• Archive of "Embassy/State" Category

    Moving Ahead Via the Singapore Kim-Trump Summit

    June 17, 2018 // 10 Comments »




    In the end, diplomacy works. And as it always does, it works as a process, not an event. There is no Big Bang theory of nuclear diplomacy. If absolutely no further progress is made toward peace on the Korean Peninsula, all this – the back-and-forth, the Moon-Kim meetings, the Singapore summit itself – is at worst another good start that faded. It is more likely, however, a turning point.


    Only a few months ago State Department North Korean expert Joseph Yun’s retirement triggered a round of dire claims of a “void at the head of Trump’s Korea diplomacy.” Similar predictions were made over the lack of an American ambassador in Seoul. The State Department was decimated (“The Trump administration has lost the capacity to negotiate with other countries,” wrote one journalist.) The Council on Foreign Relations assessed the chances of war on the Peninsula at 50 percent. Reviewing decades of Western political thought on North Korea, it is equally staggering how poorly those predictions have panned out. There has been no succession struggle in Pyongyang, no societal collapse, no coup, no war — and no progress. Until now.

    It is easy to announce a morning after defeat for Trump. But those critics ignore Kim’s ongoing moratorium on nuclear and ballistic missile testing, the return of American prisoners, the closing of a ballistic missile test site, and the shutting down of a major nuclear test facility without opening a new one. It is easy to forget a few months ago North Korea exploded multiple nuclear devices on a single day to spark fears of dark war. Negatively assessing Singapore in light of more detailed agreements and different efforts from the past ignores the reality that all of those past agreements failed.

    Success on the Korean peninsula, as in the Cold War, will be measured by the continued sense war is increasingly unlikely. Success in Singapore is the commitment to meet again, and again after that; the more modest 2015 Iranian Accord (which didn’t even involve actual nuclear weapons) took 20 months to negotiate. Cold War treaties required years of effort, crossing administrations in their breadth. To expect more than a commitment to the next steps (did anyone think Kim would box up his nukes post-summit and mail them off?) is ahistorical. Did none of those complaining ever go on a first date?


    Singapore also signals it is time to abandon now-disproven tropes. Trump and Kim are not madmen and their at times bellicose rhetoric is just that. Both men will need to balance conciliatory steps forward with rougher gestures directed at domestic hardline audiences. So there will be tweets and setbacks. But the idea this is a North Korean ruse is worn thin. “Small countries confronting big countries seldom bluff,” one history of the Cuban Missile Crisis explained. “They can’t afford to.”

    The pieces for progress are in place if they can be manipulated well, including a North Korea with a young, Western-educated, multi-lingual leader perhaps envisioning himself as his nation’s Deng Xiao Ping, the man who will bring the future to his isolated nation while preserving its sovereignty.We have… decided to leave the past behind,” Kim said as he and Trump signed their joint statement. There is momentum in Pyongyang, a restless and growing consumerist middle class, living in a parallel semi-market economy fueled by dollars, Chinese currency, and increasing access to foreign media. Couple that with an American president willing to break the established “rules” for (not) working with North Korea. A careful look shows the glass is more than half full. It really is different this time.

    Another important difference this time is the presence of South Korean president Moon Jae In. He was a prime mover behind the notion of any summit at all, helping convince Washington North Korea is a uniquely top-down system and needs to be dealt with as such. His April 27 meeting with Kim Jong Un established the main points to negotiate on ahead of Singapore. After Donald Trump’s May 24 initial cancellation of the Singapore meeting, Moon shuttled between Washington and Panmunjom to get the process moving again. In a climate of constant bleating about war, that was skilled diplomacy played out on a very big stage.

    No nuclear negotiations in history have had such an interlocutor. Moon’s continuing juggling of his roles — honest broker, fellow Korean nationalist with shared cultural, linguistic, historical, and emotional ties, American ally, informal advisor to Kim, informal advisor to Trump — is key to the next steps. Moon himself is the vehicle in place to resolve problems that in the past were deal-breakers.


    What didn’t happen in Singapore is also important. Trump did not give away “the store.” In fact, there is no store Trump could have given away. The United States agreed to suspend military exercises which have been strategically canceled in the past, and which can be restarted anytime. The reality point is that it’s 2018, where the real deterrent is off-peninsula anyway, B-2s flying from Missouri, and missile-armed subs forever hidden under the Pacific.

    Trump did not empower Kim. Meeting with one’s enemies is not a concession. Diplomacy is a magic legitimacy powder America can choose to sprinkle on a world leader. Singapore acknowledges the like-it-or-not reality of seven decades of Kim-family rule over a country armed with nuclear weapons.

    Trump’s decision to begin the peace process with a summit is worthy. Imagining a summit as some sort of an award America can bestow on a country for “good behavior” is beyond arrogant. Successive administrations’ worth of that thinking yielded a North Korea armed with a hydrogen bomb, missiles that reach the United States, and a permanent state of war. A top down approach (China is the go-to historical example) is a valid way forward in that light.


    The easiest thing to do now is generically dismiss Singapore; the North will cheat and Trump will tweet. The harder thing will be to parse carefully what is next.

    The United States must incentivize denuclearization. The 2015 Iran Accord is one example. Another reaches back to 1991, when Washington provided financial rewards for the inventory, destruction, and ultimately the disposal of weapons of mass destruction in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. New jobs for the out-of-work nuclear scientists, too, to keep them from selling their skills elsewhere.

    But more than anything Trump must convince Kim to trust him, particularly in light of Iraq, Libya, and especially Iran, because the core ask here is extraordinary. Only one nation in history that self-developed nuclear weapons, South Africa, ever fully gave them up, and that was only after the apartheid regime disappeared into history and the weapons’ purpose was gone.

    If Trump followed advice from the left he would have stayed home like past presidents. If he’d listened to the right he’d have bulled into the room and said “Lose the nukes, number one and we’re done” and the process would have truly failed. North Korea developed nuclear weapons to guarantee its survival. If the United States and South Korea want the North to give up those weapons, something has to replace them as that assurance of survival. The summit created the platform. The key to what happens next is how Trump, Moon, and Kim work to resolve that issue.


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    Posted in Embassy/State, Trump

    Managing Expectations Over North Korea

    June 10, 2018 // 22 Comments »


    There is room for concern in tripartite negotiations as complex as those about to commence in Singapore among the U.S., and North and South Korea. There is certainly cause for optimism — Kim Jong Un reportedly fired top military leaders who may have dissented over his approaches to South Korea and the United States. And the three nations’ leaders have also never before sat down together to work out issues; this is all new.


    But there is no basis for claiming anything short of a developed full denuclearization deal left neatly tied with a ribbon on June 12’s doorstep means Donald Trump, or South Korean president Moon Jae In for that matter, has failed. Diplomacy simply does not work that way.


    And never mind the silliness Kim wants to step aside from global history-influencing issues to negotiate a McDonald’s for Pyongyang. And never mind the speculative Trump-centric psychodrama that replaces geopolitical analysis with twitter-level discourse about the friction that may develop between the “freewheeling American president and a paranoid Asian dictator” (such speculation always seems to leave out the critical third-party to the talks, South Korean president Moon Jae In.)

    One of the more balanced views of the Singapore summit comes from former State Department North Korean expert Joseph Yun. Yun’s February retirement as Special Representative for North Korea Policy triggered a round of dire statements that his absence left a “void at head of Trump’s Korea diplomacy.” Similar end-of-the-world predictions were made over the lack of an American ambassador in Seoul. The Council on Foreign Relations then assessed the chances of war on the Korean Peninsula at 50 percent.

    Ambassador Yun himself is much more a realist than most others commenting on the Peninsula. Writing in Foreign Affairs, he dismisses quickly those who expect some sort of complete denuclearization deal in about a week. Instead, he suggests “success” will include memorializing North Korea’s self-imposed moratoriums on nuclear and missile tests, and opening the Yongbyon nuclear facilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The North will need to provide a full list of its nuclear sites and an accounting of its fissile material.

    But even Joe Yun falls victim to unrealistic expectations, suggesting success includes a timeline for full denuclearization, and the elimination of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, all by 2020 to silence skeptics. Yun was involved in Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s visit to Pyongyang in 2000 before North Korea even had nuclear weapons, and wouldn’t have been caught dead then suggesting such unrealistic results; the modest hope those 18 years ago was for follow-on meetings leading to a someday presidential summit. Ironically, then-President Bill Clinton held off, pending more interim progress, the result being that no real progress occurred over successive administrations. It took Moon Jae In to convince Washington North Korea is a uniquely top-down system and needs to be dealt with as such.


    Managing expectations, for the public and at the negotiating table, is key. History provides examples the principals in Singapore should be reviewing. Though imperfect, the 2015 Accord with Iran is a workable model. It focused on specific actions, independently verifiable by the International Atomic Energy Agency: for example, Iran would reduce its uranium stockpile to 300 kilograms at an enrichment level of 3.67 percent. The other parties to the Accord, especially the United States, were equally committed to specific actions over a timeline that extended decades. Nobody simply hoped peace would break out. Denuclearization is far more complicated than just offering sanctions relief over tea in return for boxing up the bad bombs.

    Deeper history offers the painstakingly complex Cold War nuclear treaties with the USSR, where success was measured by the continued absence of war and the continued sense war was increasingly unlikely. In contrast, look to the example of Libya (ridiculously cited in the positive by National Security advisor John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence), which gave up a limited nuclear development program under threat; we are still watching the chaos in northern Africa unfold as the answer to how that worked out in the long run.


    Success is in the long-game, not in facile predictions of failure. William Johnson, a retired Foreign Service Officer who served as the State Department’s political adviser on special operations to the United States’ Pacific Command, explained “If ‘failed’ negotiations obviated further diplomatic options, Trump would need no ambassadors, and no advice from anyone on how to conduct diplomatic affairs. For we have failed on multiple occasions. But diplomacy is often a series of failures, and in the best case, the failures become incrementally less bad, until the least spectacular failure is declared to be success. Diplomacy is a game where the goalposts are supposed to move, and often, to move erratically. Trump needs a plan, with specific goals, each laid out neatly in a set of talking points, not because he will attain those goals, but because he needs to figure out how short of them he can afford to fall or how far beyond them he can push his interlocutor.”

    A process, not an event.


    Success in Singapore may include an agreement to formally end the Korean War (supported by some 80 percent of South Koreans. This would be a massive domestic win for Moon, himself the son of North Korean refugees, ahead of the June 13 South Korean by-elections.) Success will include humanitarian aid from the South, perhaps some modest investments from China, and scaled easing of sanctions from the American side. These are not concessions, but the give and take of negotiations, the stuff of diplomacy, where uneven forward movement can be a sign of strength and strategy. Success might be Kim formalizing the promises he has already voiced in his Panmunjom meetings with his South Korean counterpart. Success also will include keeping Moon Jae In in the center of unfolding events; no other nuclear negotiations in history have had such an interlocutor, one who shares goals near equally with both other parties, and one who can talk to each as a partner.


    If people demand Trump bull into the room and say “Nukes, number one and we’re done,” the process will indeed fail. Wipe clean the cartoon image of Kim as a madman. North Korea currently has nuclear weapons as the guarantor of its survival; that is a starting point, not a debatable one. If the United States and South Korea want the North to give up those weapons, something has to replace them as that assurance of survival. The ask here is extraordinary; only one nation in history that self-developed nuclear weapons, South Africa, ever gave them up, and that was because their purpose, the survival of the white apartheid regime, disappeared into history.

    Success in Singapore will be an agreement to meet again, and again after that; it should not be forgotten the more modest 2015 Iranian Accord took 20 months to negotiate. Success means forwarding the process of building trust and creating an infrastructure to solve the inevitable problems (sadly, yes, there will likely be tweets) that accompany the often herky-jerky path forward. Anyone demanding more than that from the June 12 meeting wants it to fail.



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    Posted in Embassy/State, Trump

    American Immigration: We Need a Merit-Based System

    February 4, 2018 // 4 Comments »


    The American immigration system based on family reunification is broken. A merit/points-based system can fix it.

    Nearly alone in the industrialized world, the U.S. has a patchwork of immigration laws and policies which fail the national interest while simultaneously failing many of the people seeking to immigrate here. What to do about immigration is a national policy decision (like defense spending, environmental rules, and taxes), not a global humanitarian program (that’s refugees.) The answer is not less immigration. Every person who brings their skills and labor contributes to growth, and everyone who acquired skills abroad did so at no cost to the U.S. In a global economy, that represents a magnificent advantage to nations that understand infrastructure is much more than bricks and mortar. It’s brains.

    Dollars and cents? Immigrant-owned businesses in 2014 generated more than $775 billion in sales and paid out more than $126 billion in payroll. Immigrant-owned businesses collectively created four million of the jobs today in the United States. Immigrants and their children founded 40% of Fortune 500 companies, which collectively generated $4.2 trillion in revenue in 2010. And you don’t need another list of immigrant celebrities, scientists, and business leaders.

    But what if we can do better, a lot better?

    Through the end of the 19th century, America essentially had no immigration law. The country was huge, land was available for the taking, and the need for unskilled workers seemed bottomless. The waves of Germans, Irish, Jews, Italians, and Chinese came from every, well, shithole across Europe and beyond. They entered an America where New York City was a center of light manufacturing and the source of more than half of all ready-made clothing, and the vast midwest was blanketed with family farms and steel plants greedy for workers. This system gave way as the first real immigration laws targeted the Chinese, no longer needed to build the railways out west, and, following WWI, Italians and eastern European Jews who were considered “inferior.” Racism played a significant role, but it dovetailed more than coincidentally with an economy that was shrinking (ultimately, the Great Depression) and demanding more skilled workers.

    The years following WWII saw a massive change in immigration law. In the booming post-war economy, it was believed there was room for everyone again, and old racial wrongs were righted by removing national quotas and emphasizing family unification. Most post-war immigrants, unlike those of the great waves of the 19th and early 20th centuries, were the relatives of earlier immigrants. Little attention was paid to who these people were, what education and skills they had and, most significantly, what the needs of the American economy were in comparison. The majority of available slots were given to family ties, not persons independently seeking to work in America like our great grandfathers. This is the system in place today.

    Family reunification has some no-brainers, such as relatively easy entry for the spouses, children, and parents of American citizens. The complications arise in the preference categories. These include adult unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens and Green Card holders, and their families. Also allowed to immigrate are the married adult sons and daughters of U.S. citizens and their families, and the brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, and their spouses and minor children. Once those people become legal, they can then file for immigration for their next generation of relatives. One immigrant can sponsor dozens of relatives, who in turn can then sponsor dozens — chain immigration.
    There are two massive problems with this system.

    Mexico, the Philippines, China, India, and the Dominican Republic are the most prolific sending countries to the U.S., creating a statistical snowball; more Chinese immigrants means more Chinese relatives to follow. Because of that snowball effect, and because Congress places strict numerical limits on the number of most family reunification-based immigrants, the waiting lines grow exponentially. In fairness to other nations with fewer emigrants, Congress created country-by-country limits (de facto quotas.) Those limits have become unmanageable under the first-come, first-served system. The most-backed up is the processing of siblings of Americans from the Philippines. That process is only now taking those applications (“priority date”) first filed in 1994. Applicants literally die waiting for their turn. Others see the long wait and jump the line, entering the U.S. illegally.

    How many people are we talking about? For all of the family unification immigrant visas, in 2017, about 466,585 people, out of a total immigrant pool of 559,536.
    That left 23,814 visas for people who immigrated to the U.S. based solely on their skills, education, and talent — merit. So out of more than half a million souls, only 23,814 were admitted based on what they bring to the U.S. Everyone else can be a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker, or, randomly, a rocket scientist.

    The core problem with the family reunification system is the primary qualification to legally immigrate is simply that family tie; are you the sibling of an American? Welcome. So America gets the drunk brothers alongside the physicist sister. It’s a crap shoot. There is no connection to America’s economic needs. The family reunification system is a 19th-century legal hangover.

    It actually is worse than just the numbers when it comes to seeking the best and brightest from around the world. Of the 20,000 some merit based immigrants, in 2017 almost 7,000 of them were designated only as “skilled,” meaning they had only two years of training or work experience, and did not require a college degree. There are even a handful of merit-based visas reserved for unskilled workers.

    More? Merit-based immigration is largely based on first-come, first-serve grappling for those limited spaces. There is nothing in the system to prioritize a scientist working on something critical to the U.S. versus someone educated but in a field already overcrowded. It all depends on who files the paperwork first.

    The American family unification system, with its small number of merit-based visas tagging along, is near unique in the industrialized world. Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand use primarily a merit system based on “points.” Based on national needs, an applicant with no relatives in Canada will accrue points based on education (Canada awards 25 points for a Master’s, only five for a high school diploma), language ability (24 points toward immigration up north if you are fluent in English and French), and job skills. But you may not need a master’s in computer technology, for Canada: they’ll take you if you’re a rocket scientist, but they’ll also take you if you are a tar sands miner willing to live five years in the unsettled west. Think you’re good enough for Canada? Start the points process here.

    The present system fails so badly that it remains a statiscal miracle any good comes out of it at all. The small number of merit-based immigrants are untethered to America’s economic needs, and the family-based system is backlogged. How can the U.S. bring it’s immigration system into the 21st century?

    Step one is an emotional reckoning. We all know your grandfather came here with nothing and built his American Dream; mine, too. We also know many people rightly fear their jobs are endangered by immigration. It is time for America to move past the falsehoods and full-on hate that drives too much of the conversation. Same for the myths that largely unfettered immigration is so enshrined in the American story as to be untouchable.

    America must then move away from its over-emphasis on family-based immigration. Eliminate certain categories, or more sharply limit them. Then, remake the current merit system into a points system directly tied to economic needs. Need more electrical engineers than web developers? Prioritize. Change the priorities as needed, and move resources from the family-based side to the points side so that cases are processed fast enough that demand and supply match up. There are various proposals long these lines being put forth by Republicans in Congress that don’t cut immigration, just change it.
    It is hard to see why this seems so complicated. If the U.S. can draw the global best and brightest instead of hoping someone’s brother falls into the slot, why wouldn’t we want to do that?

     

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Trump

    Why Leave Well Enough Alone in Jerusalem?

    December 13, 2017 // 39 Comments »


    “Today we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital,” President Donald Trump said. “This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.” Trump’s formal recognition of Jerusalem as the capital, reversing some seven decades of American policy, is arguably the most unnecessary decision of his time in office, and the clearest one to date to have consequences that will linger far past his tenure. The decision may yield some domestic political advantage for the president, but at irrational expense globally.
    Apart from the short-term violence likely to ensue, understanding the depth of Trump’s mistake requires digging a bit into how diplomacy works. There are many facets (I served as a diplomat with the United States Department of State for 24 years) that can seem almost silly to outsiders but are in fact a very necessary.

    Jerusalem is where Israel’s President presides, and where the Parliament, Supreme Court, and most government ministries are located. In practical terms, the capital. Unlike in nearly ever other nation, however, the United States maintains its formal embassy elsewhere, in the city of Tel Aviv. It keeps a consulate in West Jerusalem, claimed by Israel since 1948, a consular annex in East Jerusalem, the Old City annexed by Israel in 1967 and sought by many Palestinians as the future site of their own capital, and an office in the neighborhood between East and West Jerusalem, directly on the so-called Green Line, the 1949 armistice line between Israel and Jordan. Diplomats from all nations, as well as Israeli officials, understand that in formal terms an embassy is the head office located in the capital, and a consulate is a kind of branch located outside the capital. But they also know from experience in Israel which door to knock on when you need to get business done, regardless of what the nameplate reads out front.

    And to an outsider that might seem like a lot of wasted effort. But diplomats are required to represent the position of their country, and to place that at times in front of “reality” itself. If the sign on the door in Jerusalem says “embassy” then the reality is everyone must slam on the brakes. Everything else may need to wait while the big picture is settled. But as long as the sign says “consulate,” well, we can agree this business about where the capital of Israel is located is complex, but anyway, there are some important matters that need to be discussed…
    This kind of thing is not unique to Israel. A similar system has been in place in Taiwan since 1979 and has kept the peace there.

    In 1979 the United States recognized the reality of the People’s Republic of China, with Beijing as its capital, and shifted formal relations from Taiwan. Instead of an embassy in Taipei, the United States established the American Institute in Taiwan, officially not a part of the American government. An actual registered non-governmental organization, with offices in a nondescript office building in Virginia, the Institute benefits from the Department of State “ providing “a large part of funding and guidance in its operations.”

    Because United States policy is there is only one China and that Taiwan is a part of it, there is no ambassador at the Institute; the chief representative is called the director. People who work for what anyone else would call the Taiwan government are “authorities,” not “officials.” A whole sitcom worth of name changes and diplomatic parlor tricks keeps the enterprise in Taipei not an embassy of the United States.

    But what seems childish actually allows all sides — Washington, Taipei, and Beijing — to focus on the practical, day-to-day work of relations without having to address the never-gonna-resolve-it-in-our-lifetimes geopolitical questions first. That’s why these things matter. They matter because appearance and symbols matter, in East Asia, and especially in the Middle East. That’s why Trump’s decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and potentially relocate the embassy pulls down the curtain, turns on the lights, and spray paints day-glo yellow the 500 pound gorilla in the room. It will vastly complicate nearly everything.

     

    In the case of the United States and Jerusalem, the kabuki which has more or less maintained the status quo is the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995. That law required the United States to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999, and said Congress would withhold 50 percent of the funds appropriated to the State Department for overseas building operations if the deadline wasn’t met. The Act also called for Jerusalem to be recognized as the capital.

    The thing is that the Act left open a politically-expedient loophole, allowing the president to repeatedly issue a waiver of the requirements every six months if he determines that is necessary for national security. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama dutifully issued the waiver. Trump also reluctantly did it a few months ago, and then again just after announcing his recognition of Jerusalem to give the State Department some bureaucratic breathing room. Though as stated by the mayor of Jerusalem, “They just take the symbol of the consulate and switch it to the embassy symbol — two American Marines can do it in two minutes.” That would make the American Embassy the only embassy in Jerusalem. Reports say Trump will not designate an existing facility as the embassy and instead plans to build a new structure somewhere in Jerusalem, a process that will take years.

    Under the Jerusalem Embassy Act, the American embassy stayed in Tel Aviv, business was done in Jerusalem as needed, and everyone with a hand in the complex politics of the Middle East could look the other way, whichever other way best fit their needs. It was an imperfect solution, not the failed plan that did not lead to formal peace between the Palestinians and Israel as Trump characterized. The shadowplay status of Jerusalem worked.

     

    No more. Trump’s action in recognizing Jerusalem demands all of the players set aside whatever other issues they have in Israel, not the least of which is the Palestinian peace process, and now take a stand on America’s changed position.

    Of immediate concern will be America’s relationship with Jordan. Jordan has thrown in heavily with the United States, allowing its territory to be used as an entry point into Syria for American aid. The United States and Jordan more broadly have a robust and multi-layered security relationship, working well together in the war on Islamic State and in the peace process. It has been a steady relationship, albeit one based on personal ties more than formal agreements.

    Yet following Trump’s announcement, Jordanian King Abdullah bin Al-Hussein warned of “dangerous repercussions on the stability and security of the region.” Beyond modern geopolitics, the issue of Jerusalem runs deep in Jordan: it was Abdullah’s father, King Hussein bin Talal, who lost the city to Israel in the 1967 war, and Abdullah himself is officially the custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. Even as protests broke out in areas of Jordan’s capital inhabited by Palestinian refugees, American diplomats working in Amman will find every facet of the relationship colored and their skills tested — no Arab ruler can be seen being publically pushed around, perhaps humiliated, by the United States.

     

    A second body blow could come in America’s relationship with Egypt. Even more so than Jordan, Egypt’s rulers must act in awareness of public opinion, with memories of the Arab Spring still fresh. In response to Trump’s announcement, Egyptian parliamentarians called for a boycott of American products, including weapons. Egypt is also no stranger to the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, and one Egyptian minister warned Trump’s decision would shift focus from fighting terrorists to inflaming them; the symbolic role retaking Jerusalem places in the radical Islamic canon cannot be under estimated. All of this comes at a sensitive time: Cairo, for the first time since 1973, has reached a preliminary agreement to allow Russian military jets to use Egyptain airspace and bases.
    In the coming days there will very likely be acts of violence, street protests, and announcements globally condemning Trump’s decision. But long after the tear gas clears from Cairo’s side streets or Amman’s public squares, American diplomats will find themselves hamstrung, entering negotiations on a full range of issues having to first somehow address the action taken by President Trump. This one was not an unnecessarily bombastic tweet that runs off the bottom of the page, or a crude remark likely to fade with the next news cycle: this time the president overturned an American policy of nearly seven decades’ standing which will have consequences far beyond his own tenure.

     

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    State Department, Meet the New Boss, Same/Worse as the Old Boss?

    December 8, 2017 // 3 Comments »


     

    The rumors of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s demise may finally not be greatly exaggerated.


    A marked man, it was only about a month ago the media speculated on how soon United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley would replace Tillerson. Two weeks ago a trial balloon floated up with Mike Pompeo’s name in trail. But a burst of nearly-identical stories over the last few days, spearheaded by the New York Times, signals the end for Tillerson and names Pompeo, currently Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, as his successor. What lies ahead?

    The unique interplay between the Civil Service (non-diplomats largely stationed in Washington DC) and the Foreign Service (who have primary responsibility in Washington and who staff the embassies and consulates abroad) complicates Secretary of State transitions. Engaging both sides, with their different vested interests, can be tough. And unlike the military, where chains of command and internal procedures are written on checklists, State is a hybrid, half foreign and half domestic, with a structure that either conforms to a new Secretary or is conformed by a new Secretary. State is a vertically-oriented bureaucracy, with layers below the boss’ office waiting for bits of policy to fall so as to inform them of what their own opinions are. One academic referred to this as “neckless government,” a head and a body in need of an active connection.


    A huge part of Tillerson’s failure was in missing that last point. The traditional way of engaging the bureaucracy is for a new Secretary to fill key positions with political appointees, who will shape the rank and file below them. Bonus points to the Secretary who can pluck out career Foreign Service people with the approved ideological bent to act as a virtual political appointees, a strong point of Hillary Clinton’s. Tillerson left too many slots vacant too long, and now finds himself without allies inside Foggy Bottom. Meanwhile, left on their own, his diplomats found ways to make trouble, including disclosing once-sacrosanct internal dissent memos. Soon after Tillerson took office his diplomats leaked a dissent memo opposing the State Department’s role in Trump’s immigration plans. Another dissent memo leaked some ten days ago, this time with Tillerson’s people claiming their own boss was in violation of the law.

    Alongside building their version of the organization, it is incumbent on a new Secretary to aim the State Department at some goal. State is an agency without primary agency; under one administration it focuses on arms control. Under another, State tries to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan. More recently, the emphasis has been on “soft power,” programs to empower women, the use of social media, promoting democracy, and the growth LGBTQ rights. Tillerson never articulated much of a goal beyond some unfocused thoughts on structural reform that will never again see daylight. Though it is fashionable to label Tillerson as the worst Secretary of State of modern times, in reality Tillerson will be remembered as perhaps the most pointless of Secretaries.

    Based on my conversations with former State Department colleagues (I served 24 years as a diplomat) Tillerson’s successor will encounter a mood inside the State Department reminiscent of a rescue dog kennel; over there are the mutts who feel abused, wary of any new human. Off to the side are the ones who have given up; the need to log a certain number of years of service to get their generous pensions will keep many technically on the books but a new Secretary can expect very little from them. The majority of dogs will be open and waiting to see what happens (“Can’t be much worse, right?” is something many at State are saying.) But watch out for a few who feel newly empowered, the ones who think they helped drive a bad Secretary out of office. They may still bite.


    It is unclear Mike Pompeo, the heir apparent, will be able to succeed where Tillerson failed. The climate for political appointees in Washington today feels more like that of late in a moderately successful president’s second term; the good people have already been selected-served-moved on, many of the old standbys are not interested in signing up for what may turn out to be short-run jobs, and that leaves a small pool for Pompeo to fill State Department jobs from. Pompeo’s tenure at Central Intelligence was brief enough that he is unlikely to bring over many loyalists, and most at Langley see working for State as a kind of step down anyway (many at the Agency view themselves as the lacrosse team, with State as the nerd club.) Who will Pompeo staff with? And how can he do it quickly while the dogs are still weighing out their next moves?

    There is also the issue of culture. Pompeo began his tenure at Central Intelligence on a relatively positive note. However, his hard line stances soon rubbed many the wrong way, leaving them wondering if the boss could navigate the nuances that drive good decision making. How poorly that will play out at the State Department, with its culture of discussion and deliberation, its love of what-ifs and may-be’s, is easy to imagine.

    And there’s the record: Pompeo caught Trump’s eye in part for his tough stance on Iran. Inside the State Department, the Iran Nuclear Accords are seen as one of the institution’s modern-day signature accomplishments. Pompeo is a conservative, and State has always been the most “liberal,” as in committed to the global system of trade and democracy, part of modern administrations. Tillerson, weakly but in line with State-think, pushed for some sort of talks with North Korea and supported the Iran deal. Pompeo opposes both. That’s a big chip to have on your shoulder your first day at work.


    But at the end of the day, the mismatch between State and Pompeo, or State and Haley, or State and Tillerson for that matter, is not really about who is Secretary of State, but who is president. A lot of the anger directed at Tillerson was actually using him as a stand-in for Trump. The primary driver of foreign policy remains the White House, and the White House appears to have little love for its diplomats. If as an establishment Republican Tillerson had within him a bit of divergent thinking from Trump on issues like Iran and North Korea, Pompeo as an old school hawk is nothing but a loyalist, with a personal connection to Trump. If the president’s intention is indeed to dismantle the State Department, it is hard to imagine a person better suited to the task than a guy like Mike Pompeo. As the New York Times editorial board has already accused Tillerson of “making war on diplomacy,” it will be interesting to see what words they have left to label Pompeo’s opening shots.


    Rex Tillerson is still Secretary of State, even as people inside and outside of Foggy Bottom cheer his demise. The irony will be if in a few months from now some of those same people start wondering if they had not been better off under his leadership.


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    Whither Rex Tillerson?

    December 6, 2017 // 8 Comments »



    Pity soon-to-maybe-be-former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Here’s a guy who can’t get to the sports page of his favorite newspaper without wading through a new round of rumors of his own demise. If it is not a new leak out of Foggy Bottom saying someone cut in front of him in the cafeteria line to get the last Jello dessert, presaging a palace coup, it is the New York Times claiming the White House plans to oust him by the end of the year, possibly to replace him with current CIA director Mike Pompeo.

    Politico ran basically the same story two weeks ago, but it didn’t seem to attract much attention. And it seemed like only yesterday Tillerson was finished again, to be replaced by America’s UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. OK, sorry, that was last month.

    Let’s take a deep, cleansing breath, and recognize there are two stories here. The first is how long Tillerson will remain at State, a story that is more palace intrigue than anything else. The second is who will replace him.

    Whether Tillerson quits or gets fired soon is mostly just a matter of how his Wikipedia biography concludes. From Day One neither the media, nor his own organization, the Department of State, offered him a chance. Even before the 2016 election results, State’s supposedly non-political diplomats leaked a dissent memo calling for more U.S. intervention in Syria, a move then not supported by Candidate Trump. Soon after Tillerson took office, his non-political diplomats leaked a dissent memo opposing the State Department’s role in President Trump’s immigration plans. Yet another dissent memo leaked just ten days ago or so, this time with State’s people claiming their boss was in violation of the law over a decision regarding child soldiers. Daily “reports” from “sources” claiming the Secretary had cut himself off from the organization’s rank and file. Given the leaks, maybe Tillerson was wise to avoid the cafeteria.

    The media offered the Secretary no rest, proclaiming in near-apocalyptic terms the “end of diplomacy,” the dismantling of the State Department, and announcing with a kind of regularity old man Tillerson would ruefully envy the loss of U.S. standing in the world. Never one to miss a chance to pile on, Senators John McCain and Jeanne Shaheen sent a letter to Tillerson declaring “America’s diplomatic power is being weakened internally as complex global crises are growing externally.” Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albrighthe said Tillerson is creating a “national security emergency.”

    Despite factual evidence to the contrary, most mainstream media claimed State was hemorrhaging diplomats. With no evidence presented (State has always been notoriously tight-fisted with its personnel statistics), the New York Times stated without qualification Tillerson had “fired or sidelined were most of the top African-American and Latino diplomats, as well as many women.” Ouch, if true!

    Adding to the cat fight-like coverage of events of state, Tillerson supposedly called Trump a moron, Trump’s tweets were interpreted by the press as undermining whatever standing Tillerson might have had. The media, who had blissfully ignored State hiring below attrition since the Obama years, now seized on every routine retirement out of Foggy Bottom as proof that Tillerson was toast.

    Whether you believed Tillerson’s planned reforms for State were a sincere attempt at change to an institution already dipping into irrelevance next to the military, or whether you believed Tillerson’s reforms were the work of a hatchet man sent in to destroy the State Department (if you’ve had a couple of drinks reading this, the destruction was to empower Putin. If you’re still sober-ish, the destruction was revenge for State hiding Hillary’s emails), the bottom line was very clear: those reforms were never going to happen and Tillerson was a dead man walking. If you are really into conspiracy theories, forget Putin and Clinton. Tillerson needs to go because Trump fears his vote under the 25th Amendment to oust him. Pompeo (or even Haley) stands on more ideologically firmer ground.

    Outside the Beltway there is little love, or even real knowledge of, the State Department. It is doubtful Trump’s core constituency could give a hoot what happens at Foggy Bottom.

    I have no idea as I write this whether Rex Tillerson is still sitting in that office on the seventh floor of State Department headquarters or not. It doesn’t matter. If he’s still there today, he won’t be there sometime soon. So the real question shifts to who will eventually replace the neutered Rex Tillerson, and what if anything that means.

    The initial response is to look at the media’s current favorite horse in the race, Mike Pompeo, possibly still head of CIA as I write this (rumor suggests Pompeo would be replaced at CIA by Senator Tom Cotton, a key ally of the president on national security matters, according to the White House plan.) In the Politico hagiography of Pompeo, the CIA director glows in “favored status in the West Wing.” Haley is done. “The president has been turned off in part by speculation that Haley has her eyes on a presidential bid, two people close to the president said,” in the language of Washington today, where facts are simply what “people close” to things say.

    So what would Mike Pompeo be like as America’s 70th Secretary of State?

    Never missing a chance to get the first knife planted in the back, former Ambassador Jim Jeffrey warns while Pompeo currently “has this very close relationship with Trump, and you can’t nurture it the same way when you’re traveling all the time,” referring to the Secretary of State’s international schedule. But before the poo-poo, what was Pompeo like at CIA that might give us a clue to how’ll he will do at State?

    The signs are not good. Pompeo is a conservative, and State has always been the most “liberal,” as in committed to the liberal global system of trade and democracy, part of any administration. Pompeo is a hardlining on Iran; State sees as one of its few legacy successes the nuclear agreement with that nation worked out under Secretary of State John Kerry.

    Even at CIA, Pompeo showed a demeanor that seems at odds with the State Department’s culture of consultation, discussion, what ifs and may be’s. Pompeo’s clear certainty on issues such as Iranian nuclearization brushed hard against even the Agency’s culture, which one officials described as “The CIA isn’t Saudi Arabia, the people there appreciate nuance, they’re married to complexity.” It won’t get better at State.

    Sources at the Agency explain to become a successful head of the CIA you really have to own the place, which means embracing the entrenched powers, the people on the 7th floor and the one just below it. “You’ve got to get them on side, and you’ve got to spend time doing it,” said one Agency veteran.

    “I think Pompeo did that for a time and early on people liked him, thought of him as one of them — believed he would have their backs,” explained one CIA official. “But that’s changed. He has a temper and he’s used it, and that’s something that intelligence professionals frown on. I heard of one incident, outside his office, when he was screaming at a senior intel officer — ‘are you incompetent or just stupid?’ So, not surprisingly, at least recently, he’s started to lose people there.”

    It appears highly unlikely Pompeo would find himself well-liked at State. Diplomats displeased with the relatively bland Tillerson, whose faults extend to apparently not having many firm opinions on foreign policy matters, will be repelled by Pompeo’s views.

    Looking ahead to a Pompeo tenure, one State Department source told me “There is nothing analysts at State hate more than to have a theory dismissed with ‘But over at CIA they say…’ and Pompeo will walk into the building with that chip on his shoulder.” As Secretary of State, it is doubtful Pompeo will interact with, or care much about, the organization he’ll head up. As a Trump loyalist, whatever nefarious plans Trump has for the State Department as an institution will find a boss happy to see them carried out. Trial balloons masquerading as reporting saying Pompeo’s supposed closeness to Trump will be welcomed by the State Department rank and file are sad gasps in the dark. There is no good news ahead for Foggy Bottom.

    Whatever pundits did not like about Trump and his State Department they will dislike plus double much under Pompeo. Whatever one believes about the administration’s plans to destroy diplomacy, that belief will be reinforced during Pompeo’s tenure. But here’s the prediction I am most certain of: about two months after Pompeo takes office as Secretary of State, the media will start writing revisionist pieces claiming Tillerson was a check on Trump’s impulsivity, and is missed at State. The New York Times will remember Tillerson’s tenure as the time no new wars started, when the U.S. did not start a war with Iran, North Korea, Russia or China.

    Rex Tillerson is not the worst Secretary of State and he is far from the best of them. For the State Department rank and file, he was a punching bag, a symbol of what they believe the Trump administration has in store for them as an institution. For the media and some members of Congress, Tillerson was a stand-in for all that they hate about Trump and his view of the world. The guy never stood a chance. It is hard to see anyone seeing Pompeo much differently. He takes office as a dead man walking.



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    What If Trump Dismantled the State Department, and It Didn’t Matter?

    November 30, 2017 // 7 Comments »



    Bad news: President Donald Trump may be dismantling the State Department. The good news? No recent president has made much use of those diplomats, so they are unlikely to be missed. And that’s really bad news.


    Recent stories try hard to make the case that something new and dark has crept into Foggy Bottom. Writing for the December 2017 Foreign Service Journal, American Foreign Service Association President Barbara Stephenson sounds the alarm on behalf of the organization of American diplomats she heads: “The Foreign Service officer corps at State has lost 60% of its Career Ambassadors since January… The ranks of our two-star Minister Counselors have fallen from 431 right after Labor Day to 369 today.”

    Stephenson doesn’t mention a 60% loss of Career Ambassadors, the most senior diplomats, means the actual headcount drops from only five people to two (and of the three that did retire, two are married to one another suggesting personal timing played a role. One retiree worked in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, another was seconded to a university, important but outside State’s core diplomatic mission that many feel is “at risk.”) Choosing to count noses “right after Labor Day” is deceptive. Most retirements take place officially on September 30 in line with the ending of the federal fiscal year, so numbers will seem lower in November. Stephenson also leaves out the losses are voluntary retirements, not a taking of heads by the Trump administration. None of the retirees have stated they are leaving in protest.

    The number of Career Ministers (another senior rank) in the Foreign Service actually increased from 22 to 26 under Trump. Growth had been delayed by Senate confirmation process, not the White House.

    Stephenson is equally alarmed at Trump’s government-wide hiring freeze affecting entry level diplomats, though fails to note the freeze won’t touch a good two-thirds of new hires, as they come from exempt fellowship programs.

    Also not mentioned is that intake of new Foreign Service officers is now primarily via existing fellowship programs, as regular intake is frozen. These fellowships recruit heavily from historically black colleges and universities, which means diversity at State should actually increase under Trump. And hiring has been below attrition since the Obama years anyway.


    So good news, the dismantling is not happening. Overall, the number of senior diplomats (the top four foreign service ranks) is only 19 people less than at this time in 2016. But the bad news: while a shortage of diplomats is not new under President Trump, the weakening of American diplomacy is real.

    For example, no other Western country uses private citizens as ambassadors over career diplomats to anywhere near the extent the United States does, handing out about a third of the posts as political patronage in what has been called a “thinly veiled system of corruption.” In 2012, the Government Accountability Office reported 28 percent of all senior State Department Foreign Service positions were unfilled or filled with below-grade employees.

    Relevancy?  State has roughly the same number of Portuguese speakers as it does Russian. 

    Or take a longer view: in 1950, State had 7,710 diplomats. The pre-Trump total was just 8,052 as State has failed to grow alongside the modern world. The reasons may differ, but modern presidents simply have not expanded their diplomatic corps.


    It is the growth of military influence inside government that has weakened State. Months before Barbara Stephenson’s organization worried about Trump dismantling the State Department, it worried about State becoming increasingly irrelevant inside a militarized foreign policy. That worrisome 2017 article cited an almost identical worrisome article from 2007 written at the height of the Iraq War.

    In between were numerous reiterations of the same problem, such as in 2012 when State questioned its relevance vis-vis the Pentagon. In Africa, for example, the military’s combatant commanders are putative epicenters for security, diplomatic, humanitarian, and commercial affairs. One reason is range: unlike ambassadors, whose responsibility, budget, and influence is confined to a single country, combatant commanders’ reach is continental. When America’s primary policy tool is so obviously the military, there is less need, use, or value to diplomats. As a foreign leader, who would you turn to get Washington’s ear, or to pry open its purse?


    It wasn’t always this way. A thumbnail history of recent United States-North Korean relations shows what foreign policy with active diplomacy, and without it, looks like.

    For example, in 2000 there were American diplomats stationed in North Korea, and the Secretary of State herself visited Pyongyang to lay the groundwork for rebuilding relations. These steps took place under the 1994 Agreed Framework, which ended — diplomatically — an 18-month crisis during which North Korea threatened to withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The Framework froze North Korea’s plutonium production and placed it under international safeguard.

    President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 inclusion of North Korea in his “axis of evil” scuttled that last real attempt at direct diplomacy with Pyongyang. Bush demanded regime change, which led to the North going nuclear. Unlikely at the advice of his State Department, Bush also found time to refer to North Korea’s then-leader Kim Jong-il as a pygmy. Bush plunged into the Middle East militarily with little further attention paid to a hostile nuclear state.

    With one failed exception, President Obama also avoided substantive negotiations with Pyongyang, while warning the United States “will not hesitate to use our military might.” The Obama administration-driven regime change in Libya after that country abandoned its nuclear ambitions sent a decidedly undiplomatic message to Pyongyang about what disarmament negotiations could lead to. Without a globally thought-through strategy behind it, war is simply chaos. Diplomacy has little role when the White House forgets war is actually politics by other means.


    It is clear that President Trump thinks little of his State Department. Morale is low, the budget is under attack, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s reorganization plans have many old hands on edge. But the real question of what is wrong with President Trump’s non-relationship with State is answered by asking what value Presidents Bush and Obama derived from a fully-staffed State Department, either by ignoring its advice, or simply ignoring diplomacy itself. As with the numbers that suggest State is not being dismantled, the point is much of the current hysteria in Washington fails to acknowledge that a lot of what seems new and scary is old and scary. It is a hard point, rationality, to make in a media world where one is otherwise allowed to write declarative sentences that the president is mentally ill and will start WWIII soon in a tweet.

    Having the right number of senior diplomats around is of little value if their advice is not sought, or heeded, or if they are not directed toward the important issues of the day. Whether Trump does or does not ultimately reduce staff at State, he will only continue in a clumsy way what his predecessors did by neglecting the institution in regions where it might have mattered most.


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    Puerto Rico: Disaster Management Works, Just Not Always on TV

    October 8, 2017 // 8 Comments »


    It seems there’s a template for Trump versus the Hurricanes: he won’t do enough, it isn’t being done fast enough, everything will collapse (ready Katrina headlines) and then the draining, heroic reality of the response takes hold. With more stormy weather ahead for this administration, it’s time for a better understanding of how disaster management works.

    A disaster destroys in hours infrastructure that took decades to build. Millions of people plunge from first world to third world status in real time. The things that separate a Texas suburb from a Nairobi slum – clean water, sewers, power, hospitals, roads – disappear.

    Meanwhile, the media tends to focus on drama and controversy. They often overplay the story via anecdotal reporting (“Here’s Mrs. Hernandez without electricity, she says [pause] with no help in sight”) and underplay the work being done, especially at the beginning of the response where progress is hard to see. First responders on laptops methodically solving supply problems are not very mediagenic, after all.

    At the moment of disaster, the Big Bang, needs are at 100% while the response is at a zero point. The response starts in deficit. It always looks grim, especially to participants and outside observers unfamiliar with the process that is starting. They want what is a marathon to play out like a sprint.

    In dealing with a major disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the military follow a standard playbook. I know, I worked with both on and off for two decades while with the State Department. I trained with them, and was on-the-ground during the Kobe, Japan earthquake (6,000 dead) and Asian Tsunami (280,000 dead.) I worked the Washington DC-end of many other disasters. I read after-action reporting from 20-30 other such events. That’s a (much) younger me pictured above in the headgear you have to wear on military helicopters.

    The critical initial step is a needs assessment, from which everything else flows. Responders need time to visit sites, confer with local officials, and determine what is needed and where the needs are greatest. It is a slow process in a chaotic environment, delayed by weather, roads, and communications. From the outside it can look like nothing is being done; Mrs. Hernandez still doesn’t have electricity even as helicopters are flying around, apparently ignoring her!

    The needs assessment gets the right help to the right places in order of priority. As an example, I was part of a liaison team with the American Navy at Phuket, Thailand following the Asian Tsunami. Without any local input, the first helicopters brought in huge fresh water bladders. It turned out most of the water was unneeded; the city had warehouses full of the bottled version. The Americans weren’t helping!

    It took a day for us to track down, but the most urgent need the Navy could address was a buildup of medical waste at local hospitals. Waste pre-disaster was trucked out daily; the tsunami wrecked the roads, and so boxes of soiled bandages and infected sharps accumulated. When American resources turned to help dispose of that, hospitals were able to run at peak, and lives were saved. The water bladders lay abandoned in parking lots around town.

    Other decisions that can flow from a needs assessment might include restoring power to one school to shelter fifty families before fixing fifty individual homes. It can mean blocking people from calling internationally so limited cell capacity can be directed to local 911 calls. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example, set as a priority reopening dialysis centers across Puerto Rico. Somebody else didn’t get helped first to make that possible.

    At the early-to-intermediate stages of a disaster response people in less affected areas will wait in long lines for supplies. It looks bad on TV, but can actually mean the system is working, as help was directed to a higher priority. It takes good reporting to know if that’s the case. Instead, “success” is often too quickly defined as “make everything back to the way it was before the storm.”

    The military plays a key role in disaster response. The problem is Americans are conditioned to believe there are unlimited resources of all types, instantly movable to where they are needed.

    Military units tend to have war fighting as their primary job, and most are somewhere doing that, or training to do that. Shifting to a disaster mission can happen quickly but not instantly. Lots of people showing up with can-do attitude is vitally important. But just as important is gathering the right skills – electrical engineers, teams that desalinate sea water for drinking, and sewage crews (3.4 million people’s waste festering with fecal-borne disease is a dreaded secondary killer in this disaster.) The process can always be started sooner than it was, but it can’t be done effectively until needs are known.

    Much mockery has been directed at Trump’s statement about Puerto Rico being an island, surrounded by “big water.” His phrasing was callous, but the fact Puerto Rico is an island is significant. Unlike Texas or Florida, no one can self-evacuate, by car or even on foot. Same for incoming aid. Everything must travel by plane, or, more likely, ship.

    Planes and helicopters can do great things, but they lean toward small scale. Puerto Ricans now need some two million gallons of fresh water a day. A gallon weighs about eight pounds, so that’s 16 million pounds of water. A C-130 cargo plane can carry some 42,000 pounds. So that’s 380 flights a day, every day, just for water. There are bigger aircraft, but the bottom line is always the same: you simply have to move the epic quantities required to respond to an epic island disaster by ship to a port, then inland by truck.

    That last step, moving supplies from a port (or airport) to those who need them is known as the “last mile” problem. It haunts every disaster response.

    Success with the last mile depends on local infrastructure. If it was neglected before the disaster, it will never be better (and often worse) than that during the disaster response. Next comes the need for trucks, fuel for those trucks, drivers, security, and personnel and equipment to offload the ships and pack the trucks. If you’re missing one link in the chain the aid does not move.

    From the outside it’s easy to see these as excuses for why more hasn’t been done for desperate people. They are instead practical realities men and women are wrestling with right now on the ground. It can be a complex, methodical process, addressing a single problem (get water to that village) as a cascading string of nested problems. While the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s remark that Puerto Rico relief is the “most logistically challenging event” the United States has ever faced seems exaggerated, it does underscore the size of the job at hand.

    So don’t be distracted by the Tweets. While no response is ever fast and robust enough, this is not Katrina. That was the result of a system breaking down, one that has been fixed and is operating in Puerto Rico now. Even as the hard work goes on, people will remain outraged not everyone has everything at once. Lack of drinking water remains a critical issue. And there will be tragedies to report; responses are always imperfect, and Hurricane Maria was a tremendous storm. The loss of life in Puerto Rico is at 16, though will climb as rescuers reach more remote areas. For Harvey, the death toll was at least 70, Irma 72. Katrina saw 1,833 fatalities with over 700 people still missing.

    But a tipping point will take place, where adequate services are restored and people will start to see the help they need. Problems will reduce from regions without power to villages without power to an isolated home without power.

    None of this is intended to be a Trump apology. I have seen disaster management up close myself, and dirtied my own hands doing it. Standard actions and pacing that are lost in the politics surrounding events in Puerto Rico are there. Everything else right now seems to be just Twitter wars.




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    The US: A Nation Of Immigrants With a Bad Immigration Policy

    August 2, 2017 // 7 Comments »



     immigration good for the United States? Mostly yes, but sometimes no. But that’s the wrong question to ask, so try this one: is the policy, law, and regulation of immigration haphazard at best and clearly not serving the nation’s needs? Absolutely.

    That America is a nation of immigrants is far from a trope; no other nation on earth has been so formed by immigration, from its national myths to the hard core realization of its industrial revolution to its current draw of immigrants, from the most highly-skilled to the most unskilled, from around the globe.

    At the same time, no other nation so intertwined with immigration has as ambivalent attitude toward it as expressed through law and policy, and no other nation whose economy is intimately tied to immigration has a set of laws so seemingly divorced from that. America, at best, jerks forward and backward on immigration issues based on often largely uninformed thought, at times racist emotion and good old political pandering.

    Let’s take a deep dive into the way American immigration currently works, its benefits and pitfalls, and what might be done to maximize those benefits and avoid the worst of the pitfalls.

    What is the State of Immigration Today?

    Immigrants are those seeking, legally or not, to live permanently in the U.S. There are also non-immigrants, persons such as temporary workers (from the unauthorized agricultural worker to the skilled H1-B programmer), as well as students, and the like.

    But nothing seems to dominate the American political mind more than undocumented immigration (or maybe terrorism, but even that is often conflated with immigration issues.) From Candidate Trump planning to build a wall on the Mexican border, to Candidate Clinton offering various legislative schemes to immigration-savvy Hispanic voters, the topic is very much a part of the American conversation.

    Conservatives seize on every violent crime report that features an undocumented immigrant perpetrator, while liberals point to immigration’s economic benefits and the humanitarian aspects of united families. Pretty much everyone chokes up to see new immigrants become citizens in front of the flag.

    Under the current way, immigration works in America, people arrive via three main streams: undocumented immigrants, legal immigrants joining family members, and legal skilled workers. The latter two categories are also known as Green Card holders, or Legal Permanent Residents (LPRs). Most will upgrade to full-on U.S. citizens. There are also those who immigrate by winning the visa lottery, refugees, legal semi-skilled workers, and other niche sub-categories.

    Let’s take a look at each of the three main streams delivering immigrants to the United States.

    Undocumented Immigrants in the United States

    A huge hole in any discussion of undocumented immigrants is no one knows how many of them there are. Intelligent estimates range from 11-20 million, quite a spread, especially given the very vague math behind the accounting. And even the low estimates seem, well, high. Between 1880 and 1930, the magical Ellis Island period of nearly unfettered immigration into the U.S., the total intake over 50 years was 27 million people.

    The walk-ins, mostly Mexicans, make up about half of America’s undocumented immigrants. Something like 40% of soon-to-be undocumented immigrants in the U.S. enter legally, on tourist and student visas, and then simply stay. But the lack of any comprehensiveness tracking system means nobody can be too sure.

    And because the group is indeed undocumented, who they are is also unknown. How many will work at all, how many will take low-level jobs and how many will move into well-paid positions and possibly seek legal status at some point is tough to sort out. In Florida, a neat number are older Brits settled into the sunny retirement communities there. Undocumented people self-select to come to the U.S., and so there is no sorting out of things, no connection to America’s economic and job needs.

    Keep an eye on that last sentence, about no connections to America’s economic needs, as we turn to family reunification-based immigration.

    Family-Based Immigration to the United States

    The second stream of immigrants into the United States are persons legally entering under America’s family reunification laws; the process accounts for about two-thirds or more of all lawful immigration to the U.S. every year. American citizens and Legal Permanent Residents can apply to bring their relatives to the U.S., to include in one way or another (the categories can be complicated) foreign spouses, unmarried children, parents, adopted children, fiancées of American citizens, married sons, married daughters, and brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens.

    Family reunification has long been the cornerstone of American immigration policy. Many early immigrants to America, particularly those fleeing religious or political persecution in their homelands, migrated as families. In subsequent centuries, a head of household often came first to the new land and later sent for his family. Prior to 1965, when the current family reunification law was first codified, the timeliness of family reunification in the U.S. depended almost entirely on how long it took for this first family member to secure a job and raise enough money for his spouse and children.

    The family reunification system was and is still largely based on immigrants applying for other immigrants. Immigrants from countries that send a lot of people to the U.S. later bring more people from those same places in. Thus Mexico, the Philippines, China, India and the Dominican Republic dominate the current immigrant pool in a kind of statistical snowball.

    But at least families can get together, right?

    Wrong. Because of that snowball effect, and because Congress places numerical limits on the number of most family reunification-based immigrants, the waiting lines grow exponentially. Over the years Congress was pressed into creating country-by-country limits for the most robust sending nations. Those limits have become unmanageable under the first-come, first-served system. The most-backed up is the processing of siblings of American citizens from the Philippines. That process is now only taking those applications (“priority date”) first filed in 1992. Applicants literally pass away waiting for their turn.

    The family reunification system, which once made sense in a growing nation anxious for workers of all kinds, now represents something of a 19th-century legal hangover. Because the only qualification is that family tie, America gets the loser drunk uncles alongside the brilliant sister physicists. It’s a crap shoot. There is no sorting out of things, no connection to America’s economic and job needs.

    Now keep an eye on that last sentence, about no connections to America’s economic needs, as we turn to skills-based immigration.

    Highly Skilled Immigrants in the United States

    Immigration based solely on skills is the smallest stream of legal entries into the United States. While some 140,000 persons enter yearly under this overall umbrella (by comparison, the U.S. admits about 70,000 refugees each year), only about half of those fall squarely under what can be considered highly-skilled categories (keep in mind we are discussing immigrant visas, Green Cards, that allow permanent residency and employment in the U.S., and not more well-known non-immigrant, temporary, visas such as the H1-B. There are, for example, some 700,000 H1-B visa holders in the United States at present, a guesstimated 20% of the IT workforce alone.)

    Aside from the highly-skilled immigrants, employment-based immigration still for some reason retains a category for unskilled workers, another for those whose jobs require less than two years training, and one for those whose work only requires an undergraduate degree. Like all permanent working immigration, those categories are numerically limited by law (with additional limits for Chinese, Indian, Mexican and Philippine citizens.) While the numbers of un- or semi-skilled worker immigrants are small, that such categories exist at all in 2016 (priority date backlogs mean that cases currently being processing were first filed in 2003; what business can wait 13 years for an unskilled worker to arrive?) and in the face of large numbers of undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., explains much about the unfocused nature of America’s immigration policy.

    The tighter numerical limits on some countries, especially China and India, are designed to make the system “fair” by leaving room for immigrants from other places, and have no connection to the higher standards of education, and thus presumably higher quality workers, there. So an especially gifted Chinese programmer must wait her turn to allow a mediocre photographer from Spain in first.

    Across the spectrum of work-based immigration, almost no mind is paid to what skills the immigrants bring to the U.S. Unlike countries such as Canada and Australia that use “point based” systems to try and prioritize those with especially needed skills, the U.S. requires only that its work-based immigrants be skilled, at well, something. And then they get in line, first-come, first-served.

    No need to add that line about no connection to America’s economic needs again, right? You get the picture by now.

    Is Immigration Good for America?

    The answer is pretty much a clear yes. Always has been. Easy to imagine it always will.

    America’s 19th-century industrial revolution could not have happened without the influx of workers into the nation. Cities such as New York were built literally by hand by early Irish and Italian immigrants, who brought strong backs and ready skills in with them. Scandinavian immigrants settled the vast northern territories of the U.S., adapting their home agricultural techniques to cold lands most existing American farmers weren’t sure what to do with. Chinese immigrant labor built the great railroads of the West.

    Do we really need another list of famous immigrants and their contributions? Albert Einstein, Joseph Pulitzer, Intel founder Andy Grove, Google creator Sergey Brin, Yahoo’s Jerry Yang, Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright, along with Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Neil Young, David Bowie, Tracey Ullman and Mario Andretti. Pick any field and you’ll find within it significant achievements by immigrants, and their sons and daughters.

    Economic Benefits of Immigration

    Immigration is infrastructure. Every person who brings his/her skills and labor contributes to the growth of the United States. Each of those persons who acquired his/her skills abroad did so at no cost to the U.S., and each of those people making a contribution inside America improves the nation’s competitive level at the expense of the losing country — the brain drain from one, the brain gain to the other. In a 21st century global economy, that represents a significant advantage to nations that understand infrastructure is much more than bricks and mortar. It’s brains.

    Economically, immigrants broadly (many studies are unable or uninterested in parsing out who is undocumented and who is legal) represent a significant presence at nearly all strata of America society. Some 46 percent of immigrants work in traditionally white-collar positions. And while immigrants only make up 16 percent of the workforce in general, they make up over 20 percent of dental, nursing and health aides, and double-digit numbers of all software developers.

    While immigrants on average initially make less than their native-born peers, in many communities all family members are expected to work and pool their incomes. The percentage of immigrants below the poverty line, at 20%, is only slightly higher than the national average of 16%. No data is available, however, as to how long immigrants remain below the poverty line, as compared to citizens.

    Immigrants also show a greater entrepreneurial spirit than many native-born Americans. In a 2012 report, the Partnership for a New American Economy notes “over the last 15 years, while native-born Americans have become less likely to start a business, immigrants have steadily picked up the slack. Immigrants are now more than twice as likely as the native-born to start a business and were responsible for more than one in every four U.S. businesses founded in 2011, significantly outpacing their share of the population.”

    Immigrant-owned businesses in the U.S. generate more than $775 billion in sales and pay out more than $126 billion in payroll each year. There are also hefty tax payments alongside all that money. One in every 10 workers at privately owned U.S. businesses works at an immigrant-owned company. Altogether, immigrant-owned businesses collectively created four million of the jobs that exist today in the United States. And much of that economic growth comes from exports, as immigrant-owned businesses are 60% more likely to export than non-immigrant businesses. Who better than a Guatemalan expat to sell U.S. goods in Guatemala? And of course, exports are a major plus for an economy, pulling foreign money in.

    Immigrants and their children founded 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies, which collectively generated $4.2 trillion in revenue in 2010, more than the GDP than of every country in the world except the United States, China, and Japan. A little less than 20 percent of the newest Fortune 500 companies – those founded over the 25-year period between 1985 and 2010 – have an immigrant founder. Those whose concepts of immigration are based on images of fruit pickers think far too small.

    Does Undocumented Immigrants Bring Economic Benefits?

    Undocumented immigrants and the American payroll and tax system create an odd windfall for Social Security, paying an estimated $13 billion a year in social security taxes and only getting around $1 billion back, according to the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration (SSA).

    As most undocumented workers who are not paid under the table lack legal Social Security numbers but still need to fill out tax forms for their employers, many/most use fake or expired social security numbers. The money comes out of their paychecks and is sent off to SSA, and is seen by the workers as a cost of their new life in America. As the social security numbers are bogus, no one comes calling to collect benefits on them and risk exposing the fraud. The SSA estimates unauthorized workers paid $100 billion into Social Security over the past decade.

    Those same undocumented immigrants pay almost $12 billion in federal, state and local taxes. Tax contributions from ranged from less than $3.2 million in Montana with an estimated undocumented population of 6,000 to more than $3.2 billion in California with more than 3.1 million. It is one thing to cheat on immigration law, quite another to try and escape the tax man. Not convinced? Roll into any large immigrant neighbor in the Spring to see tax preparation services popping up alongside the small groceries and ethnic restaurants.

    People paying taxes is good. Social Security can always use more money. New businesses are good for business. Jobs create jobs. Employed people spend money in their communities. Exports make America stronger.

    If you’re still not sure about immigration, imagine some sort of immigration Rapture, right out of the television show The Leftovers, where one day every immigrant to the U.S. magically disappears. Look at the money above, and imagine the economy without it. Look at the jobs that would no longer exist or be created in the future, and impact on our health care system of the loss of workers, the children who would no longer be paying tuition at colleges, and the loss of cultural diversity. Any argument against immigration needs to begin by negating all of the above, in dollars and cents.

    Indeed, if immigration to the U.S. did not exist, it would be necessary to (re)create it.

    Is Immigration Bad for America?

    Most arguments against immigration rely more on emotion than data, and always have.

    Looking back into America’s past, each successive wave of immigrants was demonized by the preceding ones, or criticized with old world prejudices carried over along with the luggage. And so cheap Italian labor was going to take away jobs from people who a decade earlier were going to take away jobs from whomever got there first. Jews coming to America ran into anti-Semitism reminiscent of Eastern Europe, likely practiced by some of the same people from home who just had gotten on a earlier boat. During the World Wars German saboteurs were the scary boogie men jihadists of their day. None of these things makes for a very strong anti-immigration argument.

    That said, immigration as it stands now in America, where the largest numbers of newcomers are undocumented people from Mexico and Central America, clearly does hold down wages and fill up the lowest level jobs. That large numbers of such immigrants are clustered in border states and cities like New York only adds to the problem, as the burden is not spread anywhere close to equally. To counter, however, critics point to the unanswerable question of how many of those jobs would be taken by Americans without a substantial increase in the minimum wage.

    One area where wage suppression seems a clear concern is in the tech industry, where a Green Card is often offered as a form of compensation in lieu of a better salary. Many immigrants from the tech industry first arrive in the U.S. via temporary H1-B working visas. In return for accepting lower than market salaries, their companies sponsor them for permanent status. Once in possession of a Green Card, the worker may move on, to be replaced by a new H1-B person from abroad.

    Immigrants, legal and otherwise, do send money “home” and always have, money that is pulled out of the host economy. Globally, India is the top recipient of such remittances at about $72.2 billion, followed by China with $63.9 billion and the Philippines at $29.7 billion. The money flow is so important to economies such as the Philippines that the government established the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration to manage the flow of workers out, and money back in. The World Bank estimates the real size of remittances is actually “significantly larger” than recorded as there are unrecorded flows through the formal and informal sectors.

    Note that those are worldwide numbers, for all Indians working away from home all across the globe. The outflow directly from the United States is harder to establish, though Mexico, with the majority of its overseas workers in the U.S., receives $24 billion a year in such remittances. It is also difficult to know who is sending the money; the remittance businesses don’t ask if the sender is a citizen, a legal immigrant or undocumented.

    No one can argue that large sums of money leaving the U.S. is a good thing, but one can also argue that money earned belongs to the worker to do with as s/he chooses. And of course many wealthy Americans export significant sums to avoid taxes or as investments, never mind American corporations who offshore their profits to bypass U.S. taxes.

    Immigrants in general, and illegal immigrants specifically, do add to the costs of public education in the United States. The 1982 Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe struck down a state statute denying funding for education to undocumented immigrant children and simultaneously struck down a municipal school district’s attempt to charge such children an annual $1,000 tuition fee to compensate for the lost state funding. The ruling made clear states can’t deny free public education to its children on the grounds of their immigration status. For communities where large numbers of immigrants arrive seasonally to do agricultural work, are paid under the table, and thus do not contribute in taxes, this can be a significant financial burden.

    The collection of welfare, food stamps (now known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP) and other social programs by immigrants is a touch-point issue for persons opposed to immigration. One study showed the welfare payout to all immigrant-headed households, legal and illegal, was an average of $6,241, compared to the $4,431 received by a citizen households. Unexamined in that data are the questions of which of those benefits were earned, such as Medicaid, by working people, and which went to the American citizen children of immigrants. As citizens, those children are fully entitled to the same things offered to any American, no matter the status of their parents. The dollar amounts alone do not answer the question asked.

    Food stamps are not available to non-U.S. citizens, with exceptions for some refugees, the disabled, the very old and the very young, what all but the most cynical would consider a humanitarian necessity. Critics, however, point to the easy availability of fake citizenship documentation and suggest persons not legally entitled to SNAP receive it anyway. Some no doubt do, but no one has any hard numbers on the problem.

    Alongside the social benefits arguments, critics of immigration point to crimes committed by illegal immigrants. Statistics do not, however, support this argument per se, but the money side of the issue does sting.

    According to Department of Justice, some 14 percent of federal prison inmates are illegal immigrants, though many locked up only for immigration violations. In state prisons, illegal immigrants account for less than five percent of all inmates. Some argue that without illegal immigrants present in the U.S., none of those crimes would have been committed at all, and none of the prison costs would have been paid. A study done in 2010 estimated administration of justice costs at the federal level related to criminal immigrants at $7.8 billion annually. The comparable cost to state and local governments was $8.7 billion.

    Lastly, any accounting of the burden immigrants place on American society should include the $18 billion spent annually by the federal government on immigration enforcement.

    The State of Immigration in Other Countries

    Comparing immigration among various countries is very difficult, as policy is deeply tied to each nation’s history and culture. What works in one country has no business in another, and it is hard to find a place where immigration plays anywhere near the role it does in the United States.

    That said, Old Europe may offer some lessons in how to get thing mostly wrong. Old prejudices and young idealism seem to control views on immigration, and centuries of homogeneity, driven by established culture, language and stable borders, make assimilation tough. Few economies are expanding beyond the professionals produced domestically anyway, and much of the true immigration debate is tangled up in lurching refugee policies, themselves often driven by outside forces, such as American pressure to “deal with” the Syrian crisis.

    Japan is an especially egregious example of dysfunctional immigration policy, essentially one of no legal immigration at all. Despite declining birthrates and soaring numbers of the elderly such that the country is experiencing a shortage of workers, prejudice toward outsiders dating back hundreds of years or more stops discussion of an obvious solution: bring in new blood from abroad. Instead, Japan delays some obviously approaching day of reckoning with the idea that robots will fill in the labor gap.

    Another interesting case is China. With an expanding economy, China has first looked internally to its large population. As high tech needs grow, the nation has essentially created a hybrid class of immigrants, Chinese educated abroad who are convinced to leave jobs in the U.S. and Europe to return home. While not immigrants per se, these Chinese bring a mix of foreign education and diversity typically only available through traditional immigration. Plus there are little-to-no assimilation issues. India has similar options available.

    Overall, while terms like “good” and “bad” can be seen as relative, as best we can tell, the benefits of immigration to the United States outweigh any negatives. Add them up yourself.

    The “Hypothetical Immigration” Reform

    Immigration per se is hard to argue against. The preponderance of evidence over decades points to the nation-changing economic, cultural and social benefits gained by the United States. Any costs must be calculated, as in any business situation, against the benefits.

    While immigration itself is hard to rationally argue against, it is equally hard to argue against the need to reform immigration policy (some might say “create a policy” instead of accepting the de facto one that has evolved on its own.)

    If the goal is to enhance the benefits to the U.S. of immigration while lowering the costs, the present system fails so badly that it remains a miracle that any good comes out of it at all. The working/skills based immigrants are untethered to America’s economic needs, the family-based system is backlogged and make little sense in the 21st century, and no one even knows how many undocumented immigrants are in the U.S. or what they are doing.

    So What Do We Do To Fix Immigration in the US? 

    Anyone, candidate for office or otherwise, who tells you s/he has pat solutions to America’s immigration situation is lying, misinformed or simply pushing some political position. And yes, yes, any proposed change will be difficult, costly, time-consuming, impossible to get through Congress (the last comprehensive immigration reform, absent all the security-related legislation post-9/11, took place in 1986). So, if it is easier to swallow, think of the following as a kind of thought experiment, a pie-in-the-sky wish list.

    Here are some ways things that might change.

    – America must move away from its over-emphasis on family-based immigration, especially for categories such as siblings and adult children that are so backed up as to be meaningless. The system may have been the right thing at the right time in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it is long past its over-due date here in the 21st.

    – Whatever the current work/skills immigration system is based on, it should be remade into a points system directly tied to American economic needs. Skills needed in the economy should be assigned points to be matched up with applicants. Need electrical engineers more than web developers? Prioritize. Change the priorities as often as needed, and move resources from the family-based side to the skills side so that cases are processed fast enough that demand and supply match up. Adjust the intake so as not to disadvantage existing workers.

    – Better data. How can one work on a problem that is not actually understood? How many undocumented immigrants are there, where do they come from, what do they do when they are here, how much do they pay in taxes and Social Security, and how much do they draw out via social programs? In addition to the big unknowns, in nearly every instance where “facts” are available, data that supports immigration comes from pro-immigration groups’ research, and the opposite for “negative” information. Fully objective data is nearly impossible to find, and parsing out all of the statistical anomalies and bad scholarship is very difficult.

    – Reform immigration record keeping. One under-discussed problem in collecting data on undocumented immigrants is the determination of who is and is not “illegal.” U.S. immigration law takes up more shelf space than federal income tax law, and in many ways is more complex. For example, if you were stopped and told to prove your citizenship by a police officer, exactly how would you do that? The only iron-clad documents that prove citizenship are a U.S. passport or travel card, a Certificate of Naturalization, or a bona fide U.S. birth certificate. Few people carry those around, and fewer law enforcement personnel can tell a real one from a good fake. There is no national database of citizens and Americans resist a national ID card in favor of a pastiche of driver’s licenses and ragged cardboard Social Security cards. Green Cards are issued for life, and some old timers have one with a photo of their twenty-five-year-old self on it.

    As another example, student visas are valid for the period of time the bearer remains in full-time education. In theory, assuming no departures from the U.S., a teenager could be legally given a student visa for four years of high school, that she used for another four years of undergraduate education, followed by three years of grad school, followed by a work-study period of employment, followed by a 90-day grace period until required departure. It is all legal, but sorting that out roadside is near impossible.

    – Trump’s hyperbole aside, America does need some sort of effective border control. It is clear that large numbers of people are able to simply walk in. That “policy” is no policy.

    The State Department issued some 12 million non-immigrant visas (student, tourist) in 2015. Most visas are valid for five years, meaning there are some 60 million of them out there at any one time. In addition, citizens of 38 countries, such as Canada, Japan and Britain, can enter the U.S. for tourism or business without visas.

    Altogether, as an example, during 2011 alone, there were 159 million non-immigrant admissions to the United States, visa and visa-free. No one knows where they are. Presumably most returned home, but, since the United States stands alone among industrialized nations (travelers in the Schengen zone are an exception) in having no outbound/exit immigration control, no one knows. Various programs are in evolution, but almost all involve the airlines gathering data when people fly, instead of making an inherently governmental process the business of the government.

    Student visa holders are only tracked by their schools, who report to the Department of Homeland Security. As one can imagine, Harvard and Ohio State take this job seriously, the Podunk School of Cosmetology less so.

    – If, and only if, all that gets done, an amnesty to reset things seems justified, and will allow the U.S. to better judge the status of its reformed immigration policies.

    – Finally, outside of legislation and regulation, it is time for America to move past the angry falsehoods and full-on hate that drives too much of the conversation on immigration. Same for the myths that immigration is so enshrined in the American story as to be untouchable. The questions to answer and the problems to solve are with us. We need to get down to it.



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    Sour Grapes: Iran Wins the Iraq War, and I Scooped the NYT by Six Years on the Story

    July 23, 2017 // 31 Comments »


    The New York Times is featuring a piece stating Iran is the big winner of the U.S.-Iraq wars, 1991-2017.

    So what does winning in Iraq look like, asks the Times? About like this:

    A Shia-dominated government is in Baghdad, beholden to Tehran for its security post-ISIS. Shia thug militias, an anti-Sunni and Kurd force in waiting, are fully integrated into the otherwise-failed national Iraqi military. There are robust and growing economic ties between the two nations. An Iraqi security structure will never threaten Iran again. A corridor between Iran and Syria will allow arms and fighters to flow westward in support of greater Iranian geopolitical aims in the Middle East. And after one trillion in U.S. taxpayer dollars spent, and 4,500 Americans killed in hopes of making Iraq the cornerstone of a Western-facing Middle East, American influence in Iraq limited.

    It seems the Times is surprised by the conclusion; it’s “news” for some apparently. The newspaper ran the story on its hometown edition front page.

    But sorry, it wasn’t news to me. I tried writing basically the same story in 2010 as a formal reporting cable for the State Department. Nobody wanted to hear it.

    At the time I was assigned to Iraq as an American diplomat, with some 20 years of field experience, embedded at a rural forward operating base. All the things that took until 2017 to become obvious to the New York Times were available to anyone on the ground back then with the eyes to see.

    The problem was what I wrote could never get cleared past my boss, and was never allowed to be sent to Washington. The Obama administration message was that America had won in Mesopotamia, and that we would be withdrawing to focus our national efforts on Afghanistan. “Everything that American troops have done in Iraq — all the fighting, all the dying, the bleeding and the building and the training and the partnering, all of it has landed to this moment of success,” said Barack Obama. “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self reliant Iraq.”

    So it was off-message – I was off-message – and thus needed to be ignored. The area where I was assigned in Iraq had a heavy Iranian presence, both special forces working with Iraqi Shia militias to help kill Americans, and Iranian traders and businessmen selling agricultural products (the Iranian watermelons were among the best I’ve ever eaten.) Bus loads of Iranian tourists were everywhere. Most were religious pilgrims, visiting special Shia sites, including mosques that had been converted by Saddam into Sunni places of worship which had been restored to their original Shia status, often with Iranian money, following America’s “victory.”

    In fact, somewhere in Iran are a tourist’s photos of me and his family, posing together in the area outside Salman Pak. He begged me for the souvenir photo op, never having met an American before, telling me about the small local hotel he hoped to finance for Iranian pilgrims in the future. I’d sure like a copy of the picture if he somehow reads this.

    Even after my boss deep-sixed my reporting in 2010, I still thought there was something to this Iranian thing. So I spoke to the designated “Iran Watcher” at the American Embassy in Baghdad. Her job was to monitor and report on Iran-related news out of Iraq, albeit from well inside the air conditioned Green Zone, without ever speaking to an Iranian or worrying that her convoy might be blown up by an Iranian Special Forces IED.

    I told her about the watermelons, those delicious Iranian fruits which were flooding the markets in the boonies where I lived. The melons were putting enormous pressure on Iraqi farmers, whose fruit was neither as tasty nor as government subsidized. The State Department Iran Watcher was quick to point out that I must be wrong about the Iranian fruit, because she had only yesterday been in a meeting with the Iraqi agricultural minister who had explained the Iraqi government’s efforts to seal the border had been wholly successful; she’d seen a translated report! Things went downhill from there, and the Embassy offered only canned peaches in syrup at lunch. Damn things tasted like the can, and there was a joke about the truth being too bitter to swallow I was too tired to make.

    A year later, 2011, back in Washington DC, I set down the same broad ideas about Iran victorious in layperson’s terms and was turned down as an op-ed by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others. One editor said “So you’re telling Barack Obama he’s wrong? That the surge failed, the war wasn’t won, all those dead Americans were for nothing and Iran came out on top? Seriously?” I was made to feel like I was wearing a skirt in an NFL locker room.

    The best I could do with the knowledge I had that in yet another way the war had been for nothing was to settle for being treated as a kind of novelty, a guest blogger at Foreign Policy. Here’s the article I wrote there, scooping the New York Times by six years.

    As for the U.S. government, I’m still not sure they’ve gotten the story on Iraq.

     

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    Abandoned by U.S. Government, Irradiated Servicemembers Turn to Japan for Help

    July 11, 2017 // 24 Comments »

    fukushima


    It was a rescue mission, but one that years later turned the tables on victim and rescuer. Abandoned by their own government, American servicemembers who came to the aid of Japanese disaster victims will now benefit from a fund set up for them by a former prime minister.

    Following a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11, 2011 in Japan, it quickly became clear the rescue work needed far outstripped the capabilities of Japan’s Self Defense Forces. The tsunami, whose waves reached heights of 130 feet, crippled the Fukushima nuclear plant, shutting down its cooling system and causing a nuclear meltdown that devastated the immediate area and at one point threatened to send a radioactive cloud over much of the nation.

    Operation Tomadachi

    The United States quickly dispatched an entire aircraft carrier group, centered on the USS Ronald Reagan, some 25 ships, for what came to be known as Operation Tomadachi (Friend). The U.S. provided search and rescue, and medical aid. Thousands of American military personnel assisted Japanese people in desperate need.

    But it did not take long before the problems started.


    The Aftermath

    Military personnel soon began showing signs of radiation poisoning, including symptoms rare in young men and women: rectal bleeding, thyroid problems, tumors, and gynecological bleeding. Within three years of the disaster, young sailors began coming down with leukemia, and testicular and brain cancers. Hundreds of U.S. military personnel who responded to Fukushima reported health problems related to radiation.

    Some of those affected had worked in the area of the nuclear disaster, some had flown over it, many had been aboard ships that drew water out of the contaminated ocean to desalinate for drinking. All personnel were denied any special compensation by the U.S. government, who referred back to Japanese authorities’ reports of relatively low levels of radiation, and to the military’s own protective efforts.

    In a final report to Congress, the Department of Defense claimed personnel were exposed to less radiation than a person would receive during an airplane flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo. The Defense Department stated due to the low levels of radiation “there is no need for a long-term medical surveillance program.”

    However, five years after the disaster and more than a year after its final report, a Navy spokesperson admitted that 16 U.S. ships from the relief effort remain contaminated. However, the Navy continued, “the low levels of radioactivity that remain are in normally inaccessible areas that are controlled in accordance with stringent procedures.”



    Other Parts of the U.S. Government Reacted Very Differently to the Threat

    On March 16, five days after the meltdown, the State Department authorized the voluntary departure from Japan of eligible family members of government personnel assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and other State Department facilities.

    Ten days later, the U.S. military moved over 7,000 military family members out of Japan under what was also called a “voluntary departure.” The effort, codenamed Operation Pacific Passage, also relocated close to 400 military pets.

    And around the same time, the American Embassy repeated a Japanese government warning to parents about radioactive iodine being detected in the Tokyo drinking water supply. Tokyo is about 150 miles away from the Fukushima disaster site.



    U.S. Servicemembers Sue the Nuclear Plant Owner

    After receiving no help from their own government, in 2013 a group of U.S. servicemembers (now numbering 400; seven others have died while the lawsuit winds its way through the courts) filed a lawsuit against the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO, the owner of the nuclear plant) seeking more than two billion dollars.

    The suit contends TEPCO lied about the threat to those helping out after the nuclear disaster, withholding some information and downplaying the dangers. The suit requests $40 million in compensatory and punitive damages for each plaintiff. It also requests a fund for health monitoring and medical expenses of one billion dollars.

    It is unclear when the lawsuit will reach a decision point, one which, if it implicates TEPCO, will then begin another long legal journey through the appeals process. A resolution will take years.



    Former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi Steps Up

    However, while the U.S. government seemingly abandoned its servicemembers, and TEPCO hides behind lawyers, one unlikely person has stepped up to offer at least some monetary help with victims’ medical bills: former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

    Koizumi left office five years before the Fukushima disaster, but has what many feel is a sense of national guilt over how the Americans were treated. In May 2016, Koizumi broke down in tears as he made an emotional plea of support for U.S. Navy sailors beset by health problems, saying “U.S. military personnel who did their utmost in providing relief are now suffering from serious illnesses. We cannot ignore the situation.”

    The former prime minister had become a vocal opponent of nuclear energy after the Fukushima meltdown. He responded to a request from a group supporting the TEPCO lawsuit plaintiffs and flew to the United States to meet with the veterans.

    Koizumi later told reporters he has set up a special fund to collect private donations for the former service members, with the goal of collecting one million dollars. Koizumi has already raised $400,000 through lecture fees.

    “I felt I had to do something to help those who worked so hard for Japan,” he said. “Maybe this isn’t enough, but it will express our gratitude, that Japan is thankful.”



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    My Letter in Support of a Reduced Sentence for Pvt. Manning

    May 17, 2017 // 18 Comments »

    According to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Convening Authorities can reduce or eliminate a convicted soldier’s sentence. They use this power when they feel the court martial failed to deliver justice. As Commanding General of the Military District of Washington, Major General Jeffrey S. Buchanan is the only other individual besides President Obama (and there ain’t no joy there unless Manning qualifies as a Syrian kid) with the power to lessen Pvt. Manning’s sentence.

    This process is not new, nor unique. Though a slightly different judicial procedure, the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals only in June of this year reduced the sentence of a former Ramstein Air Base staff sergeant who advertised babysitting services to gain access to three young girls he repeatedly sexually assaulted. Staff Sgt. Joshua A. Smith’s sentence was reduced such that Smith, 30, would be eligible for parole after a decade or more. The appellate judges, in their written opinion, said that despite the heinousness of Smith’s crimes against the girls — ages 3, 4 and 7 — the sentence handed down in November 2010 by military judge Col. Dawn R. Eflein and approved by the Third Air Force commander was “unduly severe.”


    If you wish to add your voice to the many now asking for Manning’s sentence to be reduced, the instructions on how to do so are straightforward.

    Here is what I wrote:

    Major General Jeffrey S. Buchanan
    Commanding General, U.S. Army Military District of Washington, DC

    General Buchanan:

    I write to request that as the Convening Authority in the case of U.S. v. Bradley E. Manning you move to reduce Pvt. Manning’s sentence to time served. Pvt. Manning has, in the course of several difficult years of confinement, taken responsibility for his actions and has been punished.

    As the leader of a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Iraq, I was embedded with the 10th Mountain Division, 2nd Brigade at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Hammer at the same time Manning was deployed there (though we never met.) I worked closely with Colonel Miller and his team to implement U.S. goals, and came away with great respect for him and his officers, and the enlisted men and women of the Commandos.

    At the same time, I experienced first-hand the austere conditions at FOB Hammer, and the difficult lives the soldiers led. As you are aware, one young soldier tragically took his own life early in the deployment at Hammer. Many veteran soldiers, some who served in the Balkans, also talked about the rough conditions at our FOB. I saw that at times computer security was imperfect. While none of this excuses Pvt. Manning (nor should it; he himself has plead guilty to multiple counts), it does in part help explain it. I ask that you consider these factors in your decision.

    As a State Department employee, I had access to the same databases Pvt. Manning in part disclosed, and back in Washington played a small roll in State’s “damage review.” I thus know better than most outsiders what Pvt. Manning did and, significantly, did not disclose, and am in a position to assess dispassionately the impact. As the State Department and the DoD reluctantly concluded at Manning’s trial, little if any verifiable damage was indeed done to the United States. There is no denying that the disclosures were embarrassing and awkward, but that is not worth most of a man’s life.

    Justice elevates us all, and reflects well on our beloved nation. The revenge inherent in a 35 year sentence against Pvt. Manning does not.

    Very Respectfully,

    (signed)

    Peter Van Buren



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    Afghanistan Video Game: You Win with ‘Hearts and Minds’ Points (Seriously)

    May 4, 2017 // 3 Comments »



    I suppose it had to come to this, perhaps the intersection of absurdity and unreality expressed through a video game as the only true way to capture the essence of America’s 15 year+ was in Afghanistan.


    I must stress this is a real game. It is not satire or a joke. The game plays you in the role of supreme commander of everything U.S. in Afghanistan and requires you to democratize the country. You do this by bombing the sh*t out of stuff, meeting with elders, pulling out “intelligence” and reconstruction cards, and accomplishing tasks like bringing fresh water to some village to pull it away from Taliban control. There are also drones you control, lots of drones.

    Winning is determined by collecting Hearts and Minds Points as determined by the computer based on your actions. The same company makes, and I swear to God this is true, a Vietnam War version of the game that works much the same way.

    Here’s a video of some Douchey McDouche playing the game. Be sure to fast forward to 7:10 , where he blows away his first Taliban for freedom.



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    Hamilton Says: Trump’s State Department is an Agency Without Agency

    May 2, 2017 // 11 Comments »



    It hasn’t been a good 100 days for the U.S. Department of State. Like the musical Hamilton’s orphaned title character, called out in song for being a “Founding Father without a father,” State is now something of an agency without agency.


    Not much of substance seems to be happening at Foggy Bottom. America’s top-level foreign policy tasks remain, but someone else – Jared Kushner? H.R. McMaster? – is tending to many of them. The bad news includes President Donald Trump’s hope of slashing State’s budget, with no sign of objection from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Half the positions in the agency’s organizational chart are vacant or occupied by acting officials.

    There is some good news in what isn’t happening. The predicted exodus of staff never came to be. In fact, only one State official publicly resigned, and that was in protest of Trump’s anticipated gutting of the Constitution, which also hasn’t happened. January’s stories of senior management quitting en masse turned out to be a handful of Hillary Clinton-era loyalists nudged into retirement.

    Meanwhile, press briefings resumed, and a ruffle over not bringing pool reporters on Tillerson’s official aircraft for a visit to Asia was tidied up on the next trip. Media interest outside State and staff attention inside State to a leaked dissent memo opposing Trump’s so-called Muslim Ban 1.0 fizzled away.


    Outside the office, despite 100 days of near-apocalyptic predictions, America has not gone to war with China, Russia, Iran or North Korea. It has not formally backed away from NATO, the Paris climate accords or the Iranian nuclear deal. Tillerson has started to do some Secretary of State-ish representational things, joining Trump and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping at their Mar-a-Lago summit, making prepared remarks, and attending international meetings, most notably with Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 12.

    But neither Trump nor Tillerson has articulated much of any foreign policy vision. Overall, despite limited military action in Syria and Afghanistan, Trump’s first 100 days have been largely a foreign policy of stasis, with the State Department and its leader largely bystanders to even that.


    And that’s the problem. Looking forward, the real issue at State is not dealing with the changes of the Trump era, it is that things at the State Department have not changed much at all.

    Former colleagues (I worked 24 years at State as a diplomat) say they still spend time in meetings like a forgotten cargo cult, worried about furniture for a new ambassador who hasn’t yet arrived. Memos and cables and briefing books and think pieces and reports and foreign press commentaries and official-informal emails are laboriously prepared, rewritten, cleared and then transmitted to be summarized and filed. The atmosphere can remind a person of an elderly widow who still lays a tablecloth and sets out the good china, even though no guests have stopped by for many years.

    This is not unexpected – State is an extremely vertically-oriented bureaucracy, with layers below the Secretary that wait for bits of policy to fall so as to inform them of what their own opinions are. One academic referred to this as “neckless government,” a head and a body missing an active, two-way, connection. State is indeed so vertical in mindset that employees have traditionally referred to the Secretary by their location on the physical top of the building, the Seventh Floor, as in “The Seventh Floor needs that memo sent up or trouble will come down.”

    This wait-for-the-boss-to-speak-first mindset applies all the way to the bottom of the org chart. Acting officials are loath to initiate new programs or bring on new staff, preferring to passively hold down the fort until their new political-appointee boss arrives. Same for the bureaucracy below those in “acting” positions, until you have an organization of some 70,000 people waiting for someone else to make the first move. One diplomat explained the early weeks of no press briefings at State were particularly troublesome, since they’re vital for U.S. officials abroad, who listen in for cues on shifts in policy happening inside their own organization.


    When the expected prime mover is a secretary of state who appears to lack initiative, the agency has no sense of urgency. The idea promoted by some in the media that Tillerson is a general with a dwindling number of troops to lead seems to have it backwards.



    So what to expect during Trump’s second 100 days?

    If Tillerson remains a mostly passive head of State, there exists room for those below him to fill some of the void in foreign policy niches, perhaps by pushing forward issues Tillerson may wish to embrace, or by taking the lead on the inevitable restructuring budget cuts will compel, instead of sitting around the cafeteria.

    What State’s diplomats and civil servants need to try is laid out in the opening lyrics of Hamilton: “The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter…”

    A lesson for State? It may be worth a try, because absent those efforts by Alexander Hamilton, it could have been Aaron Burr today on the ten dollar bill.



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    Nooooooooooooooo! Iraq Asks U.S. for Marshall Plan Reconstruction Funds

    May 1, 2017 // 15 Comments »


    Iraq’s Foreign Minister this week asked the United States to develop a financial plan for the reconstruction of the country after ISIS, similar to a program developed for Western Europe after the Second World War.

    In discussions with Special Presidential Envoy to the Coalition Brett McGurk, Ibrahim al-Jaafari stressed the need for “collective support from the international community to contribute to the reconstruction of infrastructure after the defeat of terrorism.” Jaafari suggested “the adoption of a project similar to the Marshall Plan which contributed to rebuilding Germany after the Second World War.”

    Iraq will need billions of dollars to rebuild after ISIS. Large portions of major cities were destroyed in the war, infrastructure was neglected under ISIS, villages are riddled with mines and booby-traps. The deputy governor of Anbar estimated that his province would need $22 billion alone for reconstruction.
    Um, never mind invoking the Marshall Plan. What needs to be cited here is that the United States already spent billions to reconstruct Iraq, from 2003-2010. I know. I was there. It was my job to help spend some of those billions. We accomplished less than nothing. In fact, our failure to reconstruct Iraq then lead in a direct line to the Iraq of now. I cannot believe I am writing this. Again.

    See, in fact, I wrote a whole book about it: We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, in 2011. I just sent a copy to Special Presidential Envoy to the Coalition Brett McGurk, and asked him to pass it on to the Iraqi Foreign Minister after he’s done reading it.
    But in case Brett or the Minister don’t get around to reading a whole book, here’s a shorter version.

    I spent a year in Iraq as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, leading two of the then-vaunted Provincial Reconstruction Teams. We were charged with nothing less than winning the war for America by rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure, creating a functioning democracy and stable economy that would preclude terrorists like ISIS (well, it was al Qaeda then) from gaining a foothold, and thus ensuring Iraq would be an ally of the United States in the war on terror. This is the same mission statement that the Iraqi Foreign Minister would want tagged to his proposed reconstruction plan.

    When my book came out in September 2011, most people I met with threw out skeptical comments: “Well, maybe it will work out like in Germany and Japan,” they said. When I met with staffers from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2012, they said, “We’d like to believe you, but everything that State tells us contradicts your thesis that the money spent was just a big waste.”

    But now it’s official. The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction concluded “$60 billion in American taxpayer funds later, Iraq is still so unstable and broken that even its leaders question whether U.S. efforts to rebuild the war-torn nation were worth the cost.”

    Then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said “that $55 billion could have brought great change in Iraq,” but the positive effects of those funds were too often “lost.”

    Then Iraqi parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, the country’s top Sunni official, told auditors that the rebuilding efforts did not “achieve the purpose for which it was launched. Rather, it had unfavorable outcomes in general.” Like ISIS.

    There “was usually a Plan A but never a Plan B,” said Kurdish official Qubad Talabani, son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
    Shiite, Sunni, Kurd. Trust me, about the only thing everybody agrees on is the United States spent a bundle of money between 2003-2011 and got nothing for it but ISIS.

    According to the Associated Press, the United States has spent more than $60 billion in reconstruction grants on Iraq. That works out to about $15 million a day. Overall, including all military and diplomatic costs and other aid, the United States has spent at least $767 billion since the U.S.-led invasion began.

    And guess who was one of the people in charge of the last Iraq reconstruction? Special Presidential Envoy to the Coalition Brett McGurk. Maybe this time around he’s smart enough to not get fooled again. In fact, I’ve recommended a book for him to read to help out.

     

    McGurk Bonus: McGurk spent a good portion of the last 14 years working for the U.S. Government in Iraq, advising several ambassadors and leading the failed negotiations to secure permanent U.S. bases there. You’d kinda think having that on your resume – “I am partially responsible for everything that happened in Iraq for the last ten years, including America’s tail-between-its-legs retreat” — might make it hard to get another job running Iraq policy. Who goes out of their way to hire the coach that lost most of his games?

    The other side of McGurk’s failed attempt at being ambassador to Iraq was his questionable personal life, which in turn raised issues of judgement, decorum, discretion, and class. It was his sexual misconduct that brought the real questions of competence and ability to light. For no apparent gain, but whatever, Iraq.

     

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    Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan

    April 5, 2017 // 82 Comments »

    Here’s an excerpt from a new book, Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan, by Douglas Wissing. The passage deals with the unnecessary death of State Department diplomat Anne Smedinghoff at age 25. Anne gave her life for a needless PR stunt as part of America’s failed reconstruction project in Afghanistan. It could have been any of us.

    ANNE SMEDINGHOFF IS A RISING 25-year-old diplomat, an assistant information officer in the Kabul embassy. She’s my minder, assigned to escort me to an interview with a Justice Department official who is heading up the Afghan Threat Finance Cell (ATFC) that is charged with finding and disrupting sources of Taliban funding.

    In many ways, Smedinghoff is representative of many young American women working in Afghanistan, where they can combine adventure with a career-enhancing posting and hefty paychecks plumped with danger pay. As we walk to the meeting room, Smedinghoff quizzes me about life outside the embassy compound, as the staff is trapped inside.

    When I mention some of the Kabul restaurants, she tells me the State Department banned dining at most places outside the embassy. She longs for a good pizza. I ask about her path from her home in the Chicago suburbs to this Kabul powder keg. Catholic high school, Johns Hopkins international studies, then the State Department. An interesting post in Venezuela. Then on to Afghanistan. Anne Smedinghoff is lively, bright, educated and funny; poised and gracious in a natural way. Brimming with youthful vitality, accomplishments and promise, she is the daughter any parent would be proud to have.

    We talk about my embeds in Zabul and Helmand, and she tells me in Venezuela she could explore the hinterlands when not working. But here in Afghanistan, she’s penned up like most foreign service officers. She tells me she wants to “break the wire” in the worst way. “On a good day, this is a like a small liberal arts college,” she laughs. “On a bad day it’s like a maximum security prison.”

    Smedinghoff’s career continued to go well after I left Kabul. She was a comer. Her colleagues started calling her Ambassador Anne. When Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kabul in late March for an official visit, the embassy assigned Smedinghoff the plum job of escorting him. She was his control officer. As with other people, she made an impression on her big boss.

    Anne Smedinghoff did eventually get to break the wire — and in the worst way.

    A few weeks after the successful Kerry visit, she escorted a group of Afghan journalists on a media day down to Qalat City, the capital of Zabul, the Taliban-controlled province that so interested her when we met. It was one of those winning-hearts-and-minds missions, in this case to distribute school books that the US corporation, Scholastic, Inc., had donated to My Afghan Library, an aid program jointly run by the State Department and the Afghan Ministry of Education. Scholastic, Inc. wanted some good press for their donation.

    An email from the embassy public relations office stated, “Scholastic would like to see more media reporting.” So the mission was a WHAM photo op to get some press for an American corporation, while pretending Zabul was secure and still receiving U.S. aid. “A media extravaganza,” a military briefing called it. “Happy snaps,” the security grunts derisively termed these PR events that they hated to guard.

    In my experience there, Qalat City was a wild and wooly ambush-prone place, where the military units took extraordinary security precautions before venturing from the tightly guarded US compounds. To travel two miles across Qalat City, we had to drive in a convoy of five armored MRAPs accompanied by a heavily armed security platoon.

    So I was stunned to later learn that Anne Smedinghoff and a group of journalists were walking around Qalat City—lost. That seemed insane. Taliban suicide bombers detonated their explosives near them, killing her and four other Americans, including three soldiers and an interpreter. Other Americans were grievously wounded. It was an egregious breakdown in operational security. An Army report stated the mission “was plagued by poor planning that failed at all levels.” And it was a great loss.

    I exchanged emails of condolences with the embassy public relations officer, who was a great friend of hers. I saw heart-wrenching tributes to Anne Smedinghoff posted on-line. Secretary Kerry eulogized Anne Smedinghoff, praising her idealistic commitment to “changing people’s lives.” He noted the “extraordinary harsh contradiction” of her being killed while carrying books to a school. He described the Zabul media event was “a confrontation with modernity,” and said Smedinghoff embodied “everything that our country stands for.” It did little to salve my dismay that yet another promising American had been lost for such a dubious, failed cause. I thought of the remarks Kerry made on Capitol Hill in 1971, when he was a young, anti-war Vietnam vet.

    The then 27-year-old John Kerry poignantly asked America, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

    ——————————

    Here’s Anne:

    The State Department tried to cover-up Anne’s death. Read more, and more.




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    Is Tillerson Skipping NATO for Russia a Crisis? (No.)

    March 23, 2017 // 41 Comments »


    Is Tillerson committing treason skipping a NATO meeting for Russia? A diplomatic crisis? The end of the alliance? A favor to Putin? No. It’s just a scheduling decision.

    Senior government leaders are often called on to be in more than one place at a time. They make choices. Not everyone agrees with those choices. Sometimes deputies go instead. This happens to every country; the more global a nation’s interests, the more it happens. None of this is new.

    Yet a decision to have Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attend a meeting between President Trump (Tillerson’s boss) and Chinese President Xi rather than a NATO ministers gathering (i.e., Tillerson’s peers) in early April has been blown up into yet another end-of-the-world scenario. The fact that Tillerson will attend an event in Russia weeks later was somehow thrown into the mix and the resulting cake was pronounced proof that the U.S.-NATO relationship is in tatters.

    It is fully reasonable to debate which event, meeting with Xi or NATO, is the best use of Tillerson. It’s just not a hard debate to resolve.

    “Skipping the NATO meeting and visiting Moscow could risk feeding a perception that Trump may be putting U.S. dealings with big powers first, while leaving waiting those smaller nations that depend on Washington for security,” two former U.S. officials said.

    Bigger stuff over smaller stuff, who could imagine?

    Despite much rhetoric, NATO has been a stable, predictable relationship for the United States over decades. Tillerson, and the U.S., will be represented at the April event by the familiar (he’s worked for State since 1984) and competent Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Shannon. Tillerson may be skipping the event; the United States is not. And FYI, Colin Powell skipped the same meeting once as Secretary of State.

    Meanwhile, Trump is set to attend a NATO summit in Brussels in May. Tillerson met his NATO counterparts at an anti-ISIS conference on March 22. State is proposing other dates for NATO’s foreign ministers to gather. State Department spokesperson Mark Toner stated in the midst of all this “the United States remains 100 percent committed” to the alliance.

    NATO is covered.

    China meanwhile is dead center on action. China will play a significant role in anything to do with North Korea. China and U.S. allies Japan and South Korea face continued friction in the South China Sea, with the U.S. involved as well. China is one of America’s most significant trading partners, and holds considerable U.S. Treasury debt. Weigh all that against sending a signal to NATO about a problem in the alliance that sort of doesn’t even exist outside the self-created media spectacle.

    And the same people criticizing Tillerson for attending the meeting between Trump and Xi have only recently criticized Tillerson for not attending meetings between Trump and other world leaders.

    Problems with Tillerson’s plan to go to Russia weeks after the missed NATO meeting are just conflation. Tillerson will be doing all sorts of things following the NATO meeting and simply throwing Russia into this NATO story is pure sensationalism, a desperate attempt to get the news hook of the moment, Putin, into the headlines and imply more diplomatic naughtiness on the part of Trump.

    Much of the can’t-win-either-way positions taken on Tillerson flow from two interlocking issues.

    The first is the trope that basically anything the Trump administration does is wrong, dangerous, and reckless. Politico comes out with it, saying “Two months and a string of eyebrow-raising decisions later, people in and outside the State Department wonder if there’s any tradition Tillerson thinks is worth keeping.” Suggest negotiations and you’re too soft. Rattle the saber and you’re tempting Armageddon.

    The second is Tillerson’s disdain for the media. The media as a rule is nothing but self-righteous and jealous, ready to wave the flag, wrap themselves in it, then throw themselves writhing to the ground claiming they alone stand between The People (who no longer trust them) and the abyss. Tillerson didn’t take a press pool with him to Asia, and this set of the latest round. Left out of course is that the press could and did travel commercially to Asia longside Tillerson and missed out only on the possibility of some back-of-the-official-plane leaking.

    This will become a self-licking ice cream cone, as 24/7 press criticism of Tillerson makes him even less likely to engage with a press that will seize on his comments to criticize him further.

    It is also deeply amusing to watch the press decry the lack of official State Department briefings that they for years criticized as being content free and little more than propaganda. It reminds of an old joke — Q: How was the food on your vacation? A: Terrible! And such small portions!

     

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    State Department: Is America’s Oldest Cabinet Agency Trumped?

    March 14, 2017 // 4 Comments »


    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.

     

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    NYT Falsely Tries to Tie Afghan Visa Problem to Trump Travel Ban (Two Aren’t Related)

    March 12, 2017 // 25 Comments »




    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.




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    Ten Things the Media Will Get Wrong About Trump’s New Executive Order on Immigration

    March 9, 2017 // 18 Comments »


    As Trump issues a revised Executive Order on immigration, the media is almost certain to get many things wrong in its reporting; they did with the earlier order in late January. After 24 years of doing visa and immigration work for the Department of State,

    Short version: most of what people will be very upset about this week has been U.S. policy for some time and is actually unrelated to the Trump Executive Order.

    1. The Executive Order (EO) is invalid because the United States cannot discriminate based on national origin.

    False. 8 U.S.C. 1152 Sec. 202(a)(1)(A) makes it unlawful only to ban immigrants (Legal Permanent Residents, green card holders) because of “nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.” The law however is silent on banning non-immigrants such as tourists or students, as well as refugees, for those same reasons. Including green card holders was one of the major errors committed by Trump in the January EO. The new EO excludes them.

    2. The six countries affected by the new EO are being unfairly singled out. There’s no evidence the nationals from those countries pose any threat.

    The countries affected by Trump’s executive order – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen – have been singled out under American immigration law since the days following 9/11.

    For example, the six are included in a 2015 law signed by President Obama, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12). The list thus has nothing to do with any of Trump’s business interests. He did not create it, nor is he the first American president to omit Saudi Arabia from post-9/11 scrutiny. That 2015 list, part of the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act, disallows use of America’s visa-free travel program to foreigners who even once visited the targeted nations. So, for example, British citizens otherwise eligible to enter the United States without a visa must instead appear for questioning and be individually approved for an actual printed visa in their passport at an American embassy or consulate abroad.

    The six countries are also included in a special vetting process in place since the George W. Bush administration, continued under Barack Obama, and still operating today. Simply called “administrative processing,” people from these nations and others go through an alternate visa procedure that delays their travel as they wait to be vetted by various intelligence agencies. Some applications are left to pend indefinitely as a way to say no without formally saying no in a way that invites challenge.

    Lastly, three of the six nations included under Trump’s EO — Iran, Sudan, and Syria — have been designated for years by the State Department as state sponsors of terrorism.

    As for the numbers, in FY2015, 27,751 tourist visas were issued to Iranians, Sudan 3,647, Syria 8,419, Libya 1,374, Somalia 185 and Yemen 3007. All of those people may still travel under the new EO, but the number are illustrative of the relatively small scale of the EO; in that same year, the United States issued almost 11 million visas worldwide.

    3. But some people with valid visas are being refused entry into the U.S.

    Yes, and they always have, long before Trump. Unlike many nations, the U.S. uses a two-tiered system for immigration. Visas are issued abroad by the Department of State, and represent only permission to apply to the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at a U.S. entry port for admission. A traveler can have a valid visa and for a variety of reasons still be denied entry into the U.S.

    4. Travelers have other rights that are being denied.

    Foreign persons outside the United States are not protected by the Constitution. U.S. courts have also ruled continuously over time that decisions to issue or refuse visas abroad are not subject to judicial review.

    Non-citizens without green cards generally do not have the right to an attorney at an airport, except if questions relate to something other than immigration status, such as certain types of criminal charges. Non-citizens can generally be temporarily detained without formal due process. In most cases the government maintains until admitted to the U.S. by CBP, a traveler is actually not “in” the U.S. with the full range of legal protections. Nothing new here specific to the Trump EO.

    5. They’re deporting foreigners without due process.

    Again, nothing new and unrelated to Trump’s EO. In most cases only an immigration judge can order a deportation. But if the foreign traveler waives their rights by signing something called a “Stipulated Removal Order,” or takes “voluntary departure,” agreeing to leave the country, they could be deported without a hearing. Some people choose to give up their green cards voluntarily at the airport for a variety of reasons by signing a form I-407. There are both good reasons and bad reasons for signing such documents.

    That said, most people who aren’t allowed into the U.S. at the airport are not actually deported. They are removed, or denied entry. The words have specific legal meanings and trigger different levels of rights. Standard denials of entry are considered administrative actions and do not typically allow for court appearances or lawyers.

    6. A traveler was denied boarding by the airline when they tried to leave a foreign country. Do the airlines enforce American law now?

    Sort of. Airlines are responsible for the passengers they board. If a passenger is denied entry into the U.S. for any reason, the airline typically faces the costs of returning the passenger to a country abroad. So if someone from Syria is boarded by Lufthansa in Frankfurt and refused entry to the U.S. in Boston, Lufthansa can be held financially responsible. So, it is in the airlines’ best interests to follow U.S. immigration law.

    This system is not new with Trump’s EO, though the EO does establish new criteria for the airlines to follow.

    7. CBP is denying American citizens entry into the U.S.

    Very, very unlikely. Absent some extremely rare and technical issues, or cases where a traveler is misidentified, American citizens are entitled to enter the United States. A person with a U.S. passport is an American citizen for the purposes of entry, even if they hold a passport from another country. Green card holders are not American citizens and remain citizens of their home country. American citizens have always been subject to questioning, temporary detention, and search when entering the U.S. CBP is authorized to conduct searches and detention in accordance with 8 U.S.C. § 1357 and 19 U.S.C. §§ 1499, 1581, 1582.

    8. CBP asked a traveler about their religion, or said they were detained because they were a Muslim, or…

    Anything is possible, but not everything is likely. Actions cannot be taken based on religion, though CBP has always had procedures that allow them to have a traveler remove their head covering. Most airport interactions are under surveillance. CBP officials wear badges with numbers. Asking about religion is potentially grounds for job dismissal, even a civil rights suit. Wrong things do happen, but one should be skeptical about how often it is claimed to have happened. Persons can be asked where they came from (i.e., Sudan.) Human error, or a bad CBP person of course exist, but are in isolation not signs that the “gloves have come off” or that their one-off actions are signs of impending fascism.

    9. I Googled this and…

    Stop. There’s a reason people go to law school. Legal practice at the border is complicated; immigration law is as complex as tax law, and based on a tangle of regulations, practices, court cases, administrative rulings, and the like. Even experienced immigration lawyers differ with one another on how some things work. Other parts of the process are subject to the judgment of CBP officials. Almost anything can be challenged in court, and courts overturn old laws from time to time. So be careful when pronouncing something “unconstitutional” based largely on a Google search, or quoting one lawyer with a client in trouble, or confusing the filing of a lawsuit, or even a temporary stay by a court, as proof of the point you’re trying to make.

    10. Trump can’t do this.

    The answer to this question will take a lot of legal testing to resolve. Generally, however, the Supreme Court acknowledges immigration law’s “plenary power” doctrine, leaving most discretionary decisions in the hands of the executive branch. Legal victories over the original Trump EO were only stays of actions inside American borders, and complied with by the Department of Homeland Security on an exceptional “national interest” basis, not a policy one.

    Yet while precedent seems to favor the administration, there are a lot of issues and a very complex body of law in play with this EO. In particular how/if the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of religion apply is in contention. Anyone who claims this is simple on any side of the argument is misinformed. However, what is simple is that this is not a constitutional crisis. Tension between the power of executive orders and the power of Congress/the courts is nothing new, and in fact is the cornerstone of the Constitution’s system of checks and balances.

    The opinions here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of the Department of State. This is not legal advice. Consult an immigration lawyer before making any immigration, travel or legal decision.

     

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    The U.S. Government Did Not Revoke Khizr Khan’s ‘Travel Privileges’

    March 8, 2017 // 19 Comments »



    Here’s the anatomy of a fully made-up “news” story, abetted by a media that could care less to check any fact as long as the story feeds the preconceived notions of its audience.

    You remember Khizr Khan (above), the guy who used his soldier son, killed in Iraq, as a prop at the Democratic National Convention to criticize Trump’s immigration policy and help elect Hillary Clinton? Well, like all good Americans, Khan exploited his exploitation into a minor media career. He was booked to talk in Canada by a speaker’s bureau called Ramsey Talks. A decent gig — tickets ran $89 a seat.

    Then Trump supposedly struck. Ramsey Talks released a statement on its Facebook page saying:

    Late Sunday evening Khizr Khan, an American citizen for over 30 years, was notified that his travel privileges are being reviewed. As a consequence, Mr. Khan will not be traveling to Toronto on March 7th to speak about tolerance, understanding, unity and the rule of law. Very regretfully, Ramsay Talks must cancel its luncheon with Mr. Khan. Guests will be given full refunds.

    Mr. Khan offered his sincere apologies to all those who made plans to attend on March 7th. He said: “This turn of events is not just of deep concern to me but to all my fellow Americans who cherish our freedom to travel abroad. I have not been given any reason as to why. I am grateful for your support and look forward to visiting Toronto in the near future.


    A major Canadian broadcast outfit (CTV) ran the story based solely, only, 100% on that single unverified and unsubstantiated Facebook posting, saying the Trump administration interfered with Khan’s “travel privileges” to prevent him from speaking, because of some sort of revenge for Khan’s statements this summer.

    The Internet then, as expected, lost its shit.

    Twitter boomed, and within an hour or two the story appeared in the New York Times, LA Times, Boston Herald, CNN, Maddow, and across the globe. Every one of those stories was based on nothing but that Facebook post. Reuters, the only outfit that apparently bothered to commit a minor act of journalism and reach out to Khan, was told by him no comment. All of the web’s many experts on stuff became experts on passport law, immigration, naturalization, and visa lore. Amazingly creative theories of “denaturalization of Muslims” were concocted out of thin air.

    The only problem is that none of this is true. It in fact could not be true.

    The U.S. has no law that deals with reviewing or rescinding “travel privileges.” No U.S. government agency calls people at home to tell them their travel privileges are under review. If, in very, very limited specific legal instances a court has ordered someone not to travel, their passport itself can be revoked in response to that court order. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection people, the State Department, and the government of Canada all eventually denied doing anything to Khan in any way or having anything to do with this story, so please stop calling them to ask.

    Khan, or Ramsey Talks, seems to have made this all up.

    Now, funny thing, this made-up story about Khan being denied travel hit just as Trump’s new Executive Order (“Muslin Ban 2.0”) was announced. Gee willikers Biff, you think this tale of a Muslim patriot denied travel was timed for that news cycle? Maybe so that when Khan’s speech is rescheduled tickets will be more expensive and sell out faster? Maybe so Khan and/or Ramsey Talks could get a zillion dollars of free publicity? Hah hah, coincidence, amiright?

    As I write this, not one of the media outlets that ran with the false story has published a correction, update or apology. The Washington Post has semi-backed away, but left itself plenty of wiggle room in not admitting it was wrong.

    The problem is if you Google Khan’s name, the story is still flowing around the web, and is now being cited in unrelated stories as “proof” of whatever else the writer believes is fascism and the end of freedom in America.


    BONUS: A source inside CBP tells me that what is most likely to have happened is that Khan’s membership in one of the expedited processing programs was set to expire. These are programs run by private companies that gather information and submit members’ names for background checks to allow them to use expedited processing lanes at the airport when re-entering the United States from a foreign country. Khan/Ramsey likely confused, by accident or on purpose, the expiration of that membership with some nefarious U.S. government action, and the media took it from there. Khan’s only privilege under fire was that of standing in a shorter line at the airport.



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    Dissent and the State Department: What Comes Next?

    March 2, 2017 // 59 Comments »



    Some 1000 employees at the Department of State are said to have signed a formal memo sent through the “Dissent Channel” in late January, opposing President Donald Trump’s Executive Order initially blocking all Syrian refugee admissions indefinitely, delaying other refugees 120 days, prohibiting for 90 days all other travelers (diplomats excluded) from seven Muslim-majority nations, and other immigration-related issues.


    What is the Dissent Channel those State employees used? What effect if any will the memo have on policy? What does the memo say to the new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about the organization he now heads, and what will he do about it?


    What the State Department calls the Dissent Channel is unique inside the American government. Created in 1971 during the Vietnam War, the system allows Foreign Service officers to express their disagreement with U.S. policy directly to senior leaders. The secretary of state is obliged to read and through his staff respond to all Dissent Channel messages, normally within 30-60 days. Persons using the Channel are fully protected against retaliation. Dissent messages are intended to foster internal dialogue within the State Department, and are never intended for the public.


    The issues surrounding the most recent dissent memo begin where that previous sentence ends.

    What was once understood to be a way to foster internal dialogue is in this case playing out more like an online petition. Multiple versions of the memo circulated within the State Department globally, with persons adding their signatures and making edits as they opened their email. Someone (no one seems to know exactly who) later allegedly melded the multiple versions into the one that was submitted, meaning some signers did not see the final text until it was leaked.

    That leak changed everything, making the exercise less an expression of policy dissent than an anonymous press release sent out from a bureaucratic safe place. The intent in going public seems to be a combination of whining about, provoking, and embarrassing the administration. It is unclear anyone could feel that going to the press would foster greater discussion; actually, the opposite – many diplomats hoping to open a channel for discussion were deeply dismayed the memo went public, followed by anonymous interviews.

    As one career ambassador stated regarding another dissent message quickly leaked to the media, State Department officers’ “oath of office is to protect and defend the Constitution, but they are not free to debate publicly with their president… If they want to go public they should resign.”

    And indeed that sentiment appeared to be contained, albeit indelicately, in the White House’s initial reaction to the memo. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said of those diplomats who signed that they “should either get with the program, or they can go.”

    Spicer, and the ambassador above, touch on a more fundamental issue underlying the dissent memo.


    The average State Department Foreign Service officer has served 12 years, meaning a large number have never worked for any president other than Barack Obama and more than half have not experienced a presidential transition. These employees have never had their oath of service to the Constitution – not to George W. Bush or Barack Obama or Donald Trump – tested. Government carries out the policies of the president on behalf of the United States; it’s called public service for a reason. Those concerned because the wrong candidate won may be learning they are in the wrong business.

    That sense of frustration as much with the man in the Oval Office as with his policy appears evident in the text of the dissent memo, which is long on emotional (core values, nation of immigrants, shame of Japanese-Internment camps, yada-yada), and short on concrete policy other than “we shouldn’t do what the Executive Order says” and suggestions for more vetting and social media monitoring. Potential lost revenue figures are mostly global, not limited to the seven countries, and presume none of the people denied entry will visit another time to spend their money.

    There is an extraordinary amount of high-caste rhetoric in the memo that appears to describe a situation that many Middle East travelers might not recognize: the welcoming atmosphere of the United States (as if long waits to pay $160 to apply for a visa, two year or more invasive vetting for refugees stuck abroad, and crude TSA treatment did not previously exist.) The memo speaks of souring relations with Middle Eastern nations, increased anti-American sentiment, and creating the impression of a war based on religion, while somehow overlooking that 15 years of the horrors of the War on Terror (torture, drone kills, wedding parties blown up, Guantanamo) have already accomplished those sordid tasks.

    The memo also somewhat dramatically raises the specter of humanitarian issues, a child denied medical care in the U.S. for example, when the Executive Order in Section 3(g) clearly allows for such exceptions to be made on a case-by-case basis. The memo brushes that process off as unworkable, when in fact such exceptional processes exist throughout U.S. immigration law and work just fine – it has been the State Department who has in fact implemented them.


    Left unsaid is any commentary on pre-Trump U.S. refugee policy. Since 1980, the United States has accepted fewer than two million refugees overall, and 40 percent of those were simply children accompanying their refugee parent(s). By contrast, though not limited to refugees, the Obama administration alone deported 2.5 million people. The FY2016 American quota for Syrian refugees was 10,000. In contrast, Canada in 2016 took in 25,000. Germany admitted 300,000 refugees from various nations in 2016, following close to one million in 2015.

    No dissent memos were publicly released about any of that; while the State Department drafters may not even have been aware of the crude reality of pre-Trump policy as they wrote of a welcoming America, one can bet persons in the Middle East affected by those policies are. Same for the Obama-era illegal and unconstitutional denial of passports to Yemenis. Those actions ended up crushed in Federal court, but received no public dissent from inside State.

    The memo concludes with an erroneous statement that Federal employees take an oath to whatever “core American and Constitutional values” are. Sources state the memo was drafted largely by persons new to the State Department, and that clearly shows.

    (Of ancillary interest, the memo, written by people who work with the nuts and bolts of visa and immigration law daily, makes no assertions that Trump’s executive order is illegal or unconstitutional, just bad policy.)

    So what happens next?


    Rex Tillerson’s staff owe the signatories a response. Past experience suggests, and the near-certainty that the response will be leaked within minutes assures, that the reply will be of the “we acknowledge your concerns,” content-free variety. It is possible the response could be delayed until near the actual end of the legal wrangling, long after the media have forgotten the dissent memo ever existed.

    In characterizing the dissent memo as unprecedented (it is in the number of signatories, claimed to be 1000, albeit out of a workforce of close to 19,000), many media outlets have raised the question of resignations. Will Tillerson one day find himself in a State Department without diplomats?

    Experience suggests no.


    There were no known State Department resignations of protest during the 15 years of atrocities known as the War of Terror (as well as no publicly released dissent memos.) At the State Department there were only three resignations of conscience over the 2003 Iraq War, and one other related to Afghanistan. The last time more than a handful of diplomats resigned in protest was at the height of the Vietnam War, arguably a more significant foreign policy event than a temporary visa ban aimed at a handful of countries.

    That said, emotions are running high inside the State Department, and one should not be surprised by a handful of resignations (one employee announced his resignation was actually a protest 12 days after he handed in his papers and even though he will remain at work until March, saying without explanation that Trump is a “threat to the Constitution”), a few scheduled retirements mediagenically re-categorized as resignations of protest, and an overreaction to all of that. Just remember outside the Beltway there is little love, or even real knowledge of, the State Department. It is doubtful Trump’s core constituency could give a hoot what happens at Foggy Bottom.




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    Let’s Play Journalism, and Make Fake News

    February 14, 2017 // 98 Comments »



    This journalism thingie has gotten so easy, anyone can do it. Let’s play make the fake news funtime!

    The elderly may remember the Old Journalism. Back in BT (Before Trump) journalists in mainstream outlets had to gather facts (i.e., true things) from sources (people with names who knew true things) that would withstand fact-checking (looking stuff up, or having a second source confirm stuff.) If you quoted something already established as a fact, you were obligated to link to it.

    There were notably exceptions. For example, in 2003, the New York Times simply “believed” everything it was told about Iraq having massive destructive weapons and typed it into the paper. FYI: The Times assisted in generating enthusiasm for the Iraq invasion, helping kill 5,000 Americans and perhaps one million Iraqis! Media such as the National Enquirer and gossip blogs would just make things up, aliens and Bigfoot and all that, but it was with a wink and everyone knew it was fake and for fun.

    Then Shazaam! Every media in America miscalled the election for Clinton while Trump won. Media collectively got a sad. They did not know what to do. Certainly admitting they screwed up was not in the cards, nor was accepting that Trump won and moving on. So, they invented Newer Journalism.

    It works this way. A reporter, say from the Washington Post, calls up someone who works at say, the State Department, or is called by someone who wants to leak something. It is always bad news about Trump. The reporter types it up word-for-word, and then publishes it to the world as a true thing. In the story the source is anonymous, so no one knows if the reporter spoke to an intern on her third day, or just made it all up. But, and this is important, that doesn’t matter! All that matters is that it is bad news, the more bombastic the better.

    From there other media simply repeat the story. But it gets better, because the next media in line says “The Washington Post reports sources inside the Trump administration say…” allowing some crappy blog to inherit whatever credibility the WaPo still clings to. But, and this is important, that doesn’t matter! Because the article will be saying something readers want to believe (“White House policy making is in disarray, everyone will resign by Thursday.”)

    Now Thursday will roll around and everyone has not resigned, but, and this is important, that doesn’t matter! The media has moved on to the next story and who the hell goes back and reads last week’s Tweets anyway. Repeat.

    The way Trump is being covered reminds me of so-called reporting out of North Korea, or the Cold War Soviet Union. Reporters claimed they could not reveal their sources, and every tiny scrap of an event was inflated into Deep Meaning. Every story warned of catastrophic consequences to follow, that never did. But that’s what Americans wanted to believe about those two countries, and it sold (in those days) newspapers.



    So let’s try it. Keep in mind this is entirely made up, especially if you see it reprinted on Rawstory or HuffPo as fact.

    Sources inside the State Department who are otherwise not authorized to speak to the media report that rank-and-file diplomats remain dismayed at the treatment given them by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Many are quietly talking about ways to resist, some even going as far as suggesting mass resignations may occur. Some liken it to a Constitutional crisis that could upset an already fragile democracy.

    The diplomats — many of whom signed the recent letter of dissent over Trump’s Muslim Ban — claim that Tillerson has not held a full staff meeting since taking office, preferring to work only with a tight circle of advisors from the campaign whom he has dubbed the “Trump Centaurians.” These Centurians have been described as politically motivated, watching Tweets out of the White House for policy guidance.

    “They have no idea what they are doing,” said one senior diplomat. “These are people with zero experience inside government talking down to experienced Russia hands in my office. One of these so-called Centaurians used to work for Ivanka’s clothing line. God help us, she’s now in charge of energy policy across the MidEast. It is chaos, pure chaos. Period. Full stop.”

    In response to Tillerson, State Department officials have begun to slow-walk requests from the Secretary’s office, with some going as far as withholding information for fear it might be shared with the Kremlin. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bunch of people go critical and simply punch out one day,” stated another seasoned diplomat. “And I’m hearing the same thing from friends inside the NSC. I’ve never seen it this bad before, and it’ll get worse.”

    Tillerson’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.


    See? That took me about ten minutes to crank out. Lunchtime.



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    I’ll Be Speaking at Yale February 7; Free and Open to the Public

    February 4, 2017 // 77 Comments »




    Please come join me for a bit of speaking and discussion at Yale University on February 7. The event is free and open to the public.


    My speech is part of Yale’s Macmillan Center for Global Justice Program, and I’ll kick off this semester’s slate of speakers. The event will be held in the ground-floor seminar room at 230 Prospect Street beginning at 4:30 pm. No advance tickets or reservations needed.

    I’ll offer some thoughts on whistleblowing, my own case as well as those of Manning and Snowden, leading into wider reflections on Iraq, the First Amendment, and what options exist from inside government when one deeply disagrees with specific policies.

    Kinda timely stuff.

    There will be open discussion and plenty of time for questions. Those who oppose free speech are also welcome to come and punch me in the head.




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    What Will Rex Tillerson Inherit at the State Department?

    February 2, 2017 // 39 Comments »


    As Secretary of State, what will Rex Tillerson inherit at the State Department?

    The media has been aflame recently trying to stretch the facts — personnel changes and some unhappy employees in the midst of a major governmental transition — to fit the narrative of a State Department on the verge of collapse. But while rumors of the State Department’s demise are largely exaggerated, the organization may yet find itself shunted aside into irrelevance.

    There has been a lot of hot-blooded talk about Donald Trump and the federal workforce. The media once claimed Trump would not be able to fill his political appointee positions, and then suggested employees might resign en masse before he even was inaugerated. Another round of stories fanned panic that Trump had dumped his existing ambassadors, when in fact it was only the Obama-appointed ones who tendered resignations by tradition, as happens every four years.

    Then only last week the Washington Post published a bombastic story claiming the State Department’s entire senior management team had resigned in protest. The real story, however, was that all/most of the six were de facto fired. Several were connected to the Clinton emails or Clinton’s handling of Benghazi. One of these people, Pat Kennedy, played a significant role in both. These were not protest resignations, they were housecleaning by the new boss in town.

    As for plunging the State Department into chaos, the loss of six employees is not going to bring on Armageddon. Reports that these people represent “senior management” at State confuse terms. Because of the odd way State is organized, four of the six work in the Management Bureau, M in State talk. Kennedy was the head of the Bureau. The four play varying roles and collectively are not the senior management of the State Department. Two work in other parts of the Department directly tied to Obama-era policies likely to change under the new administration.

    In addition, all six persons come from offices with a deep bench. It is highly unlikely that any of the work of the State Department will be impeded. This is all part of the standard transition process. The same applies to embassies overseas that lost their Obama-appointed ambassadors.

    The latest Chicken Little reporting concerns “dissent” messages circulating within the State Department, aimed at Trump’s executive order on immigration; one media outlet characterized this as a “revolt” waiting for Tillerson on his Day One.

    Such bombastic language misses the mark completely. Though State’s internal process requires a response from senior leaders, they have 60 days to provide it, it is not public, and if experience serves will almost certainly be of the “we acknowledge your concerns” content-free variety.

    Others feel that while having no practical impact on policy, such dissent measures the state of employee thought, and there may be some truth to that. The average State Department Foreign Service officer has served 12 years, meaning a large number have never worked for any president other than Barack Obama and more than half have seen only the current presidential transition.

    These employees have never had their oath of service to the Constitution, not to Barack Obama or Donald Trump, tested. Government carries out the policies of the president on behalf of the United States. It’s called public service for a reason. Those concerned because the wrong candidate won are probably simply learning they are in the wrong business. Though indelicate in his phrasing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was actually only expressing a version of official policy when he said of those diplomats they “should either get with the program, or they can go.”

    As a reality check, out of a workforce of thousands at the State Department there were only three resignations of conscience over the 2003 Iraq War, one other related to Afghanistan. There were no publicly known resignations related to torture, Guantanamo, drone assassination or any of the other horrors of the War on Terror stretched across two administrations. The last time more than a handful of diplomats resigned in protest was at the height of the Vietnam War.

    So it is without much evidence that Rex Tillerson will walk into a State Department weakened by dissent. But what he may preside over is an institution largely devoid of relevance, and suffering budget and personnel cuts in line with that.

    The signature issues Secretaries Clinton and Kerry supported — women’s and LGBTQ rights, social media messaging, soft power, climate change — are unlikely to get much attention under the Trump administration. In addition, given State’s role in hiding Clinton’s email server for years, and then slow-walking the release of her emails until ordered by the courts to speed up, it is doubtful there is good will and trust accumulated from the campaign. Foreign policy has increasingly gravitated under Bush and Obama deeper into the military, National Security Council, and the Oval Office anyway. None of that is likely to change.

    Kerry’s original legacy issue, peace in Syria, is literally in flames. The United States was not even invited to the Russian-Turkish brokered peace talks, and there is little stomach anywhere for deposing Assad and generating more chaos. Kerry’s second shot at legacy, the Iran nuclear accords, seem destined to at best merely linger around if it does not just collapse. Iraq and Afghan policy, such as it is, appears mostly in the hands of the Pentagon, and Trump has chosen a powerful, experienced Secretary of Defense. No side sees the U.S. as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Issues with China will fall into the lanes of trade and defense. It appears big-picture policy toward Russia, Mexico and elsewhere will be run directly out of the Oval Office.

    At the same time, Trump’s federal hiring freeze has already impacted State. Even before the freeze there were more military band members than State Department Foreign Service Officers. The whole of the Foreign Service is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier. Yet Paul Teller, Trump’s liaison to the right wing of the House Republican Party, has already spoken of cutting back further on the number of America’s diplomats. If employees do leave on their own, or, more likely, stay at their desks in zombie state waiting out their pensions, that will only make State less useful to anyone in Washington.

    What’s really left for State to do?

    Tillerson will find himself in charge of a Cabinet agency is search of a mission. He may very well end up somewhere between the traditional ceremonial role of the Vice President, attending conferences and funerals, or perhaps simply overseeing his network of embassies serve as America’s concierge abroad, providing cover stories for the intelligence community, arranging official visits for fact-finding Members of Congress, and hosting senior Washington policy makers in town to do the heavy lifting of international relations. State will still hold the monopoly inside government on things like Sports Diplomacy and paying for reality TV shows in Niger to influence those there with TVs.

    If that all doesn’t sound like a very attractive job, you’re right. It’s difficult to imagine Tillerson sticking around for four years. Who knows, the resignation out of the State Department that attracts the most attention of all might be his.




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    Those ‘Resignations’: What Really Happened at the State Department

    January 26, 2017 // 99 Comments »




    Yesterday at the State Department five officials resigned or retired. Another one today.

    The media has gone near-insane, claiming State is crumbling in protest under the Trump administration. This is not true. What happened at State is very routine.

    Leaving the Department are head of the Management Bureau Pat Kennedy (above), Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Joyce Anne Barr, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele Bond, Ambassador Gentry O. Smith, director of the Office of Foreign Missions, arms control official Tom Countryman, and Victoria Nuland.

    Here’s the story:

    — No one at the State Dept resigned in protest.

    — No one was formally fired.

    — Six people were transferred from or retired from political appointee positions. Technically those who did not retire can be considered to have “resigned,” but that is a routine HR/personnel term used, not some political statement. The six are career Foreign Service career personnel (FSOs) They previously left their FSO job to be appointed into political jobs and now have resigned those (or retired out of the State Department) to return to career FSO jobs. A circle. They are required to submit a letter of resignation as a matter of routine when a new president takes office.

    — As for perspective: only one Under Secretary of State (Alan Larson) stayed through the transition from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush. It is routine for senior officials to leave or be reassigned.

    — Several of the six are connected to the Clinton emails and/or Clinton’s handling of Benghazi. One of these people, Pat Kennedy, played a significant role in both, as well as many other controversial issues during Clinton’s term. Sources tell me that although officially Kennedy “retired,” he was more or less required to do so by the Trump administration.

    — I have no information on the others, whether they were asked to retire, or just part of a reshuffling of positions and will routinely be reassigned. Most likely the latter, as such reshuffling is very common as administrations change. As everywhere in the government, the new administration fills its own political appointee slots.

    — Some of the six will hit mandatory retirement age on January 31 anyway.

    — Reports that these people represent “senior management” at State confuse terms. Because of the odd way State is organized, four of the six work in the Management Bureau, M in State talk. Kennedy was the head of the Bureau. The four play varying roles and collectively are not the senior management of the State Department. Two work in other parts of the Department (Countryman and Nuland) and are more directly tied to policies likely to change under the new administration.

    — All six persons come from offices with a deep bench. It is highly unlikely that any of the work of the State Department will be impeded by any of these changes. Every office has a second, third, fourth, etc., person in charge who will step up pending formal replacements to be nominated and confirmed. This is all part of the standard transition process.

    — As an example, I worked in the Bureau of Consular Affairs for most of my 24 years at State, including working with/for Michele Bond, one of the resignees. I personally know the people in the next rank below her, and all have equal experience and tenure as Bond. There will be no gap in experience or knowledge as some press reports have fretted. There will be no “void.” A slightly more dire, but responsible take, here.

    — There will very likely be more, similar, “resignations” and reshuffling at State. New political appointees will bring in their own staff, for example. But unless and until an employee holds a press conference to announce s/he is resigning out of protest, the media should take care to calm down, verify facts, and report accurately.

    — The Washington Post stated these changes were part of an “ongoing mass exodus of senior Foreign Service officers who don’t want to stick around for the Trump era.” I am not aware of any other noteworthy departures (two lesser officials left earlier this month in circumstances not clearly connected to Trump) and as stated above, the six did not resign in protest. Regardless, eight people in any context do not constitute a mass exodus.

    — The Post article is, in my opinion, grossly alarming. It reflects a reporter apparently unfamiliar with transitions at State.




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    So How’s That Coalition Thing Working Out in Afghanistan?

    January 13, 2017 // 68 Comments »

    embassy in iraq


    Short Answer: It’s been 15+ years of coalition and the Taliban are still there, the Afghan government in Kabul is even more corrupt, and most of Afghanistan is as economically decrepit as ever.

    A report, “Lessons From the Coalition,” emerged from a conference co-hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace (yes, we have one, it is part of the State Department and doesn’t do much but organize events in Washington.) The conference brought together representatives from eleven major donor nations, the EU, UN, World Bank, and NATO to share common experiences and lessons from the Afghan reconstruction effort.

    Here’s what they concluded:

    — The confluence of conflicting goals and divided actors led to a situation in which countries were often pursuing disparate and sometimes ill-defined missions in Afghanistan. In fact, many nations were unclear as to what they were trying to achieve in Afghanistan.

    — Many countries were primarily motivated by their alliance commitments to the United States, rather than specific strategic goals related to Afghanistan, and were often more focused on what was happening in Washington than in Kabul.

    — Conference participants were critical of instances when military forces undertook development work, indicating their efforts often ended up costing more and being less effective than those of their civilian counterparts.

    — Inability to understand the local context led to projects that unintentionally benefited corrupt officials, threatened local governance, led to escalating violence, sabotage of the project itself, and wasted resources.

    — Development projects did not buy security. Participants believed that when development projects occurred in insecure places, the projects either benefited the insurgency or insurgents increased violence to counteract any potential gains.

    — One participant referred to the regular turnover of personnel as an “annual lobotomy.”

    — Conditions placed on funds were often not credible, as donors were ultimately unwilling to withhold funds that were essential to preventing the collapse of the Afghan government. Afghan officials were aware of these limitations and were able to call donors’ bluffs. When faced with a donor’s conditions, Afghan officials could often obtain funding from another donor.


    But, hey, I’m sure they all meant well in their efforts. Hell, someone should write a book about that so no one repeats the same mistakes in the next war.


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    Symbolic Failure Point: Female Afghan Pilot Wants Asylum In The U.S.

    December 28, 2016 // 58 Comments »



    History loves little markers, tidy packages of symbolism that wrap up a big, complex thing.

    You know, the helicopter on the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon standing in for years of failed war, the Berlin Wall being knocked down to visually note the end the Cold War, that sort of thing.

    Well, the never-ending-gobsmacker of the Afghan War may have gotten its iconic moment.


    Crash and Burn

    Afghanistan’s first fixed wing female pilot, Captain Niloofar Rahmani, above, has applied for asylum in the U.S., citing worsening security conditions, and harassment by male colleagues. Rahmani says her family faces serious death threats from the Taliban and her father has had to go into hiding to avoid being killed. The Afghan government even stopped paying Rahmani’s salary, despite earmarks from the U.S. government for funding.

    Captain Rahmani noted, as something as an afterthought, the Taliban also continue to make gains across her country even as America’s War for Freedom enters its 16th year of freeing Afghanistan.

    Being a Propaganda Tool is Hard Work

    As icons went, America loved Rahmani.

    Rahmani was once widely hailed in Washington, D.C., where she received the Woman of Courage award from the State Department in 2015 and was personally praised by First Lady Michelle Obama. Rahmani was rolled into an Obama policy move to focus greater attention and resources on adolescent girls through the Let Girls Learn initiative which no one ever heard from again.

    The Afghan pilot was even celebrated as a “woman who builds peace, prosperity, and stability,” which just happened to also be a U.S. propaganda slogan for the Afghan war. And sure, what the hell, the State Department threw in that “she will not be intimidated and she will not be silenced.”

    Rahami also had her own Twitter, in English of course, but not updated in over a year. “Her” last tweet– “#Salute to the #daughter of nation #Flying #Officer #Marium embraced $shahadat today #Mianwali The few the proud…” And that Rahami was photogenic by coincidence was not unnoticed.

    The Captain summed it all up — her femaleness represented American goals of empowering women, her chosen career as a killer was in line with U.S. plans to destroy the Taliban, and her being in the Afghan Air Force seemed to justify the $3.7 billion U.S. tax dollars expended to create an indigenous Afghan fighting force.

    Mayday, Mayday!

    So it’s just a neat kick in the Uncle Sam ass for Rahmani, in the United States for all sorts of expensive training, to bail out and request asylum after 15 months in America training via photo ops and not fighting any Taliban. Why, it’s as if the entire war in Afghanistan itself was merely a lengthy exercise in Potemkin foreign policy…

    BONUS: Here’s George W. Bush posing with some Iraqi women of courage or whatever from that war. I love that photo.



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    False Media Reporting on Trump’s Request to State Dept for Info on Gender Equality Programs

    December 27, 2016 // 13 Comments »



    The Washington Post, quickly followed by the New York Times and NPR and many others, headlined a story that Trump’s transition team asked the State Department for a list of programs and jobs aimed at promoting gender equality.



    Rattled and Freaked Out!

    The Times, citing anonymous sources, claimed the request “rattled State Department employees concerned that the incoming administration will roll back a cornerstone project of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.”

    The Los Angeles Times quoted an anonymous senior State Department official as saying “People are freaked out.”

    The Washington Post reported another anonymous source (as these all the same person?) as saying the request is “stoking fears of another witch hunt.” The Post did not detail where the earlier witchhunt had taken place to make this one “another.”



    Reality: It’s Routine, Folks

    The tone of the articles was bombastic, and implied something unique and insidious was going on. By itself, the request means nothing. But in reality, the request is normal and routine.

    Every party transition in Washington includes information gathering; how else would the incoming staff know what they have ahead of them? Offices across the State Department (as well as every other cabinet agency) are flooded with demands for program and budget information, position lists, endless emails asking “Who handles this issue?” and “Where do things stand on Programs X and Y?”

    It is thus absolutely no surprise, and certainly not news, that an email went out to relevant offices in State asking about “existing programs and activities to promote gender equality, such as ending gender-based violence, promoting women’s participation in economic and political spheres, entrepreneurship, etc.”

    The email also requested a list of positions “whose primary functions are to promote such issues,” though not the names of people in those positions.

    There are likely hundreds of identical requests, on different subjects, now circulating within State. I joined the State Department in 1988 and was employed through the transitions from Reagan to Bush to Clinton to Another Bush to Obama, and helped respond to such requests for information myself. In well-prepared offices, knowing such requests are routine and expected, the basic information would have been gathered even as the election was taking place. Somebody was going to ask.



    So Why is the Media Reporting Inaccurately?

    Assuming the anonymous sources cited by the media include someone other than a former intern’s roommate a reporter met on Tinder, why might the State Department people be “rattled and freaked out” by something so routine?

    The simplest answer is about half of the Foreign Service Officer corps has been with State for less than eight years, meaning they have never experienced a party transition, and have served only under the Obama administration. They have no experience with any of this, and likely have bosses with at best one transitional experience. Most of these people have never had their commitment to serving the executive branch, no matter who is in the White House, tested. And senior management not communicating with the lower ranks is a long-standing State Department issue.

    But the deeper explanation touches on the levels of hysteria across America following the failure of Hillary Clinton to get herself elected president.

    As an organization, the State Department went all-in supporting Hillary Clinton, slow-walking the release of her emails, using Freedom of Information Act and classification games to redact significant content, and generally doing everything it could to protect the former Secretary of State. Many of State’s gender-based program were signature initiatives of Clinton, and track with the personal politics of many State employees. They are (correctly) certain they and these programs are unlikely to find many new friends in the incoming administration.



    Bad Reporting With an Impact Far Beyond the State Department

    Nonetheless, the impact of the sadly low-level of mainstream reporting on details of the transition is serious.

    The seasoned reporters and editors at places like the New York Times know damn well what is and is not routine in a transition. Yet they reported inaccurately and bombastically nonetheless.

    The media is speaking to an audience predisposed to believe every panicky story that can be shoveled out (remember the apocalyptic tales from early November that Trump would never be able to fill his political appointee positions, or that the transition was fatally behind schedule? The unfounded rumors of mass resignations inside the Federal government?)

    The media’s near-obsession with inaccurate reporting on all things Trump, seeking to paint every detail of the president elect as not only negative, but pernicious, is in part what lead to the breakdown of accurate predictions right into election evening, and loss of credibilty by the media.

    More significantly, some notable portion of those who voted for Trump did so out of a sense of disenfranchisement, a disconnection between themselves and Washington DC. In the Internet age, debunking of inaccurate and/or misleading reporting, such as with the routine request for information above, are more widely available than ever.

    Thus, outside the Clinging-to-Clinton bubble, more people than ever have such resources available to them, and can thus more readily see through stories whose purpose is to tell “deplorables” that they voted wrong.

    For those Democrats and Progressives hoping not to repeat the election disaster of 2016 in the 2018 midterms, or heaven forbid, in 2020, such media coverage is excessively harmful. Like full fat ice cream, it sure tastes good now, but boy is it bad for you in the long run.



    Don’t believe me about the routine nature of the Trump administration’s request for information out of State? Believe this site instead.



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    Happy Holidays from the Video Asshats at Your State Department

    December 24, 2016 // 41 Comments »

    So what better use of taxpayer money and time than for your State Department to make idiotic holiday videos?

    Acting like an asshat is something of a State tradition year-round, but these annual videos seek to memorialize it. The very broad theory is that these things “humanize” American foreign policy in a way drones do not, and because they get lots of “clicks,” prove those foreigners really do love us after all. Of course, lots of people slow down for gory car wrecks, too.

    A theme this year is American Embassy staff acting wacky and speaking their host country’s languages poorly, and thinking that is hilarious. Why, those goofy foreign words! Good thing everybody overseas speak English, amiright? Can anyone imagine a foreign ambassador in the United States going on YouTube and speaking sad, broken English like he’s Sasha Baron Cohen? Hah, the comedy Christmas Americanski joking time!

    Anyway, it’s social media and that’s a good thing, right?

    Those who are worried about the loss of respect for America under the coming administration should console themselves knowing there is little left to lose.



    The loquacious American ambassador in Seoul:


    Tokyo, featuring the ambassador dressed as Santa:


    And here’s the U.S. Embassy crowd in Manila (skip ahead to about 1:00 for wacky funs)


    Maybe Norway:


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