Millennial Letters

Free Speech vs. Hate Speech in France: A Guide for the Perplexed

In response to the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack, millions of French took to the streets on January 11th to defend the right to “blaspheme” or insult religion. But a few days later, French authorities cracked down on the comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala for writing on his Facebook page, “I feel like Charlie Coulibaly” in a sign of solidarity with Amedy Coulibaly, the man who killed four Jews at a kosher supermarket in Paris as the manhunt for the Charlie Hebdo killers was under way. Dieudonné is now facing charges for “apology of terrorism.”

Is Obama Serious About Fighting ISIS?

The president’s State of the Union address only briefly touched on the growing threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, commonly know as ISIS or ISIL. Obama showed solidarity with terrorism victims whether they are in a “school in Pakistan or France.” Curiously he didn’t mention the recent atrocities committed by Boko Haram in Nigeria, where at least 2,000 people were slaughtered. This is an atrocity and at least acknowledging it would show that he “stands united” with victims of terrorism. The best way to stand united with terrorism victims is to take the lead and fight terrorists. Obama was big on campaign-friendly phrases such as “hunting down terrorists” but short on actual concrete proposals to combat violent extremists.

Not The Time For New Iran Sanctions

Both President Obama and Congress are determined to prevent Iran, a historic adversary of the United States, from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Where their strategies differ, however, was on full display in last night’s State of the Union address.

Congress, rightly suspicious of Iran, seeks to pass new legislation that would trigger additional sanctions if a long-term deal is not reached by the June 30th deadline or if the Iranian regime breaches any agreement reached. The Obama administration believes such legislation could disrupt the negotiations, fracture the international coalition united against Iran, and give Iran a convenient excuse to abandon diplomacy.

While the passage of additional sanctions legislation is well intentioned, premature action would derail diplomacy, unfreeze Iran’s nuclear program, and undo the progress from the last year. To be sure, Congress has an important role to play, but just as Congress gives military commanders flexibility in fighting wars, they must not micromanage our diplomats as they fight for an effective agreement.

Eradication of Extreme Poverty is a US Security Interest

In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama discussed foreign policy issues that pose a clear and present danger to the United States, such as the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), Russia’s aggression, and the Ebola pandemic. But he also addressed a much less obvious issue, but one that is perhaps even more challenging and requires just as much strong American leadership: the need to eradicate extreme poverty. He has mentioned it in the past, but this year the president pointed out that the global community needs to “build a more effective global effort to prevent the spread of future pandemics, invest in smart development, and eradicate extreme poverty.”

Obama Speech Affirms His Weakness on Iran

While warning of the dangers of military action in last night’s State of the Union address, President Obama simultaneously insisted that he “keep[s] all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran.” The statement suggested a recognition that diplomacy must be backed by strength—that success largely hinges on Tehran’s perception of Washington’s willingness to exert its influence. Yet in every other way, the speech affirmed the president’s hesitancy to embrace the full extent of that principle.

The president’s policy toward Iran revealed itself less through what was said than what was omitted. Hours before the president spoke, unknown assailants fired on a US Embassy vehicle in Yemen amid a coup attempt staged by Iranian-backed Shiite militants. A day earlier, an Israeli strike killed a leading commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards near Israel’s border with Syria. Obama might have referred to these incidents as examples of Iranian attempts to sew chaos throughout the Middle East. Instead, he remained silent—following a pattern of avoiding open opposition to Iran’s projection of regional power from Saana, the Yemeni capital, to Beirut.

Obama's Defiance Sounded More Like a Dodge

The last two years of a president’s term are as unproductive a time as any in American politics, making the ambitious agenda that President Obama laid out in his next-to-last State of the Union address all the more remarkable.

For example, by proposing taxpayer-funded community college at a time when Congress is in no mood to spend, the president was defiant. And by avoiding entirely his proposed $320 billion in new taxes—including on responsible parents with 529 college savings plans—to pay for this and other programs, the president was, at best, unserious.

But no matter the tone behind the words, we know from history that very little of what the president proposed last night will become law, and what he did propose will hardly address the enormous, existential challenges that America faces. In this context, the president’s speech sounded less like defiance and more like a dodge from the type of triangulation necessary to succeed in Washington.

Bipartisan Focus on SIVs Needed

When Mohammad Usafi, an Afghan interpreter, was first recruited by the US forces in Afghanistan, his father told him, “This is a great opportunity. You’re going to be helping your country and supporting the US troops that [are] here for your country.”

Usafi signed up to assist American forces the next day, placing himself and his family at grave risk of retribution. When the Taliban subsequently killed Usafi’s father, it became clear that Usafi’s work represented too real a threat, and he looked to America for protection.

Obama’s Tough Diplomacy Bolsters American Leadership

President Obama’s State of the Union wisely acknowledged serious challenges that we face in foreign policy. However, a clear pattern was also apparent—one that shows that by working with strategic partners, we can tackle some of the toughest global problems while strengthening the international order.

A climate deal with China, historic in scope and ambition, proves that American leadership at home inspires the world. Many feared that aggressive EPA steps to curb climate change would be a fruitless, one-off gesture; now, the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions is a willing partner.

The puffed-up strongman Vladimir Putin has been isolated. Despite insistence at home that American leadership is feckless or weak, the administration’s sanctions—to which European allies, even those dependent on Russian energy, have rallied—are severely damaging the Russian economy as punishment for rampant military adventurism.

#SOTU 2015: Balancing Pragmatism and Aspiration

Like many Americans, I have often been thrilled and frustrated by the lurching foreign policy efforts of the Obama administration—often times on the same issue. It appears there is a tension in US foreign policy. On the one hand, we as a nation continue to struggle, desiring to be seen as an aspirational and exceptional nation. This adherence to the idea of America as the indispensable nation means the First Lady participates in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, and we send soldiers to Uganda to help fight the Lord’s Resistance Army. On the other hand, we are a nation of interests; this leads us to sometimes deal with unsavory characters ranging from China to Saudi Arabia. So how do we square this circle—the challenge of defining our engagement in the world? I can think of no finer place for President Obama to articulate a vision than his State of the Union address.

Obama SOTU Address Should Focus on Iran, Syria

After a year in which the global threats and tragedies facing the United States seemed to multiply, President Obama’s State of the Union address this week will be a good way to remind Americans that international engagement is a strategic imperative and that commitment abroad can and will take many different forms in 2015. The president should specifically highlight how he hopes to improve his record on two related foreign and security policy priorities—Iran’s nuclear program and the situation in Syria.

Millennials Make the Case for American Leadership

Over the past year, Americans were reminded that the United States remains an indispensable global leader. Given America’s capacity and reach, only the US can lead the response to threats like the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and emerging threats as varied as cyber warfare and pandemic disease. At the same time, America is uniquely positioned to reap the benefits of a peaceful, stable, and interconnected world. Meeting new challenges and capitalizing on unprecedented opportunities in the coming years will require a new generation of Americans willing to make the case for, and implement, an engaged and principled US foreign policy.

This is why the Foreign Policy Initiative and the Truman National Security Project are so excited to partner with World Affairs to relaunch “Millennial Letters.” This blog will feature contributions from members of our respective leadership networks on the major challenges and opportunities facing the United States, including:

Economy Outranks Gay Rights in Serbia

KÖNIGSWINTER, Germany — Johannes Rueger personifies the values of progressive Europe today, particularly its youth. But as the young German discovered after relocating to the Serbian capital of Belgrade two years ago, certain western norms, like LGBT rights, have yet to be embraced, much less prioritized, by many in the Balkans with other bread-and-butter issues in mind.

Rueger, 30, has followed political and social developments in Serbia as part of his work for a German peace-and-reconciliation program in Belgrade. Based on his observations, he doesn’t have high hopes for the country’s impending EU accession talks

According to Rueger, who also contributes regularly to German blogs moe-kompetenz and ntropy, Serbia’s last-minute cancellation of the gay pride march in Belgrade last month (for the third year in a row) speaks to a lack of enthusiasm for certain EU values. Some in Brussels were not impressed.

Asylum Seekers on Hunger Strike in Berlin

BERLIN — Sometimes I tell people I had trouble getting my visa for Germany, but it’s not really true. I rolled up to the Ausländerbehörde (foreigner’s registration office) here carrying a bunch of homemade cookies, and emerged triumphant shortly thereafter. 

Had I been seeking asylum, however, I might have starved by now.

That’s what 28 refugees are doing in front of the Brandenburg Gate right now. When I went to see them on Monday, on the sixth straight day of their hunger strike, I was shocked to learn that not a single representative of any German political party had come to see them. 

Germany’s new coalition might still be getting organized, but as the protest leader pointed out, it’s not as if the government is shut down, American-style. Institutions are functioning as usual, forms are still being filed, and asylum applications are presumably being rejected. “They don’t want to look,” he said, referring to the politicians. “This is the reality.”

For Syrian Artist, a War for the Heart

Syrian artist Wissam al-Jazairy got his degree right in the nick of time—for a revolution.

The Damascus-born artist graduated from New Bulgarian University in Sofia in October 2011, seven months after the nonviolent protest movement against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad started gaining strength in his homeland.

The young artist returned home and got involved immediately, producing political works that joined a number of international exhibitions in support of the anti-Assad movement.

Things were looking up for anti-government activists at the time. Two long-running dictators had fallen from power in Egypt and Tunisia. But in Syria, the regime crackdown gave rise to an armed rebellion—spawning a terrible conflict that has taken tens of thousands of lives over the past two-plus years. 

Much of Jazairy’s work reflects the brutality of that experience.

Communicating over Facebook from Jordan, Jazairy said the conflict in Syria has two sides—a political side and a more humanitarian side. “What really matters to the artist is the human part,” he said, describing it as the “metaphysical” component of the conflict.

In War, Syria's Revolutionary Art Speaks for Itself

Artist: Tammam Azzam 


With over 120,000 people killed in Syria in under three years, sometimes it seems like there’s no words to describe the brutality of the war — which may be why Syrians are turning to other forms of expression.

The Facebook page “Syrian Revolutionary Art” is dedicated to collecting Syrian works that engage the conflict in their homeland, which began as a peaceful uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011. I touched base with the people running the page, and they let me show you some of the pieces. All of the artists are Syrian, although only two of those included below are still in the country.

"Causes may vary, but the Syrian citizen is the same."
(This is a play on words from the old Arabic saying:
"Causes may vary, but death is the same.)

Artist: Wissam Al Jazairy