2015: The Year in Review

The year 2015 was a busy year.  Some of the most significant political events of the year are reviewed here as a final way to say goodbye to the year about to end.

The SCOTUS ruling on gay marriage.

On June 26, the US Supreme Court delivered a landmark ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, effectively requiring states to allow same-sex marriages and to recognize such marriages effected in other states.  The case was a consolidation of several cases from different states, including the title case from Ohio, as well as Michigan’s DeBoer v. Snyder, Kentucky’s Bourke v. Beshear, and Tennessee’s Tanco v. Haslam.  The Court ruling overturned federal legislation such as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA, 1996), and state laws and constitutional amendments banning or restricting same-sex marriages.  Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, noting that marriage was “a building block of our national community,” which has itself evolved over time, and that unrestricted rights to marriage ensure the protection of American families and children.  Chief Justice John Roberts dissented by denying that the Court had authority to rule on a right which “has no basis in the Constitution.”

Despite national celebrations of the new-found freedom, some dragged their feet.  Ten counties in Alabama simply refused to issue any more marriage licenses to anyone; while five more counties in Kentucky and Texas took questionable positions (on the even more questionable ground of “religious freedom”).  While the Supreme Court ordered one clerk, Rowan County, Kentucky’s Kim Davis, to begin issuing marriage licenses after her brief campaign to oppose the ruling, other counties still have unchallenged refusals to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The Papal Encyclical on the Environment

In May, the Vatican released a new papal encyclical, Laudato Si (Praise Be to You), calling for a new human ecology.  The work was both praised and criticized as a “climate change” directive.  Pope Francis worked with both the Vatican’s own scientists, and with noted international scientists, and he criticizes man’s increasing destruction of the Earth.  The Pope cited Biblical verse to contradict the traditional Christian view of man as having domination over the Earth; and instead tied man to his “sister,” the world in which we live.  He called for “a broad, responsible scientific and social debate” to help develop an “integral ecology,” treating ourselves and our environment as one and the same.  The Pope also calls for “an agreement on systems of governance for the whole range of the so-called ‘global commons’.”  But he also endowed all Christians with the responsibility for making ecologically sustainable consumer choices, and for educating both our children and our political leaders on the need for a more integrated and sustainable ecology.  Unsurprisingly, American conservatives reacted negatively, criticizing the Pope (a credentialed chemist) for speaking on scientific matters.  The Pope’s encyclical also was viewed by both the left and the right as a more leftist document than it really is.  The Vatican sees man as “responsible” (empowered to do good), without acknowledging “blame” for increasing warming and extreme weather.  The Pope also defends the Vatican’s continued opposition to birth control and abortion, seeing population increases as beneficial to future human advances and to ecological conditions.

The Iran Nuclear Agreement

On July 14, an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program was finalized in Vienna, between Iran, the European Union, and a group of powers called the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany), after some 20 months of negotiations.  Both before and after the completion of the agreement, conservatives in Iran, the US, and Israel criticized the process (each of them mistrusting the others), as well as the final agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).  Conservatives on all sides viewed the agreement as a surrender to the other side (and ignored the fact that the other side’s conservatives thought the same way).  Nonetheless, the Iranian Parliament passed the JCPOA in October.  In the US, where the JCPOA has the status of a “political agreement” (not a treaty requiring Senatorial ratification), the agreement is subject only to review by Congress due to a 2015 law (the Iranian Nuclear Agreement Review Act).  However, President Obama’s warning to Congress that he would veto any resolution disapproving of the agreement pushed Republicans against the wall as is turned out (amid increasing support for the agreement by professional military and security specialists) that neither house of Congress had the votes to defeat a presidential veto.  Nonetheless, the Republican majorities of both houses remain opposed to the deal; but the agreement is insulated by its legal status for so long as Democrats can retain the White House.

The agreement itself severely restricts Iranian production and enrichment of uranium (placing under IAEA control virtually all of Iran’s enriched uranium, and virtually all of the high-grade centrifuges needed to enrich more).  In return, the US, UN, and EU are obligated to suspend (not to repeal) economic sanctions against Iran; but only after Iranian compliance with IAEA controls is verified.  Iranian conservatives fear that the agreement surrenders Iran’s nuclear program to the West, with no guarantees of Western compliance in sanction relief (which it does).  On the other hand, American conservatives feel that the limits on Iranian production and enrichment are insufficient (with some of the controls eliminated after 8 years, although some controls remain in place for 25 years).  With IAEA inspection to be a permanent reality in Iran, critics fear that Iran can still bypass inspectors at a few key sites.  However, most arms-control experts and nuclear inspection specialists agree that these criticisms are misplaced, and that the JCPOA is a powerful and effective agreement capable of disarming the Iranian nuclear program.

The Syrian Civil War, and the Rise of ISIS

First igniting as part of the Arab Spring in 2011, the Syrian Civil War helped to solidify a group formed in Iraq in the wake of the power vacuum resulting from President Bush’s failure to implement effective post-invasion reconstruction policies.  The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, itself an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq, a group formed after the US invasion) proclaimed in 2006, and separated formally from Al Qaeda  in 2014, declaring itself a “caliphate,” rejected and condemned immediately by most of the world’s Islamic nations.  In 2015, violence in Syria and Iraq escalated further.  ISIS, formed from a merger between ISI and other extremist groups, acquired the allegiance of groups in Afghanistan (later neutralized by both Taliban and US security operations), Pakistan, and India in January; Nigeria in March; and other groups in the Caucasus and Uzbekistan.  As of December 2015, ISIS controls a large swath of territory in eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq (mostly unoccupied desert; but with some towns and cities, and access to some Iraqi oil fields).

To fight against the group, the US orchestrated the establishment of the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), an international coalition, in October 2014.  In 2015, Russia joined with Iran, Iraq, and the Syrian government to form a combined operations group; and both coalitions have initiated operations not only against ISIS, but to a degree against each other.  However, in late 2015, these nations met in Vienna (without the participation of any Syrian parties, none of whom were invited), and agreed on a tentative transition plan with UN-monitored elections of a new Syrian government.  Despite this agreement, the future status of President Assad’s regime remains in question, with Russia still supporting the regime, and the US insisting that it must go.

In the meantime, the war has spilled over into regions far from the field.  Adding to the over 250,000 dead in Syria and Iraq (as well as over 7 million displaced and 4 million refugees), Paris suffered two separate terror operations in 2015:  January’s shooting at the Charlie Hebdo offices (by a Yemeni Al Qaeda group), and November’s Friday the 13th attack by ISIS-associated European nationals.  November also saw multiple terror attacks throughout the Middle East.  In December, a pair of extremists with apparent sympathies for ISIS perpetrated a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.  These attacks (and the question of how to respond to them) have widened the political divide in the US, especially as the presidential campaigns move forward into 2016.

Planned Parenthood

Following the release in 2015 of two controversial video clips, the Planned Parenthood Federation (PPFA) came under fierce conservative attack for its involvement with abortion services.  One video, released by anti-choice activists from the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), showed the activists attempting to purchase fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood representatives, while another video showed a vaginal delivery of an early fetus, released by former Pentagon propaganda warfare specialist Gregg Cunningham’s Center for Bio-ethical Reform (CBR).  The CMP clip was used by anti-choice activists to argue that abortions could have some profit incentive (despite existing laws prohibiting this, and which also allow for “reasonable fees” for organizational costs in handling tissues).  The second, CBR clip was completely inaccurately described by Republican presidential candidate Carli Fiorina as showing “…a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.”  The video shows a vaginal delivery of an approximately 17 or 18 weeks old fetus (which doctors insist is too young to attempt to keep alive; some doctors having viewed the clip also suggest it may depict a miscarriage rather than an abortion).  There is no sound on the original clip; so no one is recorded as saying anything.  Also, there is no identification of the facility or provider, so it has no established connection with Planned Parenthood.  Nonetheless, the two videos were used to justify efforts by Republican lawmakers to cut off federal and state funding to Planned Parenthood, as a provider of abortion services.  Republicans ignored the fact that by law, Planned Parenthood only uses public funding for non-abortion services (which account for over 90% of their activities), and that abortions are furthermore legal procedures in accordance with Roe v. Wade.  Instead, Republicans exploited public gullibility to bypass Roe v. Wade by shutting down legal medical service providers that had any connection with abortion-related activities or referrals.

As public debate and misinformation developed (with anti-choice activists ignoring the basic facts of their own videos), a terrorist in Colorado incited by this misinformation, Robert Dear, took matters into his own hands in November, opening fire at a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs.  Three people were killed, and nine injured (including three police officers, one of whom was killed).  Dear refuses counsel, and admits his guilt proudly.  The shooting was just one of many acts of domestic terrorism in the US in 2015.

Terror in the US

The Colorado Springs attack in November and the San Bernardino attack in December were just drops in the bucket of violence and terror in the US, which saw multiple police shootings and multiple “mass shootings” (with definitions of that term confusing both the actual count and the debate about addressing the problem).  Ironically, while overall violent crime in the US continued its two-decades-long drop to an historic low, singular incidents of police violence and public shootings outpaced crime as a growing threat for American citizens.

Roughly 1,200 Americans were killed by police officers in 2015, many in incidents recorded on bystanders’ cell phones, car security cameras, and other digital technology.  Hundreds of victims were unarmed.  Blacks were more than twice as likely to be victims than were whites; and Hispanics and Latinos were marginally more likely than whites to be victims.  The Black Lives Matter movement continued its campaign to educate the public and to help victims and families.  The police, for their part, suffered less than 130 casualties on duty in 2015 (including accidents, “friendly fire,” and medical problems).  While violence against police was up from 2013-4, those two years (and 2015) are part of an overall historic low; 2015 police casualties are still much lower than in any year of the twentieth century.

Mass shootings became a potent threat in 2015; with some estimates including at least one on virtually every day of the year.  However, the definition of “mass shooting” (like the definition of “terrorism,” another term applied to some of these incidents) is debated, with most experts applying such terms to some incidents but not to others (thereby also changing the actual count).  However, many experts agree that mass violence is showing a steady, upward trend.  As such, foreign terror incidents like Charlie Hebdo and the Friday the 13th attacks pale in comparison to the regular gun violence by Americans against each other; some of which was perpetrated by the police, and much of which involved legally acquired firearms.  While President Obama has expressed repeated frustration with Congress’s refusal to discuss the problem, the threat is often sidelined into discussions of mental health and tactical measures like banning assault weapons.  As of yet, however, no measures have been implemented nationally, or been seriously debated in Congress.

Out With Speaker Boehner; In With Speaker Ryan

Following the visit by Pope Francis to the US, in which the Pope addressed Congress, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) resigned the speakership in October.  The resignation was seen as symbolizing (and resulting from) the progressive take-over of the GOP by the extremist wing of “Tea Party” activists, and the refusal by Congress to enact any legislation or to govern.  The move came after a year of failed attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, long a Republican extremist target; and after the refusal of extremists to play by the rules in passing legislation and budgets.  Efforts of those like Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to impede the legislative process also frustrated Boehner and other more mainstream Republicans.  Boehner was ultimately replaced by Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), Mitt Romney’s 2012 running mate, and since 1999 a rising star among Hill Republicans.

Paris Climate Agreement

On December 12, 195 nations taking part in the Paris Climate Conference (COP 21/CMP 11) agreed in principle on a plan to limit global warming.  The member nations agreed to a previously established target of keeping warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial standard, and to “pursue efforts” at limiting warming to under 1.5 degrees.  The agreement was praised by President Obama, French President Hollande, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, former US Vice President Al Gore, and many other leaders; while conservatives in the US and Australia attacked the measure.  The agreement has no formal force until at least 55 nations (representing at least 55% of global GHG emissions) ratify or implement the agreement.  Ratification is scheduled to run from this coming April through April 2017.  Ratifying member nations are required to set their own limits to GHG emissions (ostensibly within limits set by other instruments such as the Kyoto Protocol).  However, there is no specific requirement that any nation must meet, and there are no methods of enforcement or sanction against any nation failing to meet (or enact) its own emissions-reduction requirements.  The agreement does call for an evaluation conference every five years (to review progress and consider additional measures).

Despite the praise by leaders known to be in favor of climate policy, and the criticism by climate-change deniers, some on the left demonstrated in Paris and elsewhere against the weakness of the agreement.  French police reported both legal demonstrations and illegal demonstrations (under security measures implemented after October’s Friday the 13th attacks).  While the agreement does not specifically require US ratification, the 55% GHG emissions target will be far more difficult to reach if the US does not ratify; and the Senate’s Republican majority is highly unlikely to ratify it.

The Presidential Campaigns Warm Up for 2016

This year saw the official kick-off of the 2016 presidential election cycle as the candidates formally announced their candidacy.  As is usually the case (at least when there is not an incumbent president running for re-election), both parties saw a number of candidates stake their claims, as well as more candidates seemingly “considering” running.  While the campaign process often quickly eats up the small fry in favor of more established (or more competent) candidates, and while the Democratic Party saw relatively quick drop-outs of unlikely prospects like Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee, the Republican Party became and has remained swamped by a multitude of candidates.  Both parties have forceful “insurgent” candidates (Sanders and Trump), as well as establishment candidates (Clinton and Bush).  In addition, the GOP field includes other political hopefuls, like private individuals with no political experience (Trump, Carson, and Fiorina).  While the Democratic Party remains solidly in favor of Clinton (polling at easily twice the favorability of Sanders), the Republican Party is torn between a front-runner (the insurgent Trump) with barely a third of the party behind him (and unlike virtually all of his key opponents, not a single endorsement by a Republican super-delegate, a substantial weakness going into the 2016 primary season), a few lower-polling candidates (Cruz and Rubio, for example) with firmer party endorsements, and a number of establishment candidates each polling in the single digits and waiting for the others to drop out.  Those few Republicans who have dropped out have been some (not all) of those polling less than 1%.  The main establishment Republican who is poised to pick up after Trump’s seemingly inevitable decline is Senator Ted Cruz, representing both Trump’s extreme views and the thinness of Trump’s policy presence.  Cruz, however, is still polling in the teens; barely half that of Trump.  The Republicans end the year, unlike the Democrats, with no apparent standard-bearer that the bulk of the party is willing to follow.

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