What if it’s not incompetence? What if it is by design? What if President Donald Trump has decided American doesn’t really need a Department of State and if he can’t get away with closing it down, he can disable and defund it?
The only problem is Trump will quickly find out he’ll have to reluctantly keep a few lights on at Foggy Bottom.
Things do not look good for State. There were no press briefings between Trump taking office on January 20 and some irregular gatherings beginning in early March. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wasn’t seen at several White House meetings where foreign leaders were present, and has taken only two very short trips abroad. Of the 13 sets of official remarks he has given, 10 have been perfunctory messages to countries on their national days, with one speech to his own employees. Sources inside State say he is nowhere to be seen around the building, either in person or bureaucratically via tasking orders and demands for briefings.
Meanwhile, President Trump has proposed a devastating 37% cut to State’s tiny budget, already only about one percent of Federal spending.
And as if that isn’t bad enough, the Trump administration has left a large number of the 64 special representative and other “speciality” positions empty. Tillerson already laid off a number of his own staff. Add in a Federal-wide hiring ban, and the only good news at Foggy Bottom is that it’s no longer hard to find a seat in the cafeteria.
The original concerns around State that Trump’s transition was in chaos seem sadly mistaken; there are too many empty slots for this to be anything but purposeful. As for Tillerson himself “Either he’s weak or he’s complicit,” one State Department official said. Neither option bodes well.
Alongside Trump himself, State is its own worst enemy. Team Trump no doubt took careful note of the Department’s slow-walking the release of Hillary Clinton’s emails (after helping hide the existence of her private server for years), and the organization’s flexibility in allowing aide Huma Abedin to simultaneously occupy jobs inside and outside of the Department, alongside alleged quid pro quo deals related to the Clinton Foundation. Senior State officials purged in late January were closely associated with Hillary Clinton. Happens when you back the wrong horse.
The already open wound of Benghazi festered just a bit more when a post-election Freedom of Information Act release revealed State covered up the fact the assault on the Consulate was not “under cover of protest” as the Obama administration claimed but was, in fact, “a direct breaching attack.” Never mind the leaked dissent memo aimed at Trump’s so-called Muslim ban, and the leaked memo admonishing State staffers to stop leaking.
And what has been one of State’s public actions this February? Dropping $71,000 on silverware to entertain foreign dignitaries. An organization that will be missed by the bulk of Trump supporters this is not.
So is this it? The end of the United States Department of State, founded alongside the republic in 1789, with Thomas Jefferson himself as its first leader?
Maybe not. Trump will quickly find that there are several State Departments, and he’ll need to hang on to a couple of them, even if he sidelines the others.
Most of the actions described above refer to the political State Department, the traditional organ of diplomacy that once negotiated treaties and ended wars, but more and more since 9/11 (maybe earlier) has been supplemented if not left behind by modern communications that allow presidents and other Washington policymakers to deal directly with counterparts abroad. Throw in the growing role of the military, and you end up with far too many State staffers having a lot of time on their hands even before Trump came along. The Wikileaks cables, years of State Department reporting from the field, contained as much filler and gossip as they did cogent policy advice.
Trump can make his deep cuts in that part of State’s work and few will even notice. In some ways, no one yet has; as far back as 2012, more than one fourth of all State Department Foreign Service positions were either unfilled or filled with below-grade employees. The whole of the Foreign Service diplomatic corps is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier, and has been for some time.
There’ll be a few functions that may need to be rolled into other parts of the government if most of State fades away: whatever refugee processing Trump allows to DHS, trade promotion to Commerce, foreign aid to perhaps DOD, all have ready homes waiting if necessary. Trump’ll need to have ambassadors abroad, not the least of which is because 30-50% of those positions are routinely handed out to rich campaign donors, banana-republic style.
So what is left at State Trump will need to hold on to?
Those 294 embassies and consulates abroad State operates serve a function as America’s concierge that cannot be easily replaced, and will have to be funded at some level whether Trump likes it or not.
Dozens of other U.S. government agencies rely on State’s overseas real estate for office space and administrative support to keep their own costs down. American government VIPs traveling need someone to arrange their security, get their motorcades organized, and their hotels and receptions booked. Meetings with local officials still require on-the-ground American staff to set up. Supporting CODELS (Congressional Delegations’ visits to foreign lands) is a right of passage for State Department employees, and every Foreign Service Officer has his/her war stories to tell. While stationed in the UK, I escorted so many Important Somebody’s on shopping trips that I was snarkily labeled “Ambassador to Harrod’s Department Store” by my colleagues. Others will tell tales of pre-dawn baggage handling and VIP indiscretions that needed smoothing over.
Never mind the logistics for a full-on presidential visit to a foreign country. No, Trump will need this side of State to stay on the payroll.
The last part of the State Department Trump will need around one way or another is the Bureau of Consular Affairs. Consular performs the traditional government functions of assisting Americans overseas when they’re arrested, caught up in a natural disaster, or just need help with social security or a new passport.
The big swinging bat, however, is visa issuance. Visas are what fills the American economy with tourists, Silicon Valley with engineers, and universities with foreign students. Visas are the State Department’s cash cow: in 2016 close to 11 million tourist, worker, and student visas were issued at an average fee collected of $160. That’s well over $1.7 billion in revenue in addition to the budget Congress allots State. The Bureau of Consular Affairs holds a budget surplus in reserve whose dollar amount is one of the most closely held non-national security secrets inside government.
But in a Trumpian state of mind, what looks like a strength at Foggy Bottom might turn out to be a weakness. State fought viciously after 9/11 to hold on to consular work, even as the Bush administration sought to consolidate the consular function into the then-new Department of Homeland Security.
State won the bureaucratic fight in 2001, but if the Trump administration really wanted to effectively wipe away most of the State Department proper, it might need to do little more than kick out the strongest (and most profitable) leg holding up the whole edifice. Like a jenga tower, Trump can pick away at the top positions for media and political points, but if he really wants to see it all fall down, he’ll attack the bottom. Watch for it; it’ll tell you how serious this fight really is.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Here’s a NYT article that goes out of its way trying to tie the lack of Afghan Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs; for former U.S. military translators) to the Trump travel ban executive order.
The two are not related, and it would have taken the New York Times exactly one Google worth of journalism, or even reading elsewhere on their own website, to understand that instead of publishing a misleading piece. For a newspaper claiming its work stands between us and fake news, this is just sad.
The article includes these lines:
— Afghans who worked for the American military and government are being told that they cannot apply for special visas to the United States, even though Afghanistan is not among the countries listed in President Trump’s new travel ban.
— It was unclear if the visa suspension was related to the president’s new ban.
— Officials at the International Refugee Assistance Project… said “Our worst fears are proving true.”
— It is unclear whether the reported suspension of new applications was related to the number of available visas or to the president’s order reducing refugee intake generally, or to a combination of the two factors.
— Afghanistan was not included in either of the president’s travel bans, but his decision to reduce the overall number of refugees accepted by the United States would affect Afghans as well.
To be clear, the Trump travel ban and visas for Afghan translators have absolutely no connection. None.
Afghanistan is not included in Trump’s travel ban at all. Afghans translators are not refugees under the law. Like its now-defunct sister program for Iraqi translators, the Special Immigrant Visa Program (SIV) was set up to provide immigrant visas (Green Cards) to Afghans who helped U.S. forces. Congress, not the president, sets numerical limits on how many of these visas are to be made available each year. When the limit is reached, the program goes on hiatus until next year. Congress is free at any time to expand the number of these visas available. That’s it.
Now, how could the Times have uncovered these facts? Journalism.
The Times could have Googled Afghan Special Immigrant Visas. That would have shown them a State Department page explaining things.
The Times could have contacted any number of advocacy groups that also have online explainers about all this. Most competent immigration lawyers would know, too.
The Times could have looked at its own archives from 2011.
Or, the Times reporters on this story could have read their own website. Because elsewhere in the Times was reprinted a Reuters story that pretty much accurately explains the problem.
That’s it, that’s really all that was necessary to publish an accurate story. But that accurate story would not have included the attempts to link the Afghan problem to Trump, which is the takeaway rocketing around the web.
And for the haters, my own article here is not “pro-Trump.” The reason? Because the Afghan story has nothing to do with Trump.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
For those who say “This is not who we are,” well, look again. It all seems to be exactly who we are and have been.
President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travelers, immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries is only the latest twist of dark threads that have always been present in America and its immigration policy. The executive order is not unprecedented. It is evolutionary, predictable, nearly an inevitable step.
The Seven Targeted Countries
Begin with the targeted countries, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. America has bombed or used drones and special forces in six of them, and attacked the seventh with cyberwar. The Muslims there have suffered far in excess of a travel ban at the hands of America. Indeed, many of the refugees leaving those nations became refugees as a result of American war-making, often under the guise (Libya, Iraq, Syria) of “protecting” those people from an evil dictator, some Sunday morning talk show version of genocide, or a red line few outside the White House could see.
The countries in Trump’s executive order have long been singled out for special treatment under American immigration law.
Though Trump in his crude style talks about “extreme vetting,” such a process has been in place since the George W. Bush administration, continued under Obama, and is operating today. It has a nicer, if somewhat Orwellian name, “administrative processing.” On the list of nation affected: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. People from these nations, and a few others, go through an alternate visa processing procedure that delays their travel. The process involves various intelligence agencies vetting the traveler. Some applications are left to pend indefinitely, a de facto travel ban.
The seven nations also were a part of the Bush-era Muslim registry, known as NSEERS.
Trump’s seven nations also appear on an Obama-era list. That list, the equally Orwellian-named Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act, disallows use of America’s visa-free travel program to persons who even once visited the targeted nations. So, for example, a British citizen otherwise eligible to enter the United States without a visa must instead appear for questioning at an American embassy abroad if she, for any reason, even as a journalist, stepped foot in Iran.
That nations long-held to sponsor terrorism such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are not on Trump’s list is not surprising. They haven’t appeared on most of Bush’s or Obama’s lists either.
Refugees Not Welcome
Following Trump’s directives aimed at refugees it quickly became almost mandatory for celebrities and pundits to come up with a personal story or two about their family’s immigrant ties, and preach a bit about the Statue of Liberty and freedom.
Left unsaid was that the number of refugees admitted to the United States is small compared to many other nations.
The U.S. admitted a record number of Muslim refugees in 2016, some 38,901 of the nearly “>85,000 total refugees allowed into the U.S. Go back to 2006, and the total number of refugees admitted drops to under 50,000. Though there have been refugee “surges” into the United States such as Holocaust survivors following World War II (650,000 people) and the Vietnamese “boat people” (100,000) after the end of that war, Americans historically feared refugees, not welcomed them. Since 1980, the United States has accepted less than two million refugees overall, and 40 percent of those were children accompanying their refugee parent(s). The U.S. sets an annual ceiling on refugees admitted, currently 85,000. Refugee number 85,001, no matter how desperate her case, must wait until the next year.
In contrast, among Syrians alone, Canada in 2016 took in about twice as many refugees as the United States. Some 25 percent of the entire population of Lebanon are refugees. Germany expects to admit 300,000 refugees from various nations in 2016, following close to one million in 2015.
Discrimination by Nationality
Following the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, 8 U.S.C. 1152 Sec. 202(a)(1)(A) makes it unlawful to ban immigrants (i.e., Legal Permanent Residents, Green card holders) because of “nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.” The law however allows banning nonimmigrants such as tourists or students, as well as refugees, for almost any reason. Challenges to this are near-impossible. American courts have consistently upheld that they cannot exercise judicial reviewability over visa decisions made abroad in the specific, and more broadly, generally do not extend the protections of American law to foreigners outside the U.S. The Supreme Court has also long-acknowledged immigration law’s “plenary power” doctrine, which generally immunizes from judicial review the substantive immigration decisions of Congress and the executive branch.
And even though legal immigrants are not banned by nationality or place of birth per se, restrictions on the number of legal immigrants from certain nations are limited to the point of near-virtual bans. For example, the restrictions are such that some Filipino and Mexican relatives of American citizens face a 24 year wait (another Orwellian term, “priority date”) for a Green card. It is not uncommon for applicants to pass away before their turn comes.
However, the most evolutionary aspect of Trump’s executive action on immigration, and the inevitable hardening and expansion of such positions, is the underlying driver of it all: fear.
The government of the United States, from September 12, 2001 through the present day, has constantly fanned the flames of fear of terrorism. Despite the well-known statistics of how an American here at home has a greater chance of being struck by lightning than dying in a terror act, that following 9/11 only a handful of Americans have fallen victim to acts of terror inside the United States, and despite the fact that few of any terror attacks inside the Homeland were committed by the poster child of fear, the foreign terrorist who infiltrates the U.S. specifically to do harm, Americans remain terrified.
For over 15 years, three presidents have used fear (they called it security) as a justification for, well, nearly everything. And Americans bought the line nearly every time. Fear of the smoking gun being a mushroom cloud. Fear of terrorists slipping through the net justifying NSA spying on Americans. Fear of more terrorism justifying torture, drone attacks, leaving Guantanamo open, militarizing Africa, having us take our shoes off at the airport, not being able to bring a bottle of water on a plane, no longer being able to enter a growing range of buildings without some sort of security check and bag search, background checks, showing ID, and the No-Fly list. 30 American governors said they’d refuse to accept Syrian refugees into their states if they could.
Trump’s use of executive orders to accomplish his immigration goals is also nothing new. Both Bush and Obama did the same. In fact, Franklin Roosevelt used an executive order to establish the World War II Japanese internment camps.
The Ugly Truth
Of course nothing Trump has done or has proposed regarding immigration will realistically make America safer. That is true, and it is irrelevant. Like much of the security theatre that has become normalized post-9/11, safety is not the point. Keeping fear alive and maintaining the politically-driven myth that government is on the job protecting the Homeland is what matters. Trump knows this, as did Obama and Bush.
The ugly truth is despite the airport protests, a large number of Americans remain afraid of foreigners and want what Trump did. The ugly truth is there is unfortunately nothing here unique to the Trump era.
BONUS: Those who focused last weekend on the two Iraqis who translated for the American military in Iraq at great risk to their lives and were detained at a New York airport may wish to read about the decades-long struggle of translators from Iraq and Afghanistan to escape those nations for fear of their lives, and the poor treatment they have received at the hands of now three administrations.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
“No one left behind” sounds nice, but in America’s wars it usually only refers to Americans. Foreigners who risked their own and their family’s lives to help the United States are optional.
But a small victory. After extraordinary outside pressure from Congress and veterans’ groups, the State Department agreed to undo a change to visa procedure that would have condemned even more Afghan translators to their deaths.
The idea was that Afghans translators who loyally served the United States and who were at risk in their own country could apply for visas for themselves, their spouses and their children, to live in the U.S. These were never called refugee visas or anything that might imply our freedom war was not fully successful, but were pitched as a kind of parting gift for good work.
And so we learn that the latest blunder in the government’s management of a special visa program for Afghan interpreters was fixed this week.
In recent months, Afghan interpreters were told, without warning, that their visa applications were denied as a result of the way officials at the State Department were implementing a change to the eligibility criteria set by Congress. Lawmakers said that as of September 30, in order to qualify for resettlement in the United States, interpreters would need to provide evidence that they had worked for American personnel in Afghanistan for at least two years. In the past, they had to prove only one year of service.
Inexplicably, the government began applying the two-year standard to applicants who had submitted petitions long before the rule changed. Applying laws retroactively is not how things generally work in America. Not that that stopped the State Department from unilaterally just doing that. The State decision slam dunked hundreds of the more than 10,000 applicants with pending cases.
As they learned of State’s action, various Congressional leaders demanded change, and hauled John Kerry up to the Hill to answer for his Department’s decision. Kerry “conferred” with this underlings and this week State reversed itself, and will not apply the new rules retroactively.
New applicants are still screwed, but then again, this is Afghanistan.
If you’re Syria’s evil dictator, Assad, the Secretary of State and her running dog UN Ambassador call you bad names. The say “your days are numbered” and that “you have lost all legitimacy.” Some Foggy Bottom lickspittal says that you are a “dead man walking,” and in a somewhat weird mix of things, refers to your country as “Pyongyang in the Levant.”
However, if you are the dictator of Yemen, the nice one who turned a blind eye to US drone attacks in his own country and even covered up drone strikes by claiming the bombs were his own, the State Department rolls out the red carpet.
Your dictator-in-residence status package begins with a medical visa, the travel document of choice for pro-US dictators such as the former Shah of Iran. Yemen’s thug Saleh is apparently staying at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in New York City while he gets his “medical treatment.” Subtlety is not a dictator trait.
Better yet, the State Department treatment does not end with your visa. State will in fact cover your dictator ass even as you relax in the Ritz’ spa.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is in the United States with full diplomatic immunity, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s legal advisor has written the Pentagon, and should not be compelled to provide sworn testimony for the Guantánamo war court. State Department Legal Advisor Harold Hongju Koh (photo above in his crazy ’70’s ‘do) wrote the letter to the Pentagon’s chief war crimes prosecutor, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, opposing a request for a subpoena.
Koh’s letter makes no mention of Saleh’s medical treatment. Rather, Koh invoked “the particular importance attached by the United States to avoiding compulsion of an oral deposition of President Saleh in view of international norms and the implications of the litigation for the Nation’s foreign relations.” He did not describe those implications in the letter.
So, to sum up: Middle East dictators we don’t like get outed. Middle East dictators we do like live at the Ritz and are given immunity. Arab Spring cheerleaders, please make a note of this.
Standing before a sun-splashed Cinderella’s castle, President Barack Obama recently called for America to become the world’s top travel destination. “America is open for business,” Obama announced at Walt Disney World near Orlando. “We want to welcome you.” Obama previously signed a long-pushed bill to establish a national tourism promotion agency that would market the United States to visitors from abroad.
Of course, funding for a $200 million campaign slated for launch later this year comes from a $14 per person fee charged to visitors from visa-waiver countries, so the foreigns are paying for us to advertise to them, but hey, they’re on vacation, am I right?
Anyway, this act by Homeland Security out in LA should really help:
Two British tourists were barred from entering America after joking on Twitter that they were going to “destroy America” and “dig up Marilyn Monroe.” Leigh Van Bryan, 26, was handcuffed and kept under armed guard in a cell with Mexican drug dealers for 12 hours after landing in Los Angeles with pal Emily Bunting. The Department of Homeland Security flagged him as a potential threat when he posted an excited tweet to his pals about his forthcoming trip to Hollywood which read: “Free this week, for quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America?”
So, to recap:
–Homeland Security has nothing better to do than read British tourists’ Tweets.
–Homeland Security is unaware of sarcasm, the possibility that by Tweeting “destroy America” the British guy was unlikely to do much more than drink too much crappy beer, of course spending mucho Amero$ along the way.
–Adding $14 to the cost of a US vacation so the US can promote tourism seems– somehow– counterproductive.
–Our country is now run by complete idiots.
–Some kind of Mickey Mouse joke I can’t come up with just now, ’cause see Obama was at Disney World when he made the speech.
Thanks, and we’ll return you now to your regular blog programming as a Homeland Security Predator drone swoops into my backyard. Viva!
I received this comment to an earlier posting about the problems Iraqis who had worked for the US Military and State Department were facing obtaining Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) to flee Iraq:
Since I started working as a TERP for US Army back in 2003, I never had a normal day of life, specially I got married in 2004. I’m always having problems with my wife and relatives. I quit in 2004 before I got married as a condition to get a wife. But since I did, I could not get a job or look for a one, because I had to keep home to be safer and my family. I could not take any more, so I decided to get back to my TERP job in 2009. I moved my family to a village outside Mosul where I’m from, which is the stronghold of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The people in this village are very savage and they are ignorant that they comment on haircut most of times. The funny thing that they do not know about my job yet. I wonder what are they gonna say and do if they did?.
Any way I’m unemployed now as the last unit I have worked with left, and the base closed last November 2011 and I’m bleeding money on the SIV application and hard life requirements in the semi safe village I live (no power-no safe water-far school-far markets-high prices for everything as a safe zone in Mosul-no JOB). I started working on my SIV application on January 2011. Scheduled to have US Embassy in Baghdad interview January 2012 this is one year and probably I’m gonna wait another year to get the visa this is if they issued one due to million rumors we hear about delaying and cancelling visas every day. I wonder what is going to happen to me and my family the comming time?
I think everyone understands the fear from future and unknown and the stress outcomming from it. I will leave the comment to you. Thank you very much.
So there you go America, another snapshot of your legacy in Iraq.
In late December I ran a blog post wondering if US foreign policy had been taken over by the cast of Jersey Shore, Snooki, et al, as the US seemed on the verge of granting the current dictator of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, permission to enter the US for “medical treatment.”
Now we know Snooki must be in charge, as the US has apparently once again chosen expediency as the cornerstone of its Middle East policy. Saleh is enroute to the US as you read this.
Iran once was America’s 51st state in the Middle East. The CIA helped overthrow one government there in 1953 and installed a monarch who bought American weapons, sold America oil and sucked up to the US. That was regime change old-school style.
Then there was an Islamic Revolution that swept through Iran, flawed in its own right, but appealing to a people who had long been kept in line by the Shah’s security apparatus. The Shah was reviled by many of his country people and, to avoid facing their justice for his actions, fled to the US for “medical care.” (“Medical care” is what dictators say when they need to blow town; for domestic US politicians, the correct phrase is “spend more time with my family.”) Saleh had previously sought medical care in Saudi Arabia, but must have not had insurance because he left to go right back to Yemen. Apparently there are no other doctors available anywhere in the entire world now but in America.
The Shah came to the US, Iran went wild and stormed the US Embassy in Tehran, taking US diplomats hostage. That crisis lasted 444 days, brought down the Carter Administration and messed relations in the Middle East up for pretty much forever. Memories are long in the desert, and people have a tendency to hang around in new roles. What you do today affects a lot of tomorrows, even if memories in the United States are sitcom-short.
“It’s not over for Saleh,” said Hussein Mansoor, a protester in Sanaa. “We want him to come back to Yemen so that he is tried for his crimes.” On Saturday, lawmakers in Yemen approved a controversial law giving Saleh immunity from prosecution.
Remember the Arab Spring Break? By accepting another non-democratic dictator formerly pals with the US for “medical care,” the US denies the events of 2011. The US has the chance to stand up for its long-term goals of supporting people who wish to throw off a dictator. Instead, it looks like we’ll let him into the US for safe haven, once again choosing expediency over morality. The image of the US among Yemenis will be nothing more than the country that gave shelter to their former dictator. US policy in the Middle East will again be clearly little more than oil and back slapping dictators who feed our counterterrorism fetish.