The Buying of the President

Half a century ago, journalist Joe McGinniss authored The Selling of the President, a brilliant exposé about the unabashed marketing of successful 1968 presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon. The image on the book jacket perhaps said it all: the candidate’s smiling face emblazoned on a pack of cigarettes.

The extent of the shameless packaging of a national politician, indeed, a former vice president running for the White House, was a revelation to most Americans. It reflected a much darker view of the American presidential election process than had been portrayed in Theodore H. White’s iconic series of books, The Making of the President.

How quaint that innocence lost appears today. U.S. presidential elections have become garish media spectacles. It is a bazaar of candidates, consultants, pundits, and assorted hucksters that lasts a full two years—half the length of an elected president’s term in office. Every four years, the American people endure by far the longest and most expensive election of any nation in the world—until the next one. The 2016 race for the White House is the wildest, most expensive money and media circus ever.

The next president, aided by thousands of paid and unpaid staffers, consultants, volunteers, and incessant expensive advertisements, will have raised and spent an unprecedented sum in the neighborhood of $1 billion. Most of that money comes from the very wealthiest Americans, a tiny percentage of the overall population. In January 2015, the conservative Republican billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries and their political allies announced their intention to spend an astonishing $889 million in the 2016 presidential and congressional elections. That is more than twice what the Koch network spent in 2012; it is about equal to the election spending of the Republican and Democratic parties combined.

According to the New York Times, in the first months of the 2016 presidential campaign cycle, 158 families and companies they own or control contributed $176 million to candidates in both major parties. “Not since before Watergate have so few people and businesses provided so much early money in a campaign,” the Times reported. Most of this money was delivered through channels that are now legal thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision in 2010 that enables unlimited spending in support of campaigns and other political causes by corporations and nonprofits alike.

The $176 million represented nearly half of all of the “early money” raised in the 2016 presidential election campaign. These donors, the Times noted, “are overwhelmingly white, rich, older and male, in a nation that is being remade by the young, by women, and by black and brown voters. Across a sprawling country, they reside in an archipelago of wealth, exclusive neighborhoods dotting a handful of cities and towns.”

The so-called “wealth primary” has become a critical factor in the outcome of presidential elections. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, in every election since the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974 and the election reform laws that followed, the major party White House candidate who raised the most money the year before any primary or caucus votes had been cast, and been eligible for federal matching funds, became his party’s nominee for the general election. But the post-Watergate reforms about money in politics began to unravel in 2000, when Republican George W. Bush declined to participate in the presidential campaign matching-funds system and his $100,000-and-up donors also began to blatantly number their campaign checks, so that they and their industry would receive “credit” after the election for the campaign cash contributed. The Democratic Party presidential nominees (in 2004 Senator John Kerry and Barack Obama in 2008) soon thereafter also opted out of the reform system, and the financial floodgates have been wide open ever since.

The bottom line is that the candidate raising the most financial contributions in the year before the actual voting won the nomination of his party every time. The candidate with the most and largest contributions not coincidentally also usually generates the most media advertising, the most corresponding news media coverage “buzz” and public perceptions about the candidate’s “momentum,” and eventually the most votes.

By the end of 2015, the top fundraisers in the 2016 White House race were Democrat Hillary Clinton with $94 million and Republican Jeb Bush with $133 million. Clinton, the First Lady during former President Bill Clinton’s two terms in office, a U.S. senator from New York between 2001 and 2009, and secretary of state in the first Barack Obama administration, correspondingly led her next closest primary opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, by sixteen percentage points in opinion surveys. However, the declining fortunes of Jeb Bush, the son of the forty-first president and brother of the forty-third president, reflected the exception that proves the rule; although the early frontrunner in mid-2015, as of January 2016 he was polling sixth in a race crowded with more than a dozen Republican hopefuls.

The commanding ten- to twenty-point lead taken by Republican candidate Donald Trump through most of the second half of 2015 indicates that, whether won through paid organizing and advertising or generated free of charge, media buzz is an essential factor determining the prospects of politicians seeking the American presidency. The pugnacious billionaire businessman and television personality eschewed traditional fundraising and spent relatively little of his own money, around $6 million, by the end of 2015. At that point, he had hardly paid for any political advertising. Yet his outspoken and often provocative public statements—calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, proposing a ban on Muslims entering the United States, claiming that thousands of New Jersey Muslims cheered the September 11 attacks, debunking the prisoner-of-war heroism of Republican Senator John McCain—enabled Trump to dominate front pages, news broadcasts, and social media feeds for months. The result was massive public attention and a corresponding lead in opinion surveys. 

Subverted by Greed

American politics is now a game for the very rich. Candidates seek to buy their ways into office, with campaign donations from wealthy individuals, corporations, and interest groups, or, as in the case of Trump, with personal fortunes and the public platforms such fortunes afford. The relatively picturesque days of “just plain folks” like Abraham Lincoln and Harry S. Truman running for office, winning, and going to Washington are pretty much over. There won’t likely ever be a sequel to Frank Capra’s 1939 movie classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; politics today is more like a Stephen King horror film. Wealthy and powerful interests have hijacked democracy in the United States, in the view of most Americans, according to several recent polls.

According to a New York Times survey, 84 percent of Americans think “money has too much influence” in American politics and that “most of the time,” winning candidates specifically help their campaign donors once in office. Many people believe that the increasing cynicism about politics has led to voter disenchantment and disengagement. For example, voter turnout in the 2014 congressional and state elections was the lowest since World War II, just 36.4 percent.

Politics and campaigns have become vastly more expensive. Fewer and fewer folks of modest middle-class means can afford to take a year or two off from their daily lives and mount a robust, well-funded campaign for political office. Eight of the last ten U.S. presidents were millionaires before they were elected, and roughly half of the 535 members of Congress today are millionaires—an irony, given that only about 5 percent of their constituents can claim such wealth.

Who is making by far the most money from this exclusive game? Major media corporations, that’s who. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Professor Robert W. McChesney wrote a seminal book in 1999 describing this phenomenon, aptly entitled: Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times. A few years later, in 2003, I had the chance to discuss the problem with former President Jimmy Carter. “I think now the entire election process, including the nomination of candidates, is predicated to a major degree on how much money they can raise,” he told me. “And that involves, in most cases, going to special interest groups who hope they can get a favor after the election is over. … We’ve not made any progress on the extremely distorting effect of high finance being requisite for any successful candidate. If you look at the list of candidates now that are prominently mentioned for president, almost all of them who have any chance at all are millionaires or multimillionaires. And this is not an accident. An average person like I was, just a peanut farmer back in 1976, you know, we won with practically no money because we campaigned all over the country and built up a grassroots organization. … I think nowadays that would be absolutely impossible, which means that there’s a criterion for success in American politics now—the Democratic or Republican Party—and that is extreme wealth or access to major wealth. And we are the only democratic nation in the world, in the Western world, within which that blight or cancer is affecting our system.”

How and why did politics become so ridiculously expensive and exclusive? Carter pointed a finger at the media corporations. “Our political system has been subverted in a very damaging way by the greed, primarily of the news media, television stations, who demand in this country, almost uniquely among great democracies, that candidates have to pay for their presentation of their own campaign platforms and promises through extremely expensive news media. And this is a basic fallacy of our system now,” Carter said.

One of the main reasons that presidential campaigns are so expensive is the high cost of television advertising that competing candidates purchase to promote themselves to wide viewerships. Presidents, congressmen, and the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) have been afraid, unable, or unwilling to require the powerful broadcasting and cable television companies to provide free airtime to political candidates as is the case in most other major democracies—which would lower the cost of campaigns, help to reduce the outsized influence of wealthy donors, and provide a more even-handed platform across the spectrum of candidates.

Bill Clinton momentarily tried to buck the media industry. In his January 1998 State of the Union Address, Clinton, citing the escalating campaign fundraising “arms race” in America, proposed a major new policy initiative to decrease the exorbitant and rising costs of campaign advertisements. “I will formally request that the Federal Communications Commission act to provide free or reduced-cost television time for candidates,” the president said. “The airwaves are a public trust, and broadcasters also have to help us in this effort to strengthen our democracy.” Within twenty-four hours, FCC Chairman William Kennard disclosed that the FCC would develop new rules governing political advertisements. Within days, the multibillion-dollar broadcast corporations and their various sponsored congressional leaders in both political parties shut down this historic proposal; the White House quickly realized that if it did not step back, Congress might penalize the FCC for this perceived impudence and cut its annual budget.

The reform idea has made no progress in all the years since. And little wonder. Between 1996 and late 2000, according to the Center for Public Integrity, the fifty largest media companies (deriving half or more of their revenues from broadcasting, cable operations, publishing, online media, and their content providers) and four of their trade associations spent $111.3 million to lobby Congress and the executive branch of the government; by 1999 the number of registered, media-related lobbyists had ballooned up to 284 people. And between 1997 and 2000, media corporations took 118 members of Congress and their senior staff on 315 all-expense-paid trips to meet with lobbyists and CEOs to discuss specific legislation and policies favored by their industry.

Reed Hundt, who was the FCC chairman from 1993 to 1997, once told me that he was fascinated by the unique political power that only the media corporations can wield. “The media industry does not mobilize great numbers of voters and it actually is not comprised of America’s largest, economically most important companies,” he said. According to Hundt, the media’s significant clout comes “from its near-ubiquitous, pervasive power to completely alter the beliefs of every American.” Members of Congress and presidential candidates, he said, are afraid to take on the news media directly for fear that they will “disappear” from the TV or radio airwaves and print news columns.

Years later, two campaign finance reformers, Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold, a Republican and a Democrat, respectively, separately told me that media corporations represent the most powerful special interest in Washington. Why? Because, they noted, the broadcast industry and individual stations and network news organizations decide which politicians will be on the air. For three successive sessions of Congress, they could not get their campaign finance legislation passed with that “free airtime” provision because the broadcasters blocked it by enlisting members of Congress who were presumably also worried about being on the air. The McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation only passed and became law in the United States after they grudgingly removed this proposed broadcast “free airtime for candidates” regulation.

There was a valiant nonprofit advocacy group, the Alliance for Better Campaigns, founded in 1998 and run by a former Washington Post reporter, Paul Taylor; the group’s honorary co-chairmen were former U.S. presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter and former CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite. Despite the respected people involved, the organization shut down after a few impressive years—the multibillion dollar television broadcast industry and their Congressional leadership allies were simply too powerful to overcome. But according to one of its last, most compelling reports, Gouging Democracy, “Local television stations across the country systematically gouged candidates in the closing months of the 2000 campaign, jacking up the prices of their ads … despite a 30-year-old federal law designed to protect candidates from such demand-driven price spikes.” And between 1980 and 2000 alone, “political advertisers spent five times more on broadcast television ads, even after adjusting for inflation. The candidates made these payments to an industry that has been granted free and exclusive use of tens of billions of dollars worth of publicly owned spectrum space in return for a pledge to serve the public interest.”

Broadcasters are making more revenue than ever on political advertising. Meanwhile, local TV stations—where most Americans get their news—devote only a tiny percentage of their main programming to politics, including interviews with officials and candidates at election time. Stations have a financial disincentive to “give away” airtime when they can make millions by selling it. The average news program sound bite has gone from forty-four seconds more than forty years ago to less than ten seconds today.

Deepening Disillusionment

Beyond the broadcasters’ substantial power and largely unregulated greed, so many other developments have diminished Americans’ perceptions of politicians, public relations, advertising, and the news media. Trust in the U.S. government is at near-record lows, following decades of scandals from lies about the Vietnam War, the Watergate cover-up, the Monica Lewinski affair, and deception justifying the invasion of Iraq. Congress has the highest disapproval rating recorded in forty-one years of public opinion tracking by the Gallup polling organization—86 percent. Trust in the news media is not faring much better; only four in ten Americans have “a great deal” or “a fair amount of trust and confidence” in the media to report the news “fully, accurately, and fairly.” If Americans fully understood the extent to which U.S. media companies directly profit from the political process, the level of trust would probably be even lower.

A half-century after the The Selling of the President, America now has more than four times more public relations specialists than professional journalists; in 1960 the ratio of journalists to flacks was one to one. According to the Columbia Journalism Review and researchers at Cardiff University and the University of Technology in Sydney, 50 percent of news content in some American, British, and Australian news outlets was directly derived from press releases. Over the same period, annual spending on advertising in newspapers, magazines, radio, and television in the U.S. has skyrocketed from $12 billion to more than $150 billion, twice the rate of inflation. While as late as the early 1990s only about 2 percent of total TV advertising revenues was from political commercials, today political advertising accounts for more than 20 percent.

In his successful 1968 presidential campaign, Nixon raised $25.4 million, and spent $6.3 million of it on television advertising; forty years later, freshman Illinois U.S. Senator Barack Obama’s 2008 successful presidential campaign raised $750 million, nearly five times that amount (adjusted for inflation), and $280 million of it was spent on TV advertising. Disillusionment with the money and media circus seems likely to deepen. In the 2016 election cycle, spending on political television advertising is projected to reach at least $4.4 billion for federal races alone, up from $3.8 billion in 2012. But, have no doubt, it will be the broadcasters’ best year ever.

Charles Lewis is a professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, DC, and founding executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop there. He is a former producer for ABC News and CBS News’ 60 Minutes. He is the founder of the Center for Public Integrity, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and a co-founder of the Investigative News Network (now the Institute for Nonprofit News). He has been a Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University, a Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard University, and a visiting fellow at the University of Oxford Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. His most recent book is 935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity. He is also the co-author of The Buying of the President; The Buying of the Congress: How Special Interests Have Stolen Your Right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness; The Buying of the President 2000; and The Buying of the President 2004. On Twitter: @crelewis.

Understanding Conservatives

Speaking to reporters on his campaign bus in New Hampshire in mid-2015, Jeb Bush, the early frontrunner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, admitted that he could not explain the sudden and unlikely success of two of his opponents. Bush, the son of the forty-first U.S. president and the brother of the forty-third, was not alone in his confusion. Donald Trump, a billionaire from New York who made his money in real estate, casinos, hotels, and reality television, and Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who grew up in Detroit, had caught political pundits by surprise. In the months leading up to the first primaries in early 2016, the two candidates seemingly came out of nowhere to lead the polls among likely Republican voters. Both men brought to their campaigns sharp anti-politician rhetoric and rallied supporters with boasts that they had never been elected to political office. Instead, both claimed superior intelligence as a reason they should be elected to the highest office in the land, the U.S. presidency. Trump proclaimed that he knew how to “make deals” and therefore could clean up the immigration mess on the southern border, bring manufacturing jobs back from China, Japan, and Mexico, and deport the millions of undocumented workers in the country. Carson, far less vituperative on the campaign stump, pointed to his humble origins growing up as a poor African American who was on the verge of taking the wrong path until he found faith in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Without doubt, the Trump phenomenon is perplexing. Nothing quite like it has been seen in American presidential politics. Andrew Jackson won the presidency in 1828 rallying grassroots support, but he had previously been elected to public office and had been a commanding general. Similarly, Dwight D. Eisenhower stepped into the White House in 1953 without having held elected office, but as the Allied command general who had overseen the D-Day invasion during the Second World War, nobody doubted his administrative experience.

Clearly, outsiders like Trump struck a chord among segments of the Republican Party and the general electorate. This chord reflects deep anxieties about the nation. Trump’s call for building a wall on the southern border to keep out undocumented Mexican and Central American immigrants and to ban all Muslims, until things are figured out, manifests an anxious electorate worried about the economy, national security, and the culture. Trump presents himself as a warrior protecting the border, restoring jobs, and reclaiming American power. He offers a nationalist message, quite similar to xenophobic politicians we are seeing across Europe, Putin’s Russia, and China’s ruling regime—all tapping into a message of restoring national greatness and protecting traditional values.

Carson has attracted a sizable following among Evangelical Protestants. In his speeches he uses Biblical language, even when talking about tax plans. Given that an estimated 40 percent of Republican primary voters identify themselves as Evangelical Christians, Carson’s appeal is understandable. The remaining candidates in the Republican field—which at one point numbered seventeen, notably including U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida—represent various and overlapping constituencies.

The Grand Old Party (GOP) stands as a voice of conservatism in America, but the cacophony among Republicans suggests that American conservatism is not monolithic. As historian Gregory L. Schneider and others have observed, modern American conservatism from its first appearance after the Second World War was a mixed bag of cultural traditions, libertarians, and some nut-cases. It is not surprising that there is dissonance within the Republican Party today. Any understanding of what is happening needs to begin with a recognition that modern conservatism has always reflected uneasy tensions between political pragmatism aimed at winning elections and governing, on the one hand; and high principles about individual freedom, the rule of law, and free enterprise, and fear of centralized government, on the other.

American Political Tradition

Modern conservatism as a political movement arose during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s and took shape following the Second World War. But conservatism in the United States has deep roots in the American political tradition. These roots are found in a tradition of anti-statism, fear of centralized government, the importance of the written Constitution, and a belief that representative government rests ultimately on a virtuous citizenry. These deep strains within the American political tradition explain much about modern conservatism, and they belie scholars who see modern American conservatism founded on expressions of paranoia, racism, and special interests related to corporate business. Within American conservatism, there were always a few who pandered to the worse fears of the people from subversive communists and illegal immigration, instead of offering well-considered policy solutions to actual issues. Trump’s exploitation of the immigration issue stoked anxieties among a large segment of the electorate about the perceived cultural and economic decline of the nation.

A strong anti-statism sentiment prevailed in America from its founding as a nation, and modern conservatism reflected this fear of centralized government. Those who drafted the U.S. Constitution in 1787 brought to the Constitutional Convention a deep fear of centralized government based on their reading of John Locke and later English Whig political theorists. From their reading of political philosophy they feared power, the domination of some men by others. Power itself was a natural aspect of government and could only be made legitimate through a compact of mutual consent. History taught, they believed, that government power degenerated into tyranny, oligarchy, or mob rule. To prevent this, power needed to be distributed so that no one group, class, or single person could dominate others and strip citizens of their rights. As a result, the founders drafted a constitutional order that created a balance between the three branches of government—the legislative, judiciary, and executive.

The founders believed government remained essential to the maintenance of a well-ordered society. They saw government as an instrument for preserving liberty, but government itself, because of human nature, was easily given to corruption and tyranny. Government power, they maintained, was of two sorts: the power to coerce and the power to adjudicate. The founders envisioned the new federal government as serving as a referee in adjudicating the various sectional, economic, and social interests of the nation. This referee process came through the courts, upholding constitutional principles and a common law tradition; and through the legislature, in the American case, two bodies, a Senate and a House of Representatives, which represented, through elections, different interests. James Madison, one of the chief architects of the Constitution, argued in Federalist Paper Number 10 in favor of a large, extended commercial republic as the best way to protect individual liberty.

While the founders upheld the power of adjudication as the most important role for government, they understood that government also held coercive power. They sought to weaken this coercive power, but coercive power was necessary to national trade, immigration, relations with Native Americans, diplomatic relations with other nations, and the ability to wage war to protect the nation. Government could foster economic development through chartering and subsidizing private companies, while ensuring that the rule of law was maintained to prevent favoritism and corruption.

The importance of the Constitution to American politics cannot be overstated. Partisan politics emerged quickly in the early republic, and later in the 1860s the nation experienced a devastating civil war. As fierce as partisan division has been in the United States, there has been wide agreement that constitutional principles must be upheld, even though these principles might be interpreted differently. Early in George Washington’s administration, partisan divisions broke out over the proper role for government within a constitutional framework. During the Civil War, both the North and the South maintained they were upholding constitutional principles as envisioned by the founders. Similarly today, partisan debate often comes down to constitutional challenges, which are adjudicated by the courts.

This tradition of anti-statism, fear of centralized government, and the importance of constitutional rule of law joins another strain within the American political tradition. The founders believed that in the end, whatever structures of government were crafted at the Constitutional Convention, ultimately the American republic rested on a virtuous, civic-informed, and active citizenry. This belief in the importance of civic republicanism came from the founders’ reading of ancient philosophers and modern thinkers.

While some of the founders such as Thomas Jefferson were deists who did not believe in an active God intervening in human affairs, most of those who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 were Christians. Most were Protestants, with the exception of Charles Carroll, a Roman Catholic. These men saw religion, specifically Christianity, as necessary to maintaining an orderly society. As Protestants they opposed a national established church on the English model, but they did not believe in a high wall separating church and state, as James Madison wanted. Indeed, Congress instructed James Madison, the author of the First Amendment, to modify his first draft of the Bill of Rights because it erected, they believed, too high a wall separating church and state. Organized religion, they believed, was essential in fostering a virtuous and enlightened citizenry. Only in the late nineteenth century would state governments, and the Supreme Court in the postwar period, begin erecting a high wall separating church and state through the removal of prayer in public schools, the denial of expressions of religious faith in public places, and matters of religious conscience.

What Is a Conservative?

Given these tensions within the conservative tradition, the question arises: What is a conservative? One useful definition is offered by medieval historian Robert Stacey, who finds a long tradition in Western thought that upholds the conceptual notion that “government power rests on the free consent of its subjects; that governmental powers are inherently limited; and that governments must not intrude upon matters of private conscience.” The issue is not whether modern American conservatives have been consistent in their views or application of “limited government”—we know they have not—but the implications of this belief in how modern American conservatives view American history.

First, conservatives pride themselves on living in one of the wealthiest nations in the world today. Any calculation of the nation’s wealth should extend beyond measures of economic wellbeing to include a political, legal, religious, and cultural heritage. This heritage includes representative government, based on a constitution; the rule of law; religious tolerance; and an individualist ethos. This wealth—political, legal, religious, social, and cultural—rests at the core of America’s history as a nation. (Conservatives recognize that wealth and income inequality exists in American society, but they blame this on federal policies and crony capitalism in Washington.)

Conservatives of all stripes recognize that the promise of democracy, the rule of law, religious tolerance, and individual freedom has often gone unfulfilled in the nation’s history; and that it remains unfulfilled today. Conservatives believe, however, that the nation’s democratic aspirations are a genuine reflection of the very ethos of American society, and not just a rhetorical device to preserve class, racial, or social privilege. Because the nation perceived these aspirations to be genuine, these aspirations evolved into reality. Slavery and later racial segregation of public places were ended; women received the right to vote; civil liberties were preserved and extended. Many conservatives believe that a Divine Creator—God—endowed humans, as the Declaration of Independence claimed, with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Whether a Divine Creator actually endowed humans with these inalienable rights, though, is beside the point for conservatives. Acting on the belief that these rights are inalienable and cannot be taken away by any government led Americans in their history to act on these rights over the course of the next two hundred years to produce a democracy unparalleled in human history. Truly free markets may never have existed, yet the belief in a free market economy allowed economic wellbeing similarly unparalleled in history.

The striving to fulfill the promise often came with violent struggle, profound social and cultural discord, and disturbing social injustice. In this conflict, there was surprising agreement that democracy, the rule of law, religious tolerance, and individual rights were good things. Americans take such things for granted. At nearly every point of bitter social discord—debates over slavery, the Civil War, the rights of organized labor, the black civil rights movement, the treatment of Native Americans, women’s rights, the role of the federal government, war—conflict was consistently framed within a belief in a constitutional order embodied in the founder’s vision with long historic roots in a Western tradition. The framework created by early colonists and those who drafted the Constitution set a context that allowed great political, business, religious, and social leaders to emerge shaping the direction of the nation.

Thus for conservatives the real wealth of the nation rests in a realized and continued promise of a constitutional order and representational republic to fulfill the promise of liberty. This faith imparts an importance of individuals in shaping the nation’s history and dismisses centralized government as the endower of rights or promoter of freedom.

One consequence of this faith is that conservatives have a different take on history than is found in many history textbooks that are used in America’s classrooms. Instead of seeing the course of American history as a forward, albeit erratic, movement toward government expansion for the collective good, conservatives begin with an assumption that the erection of the modern liberal state with an enlarged federal bureaucracy is a historical anomaly. Conservatives see modern progressive reform, which most often finds expression during times of periodic social and economic crisis, as the exception and not the rule. Moreover, its manifestation, the growth of centralized government, reflects the desires and the hubris of self-anointed elites who think they know better than the unwashed masses what is good for them. Conservatives accuse modern progressives of standing outside a deep and popular sentiment and longstanding ideology that disdains centralized government, distrusts politicians whatever their party, and dislikes social planners. This depiction of elitism—found by conservatives in the federal government, the media, and universities—imparts a strong populist strain to grassroots conservatism that is finding expression in Republican politics today.

Ideas Have Consequences

From the time American conservatism took shape as a conscious political movement beginning in the late 1930s, it contained two strains—ideological principle and grassroots populism—which created tensions. Ideological purity, winning elections, and governing do not always go hand-in-hand. Progressive reform at the turn of the twentieth century and Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s sharply turned American politics away from a limited government philosophy. The response to the New Deal by the right was neither coherent nor well organized. Furthermore, it reflected a peculiar crankiness and eccentricity that thwarted any attempts to create a sustainable political movement. A disparate group of writers, ranging from New Humanists such as Harvard University professor Irving Babbitt, individualist Albert Jay Knock, journalist William Henry Chamberlin, and newspaper columnists Henry Hazlitt and John T. Flynn, inveighed against New Deal collectivism. Opposition to Roosevelt’s interventionist policies to aid Britain against Nazi Germany following the outbreak of world war in 1939 provided momentum to the prewar right, at least until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The non-interventionist movement expressed popular opinion that the United States should not be involved in European wars, but isolationism attracted anti-Semitic and conspiracy cranks who remained prominent, to varying degrees, in some postwar rightwing circles.

In the postwar period, a small, unorganized band of intellectuals and writers provided a more systematic critique of the progressive state. Many of these intellectuals who rose to defend American principles of limited government and civic virtue were European émigrés who fled German fascism and Soviet communism. These intellectuals included novelists such as Ayn Rand, a Jewish Russian émigré, whose novel, The Fountainhead, published in 1943, became a bestseller. It tells the heroic story of a young architect, Howard Roark, who triumphs over the mediocrity of the masses found in big business and politics. Rand, who developed a philosophy of objectivism, acclaimed the virtues of individual selfishness that rejected the altruist ethos of the welfare state and regulated capitalism and Christianity. Many conservative intellectuals rejected Rand’s philosophy and the cult of personality that developed around her, but her influence on the larger public and many businessmen was important for spreading the anti-collectivist message of the right.

Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian-born economist, who arrived in America in 1948 to assume a post at the University of Chicago, became an important voice against the collectivism he saw embodied in communism, socialism, and liberalism. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom in 1945 became a bestseller in America after it was picked up by Reader’s Digest, at that time the most widely circulated magazine in the country. At the University of Chicago, Hayek joined economists and other intellectuals such as Milton Friedman, Aaron Director, and Ronald Coarse, who challenged Keynesian economics, the prevailing economic theory of liberalism. Meanwhile an array of other authors, including Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Ludwig von Mises, and Leo Strauss sought to resurrect the Western tradition against the collectivist state.

This intellectual counteroffensive coincided with the rise of a grassroots, popular anti-communist movement that reshaped the political landscape over the next four decades. Without the grassroots anti-communist movement in the early years of the Cold War these intellectuals might have been confined to a small circle. The confluence of the two added impetus to the political reaction to New Deal liberalism. The founding of the National Review by a young Yale University graduate, William F. Buckley, Jr., in 1955 gave voice to this intellectual movement and popular anti-communism. From the outset the National Review supported a strong American interventionist foreign policy. In this way, the magazine repudiated the earlier isolationist sentiment found in the prewar right. The magazine supported the restriction of civil liberties for avowed members of the Communist Party in the United States as agents of a foreign power, the Soviet Union. A Roman Catholic, Buckley called for a traditionalist morality and the conservation of standing cultural tradition.

The magazine’s support of the Cold War, a strong military defense, and restrictions of civil liberties for communists caused some on the right to criticize Buckley and those around his magazine for betraying the conservative cause. These critics from the right of Buckley’s traditionalist conservative principles came to call themselves libertarians. They found spokesmen such as economic historian Murray Rothbard and political philosopher Ronald Hamowy who asked, how could a true conservative support the erection of a military-industrial complex, necessary to an interventionist foreign policy, and the suppression of civil liberties, while calling for more limited government and individual rights? The division between the so-called traditionalists and the libertarian wings of the right characterized modern conservatism in American from its inception. Buckley tried to reconcile these two strains in the conservative movement in what he called “fusionism,” the combining of traditionalist and libertarian principles of support for the free market, anti-collectivism, and a general acknowledgment that the Western tradition was important to maintain. Fusionism was embodied in Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative organization he formed with National Review publisher William Rusher in 1959. The organization provided a training ground for many young conservatives who became political strategists and operatives in the Republican Party.

Conservatives Take Over

If intellectuals within the conservative movement fought among themselves, Republicans at large found reconciling principle and practical politics difficult. This was apparent in the nomination of Dwight D. Eisenhower as the party’s presidential candidate in 1952. After nearly a decade and a half of Democratic control of the White House, Republicans were anxious to regain control of the presidency. Conservatives within the party complained that the eastern wing of the party, which they alleged was controlled by Wall Street, had led the party to defeat by nominating “Republicans in name only” such as public utilities magnate Wendell Willkie in 1940 and New York Governor Thomas Dewey in 1944 and again in 1948. In 1952 a strong bloc within the party believed that the presidential nomination should go to a real conservative, Robert Taft, the U.S. senator from Ohio who had consistently opposed the New Deal. The conservative Taft wing of the party, however, failed when Eisenhower won the nomination. Eisenhower selected as his running mate the young California U.S. Senator Richard M. Nixon, who had gained national attention for his investigation of Soviet espionage in the nation’s capital. Eisenhower’s popularity throughout his eight years in office restrained overt criticism by conservatives of Eisenhower’s policies. Still, within conservative ranks there were complaints that Eisenhower was a moderate at best. As conservatives saw it, he had not rolled back the New Deal; and in foreign policy, Eisenhower had initiated a unilateral ban on atmospheric nuclear testing, failed to fully aid freedom fighters in the Soviet-controlled Eastern bloc, and invited Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to visit the United States.

After Nixon lost his bid for the White House in 1960 to Democrat John F. Kennedy, conservatives believed that their time would come in 1964. They found their ideal candidate in Barry Goldwater, a U.S. senator from Arizona. His book, Conscience of a Conservative, published in 1960, had become a bestseller. Ghostwritten by Buckley’s brother-in-law Brent Bozell, this short manifesto articulated for the popular reader the conservative critique of the welfare regulatory state, and the need for a free market economy and a moral order. Goldwater entered the 1964 Republican primaries with great doubts about his chances to win the White House following the outpouring of national grief with Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Goldwater’s main rival for the GOP nomination was Nelson Rockefeller, an heir to the John D. Rockefeller oil fortune who had been elected governor of New York in 1958. The Goldwater-Rockefeller contest was portrayed by conservatives as an ideological battle for the soul of the Republican Party. Conservatives opposed Rockefeller’s support for the welfare state in domestic policy and downplayed his strong Cold War positions. The battle between the two wings also became a regional battle between the East and the rising Sun Belt region of the country. Goldwater won the nomination, but lost in a landslide to Kennedy’s successor, incumbent president Lyndon B. Johnson. The nomination of Goldwater, however, marked the end of the major influence of the eastern wing of the GOP. Although moderate Republicans continued to be elected to Congress, their demise came in 1994 when Republicans led by conservative Newt Gingrich gained control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1954.

Conservatives drew three major lessons from Goldwater’s losing campaign. First, they learned that an avowed conservative could be nominated to head the party. The second lesson was that they could not count on a favorable media toward their candidate. The vicious attacks on Goldwater as a warmonger and a racist by the mainstream media confirmed to conservatives that the left controlled the media. The final lesson was that the South could be won by Republicans, as Goldwater showed in winning six southern states.

From Goldwater onwards, every candidate seeking the GOP nomination has had to campaign with the conservative label. In 1968, Nixon ran as a candidate strong on law and order and national defense. Once in office, however, Nixon pursued policies that expanded the welfare and regulatory state, and in foreign policy pursued détente with the Soviet Union, signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) arms control agreement, and opened relations with China. Discontented conservatives mounted a quixotic attempt to defeat Nixon for the nomination in 1972, but utterly failed in challenging a standing president. Conservatives felt betrayed by Nixon and one consequence was the emergence of a general sentiment that politicians claiming to be conservative could not always be trusted.

Nixon’s resignation from the presidency in 1974 amid the Watergate scandal left the GOP devastated. Republicans were annihilated in the midterm elections in 1974. The so-called “Watergate baby” Democrats elected in 1974 tended to be liberal and highly partisan. They signaled the first signs of growing polarization in Congress and the electorate. At the time, less than 20 percent of the electorate identified themselves as Republican. Conservatives were a minority within a minority party.

Conservatives finally gained the White House when Ronald Reagan, a former California governor and Hollywood actor, defeated incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980. Reagan became the icon of the GOP and conservatives. Reagan’s election can be attributed to a specific set of circumstances, his political skills as an orator who was able to convey a conservative message to the larger public, and the party’s ability to expand its constituent base. The inability of the Carter administration to address high unemployment and raging inflation, not to mention the Iran hostage crisis that haunted Carter’s campaign, doomed his reelection. Reagan’s principled pragmatism as a conservative and a politician characterized his candidacy and his presidency. He managed to work with Democrats in Congress to achieve many of his domestic goals, including tax cuts, tax simplification, and Social Security reform. Reagan brought core principles, political skill, and an affability in achieving his primary agenda of cutting taxes and strengthening national defense.

Reagan’s presidency marked a triumph for conservatives. They had reached the sight of the Promised Land, but the march was far from over. The Republican Party had been turned into a voice of conservatism, but more internal battles were still to come. With Republican presidential candidates now required to declare themselves as conservatives, this meant standing on the three pillars of conservatism: minimum centralized government; the free market; and traditional moral values. How such aspirations translated into actual governance, winning elections, and meaningful public policies caused pitched battles within the Republican Party and ensured tensions between politicians charged with representing larger constituencies and governing and grassroots activists, often motivated by pristine principles.

Democratic Revival

George H.W. Bush’s presidency presents a case in point. After winning election as Reagan’s successor in the White House, Bush distanced himself from hardcore conservatives. His closest advisors in the administration—for example, his chief-of-staff John Sununu—were moderate Republicans. Bush sought a “kinder, gentler America,” in contrast with Reagan’s appearance as uncaring. Reagan conservatives were isolated in Bush’s administration or run out by Bush appointees. In the end, the Bush administration pushed through legislation that raised taxes, expanded civil rights and health benefits to the physically and mentally disabled, and expanded the regulatory state. His diplomatic and military success in the first Gulf War were not enough, however, to win reelection to the White House. He was defeated by a then relatively unknown centrist governor from Arkansas, Democrat Bill Clinton, whose campaign took advantage of a recession and Bush’s inability to connect with many average Americans.

The Clinton presidency itself moved to the right, especially after Republicans swept the midterm elections and won control of Congress in 1994. The Clinton administration joined congressional Republicans in enacting welfare and tax reform and balancing the federal budget. Clinton’s political success led to his reelection in 1996 against an especially weak Republican opponent, Senator Bob Dole of Kansas. Clinton’s move to the center and assuming much of the Republican agenda left conservatives in disarray without a counter agenda. A scandal about Clinton’s involvement with a White House intern enabled George W. Bush to raise the character issue in the 2000 presidential contest. He defeated Al Gore, Clinton’s vice president, in one of the closest presidential elections in American history. Bush’s representation of himself as a “conservative with a heart” revealed the problems faced by a conservative movement that called for smaller government. Bush’s conservatism, in effect, admitted that an enlarged federal government and entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and welfare were here to stay. The terrorist attacks on September 11 helped ensure his reelection.

Changing Narratives

Any new narrative of modern American conservatism needs to acknowledge that conservatism as well as liberalism have changed over time. Differences were already apparent in the conservatism of Goldwater and the conservatism of Reagan. When Reagan ran for governor in 1966, he looked toward Goldwater as a mentor. When Reagan decided to challenge incumbent Republican President Gerald R. Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976, however, relations between the two men grew tense. These tensions heightened when Reagan began criticizing Ford for entering into negotiations to hand the Panama Canal over to the Panamanian government. Goldwater worried that Reagan’s statements could “needlessly lead this country into open conflict.” When Goldwater endorsed Ford for the presidency, Reagan broke completely with Goldwater. He did not correspond with his former ally and mentor for fifteen months.

More importantly, Reagan mobilized social conservatives concerned about abortion, feminism, and changing sexual mores. Goldwater, for his part, despised the so-called religious right. He was not a social conservative and by the 1980s believed the religious right was destroying the Republican Party. Goldwater, once he left the Senate, became a strong advocate of abortion and gay rights—placing him at odds with many in the Republican Party.

Similarly, liberalism underwent important changes, especially in the late 1960s and 1970s when the New Deal political coalition began to break up. An understanding of conservatism must recognize the leftward shift of the Democratic Party that began when Senator George McGovern of South Dakota won the party’s presidential nomination in 1972. These changes were not only political but ideological, as new progressive activists challenged traditional liberals within the Democratic Party. The older liberal tradition as it emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century primarily sought to address the ills of industrial capitalism. The new progressivism expressed concerns about the problems of an affluent post-industrial society. The new progressives disparaged consumption and deprecated corporate capitalism. As a result, they condemned both Western industrial democracy and the industrial socialism of the Soviet Union. They espoused community control, direct democracy, and anti-market solutions. There was a marked tendency to romanticize nature and to deride affluence and consumption.

This vision was founded not on a coherent philosophical system, but a shared anxiety about postwar America and its wasteful affluence. The wave of activism that emerged in the 1960s became institutionalized in the 1970s. Activists spoke the language of social justice and equality, which expressed a long reformist tradition in America, but their general concerns were less with the problems of production than the problems of consumerism. Barack Obama drew on this new progressive sentiment when he defeated Republican opponent Senator John McCain of Arizona for the presidency in 2008. Obama’s status as the first biracial candidate nominated by a major party had natural appeal to progressives within the Democratic Party and among a general public anxious to move beyond the racial politics of the past. In a well-organized and well-financed campaign, he tapped into antiwar and anti-Bush sentiment within the electorate.

Search for Identity

Entering the White House after the worst financial crisis since 1929, Obama oversaw the bailout of Chrysler and General Motors, the enactment of a huge economic stimulus bill, which was followed by a compulsory health insurance plan, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The act never gained support within the general public, but Democrats had won control of Congress. Reflective of this anger toward the bailout, the stimulus, and especially the healthcare legislation, there emerged a spontaneous conservative grassroots movement, calling itself the Tea Party. The Tea Party is a diverse movement on the national, state, and local levels, composed of various state leaders and supporters who are primarily white, above average in income and education. An early icon of the movement was Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor who had shot to prominence when McCain selected her to be his vice presidential running mate. This movement helped propel Republican gains in the 2010 midterms, when the party won sixty-three seats in the House of Representatives and six seats in the Senate. Divided government led to gridlock. Although Obama won reelection to the presidency in 2012, Democrats kept control of the Senate and Republicans the House. Republicans continued to make gains in state and local elections. By November 2015, Republicans controlled both chambers in state legislatures in all but eleven states; and held control of governorships in thirty of the fifty states. The math is staggering: representatives in state houses across the country affiliated with the Republican Party number 3,018 members, or 55 percent, compared to 2,336 Democrats, or 43 percent. The long-term consequences of this are profound. Republicans are building a strong bench for the future.

By expanding the party to include the growing Hispanic and minority population in America, young voters, and women, Democratic strategists maintain that the future is theirs in the long run. Furthermore, Democrats believe that they have a lock on the electoral college with large electoral votes in the Northeast U.S. and the West Coast. But white voters still account for over 70 percent of the voting electorate, and most of these white voters, male and female, married and single, are casting ballots for Republicans. Older voters are voting Republican as well. While a party in the long run cannot build around older voters, in the short run older voters can win elections, especially midterm elections, because they turn out to vote in large numbers.

Democrats are going to have a tough time regaining the House of Representatives in the near future, or even the Senate, unless there is a wave election, which sweeps them into office. This seems highly improbable. Given the deep polarization within the electorate, and discontent that more than 70 percent of Americans feel about the direction of the country, it is unlikely that Democrats, after controlling the White House for eight years, can translate this anxiety into a landslide election in their favor in 2016.

Yet, the Democrats may have a secret weapon: turmoil in the Republican Party. Republican voters appear angry, yet unable to direct their emotions in support of a single candidate. The resulting rise of outsiders has thrown more traditional candidates off balance. Any winning Republican candidate will have to unite a party still in search of its identity. But conservatives have proved to be a quarrelsome lot.

Donald T. Critchlow, professor of history and director of the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University, is the author of the forthcoming Future Right: The Forging of a New Republican Majority from St. Martin’s Press. He is the author and editor of more than twenty books, including American Political History: A Very Short Introduction; When Hollywood Was Right: How Movie Moguls, Film Stars, and Big Business Remade American Politics; and The Conservative Ascendancy: How the GOP Made Political History. He is the founding editor of the Journal of Policy History. He has appeared on C-SPAN, National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation, and BBC World News.

Hillary the Hawk

Despite being an icon for many liberals and an anathema to the Republican right, former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s positions on the Middle East have more closely resembled those of the latter than the former. Her hawkish views go well beyond her strident support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and subsequent occupation and counter-insurgency war. From Afghanistan to Western Sahara, she has advocated for military solutions to complex political problems, backed authoritarian allies and occupying armies, dismissed war crimes, and opposed political involvement by the United Nations and its agencies. TIME magazine’s Michael Crowley aptly summed up her State Department record in 2014:

As Secretary of State, Clinton backed a bold escalation of the Afghanistan war. She pressed Obama to arm the Syrian rebels, and later endorsed airstrikes against the Assad regime. She backed intervention in Libya, and her State Department helped enable Obama’s expansion of lethal drone strikes. In fact, Clinton may have been the administration’s most reliable advocate for military action. On at least three crucial issues—Afghanistan, Libya, and the bin Laden raid—Clinton took a more aggressive line than [Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates, a Bush-appointed Republican.

Her even more hawkish record during her eight years in the Senate, when she was not constrained by President Barack Obama’s more cautious foreign policy, led to strong criticism from progressive Democrats and played a major role in her unexpected defeat in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries.

After stepping down from the helm of the State Department in early 2013, she made a concerted effort to distance herself from Obama’s Middle East policies, which—despite including the bombing of no less than seven countries in the greater region—she argues have not been aggressive enough. It is not surprising, therefore, that the prominent neoconservative Robert Kagan, in examining the prospects of her becoming commander-in-chief, exclaimed to the New York Times in 2014, “I feel comfortable with her on foreign policy.” He elaborated by noting that “if she pursues a policy which we think she will pursue, it’s something that might have been called neocon, but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that. They are going to call it something else.” The same New York Times article noted how neoconservatives are “aligning themselves with Hillary Rodham Clinton and her nascent presidential campaign, in a bid to return to the driver’s seat of American foreign policy.”

If Clinton wins the American presidency in 2016, she will be confronted with the same momentous regional issues she handled without distinction as Obama’s first secretary of state: among them, the civil war and regional proxy war in Syria; the Syrian conflict’s massive refugee crisis; civil conflict in Yemen and Libya; political fragility in Iraq and Afghanistan; Iran’s regional ambitions; the Israel-Palestine conflict; and deteriorating relations with longstanding allies Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. There are disagreements as to whether Clinton truly embraces a neoconservative or other strong ideological commitment to hardline policies or whether it is part of a political calculation to protect herself from criticism from Republicans who hold positions even further to the right. But considering that the Democratic Party base is shifting more to the left, that she represented the relatively liberal state of New York in the Senate, and that her 2008 presidential hopes were derailed in large part by her support for the Iraq war, it would probably be a mistake to assume her positions have been based primarily on political expediency. Regardless of her motivations, however, a look at the positions she has taken on a number of the key Middle East policy issues suggest that her presidency would shift America to a still more militaristic and interventionist policy that further marginalizes concerns for human rights or international law.

Voting for War in Iraq

Hillary Clinton was among the minority of congressional Democrats who supported Republican President George W. Bush’s request for authorization to invade and occupy Iraq, a vote she says she cast “with conviction.”As arms control specialists, former United Nations weapons inspectors, investigative journalists, and others began raising questions regarding the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq having reconstituted its chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs and its chemical and biological weapons arsenals, Clinton sought to discredit those questioning the administration’s alarmist rhetoric by insisting that Iraq’s possession of such weapons and weapons programs were not in doubt. She said that “if left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare, and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons.” She insisted that there was a risk that, despite the absence of the necessary delivery systems, Saddam Hussein would somehow, according to the 2002 resolution, “employ those weapons to launch a surprise attack against the United States,” which therefore justifies “action by the United States to defend itself” through invading and occupying the country.

As a number of prominent arms control analysts had informed her beforehand, absolutely none of those charges were true. The pattern continued when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell in a widely ridiculed speech told the United Nations that Iraq had close ties with Al-Qaeda, still had major stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, and active nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs. Powell himself later admitted his speech was misleading and filled with errors, yet Clinton insisted that it was nevertheless “compelling.”

In an apparent effort to convince her New York constituents, still stung by the September 11 attack thirteen months earlier, of the necessity of war, she was the only Democratic U.S. senator who made the false claim that Saddam Hussein had “given aid, comfort, and sanctuary” to Al-Qaeda, an accusation that even many fervent supporters of the invasion recognized as ludicrous. Indeed, top strategic analysts had informed her that there were no apparent links between Saddam Hussein’s secular nationalist regime and the radical jihadist Al-Qaeda. Indeed, doubts over such claims appeared in the U.S. National Intelligence Estimates made available to her and in a definitive report by the Department of Defense after the invasion. These reports not only confirmed that no such link existed, but that no such link could have been reasonably suggested based upon the evidence available at that time.

Clinton’s defenders insist she was misled by faulty intelligence. She admitted that she did not review the National Intelligence Estimate that was made available to members of Congress prior to the vote that was far more nuanced in their assessments than the Bush administration claimed. (She claimed that the authors of the report, including officials from the State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, and Department of Defense, had briefed her: “I felt very well briefed.”) She also apparently ignored the plethora of information provided by academics, independent strategic analysts, former UN inspectors, and others, which challenged the Bush administration’s claims and correctly noted that Iraq had likely achieved at least qualitative disarmament. Furthermore, even if Iraq had been one of the dozens of countries in the world that still had stockpiles of chemical and/or biological weapons and/or a nuclear program, the invasion was still illegal under the UN Charter, according to a consensus of international law experts as well as then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan; it was also arguably unnecessary, given the deterrence capability of the United States and well-armed Middle Eastern states.

Despite wording in the Congressional resolution providing Bush with an open-ended authority to invade Iraq, Clinton later insisted that she voted for the resolution simply because “we needed to put inspectors in.” In reality, at the time of vote, the Iraqis had already agreed in principle to a return of the weapons inspectors and were negotiating with the United Nations Monitoring and Verification Commission on the details which were formally institutionalized a few weeks later. (Indeed, it would have likely been resolved earlier had the United States not repeatedly postponed the UN Security Council resolution in the hopes of inserting language which would have allowed the United States to unilaterally interpret the level of compliance.) In addition, she voted against the substitute amendment by Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, which would have also granted President Bush authority to use force, but only if Iraq defied subsequent UN demands regarding the inspections process. Instead, Clinton voted for the Republican-sponsored resolution to give President Bush the authority to invade Iraq at the time and circumstances of his own choosing regardless of whether inspectors returned. Unfettered large-scale weapons inspections had been going on in Iraq for nearly four months with no signs of any proscribed weapons or weapons facilities at the time the Bush administration launched the March 2003 attack, yet she still argued that the invasion was necessary and lawful. Despite warnings by scholars, retired diplomats, and others familiar with the region that a U.S. invasion of Iraq would prove harmful to the United States, she insisted that at U.S.-led takeover of Iraq was “in the best interests of our nation.”

Rather than being a misguided overreaction to the 9/11 tragedy driven by the trauma that America had experienced, Clinton’s militaristic stance on Iraq predated her support for Bush’s invasion. For example, in defending her husband President Bill Clinton’s four-day bombing campaign against Iraq in December 1998, she claimed that “the so-called presidential palaces … in reality were huge compounds well suited to hold weapons labs, stocks, and records which Saddam Hussein was required by the UN to turn over. When Saddam blocked the inspection process, the inspectors left.” In reality, there were no weapons labs, stocks of weapons, or missing records in these presidential palaces. In addition, Saddam was still allowing for virtually all inspections to go forward. The inspectors were ordered to depart by her husband a couple days beforehand to avoid being harmed in the incipient bombings. Ironically, in justifying her support for invading Iraq years later, she would claim that it was Saddam who had “thrown out” the UN inspectors. She also bragged that it was during her husband’s administration that the United States “changed its underlying policy toward Iraq from containment to regime change.”

What distinguishes Clinton from some of the other Democrats who crossed the aisle to support the Republican administration’s war plans is that she continued to defend her vote even when the rationales behind it had been disproven. For example, in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in December 2003, in which she underscored her support for a “tough-minded, muscular foreign and defense policy,” she declared, “I was one who supported giving President Bush the authority, if necessary, to use force against Saddam Hussein. I believe that that was the right vote” and was one that “I stand by.” Similarly, in an interview on CNN’s Larry King Live in April 2004, when asked about her vote in favor of war authorization, she said, “I don’t regret giving the president authority.”

As it became increasingly apparent that her rationales for supporting the war were false, U.S. casualties mounted, the United States was dragged into a long counter-insurgency war, and the ongoing U.S. military presence was exacerbating sectarian violence and the threat from extremists rather than curbing it, Clinton came under increasing pressure from her constituents to call for a withdrawal of U.S. forces. She initially rejected these demands, however, insisting U.S. troops were needed to keep fighting in order to suppress the insurgency, terrorism, and sectarian divisions the invasion had spawned, urging “patience” and expressing her concern about the lack of will among some Americans “to stay the course.” She insisted that “failure is not an option” in Iraq, so therefore, “We have no option but to stay involved and committed.” In 2005, she insisted that it “would be a mistake” to withdraw U.S. troops soon or simply set a timetable for withdrawal. She argued that the prospects for a “failed state” made possible by the invasion she supported made it in the “national security interest” of the United States to remain fighting in that country. When Democratic Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania made his first call for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in November of that year, she denounced his effort, calling it a “a big mistake” and declared, “I reject a rigid timetable that the terrorists can exploit.” Using a similar rationale as was used in the latter years of the Vietnam War, she declared, “My bottom line is that I don’t want their sons to die in vain,” insisting that, “I don’t think it’s the right time to withdraw” and that, “I don’t believe it’s smart to set a date for withdrawal.” In 2006, when Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts (her eventual successor as secretary of state) sponsored an amendment that would have required the redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq by the middle of 2007 in order to advance a political solution to the growing sectarian strife, she voted against it. Similarly, on Meet the Press in 2005, she emphasized, “We don’t want to send a signal to insurgents, to the terrorists, that we are going to be out of here at some, you know, date certain.”

Two years after the invasion, as the consensus was growing that the situation in Iraq was rapidly deteriorating, Clinton still defended the war effort. When she visited Iraq in February 2005 as a U.S. senator, the security situation had gotten so bad that the four-lane divided highway on flat open terrain connecting the airport with the capital could not be secured at the time of her arrival, requiring a helicopter to transport her to the Green Zone, but she nevertheless insisted that the U.S. occupation was “functioning quite well.” When fifty-five Iraqis and one American soldier were killed during her twenty-four-hour visit, she insisted that the rise in suicide bombings was somehow evidence that the insurgency was failing. As the chaos worsened in subsequent months, she continued to defend the invasion, insisting, “We have given the Iraqis the precious gift of freedom,” claiming that whatever problems they were subsequently experiencing was their fault, since, “The Iraqis have not stepped up and taken responsibility, as we had hoped.”

Clinton finally began calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops when she became a candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, but she was critical of her rival Barack Obama’s longstanding antiwar stance. Even though Obama in 2002 (then a state senator in Illinois) had explicitly supported the ongoing international strategy of enforcing sanctions, maintaining an international force as a military deterrent, and returning UN inspectors to Iraq, Clinton charged in a nationally televised interview on Meet the Press on January 14, 2008, that “his judgment was that, at the time in 2002, we didn’t need to make any efforts” to deal with the alleged Iraqi “threat”—essentially repeating President Bush’s argument that anything short of supporting an invasion meant acquiescence to Saddam’s regime. She also criticized Obama’s withdrawal plan.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates writes in his book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War that Clinton stated in his presence that her opposition to President Bush’s decision in 2007 to reject the bipartisan call of the Iraq Study Group to begin a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops and to instead escalate the number of American combat forces was largely political, given the growing opposition to the war among Democratic voters. Indeed, long before President Bush announced his “surge,” Clinton had called for the United States to send more troops.

Unlike former U.S. Senators John Kerry, Tom Harkin, John Edwards, and other Democratic supporters of the Iraq war resolution, Clinton has never apologized for her vote to authorize force. She has, however, said that she now “regrets” her vote, which she refers to as a “mistake.” Yet, arguments against the Iraq war authorization, virtually all of which have turned out to have been accurate, had been clearly articulated for months leading up to the congressional vote. She and her staff met with knowledgeable people who made a strong case against supporting President Bush’s request, including its illegality under the United Nations Charter, providing her with extensive documentation challenging the administration’s arguments, and warning her of the likely repercussions of a U.S. invasion and occupation.

“All Options on the Table”

Saddam’s Iraq is not the only oil-rich country towards which Clinton has threatened war over its alleged ties to terrorists and Weapons of Mass Destruction. She long insisted that the United States should keep “all options on the table”—clearly an implied threat of unilateral military force—in response to Iran’s nuclear program despite the illegality under the UN Charter of launching such a unilateral attack. Her hawkish stance toward Iran, which is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has disavowed any intention of developing nuclear weapons, stands in contrast with her attitude toward countries such as Israel, Pakistan, and India which are not NPT signatories and have already constructed nuclear weapons. She has shown little regard for the danger of the proliferation by countries allied with the United States, opposing the enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions challenging the programs of Israel, Pakistan, and India, supporting the delivery of nuclear-capable missiles and jet fighters to these countries, and voting to end restrictions on U.S. nuclear cooperation with countries that have not signed on to the NPT.

Clinton has nonetheless insisted that the prospect of Iran developing nuclear weapons “must be unacceptable to the entire world”—challenging the nuclear monopoly of the United States and its allies in the region would somehow “shake the foundation of global security to its very core,” in her view. In 2006, she accused the Bush administration of failing to take the threat of a nuclear Iran seriously enough, criticized the administration for allowing European nations to lead diplomatic efforts, and insisted that the United States should make it clear that military options were still being actively considered. Similarly, during the 2008 presidential campaign, she accused Obama of being “naïve” and “irresponsible” for wanting to engage with Iran diplomatically. Not only did she promise to “obliterate” Iran if it used its nonexistent nuclear weapons to attack Israel, she refused to rule out a U.S. nuclear first strike on that country, saying, “I don’t believe that any president should make any blanket statements with respect to the use or non-use of nuclear weapons.”

As with Iraq, she has made a number of alarmist statements regarding Iran, such as falsely claiming in 2007 that Iran had a nuclear weapons program, even though International Atomic Energy Agency and independent arms control specialists, as well as a subsequent National Intelligence Estimate, indicated that Iran’s nuclear program at that time had no military component. Clinton supported the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment calling on President Bush to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group, which the Bush administration correctly recognized as an irresponsibly sweeping characterization of an organization that also controls major civilian administration, business, and educational institutions. The amendment declared that “it should be the policy of the United States to combat, contain, and roll back the violent activities and destabilizing influence … of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” language which many feared could be used as a de facto authorization for war.

Her hawkish stance towards Iran continued after she became Obama’s first secretary of state in 2009. In Michael Crowley’s 2014 story in TIME, Obama administration officials noted how she was “skeptical of diplomacy with Iran, and firmly opposed to talk of a ‘containment’ policy that would be an alternative to military action should negotiations with Tehran fail.” Clinton disapproved of the opposition expressed by Pentagon officials regarding a possible U.S. attack on Iran because she insisted “the Iranians had to believe we would use force if diplomacy failed.” In an August 2014 interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, when she was no longer in the administration, she took a much harder line on Iranian nuclear enrichment than the United States and its negotiating partners recognized was realistic, leading some to suspect she was actually pushing for military intervention.

Clinton, by then an announced candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, did end up endorsing the 2015 nuclear agreement. Opposing a major foreign policy initiative of a sitting Democratic president, especially one with strong Democratic support, would have been politically untenable. Yet, Clinton’s hardline views toward the Islamic Republic remain palpable. For example, in a speech in September 2015 at the Brookings Institution, she claimed that Iran’s leaders “talk about wiping Israel off the face of the map”—a gross distortion routinely parroted by hardliners in Washington. The original statement was uttered by revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini a quarter century earlier and quoted in 2005 by then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who left office in 2013). Moreover, there is no such idiom in Farsi for “wiping off the map.” Khomeini’s statement was in a passive tense and asserted his belief that Israel should no longer be a Jewish nation state, not that the country’s inhabitants should be annihilated. Yet, during her speech, Clinton kept repeating for emphasis, “They vowed to destroy Israel. And that’s worth saying again. They vowed to destroy Israel.”

Clinton often seems oblivious to the contradictions in her views and rhetoric. For example, to challenge Iran, an authoritarian theocratic regime which backs extremist Islamist groups, she has pledged to “sustain a robust military presence in the region” and “increase security cooperation with our Gulf allies”—namely, other authoritarian theocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, which also back extremist Islamist groups.

She has also repeated neoconservative talking points on alleged Iranian interference in various Middle Eastern conflicts. For example, she has decried Iran’s “involvement in and influence over Iraq,” an ironic complaint for someone who voted to authorize the overthrow of the anti-Iranian secular government of Saddam Hussein despite his widely predicted replacement by pro-Iranian Shiite fundamentalist parties. As a U.S. senator, she went on record repeating a whole series of false, exaggerated, and unproven charges by Bush administration officials regarding Iranian support for the Iraqi insurgency, even though the vast majority of foreign support for the insurgency was coming from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries and that the majority of the insurgents attacking U.S. occupation forces were fanatically anti-Iranian and anti-Shiite.

She has also gone on record holding “Iran responsible for the acts of aggression carried out by Hezbollah and Hamas against Israel.” Presumably since she realizes that relations between Iran and Hamas—who are supporting opposing sides in the Syrian civil war—are actually quite limited, she has not called for specific actions regarding this alleged link. But she has pledged to make it a priority as president to cut off Iran’s ability to fund and arm Hezbollah, including calling on U.S. allies to somehow block Iranian planes from entering Syria. In addition, notwithstanding the provisions in the nuclear agreement to drop sanctions against Iran, she has called on Congress to “close any gaps” in the existing sanctions on non-nuclear issues.

When Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, her principal rival for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, suggested taking steps to eventually normalize diplomatic relations with Iran, the Clinton campaign attacked him as being irresponsible and naïve. Despite the fact that the vast majority of U.S. allies already have diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic, a campaign spokesperson insisted it would somehow “cause very real consternation among our allies and partners.”

 Dictators and Democrats

Though bringing democracy to Iraq was one of the rationales Hillary Clinton gave for supporting the invasion of that country, she has not been as supportive of democratic movements struggling against American allies. During the first two weeks of protests in Tunisia against the dictatorial regime of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in December 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed her concern over the impact of the “unrest and instability” on the “very positive aspects of our relationship with Tunisia.” She insisted that the United States was “not taking sides” in the struggle between the corrupt authoritarian government and the pro-democracy demonstrators, and that she would “wait and see” before communicating directly with Ben Ali or his ministers. Nearly four weeks after the outbreak of protests, she finally acknowledged some of the grievances of the demonstrators, saying “one of my biggest concerns in this entire region are the many young people without economic opportunities in their home countries.” Rather than calling for a more democratic and accountable government in Tunisia, however, her suggestion for resolving the crisis was calling for the economies of Tunisia and other North African states “to be more open.” Ironically, Tunisia under the Ben Ali regime—more than almost any country in the region—had been following the dictates of Washington and the International Monetary Fund in instituting “structural adjustment programs” privatizing much of its economy and allowing for an unprecedented level of “free trade.”

Just two days after the interview in which she appeared to back the Ben Ali regime, as the protests escalated further, Clinton took a more proactive stance at a meeting in Qatar, where she noted that “people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order” and called for “political reforms that will create the space young people are demanding, to participate in public affairs and have a meaningful role in the decisions that shape their lives.” By this point, however, Tunisians were making clear they were not interested in simply “political reforms” but the downfall of the regime, which took place the following day.

Clinton took a similarly cautious approach regarding the Egyptian uprising, which began a week and a half later on January 25. In the initial days of the protests, despite the government’s brutal crackdown, she refused to do more than encourage the regime to allow for peaceable assembly. Despite appearances to the contrary, Clinton insisted that “the country was stable” and that the Mubarak government was “looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” despite the failure of the regime in its nearly thirty years in power to do so. As protests continued, she issued a statement simply calling on the regime to reform from within rather than supporting the movement’s demand for the downfall of the dictatorship.

After two weeks of protests, Clinton pressed vigorously for restraint by security forces and finally called for an “orderly, peaceful transition” to a “real democracy” in Egypt, but still refused to demand that Mubarak had to step down, insisting that “it’s not a question of who retains power. That should not be the issue. It’s how are we going to respond to the legitimate needs and grievances expressed by the Egyptian people and chart a new path.” On the one hand, she recognized that whether Mubarak would remain in power “is going to be up to the Egyptian people.” On the other hand, she continued to speak in terms of reforms coming from within the regime, stating that U.S. policy was to “help clear the air so that those who remain in power, starting with President Mubarak, with his new vice president, with the new prime minister, will begin a process of reaching out, of creating a dialogue that will bring in peaceful activists and representatives of civil society to … plan a way forward that will meet the legitimate grievances of the Egyptian people.” As the repression continued to worsen and demands for suspending U.S. military assistance to the regime increased, she insisted “there is no discussion of cutting off aid.” As late as February 6, when Mubarak’s fall appeared imminent, Clinton was publicly advocating a leadership role for Mubarak’s newly named vice president. That was General Omar Suleiman, the longtime head of Egypt’s feared general intelligence agency, who among other things had played a key role in the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert rendition program under which suspected terrorists were handed over to third-party governments to be interrogated and in some cases were tortured. In discussions within the Obama administration, she pushed for the idea of encouraging Mubarak to initiate a gradual transition of power, disagreeing with Obama’s eventual recognition that the U.S.-backed dictator had to step down immediately. In her book Hard Choices, a memoir of her tenure as secretary of state written three years later, Clinton noted, “I was concerned that we not be seen as pushing a longtime partner out the door.”

After Saudi Arabian forces joined those of the Bahraini monarchy in brutally repressing nonviolent pro-democracy demonstrators the following month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Clinton had emerged as one of the “leading voices inside the administration urging greater U.S. support for the Bahraini king.” In Yemen, while she eventually called for authoritarian President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down, she backed the Saudi initiative to have him replaced by his vice president, General Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, rather than support the demands of the pro-democracy movement to allow a broad coalition of opposition activists to form a transition government and prepare for democratic multiparty elections.

Clinton proved an enthusiastic supporter of regime change when it came to dictatorships opposed by the United States, however. While there has been debate regarding the appropriateness and extent of U.S. intervention in Libya and Syria, she consistently allied herself with those advocating U.S. military involvement. She pushed hard and eventually successfully for U.S. intervention in support for rebel forces in Libya, over the objections of key Obama administration officials, including the normally hawkish Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. While the Arab League had requested and the United Nations had authorized the enforcement of a no-fly zone to protect civilians from attack by the forces of dictator Muammar Gadhafi, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces—with Clinton’s encouragement—dramatically expanded their role to essentially become the air force of the rebels. Following the extra-judicial killing of Gadhafi by rebel soldiers, she joked, “We came, we saw, he died,” which some took as an effective endorsement of crimes committed by armed allies against designated enemy leaders.

During the Benghazi hearings in October 2015, when she was asked about that comment, she said it “was an expression of relief that the military mission undertaken by NATO and our other partners had achieved its end.” However, in justifying U.S. military intervention, the Obama administration initially insisted that the goal was “to protect the Libyan people from immediate danger, and to establish a no-fly zone,” not regime change or assassination, underscoring Clinton’s apparent role in dramatically expanding the mission of U.S. forces. The chaos that resulted from the seizure of power by a number of armed militia groups, including Islamist extremists, created a situation where militiamen numbered nearly a quarter million in a country of some six million people. While there appears to be little merit in the Republican accusations against Clinton in regard to her conduct regarding the killing of the U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi by Islamist extremists in September 2012, her role in helping to create the situation that gave rise to such extremists raises more serious questions.

As a U.S. senator, and well before the 2011 uprising in Syria, Clinton was a strong supporter of Republican-led efforts to punish and isolate the Bashar Al-Assad regime. She was a co-sponsor of the 2004 Syrian Accountability Act, demanding that—under threat of tough economic sanctions—Syria unilaterally disarm various weapons systems (similar to those possessed by hostile neighbors), abide by a UN Security Council resolution calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon (which had also been occupied by Israel for twenty-two years without U.S. objection), and return to peace talks with Israel (despite Israel’s categorical refusal to withdraw from the occupied Golan Heights). Her resolution also claimed that the Syrian government was responsible for the deaths of Americans in Iraq and threatened to hold Syria accountable in language that other senators feared could be used by the Bush administration for military strikes.

Not long after the initially nonviolent uprising in Syria turned into a bloody civil war with heavy foreign intervention, the New York Times reported that Clinton pushed hard for the Obama administration to become directly involved militarily in support for Syrian rebels. Irritated that NATO had gone well beyond its mandate in Libya, Russia and China blocked UN action on Syria. Obama eventually agreed with Clinton to begin training and arming some rebels, but despite the half billion dollars invested in the project, only a few dozen rebels made it into the field and they were quickly overrun by rival Islamist rebels of the Al-Nusra Front. Clinton has subsequently insisted that the disorganized and factious nature of the armed secular Syrian opposition notwithstanding, the failure to topple the Syrian regime or contain the rise of Islamist extremists was that the United States did not arm the rebels earlier and more heavily. Indeed, she has essentially blamed Obama for the dramatic rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, saying his failure “to help build up a credible fighting force … left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” She has also expressed disappointment that the Obama administration backed down from its threats in 2013 to bomb Syria following the Al-Assad regime’s launch of a deadly sarin gas attack on residential areas near Damascus, even after the government agreed to disarm its chemical weapons.

“Friend” of Israel

During and after her term as a U.S. senator, Hillary Clinton has developed a reputation as one of the most rightwing Democrats on the Israel-Palestine conflict. She has repeatedly sided with Likud-led governments against Israeli progressives and moderates. She has not only condemned Hamas and other Palestinian extremists, but has been critical of the Palestinian Authority (PA) as well. That has bolstered the Israeli right’s contention that there are no moderate Palestinians with which to negotiate.

As a U.S. senator, Clinton defended Israel’s colonization efforts in the occupied West Bank and was highly critical of UN efforts to uphold international humanitarian law that forbids transferring civilian populations into territories under foreign belligerent occupation, taking the time to visit a major Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank in a show of support in 2005. She moderated that stance somewhat as secretary of state in expressing concerns over how the rightwing Israeli government’s settlement policies harmed the overall climate of the peace process, but she has refused to acknowledge the illegality of the settlements or demand that Israel abide by international demands to stop building additional settlements. Subsequently, she has argued that the Obama administration pushed too hard in the early years of the administration to get Israel to suspend settlement construction. In 2011, Clinton successfully argued for a U.S. veto of a UN Security Council resolution reiterating the illegality of the settlements and calling for a construction freeze. On this issue, that fit a pattern of Clinton’s disregard for the UN Security Council, which was established precisely to be a vehicle for enforcing international law such as in matters of belligerent foreign occupation. “We have consistently over many years said that the United Nations Security Council—and resolutions that would come before the Security Council—is not the right vehicle to advance the goal,” Clinton has said.

The favoritism toward Israel is all the more glaring given America’s failure or unwillingness to stop Israel’s colonization on its own. When the government of Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reneged on an earlier promise of a temporary and limited freeze and announced massive subsidies for the construction of new settlements on the eve of Clinton’s 2011 visit to Israel, she spoke only of the need for peace talks to resume. She equated the PA’s pursuit of its legal right to have Palestine statehood recognized by the United Nations with Israel’s illegal settlements policy as factors undermining the peace process.

While rejecting Palestinian demands that Israel live up to its previous commitments to freeze settlements on the grounds there should be no pre-conditions to talks, Clinton has at times demanded pre-conditions for Arab participation. For example, in response to President Bush’s invitation for Arab states to attend the Annapolis peace conference in 2007, then-Senator Clinton went on record insisting that Arab states wishing to attend should unilaterally “recognize Israel’s right to exist and not use such recognition as a bargaining chip for future Israel concessions” and “end the Arab League economic boycott of Israel in all its forms.” The letter made no mention of the establishment of a Palestinian state, an end to the Israeli occupation, the withdrawal of illegal Israeli settlements, or any other Israeli obligations. As James Zogby of the Arab American Institute put it at the time, “if the goal is for Arab states not to participate in the upcoming conference, this would be the way to go.” The Bush administration rejected her demands for such pre-conditions.

Another example of Clinton’s double standards has been in her pledge as a presidential candidate to increase U.S. military aid and diplomatic support for Israel’s rightwing government. This is a government that includes ministers from far right parties who support violent settler militia that have repeatedly attacked Palestinian civilians, oppose recognition of a Palestinian state, and reject the Oslo Accords and subsequent agreements by the Israeli government. However, Clinton insists, “We will not deal with nor in any way fund a Palestinian government that includes Hamas unless and until Hamas has renounced violence, recognized Israel, and agreed to follow the previous obligations of the Palestinian Authority.”

More recently, Clinton has been making a series of excuses as to why Israel cannot make peace despite the Palestine Authority’s acquiescence to virtually all the demands of the Obama administration. For example, the Washington Post noted how she “appeared to blame the collapse of direct Israel-Palestinian talks on the wave of Mideast revolutions and unrest during the 2011 Arab Spring, although talks had broken off the previous year.” Clinton has also said that Israelis cannot be expected to make peace until they “know what happens in Syria and whether Jordan will remain stable,” which most observers recognize will take a very long time; that line of thinking enables Israel to further colonize the West Bank to the point where the establishment of a viable Palestinian state is impossible. What kind of peace settlement she envisions has not been made clear, but she did endorse then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s 2004 “Convergence Plan,” which would have allowed Israel to annex large areas of Palestinian territory conquered by Israeli forces in the 1967 war, despite the longstanding principle in international law against any country expanding its territory by force and the fact that the plan divides any future Palestinian state into a series of small, non-contiguous cantons surrounded by Israel.

As a U.S. senator, Clinton co-sponsored a resolution which, had it passed, would have established a precedent by referring to the West Bank not as an occupied territory but as a “disputed” territory. This distinction is important for two reasons. The word “disputed” implies that the claims of the West Bank’s Israeli conquerors are as legitimate as the claims of Palestinians who have lived on that land for centuries. And disputed territories—unlike occupied territories—are not covered by the Fourth Geneva Convention and many other international legal statutes. As a lawyer, Clinton must have recognized that such wording had the effect of legitimizing the expansion of a country’s territory by force, a clear violation of the UN Charter.

Clinton has challenged the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In 2004, the world court ruled by a 14-1 vote (with only the U.S. judge dissenting, largely on a technicality) that Israel, like every country, is obliged to abide by provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the Laws of War, and that the international community—as in any other case in which ongoing violations are taking place—is obliged to ensure that international humanitarian law is enforced. At issue was the Israeli government’s ongoing construction of a separation barrier deep inside the occupied Palestinian West Bank, which the World Court recognized—as does the broad consensus of international legal scholarship—as a violation of international humanitarian law. The ICJ ruled that Israel, like any country, had the right to build the barrier along its internationally recognized border for self-defense, but did not have the right to build it inside another country as a means of effectively annexing Palestinian land. In an unprecedented congressional action, Senator Clinton immediately introduced a resolution to put the U.S. Senate on record “supporting the construction by Israel of a security fence” and “condemning the decision of the International Court of Justice on the legality of the security fence.” In an effort to render the UN impotent in its enforcement of international law, her resolution (which the Republican-controlled Senate failed to pass as being too extreme) attempted to put the Senate on record “urging no further action by the United Nations to delay or prevent the construction of the security fence.”

Clinton’s claim that “it makes no sense for the United Nations to vehemently oppose a fence which is a nonviolent response to terrorism rather than opposing terrorism itself” was false in that the UN and the world court were only objecting to the barrier being built beyond Israel’s borders. Indeed, in her resolution and elsewhere, she appeared to be deliberately misrepresenting the ICJ’s published opinion, claiming that opposition to the plan of building a barrier in a serpentine fashion deep inside the West Bank as part of an effort to effectively annex large swathes of the occupied territory into Israel was denying Israel its right to self-defense and therefore was proof of an “anti-Israel” bias. In a series of statements and in her resolution, she made no distinction between Israel’s legal right to defend its borders, which the world court upheld, and the land grab to which the court objected.

Clinton has also been an outspoken defender of Israeli military actions, even when the United Nations and reputable international and Israeli human rights groups have documented violations of international humanitarian law. While appropriately condemning terrorism and other attacks on civilian targets by Hamas, Hezbollah, and other extremist groups, she has consistently rejected evidence that Israel has committed war crimes on an even greater scale. For example, since becoming a U.S. senator in early 2001, she has publicly condemned the vast majority of the 135 killings of Israeli children, but not once has she criticized any of the more than 2,000 deaths of Palestinian children.

In the face of widespread criticism by reputable human rights organizations over Israel’s systematic assaults against civilian targets in its April 2002 offensive in the West Bank, Senator Clinton co-sponsored a resolution defending the Israeli actions that claimed they were “necessary steps to provide security to its people by dismantling the terrorist infrastructure in the Palestinian areas.” She opposed UN efforts to investigate alleged war crimes by Israeli occupation forces and criticized President Bush for calling on Israel to pull back from its violent reconquest of Palestinian cities in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

She has vigorously defended Israel’s wars on Gaza. As secretary of state, she took the lead in attempting to block any action by the United Nations in response to a 2009 report by the UN Human Rights Council—headed by the distinguished South African jurist Richard Goldstone (a Zionist Jew)—which documented war crimes by both Israel and Hamas. She claims that the report denied Israel’s right to self-defense, when it in fact explicitly recognized Israel’s right to do so. Since the report’s only objections to Israeli conduct were in regard to attacks on civilian targets, not its military actions against extremist militias lobbing rockets into Israel, it appears that either she was deliberately misrepresenting the report, never bothered to read it before attacking it, or believes killing civilians can constitute legitimate self-defense.

When Israeli forces attacked a UN school housing refugees in the Gaza Strip in July of 2014, killing dozens of civilians, the Obama administration issued a statement saying it was “appalled” by the “disgraceful” shelling. By contrast, Clinton—when pressed about it in her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic—refused to criticize the massacre, saying that “it’s impossible to know what happens in the fog of war.” Though investigators found no evidence of Hamas equipment or military activity anywhere near the school, Clinton falsely alleged that they were firing rockets from an annex to the school. In any case, she argued, when Palestinian civilians die from Israeli attacks, “the ultimate responsibility has to rest on Hamas and the decisions it made.”

Clinton’s defense of Israeli war crimes is not restricted to Palestinian-populated areas, but includes those that take place in countries with historically close relations with the United States. During the thirty-four-day conflict between Israeli and Hezbollah forces in 2006, which resulted in the deaths of more than eight hundred Lebanese civilians, she responded to the widespread international criticism of the Israeli attacks on civilian infrastructure and the high civilian casualties by co-sponsoring a resolution unconditionally endorsing Israel’s war on Lebanon. Failing to distinguish between Israel’s right to self-defense and the large-scale bombing of civilian targets far from any Hezbollah military activity, Clinton asked, “If extremist terrorists were launching rocket attacks across the Mexican or Canadian border, would we stand by or would we defend America against these attacks from extremists?” During and after the fighting, Clinton failed to recognize that most critics of the Israeli actions never questioned Israel’s right to self-defense against Hezbollah, but—in the words of a Human Rights Watch report—the “systematic failure by the IDF to distinguish between combatants and civilians” and the way in which “Israeli forces have consistently launched artillery and air attacks with limited or dubious military gain but excessive civilian cost.” The report, echoing a similar report by Amnesty International and other human rights groups, noted how “in dozens of attacks, Israeli forces struck an area with no apparent military target. In some cases, the timing and intensity of the attack, the absence of a military target, as well as return strikes on rescuers, suggest that Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians.” While tens of thousands of Israelis protested the Lebanon war—which the Israeli government later acknowledged was unnecessary and harmful for Israel—Clinton emerged as one of its biggest cheerleaders. While diplomats at the United Nations were desperately working to end the fighting, Clinton spoke at a rally by rightwing groups outside the UN headquarters in New York City where she praised Israel’s efforts to “send a message to Hamas, Hezbollah, to the Syrians, [and] to the Iranians,” because, in her words, they oppose the United States and Israel’s commitment to “life and freedom.”

Clinton has opposed humanitarian efforts supportive of the Palestinians, criticizing a flotilla scheduled to bring relief supplies to the besieged Gaza Strip in 2011, claiming it would “provoke actions by entering into Israeli waters and creating a situation in which the Israelis have the right to defend themselves.” Not only did she fail to explain how ships with no weapons or weapons components on board (the only cargo on the U.S. ship were letters of solidarity to the Palestinians in that besieged enclave), she also failed to explain why she considered the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of the port of Gaza to be “Israeli waters” when the entire international community recognizes Israeli territorial waters as being well to the northeast of the ships’ intended route. Clinton’s State Department issued a public statement designed to discourage Americans from taking part in the flotilla to Gaza because they might be attacked by Israeli forces, yet it never issued a public statement demanding that Israel not attack Americans legally traveling in international waters. The flotilla never went forward, however, after she successfully convinced the Greek government to deny the organizers the right to sail from Greek ports.

A focus of Clinton has been her insistence that the PA was responsible for publishing textbooks promoting “anti-Semitism,” “violence,” and “dehumanizing rhetoric.” The only source she has cited to uphold these charges, however, has been a rightwing Israeli group that calls itself the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace (CMIP). The group, whose board includes Daniel Pipes and other prominent American neoconservatives, was founded to undermine the peace process following the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. CMIP’s claims have long since been refuted, for example in a detailed report released in March 2003 by the Jerusalem-based Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. The center reviewed Palestinian textbooks and tolerance education programs, and concluded that while the textbooks do not openly or adequately reflect the multiethnic, multicultural, and multireligious history of the region, “the overall orientation of the curriculum is peaceful.” The report said the Palestinian textbooks “do not openly incite against Israel and the Jews and do not openly incite hatred and violence.” The report goes on to observe how religious and political tolerance is emphasized in the textbooks. Similar conclusions have been reached in published reports by the Adam Institute, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, and Nathan Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. (The books Clinton cited were apparently old Egyptian and Jordanian texts found on some library shelves; they were not currently being used as textbooks nor were they supported by the PA.) Yet Clinton has continued to make these charges, emphasizing that the PA’s “incitement,” which she insists is creating a “new generation of terrorists,” more than Israel’s occupation, repression, and settlements, is the driver of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Here, as in forming her support for the Iraq war, Clinton often seems to rely more on rightwing advocacy groups than she does scholarly research.

The Moroccan Connection

Israel is not the only occupying power in the region supported by Clinton. She has been a strong backer of Morocco’s ongoing occupation of Western Sahara, working with the autocratic Moroccan kingdom to block the long-scheduled referendum on self-determination that would almost certainly lead to a vote for independence. As a recognized self-governing territory (a colony), international law requires that the Sahrawis be given the option of independence, along with other alternatives. Clinton instead has called for international acceptance of Morocco’s dubious “autonomy” plan and for “mediation” between the monarchy and the exiled nationalist Polisario Front, a process that would not offer the people of the territory a say in their future.

Rather than joining Amnesty International and other human rights groups in condemning the increase in the already-severe repression in the Western Sahara, Clinton—in a visit to Morocco in November 2009—instead chose to offer unconditional praise for the Moroccan government’s human rights record. Just days before her arrival, Moroccan authorities arrested seven nonviolent activists from Western Sahara on trumped-up charges of high treason, whom Amnesty International had declared as prisoners of conscience and demanded their unconditional release. Clinton decided to ignore the plight of these and other political prisoners held in Moroccan jails. Not long after Clinton praised the monarchy’s human rights record, the regime illegally expelled Aminatou Haidar, known as the Saharan Gandhi, for her leadership in the nonviolent resistance struggle in Western Sahara. Haidar—a winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award and other honors for her nonviolent activism—spent years in Moroccan prisons, where she was repeatedly tortured. She went on a month-long hunger strike that almost killed her before Morocco relented to international pressure and allowed her to return to her country.

The Office Chérifien des Phosphates (OCP), a Moroccan government-owned mining company that controls one of the world’s largest phosphate mines in the occupied Western Sahara, was the primary donor to the Clinton Global Initiative conference in Marrakech in May 2015. Exploitation of nonrenewable resources in non-self-governing territories, such as the OCP mining operations, is normally recognized as a violation of international law. This and other support provided to the Clinton Foundation by OCP—now totaling as much as $5 million—has raised some eyebrows, given Hillary Clinton’s efforts as secretary of state to push the Obama administration to take a more pro-Moroccan position. Since leaving office, she has continued her outspoken support for the monarchy. When she announced the Marrakech meeting in the fall of 2014, she praised Morocco as a “vital hub for economic and cultural exchange,” thanking the regime “for welcoming us and for its hospitality.”

President Hillary Clinton?

Increasing numbers of Americans, particularly those who identify with the Democratic Party, are taking a critical view of the militaristic aspects of U.S. policies in the Middle East. It would therefore be somewhat ironic that at a time when polls indicate that a majority of Democrats are increasingly critical of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East and of U.S. support for dictatorial regimes and occupation armies, the party would nominate a candidate who comes from the more hawkish wing of the party. Moreover, should she win the Democratic nomination for president, her Republican opponent in the November election will likely be advocating an even more hawkish policy in the Middle East. In such a scenario, regardless of who becomes president, Americans may end up providing their next president with a mandate for a more militaristic and interventionist policy for a region in the throes of historic upheaval.

Stephen Zunes is professor of politics and international studies and program director of Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism; co-author of Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution; and co-editor of Nonviolent Social Movements. He is a writer and senior analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, associate editor of Peace Review, contributing editor of Tikkun, and the chair of the academic advisory committee for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. He has contributed to the Nation, Huffington Post, and Alternet. On Twitter: @SZunes.

Saving Muslim Women

A common view in the West is that Muslim women are oppressed by Islamic culture and therefore in need of liberation from it. Columbia University scholar Lila Abu-Lughod has spent three decades turning such perceptions on their head. While not minimizing issues such as domestic abuse, sexual violence, and restrictions on women’s movement and societal participation, Abu-Lughod argues that to truly understand the profound challenges Muslim women face in their lives, the focus must be on “the global economic policies that impoverish them, the national policies that render their families vulnerable, the class politics that deprive them of dignity, and the military interventions that undermine their security.”

Do Muslim Women Need Saving? is the provocative title of Abu-Lughod’s most recent book, based on her ethnographic and anthropological investigations in Egypt. The book, published in 2013 and which Abu-Lughod discussed in a recent talk at the American University in Cairo, tells stories of “ordinary women countering and resisting many aspects of gendered power, often invoking their rights under Islam, appealing to Islam as a synonym of the highest morality, and finding meaning in being Muslim.” One woman, for example, expressed her horror to Abu-Lughod at the notion that Islam was seen as her oppressor; it is the government, she countered, that oppresses women through corruption and neglect.

Abu-Lughod’s work aims to place culture and gender in a broader socioeconomic context. Two of her earlier books, Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society (1986) and Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories (1993), rely on her ethnography of the Awlad Ali Bedouins in Egypt to challenge stereotypes and understand the cultural complexity of women in these communities. Abu-Lughod’s book Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt, published in 2004, demonstrated the role of class over culture in framing perceptions of Muslim women. Speaking with me during her visit to Cairo, Abu-Lughod explained how ideals of modern and nationalist women that appear in Egypt’s state-propagated media clash with the realities of women in rural communities; for them, she said, government neglect is a greater hindrance than the veil for women struggling to meet the basic economic needs of their families; moreover, she said, such imposed ideals promote division between urban and rural women.

Do Muslim Women Need Saving? expands on an article Abu-Lughod published in the journal American Anthropologist in 2002, when Western politicians and pundits alike justified the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in part by the need to rescue Afghan women from religious oppressors. In the article, she notes that the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan never viewed ending compulsory veil covering under the Taliban as one of its goals. Instead, she explains, the group felt the main threats facing Afghan women were problems like arms trafficking and drug smuggling—concerns disregarded in the Western narrative of Afghan women.

The Western obsession with tying the plight of Muslim women to their religion actually does them great harm, Abu-Lughod argues. She spoke of how feminism in the Muslim world, and even political opposition to Islamists, unless carefully framed, risk being unfairly dismissed if they can too simply be associated with the West. Progressive activist rhetoric, she told me, can unintentionally “feed into the larger imperialist one.”

After all, Abu-Lughod asks, why in the Middle East particularly do experts look for answers in religious texts rather than “the history of the development of repressive regimes in the region and the U.S. role in this history?” Culture and religion, she points out, are hardly central to analyzing specific hardships of say, Irish women, or Christian women, or African American women.

Chahine Lives!

Ah, the Golden Age of Egyptian film. The 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s represented a glamorous period, producing cinematic icons such as Omar Sharif, Rushdi Abaza, and Naguib Al Rihani. It was also a time when Hollywood on the Nile constructed grand movie theaters to showcase its homegrown talent. The industry, the stars, and the movie theaters, too, have experienced declines over the years. But lately Cairenes have been queuing up at Cinema Odeon for a revival of sorts. The time-worn Art Deco cinema palace, down an alleyway now lined with ahwas, is the home of Zawya, Egypt’s first art house movie theater.

Zawya, roughly Arabic for “perspective,” is the brainchild of Misr International Films, the production and distribution company founded by the celebrated Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine who died in 2008. The idea stemmed from Misr’s organizing of the annual Panorama of the European Cinema film festival, which began in 2004 as a way to break the monotony of the Hollywood blockbusters dominating Egypt’s modern movie theaters. The Panorama festival exposes local audiences to a selection of critically acclaimed feature films and documentaries, such as, most recently, 45 Years (United Kingdom), Far From the Madding Crowd (United States-United Kingdom), Je suis mort mais j’ai des amis (Belgium-France), and La niña de fuego (Spain-France). Since 2014, a young team led by director Youssef El-Shazli, and two graduates of the American University in Cairo, curator Alia Ayman (’10) and project coordinator Malak Makar (’14), have extended such offerings to delighted Egyptian film buffs throughout the year at Cinema Odeon. “In many countries you have two types of cinema: blockbuster and art house,” notes El-Shazli. “In Egypt we didn’t have the art house option for a long time—we want to show that there is another type of cinema that exists and has its own type of crowd.”

Zawya’s programming features bi-weekly premiers of theatrical releases. “Nothing too obscure or experimental,” says Makar, explaining that Zawya’s concept is to provide alternatives to cineplex fare while remaining inclusive at the same time. “I was initially concerned about the project being elitist,” Ayman adds. “We wanted to make it accessible.” Says El-Shazli: “We want to offer a diverse program finding a balance between films that are very art house and films that are semi-commercial and whatever lies between.”

Zawya has broadened its mission in unexpected ways. Working with Masreya Media, an audio production company specializing in subtitling, translation, and dubbing, it hosts film screenings for the blind that add audio descriptions of the visual events unfolding onscreen. Zawya recently brought homeless girls to Cinema Odeon to watch Wadjda, the award-winning film written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour (’97), and the first full-length feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia; the event was in collaboration with the Banati Foundation, a local organization that works with street children. “Film is an important tool for learning,” says Makar. “It’s a great way for discussing certain topics or issues outside of the classroom.” Zawya has also begun hosting events in movie theaters beyond Cairo; screenings have been held in Alexandria as well as the smaller cities of Tanta and Minya. The team launched Zawya Distribution six months ago, a mechanism to focus on Egyptian independent films by acquiring, releasing, and selling them.

Like all cinemas in Egypt, Zawya is compelled by law to clear its offerings with the government censorship authority, which results in some limitations, especially for productions that include nudity, indecent language, or political content. But for the Zawya team, a bigger challenge is how to become self-sustaining financially. Revenue is derived from ticket sales and a sponsorship from Commercial International Bank, but it is not enough to bring in all the films Zawya would like. “Sometimes it’s really expensive,” says Makar. “Subtitling, in particular, is very costly, and we don’t want to exclude large numbers of audience members because of language.” The solution, Makar believes, is for Zawya to own its own movie theater. Until then, the faded glory of Cinema Odeon will remain the venue for Zawya’s efforts to expand the boundaries of cinema in Egypt.

American Poverty

In his inaugural remarks in January 1937, in the midst of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt looked out at the nation and this is what he saw.

He saw tens of millions of its citizens denied the basic necessities of life.

He saw millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hung over them day by day. He saw millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children. He saw millions lacking the means to buy the products they needed and by their poverty and lack of disposable income denying employment to many other millions. He saw one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.

And he acted. Against the ferocious opposition of the ruling class of his day, people he called economic royalists, Roosevelt implemented a series of programs that put millions of people back to work, took them out of poverty, and restored their faith in government. He redefined the relationship of the federal government to the people of our country. He combatted cynicism, fear, and despair. He reinvigorated democracy. He transformed the country.

And that is what we have to do today.

And, by the way, almost everything he proposed was called “socialist.” Social Security, which transformed life for the elderly in this country was “socialist.” The concept of the “minimum wage” was seen as a radical intrusion into the marketplace and was described as “socialist.” Unemployment insurance, abolishing child labor, the forty-hour work week, collective bargaining, strong banking regulations, deposit insurance, and job programs that put millions of people to work were all described, in one way or another, as “socialist.” Yet, these programs have become the fabric of our nation and the foundation of the middle class.

Thirty years later, in the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson passed Medicare and Medicaid to provide healthcare to millions of senior citizens and families with children, persons with disabilities, and some of the most vulnerable people in this country. Once again these vitally important programs were derided by the rightwing as socialist programs that were a threat to our American way of life.

That was then. Now is now.

Today, despite the Wall Street crash of 2008, which drove this country into the worst economic downturn since the Depression, the American people are clearly better off economically than we were in 1937.

But, here is a very hard truth that we must acknowledge and address. Despite a huge increase in technology and productivity, despite major growth in the U.S. and global economy, tens of millions of American families continue to lack the basic necessities of life, while millions more struggle every day to provide a minimal standard of living for their families. The reality is that for the last forty years the great middle class of this country has been in decline and faith in our political system is now extremely low.

The rich get much richer. Almost everyone else gets poorer. Super Political Action Committees (PACs) funded by billionaires buy elections. Ordinary people don’t vote. We have an economic and political crisis in this country and the same old, same old establishment politics and economics will not effectively address it.

“Greed Is Destroying Our Nation”

If we are serious about transforming our country, if we are serious about rebuilding the middle class, if we are serious about reinvigorating our democracy, we need to develop a political movement which, once again, is prepared to take on and defeat a ruling class whose greed is destroying our nation. The billionaire class cannot have it all. Our government belongs to all of us, and not just the one percent.

We need to create a culture which, as Pope Francis reminds us, cannot just be based on the worship of money. We must not accept a nation in which billionaires compete as to the size of their super-yachts, while children in America go hungry and veterans sleep out on the streets.

Today, in America, we are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, but few Americans know that because so much of the new income and wealth goes to the people on top. In fact, over the last thirty years, there has been a massive transfer of wealth—trillions of wealth—going from the middle class to the top one-tenth of 1 percent—a handful of people who have seen a doubling of the percentage of the wealth they own over that period.

Unbelievably, and grotesquely, the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.

Today, in America, millions of our people are working two or three jobs just to survive. In fact, Americans work longer hours than do the people of any industrialized country. Despite the incredibly hard work and long hours of the American middle class, 58 percent of all new income generated today is going to the top 1 percent.

Today, in America, as the middle class continues to disappear, median family income is $4,100 less than it was in 1999. The median male worker made over $700 less than he did forty-two years ago, after adjusting for inflation. Last year, the median female worker earned more than $1,000 less than she did in 2007.

Today, in America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, more than half of older workers have no retirement savings—zero—while millions of elderly and people with disabilities are trying to survive on $12,000 or $13,000 a year. From Vermont to California, older workers are scared to death. “How will I retire with dignity?” they ask.

Today, in America, nearly forty-seven million Americans are living in poverty and over 20 percent of our children, including 36 percent of African American children, are living in poverty—the highest rate of childhood poverty of nearly any major country on earth. Today, in America, twenty-nine million Americans have no health insurance and even more are underinsured with outrageously high co-payments and deductibles. Further, with the United States paying the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs, one out of five patients cannot afford to fill the prescriptions their doctors write.

Today, in America, youth unemployment and underemployment is over 35 percent. Meanwhile, we have more people in jail than any other country and countless lives are being destroyed as we spend $80 billion a year locking up fellow Americans.

The bottom line is that today in America we not only have massive wealth and income inequality, but a power structure which protects that inequality. A handful of super-wealthy campaign contributors have enormous influence over the political process, while their lobbyists determine much of what goes on in Congress.

The Second Bill of Rights

In 1944, in his State of the Union speech, President Roosevelt outlined what he called a second Bill of Rights. This is one of the most important speeches ever made by a president but, unfortunately, it has not gotten the attention that it deserves.

In that remarkable speech, this is what Roosevelt stated: “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men.”

In other words, real freedom must include economic security. That was Roosevelt’s vision seventy years ago. It is my vision today. It is a vision that we have not yet achieved. It is time that we did.

In that speech, Roosevelt described the economic rights that he believed every American was entitled to: the right to a decent job at decent pay, the right to adequate food, clothing, and time off from work, the right for every business, large and small, to function in an atmosphere free from unfair competition and domination by monopolies. The right of all Americans to have a decent home and decent healthcare.

What Roosevelt was stating in 1944, what Martin Luther King, Jr. stated in similar terms twenty years later, and what I believe today, is that true freedom does not occur without economic security.

People are not truly free when they are unable to feed their family. People are not truly free when they are unable to retire with dignity. People are not truly free when they are unemployed or underpaid or when they are exhausted by working long hours. People are not truly free when they have no healthcare.

So let me define for you, simply and straightforwardly, what democratic socialism means to me. It builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans. And it builds on what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1968 when he stated, “This country has socialism for the rich, and rugged individualism for the poor.” It builds on the success of many other countries around the world that have done a far better job than we have in protecting the needs of their working families, the elderly, the children, the sick, and the poor.

Democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy.

Democratic socialism means that we must reform a political system in America today which is not only grossly unfair but, in many respects, corrupt.

It is a system, for example, which during the 1990s allowed Wall Street to spend $5 billion in lobbying and campaign contributions to get deregulated. Then, ten years later, after the greed, recklessness, and illegal behavior of Wall Street led to their collapse, it is a system which provided trillions in government aid to bail them out. Wall Street used their wealth and power to get Congress to do their bidding for deregulation and then, when their greed caused their collapse, they used their wealth and power to get Congress to bail them out. Quite a system!

And, then, to add insult to injury, we were told that not only were the banks too big to fail, the bankers were too big to jail. Kids who get caught possessing marijuana get police records. Wall Street CEOs who help destroy the economy get raises in their salaries. This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. meant by socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for everyone else.

Healthcare for All

It is time we had democratic socialism for working families, not just Wall Street, billionaires, and large corporations. It means that we should not be providing welfare for corporations, huge tax breaks for the very rich, or trade policies which boost corporate profits as workers lose their jobs. It means that we create a government that works for all of us, not just powerful special interests. It means that economic rights must be an essential part of what America stands for.

It means that healthcare should be a right of all people, not a privilege. This is not a radical idea. It exists in every other major country on earth. Not just Denmark, Sweden, or Finland. It exists in Canada, France, Germany, and Taiwan. That is why I believe in a Medicare-for-all single payer healthcare system. Yes: the Affordable Care Act, which I helped write and voted for, is a step forward for this country. But we must build on it and go further.

Medicare for all would not only guarantee healthcare for all people, not only save middle-class families and our entire nation significant sums of money, it would radically improve the lives of all Americans and bring about significant improvements in our economy.

People who get sick will not have to worry about paying a deductible or making a co-payment. They could go to the doctor when they should, and not end up in the emergency room. Business owners will not have to spend enormous amounts of time worrying about how they are going to provide healthcare for their employees. Workers will not have to be trapped in jobs they do not like simply because their employers are offering them decent health insurance plans. Instead, they will be able to pursue the jobs and work they love, which could be an enormous boon for the economy. And by the way, moving to a Medicare for all program will end the disgrace of Americans paying, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs.

Democratic socialism means that, in the year 2015, a college degree is equivalent to what a high school degree was fifty years ago—and that public education must allow every person in this country, who has the ability, the qualifications, and the desire, the right to go to a public college or university tuition free. This is also not a radical idea. It exists today in many countries around the world. In fact, it used to exist in the United States.

Democratic socialism means that our government does everything it can to create a full employment economy. It makes far more sense to put millions of people back to work rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, than to have a real unemployment rate of almost 10 percent. It is far smarter to invest in jobs and educational opportunities for unemployed young people than to lock them up and spend $80 billion a year through mass incarceration.

Democratic socialism means that if someone works forty hours a week, that person should not be living in poverty: that we must raise the minimum wage to a living wage—$15 an hour over the next few years. It means that we join the rest of the world and pass the very strong Paid Family and Medical Leave legislation now in Congress. How can it possibly be that the United States, today, is virtually the only nation on earth, large or small, which does not guarantee that a working-class woman can stay home for a reasonable period of time with her newborn baby? How absurd is that?

Democratic socialism means that we have government policy which does not allow the greed and profiteering of the fossil fuel industry to destroy our environment and our planet, and that we have a moral responsibility to combat climate change and leave this planet healthy and inhabitable for our kids and grandchildren.

Democratic socialism means that in a democratic, civilized society the wealthiest people and the largest corporations must pay their fair share of taxes. Yes, innovation, entrepreneurship, and business success should be rewarded, but greed for the sake of greed is not something that public policy should support. It is not acceptable that in a rigged economy in the last two years the wealthiest fifteen Americans saw their wealth increase by $170 billion, more wealth than is owned by the bottom 130 million Americans. Let us not forget what Pope Francis has so elegantly stated: “We have created new idols. The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.”

It is not acceptable that major corporations stash their profits in the Cayman Islands and other offshore tax havens to avoid paying $100 billion in taxes each and every year. It is not acceptable that hedge fund managers pay a lower effective tax rate than nurses or truck drivers. It is not acceptable that billionaire families are able to leave virtually all of their wealth to their families without paying a reasonable estate tax. It is not acceptable that Wall Street speculators are able to gamble trillions of dollars in the derivatives market without paying a nickel in taxes on those transactions.

One Person, One Vote

Democratic socialism, to me, does not just mean that we must create a nation of economic and social justice. It also means that we must create a vibrant democracy based on the principle of one person, one vote. It is extremely sad that the United States, one of the oldest democracies on earth, has one of the lowest voter turnouts of any major country, and that millions of young and working-class people have given up on our political system entirely. Every American should be embarrassed that in our last national election 63 percent of the American people, and 80 percent of young people, did not vote. Clearly, despite the efforts of many Republican governors to suppress the vote, we must make it easier for people to participate in the political process, not harder. It is not too much to demand that everyone 18 years of age is registered to vote.

Further, it is unacceptable that we have a corrupt campaign finance system which allows millionaires, billionaires, and large corporations to contribute as much as they want to Super PACs to elect candidates who will represent their special interests. We must overturn Citizens United and move to public funding of elections.

So the next time you hear me attacked as a socialist, remember this:

I don’t believe government should own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal.

I believe in private companies that thrive and invest and grow in America instead of shipping jobs and profits overseas.

I believe that most Americans can pay lower taxes—if hedge fund managers who make billions manipulating the marketplace finally pay the taxes they should.

I don’t believe in special treatment for the top 1 percent, but I do believe in equal treatment for African Americans who are right to proclaim the moral principle that Black Lives Matter.

I despise appeals to nativism and prejudice, and I do believe in immigration reform that gives Hispanics and others a pathway to citizenship and a better life.

I don’t believe in some foreign “ism,” but I believe deeply in American idealism.

I’m not running for president because it’s my turn, but because it’s the turn of all of us to live in a nation of hope and opportunity not for some, not for the few, but for all.

This essay is adapted from a speech delivered at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, on November 19, 2015.

Bernie Sanders, a United States senator, is a candidate for the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential nomination. He was elected as an independent senator from Vermont in 2006 and reelected in 2012. From 1991 to 2007, he was an independent member of the U.S. House of Representatives representing Vermont’s at-large district. He was mayor of Burlington from 1981 to 1989. On Twitter: @SenSanders.

Viva Latino Voters!

In the 1960 U.S. presidential election, Mexican Americans formed Viva Kennedy clubs in the hopes of electing John F. Kennedy to the presidency. Although Mexican Americans believed they helped Kennedy win the crucial state of Texas, most outside observers regarded their votes as unimportant. After all, Kennedy’s running mate was Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, the powerful U.S. Senate majority leader. In one presidential election after another, Latino elites continued to hype the importance of the Latino vote. Political realities suggested that much of their hype was simply that—hype. Then came the 2008 and 2012 elections, and the hype gave way to political realities. The Latino vote was widely seen as pivotal in the election and reelection of President Barack Obama. Today, pundits no longer refer to Latinos as a sleeping giant. Instead, they use terms like the “Latino tsunami” when speaking about their demographic and electoral clout. The fact that more than a year before the general election in November 2016 the media and candidates themselves were highlighting the importance of Latino voters is a radical departure from the past. Latino voters are poised to play a pivotal role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The 1960 Democratic National Convention was held in Los Angeles. Its location made it convenient for a handful of Mexican American political elites to attend and outline a strategy for broader Mexican American participation. These leaders decided to support John F. Kennedy and, after a quick meeting with his brother Robert, they proposed a bold strategy for Mexican American political participation through the development of Viva Kennedy clubs. The clubs were autonomous entities with no ties to funding from the national or local Democratic Party. Viva Kennedy leaders naïvely believed they were directly linked to the inner circle of Kennedy’s campaign. They also naïvely believed that if they could demonstrate Mexican American voters were instrumental in Kennedy’s election, the administration would reward them with high-level appointments. Viva Kennedy club leaders were anxious for recognition and they overplayed the importance of their initial meeting with Robert Kennedy and signals, however small, from the Kennedy campaign. They used this assumed connection to mobilize Mexican American voters by explaining to them that Kennedy was a friend and was counting on them to win the election. While there is no data showing the success of their mobilization campaigns, historians note that Mexican American voters responded enthusiastically. In the end, Kennedy prevailed over Republican Richard M. Nixon by a narrow margin. The fact that Kennedy won Texas, the epicenter of Viva Kennedy Club activities, signaled to Mexican American leaders that their efforts were successful. They eagerly awaited the fruits of their labor.

The appointments and recognition never came, nor did the Kennedy administration preoccupy itself with Mexican American issues. While the leadership felt ignored and even insulted, the fact of the matter was that these individuals and their clubs were not officially associated with the Kennedy campaign. None of them were members of Kennedy’s inner circle of advisors. In all likelihood, Viva Kennedy leaders were unknown to anyone of importance working with or advising Kennedy. So it is not surprising that they did not receive the recognition they expected. Not only did the leadership fail to gain recognition for themselves, they also failed to gain recognition for the broader Mexican American electorate. Yet, Viva Kennedy leaders would remain politically active throughout their lives and many went on to hold elected offices. These men set into motion one of the most significant steps undertaken by Mexican Americans—coordinated participation in electoral politics.

Since the 1960 presidential election, there has been an ongoing quest for political recognition. One of the major obstacles confronting Hispanic leaders was the absence of reliable data and research on Latinos. It was impossible to demonstrate Latinos’ voting strength or state with any confidence what their political or partisan preferences were. Essentially this made them politically invisible. Nonetheless, groups such as the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project (SVREP), founded in Texas in 1974 by William C. Velásquez, continued the work of the Viva Kennedy Clubs by carrying out voter registration and mobilization efforts in Latino communities. Although the Latino population and electorate experienced significant growth as a result of changes to U.S. immigration law in the the 1980s, such as the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which legalized millions of undocumented immigrants, they remained politically invisible because of the continued absence of data and research on this population.

California’s Proposition 187

In 1990, political scientists made a significant contribution to the study of Latino politics with the Latino National Political Survey. The LNPS was the first national survey analyzing Latino political behavior and attitudes. The survey had a sample of 2,817 Latinos, of which 1,546 were Mexican, 589 were Puerto Rican, and 682 were Cuban. The fact that the survey was national and that respondents were randomly selected was significant because the results could be generalized to the broader Mexican American, Puerto Rican, and Cuban American community. The LNPS became an important tool for educating Americans about the political views and behaviors of the three largest Latino groups in the United States. Many of the results were eye opening and challenged conventional wisdom about Latinos. By including a number of social indicators, the survey revealed that Latino assimilationist patterns mirrored those of other immigrants. Large majorities displayed high levels of affection and patriotism toward the United States. Also, at the time, immigration issues did not factor prominently among their policy concerns. When asked if they agreed or disagreed that there are too many immigrants, 75.2 percent of Mexican American respondents agreed (agree/strongly agree) with that statement. Among Puerto Ricans the figure was 79.4 percent and among Cuban Americans, 65.5 percent agreed that there were too many immigrants. At the time, the political context was one where anti-immigrant rhetoric was not pervasive, so their views were not seen as hostile toward undocumented immigrants.

By the time the survey was carried out, the Latino population had become more diverse. Historically, Latino politics was synonymous with Mexican American politics. Yet, over time other Latino groups would experience significant increases. Given the growing diversity, it was imperative for scholars to examine whether this diverse population was seeing itself as a distinct ethnic group. Specifically, scholars were interested in whether a Latino/Hispanic pan-ethnic identity was emerging. If respondents identified as a collective, using a pan-ethnic label, then one could claim that a “Latino” community did in fact exist and may possibly act in concert when it came to matters of politics. However, if these groups rejected this identity, then the prospects for national visibility could be dampened given that “Latino” politics or the “Latino” electorate would be nonexistent. Latino politics would simply exist as Mexican American politics in the Southwest, Puerto Rican politics in the Northeast, and Cuban American politics in the Southeast.

The LNPS asked respondents to select their preferred ethnic identity. Scholars and advocates were dismayed to find that very few respondents selected the pan-ethnic identity of Hispanic or Latino. Among Mexican Americans, only 28.4 percent of U.S.-born respondents picked a pan-ethnic label. Among Puerto Ricans born in the mainland, 19.4 percent selected a pan-ethnic identity. For U.S.-born Cuban Americans, 20.1 percent chose a pan-ethnic identity. Among foreign-born respondents, the selection of a pan-ethnic label was significantly lower. For a majority of respondents, the preferred identity was tied to the ancestral homeland and the United States (for example, Mexican American). The absence of a pan-ethnic identity was consequential because it suggested that Latino politics was fragmented. An additional challenge to national visibility was the fact that many Latinos remained politically unengaged. In the LNPS, respondents were asked if they had participated in a wide range of political activities including the 1988 presidential election. Cuban Americans had the highest rate of participation with 67 percent claiming to have voted in 1988. However, turnout rates were dismal for Mexican Americans (49 percent voted in 1988) and Puerto Ricans (50 percent voted in 1988).

Although the LNPS identified some of the barriers limiting the rise of Latinos as national political players, it also helped advance their presence through the scholarship it spurred. Without the LNPS, the subfield of Latino politics would not have emerged as an important field in political science. The political scientists Harry P. Pachon and Rodolfo O. de la Garza, who worked on the LNPS, were also in the process of building a significant research center in Texas and Southern California, The Tomas Rivera Policy Institute (TRPI). Together, the LNPS and the TRPI would prove to be indispensible for increasing Latino visibility in the 1990s. The former would remain the only national survey on the Latino electorate for over a decade. The latter would initiate a series of studies on the policy needs of this growing population. In essence, the dreams of the Viva Kennedy generation were being realized in the 1990s as political scientists took the lead in developing rigorous studies on the Latino electorate.

However, it was a series of strategic missteps on the part of Republicans that would alter the course of Latino history. In 1994, an anti-immigrant ballot initiative would appear on the California ballot that would fundamentally transform politics in the Golden State and beyond. The ballot initiative was Proposition 187. Supporters of the initiative designed it to address California’s fiscal problems caused by “illegal” immigrants. Specifically, it prohibited undocumented immigrants from receiving any type of public service, including schooling and non-emergency medical care. It also required public service employees to report persons suspected of being undocumented to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). At the time, 80 percent of undocumented immigrants were from Latin America and the campaign images and rhetoric were largely directed at Latin Americans generally and Mexicans in particular. In his bid to win reelection, Governor Pete Wilson made his support for Proposition 187 a central issue in his campaign. Latinos saw the media campaign and rhetoric supporting the initiative as xenophobic and broadly directed against the state’s Hispanic population. Although the initiative passed by a large margin (59 to 41 percent), Latinos overwhelmingly voted against it. More significantly, the initiative led Latino immigrants to naturalize and turn out in record numbers. Historically, naturalization rates for Latin Americans were lower than that of other immigrant groups. But now naturalization was pursued in an effort to secure the right to vote. An unintended consequence of Proposition 187 was its mobilizing effect on Latinos. Over time, the sustained increases in voter turnout led pundits to declare that the sleeping giant had awakened.

“Tomorrow We Vote”

My own research, and that of other scholars, conclusively demonstrates that Proposition 187 had a dramatic impact on the Latino electorate and California politics. The initiative not only increased the share of the Latino electorate in the state, it also created a backlash against the Republican Party. This was a strategic miscalculation. The state’s Republicans had failed to consider the significant demographic shifts that were taking place in the state. For example, between 1994 and 2004 the Latino population grew by 30 percent. During this same time period, the non-Hispanic white population grew by 1 percent. Taking a longer historical view of this growth provides us with a greater appreciation for how Latinos literally changed the face of California. In 1960, Latinos constituted a mere 9 percent of California’s population. By the 2010 Census, they were 38 percent of the population. By 2010 Latinos officially transformed California into a “majority-minority” state and by 2015 they outnumbered the non-Hispanic white population.

The most significant change that occurred in California was not demographic, but political. The Latino electorate essentially transformed California into a solidly Democratic state. This is a significant accomplishment considering that throughout much of the Cold War, California was a Republican stronghold. Republicans had won every presidential contest in the state from 1952 to 1988, except Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 landslide over Barry Goldwater. Today, the Republican Party in California is in a free-fall; no Republican presidential candidate has won the state since 1992. Presently, Republicans do not hold any statewide office and they have seen their numbers fall below one-third in the state senate and assembly. In the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans picked up sixty-three House seats nationally, they failed to pick up a single seat in California. The Democratic Party has a two-thirds majority in the state legislature for the first time since the 1880s. Finally, the share of Californians registered as Republican declined from 37 percent in 1992 to less than 30 percent in 2012.

The dramatic demise of the Republicans in California can be attributed to the rise of the Latino electorate and the anti-immigrant initiatives that were passed in the mid-1990s—besides Proposition 187, Propositions 209 and 227 cut affirmative action and bilingual education programs. Without these initiatives and the anti-immigrant rhetoric that accompanied them, Latinos would not have defected from the Republican Party and the party’s losses would not have been as dramatic. Republicans were actually making significant inroads with Latino voters prior to Proposition 187. Polling data from a California Field Poll show that Ronald Reagan increased his share of the Latino vote from 35 percent in 1980 to 45 percent in 1984. A 2013 Latino Decisions poll asked Latinos if they had ever voted for a Republican candidate in a local, state, or national election; a whopping 52 percent of respondents answered yes. Clearly, Latinos are willing to vote for Republican candidates. However, the anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric that many Republicans adopted caused Latinos to abandon the party in droves.

Anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric could not have come at a worse time for Republicans as the share of Latino voters increased dramatically. In 1980 Latino voters were only 7 percent of California’s electorate. By 1990, they were about 9 percent. By 2000 that figure had grown to 14 percent, and by 2012, over a quarter of California’s electorate was Latino. During this period, the size of the non-Hispanic white electorate increased by a mere 1 percent. Moreover, the size of non-Hispanic white voters registering Republican also declined, as many were also turned off by the party’s stances on immigration. The increase in Latino political power devastated the Republican Party in the state.

Events in California reverberated nationally. Rather than learn from the mistakes made in California, Republicans in other states began supporting anti-immigrant policies and employed strident rhetoric similar to that used in California in the mid-1990s. Some of the most controversial measures were passed in Arizona, including Proposition 200, in 2004, and SB 1070, in 2010. Draconian anti-immigrant policies became nationalized in December 2005 when the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed HR 4437, the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act, also known as the Sensenbrenner Bill for its sponsor Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner. HR 4437 would have expanded fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border and increased penalties for entering the country without documentation and for hiring someone who was undocumented. However, the most controversial aspect of the bill was that it made it a crime to provide any type of assistance to undocumented immigrants. Essentially, religious workers and other social service providers who served undocumented immigrants could face felony charges. In the spring of 2006, the nation witnessed the largest civil rights demonstrations as millions, largely Latinos, took to the streets in opposition to the Sensenbrenner Bill. Many of the protestors carried signs stating, “Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote.” The message was clear and it would be delivered in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.

Obama Wins!

During the 2008 primary, Latinos received unprecedented media attention. The change in coverage was due to the growth of this electorate and the fact that the Democratic Party changed the 2008 primary schedule in a manner that allowed Latino voters to become decisive players throughout the campaign. Previously, the early primary states were less diverse and therefore minority voters had less of an opportunity to influence the early trend of the primary elections. Because so many heavily Latino states held primaries before February 5, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama intensified their Hispanic outreach strategies. Latinos strongly supported Clinton and she won the Latino vote by two-to-one margins in nearly every state. In fact, Latino voters were instrumental in keeping her candidacy viable until mid-June. It was alleged that Latino anti-black prejudice was the reason Obama did not do well among Latinos. That assertion was false, as these observers failed to cite many elections in which Latinos strongly backed African American candidates. The fact that Obama won an estimated 70 percent of the Latino vote in the 2008 general election should have put to rest the trope that this electorate is reluctant to support African American candidates.

Obama’s victory over Republican John McCain was attributed, in part, to the support he gained from Latino voters. Was the Latino vote critical to Obama’s victory? Before answering this question, it is important to recall that historically Latino voters are seen as politically inconsequential in national presidential politics. The noted Latino politics expert Rodolfo O. de la Garza has argued, “The Latino vote is completely irrelevant. The myth was created by Latino leaders who wanted to convince politicians nationally about how important Latinos were.” True, it is difficult, if not impossible, in presidential elections for any single group of voters to claim that their vote is determinative of the outcome. Yet, Latinos were clearly relevant in 2008. According to Latino Decisions analysis, fourteen states were clearly identified as swing states that would determine the election outcome in the 2008 presidential contest. Seven of the fourteen had significant Latino populations that could influence the outcomes of those states: Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina, and Indiana. Using a series of sophisticated statistical measures, Latino Decisions concluded, “The Latino vote did not deliver the power punch in what became a landslide victory for Obama, but Latinos were far from irrelevant. Latino influence was greatest in Nevada and Florida, two of the most hyped battleground states; both flipped from Republican to Democrat from 2004 to 2008.”

In 2012, Latinos gained even greater visibility as Obama defeated Romney despite losing ground among non-Hispanic white voters. For the first time ever, Latinos accounted for one in ten votes cast nationwide, and Obama received the highest ever Latino vote total, 75 percent, for any presidential candidate. Also, for the first time ever, the Latino vote directly accounted for Obama’s margin of victory. Without the Latino vote, Obama would have lost the election to Romney, at least in the popular vote. Additional statistical analysis by Latino Decisions identifies several states where Latinos alone and in combination with African Americans proved to be pivotal in putting that state’s electoral vote in Obama’s camp. One of the key factors driving Latino voters was the candidates’ divergent position on immigration, a top policy issue for Latinos. Recall that data from the Latino National Political Survey (1990) revealed that immigration was not a salient issue among Latinos.

However, since the mid-1990s, the position candidates and parties take on immigration has had a direct influence on Latinos’ vote choice. In 2012, Obama and the Democratic Party supported a wide array of progressive policies on immigration. In contrast, Romney took an opposing and hardline position on immigration. He supported a policy of self-deportation and opposed any efforts to regularize the status of undocumented immigrants. Rather than reaching out to Latino voters, Romney and the Republicans believed they could prevail by doubling down on conservative non-Hispanic white voters. That was once again a strategic miscalculation.

Fulfilling the Potential

In 1960, Viva Kennedy leaders sought to raise the political visibility of Latinos through voter mobilization drives on behalf of John F. Kennedy. It was an audacious plan with a modest beginning. Over the years, Latino politics was plagued by low voter turnout and political invisibility. Regrettably, it took a series of anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric to finally awaken the sleeping giant. Latino immigrants became citizens and Latino citizens (naturalized and U.S.-born) became voters. Today, Latino voters wield significant influence in local, state, and national politics. That influence is likely to increase and remain a permanent feature of American politics.

Nonetheless, after sixty years of electoral political engagement, the full electoral potential of Latinos remains unfulfilled. For example, in the 2012 election 12.5 million Latinos went to the polls, a significant increase from previous elections, but only about half of the 24 million eligible Latino voters. Additionally, Latinos are 17 percent of the population, yet they constitute only 10 percent of the electorate. In contrast, non-Hispanic whites are 63 percent of the U.S. population, yet they constitute nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of the electorate. Much work remains to be done in order to fully capitalize on the power of the Latino vote.

Over sixty years ago, Viva Kennedy leaders recognized that Latinos would turn out and vote if they were mobilized by their organization, candidates, and political parties. Perhaps they understood that they alone would have to target Latino voters, since historically the political parties and candidates ignored Latinos. While much has changed since the 1960 presidential election, other things remain the same; Latinos are one of the most under-mobilized segments of the electorate. In a Latino Decisions 2012 election eve poll, respondents were asked, “Over the past few months, did anyone from a campaign, political party, or community organization ask you to vote, or register to vote?” Over two-thirds of respondents answered no. Again, much work remains to be done.

Although Latinos remained under-mobilized, some significant changes have occurred since the 1960s. First, the population is considerably larger. In 1960 there were an estimated 5 million Latinos in the United States. Today, there are about 55 million persons of Hispanic ancestry. Secondly, despite its size and diversity, Latinos believe there are more commonalities than differences across the Hispanic ancestry groups; they are embracing a pan-ethnic identity. Recall that in 1990, the Latino National Political Survey found that most Latinos did not identify pan-ethnically. In 2006, a group of political scientists developed a larger national survey of Latinos, the Latino National Survey (LNS). The survey allowed respondents to select multiple identities, and the majority selected labels that included pan-ethnic identities. Specifically, Latinos were asked, “How strongly do you think of yourself as Hispanic or Latino?” Eighty-six percent of respondents identified “very to somewhat strongly” with these pan-ethnic terms. Third, Latinos are more politically cohesive than at any other time in history. In the Latino Decisions 2012 election eve poll, respondents were asked, “Which of the following three statements do you agree with the most: I’m voting in 2012 because I want to support the Democratic Party/Republican Party/Latino Community.” Support for the Democratic Party (39 percent) and Latino community (36 percent) was statistically equal. These results reveal a high degree of ethnic consciousness. The general consensus among longtime observers of Latino politics is that the ongoing attacks against immigrants are forging a sense of political commonality among Latinos. In short, Latino politics is large, visible, and cohesive.

It is ironic that the dream of the Viva Kennedy leaders to mobilize Latino voters and gain national recognition was realized in the last few decades by the shortsighted policy positions and campaign strategies of the Republican Party. The consequence of this strategy has been disastrous for the Republicans in California and presidential hopefuls. Rather than chart a new course, the current Republican presidential candidates have ramped up the attacks against immigrants and other minority groups. History has shown that Latinos will not let these attacks go unchecked and, unlike the past, they are now in a position to defeat their opponents. Will the 2016 race see the emergence of a Republican candidate along the lines of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, who managed to win nearly 40 percent of the Latino vote? Or will it be a candidate along the lines of Bob Dole or Mitt Romney who won a mere 20 percent of the Latino vote? The former candidates provide a blueprint for political success while the latter provide a blueprint for political failure. Regardless of the choice taken by the Grand Old Party, as Republicans call themselves, the winners for the foreseeable future will be Latinos.

Adrian D. Pantoja is senior analyst for Latino Decisions and professor of political studies and Chicano studies at Pitzer College. He is the co-author of the policy reports Building an All-In Nation, A View from the American Public; Anti-Immigrant Politics and Lessons for the GOP from California; and A Closer Look at Legal Permanent Residents (LPRs): Motivations and Barriers to Naturalization. He has contributed chapters to the books Latinos and the 2012 Election, The New Face of the American Voter; Latino America: How America’s Most Dynamic Population Is Poised to Transform the Politics of the Nation; and Immigration and the Border: Politics and Policy in the New Century.

Obama’s Tarnished Legacy in the Middle East

Barely a week after his inauguration I was lucky to be the first journalist to interview President Barack Obama, for Al Arabiya television. The interview seemed to symbolize Obama’s good intentions to improve America’s relations with the Islamic World and steer a more cooperative and constructive foreign policy in the Middle East. He told me that he was sending former U.S. senator and vaunted Northern Ireland peace negotiator George Mitchell to the region to “listen” as a prelude to the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. He spoke of his plans to address the Islamic World from a Muslim capital, expressing his readiness to initiate a new partnership “based on mutual respect and mutual interest.” He stressed that the United States has a stake in the wellbeing of Muslims, saying, “I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries.” He went so far as to extend an olive branch to Tehran, saying the United States must be “willing to talk to Iran.”

In the wider Middle East Obama had inherited a dysfunctional state system and fraying civil societies, not to mention two of the longest wars in American history—the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and then of Iraq in 2003 initiated by his predecessor, President George W. Bush. Yet, Obama will bequeath to his successor disintegrating political orders and smoldering societies stretching from North Africa to Yemen and beyond.

He came to office to end the “dumb” war in Iraq and finish honorably the “war of necessity” in Afghanistan. But he was forced in the second half of his second term to recalibrate his calculus in both military theaters; to reintroduce a modest military force in Iraq after withdrawing all U.S. troops in 2011, and to keep a few thousand troops in Afghanistan after he leaves office in January 2017. It must have been agonizing in the extreme for a president who prides himself on his realism and dispassionate conduct of foreign policy, and on his judicious use of military force, grounded in an exaggerated awareness of America’s limits of power, to face his own limitations of leadership in shaping the futures of those two complex societies.

On Obama’s watch Al-Qaeda went into decline. A much-trumpeted act of this administration was the killing of Osama Bin Laden by a Navy Seal team in 2011. But Obama’s eagerness to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, and his indecisiveness about how to handle the crisis in Syria, led to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—the latest and most vicious of apocalyptic terror movements in modern times.

What makes Obama’s failure more salient, as he struggles in his final year in office to shape his legacy in the Middle East, is the catastrophe in Syria. The civil war has led to the disintegration and radicalization of the country, the destruction of Syrian society, and contributed to the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. All of this was brought on in no small part by Obama’s indecisiveness, tepid actions, and about-turns.

Historians in the future may differ in their assessments of the extent of Obama’s culpability in the region’s calamities, but he will not escape the harsh judgment that his actions and inactions contributed significantly to the great unraveling of the Middle East.

Words as Praxis

I have often remarked in the last seven years that there is not a single official in the Obama administration with strategic heft. President Obama himself has a certain vision of the world and America’s place in it that is deeply flawed. Obama was never a transformational leader. In global affairs, his is a transitional presidency walking us on a rickety bridge. He is leaving behind the tired Imperium that shaped the world of the twentieth century and entering a new uncertain global system where America is barely a first among equals. That is a system where American power is defined by its constraints and not by its tremendous deterrence capability (when in the hands of a wise leader willing to use raw power to protect the realm and its interests).

Obama acts as if America is no longer capable of achieving greatness on its own; as it did when it led the fight against fascism and communism in Europe, initiated the Marshall Plan, launched the Peace Corps, outdistanced the Soviet Union in the space race, and did the most to cause the collapse of the Soviet empire. Instead of being truly judicious in the exercise of power, as the leader of a great country should do, Obama approaches power, and particularly military power—unless it means dispatching drones on easy missions, or limited Special Forces operations—as something passé, a crude tool in international relations that belongs to the twentieth century. Obama gave us a hint of his concept of the limited use of force in his first inaugural speech, when he said that America’s “power grows through it prudent use. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; [and] the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.” When it comes to military power, Obama is an agnostic at best. For him, eloquent words are more effective than sharp swords. Sometimes he treats words as if they have the value and impact of actions. That view of the world, which shapes Obama’s foreign policy decisions, enabled China’s incorporation of the waters and the skies of the South China Sea, Russia’s land grab in Crimea, and Iran’s military rampages in Syria and Iraq.

President Obama’s leadership in the Middle East has been found wanting, especially when judged against the high expectations he raised in speeches, notably in his famous address to the Islamic World from Cairo in June 2009. He has talked about ending America’s wars in the region, achieving Arab-Israeli peace in his first term, engaging Iran and Syria, ushering in a “new beginning” with the Islamic World, and helping Arabs who rebelled against despots. The fallout from Obama’s policies includes the ongoing civil war in Libya, the festering Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the stifling of democracy movements, a deepening rift in U.S. relations with the governments in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and of course the political and military disaster in Syria.

For more than three decades, I have tried to interpret America to the Arabs and to explain the Arabs to Americans. I have never seen such disillusionment with an American president and his policies expressed by people in the region, ordinary citizens as well as public figures. In private, I have heard Arab officials express critical views of Obama and his style of leadership bordering on utter contempt; some Israeli officials did that publicly. For his Arab allies, Obama was too deferential to Iran and too quick to dump President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt—views also held by Israeli officials. Arabs feel Obama also mishandled Syria, a view strongly held also by Turkey. It is rarely the case for an American president to find that his relationships with Arabs, Israelis, and Turks are simultaneously troubled and in some cases very bitter.

Nor is Obama popular with the region’s ordinary citizens. A Pew Research Center poll in June 2015 shows that Obama’s image in the Middle East is mostly negative, with more than eight in ten Palestinians and Jordanians saying that they have no confidence in Obama to do the right thing in world affairs. In Lebanon 64 percent have no confidence in Obama’s leadership, with only 50 percent of Israelis saying they have confidence in the American president. In Turkey Obama’s fortune is better, but not by much where 46 percent of Turks have a negative assessment of his leadership. There is much anecdotal evidence showing that Arab youth in general have soured on Obama, accusing him of reneging on his early pledges to oppose Arab despotism and to stand by those who sought peaceful change in Egypt and Bahrain, and of abandoning Libya after the fall of the Gadhafi regime. However, what angers many Arabs is Obama’s disastrous handling of the Syrian conflict; they blame his indecisiveness on challenging the Bashar Al-Assad regime’s predations, and halfhearted measures toward helping the Syrian opposition, for the worst human tragedy in the twenty-first century.

Allure of Persia

Obama’s dogged pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran, driven by an understandable fascination with what improved relations with Iran could bring and a desire to curb Iran’s future development of nuclear weapons, has been his single most consistent policy goal in the Middle East. But the nuclear deal reached in 2015 notwithstanding, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s fist will likely remain clenched as long as he breathes. The outlook prior to the nuclear agreement looked very bleak for the ayatollah and his men. The modest nuclear deal was their ticket out of Iran’s economic crisis and out of international isolation. Tehran’s leaders will not change their unsentimental ways or their frozen view that the world around them is mostly unforgiving. The president can send personal letters to the ayatollah, deferentially refer to Iran as the “Islamic Republic of Iran,” make the obligatory repeated references to the greatness of Persian culture, and mark Persian and Islamic holidays. But that will not lead to a “new beginning” with Iran as Obama hopes.

One can make the argument that the nuclear deal, if implemented fully, will delay Iran’s inevitable march towards acquiring and mastering the full enrichment cycle by ten or fifteen years, which is not an insignificant achievement for the United States and its European allies, which are very averse to the use of military force to end Iran’s nuclear program. But for an ancient land like Iran, which measures history by millennia and centuries, a decade or two is not even a fleeting moment.

Most problematic in Obama’s approach to Iran was his refusal to pursue the nuclear negotiations within an overarching strategy that would include the promotion of human rights, and actively checking and deterring Iran’s destructive regional ambitions, particularly its direct military involvement and through Shiite Muslim proxies in the Syrian, Iraqi, and Yemeni conflicts. Many analysts have written about how Iran has benefited from America’s blunders in Iraq, and Obama’s handwringing in Syria, to become the country with the most influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Given Saudi Arabia’s preoccupation with a seemingly endless war in Yemen, Egypt’s rapidly diminishing regional role at a time when its armed forces are battling a nasty Islamist insurgency in Sinai, and Turkey’s obsession with checking Kurdish assertiveness, Iran’s ascendency in the Levant, Mesopotamia, and on the Arabian Peninsula is the more worrisome.

Obama’s weak response to Iran’s Green Movement in 2009 was a clear signal that human rights and good governance were not among his top priorities in Iran. During the Cold War, the United States used a combination of hard and soft power in its dealings with the Soviet Union. Negotiating nuclear accords was pursued but not at the expense of pressure for human rights. American presidents, Republicans and Democrats, held summit meetings with Soviet leaders and signed the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT) and Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) nuclear agreements while containing and even rolling back Soviet adventurism and aggression in Asia, Africa, and Central America. We all knew the names of prominent Soviet dissidents and human rights activists and the particular struggle of each one of them.

By contrast, the Obama administration never made Iran’s atrocious human rights record and its rapacious activities in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen contentious issues during the long nuclear talks. The recent encounter between the navies of the two countries in the Gulf, when the Iranian navy captured ten American sailors on two small boats after they mistakenly entered Iran’s territorial waters, showed a stunning reversal of roles; Iran acted like a superpower, and the United States acted like a regional power. Iran treated the sailors as “hostiles” and humiliated them publicly by forcing them to kneel with their hands behind their heads, then after feeding them, getting them to thank Iranian “hospitality.” The spectacle, which lasted less than twenty-four hours, was captured on video, and the Iranians were happy to see it played all over the world. Secretary of State John Kerry, who seems to have a mystical belief in the power of diplomacy, was effusive in expressing his “gratitude” for the Iranian government for the quick release of the sailors, stressing “that this issue was resolved peacefully and efficiently is a testament to the critical role diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure, and strong.”

Ever Present-Absent America

Clearly, President Obama’s decisions and his inactions in the Middle East, particularly in the Arab World and more specifically in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, are only partially to be blamed for the horrific agonies of the peoples of these and other countries in the region. The despotism, autocracy, atavism, and intolerance that marred Arab governance and infected majority Arab societies, and left their indelible mark on Arab culture for the last sixty or so years, are in the main responsible for the prevalent tragic conditions. But this is a region where in the last century, geographic divisions and political borders were decided or influenced by foreign, mostly Western powers, whose actions, machinations, and military interventions maintained their interests and those of their allies and/or punished their adversaries be they Arab states, Israel, or Iran. The trajectory of these states cannot be analyzed without reference to the policies of Western powers in most of the twentieth century, and particularly American policies in recent decades.

The tale of Iraq since the bloody fall of the monarchy in 1958 and particularly since the ascent of the Baath Party after its coup in 1968 has been one filled with endless woes. But Iraq’s current convulsions were set in motion by President George W. Bush’s almost religious calling to invade Mesopotamia in search of elusive Jeffersonian democrats in the Euphrates and Tigris valleys. The pent-up violent shock waves of sectarianism, political repression, and unsettled historic and nationalist grievances within and without Iraq unleashed by the invasion will continue to reverberate for years, maybe decades, to come. America set in motion events it could not understand, let alone mediate or contain. Since 2003 the United States, through blunders small and large, has been trying to save Iraq from itself, and with each passing year, the country’s sectarian and ethnic fissures have deepened. U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad have watched with almost total helplessness Iraq’s steady march into Iran’s orbit. By not pushing his erstwhile ally Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki to accept a significant U.S. residual force in Iraq as well as a more inclusive governing arrangement, Obama allowed the notorious sectarian politician to do the bidding for Iran, whose leaders wanted only to see the backs of the Americans leaving Iraq. In the process, Obama alienated the Kurds and antagonized the Sunni Arabs, pushing the country towards greater civil strife and culminating in the emergence of ISIS. For all of Obama’s tough talk about destroying ISIS, it is very likely that after he leaves the White House in January 2017, Iraq will remain deeply fragmented, Syria will continue its slow disintegration, and the hyenas of ISIS will continue to scavenge the carcasses of both states.

The Missing Peace

On his second day in office back in 2009, Obama appointed George Mitchell as Special Envoy for Middle East Peace. The fires in the Gaza Strip were still smoldering from Israel’s horrendous invasion of the Palestinian territory, which ended just days before Obama’s inauguration.

Obama’s plans for the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations were predicated on an Israeli freeze on settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government was (and is) supported by settlers and their rightwing supporters, quickly stiffed the new American president and continued settlement activities. It became very clear that if Obama had to deal with Netanyahu as an immovable object, then the president had to act as an unstoppable force. But since Obama never contemplated such an option before he made his demands public, he was forced to retreat in the face of Israel’s intransigence and Netanyahu’s success in mobilizing Israel’s powerful friends in Congress to support him in his confrontation with the American president. Obama could not alienate the Democrats in Congress whose crucial support he desperately needed to pass his signature domestic achievement in his first term, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The talks that ensued between Israelis and Palestinians never amounted to much, and after two years of futile shuttle diplomacy, during which Israelis kept building more settlements and Palestinians continued to fret, a frustrated Mitchell decided to call it quits in May 2011. Thus, despite the high expectations Obama raised, no discernable movement occurred in the “peace process” during his first term when Hillary Clinton served as Obama’s secretary of state. Her successor, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, was very eager to have his chance at Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking. Kerry’s unflagging efforts led to the resumption of talks in the summer of 2013. But continued Israeli settlement expansion, violence initiated by both sides, a Palestinian unity government leading nowhere, and another massive and brutal Israeli attack on Gaza (whose population suffered much as a result of the recklessness and harsh rule of the Islamist group Hamas), spelled doom for Kerry’s efforts. The talks ended in April 2014, with no indication that they could be revived during Obama’s tenure. The absence of negotiations or hope predictably plunged the occupied territories and Israel into a new wave of violence, with young Palestinians wielding knives and attacking settlers, civilians, and soldiers, and Israelis reacting with disproportionate force. Scores lost their lives, mostly Palestinians. Among Palestinians, particularly the youth, expectations are receding for a two-state solution in which Israel and an independent state of Palestine would live peacefully side by side. Such a solution has been the basis for almost all diplomatic efforts to resolve the century-old conflict, and especially since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Instead, Palestinians are increasingly calling for a one-state solution in which Palestinians would struggle for equal civil and political rights with Israelis. Martin Indyk, who served as U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations from 2013 to 2014, expressed Israel’s dilemma best when he said that Israel is “going to have to decide sooner rather than later whether it’s a democracy or a Jewish state, but it won’t be able to be both.”

Arab Uprisings and Their Discontents

Initially, President Obama instinctively and intellectually welcomed the demands of the Arab uprisings for dignity, justice, and economic opportunities, and saw in these spontaneous mass movements a rebuke of the dark violent vision of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. However, Obama’s overall handling of the uprisings would end up alienating not only Arab autocrats allied to the United States, but the young democracy activists Obama professed to support.

By the end of the first week of the January 25, 2011 Egyptian uprising, Obama called for a “transition to democracy,” and began to prepare for the post-Hosni Mubarak era. In the following months, with the winds of change blowing through Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen, and as beleaguered Arab despots began applying massive force against mostly peaceful protesters, Obama articulated the underpinnings that would guide America’s approach to what he called “this moment of promise.” “It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region and to support transitions to democracy,” he said in a speech on May 19, 2011 at the State Department. He put the United States firmly on the side of those seeking to topple the oppressive status quo, and who were seeking “a chance to pursue the world as it should be.” The president was clear in his diagnosis of the ills of the Arab World, and he committed the United States to support “a set of universal rights” including “free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders—whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa, or Tehran.” He reiterated his support for the struggle of the Libyan people to overthrow the Muammar Gadhafi regime so that “decades of provocation will come to an end, and the transition to a democratic Libya can proceed.” Obama’s message to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad was equally clear: “President Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition, or get out of the way.” He told the Bahraini government that “mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens,” and called on the government to release the leaders of the peaceful opposition and engage them in dialogue. On this occasion, Obama was at his best in his role as professor-in-chief, providing sweeping and compelling analysis of the malady and the proposed remedy.

But brutal Arab reality kept intruding; regime repression intensified, and the old political, societal, and cultural structures proved too resilient to change for the divided and conflicted opposition. The Egyptian military removed Mubarak and ensconced itself as the direct guardian of the state. The Bahraini government continued its crackdown on the opposition, and reestablished its writ with direct military support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council states. When the rebellion in Libya toppled Gadhafi, the United States and its allies left the fragmented country in the hands of competing militias and warlords. It was a rare moment of honest mea culpa, when President Obama admitted in an interview that he regretted not organizing any sufficient follow-on assistance on the ground in Libya following the NATO-led military intervention to protect civilians. Obama said he realized there was a need “to rebuild societies that didn’t have any civic traditions. . . . So that’s a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, ‘Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after?’”

The tumultuous months following Mubarak’s ouster put President Obama’s reform pledge to the test. During the brief rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces from February 2011 to June 2012, and the short tenure of President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was ended by a popular uprising and a military coup in 2013, severe acts of violence against civilians occurred along with arbitrary arrests and other violations of human rights. Washington’s muted protests were not followed by the rigorous actions that one would have expected given Obama’s seminal speeches. After the massive violence that followed the overthrow of the deeply flawed but legally elected Morsi, which was the worst in modern Egyptian history, the Obama administration dropped any pretense that Obama’s reform pledge was binding. In October 2013, in the aftermath of Morsi’s ouster, the Obama administration imposed an arms freeze on the delivery of certain heavy weapon systems prized by the Egyptian military that were in the pipeline, including F-16 aircraft, Harpoon missiles, and M1A1 Abrams tanks. But the Obama administration did not designate the overthrow of Morsi as a “coup,” as that designation would have triggered an arms embargo under U.S. law.

This decision sent multiple messages to the Egyptians, and the international community: that Obama’s decision is grounded solely in cold national security calculus, that not all fair elections are created equal, and that elections are not an integral component of Obama’s promotion of democracy in the Middle East. On March 31, 2015, President Obama called Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to inform him that “he will lift executive holds that have been in place since October 2013 on the delivery of F-16 aircraft, Harpoon missiles, and M1A1 tank kits.” Obama’s retreat was now complete.

President Obama’s domestic agenda was always his pressing priority. It now seems that when he looked at the enormity of the challenges posed by the Arab uprisings, particularly when they became more violent, he simply flinched. He gradually lost emotional and intellectual interest in really trying to shape the course of the region, as he implied that he would try to do in the seminal policy speeches of his first term.

A Desolation Named Syria 

Five years have passed since Syria began its descent into darkness. The militaries of four of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are engaged in bombing missions in Syria. Iran and Turkey are involved directly and also through proxies. Foreign Sunni jihadists and Shiite militiamen from dozens of countries are stoking the chaos. More than three hundred thousand Syrians have been killed, and more than four million Syrian refugees are living in neighboring Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan. Around a half million other Syrian refugees have embarked on perilous journeys across the Mediterranean Sea, which became a watery grave for some of them.

Large parts of Syria’s famed cities, Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs, repositories of fabulous heritage including Byzantine churches, Umayyad mosques, Crusader forts, Roman ruins, and museums, have been demolished. If there are boulevards in hell, they will probably look like the Syrian streets reduced to rubble mostly by Al-Assad’s army. For all the brutality and the ritualistic killings and beheadings of ISIS, the Al-Assad regime’s systematic, industrial-scale barbarity is the single most destructive killing machine operating with impunity in Syria.

From the beginning of the Syrian uprising, President Obama sought to avoid entanglement in what he called “somebody else’s civil war” even when the conflict had not yet transformed from popular uprising to a full-blown civil war. From then on, every decision he took, every statement he uttered, was defensive, hesitant, tentative, and downright dishonest. In an interview in August 2014, for example, Obama said that the idea that arming Syrian rebels could make a difference has “always been a fantasy.” He admitted that he had asked the U.S. Congress to approve funding for Syrian rebels even though he was not convinced of the efficacy of the plan. In September 2014, three months after ISIS forces riding in pickup trucks in the open desert captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, Obama admitted that “we don’t have a strategy yet” to combat ISIS. Almost a year later, Obama said in a press conference in Germany that the Pentagon had not presented him with a “finalized plan” to combat ISIS, hence “we don’t yet have a complete strategy.” Had it not been the shocking and sudden emergence of ISIS as a clear and present and toxic threat, not only to stability in Iraq and Syria but to the public security in Europe and the United States, Obama would not have eventually sent three thousand military advisors, trainers, and other forces to Iraq, or begun the limited air campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

In the summer of 2011, in part to avoid further criticism of his soft handling of the Syrian crisis, Obama said that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” In the brief debate that preceded this statement, an old experienced Syria expert cautioned against calling on Al-Assad to step down, without having a “Plan B” to force him to leave office. This expert was dismissed by a young National Security Council staffer close to Obama but with no knowledge of Syria. He argued that the winds of the Arab uprisings had already swept Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali from power, and would reach Damascus and dislodge Al-Assad as well. Once again brutal Arab reality intruded and Al-Assad decided to stay.

In the summer of 2013, after months of reports that the Al-Assad regime was using chemical weapons against civilians and rebels—reports the Obama administration wanted not to believe—Al-Assad’s forces launched rockets laden with sarin gas against Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, killing fourteen hundred civilians including a large number of children. The tragedy forced Obama’s hand, as Al-Assad had brazenly crossed the “red line” that Obama had established earlier against the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict. Obama committed himself publicly to punish the Syrian regime with a military reprisal. The president who may have thought that a tough rhetorical warning to the Syrian tyrant would suffice was now on the verge of unleashing missiles.

But the leader who eschews the use of military force found the light of conversion to pacifism he was looking for when he literally took a walk around the White House with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, and changed his mind. He then called his secretaries of defense and state, not to consult them, but to inform them of his conversion. After Obama’s reversal I wrote that “the Arabs of olden days used to say that an honorable man should not unsheathe his sword unless he intends to use it.” For a ruler this could be a fatal mistake. So I was thrilled when former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates later said in a television interview that he warned President Obama about issuing threats in the context of the Syrian conflict if he is not ready to act upon them. Gates reminded the president of a saying in the Old West: “Don’t cock the gun unless you are willing to pull the trigger.”

Obama kept dithering about Syria, while engaging in dissimulation, such as claiming that his critics always present him with “half-baked” ideas like establishing no-fly zones or “mumbo-jumbo” proposals such as arming Sunni tribes in Iraq. Obama always claimed that his critics want him to “invade” Syria, and send massive ground troops, when in reality no serious critic made such outlandish proposals. Critics were mostly asking for a tougher exercise of leadership. There were always hints that one of the reasons behind Obama’s reluctance to use force was his concern that this could anger Iran and undermine the nuclear deal he was working to achieve. Russia’s military intervention in Syria in 2015 on behalf of the Al-Assad regime is in part a result of President Obama’s dithering and inaction. A complex conflict has been made infinitely more difficult to resolve. The tragedy of Syria, perhaps above all else, will come to symbolize Obama’s tarnished legacy in the Middle East.

Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC, and the author of a weekly column for the Al Arabiya English website. He is also a correspondent for the Lebanese daily newspaper An-Nahar. He has written for the Los Angles Times, Huffington Post, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, POLITICO, and Middle East Report. On Twitter: @hisham_melhem.

Oriental Hall, etc.

Friends, colleagues, and admirers gathered at AUC in October to pay homage to Éric Rouleau, the Egyptian-born French journalist and diplomat who died in 2015 at the age of 88. Longtime Le Monde Diplomatique editor Alain Gresh recalled how Rouleau, born to a Jewish family in Cairo in 1926, briefly joined Zionist organizations in his youth but “felt, first and foremost, Egyptian.” Nonetheless, Gresh recounted, as a Jewish leftist he was targeted along with many others by King Farouk’s regime in the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and eventually immigrated to France. Rouleau was treated to a unique return to his native country in 1963; now a correspondent for Le Monde, he received a personal invitation from Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. “This was the beginning of a special relationship between Rouleau and Abdel Nasser, which played a role not only in the relationship between Egypt and France, but opened the doors of all the Arab World to Rouleau,” Gresh explained. “It was hard for any Arab president to reject meeting with Rouleau after Nasser granted an interview to him. Éric Rouleau is a part of Egyptian history.”

Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister and United Nations peace negotiator, said that Rouleau, who covered the Middle East for Le Monde from 1955 to 1985 and later served as France’s ambassador to Tunisia and Turkey, spared no effort to highlight non-Western perspectives on issues from the Arab-Israeli conflict to the Islamic Revolution in Iran. “Rouleau played a role much bigger than being a writer or a witness to historical events,” he said. “It is very important that the Arab youth understand about the 50s and 60s era that Rouleau wrote about.”

“Rouleau built his relationship with the national liberation movements and the leaders of the Middle East and the Third World on a critical complex basis,” said Nayef Hawatmeh, general secretary of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, in remarks delivered by Egyptian novelist Salwa Bakr. “He stood on the side of the nationalistic shifts towards the liberation of countries from the backwardness, imperialism, and colonization. On the other side of the equation, he enjoyed independence when it came to his criticism of all kinds of oppression and suppression of freedoms.”

André Parant, French ambassador to Egypt, memorialized Rouleau as “a singular personality [notable for] his subtle practice of crossing lines, and namely the line separating the analyst from the actor in history, so much so that [François] Mitterrand asked him to take up the role of diplomat.”

“A Special Tribute to Éric Rouleau” celebrated the Arabic translation of Rouleau’s memoir, Dans les coulisses du Proche-Orient: Mémoires d’un journaliste diplomate (1952-2012). The event was hosted by AUC’s Middle East Studies Center, the Institut Français d’Egypte, and Al-Tanany Publishing House.

A Long Road to Havana

On December 17, 2014, President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro shocked the world by announcing in simultaneous television broadcasts that they had reached agreement to begin normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba. With that, they stepped away from half a century of hostility to open what Obama called “a new chapter” in their relationship. This dramatic, historic turn of events came as a surprise because relations had remained essentially frozen for the preceding six years, despite Obama’s declared desire to improve them and Raúl Castro’s repeated offers to engage with Washington diplomatically on the basis of mutual respect.

Much has been accomplished since that 2014 announcement. The United States removed Cuba from the list of state sponsors of international terrorism, diplomatic relations have been fully restored, the two presidents have twice met face-to-face for substantive discussions, and teams of diplomats are working through other issues. Nevertheless, the legacy of five decades of hostility will not be easily erased. Many issues remain unresolved and the path forward is marked by uncertainty. The U.S. economic embargo, the central issue, can only be removed by the U.S. Congress, where Obama’s Republican opponents have been in no mood to cooperate. Obama himself has only a year left in office, and almost all the declared Republican presidential candidates have promised to roll back his opening to Cuba. In Havana, Raúl Castro is scheduled to step down at the end of his second term as president in 2018, and no one can predict whether his successor would have the political will or authority to press ahead on normalizing relations with Washington.

Cold War Conflict

President Obama came to office convinced that the old policy of isolation and hostility toward Cuba made no sense. In the 1960s, Cuba became a focal point in the Cold War, leading to such memorable crises as the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. But for more than half a century, neither a comprehensive economic embargo nor covert political action could bend Havana to Washington’s will.

In April 2009, at the Fifth Summit of the Americas just a few months after his inauguration, Obama promised the other heads of state he would seek “a new beginning” with Cuba. Yet for the next six years, relatively little changed. Obama did take important steps to restore and expand the people-to-people connections that his predecessor, President George W. Bush, had severed. In April 2009, he lifted all restrictions on Cuban American family travel and remittances. In January 2011, he expanded the scope of permissible academic exchanges and restored the category of people-to-people educational travel that Bush had abolished. But in state-to-state relations, there was little progress.

Publicly, U.S. officials blamed Havana for the stalemate, citing the December 2009 arrest and imprisonment of U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) subcontractor Alan Gross. As part of USAID’s “democracy promotion” programs targeting Cuba, Gross had traveled to the island to install in several communities a sophisticated digital infrastructure that could connect to the Internet by satellite. The Cuban government regarded this as subversive and sentenced Gross to fifteen years in prison. The Obama administration declared that no further progress could be made in U.S.-Cuban relations until Havana freed Gross.

Privately, the administration also felt politically constrained. In Congress, a single-minded group of Cuban American members was willing to obstruct administration legislative proposals and nominations if the White House even hinted at improving ties with Havana. In 2009, Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat representing New Jersey, blocked an omnibus appropriation bill needed to keep the government open until the administration promised not to change Cuba policy without consulting him. Senate confirmation of Obama’s nominee for Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela was held up for six months.

With the U.S. economy slow to recover from the Great Recession of 2007–08, Obama faced a tough reelection battle, as foreshadowed by the Democrats’ loss of control of the House of Representatives in 2010. White House political advisors warned against any action that might infuriate Cuban American voters in the swing state of Florida—even though Obama had carried Florida in 2008 despite his promise to improve relations with Havana.

In Latin America, hopes ran high when Obama took office that he would finally tackle the anachronistic policy toward Cuba that symbolized a bygone era of U.S. hegemony. At the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago in April 2009, the Latin American presidents pressed Obama on Cuba, making it a litmus test of his declared desire to forge a new “equal partnership” with the region. On the whole, they were satisfied by Obama’s promise to seek a new beginning with Cuba, though he was short on specifics.

But by the time the Sixth Summit of the Americas convened in Cartagena, Colombia, in April 2012, U.S. policy toward Cuba was essentially unchanged. Obama faced a solid phalanx of Latin American presidents no longer willing to passively accept Washington’s intransigence. Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and Rafael Correa of Ecuador refused to attend the summit because Cuba was not invited; Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, host of the meeting, and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff both declared that they would skip the next summit if Cuba was excluded again. The growing political and economic independence of Latin America from the United States, and the elections of “new left” governments in the region, had eroded the region’s traditional deference to U.S. policy.

Obama returned from Cartagena chastened by the vehemence and frustration expressed by the other heads of state. The president was “severely” and “universally criticized” for U.S. policy toward Cuba, a senior U.S. official later acknowledged to journalists, citing this as one of the reasons behind Obama’s decision to normalize relations. “Our previous Cuba policy was clearly an irritant and a drag on our policy in the region,” Roberta S. Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said after the announcement. Another senior official described the policy to journalists as “a huge burden, if not an albatross, on our relations in the hemisphere. The last Summit of the Americas, instead of talking about the things that we were focused on [in Cartagena]—exports, counternarcotics, citizen security—we spent a lot of time talking about U.S.-Cuba policy.”

As the Seventh Summit of the Americas approached, the Latin American states were unanimous in their support for inviting Cuba despite U.S. objections. Cuba, for its part, voiced its interest in participating, just as it had in 2012. Unless Washington relented and abandoned its opposition to Cuban participation, Obama faced the prospect of another embarrassing confrontation.

December 17 Surprise

Even the best policy proposals go nowhere unless they are politically viable. Although rising diplomatic pressure from Latin America put the issue of Cuba on the president’s agenda, a decision to reverse a policy that had been in place since the 1960s entailed political risks at home. In 2010, Obama’s political team blocked a relatively modest State Department proposal to restore people-to-people travel, reinstating a policy originally put in place by President Bill Clinton. Finally, in frustration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the issue directly to the president and won his approval. But even then, the announcement was delayed until after the 2010 congressional elections, lest it hurt Democratic candidates in Florida.

In 2012, the president carried Florida on his way to reelection, and to everyone’s surprise, won half the Cuban American vote in the state—more than any Democrat since Cuban Americans became a significant voting bloc in the 1980s. Florida politics was changing. Polling by Florida International University (FIU) since 1991 had chronicled the gradual evolution of Cuban American opinion. When FIU began polling, 87 percent favored continuation of the U.S. embargo. By 2014, 52 percent opposed it, and 71 percent no longer believed it was effective.  In 1993, 75 percent of respondents opposed the sale of food to Cuba and 50 percent opposed the sale of medicine. By 2014, solid majorities—77 percent and 82 percent respectively—supported both. In 1991, 55 percent opposed unrestricted travel to Cuba, whereas in 2014, 69 percent supported it.

These attitudinal changes among Cuba Americans were a product of demographic change. Exiles who arrived in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s came as political refugees opposed to Castro. Those who arrived during the Mariel exodus in 1980 and after were more likely to have left for economic reasons. Recent arrivals, especially those who came after the end of the Cold War, were far more likely to have maintained ties with family on the island, and were therefore more likely to favor policies that reduce barriers to family connections, especially the ability to travel and send remittances.

For years, Democrats believed that a tough policy toward Cuba was the right strategy to win enough Cuban American votes to carry Florida. In 2008, Obama took a new approach by appealing to moderates with a policy of engagement. That proved to be a winning strategy. By carrying Florida in 2008 with 35 percent of the Cuban American vote, Obama proved that a Democrat could take a moderate stance on Cuba and still make inroads with this solidly Republican constituency.

In April 2009, the president made good on his campaign promise by lifting all limitations on Cuban American family travel and remittances. Over the next four years, Cuban American visits to the island rose from about one hundred thousand per year to four hundred thousand, and remittances jumped from a billion dollars annually to more than $3 billion. By loosening these restrictions, Obama accelerated the reunification of Cuban families and helped reinforce the political strength of moderate Cuban Americans in south Florida—the foundation of his political strategy there. It paid off in 2012, despite Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s appeals to the community’s traditional anti-communism. Having defied conventional wisdom that only a “get tough on Cuba” platform would sell in south Florida, Obama changed the domestic political dynamics of the issue, making new thinking about Cuba politically feasible.

After winning reelection, President Obama decided the time was right to seek a breakthrough in relations with Cuba. The plan to open a secret dialogue took shape over a series of White House meetings in early 2013 to discuss the president’s second-term agenda. In April, U.S. officials contacted Havana about initiating negotiations. Talks began in June and lasted eighteen months, with most of the sessions held in Canada and one critical culminating session held at the Vatican.

Yet even while the secret talks were underway, senior U.S. officials worried about the politics of the issue, especially the idea of releasing the “Cuban Five”—five Cuban intelligence officers in jail in the United States—to win the release of Alan Gross. For the White House, Gross’ freedom was a necessary condition for any wider agreement; for Havana, freedom for the Cuban Five was a necessary condition for releasing Gross. Yet Washington refused to accept that Gross and the Cuban agents were “equivalent,” (insisting that the Cuban Five were spies while Gross was just an innocent aid worker) and therefore refused to consider a swap. For months, the secret talks remained deadlocked on this issue.

In Congress, a growing number of members thought it was time to change Cuba policy. Unaware that secret talks were underway, a core group of senators and congressmen set out to encourage the White House to take bold action to free Gross and break the stalemate in bilateral relations. As Tim Rieser, a senior advisor to Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, put it, “We knew that the president opposed the policy, the secretary of state opposed it, the vice president opposed it—everybody in the administration opposed it. Therefore, why couldn’t we change it?” The group met repeatedly with senior White House officials, cabinet members, and eventually the president himself. In the Oval Office meeting, the members pressed Obama to fulfill his pledge to replace the policy of hostility with one of engagement. “You said you were going to do this,” Democratic Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts reminded the president. “Let’s just do it!”

At the same time, a major lobbying push was taking shape among nongovernmental organizations. Led and coordinated by the Trimpa Group, a public affairs policy and advocacy firm, a multimillion dollar campaign was launched in early 2014. In discussions with senior U.S. officials, the Trimpa team realized that U.S. officials still feared the political fallout from a deal with Cuba. The lobbying campaign was tailored to alleviate that fear by mobilizing moderate Cuban Americans in organizations like the Cuba Study Group and CubaNow, sponsoring polls to demonstrate public support for a new policy, recruiting luminaries of the foreign policy establishment to call for change, and working closely with the members of Congress who were urging the president to act.

Even the Roman Catholic Church got involved. When the Vatican announced that Obama would meet with Pope Francis in March 2014, the proponents of a policy change recruited three different cardinals (Theodore McCarrick of Washington, DC, Seán Patrick O’Malley of Boston, and Jaime Ortega of Havana) to encourage the pope to raise the issue of Cuba with Obama. In fact, much of their hour-long conversation focused on Cuba; Obama told the pope about the secret dialogue, and Francis offered to help in any way he could. A few months later, he sent letters to both Obama and President Raúl Castro that, according to the Vatican, “invited them to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations.” Then in October, the Vatican hosted the penultimate negotiating session in which an agreement was finalized.

On December 17, the two presidents announced the historic breakthrough. The United States released the three members of the Cuban Five still in prison and in exchange Cuba released Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) asset imprisoned for almost twenty years. Cuba released Gross on humanitarian grounds as well as fifty-three Cuban political prisoners. Cuba also agreed to engage with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations on human rights and prison conditions. Obama agreed to welcome Cuban participation in the Seventh Summit of the Americas and to review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. He also exercised his executive authority to ease restrictions on financial transactions, remittances, sales to private businesses, and travel to Cuba. Most importantly, the two presidents agreed to restore full diplomatic relations—a decision symbolic of the move away from a relationship of hostility and recrimination, and toward one of engagement and mutual respect.

No Illusions

Within weeks, diplomats from the U.S. Department of State and the Cuban Foreign Ministry began meeting to implement their presidents’ mandate. In April, Obama and Castro met face-to-face for their first substantive discussion, at the Seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama. They reaffirmed their commitment to normalize relations and discussed the issues that would need to be resolved. “This is obviously a historic meeting,” Obama acknowledged. “We are now in a position to move on a path to the future. There are still going to be deep and significant differences. … But we can disagree with the spirit of respect and civility, and over time it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship.”

“No one should entertain illusions,” Castro cautioned in his brief comment. “Our countries have a long and complicated history, but we are willing to make progress in the way the president has described.” In closing, he added, “We are willing to discuss everything, but we need to be patient, very patient.”

Shortly thereafter, the State Department announced that Cuba would be removed from its list of state sponsors of international terrorism—a designation that Cuba found especially insulting in light of the long history of paramilitary attacks launched against the island by Cuban exiles who at one time had the support of the U.S. government. On July 1, Obama and Castro announced the agreement to restore full diplomatic relations on July 20.

In September 2015, Raúl Castro made his first trip to the United States as Cuba’s president, to attend the United Nations General Assembly meeting. On the sidelines, he and Obama met for half an hour for what the Cubans described as a “respectful and constructive” dialogue. Obama urged Castro to undertake reforms that would allow Cubans to take advantage of the regulatory changes he had made to the embargo, and Castro reiterated his demand that Washington lift economic sanctions against Cuba. Yet despite their disagreements, both presidents interacted cordially and emphasized their commitment to continue the process of normalization.

The reestablishment of diplomatic relations marked the successful conclusion of “the first stage” of the dialogue between the United States and Cuba, observed Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, but a “complex and certainly long process” of negotiations lay ahead before the two countries would have truly normal relations. “The challenge is huge,” he added, “because there have never been normal relations between the United States of America and Cuba.”

For the next stage of dialogue, the two governments formed working groups to begin dealing with the complex patchwork of issues that former President Fidel Castro once referred to as “a tangled ball of yarn.” To coordinate the normalization process, they established a Bilateral Commission—a steering committee to meet quarterly to assess progress and set the agenda for a series of more specialized working groups tackling specific issues.

There are effectively two baskets of issues: those on which the two countries have interests in common, where cooperation could be expanded; and those on which they have interests in conflict that need to be resolved or mitigated.

After the flag-raising ceremony at the Cuban embassy in Washington on July 20, Foreign Minister Rodríguez met with Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss these “issues of mutual concern,” including migration, human trafficking, law enforcement, counternarcotics cooperation, maritime safety and coast guard cooperation, environmental protection, global health cooperation, the expansion of civil aviation links, and the restoration of postal service. In fact, through the years of animosity, Cuba and the United States maintained low-level cooperation on a number of such issues. The normalization of diplomatic relations opened the door to deepening that cooperation. For example, the U.S. Coast Guard and Cuban Border Guards have been working together to stem narcotics trafficking through the Caribbean since 1999, but only on a case-by-case basis. That collaboration could become more systematic through joint planning, joint exercises, and intelligence sharing.

Before the Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the only U.S.-Cuban dialogue on environmental protection was between Cuban scientific institutes and U.S. nongovernmental organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund. But when Cuba began drilling in its deep water commercial zone not far from the Florida coast in 2012, Washington opened a quiet dialogue under the umbrella of the Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Information and Training Center for the Wider Caribbean, a multilateral organization supported by the United Nations. In January 2015, President Obama issued a general license allowing U.S. companies to provide equipment and services to Cuba for environmental protection. In the event of an accident in Cuban waters, U.S. companies could respond immediately, without waiting for government permission. In November 2015, the two governments signed cooperative agreements on protecting the maritime environment in the Caribbean, and shortly thereafter, announced agreements on restoring normal airline connections and postal service.

Global public health and disaster assistance were other potentially fruitful areas of cooperation. Cuba and the United States worked together to provide medical relief after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and again in West Africa to stem the 2014 Ebola epidemic. In September 2015, U.S. and Cuban medical teams in Haiti met to expand their cooperation. But Washington’s Cuban Medical Professionals Parole Program hindered more systematic cooperation. A vestige of the George W. Bush administration, this program offers Cuban health workers serving abroad on humanitarian missions a fast track to U.S. residency and citizenship if they defect.

The interests in conflict between Washington and Havana constitute a more formidable agenda. A working group on claims is reviewing the $7 billion that the United States claims Cuba owes for the property nationalized at the outset of the revolution ($1.9 billion plus a half century of interest), and Cuba’s counterclaims for over $100 billion in damage done by the embargo and the CIA’s secret paramilitary war in the 1960s.

A working group on law enforcement is discussing human smuggling, document fraud, and fugitives. Some seventy U.S. fugitives reside in Cuba, most of them common criminals. However, some—like Black Liberation Army activist Assata Shakur (aka Joanne Chesimard)—are high-profile expatriates to whom Cuba has granted political asylum. The United States harbors a number of Cuban exiles accused of violence, the most notorious being Luis Posada Carriles, accused of blowing up a Cuban civilian airliner in 1976 killing all seventy-three people aboard, and orchestrating bombings in Havana tourist hotels in 1997. The United States refuses to extradite Carriles, or any exile accused of politically motivated violence, and Cuba refuses to return people to whom it has granted asylum. Nevertheless, there is precedent for Cuba repatriating common criminals to the United States, and the United States returning hijackers to Cuba.

A third group working on human rights—among the most contentious issues—is discussing the very different perspectives the two governments have on the balance between social and economic rights, and political liberties. Discussion focuses on compliance with the international human rights covenants that both governments have signed, but to date has not found much common ground.

Then there are programs, like the Cuban Medical Professionals Parole Program, that are vestiges of the old U.S. policy of regime change and remain in place. The normalization of relations might have happened sooner had it not been for Washington’s covert democracy promotion programs which led to the arrest of contractor Gross in December 2009. The breakthrough in the secret negotiations to normalize relations only happened when Cuba agreed to release Gross as part of the broader prisoner exchange. But the programs that landed Gross in prison are still operating, and Cuba continues to regard them as subversive. Their continuation poses an ever-present risk of confrontation that could disrupt the normalization process. Obama cannot simply halt these programs unilaterally because they are authorized and funded by Congress, although senior administration officials privately acknowledge that the programs are incompatible with the new direction of U.S.-Cuban relations.

Radio and TV Martí, created during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, continue broadcasting to Cuba, even though they have little or no audience because of the Cuban government’s success at jamming them. TV Martí is referred to on the island as la TV que no se ve—No See TV. Based in Miami, the two stations are captives of the exile community’s hardliners and don’t even reflect Cuban American opinion any longer, let alone U.S. policy. Moreover, they have a track record of trying to undermine attempts by U.S. presidents to improve U.S.-Cuban relations. When Bill Clinton negotiated migration agreements with Cuba and expanded people-to-people educational exchanges, Radio Martí was a persistent critic of even this limited policy of engagement, repeatedly misrepresenting U.S. policy so severely that it sparked complaints from several U.S. government agencies and officials. In September 2015, as U.S. and Cuban diplomats were trying to build trust in order to advance the normalization process, TV Martí announced plans to launch a satirical sitcom that would ridicule Cuban leaders.

Then there are issues the United States still refuses to discuss. The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act gives any Cuban reaching the United States, legally or illegally, the right to become a permanent resident after one year. Cuba has called for its repeal because it creates an incentive for human smuggling, but Washington insists it has no intention of changing the law. The reason is fear; after December 17, the number of Cubans intercepted by the Coast Guard trying to come to the United States illegally jumped sharply. Worried that the normalization of relations would mean an end to the Adjustment Act, would-be immigrants decided they had better act fast. The Obama administration fears that any effort to change the law could touch off a migration crisis.

Speaking to a conference of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States shortly after December 17, Raúl Castro declared that fully normal relations with the United States would require the return of Guantánamo Naval Station. The Obama administration, however, insists that Guantánamo “still has operational value”—since 2002, it has been the site of a detention camp in the U.S. War on Terrorism—and its return is not open for discussion. Washington recognizes Cuban sovereignty over the territory, but insists on the validity of the 1934 treaty leasing it to the United States in perpetuity. Every year, the U.S. government sends Cuba a rent check for $4,085. Cuba never cashes them; for years, Fidel Castro kept them stuffed in his desk drawer in his office to show visitors.

Finally, and most importantly, U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba remained in place after December 17, despite Obama’s licensing of a limited number of exceptions. Although Obama had called for an end to the sanctions, both the embargo as a whole and the specific ban on tourist travel were written into law in 1996 and 2000, respectively, so they could only be lifted by an act of Congress. For Cuba, this issue is by far the single most important since the persistence of sanctions inflicts ongoing damage to the Cuban economy. In October 2015, for the twenty-fourth year in a row, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly, 191-2, with no abstentions, for a Cuban resolution demanding that the embargo be lifted. Despite some preliminary conversations, Cuba was unwilling to soften the resolution sufficiently to entice the Obama administration to abstain rather than vote no. Convinced that international pressure was an important contributing factor to Obama’s decision to normalize relations, Havana was unwilling to do anything that might signal a relaxation of that pressure.

2016 and Beyond

Congress is the biggest obstacle to fully normalizing relations. With Republican presidential aspirants blasting Obama for appeasing America’s “enemies,” Republican congressional leaders will not allow any legislation to pass that makes Obama’s Cuba policy look like a success. Thus there was little chance the 114th Congress would heed Obama’s call to repeal the embargo. Obama will probably not even be able to appoint an ambassador to Havana; a single senator can block a nomination, and Republicans Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, and Democrat Robert Menendez have all vowed to block any nominee. Thus, the big legislative battles on Cuba will probably not come until after Obama leaves office in 2017.

Republican presidential candidates have harped on Cuba as part of their narrative about Obama’s weakness in foreign policy. Rubio, the most incessant and vitriolic critic of the policy, managed to position himself among the leading contenders. All the candidates kept their eyes on the Republican primary in Florida, where Cuban American conservatives constitute a substantial voting bloc.

But once the primary season gives way to the general election campaign, Cuba is likely to disappear from the debate. Poll after poll has shown that Obama’s Cuba policy is widely popular, even among Republicans. An Associated Press poll in July found 71 percent in support of restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, and 58 percent in support of Obama’s Cuba policy overall. Even a majority of Cuban Americans support it. Outside the hothouse of the Republican base, it looks like a foreign policy success. Moreover, not many voters will cast their presidential ballot in 2016 based on the candidate’s position on Cuba. For most Americans, it just isn’t that salient.

Nevertheless, a Republican president could reverse everything Obama has done to improve relations with Cuba because all his actions have relied on executive authority. However, the diplomatic cost would be enormous in Latin America and beyond. Obama’s opening to Cuba was undertaken in part because of the deterioration in U.S. relations with Latin America caused by the old policy, and his December 17 announcement received universal and enthusiastic endorsement throughout the hemisphere.  Rather than try to undo all that Obama has done, a Republican president would be more likely to simply halt the normalization process in its tracks, leaving relations to languish in a twilight zone between hostility and normality.

A Democratic president, on the other hand, would have an opportunity to make real strides forward, especially if the Democrats win back the Senate. The gerrymandered districts of the House of Representatives make it almost impossible for the Democrats to reclaim a majority there, even if they win more votes in House elections nationwide than Republicans, as they did in 2012. But in the Senate, twenty-four Republicans and only ten Democrats are up for reelection in 2016. With a Senate majority, the White House could make a serious push to repeal the embargo, allowing normal trade, investment, and tourist travel.

Whatever the outcome of the 2016 U.S. elections, there are deeper forces pressing for change on both sides of Florida Strait that successor politicians in Washington and Havana cannot ignore. Cuba’s successful integration into the global economy will still require an end to the embargo and the expansion of trade and investment from the United States. Cuba’s tourist industry will still need access to the U.S. market to fuel its expansion. U.S. businesses will continue to push for the right to compete in the Cuban market. Latin America will demand that Cuba be fully reintegrated into the hemispheric community. As Cubans and Cuban Americans travel back and forth in increasing numbers, along with other U.S. travelers, they will continue to knit back together the social and cultural ties severed after 1959.

The overwhelming support for reconciliation recorded by polls in both Cuba and the United States demonstrated that ordinary people were ready for reconciliation long before their governments. Expectations are running high, now that the process is underway. Politicians will ignore that sentiment at their peril. As Secretary Kerry said at the ceremony raising the American flag to mark the reopening of  the U.S. embassy in Havana, “The time is now to reach out to one another, as two peoples who are no longer enemies or rivals, but neighbors—time to unfurl our flags, raise them up, and let the world know that we wish each other well.”

William M. LeoGrande is professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, DC. He is the author of Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977–1992; co-editor of A Contemporary Cuba Reader: The Revolution under Raúl Castro; and co-editor of A Contemporary Cuba Reader: Reinventing the Revolution; and, most recently, co-author of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana. He has written for Foreign Affairs, Huffington Post, and Foreign Policy. On Twitter:

Egypt Looking Forward

Egypt recently concluded its first parliamentary election since the June 30, 2013 revolution. In doing so it has completed the political roadmap adopted on July 3 of that year and regularized its political institutions with both an elected president and parliament.

As such, the election of a new parliament constitutes a significant step forward. It formally reestablishes a representative body with the traditional legislative and regulatory functions that since 2013 have been the prerogative of the interim and then the elected president of Egypt.

Equally important and irrespective of whether or not the new parliament is efficient, Egypt will return once again to the practice of public discussion of policy and governance issues in a representative body rather than simply on the heated and theatrical talk show circuit.

Whatever the inclinations of the political majority or kingmakers in parliament, the mere election of a parliament in itself has the potential to reaffirm an important political practice. Hopefully, it will gradually reinstate or create a sound political culture that embraces the principle that governments are held accountable to parliamentary representatives elected by the people.

In essence, this election was important because in theory it established the checks and balances that are imperative for the proper functioning of any political system and constitute the best safeguard for better, if not good, governance.

Progress has occurred in Egypt’s political landscape, albeit the heavy-handed political maneuvering before the election and the generally negative inferences regarding the role of the parliament deflated the public enthusiasm towards this final step in the roadmap. This was clearly reflected in the significantly low level of voter participation.

Another anomaly was that candidates did not really bother to present their policy platforms or party programs during their campaigns, focusing instead on highlighting their personal achievements and announcing a wide range of promises that will inevitably remain unmet. Most of the election victors therefore do not represent significantly different political trends, but are essentially those who had well-oiled or efficiently managed election machines. Consequently, while many of these genuine candidates and/or those running as surrogates for others among Egypt’s political old guard have gained seats in the parliament, it remains too early to define the political color or appetite of this new body.

With all these concerns, the elections did witness some positive indicators. Serious complaints about administrative violations in the voting process itself were extremely limited. On election day, allegations of violations were sometimes addressed by candidates to their competitors rather than to the government. Interesting as well, about 30 percent of the seats were won by candidates from political parties that were initially thought to be weak and ineffective. While low, this figure was in fact much higher than expected. And, amongst the 70 percent of independent victors, many will ultimately join parliamentary party blocs established by the parties.

Another positive indicator was that youth, women, and non-Muslims won a much larger number of seats than has been the case in past elections. While this can be partially attributed to provisions in the new constitution, their presence in the parliament is nevertheless a breath of fresh air.

Mainstream supporters of both the January 25, 2011 and June 30, 2013 revolutions hoped for a more satisfying parliamentary election to celebrate this final step in the roadmap and to feel more optimistic about building a better future. I believe we could have done better had the parliament been promoted as an indispensable tool in good governance rather than a potential impediment to the president and governmental authority. Of greatest concern to me was not who won or lost, but the low participation and that over a half million votes were deemed invalid. The abstentions and invalidated ballots appear to be indications that a significant percentage of the electorate intentionally spoiled their votes in protest.

Realistically, given the political landscape before 2011 and the absence of pluralistic politics for over six decades, Egypt needs time for a true change of political culture to make significant steps towards a well-functioning democracy. In the best circumstances this is cumbersome and often difficult to manage. Nevertheless, Egypt now has elected a parliament and it must now build a democracy.

The new Egypt should be increasingly transparent, with freedom of information being an accepted principle regulated by law. The political system must culturally embrace accountability as a fundamental practice. This will encourage constituents to remain proactive in following their representatives and empower them to exercise their prerogative as overseers of the executive bodies. Accountability will also drive executives to excel in their performance and deter them from abusing the power and authority they have acquired.

Personally, I had much higher hopes for Egypt than where we are today. My aspirations may have been a bit unrealistic. Yet, many of the problems or mistakes we have witnessed could have been avoided if the appropriate checks and balances imperative in any political system had been put in place earlier. Hopefully, the election of the new parliament will place us on the path towards a better political equilibrium between the organs of governance in the country and will lead us gradually towards truly pluralistic politics. Looking at the candidate lists of those elected, and recognizing the lack of political expertise that prevails, I am doubtful but I have not lost hope. And I will be the first to applaud if the new parliament proves me wrong.

Nabil Fahmy, a former foreign minister of Egypt, is dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.

Winter 2016

As we went to press with our Winter 2016 issue, Americans were witnessing a rollicking race for the White House. In all the pre-primaries jockeying, 2016 was shaping up as the year of the outsider. Self-described socialist Bernie Sanders was strongly challenging presumptive Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clin- ton. And billionaire Donald Trump was soaring ahead of establishment politicians like Jeb Bush in the Republican Party contest. We hope that Special Report: American Politics 2016 will help you make sense of this often bewildering political pageant.

Charles Lewis explores the dark role of money and the media in U.S. elections in our lead essay, “The Buying of the President.” Donald T. Critchlow explores the evolution and influence of the modern Republican Party in “Understanding Conservatives.” Stephen Zunes analyzes what a Clinton presidency would mean for the Middle East in “Hillary the Hawk.”

We are grateful to the Bernie Sanders campaign for permission to publish “American Poverty,” an adaptation of the candidate’s speech on Democratic socialism at Georgetown University last November. Adrian D. Pantoja deconstructs the sleeping giant of American politics in “Viva Latino Voters!” The Cairo Review Interview is with Chicago activist Charlene Carruthers, who explains grassroots demands for greater police accountability, decriminalization of black youth, women’s and LGBTQ rights, and a fair minimum wage. Taking a look back at Barack Obama’s presidency, William M. LeoGrande reports on the historic reconciliation between Cuba and the United States in “A Long Road to Havana”.

Of course it was to Cairo that President Obama traveled in the early months of his presidency to give a seminal speech promising a “new beginning” between America and the Islamic World. In his essay, “Obama’s Tarnished Legacy in the Middle East,” Hisham Melhem delivers a devastating critique of how the forty-fourth U.S. president’s foreign policy played out in the region. Writes Melhem, who was the first journalist to interview Obama after his inauguration in January 2009: “He will not escape the harsh judgment that his actions and inactions contributed significantly to the great unraveling of the Middle East.”

Scott MacLeod
Managing Editor

Remembrance of Things Past

The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984. By Riad Sattouf (translation by Sam Taylor). Metropolitan Books, New York, 2015. 153 pp.

Once considered fodder for children, comics have officially arrived. The journey from low art to legitimate literature has been underway for decades, with milestones such as Art Spiegelman’s 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Maus, the budding of comics journalism as exemplified by Joe Sacco, and an emerging body of scholarship about comic art. The Paris Review recognized the turn with its introduction of The Art of Comics, using its signature interview platform to feature comic innovators R. Crumb in 2010 and Chris Ware in 2014.

Yet, even as illustrated narratives break away from their childish roots, the child still figures prominently in graphic literature. This is a global trend, and a preponderance of comic memoirs written for adult audiences grapple with fraught childhoods. In Persepolis, published in 2000, Marjane Satrapi shared her bildungsroman of Iran amid the Islamic Revolution. In Fun Home in 2006, Alison Bechdel rendered a childhood of discomfort and her undertaker father’s closeted homosexuality. In comics, the child represents an important figure for their capacity to tell truth, unfettered by taboos, uninhibited by societal rules.

The graphic memoir by the Franco-Syrian artist Riad Sattouf, The Arab of the Future, raises difficult questions about the future of the Middle East and Europe at a time of heightened conflict between nation states and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). A morose treatment of a multicultural childhood in Libya, Syria, and France, The Arab of the Future is the first of a projected four-volume series, which has just been translated into English as well as fourteen other languages. The book has sold two hundred thousand copies in France and and won the 2015 Le Fauve d’or du meilleur album at the Festival d’Angoulême, France’s preeminent comic jamboree. (Angoulême nominated Sattouf’s second volume for the 2016 prize, but he withdrew citing the jury’s sexism: of the thirty nominees, not a single woman made the list.)

By portraying the dark moments of his upbringing, Sattouf has started new conversations about Arab identity in France as well as across the Arab region. In the New Yorker, Adam Shatz called him “the Arab of the present,” noting that the book resonates for anyone weaned under an authoritarian regime where the banality of state control, from censorship to food rations, shapes daily life. For that very reason, some Arab comic artists have criticized the volume for being anti-Arab. “I’m angered to read this comic,” said Lena Merhej of the Lebanese comic collective Samandal. “Everybody in his comics that is Arab is violent.” It is noteworthy that a graphic memoir has spurred such debate, but perhaps the approachability of the literary medium lends itself to self-reflection and new inquiry.

Sattouf, 37, has contributed to the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, which was firebombed in November 2011 and stormed by Islamic terrorists in a January 2015 massacre that left eleven cartoonists and others dead. The pretext for the assaults on Charlie Hebdo was the caricature of the Prophet Mohammed, deemed a grave insult in Islam and among the troublemaking publication’s stock-in-state. Sattouf’s work, however, has mostly dealt with social and cultural issues, not the bellicose gags for which the comic publication is notorious. His weekly series, “The Secret Life of the Young,” captures conversations overheard between youths on subway trains and other public spaces across the French capital.

Paging through the first volume of Sattouf’s memoirs, the reader encounters vignettes of Sattouf’s turbulent childhood. Muammar Gadhafi is on TV, Hafez Al-Assad is on billboards, and, in every chapter, high politics enter daily life. Throughout, the blond-haired Riad, young, naïve, and out of place in the Middle East, offers a matter-of-fact critique of politics, however unwittingly. His Syrian father, a boisterous pan-Arabist who has faith in the region’s dictators, brings the family to Libya and later Syria, much to the chagrin of his French mother, who struggles to adjust Riad and his younger brother to life in the Middle East. Upon arrival in the village where his father was born, the author’s Syrian cousins deride the youngster a Jew—though none of them had ever met a Jew. In the process, the reader gets a view of anti-Semitism, told in a child’s voice, without the author’s judgment or commentary. The method of a child’s narration forces the reader to consider the most troublesome aspects of life in a Syrian backwater.

Somehow Sattouf re-experiences the pain of a difficult childhood without any bitterness. There is nothing funny about his catching a virus in that village outside Homs, where antibiotics are nowhere to be found. Yet an extended fever dream sequence makes the plotline tolerable if not enjoyable. While reading these gloomy memories, I often found myself laughing out loud. Not only does Sattouf pack a powerful punch line on almost every page, he often labels objects in the comics’ frame in flowery cursive to add an additional laugh. In Libya, state food rations consist of weeks of bananas. When young Riad gleefully scarfs bananas, the fruit that his parents by now detest is labeled “delicious.” In the next frame, where he looks like he is about to vomit, it reads: “Mesmerized by the taste.”

Sattouf shows the power of alternative modes of history. Neither history books nor straight reportage capture the banal aspects of life under Gadhafi or how Syrian kids apply what they have learned from television and parents in the schoolyard, like when the teens brutally slaughter a neighborhood dog. On other days, they play with toy soldiers—Syrians versus Israelis—or toy guns.

State policies of violence trickle down to the lives of youth, and through the volume’s succession of scenes, one can begin to think through the broader circumstances of ISIS’ rise. For instance, on a shopping trip to Homs, the nearest city to the village, the young Sattouf witnesses a public hanging. We do not hear the child’s inner monologue or the author’s current reflections, but rather the father’s reasoning for state terror. “That’s life… it’s horrible but it’s necessary. It sets an example. This way people stay peaceful and law abiding. You have to frighten them…”

When interviewed, Sattouf is glib about his antipathy for nationalism, religion, and politics. He told National Public Radio that, more than Syrian or French, he identifies as a “comic book author—it’s my first nationality.” (Indeed his comic art is stunning, with humorous caricatures and a sophisticated sequencing of panels that propel the plot’s movement.) He is also ambiguous about the boundaries of truth in his story and flippant about the book’s political message. Sattouf told the New Yorker that he wanted to “convey the ignorance of childhood.” So when Hafez Al-Assad is discussed, there is no footnote about his son Bashar, Syria’s current ruler, or the ongoing civil war. In the second volume, L’Arabe du futur: Une jeunesse au Moyen-Orient, 1984–1985, published in French in 2015, the author does not hint at the ancient city Palmyra’s future wreckage at the hands of ISIS. The book is strictly written from memory, not through reference books. To be sure, the book was penned prior to ISIS’ escalation of the Syrian civil war. But Sattouf sticks to recollections and offers no introduction or context. The result is a look toward a past era in Syria, Libya, and France, without projecting contemporary anxieties and avoiding nostalgia.

But, in a book that is all about that past, what does Sattouf mean by the title, The Arab of the Future? The answer is found on the penultimate page, where his family is in France on summer holiday. They take a boat to Saint-Malo, the French port city, where his father withdraws thousands of U.S. dollars. “I know the last year in Syria was hard,” says his father, “but everything will be better now.” The boy is devastated. “We’re going back to Syria?” Riad yelps. “Of course,” replies his father. “The summer’s nearly over… You can’t spend your whole life on vacation! The Arab of the Future goes to school.” Which is to say that the Arab of the Future cannot remain a child forever and has to become an adult. The second volume of Sattouf’s memoir is set in Syria, where he finally goes to school.

Telling the story from a child’s point of view is not just a tactic of cuteness, but an approach that challenges the biases that adults hold dear. Childhood memoirs might be said to be a way of working through childhood angst, basically an illustrated version of the psychiatric couch. But in reading Sattouf’s search for clarity about the past, I also thought of the writer and theorist Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood around 1900, a series of fragmented memories of youth. “In 1932, when I was abroad, it began to be clear to me that I would soon have to bid a long, perhaps lasting farewell to the city of my birth,” he writes in the memoir’s introduction. “I deliberately called to mind those images which, in exile, are most apt to waken homesickness: images of childhood.” Like a comic memoir, Benjamin’s recollection relies on painting specific images—objects, rooms, family members—and leaves it to the reader to piece them together.

To write about the past is to finally part with it, to find meaning in it, and thus to shape one’s own future. When Benjamin recollects his childhood, he presciently describes a way of life that the Nazis were about to erase. This is what Sattouf also does in The Arab of the Future. He has captured Syria and Libya, both of which are now disrupted and destroyed. The return to Syria or Libya is now nearly impossible, and to convey those stories—however melancholy they are—offers a form of defiance. Through the simplicity of a child’s perspective, we gain new understandings of the past and uninhibited visions of the future.

Jonathan Guyer is a fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs. He is a contributing editor at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, where he served as senior editor from 2013 to 2015. He was a Fulbright fellow researching political cartoons in Egypt from 2012 to 2013. He previously served as a program associate for the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force and as assistant editor of Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel. He has contributed to numerous publications including Guernica, New Yorker, New York MagazineNieman Reports, and Paris Review. On Twitter: @mideastXmidwest.

Black Power

The office of Black Youth Project 100 is a few blocks from President Barack Obama’s private residence in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. The organization’s national director, Charlene Carruthers, like Obama in his younger activist days, is a Chicago community organizer. The similarities may stop there. Indeed, Carruthers has been loudly calling for the resignation of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s longtime Chicago political ally who served as his White House chief of staff. Her complaint: Emanuel’s negligent leadership in the Chicago police shooting death of a black teenager in 2014.

Carruthers, 30, is among the new generation of grassroots activists across the United States demanding social and economic change, such as greater police accountability, decriminalization of black youth, women’s and LGBTQ rights, and a fair minimum wage. At BYP 100, she trains young black activists to transform their local communities. In Chicago, she has been leading protests against police brutality, including a twenty-eight-hour sit-in at City Hall, and a march on the Magnificent Mile that disrupted commerce on the busiest shopping day of the year.

After growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Carruthers graduated from Illinois Wesleyan University. One of her own transformational experiences was a school trip to post-apartheid South Africa, where she learned about the crimes committed in the name of white domination. She has held positions in various progressive organizations including the Women’s Media Center in New York co-founded by feminist activist Gloria Steinem. Cairo Review Managing Editor Scott MacLeod interviewed Carruthers in Chicago on January 6, 2016.

CAIRO REVIEW: What’s going on in this country? When Barack Obama was elected president eight years ago, it gave some people the impression that America had solved the race issue. But things aren’t going so well.
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: I remember when then-state legislator Barack Obama ran for U.S. Senate, and I marched in the parade, I was a college student at the time. And I voted for him when he ran for senate, and I voted for him when he ran for president for the first time. It was with the understanding that there was an optimism and a sentiment of progressivism that his platform at least sought to achieve. And shortly after, there was a wakeup call, again, about the power of politicians in actually transforming society. And I think that some people understood that before he was elected, but so many, even black radical folks, had optimism in that particular moment thinking it was the post-Bush era, and the possibilities seemed to be just big. Big. Big. Hope and change. And so what I’ve learned and what I hope many of us learned again are the limitations of any politician to change our lives or to transform our lives. And so what’s going on in this country is that, yes, we have a black president, and he’s a black president of a country that has spent centuries oppressing black folks, oppressing LGBTQ folks, women, queer, trans folks, a whole host of marginalized people. And what we’re seeing today, particularly as it relates to police brutality, this stands in a long tradition of policing in this country, surveillance, hyper-surveillance and intimidation, and violence in this country. Unfortunately it’s not new, however the systems have much more sophisticated tools and technology to maintain social control, particularly over black people, especially over black poor people.

CAIRO REVIEW: How would you prioritize the concerns of black Americans?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: It’s a huge issue. I’m a student and a lover of history, and I can’t talk about where we are now or what the problem is without talking about where we’ve come from. I strongly believe that the black liberation movement, particularly as it connects to the Americas, started the first time that an African was taken from the continent and forcibly brought into chattel slavery. Since then, black folks have resisted. At that particular moment, and it continues today, this fight, the problem, is rooted in anti-blackness. The idea and the understanding, the collective understanding, that black people are not full human beings and that they do not require humane treatment, access to basic human rights, resources, and a recognition that we too are a part of this society, and that violence against our bodies should not be guaranteed. It should not be inevitable, the idea of social death, that being black automatically deems you as less than human, and at any moment, your body is vulnerable to violence. And we’ve seen that over and over again throughout history.

CAIRO REVEW: How does that translate into conditions today?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: It shows up in high unemployment rates in black communities, high rates of poverty, it shows up in a public welfare, a social welfare system that continuously strips away the dignity of people. I remember myself as a child going into the public aid office with my mom, and what that experience is like for mothers and their children. Oftentimes you enter these offices, and you’re spoken down to by whatever caseworker stands between you and the ability to buy food for the next month. What’s also a part of the problem—it’s one of the things that’s great about the demands of Black Lives Matter—is that we live in a country where we’re consistently shown that our lives don’t matter, and that’s really at the crux. All of those things come to a head when we talk about the prison industrial complex.

Here, in America, we imprison more people, per capita, than any industrialized or developed nation in the world, right? We have well over two million people who are incarcerated and that number grows when we talk about people who are under state supervision through parole, or under house arrest. We have corporations and individuals who profit from the incarceration of those people. In addition to the profits of corporations and the amount of money that states put into prisons, it is a stripping of people from communities, and it is a continued divestment not just from economic resources in our communities, but the human capital that allows our community to thrive and survive. And so prisons serve as a mechanism of social control, and a place to put people. And many people locate prisons and mass incarceration in the tradition of slavery in America. Especially when we talk about post-emancipation and the convict leasing system, and we look at the growth of prisons in the U.S. in the 1980s and the war on drugs, all those things tie up when we continue to put people in cages, and we continue to surveil people. And that impacts the entire society. It’s a problem that’s being exported to places around the world. Folks are replicating the system of incarceration that has been created and developed here in the United States in countries like South Africa and Australia, across Europe, in Southeast Asia. We use these big terms like “prison industrial complex,” “anti-black racism,” “capitalism,” but what it boils down to is that there are segments of people in the American population who are deemed disposable and commodified through various means of labor and production, and how that shows up in our lives, particularly in black folks’ lives, it cripples our ability to have futures where our children can walk down the street and not worry about being shot and killed, our children can go to quality public schools, and our people can actually have jobs, and do labor that’s meaningful and valued.

CAIRO REVIEW: Where does this come from? Obama, when he gave that famous speech on race in Philadelphia, criticized people who called anti-black racism endemic in the country, suggesting that Americans are basically generous and good people.
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: It’s tough to wrap my mind around why black folks have had the experiences that we’ve had, and particularly in the United States of America and even in the West, be it Haiti or Jamaica, or anywhere in the Caribbean or even South America, right? I do not believe that white people are born white supremacists or are born racists. I think it was absolutely intentional, a very long time ago, to mark black folks as a viable source of forced labor and a commodity, particularly by people who are also colonizers. People who had strong interest in building as much wealth as possible, amassing as much land as possible. Unlike many other groups, black folks, particularly black folks in America, our claims for our humanity aren’t based in land ownership. What we have are our bodies. And our bodies have been continuously, continuously targeted, and used, again, for forced labor, sexual exploitation, and in addition to the robbing of the land from indigenous people, here, especially on this land, and throughout the Western Hemisphere, the exploitation of black bodies, the forced labor of black people, allow for capitalism to thrive in this region and in the world. So, it made money, and it makes money, and it also allows people to maintain and have an argument for why they should be in power. People aren’t born with that, but people are born into institutions that support those ideas and see why they benefit from it, and they continue it. And it’s not just propped up by politicians or by policy. It’s propped up by cultural institutions. It’s propped up by faith-based institutions. I do not believe that people are automatically good, that they act out of goodwill. The idea that white supremacy, anti-black racism, and I have to add, capitalism, are endemic to the U.S. is true. Because without those things, this country would not have built the wealth that it amassed, the land that it amassed, and the amount of people that were forcibly migrated, that story would not be the same. Period. It would not be the same.

CAIRO REVIEW: How is this affecting young black Americans today, who are facing the issues on the ground?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: When we talk about reparations, we don’t have to just talk about chattel slavery. We can talk about the Jim Crow era. We can even just talk about the 1990s. What has happened in Chicago two years ago. Two years ago, the mayor and the school board closed over fifty public schools. And so, these were schools that over 90 percent of the students that were impacted by the closures of those schools are black. And schools serve as anchor institutions in all communities, white, black, brown, it doesn’t matter. To rip over fifty schools out of black communities and displace children, predominantly black children, into other schools, that’s a problem. It’s a huge problem. Divestment from public school education is a major problem that young black people face. The next is absolutely unemployment. Too many young black people who are able to work live in households that are low income or no income. One of the problems that is connected to that is the amount of young black people who work for a wage that is not a living wage. The other issue that I believe young black people face is police violence and police brutality—this understanding that at any moment, particularly if you’re a poor black person, at any moment, the police can target you, they can stop and frisk you, they can stop and search you, you could be engaged in activity that’s not deemed criminal when other folks do it, like smoking marijuana, and you can end up in jail. Or you’re a black trans woman and you’re walking down the street, and you’re assumed to be a sex worker, you’re just stopped, and they take you to jail. Which is a very unsafe place for anybody, and definitely an unsafe place for a black transgender woman. Far too many of us are not only physically harmed by the police, but then are shipped off to jails and prisons. In America, you can be 13 years old and spend five years, until you’re 18 or even longer, in a prison for a petty crime. They call it a juvenile detention center or something else to give it a nice name, but it’s still a prison. And so, education, unemployment, police violence, and mass incarceration are among the most pressing issues. The last one, because I can’t leave this out, particularly for LGBTQ youth, is homelessness. Here, not just in Chicago, New York City, even in the South in rural areas, we have thousands, thousands of young people who have no place to live, because they’ve been put out of their homes based on their identity as a lesbian, bisexual, transgender, gay, or queer young person. And so, while that issue doesn’t get as much play as others do, when you don’t have a home to go to, that destabilizes so many other parts of your life.

CAIRO REVIEW: The issue of police violence against the black community has gotten huge media coverage the last few years, but it is not a new phenomenon.
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Right. Right, it’s not new.

CAIRO REVIEW: Why is the country paying more attention to it?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: The country is paying more attention to police brutality, particularly as it relates to young black people, because young black people are taking to the streets and are refusing to consent to the continued oppression and violence that we face. And it’s oftentimes young black folks who, especially in certain cities, in certain areas, it’s young black folks who aren’t a part of an organization, who don’t get paid to do the work, but they show up because their lives are on the line. That’s why the media is paying attention. I remember the week that we learned that Sandra Bland died in a jail cell in Texas, there were several other black women, who in that same week or two, died in jail cells. Growing up, there was no consciousness of that, and I’m sure that it happened. But it’s because of the energy that’s on the ground and that people are saying, “No, this is not okay. We’re going to fight back against this. We’re actually going to envision a world where this doesn’t happen.” That’s why it’s all over the media.

CAIRO REVIEW: Why are young people rising up?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: They’re rising up because of the stories of young people like Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Rekia Boyd, Mike Brown in Ferguson. Mike Brown, young folks in Ferguson saw his body there. They’re also rising up because of the reaction from the state. When we decide to engage in direct action, be it a protest, a rally, civil disobedience, the police show up before we show up. Or the police show up in dozens of numbers, or they show up with teargas, they show up with tanks. I spent some time in Ferguson after Mike Brown was killed, and I remember going through checkpoints in Ferguson, and I remember the tanks and the National Guard there, in a neighborhood. They occupied that area, and the young black people there, the leaders and the organizers there, refused to just disappear and not show up. They refused to be okay with it. The state’s reaction—it continued to be repressive, it continued to be violent—and they just refused to back down. Here in Chicago, D.C., New York City, New Orleans, folks are met with deep repression from the police or retaliation from the police when we take action, and honestly it just gives us more energy to do more. Because they could just stay home. But they don’t, because their function is to try to control us as much as possible.

CAIRO REVIEW: Where is all this going?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: BYP 100, we actually started in 2013, the weekend that George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the killing of Trayvon Martin. We’d been gathered right outside of Chicago for a convening that was planned a year in advance. And so we decided then that we needed an organization that was focused on base-building, meaning developing lots and lots of leaders, to organize ground campaigns for the sake of black liberation. And we’ve been organizing ever since then. And we have to continue to do that. We have to build a much wider base. We have chapters all over the country, and in 2014 we developed our first public policy agenda, called the Agenda to Keep Us Safe, and that focused on fundamentally changing the relationship between the police and young black people and ending mass criminalization.

CAIRO REVIEW: The Trayvon Martin case, where a young black man in Florida was shot and killed by a white community watchman in 2012, reverberated widely.
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Trayvon Martin was out of school on that day because he was suspended. And it was absolutely tied to what we call the school-to-prison pipeline, where young folks are placed in conditions in schools that are very similar to jails and prisons. I remember, I went to Chicago public schools, and we had metal detectors that we had to go through every morning, they checked our bags, the police could do a random search at any point in time, body searches, everything.

CAIRO REVIEW: Tell us more about BYP 100’s work.
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: On Martin Luther King weekend, we are launching our Agenda to Build Black Futures, which focuses on economic justice. We do not believe that you can talk about ending mass incarceration, police violence, at all without talking about creating an economy and a society that is just, where people work and earn and receive a living wage if they work wage jobs. We also believe that actually even for people who can’t work, who aren’t able to work, that we should have a guaranteed income in the United States of America. And for folks who are able to work and want to work, we should have full employment in this country. What’s next for us is fighting for economic justice and bridging between the work that we do around policing and mass incarceration, with issues of reparations, with issues of workers’ rights, issues of how we value women as not just laborers but those who are the heads of households. Also, how we connect issues of mass incarceration and police violence with the displacement of black folks from our neighborhoods, not just from gentrification, but from many other dynamics.

CAIRO REVIEW: What concrete actions or measures does this involve?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: It’s about improving black people’s lives, to actually create things that will materially improve folks’ lives. And so one of our entry points into economic justice work was the Fight for 15. The Fight for 15 is a campaign that was started by fast food workers in New York City who were demanding a $15 [per day] living wage and a union so they could actually collectively bargain for their wages. And they won. They actually won it. And it’s been won in other cities. But that needs to become a reality everywhere. It requires more than a press conference, more than a policy statement. It requires boots on the ground, people giving voice to it through digital media, people talking about it, people talking to their family members about the importance of it, and also even electing public officials who support it. And the only way that happens is through organizing. Our policy agendas provide frameworks and a vision, but we still have to do the organizing. And so that’s the first part. The second part is that we do not have a collective understanding why our economy doesn’t work for us. Black folks understand that, you know, too many of us are poor, but the “why” of that, that varies from person to person. And so we have to build a collective political consciousness that, no, it’s not simply that black folks are lazy, or particularly that black Americans don’t take advantage of the privileges that we have in this country. But we have a system that was never set up for our success. It was set up for a few people, particularly folks who buy in, who fall in line with what capitalism tells us we have to do. But for the majority of black folks, that doesn’t happen. And so we have to organize, and then we also have to develop some type of shared understanding of what’s actually at stake here, and how we got to the place that we’re at, in order to do what needs to be done.

CAIRO REVIEW: Some of what you said seems to echo, or maybe he’s echoing you, the message of Bernie Sanders about economic inequality. Is part of your campaign supporting candidates like Bernie Sanders?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: As an organization, BYP 100 politically does not support any particular candidate who’s running for office, because there are no permanent friends or permanent allies, and perhaps there are no permanent enemies either. And so we don’t endorse candidates at all, and I personally don’t endorse candidates. What I do believe in is that we have a responsibility, no matter who the candidate is, particularly for candidates who make promises to our communities, to hold them accountable, and to agitate them into doing the things that we believe are right to do. Actually, I was in a meeting with Bernie Sanders not too long ago. He spoke about his economic justice platform. And the way he speaks about it, and the way that many white progressives or white socialists speak about economic justice, is all too often divorced from racial justice. It’s like, “Well this will impact everyone, so yeah, of course it will improve the lives of black people, because this is going to improve the lives of everyone.” As opposed to saying, “This is what’s happening to black folks, brown folks, in this country, so this is why this needs to be done, not simply because this is going to improve the lives of everyone.” It’s a different orientation. I shared that with Bernie Sanders: for us you cannot talk about economic justice without talking about racial justice.

CAIRO REVIEW: Let me bring you back to police violence. What is the problem between the police and the black community?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: I’ll talk about Rekia Boyd. Rekia Boyd was a young black woman who was out with her friends one night in Chicago. Officer Dante Servin, they were near his home. He was off duty, he came out of his home, was in his car, had a confrontation with the small group of young black folks, and ultimately, Rekia was shot in the back of the head. She was the only one who died that night. And the officer maintains that he felt threatened, even though he was in his home, didn’t have to come out of his home, he ended up in his car, he could have driven away, he could have done many things. He could have called someone who was on duty to deal with whatever threat he assumed they presented, but he didn’t do any of those things. He maintains he shot over his shoulder, in his car, and killed Rekia. Because of Rekia’s family and community supporters, Dante Servin was indicted, eventually, for killing Rekia, and he was charged with manslaughter. From the beginning, our state’s attorney, Anita Alvarez, who’s the prosecutor here in Cook County, has mishandled the case. Last year, all the charges were dropped. The presiding judge said the reason why the charges were dismissed was because he was undercharged. He should have been charged for murder. What was so deeply offensive was the way the family was treated from the very beginning. Disregarded. The presumed innocence of the officer from beginning to the end, and not just like, you know, “innocent until proven guilty,” but that “he couldn’t have done it.” Like, absolutely not. He was threatened, and the presumption was that he should be protected as much as possible. And then, for the charges to be dismissed because the state’s attorney didn’t bring up charges of murder. All through that, Dante Servin is still on the police force. We’ve been engaged in a campaign since May of 2015 calling for his firing with no pension. And for only the second time in recent history the Independent Police Review Authority and the then-police superintendent recommended that he be fired. That doesn’t happen in Chicago. But it was because of sustained organizing, and a huge community outcry.

CAIRO REVIEW: Can you review the Laquan McDonald case, which is in the news as we speak?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Laquan McDonald was a teenager here in Chicago. He had a confrontation with some police officers. It’s believed that it’s possible that he was undergoing some type of mental instability in that moment, which doesn’t surprise me when you’re surrounded by police officers, to have some type of a moment, because I have it myself when I’m around police officers. There were some officers who responded immediately to the situation, and then more officers who arrived. And all this is on videotape, it’s on dashcam videotape and there’s also footage from a nearby fast food restaurant. And Laquan is shot sixteen times.

CAIRO REVIEW: Sixteen times?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Sixteen times. Laquan is shot by a police officer sixteen times. Shortly after the police officer arrives on the scene, shoots him sixteen times. He shoots him and continues to shoot him even after he’s down and completely immobilized, and he continues to shoot him. For anyone who takes a moment to count to sixteen, that takes a long time to count to sixteen. After he was shot and killed, they did an autopsy the very next day, and the state, the county, knew what happened in that particular moment. They had the knowledge of where the shots were, where his body was, all of that. And then that’s where the cover-up begins. Laquan is killed by officer [Jason] Van Dyke, the Chicago Police Department [CPD] and the city do not release the dashcam video to the public. This is all happening in a moment where our mayor [Rahm Emanuel] is up for reelection, and he has a contested race. His aides and people in his office know about the shooting and what happened, and then it is moved to have a $5 million settlement to the family, that his administration approves. Due to several journalists and community advocates, there’s a Freedom of Information Act, a FOIA request. I was in the courtroom the day that the judge decided to release the video to the public. And one has to ask themselves, in an age where there are videos released of Walter Scott being gunned down in South Carolina, there are pictures of Mike Brown lying on the ground, there are videos upon videos of black people being killed by police officers, why was this video not released?


CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: I believe that the video was not released because it was not politically healthy for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration in that particular moment, and it was not healthy for the Chicago Police Department to show, in full color, the violence that its department enforces and performs on black folks. Because that’s not the first time the CPD has killed someone. It wasn’t the first time that week, it definitely wasn’t the first time that month that it happened, that CPD shot some unarmed black person. And so, they didn’t want the city to burn. Because they’re looking at Baltimore, Ferguson, and they were so afraid that the young black people here too would set things on fire. And I believe that fear was well-founded, because the anger that young black folks have in this city is well-founded. And so they didn’t want that to happen, and so they held back for those three reasons: the mayor’s reelection campaign, CPD wanting to save face, and then their fear that the violence of CPD shown all over the world would absolutely result in this city burning. And so they didn’t release it. It took a year, a whole year, for the court to get to the point where the court said that CPD had no standing to withhold this video. And then it was released.

CAIRO REVIEW: You spoke about your fight for the liberation of black people. Are organizations like yours able to actually push the agenda, to make progress to the satisfaction of the black community?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: What has to happen now is we need a lot more people in this work in order to move forward an agenda that’s not just reformist, but an agenda that actually moves us toward transformative demands and transformative change in our communities. We have to move past simply saying, “We need better cops.” Actually, we need to be fighting to live in a society where we don’t have cops. We need to go beyond just thinking that we can do little fixes to the system. Ending mass incarceration is connected to police, to ending police violence. We can’t simply just train officers to be better. We have to take power away from them. Here in Chicago, the CPD’s budget takes up nearly 40 percent of the city’s budget, nearly 40 percent. And so we have to move from putting Band-Aids on the system. That is what has to happen next. In order for us to do that, we need more people, we need more organizations, and we absolutely have to continue to invest in community organizing. And these young people who are rightfully angry about this system, they need support. They need support so they can do this work, and they can still live full lives. In my heart, deeply in my heart, I believe that we have the vision. The vision isn’t even completely new, we didn’t invent the idea that the police should have less power and one day perhaps we can live in a world where there are no police. That idea has been cooking for quite some time, and now we’re in a moment where the critical mass of people who also believe that is growing. So it’s my responsibility as an organizer to make sure that that number continues to grow and it exponentially grows. The only time we see any changes in policing and prisons is when people who are directly impacted no longer consent to it, are not cool with it. Like when you see the prison uprisings, when you saw the uprising in Ferguson, the uprising in Baltimore, people organizing, that’s when things change. So we have to continue to not only resist but also reimagine and put forth visions of our ability to actually live in a different kind of world.

CAIRO REVIEW: One could say that’s very utopian. Or overly idealistic. You have a lot of barriers and a lot of resistance in this country to that kind of thinking.
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Well, I have a friend who went on a march called the Trail of Dreams in maybe 2010, and he was part of a group of young, undocumented immigrants. And they walked from Miami to Washington, DC, to raise awareness and build relationships around the crisis of immigration in this country. My friend’s name is Felipe Matos, and he called me when they were walking through the cotton fields in Georgia, and he was just like, “Charlene, I’m feeling really down today. I don’t know if I can continue this.” And I’m like, “Felipe, you know how I know that change is possible? Because my ancestors were slaves and had to pick those cotton fields forcibly, and chattel slavery was abolished in this country.” That’s how I know change is possible. It’s absolutely possible. I think about the potential of black liberation as what we saw in the Haitian revolution. Like, it took two years after the French Revolution for people to take up arms in Haiti and to end slavery in Haiti, right? Our ancestors went up against amazing odds. I’m sure when people were like, “Yo, we can end slavery. Like, the kid I have doesn’t have to be a slave.” I’m sure people said, “This is impossible, you must be out of your mind.” Right? But it was the people, like Nat Turner, the folks like Harriet Tubman, the folks like Sojourner Truth, who said, “No.” Like Frederick Douglass, who said, “No, actually we can change this,” and they did. I’m sure it sounded really utopian back then to end slavery across the Western Hemisphere, but it was ended because people fought for it. Of course what happened in the aftermath was not perfect. I mean, we’re still in a situation, when we talk about prisons as a continuation of slavery.

CAIRO REVIEW: How far did Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement bring things along?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: I think the story of the Civil Rights Movement and how it impacts us today is so complicated. When we look at the amount of things that were won—the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, things like that—they’re unprecedented. They’re meaningful and have been meaningful for black folks’ lives, absolutely. I don’t see the Civil Rights Movement as a failure, just on face value. What I do think is that work has had to evolve and change in order to actually get us to where we need to be. Primarily, when we look at the Civil Rights Movement, the people whose ideas were allowed to grow, at least in the public consciousness, was limited. And that, in turn, impacted many of the limitations and the demands of the Civil Rights Movement. They weren’t looking at prisons then. And people who were LGBT, you almost don’t know about them. Or when we talk about women’s rights, it was, “This first, we’ll do that later.” There were always people, even within the Civil Rights Movement, who were fighting for a more visionary, a more inclusionary set of demands and ideas and things to fight for, but that’s not what happened. When King died, he was fighting for economic justice. They killed him in the moment when he was organizing black sanitation workers. And that scared people, in bigger ways than his fight for the access to voting, because that continues to get to the core of what makes America work the way that it does. That scares people to no end. And so King became an even greater threat right before he was killed.

The Civil Rights Movement, it doesn’t live in a vacuum. Right after that you have the Black Power Movement that built on the successes and the failures of the Civil Rights Movement, which was trying to take lessons and do things differently and do things better and be more unapologetically black. I would say that this movement that we’re in now is again in that tradition. We are students of the Civil Rights Movement, students of the Black Power Movement, and taking a look at what happened there. What worked, and what didn’t work? Why did the things that worked work, and why did the things that didn’t work, why didn’t they work? And how can we do things differently or how can we continue to do things? And what we know works is organizing and building a base of people. We know that building political consciousness works. We know what doesn’t work is having single leaders up front. What we do follow is someone who organized at that time, Ella Baker, her motto of group-centered leadership. She was one of the architects of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who did amazing work in the South, particularly in Mississippi. Ms. Baker, what she taught was the antithesis of what MLK did and what Malcolm X did, and what many of those other male charismatic leaders did.

CAIRO REVIEW: Why do you say antithesis?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: She was completely against it. She was completely against this model of having the single leader, and not just the single leader, but the single male charismatic leader, who came from clergy or a faith-based community, making decisions, making key strategy decisions on their own, being the face of the movement, as opposed to the work coming from the people.

CAIRO REVIEW: Couldn’t you have both?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Perhaps. They had both in that particular moment, and things changed, but there was an overreliance on the first one, on the single visionary, so-called visionary, and King was absolutely a visionary leader and he became more radical in his later years. But that’s not the King we’re often taught about. And so Ella Baker had a strong emphasis on developing lots and lots of strong leaders. Because once you chop down the solitary leader or the single leader, then the rest of your work can crumble if you haven’t developed enough people to pick that work up. And that is absolutely what happened with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

CAIRO REVIEW: Is that what has happened in the black community in general?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Oh it’s happened so much. That’s one of the problems, is that we prop up these individuals, and we don’t invest in building strong leaders. One of the other issues we have is just even transitioning leadership. So, for me, I won’t be in this job for more than four years, definitely no more than five. We’ve been talking about my transition and the transition of our other leaders and how we’re developing some of our younger folks to take on leadership. Cause we cannot have what’s happened in the past happen again.

CAIRO REVIEW: Is that what’s happening with your organization, with Black Lives Matter, that there is a kind of widespread grassroots organizing that’s taking place, a new face of the black civil rights movement in America?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: I’m always hesitant to say if it’s something new, because black feminist organizations that were around decades ago follow similar leadership models that we do today.

CAIRO REVIEW: Is there a rising up of this model?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Absolutely, it is different. Yes. I believe that what the face of leadership looks like, the demands that we make, how we organize, is different. It is different. I was trained in the Saul Alinsky model of organizing. I’ve been an organizer and activist for over twelve years. And my time and being trained with an Alinsky-based organization in northern Virginia as an organizer, I learned a very specific type of organizing, a very specific set of practice or habits of organizing. Since then, I’ve learned that some of those things work for black folks, and many of those things don’t work for black folks. We have to organize in what we actually call a black queer feminist lens. And for us, what that means, it’s reflective of our values and even how we just are with each other. That means that yeah, I’m absolutely one of the primary spokespeople for the organization. I am. And on a good day, I’m charismatic. But I’m not the only one. I don’t make blanket decisions about our strategy on my own. Those are always done in collaboration and discussion with other people. And we see that in many other organizations and other formations, is how we interact, how we engage with each other, how we make decisions, who’s visible, whose opinions and ideas are valued, that is something that the emergence of that kind of work and that kind of analysis I think is something that is very important and particular to this moment.

CAIRO REVIEW: Is this a movement that has to be exclusive to black people, led by black people? Is there a role for white people? I think I saw a tweet from you about “White people, where are you? What are you doing to get rid of white supremacy?”
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: The work that we do in this country, particularly as it relates to police violence, economic justice, mass incarceration, absolutely has to be led by black people and connected to other movements. I think about the Latino-led segments of the immigrant rights movement, because there are black folks leading in the immigrant rights movement as well, when we start to talk about what migration means for non-black Latinos, and how folks are criminalized, they are criminalized in similar and in many cases the same ways that black folks are criminalized. So we are not going to take down prisons or jails without taking down detention centers. A large number, an overwhelming number of folks, are non-black Latinos. And so we’d do ourselves a disservice if we only talked about criminalization in silos; we have to make those connections. And so particularly when we talk about non-black people of color, there’s so many connections that we have to make if we’re going to win. Because black folks aren’t going to win this on our own. Actually, the liberation of black folks is tied up with the liberation of all oppressed people. But the liberation of all oppressed people sure as hell is not going to happen without the liberation of black people, and the ending of anti-black racism in this world. And so, yes, we have to make connections across movements.

CAIRO REVIEW: The role and responsibility of whites?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: When it comes to white folks, white people absolutely have a role. I mean, their social location gives them not just privilege but deep levels of power to make decisions and move about the world in ways that black folks cannot move around the world. We don’t have access to that whiteness and the privileges that come along with that. And so white folks absolutely have a responsibility to teach themselves and their children not only about white privilege but how anti-black racism shows up in their lives, and actively work to reduce the level of power that whiteness has in this world. And so what that means, what that means on a very practical level, is that white folks should not be organizing in black communities. Why are you the executive director, white person, of a black community-based organization? That happens here in Chicago, it happens all over, all over this country. Your schools, the resources that your schools have, you should not be okay with the fact that the school that’s a couple miles away from you doesn’t have those same resources because of how property taxes work in funding schools. So white folks have to stop consenting to the power that they have in order for this to work. We can make some wins, we can have successes, but we can’t do that on our own. But we do have to lead it, and we do have to inform and be the folks who say, “Actually this is the kind of world we want to live in, and this is what we need from you in order to make that happen.”

CAIRO REVIEW: You don’t want a white person coming into a black community to be a community organizer? What should that white person be doing?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Oh my gosh, they need to go organize white folks. White folks who are organizers and have the skills, have the ability and the interest, the energy, to organize people to build power for the sake of changing this world into one where all people can live with their dignity, they absolutely need to go organize white moderates, white progressives, white conservatives. Someone needs to organize them, and outside of labor, it can’t just be through a labor union. That’s where they should be.

CAIRO REVIEW: What about the responsibility of the black community? One of the criticisms is that the black community itself is a mess—drugs, black-on-black violence, shattered families. There are some people who say the black movement should be focusing on improving the quality of life and the values and the behaviors of the black community before fighting against police violence and things like that.
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Black people have always fought to change black folks’ values. That has been going on for more than a century. Since emancipation, black folks have done the work of respectability to push, you know, so-called good Christian values, morality, things like that. We’ve always done that. And that can only take us so far. And it consistently leaves out people who do not fit a certain mold. Black folks are still resisting and fighting against the things that happen within our communities. Interpersonal violence. There is a group of mothers in the Inglewood neighborhood in Chicago who have taken to occupying the streets and saying, “No gun violence here.” They’ve done that, right? Like scores of black people who do mentoring programs, after-school programs, people who are part of faith communities, who do support within their communities. I think the activism and the organizing that happens when it comes to state violence and when it comes to interpersonal violence in black communities, they both exist. They show up differently. It is not the same to protest the young black person who shot another person—they’re likely in jail or on their way to jail at some point—than when a police officer kills us. We know where to find that person, we know that we pay that person’s salary, we know that they’ve actually sworn to protect and serve. But how we confront the young black person, and how we confront the police officer, both of those things actually do happen.

Why I organize, I organize so that the violence that happens in our communities between us, and the violence that happens by the state, ends. State violence is absolutely connected to the domestic violence that happens in our homes. And for me, as a black queer woman who grew up in a household that is best described as working class, that stuff didn’t escape me. When I say we need funding for restorative justice, it’s not just about when someone steals a car or someone kills someone, it is also about when someone is beating their partner in their household. I fight for all those things. My work is about all those things. And economic justice. Why are young people on the streets? Why are young people in survival economies like the drug economies and sex work, and things like that? Oftentimes it’s because they have few choices about what they can do, few options. We need to create more options for young people. And, those things in the survival economies absolutely need to be decriminalized, so people don’t go to jail for doing things that other people do every day. That’s my take on the idea that black people just need to focus on themselves. We’ve always done that. We will always do that. The state absolutely plays a major role in many of the problems that exist in our communities.

CAIRO REVIEW: You grew up on the South Side of Chicago. How has that brought you to where you are today, in terms of your activism?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Growing up on the South Side of Chicago has so much to do with my worldview. My mom, she stayed at home until I was maybe 9 or 10, and since then she’s worked low-wage domestic jobs and retail jobs all my life. And my dad works in insurance. I saw my dad graduate from college, he was an adult student. He was in the military for twenty-one years as well. I first learned about power in two things. One, from being in the welfare office with my mom, and two, hearing from my dad about him training white folks who would then be promoted over him.

CAIRO REVIEW: That shaped your worldview?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: When I was in high school, I went to high school on the North Side of Chicago and I was in the international baccalaureate program, so my education was extremely globalized. And, it was a public school, and it was like a program, like a school within a school, because we had access to things that nobody else in the school had access to. Even from elementary school, because I went to an all-black elementary school that was Black History Month every day, pretty much. It’s a public magnet school on the South Side. I always had a great public school education. That is what confirmed to me that this is possible: black children can receive a quality public school education when the state decides that they’re worth it. It was decided that we were worth it because I was at a magnet school and a gifted center in elementary school. It was decided that we were worth it in high school because I was in the international baccalaureate program. Why aren’t all students treated that way? I know you’re deemed to have certain intellect because of your test scores and your reading skills and all the other things, but I was invested in from the very beginning both by my parents and by my teachers. That should be the standard. Not this mess that our children are in now.

CAIRO REVIEW: You went to South Africa as a college student.
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Oh, it was huge. That was the thing that politicized me. I went to college in central Illinois at a small, private liberal arts school, a predominantly white institution, and at the end of my first year, I had the opportunity to go study politics in South Africa for a May Term course. My professor is a white South African. It was 2004, post-Mandela being elected, going to Soweto, going to Robben Island, of course, but it was really the District Six Museum that did it for me. This museum basically has the belongings of people who were forcibly displaced, black folks and colored folks from a neighborhood, the government came in and razed the whole place. There was a whole museum that’s dedicated to this neighborhood and what happened to this neighborhood. It just stuck with me. You physically moved people, you tore down a whole neighborhood. It just blew my mind. I’ve done a lot more traveling, and those experiences, be it from Palestine to Haiti to what else, China, they inform my politics very, very deeply.

CAIRO REVIEW: Barack Obama said he was running for president to see a “more just, more equal, more free, more caring, and more prosperous” America. Has he achieved any of those things?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: I think that President Obama has made meaningful gains, particularly as it relates to things like healthcare. What’s happened with healthcare reform is completely unprecedented in the U.S. It has opened up the possibility and the reality for more people to not have to worry how they’re going to pay their medical bills. While that has happened, at the same time the Obama administration has deported more people than ever in history. And that not only saddens me, that angers me. That’s not okay.

CAIRO REVIEW: How do you explain your disappointment, given the hope you had in Obama’s election?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: I was 23 at the time. His presidency has allowed me to understand policy and power in ways that I have never understood them. And so disappointment in a politician is part of the game. It’s inevitable. The limitations and how power can be exercised. I also think that he’s brought issues to the forefront, into different people’s consciousness around prisons, around the fact that he visited a prison in Oklahoma, no sitting president has done that before. But I understand these things to be steps toward much bigger things that have to be done, and many of those things have to happen on a more local level, period. I don’t understand them to be things that are transformative, particularly as it relates to mass incarceration, policing in this country, and even employment in this country. We’ve not had a federal works program. Or, when it comes to education. His administration didn’t transform how public education exists in this country. I think that he has had some successes and perhaps, in addition to healthcare reform, one of the major successes is around the narrative of what this country is for some people. Where he’s done well is around perhaps the rhetoric that we’re a nation of immigrants, while at the same time marginalizing black people, and other people and the indigenous people of this country who are not immigrants, who were forced to be here or had their land taken. So it’s full of tension for me, how I reconcile his presidency and what it has meant for this country. We’re still at war, that didn’t stop. Drones are killing people. That didn’t stop. Some people are being pardoned from prison, but Assata Shakur is still on the most-wanted list. So it’s full of contradictions.

CAIRO REVIEW: Have Obama’s election and presidency somehow given a sense of empowerment or a symbolism for young black people?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: I think some, yes, particularly in the aftermath or the wake of the first election. I think it did for some folks. I mean, young black folks voted at a higher rate than any other youth demographic in 2008 and in 2012. And we also voted at higher rates in the midterm elections, too. And so, if voting is an indicator of energy, we showed up for him. And we showed up for other people. The rate of political participation was high. We’ll see what happens in 2016.

CAIRO REVIEW: In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, Between the World and Me, he seems very pessimistic about the future of black Americans. Obama seems hopeful and optimistic, he believes in the goodness of people and the possibility of unity, the possibility to progress, he made the comment in that speech about kind of criticizing people who elevate what is wrong with America over what is right with America. You seem more optimistic that organizing, pressure, pushing agendas can actually improve people’s lives and maybe liberate black people in the end.
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Yeah, I’m an organizer. So I can’t do my job if I don’t believe transformative change is possible. I’m under no illusion that change happens without an organized demand from people, and I can’t overlook the wrongs that happen in this country because they’re killing us. They’re making our lives difficult. They are traumatizing us. And as the president of the United States your job is to be optimistic and to inspire people so that people can continue to believe in the version of democracy that we have, so people have to believe that America is great in order to continue to buy into the idea of the American dream and capitalism, things like that, so he has to do that. And I think Ta-Nehisi Coates, he is also necessary in this conversation, because too many people still don’t get it, how dire this situation is. Because, you know, while black folks like myself, I have a job, but my mama still works a low-wage job and President Obama hasn’t changed her life. She makes just too much to get healthcare, to get Medicaid, and not enough to pay for health insurance. So people like that, when I think about my mom, my aunt, my cousins, my siblings, like that, there’s always contradictions and tensions there.