Shadow Government

What Can Obama Do About the Surge of Minors from Central America?

Last fall, as part of Shadow Government's 12-Step Plan to recovering Obama's foreign policy mojo, I suggested launching an initiative to protect the young hearts and minds of unaccompanied minors crossing international borders. One of the crises an initiative like this might have averted is now upon us, and the administration is struggling to handle it: The growing number of unaccompanied minors migrating from Central America to the United States has become a "surge" with no end date in sight. Last week, the president declared it a humanitarian crisis and ordered FEMA officials to coordinate the response. He also is asking Congress for $1.4 billion to help the agencies cope.

The youth, mostly teenage boys, although with a growing number of girls and younger children, primarily are fleeing gangs and related violence in their home countries. You can read some of their harrowing stories here, here, and here. While I do not believe the administration caused the disaster as some are arguing, it was hardly unexpected. The dramatic increase in numbers began during Obama's first term, and he cannot shift blame for this serious lack of preparedness. Federal agencies now are scrambling to cope by opening military bases for temporary housing and busing the kids back to border states for deportation. States like Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona are bristling at the influx of children in Federal custody coming to be sheltered there. One local county official in Arizona has even accused federal agency personnel of child abuse for violating state laws. Recent photos from Texas reveal the extent of the crisis and the inability of the agencies to manage this population.

Ignoring the brewing crisis did not make it go away. Now the administration has another chance to proactively address the underlying issues even as they rush to meet immediate needs. My pleas for better coordination of diplomacy and foreign aid to strengthen child protection globally (here, here, and here) have fallen mostly on deaf ears. Perhaps this emergency will prompt long needed fixes. I have two suggestions.

First, the administration should prioritize support for the "source" countries to improve their own child protection systems. Some countries like Guatemala, which contributes the largest percentage of these young people, are trying to make changes. We should help them by channeling assistance through the U.S. Action Plan on Children in Adversity to improve programs for children who are abandoned, vulnerable, or in conflict with the law and to handle the re-integration of deported children. The State Department also should help by supporting Guatemalan first lady Rosa Leal de Pérez who has turned this into her signature issue. She has initiated regional discussions to include the First Lady of Mexico but would likely welcome more diplomatic support from the United States for her efforts. With Texas as ground zero and children ending up further away in Chicago as well, former First Lady Laura Bush and First Lady Michelle Obama are well positioned to join their counterparts south of the border to help. Preferably, they might join forces to do so. It could be a wonderful model of bipartisan leadership on an issue both strategic and humanitarian for the United States and their respective home states.

Second, the administration should keep an eye on the big picture of unaccompanied youth globally in the midst of the urgency of this particular crisis. The president has directed the Department of Homeland Security to establish an interagency "Unified Coordination Group" to respond to the current situation. It would be wise to make permanent this group along the lines of the President's Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons and its Senior Policy Operating Group (SPOG) to manage the complex legal and operational issues that accompany work with children and that have both national security and domestic policy elements. If Congress agrees, it also would be wise to use some of the $1.4 billion to invest in improved and coordinated data management systems in both the United States and Central America. Full disclosure: I have launched an organization called Each Inc. that is building new technology tools for this purpose. But there are other systems that could be adapted to track the identity and case history of these children. However it's done, we need better interagency coordination, underpinned by better ways to track these children securely across borders. Without it, the surge will become a perpetual flood, and the administration will have only itself to blame.

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National Security

Obama Needs a Kitchen Cabinet

President Obama's poll numbers have fallen considerably over the last year and appear to be stuck there. Some analysts are already talking about a legacy of failure in both the domestic and foreign policy arenas, especially if the Democrats lose control of the Senate this fall. I leave such predictions to others. What concerns me presently is that the president's various problems undeniably are causing him to appear as a weak world leader. Such a state of affairs should worry all of us, regardless of one's political party or persuasion.

Obama is under withering criticism -- sometimes bipartisan and multinational -- for his dealings with Russia, Syria, Iran, China, the Arab Spring, Venezuela, on Benghazi, and the release of five high-risk Taliban commanders in order to secure the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Our allies are nervous and complaining while our enemies are exultant. Our national security is endangered when the president appears weak and when scandal management and deflection of criticism consume his time. The problem is compounded when he has put forward no grand strategy for foreign policy. The West Point speech last month fell flat. And "don't do stupid stuff" is not a strategy; it is not even a policy, especially when you don't follow it.

We should not expect the president to change what he thinks about foreign policy. It is very clear by now that Obama is strongly wedded to the views that he adopted long ago when he was a student, adjunct professor, community activist, and legislator: The U.S. should do less and rely more on others to bring order to the world. Call it realism (I wouldn't), idealism, liberal internationalism, whatever you like -- it is not making the United States more secure nor is it producing a more peaceful world, in part because it has him lurching from one misstep or crisis to another. Maybe the president is a genius and the rest of us cannot understand what he is trying to accomplish in the long run, but as Keynes said, in the long run we're all dead. At least in this case, in the long run we appear weak and invite mischief.

Right now the president needs to reflect on his skills as a very good politician (I do not say that cynically) and adjust to the realities overtaking him. The Bergdahl affair -- especially after the red lines on Syria and the misjudgment of Putin -- should be sobering. The ill-advised rollouts and changing rationales offered by his foreign policy and communications teams after each action are taking a serious toll on his credibility. If he won't change his tack and develop a grand strategy that sees him as engaged in the world with the same energy and interest with which he attacked health care policy, the president needs to at least make some quiet and internal reforms to stop the bleeding.

His first order of business should be to bring serious thinking and order to his national security council and the White House when it comes to foreign policy. Optics as well as process and substance can be improved by relying on people who are foreign policy heavyweights with proven track records -- people who are taken seriously at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and in the diplomatic community. Their visibility is less important than having their regular counsel. Relying on others not in the Obama bubble might be humbling for the White House (Susan Rice isn't likely to be pleased about it), nor for the president, but it is important for the president to acknowledge the problem and at the same time get help in making better decisions. He would not be the first president to seek reality checks from those who don't have to fear contradicting the boss. And successful CEOs do this all the time informally among their networks of mentors, friends, and confidants.

Such a kitchen cabinet would have counseled against drawing red lines for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad when it is obvious the president was not prepared to act. And such persons would have counseled against the quick flip to asking for congressional approval to attack Syria after a walk in the Rose Garden with the chief of staff, a move that everyone saw as too clever by half.

The rollout with the Bergdahl parents would have been nixed in favor of a presidential communication and a more careful wait-and-see attitude. If the goal of that blunder was to get the VA scandal off the front pages (and it is being interpreted that way here and abroad), it didn't work and could never have worked. Wise and experienced hands would have known this.

These advisors could also help the president determine who can best represent him in the media, say, on the Sunday talk shows. They can help him craft his message so that his foreign policy can be safeguarded. He might not develop over the next two years a more fulsome approach than "don't do stupid stuff" but he can at least get some counsel on what is the stupid stuff not to do. Of course all office-holders are concerned about the politics of every word or move, but foreign policy is too delicate to leave to the machinations of those who think mostly in political campaign terms. The nation's interests and prestige are at stake and so, too, is the president's legacy.

If the president had at his side someone like General Brent Scowcroft who served so ably as Bush 41's national security advisor, I doubt we'd have experienced many of the blunders and crises we have these last six years. (Scowcroft's efforts are chronicled in the late Peter Rodman's excellent work Presidential Command: Power, Leadership, and the Making of Foreign Policy from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush. I've assigned it to my foreign policy students every year since it came out in 2009. Putting aside whatever you think of any of these presidents' foreign policy ideas and actions, the lesson is well-taught in this book: The president alone is responsible for getting what he wants and how he's perceived and can only do so by fastidious attention to detail and a full review and consideration of ends and means.) But that die is cast and the president's official team isn't going anywhere. The goal now is to get some folks in the room whose interests and understanding are about how the United States and its leader is perceived in the world because that perception is an element of power for the country.

Such a kitchen cabinet can freely advise the president and don't have to worry about suffering the fate of General Jim Jones who resigned as Obama's national security advisor in frustration after only two years because of the politically charged atmosphere created by too many campaign types having too much influence on policy. These advisers can't be trumped or stepped on because they are simply friends and confidants of the president giving advice that he is free to take or leave.

Whoever among the supporters of the president is able to offer this recommendation should do so, and quickly. It would be a fine public service.

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