An Interview with Jeh Johnson, Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security

Anna Cardoso 13 November 2018
Image credit: Chris Williamson

Jeh Johnson has the aura of someone who has held real power. It is a gravity that is a bit unnerving; in his presence, you cannot help but wonder how many life or death decisions he has made. As President Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security, he made a fair few. We spoke after his speech in defense of the Special Relationship at the Union. He argued for the continued relevancy of the historical alliance between Britain and America, painting a markedly different geopolitical picture than the one we have seen from his government recent days. This week alone, President Trump has missed a memorial service in remembrance of the lives lost in WWI, a diplomatic slap in the face for the French, and sneered at Macron for declaring that nationalism is “a betrayal of patriotism”. In an era where America stands alone on the national stage, Johnson’s defense of a globalist, multilateral foreign policy seemed like an echo of a more optimistic past.

We sat down to discuss immigration, domestic terrorism, and the future of American foreign policy. The liberals of the world have watched America in disgust and despair as families fleeing violence in Central America have been separated and children have been locked in cages. Trump has been widely denounced for his “zero tolerance” policy to illegal immigration. However, some have pointed to Obama administration policies, where the practice of family detention began. Johnson was Secretary of Homeland Security when this was happening. Did he regret anything? No – in fact, he defended his administration’s policies: “Of course [our policy] was the exact opposite of separating families because we were keeping families together.” When he came into office, “we had a spike of illegal immigration on the border in 2014 and I was surprised to learn out of 34,000 detention beds, we are equipped for only 95 for family units. We needed to expand upon that.” So, the department detained families. He explained that Homeland Security had also employed an information campaign to dissuade Central Americans from making the journey. Consequently, “the apprehensions on our Southern border by late 2014 had dropped quite significantly.” He never quite addresses the fact that Trump is using a system created by his department to wreak havoc on immigrant families’ sanity and lives.

However, he seems to switch out of Secretary mode and concedes at one point that the decision to come to the US is a “basic human calculation”. He considers life-threatening gang violence and poverty and admits that no matter how much the US government invests in information campaigns and security, if people’s lives hang in the balance, they will take the risk and come to America. “The lesson learned, and what this administration is learning the hard way now, is that you can do certain things to change immigration enforcement policy and make a big deal about it. But, it will only have a short-term effect at best so long as the underlying push factors in Central America, the poverty and violence, continue to exist.” In a typically Obamaesque view, he stresses long-term goals: “We need to make a long-term investment in the problems at the source, which our political leadership in the United States needs to commit to.”

We move to domestic terrorism, which has been on the rise since the 1990s and has roared back into the national consciousness after the Pittsburgh anti-Semitic attack. I asked him if he felt the current administration and its rhetoric was partially to blame for the recent rise of the violent, conspiracy-prone nationalist groups. “I think in the current environment it would not be constructive to point fingers of blame politically,” he replied. So, his censure was indirect but not subtle: “I do believe quite strongly however that it is incumbent upon our political leaders to tone down the rhetoric and restore civility in our political debates because the American people do listen to their leaders and the leaders set the tone above and beyond all others.” Pushed a little further, he admitted that he believed “that violent white nationalism, violent racist hatred is more pronounced, more emboldened now in this particular environment, as we saw in Charlottesville, Virginia last year. I think it is more emboldened and more brazen than we have seen in a few years.” It was almost a bold rebuke of Trumpism.

Finally, we turned to the future of foreign policy. Pundits have argued that the Democrats need to begin putting together a distinct and bold new vision for foreign policy. Secretary Johnson caused quite a stir in 2012 at the Oxford Union, when he publicly deviated from the average, aggressive national-security narrative about America’s role as the world’s police force. He said then: “War violates the natural order of things, in which children bury their parents; in war parents bury their children. In its 12th year, we must not accept the current conflict [the War on Terror], and all that it entails, as the ‘new normal’. Peace must be regarded as the norm toward which the human race continually strives.” However, he was more cautious when he stood in front of Cambridge students (and in our interview). He agreed that the Democrats need to craft a new foreign policy, but was less specific – and less bold – than he had been in the past. “I believe Democrats should spell out a national security posture that emphasizes strength and national security on multiple fronts… in our counter-terrorism policy, I think Democrats should take the time after tonight’s election to spell out and articulate a comprehensive national security strategy.”

It clear that Johnson is a statesman in the old-fashioned mold: he was unwilling to directly insult or criticize his government on foreign soil. Yet, the speech he gave in the Union rejecting isolationism amounted to just that. One can fault his relative caution in an age of increasing extremism and fear, and perhaps we should, but his words and ideas remind us of how America used to perceive itself – even if its policies never lived up to its rhetoric.