Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Julián Castro, Jay Inslee and Kirsten Gillibrand campaign in Pasadena

Story by Justin Chapman | Photos by Mercedes Blackehart | LA Progressive | 6/6/2019

[A different version of this story was published in Pasadena Weekly.]

The 2020 hustings have officially arrived in Pasadena.

On Friday, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sec. Julián Castro and Gov. Jay Inslee participated in the first presidential forum focused on immigration at the Pasadena Hilton. All four are among the 23 Democrats – so far – running to replace Donald Trump as president next year.

Sanders also held a political rally Friday at the Pasadena Convention Center, drawing a crowd of about 2,000 people including Pasadena City Councilmembers Tyron Hampton and Steve Madison. And Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, also a presidential candidate, spoke at a private event on May 30 at the Women’s City Club of Pasadena.

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, both presidential candidates, are finalizing plans to stump in Pasadena soon, as well.

Part of the reason candidates are making sure to traverse California on their campaign trail is because the state has moved its primary election date up from June to March 3, 2020, also known as Super Tuesday. The earlier date – after only Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina – will ensure that California voters and the state’s nearly 500 delegates play a decisive role in determining the eventual nominee, who will be coronated at the Democratic National Convention in July 2020 in Milwaukee.

Conversely, during the 2016 campaign, when California’s June primary was one of the last, Sanders was the only presidential candidate to visit Pasadena.

“We are treating [California] like an early primary state,” Sanders’ campaign manager Faiz Shakir recently told NPR, “campaigning there early and often, and making a strong play to try and win that state.”

Out of 23 candidates, Sanders comes in second place in most polls, behind only Biden, though the difference is by double digits.

Feelin’ the Bern in Pasadena

Actor Danny DeVito and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream co-founder Ben Cohen introduced Sanders at his rally at the Pasadena Convention Center. His wide-ranging speech touched on domestic policies such as income inequality, poverty, affordable housing, homelessness, jobs, voting rights, unions, legalized cannabis, women’s rights, abortion, education, child care, tuition-free college, criminal justice reform, immigration, health care, climate change and the Green New Deal. He also touched on foreign policy including his opposition to war.

“In 2016, we got more votes here in California than anywhere else in America,” said Sanders. “I don’t want to get my opponents nervous, but we’re going to win California and the Democratic nomination.”

Sanders went after Trump’s economic message, saying American workers have been ignored. And he pointed out that in 2016, the media and political establishment called his ideas too radical, but that a majority of Americans now support them.

“Four years ago, we began the political revolution; this campaign we finalize the political revolution,” he said. “We are taking on Wall Street and will break up the large financial institutions that have wreaked havoc on this economy. We’re taking on the drug companies and will cut the cost of prescription drugs by half. We’re taking on the insurance companies and we will – whether they like it or not – bring a Medicare-for-all, single-payer program to America.”

He said he is often asked by his critics how he plans to pay for all his proposals.

“I will tell you how,” he said. “Ten years ago, the American people bailed out the crooks on Wall Street to the tune of $1 trillion. Well, Wall Street can now help the working families of this country. We will impose a transaction tax on Wall Street speculation.”

He pledged to end gerrymandering and voter suppression that he accused Republicans of engineering across the country.

“In a democracy, we believe we should make it as easy as possible for people to participate, not harder,” he said. “We want America to have the highest voter turnout of any major country, not one of the lowest.”

He condemned states like Georgia and Alabama for passing “draconian” anti-abortion legislation.

“A woman’s right to control her own body is a constitutional right and we will defend that right,” he said. “I will never nominate anyone to the Supreme Court who is not prepared to vigorously support Roe v. Wade. This is an issue for everyone. Men must stand with women.”

He called out National Security Advisor John Bolton for helping lead the United States into war in Iraq in 2003 and warned that Bolton is now leading the charge to drag the country into war with Iran.

“Iraq was a disaster,” he said. “War with Iran will be worse. It will lead to perpetual warfare. Our kids, our grandchildren: never ending war. We must do everything we can to stop international conflicts through diplomatic means, not war.”

He pledged to rally world leaders to cut military spending and use that money to combat climate change.

“Think about a world where instead of building more nuclear weapons, poison gas, tanks and guns,” he said, “China, Russia, India, Latin America, Africa and the United States are coming together to say, ‘We are going to save this planet for our children and our grandchildren.’”

Sanders attacked Trump and vowed to defeat the “most dangerous president in American history.”

“The underlying principles of our government will not be greed, kleptocracy, hatred, lies, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia or religious bigotry,” Sanders said. “We have news for Donald Trump: we are going to end those ugly practices when we are in the White House. The principles of our government will be economic justice, racial justice, social justice and environmental justice.”

Sanders changed his position on impeachment a day before his Pasadena rally, following Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s press conference last week in which he said Justice Department policy prohibited his investigation from considering charging the president with obstruction of justice but would have said Trump did not commit a crime if the evidence so established. Sanders now believes impeachment inquiries must begin, making him the 10th major Democratic presidential candidate to call for them.

A Focus on Immigration

One block away from the Convention Center, Rep. Judy Chu (D-27), whose district includes most of Pasadena, delivered introductory remarks at the immigration forum at the Pasadena Hilton. The event, titled the Unity + Freedom Forum, was hosted by FIRM Action, Community Change Action and CHIRLA Action Fund.

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti also spoke at the event, which was not open to the public, but more than 500 grassroots leaders and immigrant-rights advocates from across the nation were in attendance. About 7.1 million people watched Telemundo’s livestream of the event.

All four candidates who participated – Harris, Sanders, Castro and Inslee – pledged to enact comprehensive immigration reform and revoke Trump’s Muslim travel ban during their first 100 days in office, in addition to other progressive immigration policies.

Harris, who formerly served as California attorney general, said the fight for immigration reform will not be easy, but that it’s “a fight worth having, and I promise you we will win this fight.”

Using executive orders, Harris said she would immediately reinstate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), restore Temporary Protected Status protections and enact a moratorium on migrant detention facilities, as well as undo the Trump administration’s other “backward, hate-drive policies.” She said the administration’s child separation policy is not border security but rather a human rights abuse committed by the U.S. government.

“Every day that we don’t resolve this issue, there are real consequences to real human beings,” she said. “We need a president who understands the complexity of this issue.”

Castro, who formerly served as Obama’s Housing and Urban Development Secretary, described specific policy proposals he would enact if elected president. His twin brother Joaquin, a congressional representative from Texas, was also in attendance.

“On April 2, I released my very comprehensive and progressive ‘People First’ immigration plan, which includes decriminalizing border crossings and treating them as a civil offense, ending family detention, reuniting families, improving the legal immigration system, reinstating DACA and implementing a pathway to citizenship for DACA parents, increasing refugee admissions, eliminating for-profit migrant detention facilities, stopping the border wall, adding the number of visas to harness talent from around the world and getting rid of 287(g).”

Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act authorizes the Department of Homeland Security to deputize state and local law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration law.

Castro called for a “21st century Marshall Plan” for Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

“We need a president who’s not going to look down on these countries but work as a peer in a mutually beneficial way to ensure that people can find safety and opportunity in their home country, instead of having to come here to the United States,” he said. “At the same time, the truth is we need a lot of the folks who are coming to the United States right now, because they add vitality to our country. It would be economic suicide not to have them, because we have a declining birth rate and an aging population. We need a young, vibrant workforce. We need immigrants.”

Sanders called Trump a racist and pledged to establish a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants currently in the United States.

Inslee, governor of Washington state who is running as a climate change candidate, said he would increase foreign aid to Central American countries, end family separations at the border, give asylum seekers hearings in a reasonable time period and increase the number of refugees – including those displaced by climate change – accepted into the United States to 110,000 per year.

After Pasadena, Sanders, Harris, Castro, Inslee, Gillibrand and nine other candidates traveled to San Francisco for the California Democratic Party Convention, which was the largest gathering of 2020 presidential contenders thus far until the first official Democratic debate will be hosted by MSNBC on June 26-27 in Miami.

'Housing first'

Homelessness declines in Pasadena thanks to focus on providing short- and long-term housing

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 5/30/2019

The number of homeless individuals in Pasadena decreased by 20 percent this year compared to 2018, according to the 2019 Homeless Count Report released on May 20 by the city of Pasadena’s Housing Department, the Pasadena Partnership to End Homelessness and Urban Initiatives.

The annual count is a one-night snapshot of those living in unsheltered locations and temporary shelters. This year’s count was conducted on the evening of Jan. 22 into the early morning of Jan. 23, 2019, and tallied 542 people experiencing homelessness in Pasadena, compared to 677 in 2018. That makes 2019 the second lowest year since the count began in 1992, after only 2016, when 530 people were counted.

Homelessness in Pasadena has generally been on a decline since 2011, when 1,216 people were counted (except for an uptick the last two years). In 2011, the city and homeless services providers implemented a new approach: housing first, as opposed to clearing up personal issues and then being placed into a home. And city officials and homeless advocates say that approach is highly successful.

“Permanent supportive housing is the only thing that ends homelessness,” said William Huang, the city’s housing director, during a panel on homelessness at the West Pasadena Residents’ Association’s annual meeting on May 8.

Officer Donovan Jones of the Pasadena Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Psychiatric Evaluation (HOPE) team and Shawn Morrissey, Union Station Homeless Service’s director of advocacy and community engagement, also served on the panel.

The Solution

“It took us over 40 years to figure out that the solution for homelessness is an actual home, but we finally did and that’s where our effort is now: to get people into housing,” said Morrissey. “During the early periods of homeless services, all we had to offer people were shelters. We didn’t have housing solutions, just temporary solutions. We became dependent on the massive shelter system we built in LA.”

Morrissey, originally from Montreal, had been homeless himself for a long time starting in his late 30s when he “washed up in Pasadena” in 2002, as he put it. He was an opiate addict from age 12 to 40, but after he received support and housing from Union Station, he was able to turn his life around.

“I showed up with two black eyes, my head was split open, I had no underwear and I was wearing one contact and it wasn’t even mine,” said Morrissey. “You’d see me on the street, I’d be wild-eyed, wild-haired. My success is a result of these types of services and community that wrapped around me. As soon as people get into housing, they’re no longer homeless.”

He said that it’s very challenging to provide services for people while they’re living on the street, but getting a roof over their head and four walls around them has a stabilizing effect and allows them to attend to many of the issues that led to their homelessness to begin with.

“Not only is permanent supportive housing humane and the right thing to do, it has a huge cost savings and helps both the individual and the community,” Morrissey said. “It’s actually $15,000 to $20,000 cheaper to help someone get into permanent supportive housing than it is to walk by them on the street.”

The city’s strategies to address homelessness include funding and working with partners that provide basic homeless services, rapid rehousing, permanent supportive housing and targeted homeless prevention.

Rapid rehousing is short-term assistance for people who are not chronically homeless — those with a disabling condition who have been homeless for more than a year — but recently became homeless for economic reasons.

“We’re seeing people becoming homeless for the first time in their lives,” said Huang. “A lot of them are being priced out of their homes through raised rents, or low-income retired people.”

Permanent supportive housing is typically an apartment unit for those considered chronically homeless. Huang said there is a misperception among the public that the development of more permanent supportive housing in their neighborhood will cause crime rates to go up and property values to go down.

“The safety level is actually enhanced because the person who is housed and is now stable is far less likely to commit crimes,” he said. “Barbara King, a local realtor, looked at property values around the three permanent supportive housing developments we have in Pasadena and found that nobody’s property values went down because the supportive housing developments were well designed and well maintained.”

However, just because officials now know housing is the solution doesn’t mean they have enough housing available.

“There’s a real bottleneck to building more housing,” said Huang. “There’s also a disincentive for landlords even with rental vouchers, because it’s simpler and they get more money when they rent units out at market rate. We need to get more units, either by building them or through willing landlords. It’s a big ask, we realize that, so we do have financial incentives for them if they’re willing to do it.”

Huang said the good news is that the city will be receiving new homeless funding soon from the county and the state. They plan to use that money to get more rapid and supportive housing, hire more housing navigators and case managers, expand prevention efforts, enhance landlord incentives, distribute more motel vouchers and provide more job development.

Pay It Forward

In 2011, homeless advocates in Pasadena launched the inaugural “Housing First” initiative called Project House Pasadena, aimed at housing the 20 most vulnerable and severely chronically homeless individuals — those at risk of dying within a year if they stayed on the streets. One of those 20 people was Dorothy Edwards.

Edwards was born in Monrovia and grew up in Hacienda Heights. After moving from program to program trying to get off drugs, she became homeless in Pasadena, partly to escape a domestic violence situation. She lived with her dog Gunner on the embankment of the Foothill (210) Freeway behind Target in east Pasadena and on a sofa in the donations area of Goodwill on Altadena Drive and Foothill Boulevard, among other places.

Morrissey and others made several attempts to contact Edwards to give her a housing voucher but she hid from them. Seven years ago, Morrissey caught up with her, made a connection, built trust and convinced her to give supportive housing a try. After using cocaine, meth and heroin intravenously for 24 years, she has now been sober for several years and helps others in the position she used to be in. She said housing and employment were the turning point for her.

Edwards went through an advocacy training program at the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH), a community development financial institution that empowers those with lived experiences to speak about homelessness to policymakers. She now sits on CSH’s national board of directors and works at Housing Works as an enrichment services coordinator in a 54-unit supportive services and special needs building in Eagle Rock.

“When you’re homeless for a long time you feel like you’re less than and not enough, but Bill Huang and Shawn Morrissey always made me feel welcome,” said Edwards. “I’m really a stronger person today because of all the encouragement I had. It’s important what I’m doing, my voice is important and I know in my heart that I’ve found my passion. Now I want to pay it forward and help those who are still on the street.”

Morrissey said they’ve housed hundreds of people in the past few years with a 97 percent retention rate.

Work to Do

While the 2019 Homeless Count Report found that progress has been made among key subpopulations such as youth, veterans and families with children, it also found that more people are experiencing chronic homelessness, accounting for 50 percent of the total homeless population.

Additionally, 58 percent of those counted were Pasadena residents before they became homeless and only 5 percent first became homeless outside of LA County or out of state, “largely refuting the misconception that people experiencing homelessness travel from other areas and across the nation,” reads the report.

The homeless population is also aging. The data reveal that three in 10 people experiencing homelessness in Pasadena are aged 55 years or older. There were 23 families with children experiencing homelessness in Pasadena, but there were no unsheltered families with children on the night of the count, compared to eight families in 2018.

Huang identified several things anyone can do to help homeless individuals: refer them to services through websites like; get educated by reading the Homeless Count Report; donate to the nine orange parking meters around the city that are part of the Real Change Movement designed by ArtCenter College of Design; engage landlords to consider renting units to homeless individuals; and volunteer with organizations that serve the homeless such as Union Station, Friends in Deed, Foothill Unity Center and many others.

“We’re never going to end this problem, but Pasadena is uniquely positioned to ostensibly end this problem as it exists today with the political will, the infrastructure, and the robust services that we have,” said Morrissey. “What’s really going to turn the tide is getting the appropriate information out to the community in order to tear down some of these myths and stigmas and help people see there really is a solution here: developing or making housing available for people.” 

Rhodes: U.S. is Losing Influence, Credibility on World Stage

U.S. influence and credibility on the world stage has been diminished under the Trump administration, Ben Rhodes told students and Pacific Council members at a recent discussion at Pomona College

By Justin Chapman, Pacific Council on International Policy, 5/28/2019

U.S. influence and credibility on the world stage has been diminished under the Trump administration, Ben Rhodes told students and Pacific Council members at a recent discussion at Pomona College.

Rhodes served as deputy national security advisor and speechwriter in the Obama administration from 2009-2017. He is the author of the book The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House. The discussion was moderated by Mietek Boduszyński, Pacific Council member and assistant professor of politics and international relations at Pomona College.

Rhodes said that while a number of incidents since the Cold War have chipped away at that influence and credibility, he sees this trend as less of a decline and more of a reallocation to other countries and regions around the world.

“The Iraq War made a lot of other countries, including many of our allies, feel like U.S. dominance in the world post-Cold War was dangerous,” Rhodes said. “That kicked off efforts to build different blocs of countries to check a totally unbound America. Then most countries saw the financial crisis as the United States’ fault, which was a further blow. Now, what worries other countries is not just that Trump is president, it’s that Americans elected Trump president, someone they see as totally unfit for the most powerful position in the history of the world, someone who could destroy the world a hundred times over. From their perspective, it’s like, ‘How could you all do something this crazy and irresponsible?’”

Rhodes is particularly worried that Trump administration officials are inexperienced and distrustful of traditional foreign policy experts. “We see the outcome every day,” he said.

He added that countries like Japan don’t have nuclear weapons because they trust the United States to be the ones with nuclear weapons. Now that calculus is changing for them as they look to China and others for international agreements and alliances.

“What worries me is that we don’t understand just how big of a hole we’re in,” he said. “It’s not going to change just by getting rid of Trump. We’re going to have to win back trust and credibility over a more extended period of time to push back against the more illiberal, authoritarian models that are being promoted by the Russians and the Chinese. I think we can do that, because no other country wants to play the role of trying to organize the world and solve all these problems. Particularly young people want there to be more equal opportunities around the world, but they need leadership from us and they’re not getting it.”

Rhodes is particularly worried that Trump administration officials are inexperienced and distrustful of traditional foreign policy experts. He described how Obama’s effort to reopen diplomatic ties with Cuba was successful because Rhodes had regional experts such as Ricardo Zuniga advising him through the process. 

“It was that mix of someone who was empowered to change things and someone who really had that institutional knowledge,” Rhodes said. “What is so worrying about someone as green as Jared Kushner is that he’s in this relationship with [Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman [MBS] alone. He’s out there without a net, without expertise. He’s going off on a yacht with MBS, he’s WhatsApping with the guy, and Jared has no Ricardo Zuniga, nobody who’s saying to him, ‘Here’s why MBS is actually getting into this fight with Qatar, here’s why MBS is putting people in prison in the Ritz Carlton, here’s why you shouldn’t tell MBS this secret, and here’s why you shouldn’t have this top secret security clearance because you might tell MBS this secret.’”

"The biggest cost of Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and others is that it diminishes our capacity to be a credible actor on the world stage over time. If you’re a foreign country, why would you ever make another deal with the United States again?"

Ben Rhodes

Rhodes said the Trump administration is demonstrating what happens when people go into government to change things but who are scornful of expertise. “We see the outcome every day,” he said.

Rhodes’ best moments in government were some of the saddest and most difficult things to write about in his book. As he was writing about the success of the Cuba opening and achieving the Iran deal, Trump was trying to undo those efforts.

“It made me realize the extent to which presidential legacies are not settled things,” he said. “They’re not even settled by Trump, because the next Democratic president will likely put the United States back in the Paris Agreement and reopen to Cuba. But the biggest cost of Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and others is that it diminishes our capacity to be a credible actor on the world stage over time. If you’re a foreign country, why would you ever make another deal with the United States again? Even if the next Democratic president puts us back in those deals, other countries are not going to sit down at the table with us again because they’re going to think, ‘What happens if another Trump gets elected?’”

The other side of that coin, Rhodes said, is that authoritarian regimes have increasing influence on the United States.

"You can’t overstate the influence the Emiratis and Saudis have over U.S. foreign policy. If a think tank is taking millions of dollars from a Gulf government, and you think that’s not going to impact the views expressed by that think tank, you’re not living in the real world."

Ben Rhodes

“You can’t overstate the influence the Emiratis and Saudis have over U.S. foreign policy,” said Rhodes. “They spend an enormous amount of money in the United States to wire the foreign policy establishment through lobbying and by bankrolling many of the think tanks that are creating the conventional wisdom of what we should be doing with our foreign policy. If a think tank is taking millions of dollars from a Gulf government, and you think that’s not going to impact the views expressed by that think tank, you’re not living in the real world.”

He also described how journalists and former government officials are offered lucrative seats on boards or speaking engagements in the Gulf, or get invited to lavish dinners in Washington.

“At the height of the 2013 Egyptian coup, we knew that the Emiratis and the Saudis were bankrolling that coup, that they were paying for the protests against the Morsi government,” said Rhodes. “They had this disinformation campaign attacking our ambassador, calling her a Muslim Brotherhood stooge. Meanwhile, this is getting no commentary in Washington, and if you want to know why, open up Politico Playbook and read, ‘Last night, Yousef Al Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador, hosted seven prominent media personalities and four congressmen at his home for a dinner cooked by Wolfgang Puck. Great night.’

Rhodes said the United States used to promote democracy around the world through its own example, but now the United States is “exporting authoritarianism through our own example."

“To me,” Rhodes continued, “there is a corruption in this [foreign policy] establishment, and it just so happens coincidentally that many of the positions taken by these establishment organs overlap with the foreign policy interests of the Emiratis and the Saudis, which tend toward confrontation with Iran and military engagement with their adversaries in the region. This has got to be part of the conversation.”

Rhodes argued that the United States used to promote democracy around the world through its own example, which is its most powerful tool. However, now the United States is “exporting authoritarianism through our own example. Trump acting in fundamentally undemocratic ways and violating democratic norms and attacking the free press in this country is a greenlight to every dictator around the world. There’s not a dictator around the world who hasn’t used the phrase ‘fake news’ in the last two years.”

He called for more investment in democracy in the United States, including making sure everyone can vote, celebrating a free press, and abiding by the rule of law.

On the Trans-Pacific Partnership

Rhodes said he was a big believer in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), despite its flaws.

"Yes, there are huge problems with globalization and free trade agreements, but I don’t think the answer to that is to just tear up the agreements and go home," he said. "The answer is to have better trade agreements. One simple reason why is, if you care about human rights, workers’ rights, and environmental protections, if we’re not doing something like TPP, the Chinese have a different model of trade that cares about none of those things and they will fill that vacuum and they are filling it right now."

He cited Vietnam as an example, a country that had to create workers' rights and civil society participation in order to join TPP, or they would lose market access benefits.

“TPP was this force for liberalization in a closed society," he said. "One Vietnamese official said to me, ‘We’ve hated the Chinese for a thousand years. We’re uncomfortable with the Chinese dominating us, but we know they’re going to be there. We don’t know if the United States is going to be there. Unless we have some agreement with you, then we’re going to have to make a deal with the Chinese.’ An official from another country said because of China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative, which is basically ‘you pay into the Chinese bank and they’ll decide how to spend the money,’ there are no more bids by companies from different countries for construction projects. Now it’s just the Chinese."

He added that trade agreements like the TPP are necessary because they give the United States the opportunity to promote its values abroad.

“Americans, particularly on the left, have to wrestle with this: if our answer to globalization is to pick up our tools and go home, then the rules are going to be written by much more illiberal societies than us," he said. "The answer therefore has to be more progressive trade agreements, because this is going to happen either with us or without us. Maybe TPP was an imperfect vehicle, but something like it is profoundly necessary.”

On Putin

Rhodes said that Putin essentially has a chip on his shoulder when it comes to the United States, at least since he reassumed power in 2012.

“Putin clearly came back to power in 2012 determined to push back," Rhodes said. "He felt that the United States for 20 years had been pushing against Russia, pushing NATO and the EU on the former Soviet Union, and toppling Russian-backed dictators. In meetings with the Obama team, Putin was a master at finding a kernel of truth and then building a pyramid of lies around it. He was right that we had done a lot of these things, but then he would assign the worst motivation to everything we did and he was quite litigious in drawing us into debates. He was searching for justification for fundamentally amoral and self-interested ends.”

On soft power

When Obama visited Vietnam, the two countries signed several agreements, but Rhodes said every Vietnamese person he’s ever talked to about that trip only remembers that an American president sat in a noodle shop and ate the same thing that they eat.

“They felt seen. They felt validated, like an American president cared about them,” he said. “We don’t appreciate how important the appeal of that stuff is. Xi Jinping represents power and wealth, but he doesn’t represent that common humanity and that sense of respect for human dignity, that sense that ‘maybe I can make my community better’ or ‘maybe I should ask for a government that’s more responsive to my aspirations.’ So much of that comes from that type of diplomacy, or foreign exchange programs, or cultural relations. The face we put forward to the world matters a lot. Now we’re losing that.”

"Right now, Trump is doing everything he can to escalate and provoke the Iranians. It almost feels like they want the Iranians to offer them the pretext for a military conflict."

Ben Rhodes

He told the story of when he was in Kenya recently and a diplomat told him that a lot of Kenyan students who traditionally studied in American universities saw Trump’s child separation policy and they thought that would happen to them. They didn’t know the difference between a Central American asylum seeker, they just thought, “America doesn’t welcome foreigners anymore.” Now those Kenyan students are going to study in China.

“You think that’s not going to have an impact? These are people who are going to end up running the government and businesses in Kenya,” said Rhodes. “If you want democracy to deepen in places like Kenya 20 years from now, you don’t want their best and brightest studying in a non-democratic country now. That’s what we’re giving away with this Stephen Miller brand of policy.”

On Iran

Rhodes warned that the Trump administration seems intent on starting a military confrontation with Iran.

“Right now, Trump is doing everything he can to escalate and provoke the Iranians," he said. "It almost feels like they want the Iranians to offer them the pretext for a military conflict. That Trump wants them to start their nuclear program again and stop complying with the deal. War with Iran would be an absolute catastrophe.”

On the spread of rightwing populism around the world

Rhodes said the defining challenge of our time is confronting rightwing populism.

"There’s one narrative that the Putin-Trump-Netanyahu-Erdoğan-Duterte-Bolsonaro characters are telling," he said. "Then there’s the progressive, largely democratic story that not as many people are telling. We know where the authoritarian narrative goes, and not to be alarmist here, but there’s no circumstance in the history of the world in which that has not led to a big war. These are the stakes, and they could not be higher.

He added that he thinks the answer is for progressive activists in the United States to network with progressive activists in other parts of the world.

"The right is coordinated," he said. "They have common financing, political strategies, media platforms. No wonder they’re winning. People need to get organized across borders if they want to push back against this.”

On Syria

Rhodes described Obama’s analysis of the situation in Syria in 2014 when he decided not to launch an attack after the Syrian government crossed his red line and used chemical weapons.

“Obama’s point was, ‘Let’s not kid ourselves that firing a few cruise missiles into Syria is going to cause Bashar al-Assad to stand down. This man is fighting to the death with the support of Russia and Iran,’" he said. "The debate was, do we think we should remove this person from power and essentially be a party to this conflict in Syria, or will that make things worse and get us into a war that the American people have no stomach for after Iraq and Afghanistan?"

"As horrific as the situation in Syria was, I couldn’t ignore the reality that with the best of intentions, military interventions can sometimes fail and make things worse."

Ben Rhodes

Rhodes argued that even with the best of intentions, military interventions can sometimes fail and make things worse.

“We had no experience in the last 20 years of these military interventions working," he said. "I understand the moral argument of intervening because of what Assad is doing. But then we’d be in the middle of this conflict with Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, ISIS, and Assad. If we took out Assad, the people who took over Syria could have been Hezbollah or al Qaeda."

Rhodes summed up Obama's Syria calculation as this: "'I know, if I’m going to be intellectually and morally honest, that if we go in, the only way we have any shot in trying to land this situation in a better place, is if we’re going to be there for the rest of my presidency, in one way or another.’”

On Afghanistan

Rhodes said that he would have liked to see the United States end its troop presence in Afghanistan during the Obama administration.

"We were heading in that direction, and a number of things made it hard to get that done, including some political dysfunction in Afghanistan and the rise of ISIS," he said. "At the end of the day, if we have as our rationale that we’re not going to leave Afghanistan until the Taliban is completely militarily defeated, we’re going to be there for the rest of your life."

He said bringing the Afghanistan War to an acceptable conclusion will be very difficult, and that he's worried that the Trump administration is not up to the task.

“The future is going to have to be a withdrawal of U.S. troops combined with diplomacy and support for the Afghans that tries to broker something between Pakistan and the Taliban and the Afghan government," he said. "Incredibly complex diplomacy that I unfortunately don’t know that this administration is designed to do. You have to incentivize the actors in the region to accomplish what they want without resorting to violence.”


Justin Chapman is the Communications Officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.