Obama supports protests: ‘American values are at stake’

Politico reports: Barack Obama spoke out Monday afternoon against his successor — and in support of the protests opposing President Donald Trump — with a spokesman saying the former president thinks they’re “citizens exercising their Constitutional right to assemble, organize and have their voices heard by their elected officials is exactly what we expect to see when American values are at stake.”

Obama, who left office vowing to uphold the presidential tradition of not criticizing his successor but also promising to speak out when he saw core values under threat by Trump, made it all of 10 days before releasing a statement following Friday’s executive order that temporarily halted the nation’s refugee program and severely restricted immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

Obama flew to California immediately after the inauguration and a farewell speech to staff at Andrews Air Force Base, where he called Trump’s presidency “not a period,” but “a comma in the continuing story of building America.” He later flew to the Caribbean. He has still not returned to Washington, where he is expected to live for at least the next year and a half.

When a reporter at the daily press briefing on Monday raised the existence of the statement without providing detail, White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s response was only “Okay, thank you.”

The statement from Obama’s office (notably not in his voice directly) is extraordinary compared to the usual deference between presidents, but reflects both the existential threat that Obama truly believes Trump poses to the country and a Democratic Party brimming with anti-Trump energy but lacking any clear leaders. [Continue reading…]

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Edward Snowden’s asylum in Russia extended opening option of citizenship

The New York Times reports: A day after President Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, the Russian government clarified on Wednesday the fate of Edward J. Snowden, the other main source of secrets about United States surveillance in recent years.

Mr. Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who was granted asylum in Russia in 2013, will be allowed to remain in the country for “a couple more years,” Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, said on Facebook.

He and his supporters have been campaigning for a pardon from Mr. Obama, but the chances of clemency appear to be vanishingly small given that his name did not appear on a list of pardons on Tuesday. [Continue reading…]

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Obama sets date for Chelsea Manning’s release; Julian Assange’s extradition still in question

Time reports: Five days before President Obama commuted Chelsea Manning’s prison sentence, WikiLeaks tweeted that the group’s editor-in-chief Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the U.S. if Manning was given clemency.

Obama’s decision means Manning will be released in May instead of in 2045, when her sentence was originally due to end, the New York Times reports. [Continue reading…]

So far, no word from Assange on whether he intends to fulfill his promise.

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Obama hoped to transform the world. It transformed him

Adam Shatz writes: At his final news conference as president, Mr. Obama expressed anguish over the fall of Aleppo, but insisted that his Syria policy had been guided by his sense of “what’s the right thing to do for America.”

It may well have been; American lives were spared. But noninterference created a vacuum that autocrats like President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey were happy to fill. What’s more, Mr. Obama’s understanding of American interests in Syria was more restrictively drawn than one might have expected from a man so worldly, someone who had always stressed the interdependence of the global community and the moral burdens of “what it means to share this world in the 21st century.” Who governs Syria may not be a core American interest, but the country’s apocalyptic splintering is another matter. The effect of Mr. Obama’s caution, as much as Moscow’s belligerent resolve, was to help prolong the war.

The consequences of Syria’s disintegration have spread far beyond its borders. Not only has the crisis placed dangerous strains on neighboring states, but it has emboldened the far right in Europe, which has played on fears about Islam and terrorism in its campaign against immigration and the European Union. Nor has the United States been unscathed by what Mr. Obama recently called the “tug of tribalism”: Donald J. Trump owes his election to it. Mr. Trump is an open admirer of tribal politicians like Mr. Putin, Mr. Erdogan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, not least because they remind him of himself with their love of the mob, contempt for liberal elites and penchant for conspiracy theory.

In his 2009 speech in Cairo, Mr. Obama imagined Muslim and Western democrats working together in partnership, overcoming borders imposed by war, prejudice and mistrust for the sake of a common future. Instead, the very prospect of a common future, of global interdependence, has been jeopardized by the emergence of an illiberal world of tribes without flags. Despite the best of intentions, and for all his fine words, Mr. Obama became one of the midwives of this dangerous and angry new world, where his enlightened cosmopolitanism increasingly looks like an anachronism. [Continue reading…]

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WikiLeaks used to be a champion for transparency. Now it champions Donald Trump

Jack Smith IV writes: Never mind that it was revealed today that Chelsea Manning — who went to prison for giving documents to WikiLeaks — could be pardoned by President Barack Obama, WikiLeaks is busy discrediting an attack against President-elect Donald Trump.

When BuzzFeed published an unverified, document alleging the Russians have a secret tape of Trump watching sex workers engage in “golden showers,” WikiLeaks came out swinging to defend Trump.


“WikiLeaks has a 100% record of accurate authentication,” the group said on its Twitter account. “We do not endorse Buzzfeed‘s publication of a document which is clearly bogus.”

Buzzfeed has taken a lot of flack for publishing the document, but WikiLeaks’ contention isn’t merely that the information contained in it is unverified. Instead, they’re claiming it’s illegitimate — an attempt to discredit a report which might hurt Trump.

WikiLeaks’ patently strange attack on others publishing leaked documents in circulation among Washington power brokers comes on the heels of a bad night for founder Julian Assange. An “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit drove Assange to silence over his betrayal of WikiLeaks’ core values and the possibility that WikiLeaks’ is technically compromised at the foundational level. And it’s just the latest episode of ethical malfeasance which appears to be moving WikiLeaks away from its mission of asking “hard questions of government” and toward the mercenary work of propping up political candidates.

The AMA session was a disaster. Diehard Assange supporters held him to account for why he never published damning material on Republican candidates — something a lot of people have noticed — and why he won’t be transparent about his sources for the Democratic National Committee hack.

The most damning allegation in the exchange came when someone asked Assange to verify he was still in control of WikiLeaks by asking him to send a message using his private encryption keys, a rudimentary task. Assange refused, suggesting to the community that the group’s founder has lost control of WikiLeaks at the fundamental, technical level.

“You are on record as indicating absence of the key is a signal of compromise, and now you refuse to prove you have the key,” one of his accusers wrote.

Finally, Assange just stopped taking the hard questions.

“Put some effort into this bloody AMA Julian,” one Reddit user said after it was clear Assange wouldn’t address the most troubling allegations. “We’re a large community that for the most part, had your back.

This sentiment is the final resting place of a truth long coming: Assange’s coalition of support has largely crumbled, leaving behind only establishment conservatives — who once compared him to al-Qaida, and wanted him hunted across the globe as a terrorist. [Continue reading…]

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The cost of stepping back so others could step in

Joyce Karam writes that Syria is the epicenter of Barack Obama’s train wreck in the Middle East: Even before the Arab Spring started in 2011, Obama’s larger doctrine for the Middle East and North Africa was defined by the “US stepping back so others can step in,” and doing so “regional actors can rise to the occasion and take responsibility,” says Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The “leading from behind” approach shaped the early thinking of the Obama administration by prioritizing the withdrawal from Iraq, cutting civil society aid programs to Egypt, allowing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to take a lead role in Yemen, and later leading to Russia’s intervention in Syria.

There was a small caveat that the Obama team missed: This approach “doesn’t work in the Middle East,” says Hamid, because “the US has the misfortune of having bad actors in the region, so while it’s true that others stepped in, they were countries that didn’t share our interests or values.”

Frederick Hof, director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, says Obama’s main pitfall was the Syrian war. Hof, who served as a special adviser on Syria and coordinator for regional affairs at the State Department in Obama’s first term, tells Arab News that Obama’s failure over Syria “transcends the Middle East.”

The former US official says: “By combining florid rhetoric with dogged inaction in the face of civilian slaughter in Syria, Obama facilitated a humanitarian catastrophe that spilled into Europe, undermining the continent’s political unity and compromising its trans-Atlantic relationship with the US.”

Hof blames Obama’s “enormous gap between talk and action” in Syria, by calling on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down in 2011 without a Plan B. It was also by drawing a red line for the Syrian regime over the use of chemical weapons, which Obama altered in 2013.

These levers “emboldened a Russian president to alter European boundaries and to intervene militarily in Syria… and are behind the loss of confidence in Washington by long-time regional partners of the US,” says Hof. [Continue reading…]

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In President Obama’s last year in office, the United States dropped 26,171 bombs

Micah Zenko and Jennifer Wilson write: In President Obama’s last year in office, the United States dropped 26,171 bombs in seven countries. This estimate is undoubtedly low, considering reliable data is only available for airstrikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, and a single “strike,” according to the Pentagon’s definition, can involve multiple bombs or munitions. In 2016, the United States dropped 3,027 more bombs — and in one more country, Libya — than in 2015. [Continue reading…]

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Obama vs Trump — academic journals vs Twitter

The Associated Press reports: President Barack Obama cast the adoption of clean energy in the U.S. as “irreversible,” putting pressure Monday on President-elect Donald Trump not to back away from a core strategy to fight climate change.

Obama, penning an opinion article in the journal Science, sought to frame the argument in a way that might appeal to the president-elect: in economic terms. He said the fact that the cost and polluting power of energy have dropped at the same time proves that fighting climate change and spurring economic growth aren’t mutually exclusive.

“Despite the policy uncertainty that we face, I remain convinced that no country is better suited to confront the climate challenge and reap the economic benefits of a low-carbon future than the United States,” Obama wrote.

He peppered his article with subtle references to Trump, noting that the debate about future climate policy was “very much on display during the current presidential transition.”

As he prepares to transfer power to Trump, Obama has turned to an unusual format to make his case to Trump to preserve his policies: academic journals. In the last week, Obama also published articles under his name in the Harvard Law Review about his efforts on criminal justice reform and in the New England Journal of Medicine defending his health care law, which Republicans are poised to repeal.

The articles reflect an effort by Obama to pre-empt the arguments Trump or Republicans are likely to employ as they work to roll back Obama’s key accomplishments in the coming years. Yet it’s unclear whether Trump or the GOP could be swayed by scholarly arguments in relatively obscure publications. [Continue reading…]

At tomorrow’s press conference, Donald Trump is sure to be asked for clarification on questions raised by his recent tweets.

On the other hand, “Did you read any of President Obama’s recent articles in Science, the Harvard Law Review, or the New England Journal of Medicine, Mr Trump?” is an unlikely question.

But on the off-chance something along those lines does come up, Trump is likely to wave it off with something like this: “I’m happy for President Obama to write for academics while I work for the American people.”

It would be understandable if Obama feels like he’s served his time and is now entitled to a quiet life, but I hope he does the opposite — that he doesn’t withdraw to an ivory tower but instead lends his voice (more than his pen) to active and engaged opposition to what promises to be the worst presidency in American history. Writing for academic journals, however, is preaching to the choir.

Scientific challenges against an anti-science president and an anti-science political party are going to get parried by the same expression of mock humility — “I’m not a scientist, but…” — a line that resonates well in a scientifically illiterate nation.

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If Donald Trump targets journalists, thank Obama

James Risen writes: If Donald J. Trump decides as president to throw a whistle-blower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the F.B.I. to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power: Barack Obama.

Mr. Trump made his animus toward the news media clear during the presidential campaign, often expressing his disgust with coverage through Twitter or in diatribes at rallies. So if his campaign is any guide, Mr. Trump seems likely to enthusiastically embrace the aggressive crackdown on journalists and whistle-blowers that is an important yet little understood component of Mr. Obama’s presidential legacy.

Criticism of Mr. Obama’s stance on press freedom, government transparency and secrecy is hotly disputed by the White House, but many journalism groups say the record is clear. Over the past eight years, the administration has prosecuted nine cases involving whistle-blowers and leakers, compared with only three by all previous administrations combined. It has repeatedly used the Espionage Act, a relic of World War I-era red-baiting, not to prosecute spies but to go after government officials who talked to journalists.

Under Mr. Obama, the Justice Department and the F.B.I. have spied on reporters by monitoring their phone records, labeled one journalist an unindicted co-conspirator in a criminal case for simply doing reporting and issued subpoenas to other reporters to try to force them to reveal their sources and testify in criminal cases. [Continue reading…]

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In the age of Trump nobody knows exactly what is going on

The New York Times reports: President-elect Donald J. Trump edged away on Thursday from his dismissive stance on American assessments of Russian hacking, saying he would meet with intelligence officials next week “to be updated on the facts” after the Obama administration announced sanctions against Moscow.

In a brief written statement, Mr. Trump’s first response to President Obama’s sweeping action against Russia, the president-elect reiterated his call for “our country to move on to bigger and better things.” But he said that, “in the interest of our country and its great people,” he would get the briefing “nevertheless.”

The statement to some extent echoed his remarks late Wednesday, when he was asked at his Mar-a-Lago estate about Mr. Obama’s plan to take action against Russia. In otherwise opaque comments, Mr. Trump appeared to concede the need to make computers more secure.

“I think we ought to get on with our lives,” he said. “I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what is going on. We have speed, we have a lot of other things, but I’m not sure we have the kind, the security we need.” [Continue reading…]

How to create a distraction: Give short vague answers to questions while standing alongside a flag-waving Don King.

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With new monuments in Nevada, Utah, Obama adds to his environmental legacy

The Washington Post reports: President Obama on Wednesday created new national monuments in a sacred tribal site in southeastern Utah and in a swath of Nevada desert, after years of political fights over the fate of the areas.

The designations further cement Obama’s environmental legacy as one of the most consequential — and contentious — in presidential history. He has invoked his executive power to create national monuments 29 times during his tenure, establishing or expanding protections for more than 553 million acres of federal lands and waters.

Environmental groups have praised the conservation efforts, but critics say they amount to a federal land grab. Some worry that the new designations could fuel another armed protest by antigovernment forces inspired by the Cliven Bundy family, such as the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon this year.

Obama’s newest designations include two sprawling Western landscapes that are under threat, yet also where local residents are deeply divided on how the land should be used.

In Utah, where the federal government owns about two-thirds of the land, the designation of another 1.35 million acres to create the Bears Ears National Monument undoubtedly will prove polarizing.

For the first time, Native American tribes will offer management input for a national monument through an inter-tribal commission. Five tribes that often have been at odds — the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Pueblo of Zuni — will together have responsibility for protecting an area that contains well-preserved remnants of ancestral Pueblo sites dating back more than 3,500 years.

“We have always looked to Bears Ears as a place of refuge, as a place where we can gather herbs and medicinal plants, and a place of prayer and sacredness,” Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, said in a call with reporters Wednesday. “These places — the rocks, the wind, the land — they are living, breathing things that deserve timely and lasting protection.” [Continue reading…]

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John Kerry, in a final, pointed plea, will outline a vision of Mideast peace

The New York Times reports: In a last-chance effort to shape the outlines of a Middle East peace deal, Secretary of State John Kerry is to outline in a speech on Wednesday the Obama administration’s vision of a final Israeli-Palestinian accord based on bitter lessons learned from an effort that collapsed in 2014.

A senior State Department official said that Mr. Kerry, who will be out of office in less than a month and no longer in a position to negotiate any deal, will use his remarks to confront Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who has charged that the United States “orchestrated” a United Nations Security Council resolution last week condemning Israel’s continued building of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The United States abstained from the resolution, infuriating Mr. Netanyahu.

The speech, the latest salvo in a final conflict between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama as Donald J. Trump prepares to assume the presidency, will make the case that “the vote was not unprecedented” and that Mr. Obama’s decision “did not blindside Israel.” Mr. Kerry, the official said, would cite other cases in which Washington officials had allowed similar votes under previous presidents.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a coming speech, said Mr. Kerry would also argue that, with the notable exception of Israel, there was a “complete international consensus” against further settlements in areas that might ultimately be the subject of negotiations.

At this late date, weeks ahead of the inauguration of Mr. Trump, who openly lobbied on Israel’s side against the United Nations resolution, it is unclear what Mr. Kerry hopes to achieve from the speech, other than to leave a set of principles that he believes will one day emerge as the basis for talks, if and when they resume.

Mr. Kerry, the official said, has long wanted to give a speech outlining an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal but was held back by White House officials, who saw it as unnecessary pressure on Israel that would anger Mr. Netanyahu. But that objection was lifted last week as Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry agreed the time had come to abstain on the United Nations resolution. That decision led to one of the biggest breaches yet in the rocky American-Israeli relationship during the Obama years. [Continue reading…]

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UN vote will strengthen the boycott movement

Joseph Dana writes: After two decades of relentless settlement building and domination over Palestinian life, Israel has rendered its footprint on the West Bank indistinguishable from the terrain itself. From street signs to motorways, the dividing line between where Israel ends and the West Bank begins has slowly been erased on the ground. The only borders are walls, checkpoints and fences – none of which correspond to the internationally recognised demarcation line that resulted from the 1967 war.

Pessimism is a tempting reaction to just about everything in Israel and Palestine these days. So what could a toothless United Nations resolution do to reverse the years of colonisation? There have been other resolutions and they never forced any real change. What is different today?

A reasonable question, yet there is some hope on the horizon, even if the short-term future looks bleak. Throughout Israel’s colonisation project in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Tel Aviv has been shielded from biting backlash by the United States in forums such as the UN.

Late on Friday afternoon, however, a crack in the partnership appeared. The US abstained on a Security Council resolution that reaffirmed the illegality of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The resolution itself was nothing new; it merely confirmed decades of international consensus on the conflict. In fact, many analysts felt it was far too little, far too late.

After eight years of snubbing and inappropriate behaviour from Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US president Barack Obama could have done much more to assert the illegality of Israel’s actions against Palestinians to send a clear message to Israel as to who the superpower in the alliance is. But Mr Obama acted with restraint, and that might prove to be a good thing in the long run. [Continue reading…]

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Obama bans drilling in parts of the Atlantic and the Arctic

The New York Times reports: President Obama announced on Tuesday what he called a permanent ban on offshore oil and gas drilling along wide areas of the Arctic and the Atlantic Seaboard as he tried to nail down an environmental legacy that cannot quickly be reversed by Donald J. Trump.

Mr. Obama invoked an obscure provision of a 1953 law, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which he said gives him the authority to act unilaterally. While some presidents have used that law to temporarily protect smaller portions of federal waters, Mr. Obama’s declaration of a permanent drilling ban from Virginia to Maine on the Atlantic and along much of Alaska’s coast is breaking new ground. The declaration’s fate will almost certainly be decided by the federal courts.

“It’s never been done before,” said Patrick Parenteau, a professor of environmental law at the University of Vermont. “There is no case law on this. It’s uncharted waters.”

The move — considered creative by supporters and abusive by opponents — is one of many efforts by Mr. Obama to protect the environmental policies he can from a successor who has vowed to roll them back. The president, in concert with United Nations leaders, rushed countries to ratify the Paris Agreement on climate change, putting the multinational accord into force in record time, before Mr. Trump’s inauguration.

Environmentalists are already drawing comparisons between Mr. Obama’s use of the 1953 law to ban new drilling to what critics and opponents called his novel and audacious efforts to craft new climate change regulations: He turned to an obscure, rarely used provision in the 1970 Clean Air Act to write sweeping regulations that would require states to shift their electricity systems from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. [Continue reading…]

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Barack Obama’s presidency will be defined by his failure to face down Assad

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes: In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic magazine earlier this year, President Obama said he was “very proud” of the moment in 2013 when, against the “overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom”, he decided not to honour his own “red line”, allowing Assad to escape accountability for a chemical attack that had killed more than 1,400 civilians.

Obama may be alone in this judgment. A year earlier, seemingly on a whim, he had set a red line on the use of chemical weapons at a time when none were being used. The red line was, in effect, a green light to conventional killing. But the regime called Obama’s bluff – and, predictably, he backed down. No longer fearing punishment, the regime escalated its tactics.

Nearly four times as many people were killed in the two years after the chemical attack as had died in the two years before. Obama’s abandonment discredited Syria’s nationalist opposition and empowered the Islamists. It helped Isis emerge from the shadows to establish itself as a major force. Together, these developments triggered a mass exodus that would displace over half the country’s population. And as the overflow from this deluge started trickling into Europe, it sparked a xenophobic backlash that has empowered the far right across the west.

These, however, weren’t the only consequences of Obama’s retreat. The inaction also created a vacuum that was filled by Iran and Russia. Emboldened by his unopposed advances into Ukraine and Syria, Putin has been probing weaknesses in the west’s military and political resolve – from provocative flights by Bear bombers along the Cornwall coast to direct interference in the US elections. [Continue reading…]

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Assad’s lesson from Aleppo: Force works, with few consequences

The New York Times reports: For months, the bodies have been piling up in eastern Aleppo as the buildings have come down, pulverized by Syrian and Russian jets, burying residents who could not flee in avalanches of bricks and mortar.

And now it is almost over, not because diplomats reached a deal in Geneva, but because President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his foreign allies have won the city. Cold, hungry and scarred by the deaths of loved ones, tens of thousands of civilians and fighters are awaiting buses to take them from their homes to uncertain futures.

It is not the first victory that Mr. Assad has secured with overwhelming force in the Syrian conflict. But his subjugation of eastern Aleppo has echoed across the Middle East and beyond, rattling alliances, proving the effectiveness of violence and highlighting the reluctance of many countries, perhaps most notably the United States, to get involved.

President Obama, on Friday at his final news conference of the year, acknowledged that the nearly six-year-old war in Syria had been among the hardest issues he has faced, and that the world was “united in horror” at the butchery in Aleppo. But Mr. Obama — who came into office committed to reducing America’s military entanglements in the Middle East — also defended his decision not to intervene more forcefully.

To do otherwise, he said, would have required the United States to be “all in and willing to take over Syria.”

The message for autocratic leaders in the region and elsewhere is that force works — and brings few consequences, said Maha Yahya, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

The lesson for the victims of that force is that they are on their own. [Continue reading…]

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