have no problem condemning it when done to hostages overseas. Fortunately, a growing number of legislators and human rights groups are beginning to take notice. In July 2015, President Obama became the first president to visit a US prison and question the use of solitary, and on September 1, 2015, the state of California agreed to a landmark settlement of a class action law suit on behalf of prisoners in solitary at the Pelican Bay prison. The agreement will dramatically reduce the current solitary confinement population in California and cap the length of time a prisoner can spend in solitary. Ideally, the rest of America will follow suit.
As Kate McKinnon takes the SNL stage in her monochromatic pantsuit, a conniving grin appears on her face. She acts out one of the satirical media’s favorite caricature: the ambitious, scheming, and deceiving Hillary Clinton. The Onion plays the game too, releasing an article entitled “New Hampshire Covered In Shadow As Floating Clinton Campaign Headquarters Takes Up Position Over State.” This is the Hillary Clinton who stops at nothing to achieve power, who lies to her people before she scoffs at them behind the scenes. It’s an image to which many American voters subscribe.
A substantial majority of Hillary’s critics cite her apparent untrustworthiness as the main reason they dislike her. Among younger voters, particularly on social media, she is specifically described as dishonest, untrustworthy, disingenuous, and even inhuman. When asked why, many will mention Benghazi, her mixed policy record, or her status as a Washington “insider.” Some will cite her voting history, some her perennial presence in Washington, and others simply find her too choreographed. But, these labels aren’t new — they are part of a larger history that has branded her with labels of dishonesty and coldness, whether she has warranted them or not. Hillary Clinton’s current public image has become a caricature as a result of decades of political attacks.
In 1992, Hillary Clinton became a household name when Bill Clinton moved from an under-the-radar Arkansas politician to a presidential candidate. From the start, Bill’s opponents dragged his wife into the mudslinging politics of the Democratic primary. Jerry Brown, a rival candidate in the Democratic presidential primary, famously accused him of having illegally funneled money to his wife’s law firm back in Arkansas. Brown even alleged that Hillary, while working at an Arkansas law firm, conspired to permit and cover up the contamination of an Arkansas water source. In the debate, he specifically directed the allegations at Bill’s wife; it fit into his larger strategy of using Hillary to target Bill’s electability and legitimacy.
By the general election, Republicans saw a powerful potential vulnerability in Bill’s campaign: Hillary. From then on out, Republicans viciously attacked Hillary by constructing an image of a corrupt, lying, “overbearing yuppie wife from hell,” to borrow the term used by an Ohio television interviewer. As one Republican consultant said to The New York Times in 1992, “it’s just that she’s grating, abrasive and boastful. There’s a certain familiar order of things, and the notion of a coequal couple in the White House is a little offensive to men and women.” Though Republican attacks targeted Bill’s administration, their criticisms of Hillary were often charged with sexism and misogyny. Frustrated by a woman’s independent role in public life, Republican, media, and public opposition forced her to retreat to family life while she fended off accusations of being too overbearing and ambitious. And when Hillary tried to take an active political role, the same critics shot her down as too outspoken and power-hungry. Consequently, anyone who disagreed with the Clinton administration could use Hillary’s image as an influential tool against it.
In very little time, opponents of the Clintons had another informal partner: the media. Both liberal and conservative media became obsessed with accusations of scandal and corruption, even when the evidence wasn’t quite there. In 1994, New York Times journalist Jeff Gerth wrote about the “Whitewater Scandal,” wherein he accused the Clintons of having harmful criminal associations. At the time, 52 percent of the nation believed that Hillary had lied about her involvement with such shady characters. While the allegations were later found to be almost completely fabricated, citizens were already used to Hillary’s image as a liar and a corrupt insider. The barrage of accusations against her kept coming: the media charged that she forced her husband to fire White House staffers, that she was responsible for the death of a government employee, and that she accepted bribes. Hillary was now the scheming, out-of-place wife whispering commands into her husband’s ears. Put out by the attention-hungry media and perpetuated by the disgruntled Republican Party, Hillary’s political caricature was stuck in the minds of the populace. As much as the Clintons tried to chase down the hasty accusations, catching up to a lie was a wild-goose chase.
Over the years, these accusations blurred the line between the personal and the political. The media and critics of the Clinton administration started to target Hillary’s character, regardless of whether it implicated policy. All the alleged “scandals” of the Clinton administration culminated in a harsh, retributive essay by a well-known New York Times columnist, William Safire. Safire wrote in this 1996 essay, “Blizzard of Lies,” that Hillary was a “congenital liar…compelled to mislead and to ensnare her subordinates and friends in a web of deceit.” In turn, Americans started to identify with the media’s criticisms of Hillary. By Bill Clinton’s second term, she had under a 50 percent approval rating – down over 20 points from the start of her husband’s presidency.
As much as the Clintons tried to chase down the hasty accusations, catching up to a lie was a wild-goose chase.
Ten years passed as Hillary assumed a comparatively lower profile. In 2007, after having served as a United States Senator, she decided to run for president. Having disassociated herself from her husband’s political battles, she now found her own adversaries – most notably, Senator Barack Obama. Obama’s advisors saw that Hillary had a history of trust issues and an image of competitiveness and over-ambition that could keep her from the nomination. A leaked memo from Obama’s advisor, David Axelrod, laid out a comprehensive plan to defeat Clinton. According to Axelrod’s analysis, Obama would have to paint her as a candidate “driven by political calculation,” concerned with eliminating the opponent, and suspiciously connected to lobbyists and donors. In order to beat her, Obama needed to define himself more sincere and genuine in the face of her plotting politics. “The change we can believe in,” Obama’s famous campaign slogan, intentionally targeted Hillary’s image of deceit and self-interest. This was a crucial feature of the 2008 primary, as Axelrod and Obama went after her character as much as her policies. They were, to an extent, responding to the perceptions of many people, as shown by the outcome of the nominating process. The result was somewhat of a feedback loop: voters distrusted her, which the Obama campaign exploited by emphasizing her duplicity and Obama’s comparative sincerity, which in turn led to more distrust of Hillary. But whether through the people or the politicians, the 2008 campaign entrenched and perpetuated her negative image.
Now, after Hillary Clinton served as the nation’s Secretary of State, the Ghost of Politics Past came back to haunt her. Republicans have come at her with new scandals and allegations, such as Benghazi and her private email server. Conveniently, but far from coincidentally, the subsequent hearings and investigations came prior to the 2016 election. The criticisms bore a surprising similarity to those thrown at her before: that she skirted the law, that she lied to save herself, and that she put American citizens in grave danger. Yet in all of these accusations, Hillary’s opponents were running far ahead of the evidence in a suspiciously partisan effort, and as New Yorker journalist John Cassidy phrased it, “slinging more mud at Clinton in the hope that some of it would stick.” But Clinton was muddy enough already. Progressives view her as uncommitted, finance-reformists view her a political puppet, and other opponents view her as engulfed in secrecy.
When political or policy decisions are connected to an individual’s character, it becomes extremely difficult to separate them. Decades of public involvement have entangled Hillary Clinton’s persona in a web of politically motivated sexism, partisan battles, and scandal-hungry media. Now, when voters young and old watch SNL or read The Onion’s satirical jibes, they laugh: that’s the Hillary they know. In turn, when it comes time to cast their vote, they incessantly question, “Can I trust her? Do I want such a competitive, political woman to represent me?” Many people, it seems, are unaware that the reason they’re even asking these questions has more to do with a long history of partisan slander than it does with Hillary’s true character.
The following are two separate interviews presenting contrasting opinions on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran Deal, negotiated between Iran and the “P5+1” nations, including the United States, in 2015.
Mark Dubowitz is the Executive Director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a foreign policy think tank, which opposed the Iranian nuclear agreement
BPR: One of your criticisms of this deal is that it gives Iran access to billions of dollars of its oil revenues that had been frozen, allowing it to potentially fund terrorism, while at the same time, lifting the arms embargo. Supporters counter that these funds rightfully belong to Iran, and that weapons it purchases can be countered by military support for allies, or interception of shipments. How do you respond?
MD: There was an alternative to giving Iran direct unlimited access to those oil funds. The idea being proposed was that Iran needed that money for its economy, not for funding of terrorists or buildup of its regional posture. If that is true, and there is an argument that Iran will spend most of the money on imports, even though there will be billions of dollars left for terrorist proxies, the option is to move funds from escrow accounts [all over the world] to accounts in the EU where Iran wanted to buy European goods and could have used them to pay for European imports. That would have been a much better way to control the use and access of those funds, rather than repatriating $100B+ back to Iran’s Supreme Leader so he can use it any way he wants … If you believe, which isn’t the case, that every country would comply with the embargo and not allow Iran to procure heavy weaponry, the fact of the matter is that when that arms embargo goes away in 5 years, countries will be able to do it legally, and China and Russia have been waiting, they are already negotiating multi-billion dollar deals. I find it hard to believe we will be able to police the use of this money, and stop weapons shipments.
BPR: A main concern of yours is the sunset clauses (points in time where provisions of the deal expire). Why are they such an obstacle? Won’t the US have the same or better military options in the future as now?
MD: We will still have the same military options, but Iran will be a much more difficult target. They will be a stronger power, moving toward an industrialized nuclear program that is much more widely dispersed, with multiple facilities buried under a mountain, with stockpiles of low and even highly enriched uranium. Military operations by their nature will be much more difficult then than today, when Iran’s nuclear facilities are relatively small and concentrated. We may only have a military option, we won’t have a sanctions option, because Iran’s economy will be stronger with hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign investment. People will be reluctant to agree to snapback sanctions, including our European allies. All the Iranians have to do is safely comply with the deal, not do anything that would precipitate a snapback sanction, and just wait patiently for these key restrictions to expire, so that at year 8 they can do advanced centrifuges R&D, at year 10 they can install unlimited centrifuges at Natanz, at year 15 they can build multiple emissions facilities and heavy water reactors, they can stockpile enriched uranium to 60% and keep thousands of kilograms around the country.
All the Iranians have to do is safely comply with the deal, not do anything that would precipitate a snapback sanction, and just wait patiently for these key restrictions to expire
BPR: Opponents strongly objected to a provision stating that Iran can block for up to 24 days being forced to provide access to suspected (not-declared) military nuclear sites. However, supporters contended that the 24 days is a hard maximum, the first such provision in a non-proliferation deal, and that fissile material cannot be cleaned or hidden that fast. Respond
MD: My biggest concern with the inspections regime is not necessarily the 24 days, but is that the Iranians have made clear over and over that they will not allow the IAEA into military sites. The Parchin (a suspected military site) arrangement will be the Parchin precedent. The Iranians will say, we didn’t let you in to Parchin, we are not going to give you physical access of a military site, we may not even give you monitoring. Without physical access to military sites our ability to go in and verify that Iranian weaponization [is not taking place] will be severely curtailed. Whether or not we can get in in 2 days, 24 days, or 80 days for the process to make its way through, we can’t actually physically get in to that military site to see what they are doing and verify they are not engaged in weaponization activities, and the verification and inspection regime becomes meaningless. Most experts agree the Iranians are not likely to build a nuclear weapon in their declared facilities. What they are much more likely to do is use their declared facilities to expand from an industrial side, perfect the use of advanced centrifuges, accumulate huge stockpiles of enriched uranium, and then divert uranium to clandestine facilities where weaponization will take place. We will be blind with respect to what the Iranians are doing on the weaponization side, and a lot of weaponization activities do not involve the use of enriched uranium, and so there will be no telltale signature signs of that activity even if we ever get into that site. [An expert testified before Congress that] if he had to judge the inspection and verification regime on a scale of 0-10, he would give the declared facilities 7-8, ability to monitor and detect suspicious sites, 5, and the access to those facilities where Iran might engage in military activity related to its nuclear program, 0.
BPR: Is snapback (immediately restoring sanctions in the event of a violation of the deal) realistic and functional? Why or why not?
MD: Snapbacks are a delusion. The very nature of a snapback assumes a few things. The target needs to be susceptible to a snapback, and I think the ability to inflict asymmetric shocks on Iran’s economy as we did between 2010-13 will be significantly diminished. Second, we will require at least the support of the Europeans to snapback anything, and even though technically speaking we can snapback sanctions without Russian or Chinese or European support, practically speaking we will not do it without European support. The snapback assumes transatlantic unity throughout this process, which becomes doubtful when you move into a world where the Europeans have sunken tens of billions of dollars into Iran’s economy and don’t want to risk their economic interests. The Iranians will also threaten a nuclear snapback to neutralize their economic snapback, so they end up with a much more formidable snapback option than we have.
BPR: If Congress had succeeded in blocking the deal, what would the day after that vote have looked like? What comes next?
MD: This is where we are today. The US Congress has rejected the deal. 61% of Congress is on record having opposed the deal.
BPR: But the deal is in force under US law; an effort in Congress to block enforcement of it was filibustered by Senate Democrats. What if it had been blocked under law?
MD: That was an impossibility. Congress could not have stopped the deal, even if it had 67 Senators to overturn the President’s veto, the President retains enormous executive power to neutralize any sanctions block that was put in the Corker-Cardin legislation. There was no scenario in which the deal was not going to be in force. The real question was, would the deal enjoy bipartisan support in the US congress? Would that give it the kind of political durability to ensure that the deal would outlive the current administration? The deal was protected by a narrow partisan minority in Congress, and now with a bipartisan majority having rejected the deal, and certain polls showing only 21% of Americans supporting the deal, the real question is then what does this mean for the next administration?
BPR: So what was your goal then in opposing this deal in Congress?
MD: To delegitimize it. There was nothing else that could be done but to delegitimize the deal. It couldn’t be stopped, it was going to move forward regardless of how many members of Congress opposed it. The question was, could the deal be delegitimized, what would that take in terms of Congressional opposition, what would that translate to in terms of public opinion polls, what would this mean for positions in the general election, and what would this mean for the next President, whoever he or she is. It would matter if it is a Republican or Democratic president, a Republican president is more likely to want to aggressively move forward to try and unwind the deal, and a Democratic president, even in the case of Hillary, who says she supports the deal, is going to be much more aggressive in enforcing it, and imposing sanctions against Hezbollah. That is still part of the strategy – how do you mitigate the damage of the deal?
BPR: If, by your admission, it was not ever possible to block the deal through Congress, was a “better deal” ever possible?
MD: Sure. Over the history of arms control agreements, many were treated as treaties, where Senate advice and consent was required, and in some cases, the Senate required the administration to go back and renegotiate a deal in order to get specific amendments, and once the amendments were given, the deal was ratified. In this case, the administration decided not to treat it as a treaty, but instead as a non-binding executive agreement. From the administration’s perspective, the advantage is that they did not have to get Senate ratification. The disadvantage is that it is a non-binding executive agreement. By delegitimizing the deal, you lay the predicate for the next President to come in and negotiate a follow-on agreement, for example, that would address the sunset provision today, or in 2017, rather than waiting 8-10 years and having the sunset provision create all the problems I’ve described
By delegitimizing the deal, you lay the predicate for the next President to come in and negotiate a follow-on agreement
BPR: And if the next President comes in and wants to do that and the rest of the P5+1 is not on board, how would that work?
MD: What the next President would have to do is initially go to the French, who were very unhappy with the deal, and see if there is a meeting of the minds between Washington and Paris on some specific aspects of the deal that can be addressed. Again, you are not going to be able to rip up the agreement, or start from day 1, or dismantle Iran’s entire nuclear program, or deny it enrichment, you are not going back to square one. But there are specific provisions of the deal that are highly problematic, the sunset provision, the lack of physical access to military sites, the nuclear snapback, specific provisions that the President would have to reach out to the French and see if they can get agreement in Paris and Washington to begin with. If they got that, it would be easier to get agreement from London and Berlin and then you’ve got a transatlantic agreement in trying to negotiate some follow-on agreement. I’m not suggesting this is easy, or will happen quickly, but I think there will be, particularly if there is a Republican president, a strong push to try and address some of the fatal flaws.
BPR: Is pushing back on the revolutionary guard’s activities complicated by US cooperation with Iran vis-a-vis ISIL?
MD: I think US cooperation with Iran regarding ISIL is foolhardy and wrongheaded and likely to [increase] ISIL’s advantage. If the US pursues a policy of partnering with Iran to fight ISIL, that will only help ISIL. If anything it will feed the fears of Sunis and Iraqis who are convinced that we are partnering with their mortal enemy, who is responsible for brutalizing them. We’ve got to make it very clear that we are not going to partner with Iran, not going to partner with Asad, or support the Russians….As long as we don’t it’s going to be a massive recruiting boon for ISIL.
BPR: Why were conservatives in the US uniformly opposed to this, while conservatives elsewhere, such as in Great Britain under David Cameron, were supportive?
MD: I can’t think of a time since the Suez Crisis that the US and Great Britain split apart on major national security issues, regardless of whether it’s a Republican or Democrat in the White House, or a Conservative or member of the Labor party in London. That so-called special relationship transcends party politics and ideology. The other reality is that Britain was quite disengaged with respect to Iran. Of the European powers, the French were most engaged and committed and had the longest experience and most expertise. The UK took a backseat. The other factor is that after the Syria chemical line debacle where Cameron felt very much let down by Obama, he wasn’t going to risk his political capital in any way on the Iran deal, so he sort of just quietly went along. Heading into reelection, he also understood that his road to reelection didn’t run through foreign policy.
BPR: How will this deal reshape the balance of power in the Middle East, the standing of the US and Israel individually, and their alliance?
MD: It is too early to tell. The US Israel relationship will certainly stabilize and grow closer again in 2017 probably regardless of who is elected. With respect to US credibility in the Middle East, that is where we are already seeing results, and the next President and the one after that will have to devote time and resources to repairing it. At this point, our enemies don’t fear us and our allies don’t trust us. That is going to be a challenge, because the next few decades are going to bring enormous national security challenges in the Middle East with respect to proliferation. You are starting to see the Emiratis, Saudis, and Egyptians moving in the direction of building their own civilian nuclear program, concluding multi-billion dollar deals with the Russians and South Koreans to build their own nuclear capability. None of the Sunni powers are willing to accept a status quo where Iran is permitted enrichment and is able to expand that enrichment capability over time.
BPR: Was the strategy that organizations opposed to this deal took wise? Was it worth the money and political capital to set the precedent you wanted for the next administration?
MD: Overall, most organizations I’m aware of had defined publicly or privately what their objectives were in a similar way, which was to delegitimize the deal. I think there were some organizations perhaps who believed you could actually block the deal, and there were others who knew better…. Absolutely [it was worth it]. Without 61% of the US Congress opposing this deal, or most Americans opposing it, there would be no follow-on strategy in 2017. …. With 25-30 Democrats opposing the deal, and deeply anguished statements even from supporters, saying the deal is dangerous and deeply flawed in the words of Cory Booker, and will trigger all these terrible consequences but I have to support the deal because I feel like I have no other choice, there’s a combination of opposition and deeply anguished support. That creates the necessary predicate for a potential reversal of the more dangerous elements of the deal and consequences it will trigger. And certainly it lays the foundation for a more aggressive posture towards Iran and its regional behavior.
Joseph Cirincione is the President of the Ploughshares Fund, which advances global denuclearization and nuclear nonproliferation through advocacy and funding of nonproliferation efforts.
BPR: How did your organization evaluate the terms of the deal?
JC: In the non-proliferation community this was a no-brainer. The overwhelming consensus of nuclear experts was that this was a great deal. It wasn’t so much that one organization or one expert thought this – I can’t name a major non-proliferation expert who opposed the deal. Almost all the opposition was political, not based on policy analysis. What happened was because a group disagreed with making any deal with Iran, they started cherry picking the agreement and exaggerating and distorting certain aspects to make it seem like it was a cave in to the Iranians, or that it was paving the way to a bomb rather than preventing one. It was one of the most intensely politicized policy exercises that I have ever seen. When you strip away the politics and the advocacy groups like AIPAC or FDD, or the Emergency Committee for Israel or the Israel Project, all groups with a political agenda, and you look at what the policy experts thought, it was an open and shut case.
BPR: Can the US realistically counter Iran’s regional ambitions after they gain access to additional resources?
JC: Any agreement with Iran was going to lift the sanctions, even if you had negotiated an agreement that completely bulldozed the entire nuclear complex of Iran, you would still lift the sanctions. If you object to lifting the sanctions because it will somehow aid Iran’s other activities, what you are really saying is that you are against any deal at all. In fact, the monies that will flow to Iran are much less than critics claim, and even after government officials repeatedly testified that the amount released would be under $50B, opponents continued to throw around false numbers, $100-150B. US officials testified that of the monies released, they felt very little of it would flow to groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and I believe that to be the case. Finally, the years of sanctions against Iran have crippled their economy, but there is no evidence they ever slowed the Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and there is no reason to think that keeping these sanctions in place would somehow prevent Iranian support for those groups.
BPR: But opponents say that opposition to the cash repatriation is not opposition to any deal, but rather, that conditions should have been placed on how those funds could be spent.
JC: How do you do that? How do you dictate to a government how they are to spend money you are releasing to them? Where has that ever been done? It’s never been done.
BPR: A main concern of opponents is the sunset clauses in the deal. Supporters say that the US will not have any reduced leverage when the sunsets hit. Is that true, since Iran will have access to much more capital by then and be tied into the global economy?
JC: Most arms control agreements end over a certain period. Even the non-proliferation treaty was negotiated for only 25 years. The very first strategic arms limitation treaty with the Soviet Union only last 5 years. Having an agreement that lasts 15, 20, 25 years is a remarkable achievement and it is longer than most agreements.
The ideal solution to the Iran problem is to eliminate Iran’s nuclear complex entirely. Many experts 10 years ago were in favor of such a solution, myself included. You want to have 0 centrifuges. We ran that play and it didn’t work. The Bush administration favored the 0 option, no capability ever. They tried threats of war, and increased sanctions, and the result was that Iran went from 0 centrifuges to 6000 at the end of the Bush administration, and 19,000 by the time the Obama administration started negotiations. The only negotiated solution you could get was one that allowed Iran some capability with limitations. The goal was then not to eliminate entirely Iran’s capability, but to make sure they couldn’t use that capability to build nuclear weapons.
That’s what this deal does. It rips out 2/3rds of Iran’s centrifuges, it forces them to ship out of the country almost their entire stockpile of uranium gas, they have to pull out the core of the plutonium reactor, drill it full of holes, and pour concrete into it, and they have to then agree to the most intrusive inspection regime ever negotiated, which runs for at least 25 years, at which point some of the terms lapse, but most of the inspections are like diamonds, they last forever. Iran is forever banned from producing or deploying a nuclear weapon.
In the course of doing this, at some point you have to relax the restrictions so that Iran can pursue a program for civilian use of nuclear technology. Some of the restrictions end at 10 years; it allows them for example to start developing more advanced centrifuges. But the limit on the number of centrifuges and the gas lasts for at least 15 years, so for 15 years you have a full 1-year breakout time. The key is what do we do between now and years 15, 20, 25? How can we take those restrictions on Iran and apply them to global standards, so that when Iran leaves one set of restrictions they actually enter a new global set of restraints that exert the same constraints on their nuclear program? There are experts already working on this. … There is not one treaty or agreement that solves the problem, rather what we’ve built up over the last 70 years of the nuclear age is overlapping, interconnected treaties, agreements, and security assurances that can slow, prevent, and reverse the nuclear threats. … It is a false claim that this is just kicking the nuclear can down the road.
How can we take those restrictions on Iran and apply them to global standards, so that when Iran leaves one set of restrictions they actually enter a new global set of restraints that exert the same constraints on their nuclear program?
BPR: Is snapback realistic and functional?
JC: Absolutely. This agreement allows one country, say the US, to re-impose the sanctions if it believes there is a violation, no matter what the UN security council does. I’ve never seen a provision written like this. If one country believes there a violation they can bring a resolution before the UN security council, and the resolution is in the form of a double negative, so if one country, say Russia, vetoes it, it has the effect of putting the sanctions back in place! It is remarkable. They built in enough flexibility so there can be selective application of sanctions to meet the perceived violation. You never want to be in a position where it is all or nothing, so if there is a minor violation you are afraid to call it because it would jeopardize the entire agreement.
BPR: Opponents say that the 24 days before the US can force access to a suspicious site is too much time, that there is not anytime anywhere inspections, and that the Administration crossed its so-called “red lines.” How do you respond?
JC: These charges are complete nonsense. They are polemical tricks rather than accurate assessments. All of Iran’s declared nuclear facilities are under 24/7 inspection. State of the art tools are being applied – fiber optic radio frequency seals, for example, that can detect any violation just as a home alarm system reports a break in to the police. The solution they developed for the inspections of suspect sites is a breakthrough in non-proliferation agreements. Up to this point, there has been no time limit on how long a country could block a challenged inspection. Disputes have gone on for years. UN inspectors have been trying to get into the Parchin facility for 10 years, this agreement limits any obstruction limits a challenge to any inspection for 24 days! In the inspection world that is the blink of an eye. Here is why. It is impossible in that short of a time to hide evidence of nuclear material experimentation. How do we know this? Because our nuclear scientists tested this provision out at secret facilities in the US, where Department of Energy nuclear scientists intentionally contaminated the site and then tried to clean it up in 24 days. They couldn’t do it. This is what you have to understand: the objections to this agreement are being raised almost exclusively by political opponents, but every sentence, every phrase was vetted by our best intelligence experts and nuclear scientists. We actually built Iranian model centrifuges and ran them at DOE laboratories to test out various formulas for how much uranium gas could be allowed, how many centrifuges could be allowed to operate, what quality the centrifuges could be. This is one of the most rigorous, detailed, non-proliferation agreements I have ever seen. It is a model for how you stop a country from misusing their nuclear technology.
The objections to this agreement are being raised almost exclusively by political opponents, but every sentence, every phrase was vetted by our best intelligence experts and nuclear scientists.
BPR: Do think this bill could lead to Saudi Arabia and other nations working to match the nuclear capacity left to Iran?
JC: This deal stops a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, it doesn’t start one. It makes an example of Iran. In fact, if there is another country in the Middle East that wants to have uranium enrichment capability, they will have to agree to the same onerous inspection regime that Iran has. I don’t believe there is any other country that is going to start up a uranium enrichment capability. There has been some loose talk from a few political officials in some of these governments, and a lot of wild claims raised by political opponents of the agreement, but there has been nothing actually done. There is no government that is moving to develop this kind of capability. Nothing, no sign, no research program, no procurement. And remember, if any country wants it, to have an uranium enrichment capability, they would have to buy it from the few countries who control this technology, and there would be strong opposition to the sale of technology to countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, etc. Any country that was investing in fuel technology at this point would be looked on as suspect.
BPR: Some members of congress have introduced legislation to bolster enforcement of the deal and shore up alliances. What is your position on this bill?
JC: Congressional oversight is going to be absolutely essential to the successful implementation of the Iran agreement. Congress needs to be involved. What is not needed is more sanctions, trick legislation to try to subvert the agreement before it is even implemented, or massive new military aid packages. None of that is necessary now. This agreement reduces the military threats in the Middle East, it doesn’t increase them. I don’t see any justification for increased military aid to any of our allies in the Middle East.
BPR: Iran claims that the biggest source of regional instability in the wake of this deal is Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Do you support that position? Should Israel be opened to international inspections, and forced to relinquish its arms?
JC: We don’t believe any country in the world needs nuclear weapons, and we are working to reduce and eventually eliminate everyone’s nuclear weapons. This includes Israel. But Israel is never going to agree to giving up its nuclear weapons as long as there are unresolved conflicts in the region, so the path to a nuclear free middle east has to go through a resolution of the conflicts now plaguing the area, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
BPR: Did you agree that the choice facing Congress was this deal or war? How do you substantiate that claim? Was a better deal possible?
JC: If we had walked away from this deal, General Brent Scowcroft said, we would walk away alone. One of the most important briefings that Senators got during their deliberations was the meeting they held with Washington based ambassadors of our partners in the negotiation: the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China all came and met with Senators, and they told them that it was this deal or nothing. No one was going to go back and negotiate a new deal because politicians killed this one. For the rest of the world this was not a controversial agreement. The only country in the world that opposed this agreement was Israel. Among our allies, including the conservative governments of the UK, France, and Germany, it was unanimous support. This is a damn good deal.
If the US tried to impose unilateral sanctions, even our closest allies would not conform to them, and you would be faced with a collapsing sanctions regime, an Iran that was now free of any restrictions on its nuclear program and doing business with the rest of the world. Iran would restart centrifuges, install new centrifuges, enrich more uranium, start operating plutonium production reaction, and that would put tremendous pressure on Israel or the US to consider military action. It would put us on a course for military conflict. That is why this deal became so much more than just an agreement on limiting nuclear technology. It was clearly a war and peace issue, and most objective observers saw it exactly that way.
Fueling concern about this was that most of the people who had supported a US invasion of Iraq were now against this agreement. They were now playing the same playbook, arguing there were no negotiations possible with this Middle East regime, that it was so evil that it could not be trusted, that it had links to terrorists that would threaten the US, and that in the end, only actions to overthrow this regime would solve the problem. Thankfully people understood what was going on here, rebuffed their attempts, and the agreement got overwhelming support in the national security establishment of the US, among our allies, and eventually, enough support in the US Congress to stop all efforts to kill the deal.
BPR: What was the reason for opposition if this deal was so universally recognized as a good?
JC: The opposition to this agreement came from three sources. One was the people who genuinely had doubts about the deal, as would be the case in any discussion of this magnitude, and were wrestling with the issues. But the majority of the opposition was political. The Republicans in Congress decided early on they would not give a Democratic President a major foreign policy victory. There was not one Republican vote for this agreement – that should tell you something. And they were very clear about it, they spoke quite frankly about blocking this agreement on political grounds. The third source was ideological opposition to any agreement with Iran. And that really fueled the fire here in a way that mere politics could not. Much of this stemmed from the position taken by the government of Israel, even though the Israeli military and intelligence officials disagreed with the assessment of Prime Minister Netanyahu. A lot of it came from supporters of the Likud party in the United States, like AIPAC and Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) and Israel Project and others, who were opposed to any agreement with Iran that would legitimize the government. Their goal was to overthrow the regime, not to come to a compromise with it. Those groups have a lot of political influence in the United States, a lot of donor money involved in it. They poured resources into this in a way that I have never seen in a national security debate. You think this is normal? It’s not. This is not the way we normally debate major national security issues.
BPR: All of the Republican candidates for President oppose this deal. What will happen to this deal if one of them becomes President? Can it be unwound?
JC: Presidents can pull out of treaties. George W Bush abrogated the anti-ballistic missile treaty, and he walked away from the agreed framework with North Korea, which allowed that country to then go build and detonate nuclear weapons. The next President can do this, but is that what they are really going to want to do? Will they want to lift all restraints on Iran’s nuclear program? Are they going to want to have Iran reinstall centrifuges, rebuild polonium production reactors, or enrich uranium to near weapons grade? Is that what they are going to want to do? I don’t think so. I find it inconceivable that the next President of the United States would jeopardize US national security in such a cavalier manner just to make a political point.
BPR: What is next for US foreign policy, with regards to Iran, non-proliferation, and your work? JC: There are three schools of thought now contending. The opponents to this agreement will continue their efforts to kill it, to slow or delay its implementation, and to put on a confrontation with Iran. The second approach has been articulated by Hillary Clinton, who embraces the deal, but wants a new policy of containment toward Iranian influence in the region. The President has laid out the third path, which is to explore the diplomatic openings that have been created by this deal. By solving the biggest disagreement we had with Iran, it opens the door to conversations with Iran about other security issues in the region: Syria, fighting ISIS, stabilizing Iraq, stabilizing Afghanistan. We don’t know if those conversations will prove fruitful. We do know they would have been impossible to have without this nuclear agreement. I think it is in the United States national security interest to be exploring those discussions, to see if there are ways we can cooperate with Iran to reduce some of the conflicts that are now ripping throughout the middle east.
Inspired by The Dish, BPR invited its readers to submit questions for Mother Jones Washington Bureau Chief David Corn. In the latest update in our series, a reader wonders about the contradiction of an American electorate that can elect Barack Obama but still perpetuate racial inequality through other policies.
Over 8 million people have signed up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), exceeding the White House’s enrollment goal for the end of March. However, this number isn’t indicative of the real impact of the healthcare program; many of these people already had insurance, and this figure doesn’t include those who are newly eligible for Medicaid. But in an environment where the media’s narrative reigns supreme, hitting the goal is certainly good news for President Barack Obama’s administration.
I have had some firsthand experience with Obamacare — and it’s been mixed. After starting graduate school in 2012, I was able to go back on my parents’ insurance for a year thanks to the ACA. When that opportunity expired, the Obamacare insurance exchanges were still a year away, so I had to buy my own individual insurance. My only option was Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island (BCBSRI). BCBSRI offered subsidies to low-income customers, which I qualified for as a graduate student with limited income, so I signed myself up for one of their plans.
When Rhode Island’s exchange, HealthSource RI, went online, I was naturally curious. Insurance eligibility and subsidies are based on estimated yearly income, which is difficult for a student to measure. My current income is almost nothing, although I (hopefully) will be making more after graduation. I entered my income level as a student and was told that the exchange would have to verify my information.
In the meantime, I was informed that BCBSRI would discontinue the plan that I had, but it would continue to subsidize those ineligible for subsidies under Obamacare. Based on my most recent tax return, I qualified for BCBSRI’s subsidy, so I decided to stick with the company, though I had to choose a different plan. I ended up paying $20 more per month for insurance, and for a plan I didn’t like as much — my old plan covered one dental cleaning a year, while my new one did not.
The story does not end there. I was told in February of this year that I had been automatically enrolled in the Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island. The exchange had finally verified my current income without ever informing me by email or phone. I was eligible for free insurance under Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Despite being relatively happy with BCBSRI and concerned about the quality of insurance under Medicaid, I decided to cancel my BCBSRI insurance and enroll in Medicaid.
Here are some takeaways from my experience.
Obamacare can be confusing. Because my insurance is only a stopgap, and because I have access to some health services through Brown University, I didn’t spend a lot of time researching my options. Still, I think of myself as a fairly savvy consumer, and this process was confusing for me at times. For instance, it took me a while to figure out that the Neighborhood Health Plan was actually Medicaid. I’ve had other friends tell me that they didn’t realize that the visible rates on the exchange included tax credits, and they would have to pay more upfront before receiving a bigger refund at tax time.
I also wasn’t able to keep the plan I liked. This is a fair criticism by Republicans — I was going to pay more for a plan that I wasn’t as happy with before qualifying for Medicaid. Despite this, my view is colored by my overall inclination to support Obamacare and my ability to afford health insurance. However, I’d like to think that I’m not alone in putting aside my annoyance in light of the laudable aims of Obamacare.
Plan-switching aside, the system is also hard to means-test. I’m not sure that I’m the kind of person Obama envisioned when he signed the Medicaid expansion, and I bet the fact that I get Medicaid must drive some Republicans crazy. But means-testing, used to determine eligibility for care, is difficult to do, especially when based solely on income. Expanding an entitlement usually means that more people who probably don’t deserve that entitlement will get it — but so will a greater number of people who actually need it.
Obamacare also has more options for individual insurance. Okay, technically BCBSRI is the only insurer besides the Medicaid insurers (Neighborhood Health Plan and UnitedHealthcare). But with the online healthcare exchange, it’s easier to see which plans you’re eligible for and to compare prices of these plans. The Rhode Island exchange itself is pretty good. While I’m still miffed that there wasn’t better communication about my eligibility, HealthSource RI was very reliable and easy to navigate. Compared to the debacle of the national website, it seemed largely glitch-free.
What is my verdict on Obamacare? It does some good things, and it will continue to get better at doing them. Some reforms, such as not allowing insurance companies to discriminate based on preexisting conditions, are here to stay — and that’s a good thing. But more fundamental reform is needed. If there’s one thing that the Supreme Court case Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. — in which an employer refused to provide contraception coverage in employee health plans — demonstrates, it’s that letting employers dictate the terms of health insurance coverage is ludicrous. The tie between employment and health insurance needs to be broken.
Honestly, I’m not sure exactly what other reforms the healthcare system needs, but I am certain that there are many that I, as someone who is neither a medical sector professional nor a professional policy maker, am unaware of. A friend in medical school once told me that healthcare should either be publicly provided or be a truly competitive market. Most other countries give the public sector a more active role in healthcare. However, a more competitive market could potentially force consumers to confront the true cost of medical care and make more informed choices, driving down aggregate healthcare spending. I can personally attest that Obamacare nudged us from an unacceptable status quo towards a more reasonable system, but nevertheless, there is still a long way to go.
The year President George W. Bush left office Jane Mayer published “The Dark Side,” a scathing, revelatory piece on the Bush administration’s unscrupulous detention and interrogation policies during the administration’s War on Terror. Mayer’s account reports the dubious legal foundations for the policies and contains detailed descriptions of the numerous human rights abuses the executive branch justified in the name of national security.
Another practice that has spawned from the post-9/11 hyper-intelligence frenzy is extraordinary renditions, or the capture and transfer of ‘illegal enemy combatants’ to countries known to permit torture.
The most commonly cited and well-known illustration of the ethical misconduct of the Bush administration during the War on Terror is found at the U.S. detention center located at Guantanamo Bay. After the years following its establishment in 2002, Gitmo was considered to be a prison existing “outside of the law,” thus barring prisoners from being entitled to the treatment typically guaranteed at the hands of U.S. authorities. Guantanamo Bay’s existence has been widely perceived as a glaring affront to fundamental American values. And though Gitmo attracted well-earned public attention – even forcing 2008 presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain to stake positions on the issue – it was only one of the various instances in which the Bush administration authorized programs of “enhanced interrogation,” that to many amounted to torture or at the least, inhuman and degrading treatment of wartime detainees.
Another practice that has spawned from the post-9/11 hyper-intelligence frenzy is extraordinary renditions, or the capture and transfer of ‘illegal enemy combatants’ to countries known to permit torture. The authorization of the practice indicates that the highest levels of the executive branch condoned the extrajudicial abduction of foreigners. It has resulted in the kidnapping and torture of innocent individuals for years on end, and even the murder of some illegal enemy combatants.
The most recent news in renditions, which continue to be practiced in the Obama administration, is that the Italian High Court upheld the guilty verdict of three American CIA agents for the kidnapping of the then Imam of Milan, Osama Moustafa Hassam Nasr, or Abu Omar. Omar was abducted from Milan in October 2003 and transferred to Egypt where he claims he was tortured and abused. The three Americans are among 26 agents to be found guilty in absentia by the Italian court, after the U.S. government refused to extradite them to Italy for trial. The decision, which was released on March 11, is thus far the only example of prosecution against the Bush administration for the extraordinary rendition program.
President Obama sat down for an interview – or rather, comedy skit – with Zach Galifianakis on his web series “Between Two Ferns.” Between questions like “So, which country were you rooting for in the Winter Olympics?” the president plugged Obamacare and Healthcare.gov.
Whatever your feelings about the president, one thing is clear: the man is funny. While certainly scripted, the segment managed to balance awkwardness and humor, while also staying on message. Traffic to Healthcare.gov was reportedly up 40% after the clip was posted. Obamacare needs young people to sign up so that risk pools are balanced between younger-and-healthier enrollees and older-and-sicker enrollees. The Obama administration set targets for the percentage of young adult enrollees (18-34) at 40%, while in January that percentage was only at 24%. So Obama’s appearance was good targeted marketing. And if Obama can ingratiate himself with some more millennials – who identify as Democrats over Republicans 50% to 34% – this bodes well for the future of the Democratic Party.
There has been a critique from Republicans that Obama’s appearance was poorly timed and demeaning to the office he holds. Bill O’Reilly noted that “some believe it was demeaning,” while arguing that the president looks weak during the showdown with Russia. O’Reilly concludes with the statement “Abe Lincoln would not have done it.” By the standards of conservative critiques, it was actually pretty mild stuff.
I think this criticism has some merit. Obama has shown an affinity for nontraditional media, from slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon to snapping selfies with Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson. As David Graham in the Atlantic points out, these media appearances rarely include hard-hitting questions, while still allowing the president to get his message out. Critics of the president, especially from the left, like to complain that he doesn’t effectively use one of the main tools of the presidency, the bully pulpit. While talking with Galifianakis won’t pressure Republicans to pass immigration reform, it’s still an example of the bully pulpit at work by a president desperate to promote his main policy achievement. But it’s still a little weird to see a president on the set of a late-night talks how, never mind a web comedy bit.
The U.S. is unique in that its chief executive and its figurehead are the same person.
The U.S. is unique in that its chief executive and its figurehead are the same person. Other countries have a separate president (figurehead) and prime minister (chief executive). Former monarchies like England often have royalty that can assume ceremonial duties, leaving poor Prime Minister David Cameron to be berated in the House of Commons. This is an awkward mix in the United States, and it’s why John McCain can call Obama “feckless” for his foreign policy in a press conference, but Joe Wilson was widely condemned for shouting “You lie!” during a State of the Union. Sometimes the presidency is a solemn office deserving of deference, sometimes not.
Clearly there are some standards for where a president should and shouldn’t appear. President Obama can introduce the Seth MacFarlane-produced educational show Cosmos, but probably won’t make a guest appearance on Family Guy. These standards are changing with the times and the technology. In the long-run, Obama’s legacy won’t include his appearance on “Between Two Ferns.” But it’s worth remembering how multifaceted an office the presidency truly is: salesperson, party leader, commander-in-chief, diplomat, and national symbol. No wonder they all go gray so quickly.