• Archive of "Embassy/State" Category

    Biden’s China Policy is Dangerous

    October 16, 2021 // No Comments »

    Joe Biden’s China policy is unnecessarily adversarial. It is impractical and dangerous. It plays out as if U.S. foreign policy is run by WWII reenactors.

    China was artificially reimagined as an enemy-in-a-box as the wars of terror sputtered out and America needed a new Bond villian. Biden envisions China as an autocratic foe for democracy to wage a global struggle against. “On my watch,” Joe said, “China will not achieve its goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.” Biden went on to claim the world was at an inflection point to determine “whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century.” In Biden’s neo-Churchillian view, the U.S. and what the hell, the whole free world he believes he is president of, are in a death match with China for global hearts and minds.

    One problem in this world view is the unbelievable hypocrisy underlying America’s claimed role. Biden seems oblivious the U.S. mows down Muslims by drone and cluster bomb even while it self-righteously tsk tsks China for bullying its Uighur minority. After our two decade hissy fit of invasions and nation building brought kleptocracies and terrorists to lead countries, we dare bark that China is not democratic. We seem not to notice our lack of clothing when we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with petty tyrants and dictators strewn around Africa and the Middle East. We see no issues demanding democracy in Hong Kong while ignoring its weakening across the United States (never mind not having had much to say about democracy in Hong Kong when it was a British colony stolen by war from Chinese sovereignty.) A pretty weak resume when you’re aiming at Leader of the Free World.

    Apart from sheer hypocrisy, there are other reasons to wonder how China ended up America’s sworn enemy for Cold War 2.0. The relationship otherwise does not look much like that of our old nemesis, the Soviet Union. The Russkies had a nasty habit of rolling tanks across borders, as of course does the U.S. Sometimes it was even the same country — how’d that Afghanistan thing work out? In contrast is the utter lack of countries China has invaded since WWII. Unlike the wheezing old Soviet economy, China is the world’s second largest economy, and one deeply tied, integrated, and in a symbiotic relationship with the U.S. China is the second largest foreign holder of U.S. government debt just behind Japan, with massive investments across the board inside the United States.

    Not counting Hunter Biden (we kid) the total Chinese investment in the U.S. economy is over $145 billion. The Cold War joke, countries with a McDonald’s never made war on each other, seems under revision. The Chinese are literally betting the house on America succeeding. Meanwhile, U.S. investment in China has passed $1 trillion. As we learned when Covid briefly shut down world logistics, the American economy is voluntarily dependent on Chinese manufacturing and vice-versa.

    With all this co-dependent commerce it is also increasingly unclear what we have to fight about, and what we have to gain in picking a fight. About the best the war influencers can come up with are lurid predictions that Chinese investments are a secret tool to control the U.S. (as opposed to any other investors [Jeff Bezos, cough cough] domestic or foreign, yeah right.) They claim “someday” China will “weaponize” its investments and harm the U.S. Left unexplained is how China would need to take a $1.1 trillion bath on its Treasuries alone, never mind slamming closed its largest export market and having to find a way to use unfinished iPhones as a food source.

    So why the lust for a new Cold War? The problem Biden faces on China, and everywhere else really, is the biggest player in today’s foreign affairs is the military. In many parts of the world (particularly Asia and Africa) the combatant commanders are putative epicenters for security, diplomatic, humanitarian, and commercial affairs. One reason is range: unlike ambassadors, whose budget and influence are confined to single countries, combatant commanders’ reach is continental. Unlike the White House, whose focus is ever-shifting, the military has the interest and manpower to stick around everywhere. Colonels grow up to be generals. Generals outlast administrations.

    The military has written America’s adversarial China policy. Following the old Cold War playbook, the goal seems to crank up tensions and exaggerate threats until confrontation looks inevitable but never really happens. Here’s how that plan recently exposed itself with China.

    Australia just ditched a $66 billion contract for French diesel-electric submarines to instead buy U.S. nuclear-powered submarines. This is alongside a new alliance which will also see Australia, the U.S., and the United Kingdom share advanced technologies. The genesis was the U.S. military’s muscular diplomacy, ramping up for a war with China they hope will power their budgets for decades. A side deal with Britain to station its newest aircraft carriers in Asia was certainly part of the package. This brings both the British and the Australians, nuclearized, into the South China Sea in force. An arms salesman just wrote Biden’s China policy.

    For what? China fusses with its neighbors over ownership of a handful of islands in the neighborhood, hardly worth risking total nuclear war over. See, it’s the nukes that rule out another Falklands. Even so, the U.S. can’t help but contribute to the saber rattling. The White House recently announced the existing U.S.-Japan security treaty now extends to the disputed Senkaku islands and the Philippines security treaty covers Manila’s claims to Chinese-occupied islets in the South China Sea. Flashback: once upon a time it was the Soviets who were supposed to invade disputed islands held by Japan. Never did.

    China and Taiwan make sport out of lofting rhetoric at each other, all the while maintaining a robust economic relationship that defines modus vivendi. Between 1991 and March 2020, Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. Pre-Covid travelers from China made 2.68 million visits to Taiwan. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. What incentive would China have to drop bombs on one of its best customers? Um, how about… none?

    As they say, follow the money. The money leads toward rapprochement, right under America’s nose. Barack Obama sought the economic isolation of China. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was a 2016 proposed trade agreement among most everyone in Asia except China. Trump withdrew the U.S. from TPP in 2017. In 2018 the remaining countries negotiated a new consolation prize-like agreement called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership which meant little without the participation of economic superpowers U.S. and China. Yet while Biden has made no moves to bring the U.S. back into the play, and has kept Trump’s tariffs in place against China, Chinese diplomats have been busy beavers.

    In an end run timed to mock the American submarine deal with Australia, China applied in September to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. A week later, with no opposition voiced by Beijing, Taiwan applied to join as well. Radio silence on both applications from Washington, who, as a non-participant in the group, doesn’t even have a vote on the matter. And Biden has made clear he has no plans to join in the future. Ironically, the genesis of all this, the Obama TPP, was designed to force China at dollar-point to reform itself and be More Like Us. Who is it now that seems to be setting the rules of today’s international system in both trade and diplomacy? China is offering favorable access to its lucrative market to diplomatically influence the alliance on its own terms. All the U.S. has to offer its allies is a subordinate and expensive role in a new Cold War.

    Where is the State Department? Nine months into his administration Biden still does not have an ambassador in Beijing, leaving China policy in caretaker hands. His nominee for ambassador, Nick Burns, is an old State Department hack, having made a career by bending over backwards in both directions as administrations changed. Coming out of a spokesmodel-type retirement university job, Burns will be read by Beijing, if he ever gets there, as a placeholder, a political crony handed a sweet, mostly ceremonial, final job.

    Elsewhere, Beijing seeks to make friends with its “belt and road” trade and investment initiative in Asia. If the America’s Afghan War had any winners, it’s probably the Chinese, who found some common ground with the Taliban (look it up, it’s called diplomacy, often done even with your enemies) and thus potential access to their vast mineral resources. American businesses meanwhile demand from Biden’s deaf ears he clarify the economic relationship with China.

    While Biden passively allows the military to prepare for war under the sea, China is winning in the competition over our heads in a game Biden does not seem to even know exists. American foreign policy credibility and its confrontational strategy has been shown to be a farce. America is still a big, mean dog, but our ability to influence events around the world is limited to barking and biting and only works when barking and biting is the solution. When anything beyond threats is needed, say when dealing with near-peers like China, we have few if any tools but to reimagine legitimate competitors into enemies. Our policy toward China, like our president, is a failed artifact from another era.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    Requiem: Is This the Last 9/11 Article?

    October 2, 2021 // 15 Comments »

    Wait, stop. I know it’s almost October, but I’m not done with 9/11. I know we just had the 20th anniversary, promised for a day to never forget whatever, and then an old-looking Bruce Springsteen rose to sing about everyone dying around him (read the room, Bruce.) Missing was a hard look at what happened over the last 20 years. Before we move on, can we address that? Because after the symbolic Big 2-0, and with Afghanistan sputtering out of our consciousness, this might be the last 9/11 article.
    Part of the reason for the lack of introspection is the MSM went back to the same people who screwed everything up for “takes” two decades later. It’s kind of like inviting students to grade themselves. It was familiar, like the parade of generals following the Vietnam war who blamed the politicians and vice-versa. I’d like a browser widget that blocks 9/11 commentary from any of the people who were wrong about WMDs, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the like. The last thing anyone’s life needs right now is to hear David Petraeus’ or Condi Rice’s take on anything.
    Yet as if to create the anti-widget of my dreams, the Washington Post created a review of the sprawling literature to emerge from 9/11 over the past two decades — what they generously called works of investigation, memoir, and narrative by journalists and former officials. The books included were written by people taking post-mortem credit for issuing warnings they themselves never acted on, agencies blaming other agencies as if all that happened was the FBI lost a pickup softball game to the CIA, and of course journalists who helped sell the whole WMD line profiting off their mini-embeds to write a new “classic” war book about What It’s Really Like Out There, Man.
    WaPo left my Iraq book off the list, an accidental omission I’m sure. I joke but I don’t. I wrote ten years ago, as it was happening, how nation building was going to fail in Iraq. It would have made good reading a decade ago for anyone headed into the same situation in Afghanistan. So while WaPo’s article does a good job with the “celebrity” books of the era, it ignores the people who saw through it all at nearly every step. I guess many of them did not write books, or at least not “Washington Post” books. So the list includes Petraeus’ U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, the Bible behind the Surge which outlined how nation building was gonna work (update: he was wrong.) But nothing from the weapons inspectors who told the world quite clearly Saddam had no WMDs and the whole premise of the Iraq War was a lie. Nothing explaining how the Afghan War was reinvented to cover-up not finding bin Laden. Nothing about drone killing American citizens, bombing wedding parties, torture, collateral damage, or any of the things that actually caused us to lose multiple wars of terror. Ironically, the last official drone strike of the war killed innocent civilians the Pentagon pretended were terrorists.
    I’ve read almost all the books on WaPo’s list. They would make for a decent but obviously incomplete undergrad survey class syllabus, something like “Opportunities and Losses: America in the Middle East post-9/11,” lots of facts amassed without the necessary critical thinking applied. So here’s what’s missing, the conclusions we do not want to see in black and white 20 years later. Think of what follows as a B+ final exam submission for that imaginary survey class.
    — Nobody trusts the government about anything. Partisans support their guy but with a wry “Hey, they all lie.” Any rebuilding of trust post-Watergate died with the WMDs, etc. and is unlikely to be restored in our age of social media/manipulation.
    — They didn’t make mistakes. They lied. They lied about how 9/11 happened, they lied about WMDs, they lied about intentions, they lied about goals, they lied about Pakistan’s role, they lied about the strength of the puppet governments in Baghdad and Kabul, they lied about the vitality of ISIS, al Qaeda, and the Taliban, they lied about our progress, they lied about it all. They lied to make Pat Tilman’s death seem like Captain Miller’s. No one was ever punished.
    — On a simple material level, my God what did we waste in lives and money in all the wars, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the havoc of refugees let loose? And yet we demand the point of 9/11 be our victimization alone. We even appropriated the term Ground Zero, which once referred universally to Hiroshima.
    — American foreign policy credibility and our post-WWII imperialist strategy has finally been shown to be a farce. A lesson that should have been clear post-Vietnam needed to be relearned. That means we the public are stupid and gullible. We the nation are still a big, mean dog, but our ability to influence events around the world is limited to barking and biting and only works when barking and biting is the solution. When anything beyond threats is needed, say when dealing with peers, near-peers or non-allied countries with shared interests, we have few if any tools. That’s why we have no idea whatsoever how to work with Iran or China, and why our strategy with North Korea is hope fat boy slim dies before he (likely accidentally, think Chernobyl) blows up half of Asia.
    — They don’t hate our freedoms. They don’t want to be like us. We based policy on finding a handful of Afghan women who wanted to wear mini-skirts when the bulk of them simply wanted to be left alone. The lesson was always obvious; they didn’t want to be British, either.
    — Americans pretend our little journey to the dark side of torture was over years ago, our bad! but lots of others remember and Gitmo is still open. We will never unstain our reputation globally. Like that one-time little sexy business trip affair, it just becomes a thing polite people don’t talk about.
    — We emerged from 9/11 a “paranoid, xenophobic and martial society.” We’ve let the easy certainty of “you’re either with us or against us” morph into students being taught not to think but “being trained to mimic the moral certainty of ideologues.”
    — America became a massive surveillance state. The government (and many large corporations) monitor your communications and interactions. You cannot opt out. We willingly purchase electronics to aid the government in monitoring us. Here’s one in pink!
    — We willingly gave up our privacy out of fear. That fear now exists in the body politic to be summoned like a demon and manipulated by whomever wishes it for whatever purpose, say to imagine Trump is a Russian spy, or your neighbors as Nazis because they oppose what you support, or Covid survival demands further loss of freedom.
    — The media, which served in times past as a counterpoint, instead fully adopted the role of promoting Bush’s wars and WMDs, Trump the spy, etc. They allowed Obama to wave away questions about torture, drone assassinations, and new wars because he was their chosen one. No one sees the media as anything but partisans now, albeit our partisans and their partisans depending on which channel is on. The result is we are ever more uninformed and simultaneously more opinionated. What part of a doctor’s day is spent dealing with knuckleheads who value their degree from the University of Google more than what he has learned in a lifetime of practice?
    There, that’s it. I predict the 9/11 commemorations will become lower and lower key in the years to come, much like America lost interest in the space program in the later years and rocket launches were no longer even televised. But each year the anniversary rolls around and we’re admonished to never forget, remember how much we already seem to have very purposely forgotten.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    In Search of Biden’s Foreign Policy

    September 29, 2021 // 4 Comments »


     

    Since Biden was elected in part as the answer to Trump’s perceived foreign policy blunders, it seems reasonable nine months in to go searching for the Biden Doctrine, to assess his initial foreign policy moves, to see what paths he has sketched out for the next three years.

    (Sound of tumbleweeds.)

    So what of the Biden foreign policy? Biden took office with no immediate crisis at hand. Yet all he has done is blunder poorly through a handful of incidents.

    Afghanistan of course has been Biden’s only significant foreign policy action. Ending the Afghan War almost happened under Trump, the last steps derailed by false reporting the Russians were paying bounties to the Taliban for dead Americans (which made no sense; why would the Taliban do anything that might slow the inevitable American withdrawal? They had already won) and a ridiculous media tsunami claiming Trump disrespected the troops. Biden won the election in November and took office in January. There was ample time for replanning and renegotiating anything left behind by Trump, especially since most of the Biden team had muddled in Afghanistan for years previously during the Obama era and knew well the mess they’d help create. The rush for the last plane out of Kabul was a fully expected unexpected event. The Biden administration did not quietly start the evacuation in February, nor did it negotiate ahead of time the third country landing rights it knew would be needed. The lessons learned in Iraq and Vietnam evacuating locals who worked with us were clear, though Biden did not kick start processing of the SIV visas until literally the last flights were scheduled out of Afghanistan.

    Biden instead chose to place his first foreign policy act’s fate in the hands of negotiations with the Taliban, depending on them to uphold agreements, provide security, vet Americans enroute to the airport, and generally play nice with whatever America needed to do to save face as the door hit us in the ass on the way out. The National Security Council spokeswoman even called the Taliban “businesslike and professional.” If this was naïve, then a new word meaning “more than naïve” needs to be created. Even assuming good intentions (!) the Taliban are loosely organized, with plenty of local warlords, ISIS spinoffs, and rogue elements to ensure things would go wrong, for example, the terror bombing which killed 13 Americans and basically ended the evacuation. Biden’s follow-up? Lie about the success of a revenge drone strike to make sure America’s final official act in the war was to kill civilians. This all added up to the most amateurish foreign policy execution seen in a long time. Mistakes? How  about assuming your enemies share your goals, negotiating after you have lost and hold no cards, failing to plan for anticipatable events, and fibbing about it all and blaming your predecessor. For a foreign diplomat sitting in London, Tokyo, Beijing, or Paris, the question had to have been “who if anyone is in charge in Washington?”

     

    Biden’s other foreign policy gesture, the nuclear submarine agreement with Australia which alienated the French, again begs the question of who is in charge.

    Perhaps the most significant foreign policy problem America faces is no one is in charge . If one understands diplomacy as “America’s interactions with foreigners” then the extended answer is more like there are too many people in charge of parts of the whole. You get celebrity policy, like Trump with Kim, John Kerry jetting around the world solving climate change, or the endless strings of special envoys (Biden has 14, which overlay the existing diplomatic structure with a new layer of bureaucracy. Tillerson had done away with 35 special envoys, Pompeo added back 5.) It seems if the issue is important enough, it is too important for regular diplomats. Next level down are the host of other organizations playing at policy. For the large and growing swatch of the world controlled by warlords, militias, and criminals organizations, policy is made by the intelligence agencies, for example. They have people on ground too muddy for diplomats and too complicated for the White House to focus on. They make policy with payoffs and bribes, if not with targeted kills.

    But the biggest player in today’s foreign affairs is the military. Biden just learned how that works. In many parts of the world (particularly Asia and Africa) the combatant commanders are putative epicenters for security, diplomatic, humanitarian, and commercial affairs. One reason is range: unlike ambassadors, whose responsibilities, budget, and influence are confined to single countries, combatant commanders’ reach is continental. Unlike the White House, whose focus is ever-shifting, the military has the interest and manpower to stick around everywhere. Generals outlast administrations. When America’s primary policy tool is so obviously the military, there is less need, use, and value to diplomats or even presidents. As a foreign leader, who would you turn to if you wanted Washington’s ear—or to pry open its purse?

    Any criticism of the deal with Australia begins with the question of what idiot could so completely screw up a deal involving a NATO-ally and a partner like Australia? On the face that’s the kind of lunk-headed stuff Trump was often accused of. You’ve left with the bad jokes about not being able to find a girlfriend in a bawdy house.

    What actually happened was Australia ditched a $66 billion contract for French diesel-electric submarines to instead buy U.S. nuclear-powered submarines under a new alliance which will also see Australia, the U.S., and the United Kingdom share advanced technologies with one another. The genesis of all this of course is the U.S. military’s muscular diplomacy, ramping up for a war with China they hope will power their budgets for decades. A side deal with Britain to station its newest aircraft carriers in Asia was certainly part of the package. This brings now both the British and the Australians into the South China Sea in force, with an arms salesman in the Pentagon finding a way to sideline the French at the same time. Calling America’s (by default, Biden’s) actions Trumpian, France withdrew its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra. France had never before withdrawn its ambassador to the U.S., dating back to the initial alliance in 1778, two years after the U.S. Declaration of Independence. France assumes the EU presidency next year and promises revenge, never mind the likelihood that Biden will never recruit them into any coalition against Chinese power. So much for Candidate Biden’s promises to repair the U.S.’s alliances post-Trump. He has of course been radio silent on the Aussie deal, and likely learned about it mostly from the media. Arms sales, titularly approved by State, are one of the military’s primary foreign policy carrots.

     

    Joe Biden certainly has his hands full of domestic problems — Covid the virus which has killed thousands of Americans, Covid the public policy disaster which is killing the rest of us, unemployment, inflation, immigration, abortion rights — it’s a long list. So it’s easy to forget Biden was elected in part for his foreign policy expertise. During the campaign Trump was presented as a foreign policy disaster, skirting just short of tragedy thanks to pseudo-coups by patriots like Alexander Vindman and Mark Milley. There were his homoerotic ties to Putin, fights with the French and British, near sell out to North Korea, the brink of war with Iran, and his failure to blunt the rise of China. At least that’s what we were told, because of course none of those things actually happened.

    But first the strawmen. Every president except George Washington inherited his predecessor’s wins and losses and works in progress, and has had at some point needed to take ownership. “But Trump!” worked as a campaign strategy well enough for Biden, but nine months is long enough to have worn it out as a foreign policy (and of course as a domestic excuse.) Trump did not decimate the State Department. Over the decades the most damage done to State has been by various Congresses slashing the budget for diplomacy. The answer to that is for the new president to get some more money into the game, and no signs Biden is working on that.

    One final point about all that rhetoric about Trump gutting the State Department. Decades before Trump, the State Department slide into being an agency without primary agency. Under Cold War administrations it focused on arms control. During the Bush and early Obama years, it was sent off to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan. Hillary Clinton switched the organization to “soft power” programs. John Kerry started on Syria as a signature aim but ended up focused singularly on the Iran nuclear deal. Tillerson never articulated any goals at all beyond some verbiage about structural reform that never saw daylight. State played a concierge role while Trump tried personal diplomacy with North Korea. Pompeo had little to say other than to support his boss ending the Obama nuclear deal with Iran. And of course no one complained much when State was hiring below attrition during the Obama years. As Trump took office, two thirds of new hires at State came from “fellowship” programs created not to bolster core diplomatic skills sets but in response to various diversity lawsuits. 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. So enough with the excuses.

     

    Nine months in Biden has shown no grace or skill at foreign policy. He has handed execution over to naïve and incompetent people, and watched his military sketch out America’s broader strategy toward China. Biden has otherwise done little of what he promised; there are no signs of him paying any attention to nuclear threats Iran and North Korea. No options have come forth for follow-on in Afghanistan. No significant engagement with NATO or Russia. None at all with China (Trump’s tariffs remain in place.) Not a peep on policy toward Africa or South America. Biden can’t even claim he’s providing stability by staying the course because that means overtly supporting Trump’s policies. Foreign Policy, a reliable Democratic acolyte, struggles to define Biden as a foreign policy success, resorting to listing his accomplishment as “rejoining multilateral organizations, reinvigorating alliances [and] donating vaccines.” Obama got a Noble Peace Prize for doing even less of course, but that must be little solace for poor Joe.

      

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    The Last Question About 9/11

    September 18, 2021 // 5 Comments »

     

    History rarely falls between neat bookends. The Sixties didn’t end until 1975 with the fall of Saigon, for example. The New Millenium really started on September 11, 2001 and now, two decades later, is wrapping up with the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the New York awkwardly bumping into the endgame in Afghanistan.

    I was working for the U.S. State Department on 9/11/01 at our embassy in Tokyo. My job was to look after the interests of private American citizens (ACS work to the informed) and the summer had been abuzz with warnings and threats of some sort of terror attack. Everyone was certain it would be aimed at us overseas, the way the 1998 Nairobi and Dar es Salaam attacks had been.

    Because of the “No Double Standards” rule, despite being a fairly low-level staffer in the embassy, I was better informed than many of my colleagues. The “No Double Standards” rule grew out of the 1988 terror bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie. Because some members of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow had been tipped off to possible danger to that flight, and chose to change their plans and live, and because the public was left in the dark and were destroyed in mid-air, the rules were changed.

    The new rule said if the government shares information with the official U.S. community that could also affect the safety of non-official Americans, the info has to be shared with the public. This lead to many complicated situations that summer; if the embassy wanted to tell its staff to stay off flights into the Philippines, it had to also tell the public, with all the resulting panic and media guff. A lot of the warnings and threats were therefore found not to be credible and thus not released individually even as the growing storm was hard to miss. I was a silent partner, seated in the classified space with the big boys as CYA insurance that they had considered the needs of the American public in their decisions.

    Late afternoon on September 10, 2001 Tokyo time I was called to review a highly classified document detailing an imminent attack at a specific location in Japan. The acting chief of mission had already decided to release the information to employees and thus I was required to release it to the public. The warning was sent out publicly via our-then very limited FAX system. By 2021 an archived copy has been removed from the embassy website and even the Wayback Machine-Internet archive can only find a place holder. Believe whatever you like to believe but within eight hours the first plane struck the World Trade Center in New York. The summer was over.

     

    Sometime that autumn we learned some of the widows of those among the 25 Japanese men killed at the World Trade Center were having a difficult time obtaining death certificates from New York and making insurance claims. The bureaucracy was finally catching up on the events of that terrible September Tuesday and despite all the talk about “anything we can do to help” the issue of working with the widows became a third rail inside the embassy; nobody wanted to touch it. It ended up in my office, specifically in the hands of my local Japanese staff. It was treated as a paperwork problem, same as when more mundane widows needed some help filing for their American spouse’s Social Security benefits. We were told to help where we could, be a point of contact, an office others could refer pesky phone calls to.

    I initially stayed away from it all, not as much because I had other things to do but because I had no idea what I would do. I would see them come in to our conference room, the widows, many with small kids. Then one of my local employees would disappear inside, too. Afterwards there would be a near-empty tissue box on the table, maybe some papers for me to perfunctorily sign, and a very quiet office for the rest of the day.

    One afternoon I just walked in and sat down. Then again, then again on another day. It had been by this time a couple of months since the attacks, and that awful feeling all this was normal now had set in. Not all of the eligible widows came into the embassy. Some made the journey to New York, some hired lawyers, some received more help from the husband’s employer than others. They did not need to see me, they had to choose. I could pretend to be busy at my desk with paperwork. I, too, had to choose.

    I listened to my local employee ask the questions, and then the routine answers while the elephant in the room whispered “We’re talking about a man burned into nothing, aren’t we?” Sometimes the widows would ask me why I was there. They meant I guess what was my job, me being an American and all, but I could not escape the broader question. So we talked. Many had never been to New York, they had in the Japanese way stayed home in Tokyo with the kids. So they asked about Brooklyn, where their husband had lived. Had I ever been to the World Trade Center? Yes, I have a favorite photo of some old school friends and me taken on the outdoor observation deck. Was that on the North Tower where my husband was killed? Yes.

    Only one widow grew angry. I was the first and likely only U.S. government official she had spoken to. That line in the State Department job description about representing America abroad bit hard that day. She, demurely and ever-so-politely, hated me. She hated my country. She forced herself to repeat how much she hated everything about me in limited English, then repeated it in Japanese and demanded it be translated even as I understood every word. You, knowing none of the Japanese language, would have understood every word. After that I had to somehow finish the work day and go home to hear my own kids tell me about how hard multiplication was and appear like I was still part of the human race.

     

    A problem developed in New York. Never before had the city had to issue thousands of death certificates so quickly without any remains, any actual proof that the person was indeed dead and not just missing. That bit of official paper was the key, however, to all sorts of insurance claims and death benefits and condolence money and the like, never mind being the one document which would explain bureaucratically how Mrs. Tanaka had become a widow and her children now fatherless. It seemed every bank, elementary school, and employer in Japan needed a copy to update their records.

    The NYC Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) had begun the very long process by classifying all 9/11 deaths as homicides. No death certificates would be issued for the terrorists and they would never be included in any count of the dead. DNA and other technologies were not as advanced as today so out of close to 3,000 certificates issued, DNA at the time accounted for only 645 identifications, dental records 188, fingerprints 71, and found personal effects 19. We had been asked at one point to collect dental records and then DNA samples from the widows on behalf of their husbands but this proved of little value; some sort of human remain had to have been found at the Trade Center site to make a comparison match and some 40 percent of the victims left nothing of themselves behind. They just disappeared. The initial explosions, massive compression as the Towers imploded, and the fires destroyed most completely. Those death certificates simply stated “physical injuries (body not found.)”

    I have no memory of whose form it was, but one of the widows presented it to me. I was supposed to place her under oath and ask her why she believed her husband had died on September 11 given the absence of evidence — neither his body nor any evidence of it had ever been found. I had come to know this woman and her young children a bit; her claims somehow all were complicated and we had developed an odd workaday relationship. Easier to just get things done at this point I guess. So I asked her the question. How does she know her husband is dead?

    She said he was only to be in New York for a few months, and she and the kids stayed behind. But he missed his children and maybe her, a brave joke for her to make to me under the circumstances, and vowed to call every evening Tokyo-time to say goodnight. Tokyo-time night was New York-time in the morning, and so he’d make the calls from his office in the South Tower after he arrived at work. He called every morning/night, sometimes chatting, sometimes in a hurry. He called early the morning of September 11 (the plane hit at 9:03 am) and said goodnight. Now my phone never rings anymore, she said, so I know he is dead. But I still do not know why.

     

    I don’t think I saw the widow more than once or twice after that and I don’t know what happened to her. Her husband’s name is the one I visit when I am in New York at the Memorial. This year, 20 others having past, watching the results of our generational revenge war on Afghanistan and having experienced a year in the Iraqi desert myself for an equally pointless war, I still cannot answer her question. I still don’t know why and I’ve been thinking about it for almost 20 years.

     

     

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    Who’s to Blame for Losing Afghanistan?

    August 28, 2021 // 14 Comments »


     

    Who should we blame for losing Afghanistan? Why blame anyone?

    Did anyone expect the U.S. war in Afghanistan to end cleanly? If so, you bought the lies all along and the cold water now is hitting sharp. While the actual ending is particularly harsh and clearly spliced together from old clips of Saigon 1975, those are simply details.

    Why blame Biden? He played his part as a Senator and VP keeping the war going, but his role today is just being the last guy in a long line of people to blame, a pawn in the game. That Biden is willing to be the “president who lost Afghanistan” is all the proof you need he does not intend to run again for anything. Kind of an ironic version of a young John Kerry’s take on Vietnam “how do you ask the last man to die for a mistake?” Turns out, it’s easy: call Joe.

    Blame Trump for the deal? One of the saddest things about the brutal ending of the U.S.-Afghan war is we would have gotten the same deal — just leave it to the Taliban and go home — at basically any point during the last 20 years. That makes every death and every dollar a waste. Afghanistan is simply reverting, quickly, to more or less status quo 9/10/01 and everything between then and now, including lost opportunities, will have been wasted.

    Blame the NeoCons? No one in Washington who supported this war was ever called out, with the possible exception of Donald Rumsfeld who, if there is a hell, now cleans truck stop toilets there. Dick Cheney walks free. The generals and diplomats who ran the war have nice think tank or university jobs, if they are not still in government making equally bad decisions. No one has been legally, financially, or professionally disadvantaged by the blood on their hands. Some of the era’s senior leaders — Blinken, Rice, Power, Nuland — are now working in better jobs for Biden. I’d like to hope they have trouble sleeping at night, but I doubt it.

    George Bush is a cuddly grandpa today, not the man who drove the United States into building a global prison archipelago to torture people. Barack Obama, who kept much of that system in place and added the drone killing of American citizens to his resume, remains a Democratic rock god. Neither man nor any of his significant underlings has expressed any regret or remorse.

    For example, I just listened to Ryan Crocker, our former ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, on CNN. Making myself listen to him was about as fun as sticking my tongue in a wood chipper. Same for former general David Petraeus and the usual gang of idiots. None of them, the ones who made the decisions, accept any blame. Instead. they seem settled on blaming Trump because, well, everything bad is Trump’s fault even if he came into all this in the middle of the movie.

    In the end the only people punished were the whistleblowers.

    No one in the who is to blame community seems willing to take the story back to its beginning, at least the beginning for America’s latest round in the Graveyard of Empires (talk about missing an early clue.) This is what makes Blame Trump and Blame Biden so absurd. America’s modern involvement in this war began in 1979 when Jimmy Carter, overreacting to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to prop up what was already a pro-Soviet puppet government, began arming and organizing Islamic warriors we now collectively know as “The Taliban.”

    People who want to only see trees they can chop down and purposely want to miss the vastness of the forest ahead at this point try to sideline things by claiming there never was a single entity called “The Taliban” and the young Saudis who flocked to jihad to kill Russians technically weren’t funded by the U.S. (it was indirectly through Pakistan) or that the turning point was the 1991 Gulf War, etc. Quibbles and distractions.

    If Carter’s baby steps to pay for Islamic warriors to fight the Red Army was playing with matches, Ronald Reagan poured gas, then jet fuel, on the fire. Under the Reagan administration the U.S. funded the warriors (called mujaheddin if not freedom fighters back then), armed them, invited their ilk to the White House, helped lead them, worked with the Saudis to send in even more money, and fanned the flames of jihad to ensure a steady stream of new recruits.

    When we “won” it was hailed as the beginning of the real end of the Evil Empire. The U.S. defeated the mighty Red Army by sending over some covert operators to fight alongside stooge Islam warriors for whom a washing machine was high technology. Pundits saw it as a new low-cost model for executing American imperial will.

    We paid little attention to events as we broke up the band and cut off the warriors post-Soviet withdrawal (soon enough some bozo at the State Department declared “the end of history.” He teaches at Stanford now) until the blowback from this all nipped us in the largely unsuccessful World Trade Center bombing of 1993, followed by the very successful World Trade Center bombing on September 11, 2001. Seems like there was still some history left to go.

    How did U.S. intelligence know who the 9/11 culprits were so quickly? Several of them had been on our payroll, or received financing via proxies in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, or were inspired by what had happened in Afghanistan, the defeat of the infidels (again; check Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Mughal Empire, various Persian Empires, the Sikhs, the British, et al.)

    If post-9/11 the U.S. had limited itself to a vengeful hissy fit in Afghanistan, ending with Bush’s 2003 declaration of “Mission Accomplished,” things would have been different. If the U.S. had used the assassination of Osama bin Laden, living “undiscovered” in the shadow of Pakistan’s military academy, as an excuse of sorts to call it a day in Afghanistan, things would have been different.

    Instead Afghanistan became a petri dish to try out the worst NeoCon wet dream, nation-building across the Middle East. Our best and brightest would not just bomb Afghanistan into the stone age, they would then phoenix-it from the rubble as a functioning democracy. There was something for everyone: a military task to displace post-Cold War budget cuts, a pork-laden reconstruction program for contractors and diplomats, even a plan to empower Afghan women to placate the left.

    Though many claim Bush pulling resources away from Afghanistan for Iraq doomed the big plans, it was never just a matter of not enough resources. Afghanistan was never a country in any modern sense to begin with, just an association of tribal entities who hated each other almost as much as they hated the west. The underpinnings of the society were a virulent strain of Islam, about as far away from any western political and social ideas as possible. Absent a few turbaned Uncle Toms, nobody in Afghanistan was asking to be freed by the United States anyway.

    Pakistan, America’s “ally” in all this, was a principal funder and friend of the Taliban, always more focused on the perceived threat from India, seeing a failed state in Afghanistan as a buffer zone. Afghanistan was a narco-state with its only real export heroin. Not only did this mean the U.S. wanted to build a modern economy on a base of crime, the U.S. in different periods actually encouraged/ignored the drug trade into American cities in favor of the cash flow.

    The Afghan puppet government and military the U.S. formed were uniformly corrupt, and encouraged by the endless inflow of American money to get more corrupt all the time. They had no support from the people and could care less. The Afghans in general and the Afghan military in particular did not fail to hold up their end of the fighting; they never signed up for the fight in the first place. No Afghan wanted to be the last man to die in service to American foreign policy.

    There was no way to win. The “turning point” was starting the war at all. Afghanistan had to fail. There was no other path for it, other than being propped up at ever-higher costs. That was American policy for two decades: prop up things and hope something might change. It was like sending more money to a Nigerian cyber-scammer hoping to recoup your original loss.

    Everything significant our government, the military, and the MSM told us about Afghanistan was a lie. They filled and refilled the bag with bullhockey and Americans bought it every time expecting candy canes. Keep that in mind when you decide who to listen to next time, because of course there will be a next time. Who has not by now realized that? We just passively watched 20 years of Vietnam all over again, including the sad ending. So really, who’s to blame?

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    Afghanistan Mon Amour

    May 1, 2021 // Comments Off on Afghanistan Mon Amour

    President Biden announced he will withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by September 11. That will end 20 years of a war which killed some 2,300 Americans, an unknown number of Afghans, and cost trillions of dollars to accomplish nothing.

    Biden speaks more plainly about failure than any previous president. “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result. I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.” We’ll take Biden at his word for now. Best to focus on the good.

    So leave aside how Biden piggy-backed off Trump’s decision, roundly criticized, to negotiate with the Taliban, and how Trump’s own plans to withdraw troops were sabotaged by the Deep State, including the false claims Russians were paying bounties for dead Americans. This could have been over two years ago, same as it could have been over 10 years ago. But neither Bush nor Obama had the courage to do it, Hillary certainly would not have, Trump was stopped, and so the dirty work fell to Joe.

    Let’s also leave aside the inevitable as America runs for the exit (and this alone suggests Biden plans on being a one-term president, setting himself like this.) The puppet regime in Kabul will dissolve like paper in the rain. The only question is how ugly the Taliban takeover will be; will they just close schools or will they behead teachers on TV?

    We should leave aside the Bush decision to invade Afghanistan at all. Sure the 9/11 hijackers were mostly Saudi, but Afghanistan was such an easy target and Al Qaeda did have some training camps there. Of course the 9/11 hijackers trained in American flight schools but even Dick Cheney wouldn’t bomb those (Biden’s choice of 9/11/2021 as the withdrawal date is meant to support that original sin of a lie.) Revenge morphed into nation building, “democracy in a box” it was called, and so by late 2001 the framework of the 20 year war was set. At the next off ramp, Obama let David Petraeus, then waiting for someone to cast Tom Hanks in his biopic, talk him into a surge of 30,000 troops soon after he took home his Nobel Peace Prize, the most ironic reward since Henry Kissinger got his. The rest is history.

     

    The modern American way of war is well-defined. Go in without an endgame, quit when the political cost hits critical, and leave the people supposedly democratized or otherwise liberated to their fate (Newspeak: “author of their own future”) while we honor our wounded troops with a free breakfast at Denny’s. Biden’s good friend, John Kerry, is an easy target because of his famous statement in 1971 about Vietnam: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Turns out it’s pretty easy.

    (The last American solider to die in Afghanistan, as of today, is Javier Gutierrez. He was shot to death by an Afghan soldier after a disagreement.)

    Next unleash the pundits to write about lessons learned. Their usual pattern is we had good intentions but the Iraqis, Afghans, Vietnamese, Pakistanis, et al, just didn’t do their share and we should never repeat this kind of thing. Nobody talks much about inertia, bureaucratic cowardliness, endless war as a questionable prophylaxis against terrorism, the ugliness of staying in because you don’t know why you started and are afraid of what happens if you end it. The only people now whining about unfinished business are feminists who seem to believe Marines should die so girls don’t have to wear burkas.

     

    The key theme in all these lessons learned is how could we have ever known it would turn out this way?

    Even before it started the war had to fail. Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires, had beaten Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Mughal Empire, various Persian Empires, the Sikhs, the British, and the mighty Red Army. What betting man would think the U.S. would end up any different? 

    Many knew the war would fail when it was back-burnered for an equally doomed jihad in Iraq in 2003. Or maybe it was when Bin Laden escaped Afghanistan, and again when he was killed 10 years after the initial U.S. invasion and yet the troops stayed on. Perhaps it was when SNL 20 years back did a skit about a suburban cocktail party that comes to a halt to celebrate the U.S. capture of Kandahar though no one knows exactly why it mattered, just that we won!

    Others foresaw the eventual failure upon the death of Pat Tilman, the NFL star who joined the Army post-9/11 only to die in a volley of friendly fire and Pentagon lies. Maybe it was after a Taliban IED tore apart State Department officer Anne Smedinghoff (say her name) while on a propaganda mission. Maybe it was in 2009 when former Marine Matthew Hoh resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan with the State Department over the war’s escalation. It could have been all those “feel good” media pieces about sons deploying to the same Afghan battlefields their fathers had served on.

    Or maybe when The Washington Post, long an advocate for all the wars everywhere, took a bruised penance publishing the Afghanistan Papers showing the government lied at every step. “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” wrote Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations. “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.” It’s a sordid trip down a street without joy, with little grace and less honor, last chapter just as bad as the first. FYI, America will mark the 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers this year.

    The final knowing point for me personally was in 2012. That was when, after having written a whistleblowing book on the failure of Iraq reconstruction and nation building, focusing on the carpetbaggers the U.S. hired to do most of the ground work, I began receiving requests for recommendations. The U.S. was hiring the same monkeys to work on the Afghan program.

    I responded to each inquiry with a short note and a draft copy of my book, only to find later in every case the person who had helped sink the U.S. effort in Iraq was rehired in Afghanistan. Ironically, the initial title for my book wasn’t the unwieldy We Meant Well: How I Lost the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People but Lessons for Afghanistan from the Reconstruction of Iraq. The publisher changed it, thinking the war in Afghanistan might be over before we hit the shelves almost a decade ago.

    Those with any sense of history saw Afghanistan (and Iraq for that matter) and heard echoes of Vietnam-Vietnam-Vietnam. Others looked back to a war where far more Americans were killed, some 35,000, where we stayed for 70 years without a peace treaty, with the North Korea we “beat” now a nuclear power. Yet politicians dared stand up in 2001 to say “we’ll get it right this time, trust us.” Who could have imagined nearly all Americans did answer “OK.” And then said OK again and again for 20 years even as their own sons and daughters came home dead, maimed or psychologically destroyed.

    Lessons learned? None at all. We’ll do it again just as Vietnam followed Korea, and Afghanistan followed Vietnam. Fathers whose hands shake with PTSD sent their sons off to the same fate. If that, that, can’t stop these pointless wars, nothing ever will. So, nothing ever will.

     

    We will do this again because failure has no such consequences for the decision makers. Bush is reborn as a cuddly old goof, Obama remembered as the bestest president ever. Trump is criticized both as a war monger and for talking about pulling back U.S. troops in the Middle East. The era’s senior leaders — Blinken, Rice, Power, Nuland — are now working in better jobs for Biden. I’d like to hope they have trouble sleeping at night, but I doubt it.

    In the classic 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour a Japanese man says to his French lover “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.” His frustration is in the two being bystanders on opposite sides of a war where all sides were inherently evil. There is always in the background talk about justice. What justice will be available to the Americans who went to their God like soldiers in Afghanistan, the uncountable Afghans who died at our hands, the promises to the living of a better future all now reviled lies?

    There are still those nights it takes a fair amount of whisky to abort thoughts about why no one gets impeached for wasting lives. But for tonight at least I’ll fill a glass half empty so I can raise it to Joe, for finally, imperfectly, awfully, clumsily ending this mess, better late than forever.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    Diversity Fail at State Department

    March 26, 2021 // 2 Comments »


    Politico just revealed a dirty little secret: the U.S. State Department was a more diverse workplace in 1986 than it is today. Despite efforts to recruit a more diverse pool of diplomats, the Department has failed miserably to promote them, and ultimately to retain them, even under Bill Clinton and Obama/Hillary.

    The Politico article does a comprehensive job of describing how the agency that represents America does not look like America. Minority staff made up 12.5 percent of employees at the end of the 1980s. Today black women make up nine percent, and just three percent of the Senior Foreign Service (the military equivalent of general) is black. And don’t fooled by statistics; we’re talking here about the Foreign Service, the elites, the diplomats. State will often intermix racial data from the Washington DC-based civil service, which is mostly minority people, to confuse outsiders.

    The Politico article, however, does a poor job of answering the question of why this is. It shows its 2021 bias with one solution “for more white men to miss out on recruitment or promotion.”

    State does have a diversity problem. It just is diversity of socio-economic class, not race or gender. State rarely imposes a quality standard on its work, meaning everyone’s job description is the same: just make your boss happy. That preserves the class system, and empowers those who would harass and discriminate.

     

    As a white man I was sort of part of a diversity program when I joined the State Department in 1988 for what turned out to be a 24 year career as a diplomat. State, from Thomas Jefferson’s tenure forward, followed a simple recruitment formula of “male, pale, and Yale.” In the late 1980s they decided male and pale (white) were good, but limiting recruitment to the Ivy League schools and their equivalents like Stanford and Georgetown was the problem. Someone found me and others like me at state schools and woosh, we were diversity-forward diplomats.

    But from Day One, with little change through today, it was clear not all pigs were equal. State divides its diplomatic work force into five specialities, known as cones. Only one matters in terms of a realistic shot at senior policy making roles, the Political cone. These people do what passes as traditional diplomacy. They and their work dominate the news and thus the Secretary of State’s world. The other cones fill in gaps and get hand-me-down senior promotions which are adequate in the Economic cone, down to nearly non-existent for the proletarian Consular cone that issues visas.

    Like at Hogwarts, new diplomats are sorted on entry to a cone which is very, very hard to change (seriously, the process is called a Snape-like “conal rectification.”) Ivy Leaguers can expect Political, kids from schools with good football teams Administration or Consular. All of this excludes political appointees, friends or large donors of the president who get appointed to the highest jobs without spending any time in the diplomatic corps.

    The Political cone, a club within the club, has proved porous enough for properly educated women. The key criteria is and has always been socio-economic background anyway, usually demonstrated by an Ivy diploma, not race or gender. The little climbing room for outsiders is provided by State-sponsored mid-career education, when a chosen few are sent off to Georgetown or the Kennedy School as midwestern losers to return two years later an honorary blue blood.

    The Government Accounting Office found among junior diplomats Ivy League grads had a 23 percent higher chance of promotion than colleagues with only a standard undergrad degree. And it is not just entry level diplomats and ambassadorships. Key internal positions like political and policy Assistant Secretaries are similar. Of course good old racism is still in the game when 87 percent of senior State Department personnel are white, compared with only three percent black. And of course the restrictive policies based on race, etc., at Ivy League schools means fewer “qualified” black people are produced for State to choose from, so the classic racism argument does apply indirectly. Just ask the Jews forbidden to attend Harvard who could not get into the State Department back in the day.

    What the successful diplomats in the Political cone seem to already know from Yale is what creates the full-spectrum lack of diversity. People call it The Code. Life is not fair, so best to have an advantage. Career success depends on the people above you and your relationship to them, and “trouble maker” is a bad one. Pleasing your betters is more effective then being right at a cost. There are rules, and if you do not know them you cannot follow them. And most of all, 99 percent of what matters is never written down. You are either trusted and welcomed into the circle or you are not.

    Advantages are everywhere, but usually start with who your parents are and which brand name professors you connected with in your brand-name college. The celebrity professor at Georgetown has close friends and former students for you to meet at State. The history teacher at Montana State, no. State has an up-or-out system, meaning almost all diplomatic new hires enter at the same bottom rung, and slowly advance over their careers upward. Somebody above you when you join is thus likely to stay above you for decades. There will not be any new blood flowing in. Make someone angry in 1990 in Taiwan and they’ll still be there waiting for you in 2010 in London. The people above you will write your performance reviews, sit on your promotion panels, and decide your assignments, all in private with little accountability, and all of which determine who sinks and swims. If you’re looking for the smoking gun on State’s diversity failure, for most of the past three decades most of that power was concentrated in one man, Ambassador Pat Kennedy (white, male, Georgetown) now retired.

    Those same people learned State is a change-adverse bureaucracy that likes things that way. Change at State is externally driven and internally resisted. The attitude at the top (except for public relations appearances, like making sure a few black folks are in public-facing positions) thinks the system has no need to change, it got it mostly right the first time. The proof is they themselve were promoted, and they saw their competitors stumble. People who want to do things different, make changes, etc., are generally shunned as troublemakers. The lack of interest in change is enhanced by the fact that State does little that can be objectively measured to allow someone to jump ahead. No sales figures, items sold, or stock prices to count toward promotion. Just exist for the most part, the details matter little except what your boss thinks.

     

    Here’s how that works in practice. No one does anything substantive alone at State. Most everything is a collaborative effort controlled by the clearance process. Say you write a report on metallurgy in India. You, the lowest on the rung, are directed to do this and you do all the heavy lifting gathering info and writing. Dozens of people above you, and depending on the subject that list can include people all the way up to the Secretary of State’s staff, then have to sign off, agree with you, “clear” your work. If one guy objects and won’t clear, your work cannot pass go to the next person until he is happy.

    If your report says basically the same thing as last year’s, that is safe and people clear it (one exception is if someone in the chain wants to make a political move and then directs you to come to a different conclusion, say to justify a budget increase as “matters have gotten worse.” You’re still just doing what you are told.) If you try and write something different from what you are told to write (often told implicitly, it is a skill to figure out what’s wanted because no one will jot down “Cook the data to match last year. Hope some reporter doesn’t see this. LOL.) your boss can’t clear it. If she is also a troublemaker and does clear, your work will likely just get stopped at a higher level, and that means a more important person will think you’re a troublemaker. Good bosses will thus try and protect their underlings by not clearing, keeping your problem inside the office.

    Absent any real measure of your work, your professional success is thus controlled by what State calls unofficially “corridor reputation,” basically what the people above you think of you. Imagine high school at the DMV. Careers are made or lost by a senior diplomat telling a peer “He’s OK, I’d bring him along” or “I heard he’s a problem, didn’t work out somehow in Beijing.” The official version of this is known as “lack of suitability,” a generic term which means you do not deserve a security clearance, or just can’t be trusted with the sensitive stuff.

    People in the right socio-economic groups seem to understand this stuff intuitively and, helped by others who think the same, get promoted. People from the wrong side of the tracks no matter their color do not understand the code so readily, and often are full of ambition to “make a mark.” They self-label themselves as not being part of the club and whether they know it or not, self-select out.

    So State can recruit all the people of color they can only to watch them slowly slide down the ladder along with lots of clueless whites who no one really cares about statistically. That is why many of both groups quit, or suffer in bureaucratic place to wait out pensions, and why State recruits minorities but cannot retain them. The result is a lack of diversity that has plagued the State Department for decades, both in race, and thinking.

     

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    China Policy: Trump vs. Biden

    October 18, 2020 // 1 Comment »

    Despite the campaign’s focus on domestic issues, there is still a world out there the next president will have to deal with. And there’s a very significant policy difference between Trump and Biden to be explored: China.

    First, a quick look back at 2016. What to do about Syria was a major point of contention between candidates Trump and Clinton. Remember how “boots on the ground” was a popular catch phrase and ISIS our bad guys? Clinton was going to war in Syria. Trump wanted no part of it, and proposed a broader change in U.S. foreign policy to not look for buckets of gasoline abroad to throw matches into. Four years later no politician is talking about terrorism and the wars which dominated the past two decades are background noise for most voters.

    (Knock knock. Who’s there? 9/11. 9/11 who? Aw, you said you’d never forget.)

    Did we win? Well anyway, terrorism seems to be gone. The thing is America does always need a foreign enemy, enough but not too much, to fuel defense spending, to justify a global imperial stance, to blame for our economic woes, and to serve as a rallying point for American jingoism as needed for domestic political purposes. The Russians did well in the role for many years but are hard to see as a rising global threat. “The Terrorists” had a good run until disappearing in a fast fade.

    The problem of having a standing enemy found its solution in China. The sword rattling had already begun in Late Obama. As president, Donald Trump built on those brewing animosities to break long-standing U.S. policy toward China. Since 1979 the country was characterized as a rising autocracy with at times aggressive but containable behaviors, a competitor but not an enemy. Trade-offs were necessary in such a relationship, especially if the U.S. was going to continue to push China on human rights issues. Not Trump: he saw the U.S. and China as enemies across a multiverse of economic, intellectual, technologic, and military issues.

    Inflamed by the COVID crisis, Trump continued what in a second term may develop into a policy of real Cold War. Trump imposed trade sanctions. Trump cut back on student visas, academic exchanges, and turned up the heat on Chinese espionage inside the U.S. Trump is selling F-35s to Japan and South Korea as part of a broad military check on Chinese ambitions. Administration officials portray China as an existential threat to the United States. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mocked “the old paradigm” and accused President Xi of seeking “global hegemony of Chinese communism.” Given the chance in November, Trump will likely continue to accelerate the process of “decoupling.”

    What about President Joe Biden? Biden has learned beating up on China is a cost-free way to prove his toughness, and has oddly even called out Trump for being too weak. It seems very likely Biden, if elected, will continue near but not in Trump’s footsteps with Target China. The difference will very likely be found in Biden himself, who with decades of experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will pay attention to the actual state of affairs between the U.S. and China versus Trump the ideologue and populist. So more challenges and possibilities, fewer problems and threats.

    The economic relationship alone is staggering. China purchased $165 billion in goods and services from the United States in 2015, such that China is the third-largest destination for American exports. China holds the most U.S. government debt of any foreign country. Much was made when one McDonald’s opened in Red Square during the Cold War. Yet the numbers for China represent a whole lot more reality for two supposed “enemies.”

    China’s military ambitions are both overstated and misunderstood. Beijing has made strides toward a real blue water navy but is it not there yet. Claims China might best the U.S. in the Pacific are mostly excuses to increase short-term defense spending. The PLAN is just the latest boogeyman for the military industrial complex.

    China does not yet have one modern carrier. The U.S. has 11 nuclear carrier groups, plus nine amphibious assault ships which can launch the F-35 as a strike aircraft. Japan, Korea, and Australia have similar amphibious ships to add to the fight. That of course is all just in the first responder category; land based American aircraft from Japan, Korea, Guam, and the U.S. mainland would assure air dominance. More importantly, America’s military is fully blooded and experienced, a sad legacy of the last 19 years of war. The modern PLAN has yet to fire a shot in anger, and learning under fire is expensive.

    Even more important is understanding China holds few territorial ambitions in the traditional sense of competing with the U.S. for control of land masses and populations. Nearly any place the U.S. might call a target — Japan and Taiwan stand out — is instead a major trading destination for China. Attacking a partner? War is bad for business. The Chinese do have a nationalist fixation on security and for a global order safe for their autocracy, but embarking on ideological or imperial crusades to remake other countries in its image is reserved for the United States.

    It’s not hard to see the difference in action. As head of a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq, I was tasked with improving water supply in our sector for the Iraqis. Fruitlessly driving through small towns looking for some place to create a water project, we spied a large stack of crated water pipes and pumps. Upon inspection, all had come from China. The locals told us Chinese salespeople had sold them the stuff and left months ago. The U.S. sent the 10th Mountain Division, the Chinese sent a sales team.

    Some saber rattling and fusses over tiny islands, of course, but always within boundaries. This is how it has worked regionally for decades. For example, Japan has challenged Russia for control of some northern islands for 75 years without violence (or progress.) Much the same for Taiwan and the Spratlys, claimed by multiple nations. The last real shooting between Taiwan and the Mainland was in the 1950s.

    President Biden will need to cooperate with China as he returns to America’s traditional international agenda. Transnational issues like climate change demand active engagement between the world’s two biggest economies. China is a major buyer of Iranian oil and key to any effective sanctions. A sleeper transnational issue is North Korea. Any serious change in the North requires Chinese cooperation. Or imagine the need to work together following a massive earthquake or Chernobyl-level nuclear accident in the North, as China struggles with a refugee crisis on its border under a drifting cloud of radiation.

    That doesn’t mean Biden can’t have a little of everything. Talk tough at home, do little abroad is something the Chinese have come to understand and expect from the U.S., a kind of necessary tax on the more important parts of the relationship.

    So during the primaries Biden called President Xi a thug for having “a million Uyghurs in reconstruction camps meaning concentration camps.” After Beijing imposed the new national security law in Hong Kong Biden vowed to “prohibit U.S. companies from abetting repression and supporting the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state.” At the same time Biden is respectful of how the great game is played. So expect fewer tariffs via Tweet, less nasty jabs against things like student visas and cell phone apps. There are well-known soft spots the U.S. must be cautious of, and Biden has long been a champion of strategic ambiguity on Taiwan. Biden’s will be a pragmatic China policy. Trump’s an emotive, populist one.

    A significant danger will come from Obama alums like Susan Rice and Samantha Power, perhaps even Bloody Hillary as some sort of elder statesman/special envoy, who will try to press Biden into the kind of open conflict they bluntly championed across the Middle East. Biden will have to resist them, as well as the defense intellectuals who see war between the Dragon and the Eagle as inevitable. The NYT, out front as always, reviewed scary Chinese military propaganda videos on YouTube as a way of warning us, not even getting the irony that one video is pieced together from borrowed Hollywood blockbuster footage.

    But if Biden holds steady, it won’t be cold war; let’s call it lukewarm at worst. The ties that bind the two nations are important enough that Biden and the Chinese will always be careful to color inside the lines. It is likely Biden will sound like a version of Trump but act much like Obama’s predecessors. China understands this game; the rules were established long ago over things like the multi-administration tsk tsk response to Tienanmen and the One Child Policy. Look for semi-tough words even as the cargo ships crowd each other out crossing the Pacific.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    Did You Notice the Trump Doctrine?

    August 15, 2020 // 3 Comments »


     
    The Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic staff recently issued a report titled “Diplomacy in Crisis: The Trump Administration’s Decimation of the State Department.” Oh, it’s horrid! Under Trump 11 Assistant Secretary or Under Secretary posts are vacant or filled by acting officials. And career public servants, many of whom were actively involved in trying to impeach and “resist” the president, report “leadership exhibits a sense of disrespect and disdain for their work.”
     
    Leaving aside the question of what an “Under Secretary” does and why previous administrations needed so dang many of them, one is tempted to say if this is what the real-world effect of American diplomacy in crisis is, please don’t fix anything: for the first time in almost two decades America has not started a new war. Cut back on some existing ones, too.

    U.S. military fatalities during the Obama term were 1,912. Trump’s body count to date is only 123. Damn uncomfortable truth. You can make yourself feel better by giving Trump (and State) no credit. You can calm yourself by believing there’s no Trump Doctrine of winding back the dumbness of constant war, no thought out process that maybe America’s power is enhanced by not throwing a match into every bucket of gasoline in the Middle East, just Trump bumbling in the foreign policy darkness randomly added up to something. He’s the diplomatic equivalent of all those monkeys pecking away at a million typewriters and accidentally reproducing Hamlet. Whatever helps you sleep at night. But the tally, in trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of human lives saved, is unambiguous and good.

     

    With Elderly Caucasian Joe Biden heading up the alumni association seeking the White House like the last founding member of Blue Oyster Cult taking the “band” out on the road one more time, it might be fun to indulge in some Obama-Biden foreign policy nostalgia as a vision of things to come.

    It’s easy to forget in the foreign policy debate between Trump and Hillary way back in 2016 one of the catch phrases was “boots on the ground” in reference to how (not if) Clinton was going to flat-out war in Syria. Trump wanted no part of it, but Obama-Biden had already intervened in Syria in multiple ways, teeing it up for the next POTUS.

    Clinton was being egged on to expand the war in Syria by the State Department. In June 2016 an internal State Department “dissent” memo leaked to major news outlets sharply criticizing the Obama-Biden policy of relative restraint, and demanding military strikes. The memo, signed by 51 diplomats whose identities somehow were not leaked, was almost certainly shepherded by former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. Ford had earlier helped promote the destruction of Iraq as Obama’s Deputy Chief of Mission in Baghdad, and went on to want open war in Syria. He was pulled out of the job in Syria for his own safety after undiplomatically promoting the overthrow of the government there.

    Obama’s expansion in Syria was minor compared to Iraq. After withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 in time to get re-elected the next year, in 2014 Obama partnered with Iran to let start putting boots back on that same old ground. It didn’t take long for the United States to morph that conflict from a rescue mission (Save the Yazidis!) to a training mission to bombing to special forces and then regular forces in ongoing contact with the enemy for what became Iraq War 3.0. American ground forces grew to some 6,000 on regular deployment, with an additional, unknown, number of Marines on “temporary duty” and not counted against the total.

    Obama surged into Afghanistan, the same year he received the Nobel Peace Prize, sending 17,000  troops to raise the total in-country by 50 percent. Obama also had U.S. forces at war in Yemen, Pakistan, Mali, and Somalia. Goaded by Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice he attacked Libya, turning the country into a failed state and promoting one of the most tragic outflows of refugees into Europe in modern times, forever changing the demographics of the continent (Germany did not say thank you.) There was Benghazi. Luckily, time ran out before Obama-Biden could militarily intervene in Ukraine. The State Department’s Victoria Nuland, in a tapped call discussing manipulating political succession in Ukraine, said “F*ck the EU” showing how the administration valued its allies.

    And of course the Putin love shown by Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry who invited Russia back into Syria. Kerry who floundered as Russia made its incursions into Ukraine and Crimea. Kerry who sang Happy Birthday to Putin at an APEC conference.

     

    But in weighing Obama the Committed Warlord against Trump the Accidental Peacemaker, one cannot focus on policy alone. One needs to know the man.

    Obama killed four American citizens by drone. Trump zero. After Obama ordered the killing of American Anwar al-Awlaki and later his teenage American son, Obama’s White House press secretary Robert Gibbs commented the kill shot on the kid was justified as he “should have had a more responsible father.” Obama personally lead the Tuesday Oval Office reviews to choose who would die the coming week, telling senior aides in 2011: “Turns out I’m really good at killing people. Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.” Under Obama America wasn’t the world’s policeman. We were the world’s George Zimmerman.

    At a time when militarization and Trump’s use of Federal force in America cities is being questioned, remember Obama set the bar. Following the drone killings of Americans abroad Senator Rand Paul asked whether the president could authorize lethal force against an American citizen in the U.S. Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder answered yes. Holder said he could imagine “an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the president to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States.” Note to DJT: the legal justification is still on the books if you need it in Portland.

     

    That was the world in 2016. Donald Trump as president has started no new wars. Troop levels in Syria are down. Same for Iraq. Afghanistan remains about the same, with no surges. In 2017, the Department of Defense stopped providing specific military deployment figures for those areas. However, DOD’s annual budget requests fill in some of the blanks. The budget request from March 2019 showed the number of troops in Afghanistan at 12,000, with Iraq and Syria together at 5,800. In a recent move, Trump announced 12,000 American troops will be leaving Germany.

    The Global War on Terror, Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and regime change in Syria played important roles in the 2016 election. They’re no longer in the lexicon, artifacts now of another era. What happened? Did we win? Are they postponed because of COVID? Or was it mostly a pile of bullsh*t from the beginning and Trump called the bluff?

    It is a good thing a lot of nothing happened. John Bolton was the Bad Boy who was supposed to start wars with Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, maybe even China. He didn’t. The ending of the Iran nuclear agreement and the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem caused not much to happen. In the end Bolton had no home in an administration which didn’t want to go to war. Mad Dog Jim Mattis as defense secretary, along with State Department special envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS Brett McGurk, resigned over Trump’s decision to draw down in Syria and Afghanistan. Mattis and McGurk too had no place in an administration which didn’t want more war.

    Whereas Obama had given up on diplomacy with North Korea in 2012, content to see them grow their nuclear arsenal, Trump understood you make peace by talking to your worst adversaries. His efforts were mocked, with the MSM declaring anything short of improbable full denuclearization meant Trump failed. But the door was left open, tensions cooled on the Korean Peninsula, and both sides got a peek at how they can move forward in the future. It’s easy to forget that before Trump’s diplomacy with Kim Jong Un, the Council on Foreign Relations assessed the chances of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula at 50 percent.

     

    Of course Biden isn’t Obama. But neither is Trump, who spent the last four years disengaging from the policies Biden helped champion for eight. Biden’s foreign policy will be shaped by Obama alums. Only Satan knows the details of Susan Rice’s and Samantha Power’s pact with him, but they will both certainly have a role in a Biden administration promoting war as they did under Barack. We might even see the return of Hillary in some sort of elder statesman/special envoy role.

    There are many domestic Trump policies people don’t like, and this article isn’t meant to defend them. But it is worth noting how central warmaking has been to mucking up America, whether it is savaging our economy with debt, diverting funds from some social program to war, fueling terrorism either directly through CIA funding, or indirectly by blowing up wedding parties and creating new enemies. America’s warmaking has turned allies against us, burned too many times by American adventurism. And for those concerned about America’s image abroad, the most offensive Trump tweets have little to compare to the serial “accidental” bombings of schools and hospitals. So while the easy out is to rebut this with “But Trump…,” that ignores the centrality of war to American foreign policy and benefits in walking that back.

     

    Democrats and the MSM have spent four years declaring Trump is about to start some war or another, when in fact he has done quite the opposite. Meanwhile their candidate carries forward a bloody history of intervention and self-proclaimed Just War killing millions. While the Left will insist it won’t believe it’s eyes, it is possible the people know. Trump’s 2016 win was influenced by his outspoken denouncement of the waste of America’s wars. Evidence suggests pro-Trump sentiment in rural areas especially was driven in part by people who agreed with his anti-war critique, voters who’d either served in Obama’s wars or whose sons/daughters had served. We’ll see who notices in November.

     

     

    BONUS Content: Ah, Susan Rice. Only Satan knows the details of her pact with him, but she would certainly have a role in the Biden administration. Rice who supported bloodshed in Africa, created the policy of overlooking genocide in Rwanda, persuaded President Clinton against killing bin Laden, supported the invasion of Iraq as did Biden, who lied about what happened in Benghazi, and who wanted war in Libya. Rice combines the steamy crap foreign policy failures of Bill and Hillary with Obama to ensure it’ll all work out about the same for Biden. She is also all appetite, having spent a career promoting Susan Rice, so also expect her to go after the Oval Office if she can.

      

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    Requiem for the U.S. Department of State, Part II of II

    May 26, 2020 // 10 Comments »

    The Department of State has been adrift for the past handful of administrations, an agency without agency, personnel, or budget, in search of a mission. It is the essential agency which does nothing that matters anymore. As seen in Part I of this article, a number of secretaries of state, from the politically royal to the politically disabled, have failed to impact diplomacy. How did this all happen?

    Traditional diplomacy began as a necessary expedient. Nations had business with one another, but messages could take weeks to travel from one capital to another. Instead, ambassadors were sent out, empowered in the case of the U.S. as the President’s personal representative to speak in his name with the full force of the United States. Heady stuff. Messages back to Washington would report final results, such Ben Franklin letting the boys at home know he’d knocked out a treaty with France against Great Britain so we might win the Revolution after all. Hundreds of year later communications improved to the point where world leaders can now text each other, but those ambassadors and embassies remain as if Ben was still out there.

    Leaders came and went. For every Abraham Lincoln there were a lot of Millard Fillmore’s and Taylor’s (John and Zach) who mattered little. With exceptions along the way (FDR stand outs), presidents did not conduct first-name diplomacy or tie themselves up with the details of foreign affairs. They had secretaries of state for that. Everything shifted under Richard Nixon, whose interest in first-person diplomacy with China and reluctant ownership of the Vietnam War sent the State Department into a supporting role.

    The change began under Nixon. Events both internal and external to the U.S., its State Department, and the world, did the rest.

     

    A Rubik’s Cube, Not a Chessboard

    The world has changed even as the State Department is still largely configured for the early 20th century. State’s primary organizational unit is the nation-state, and so it divides itself into the “China Desk” or the “Argentina Desk.” Inside that unit, it is assumed the host country has a government that works more or less like ours, with a Foreign Ministry, some rational system of sending policies up to the leader, in most cases some sort of press, that kind of thing. So inside the country desk State organizes fiefdoms along subunits of Political, Economic, Press, and Trade. New diplomats arrive in foreign capitals to go off in search of their one-to-one counterparts. Everyone at Foggy Bottom assumes the basic framework applies from Albania to Zimbabwe. Over the years State has created regional divisions (East Asia) and topical divisions (Science and Tech) but overlaid these across the geographic divisions so that ideas skitter sideways and up and down simultaneously. The result is usually paralysis when it is not confusion. The problem is not determining who is in charge per se, but that 10-12 people all think they are in charge.

    The days of seeing the world as a chessboard are over. It’s now closer to a Rubik’s Cube that Washington can’t figure out how to manipulate. In many cases no one in State can get to the policy task itself, busy as they are arguing over who has the lead on some issue. In most cases senior decision makers elsewhere in Washington leave State to its internal fussing and seek guidance elsewhere — CIA, NSC, the Pentagon.

    No one outside of official Washington can appreciate how much 9/11 altered the way the U.S. Government thinks about itself. The shock changed the posture of the government from one of at times satisfied with passivity in its more distant foreign affairs to one demanding constant action. Presidents from that day forward would probably have preferred each Federal worker go out and strangle a terrorist personally, but if that was not possible everyone was to find a way to go to war. State never really has.

    Things change slowly if at all. State has no tanks or battleships, just people as its primary way of getting things done. In 1950 State had 7,710 foreign service officers. Pre-9/11 they had 7,158. Today it’s still only about 8,000.

     

    Growing Sophistication of Foreign Actors

    The traditional image of the older gentleman from the embassy meeting with the local king is for the movies. Foreign actors have gotten much more sophisticated in their ability to demand VIPs to fly in to finalize deals, and in playing local staff off against the real decision makers scattered throughout Washington. Those foreign actors understand today State is less than a one-stop portal into the USG and more of just one player to manipulate alongside others.

    In almost every nation, smaller bureaucracies allow easier bundling/unbundling of issues, something which befuddles State — Country X says if you want that naval base you have to cut American tariffs on cinnamon imports. State throws up its hands, paralyzed, knowing their real diplomacy will involve the Pentagon and whoever the hell does spice tariffs in what, Treasury? Commerce? Senator Johnson’s office, whose district controls most cinnamon packaging? The other side is scheming clever demands while State organizes Zoom calls. The joke inside the Department is deals abroad fail on diplomatic efforts inside the Beltway.

    Similarly, in most places abroad the U.S. has three centers of representation who vie for the authority of the United States, and are played off one another by smart foreigners. The Department of Defense maintains relationships with foreign militaries. The intelligence community does the same with host country spies and cops. State tries with everyone left over. Depending on the country, the civilians State interfaces with may matter little in a power structure dominated by say the army, or the local version of the CIA. That renders the American ambassador second place on his own team, never mind in the eyes of the locals. That ambassador may not even know what his own country’s military or spies are up to, leading to naughty surprises and the loss of credibility as a hollow figurehead.

     

    Militarization

    Negotiating in Iraq with a minor tribal leader for safe passage, he asked me as the State Department representative how many goats I was offering. About five seconds into my response on the need for lasting friendships, an U.S. Army major cut me off saying “I can get goats” and I no longer mattered to the negotiation, the war, maybe the 21st century itself.

    It is all about resources. The military has more people, more hardware, and more cash. From Great Britain to some valley in Garbagestan the military can offer new friends shiny tools (Section 1206 funding: for the first time since President Kennedy signed the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, President George W. Bush allowed that the U.S. military would fund many weapons transfers directly from its own accounts, bypassing the State Department. Conspicuously absent from the debate over Section 1206 was Condoleezza Rice, America’s then Secretary of State.) State meanwhile needs a couple of days to arrange transportation to the meeting.

    Stephen Glain’s State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America’s Empire is a sober biography of the Department since World War II. The choice of word — biography — is significant, in that traces the decline in old age of State as America’s foreign policy is increasingly made and carried out by the Pentagon. In particular Glain understands the military is organized for the new world order.

    “The yawning asymmetry is fueled by more than budgets and resources (though the Pentagon-State spending ration is 12:1), however. Unlike ambassadors, whose responsibility is confined to a single country or city-state, the writ of a combatant commander is hemispheric in scope. His authority covers some of the world’s most strategic resources and waterways and he has some of the most talented people in the federal government working for him. While his civilian counterpart is mired in such parochial concerns as bilateral trade disputes and visa matters, a combatant commander’s horizon is unlimited. ‘When we spoke, we had more clout,’ according to Anthony Zinni. ‘There’s a mismatch in our stature. Ambassadors don’t have regional perspectives. You see the interdependence and interaction in the region when you have regional responsibility. If you’re in a given country, you don’t see beyond its borders because that is not your mission.’”

    Adding to the problem is about a third of State’s ambassadors are political appointees, amateurs selected mostly because they raised big campaign bucks for the president. The United States is the only first world nation that allots ambassador jobs as political patronage.

     

    Self-Destruction

    State’s once-valued competitive advantage was its from-the-ground reporting. Even there the intelligence community has eaten State’s sandwiches with the crusts cut off — why hear what some FSO thinks the Prime Minister will do when the NSA can provide the White House with real time audio of him explaining it in bed to his mistress? The uber revelation from the 2010 Wikileaks dump of documents was most of State’s reporting is of little practical value. State struggled through the Manning trial to show actual harm was done by the disclosures. Some 10 years later there hasn’t even been a good book written from them.

    Under the Trump administration the State Department has seemingly sought out opportunities to sideline itself, now and in the future. Even before the 2016 election results were in, diplomats leaked a dissent memo calling for more U.S. intervention in Syria, a move opposed by Trump. Soon after Rex Tillerson took office, his diplomats leaked another memo very close to insubordination opposing the State Department’s role in Trump’s immigration plans. In yet another dissent memo, Foggy Bottom’s denizens claimed their boss violated a child soldier law. FYI: Nothing substantive came of any of those leaks/memos.

    Everyone in the current White House knows how many scandals of the last few years have criss-crossed the State Department: slow-walking the release of Hillary Clinton’s emails (after helping hide the existence of her private server for years), turning a blind eye to Clinton’s nepotism hiring her campaign aides as State employees (remember Huma?), the Foundation shenanigans, the crazy sorrow of Benghazi remembered, the Steele Dossier and many things Russiagate and Ukraine. Most of the impeachment witnesses were from the State Department, including one who claimed to surreptitiously listen in on phone calls with his political appointee ambassador to tell all later to Congress. That’s an awful lot of partisanship woven into an organization which is supposed to be about being non-partisan.

    Nobody trusts a snitch, Democrat or Republican. What White House staffer of any party will interact openly with his tattletale diplomats, knowing they are saving his texts and listening in on his calls, waiting? Hey, in your high school, did anyone want to have the kids who lived to be hall monitors and teacher’s pet as their lunch buddies?

     

    America’s Concierge Abroad

    What’s left is what we have, the State Department transitioned to America’s concierge abroad. It’s relevancy to top-tier foreign policy is questionable, and its work now mostly logistical. Embassies are great bases for intel work, military offices, the occasional evacuation, to grind out some visas, and for ceremonial events. Someone has to be out there to arrange VIP visits and tidy up local issues. For me, while stationed in the UK, I escorted so many Mrs. Important Somebody’s on semi-official shopping trips I was snarkily labeled “Ambassador to Harrod’s Department Store” by my colleagues. In Japan I found out my duties included re-authorizing radio certificates for American seamen under an early 20th century treaty.

    One of The Blob’s greatest accomplishments has been to convince a large number of Americans everything pre-Trump was normal and everything since is extraordinary. That sets up the idea that extraordinary means are needed to deal with unique threats, and that sets up throwing away the rules because ends justify the means. Meh. The work known as diplomacy otherwise continues in some sort, albeit done by people outside the Department of State. Future presidents will need to change that, or, if history serves, live comfortably with it.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    Requiem for the U.S. Department of State, Part I of II

    May 20, 2020 // 1 Comment »


     
    Saying “Mike Pompeo” out loud feels odd, like mouthing the name of an old girlfriend, or shouting out your GMail password. It just feels wrong in your mouth, because what’s Mike or the State Department done lately? As the Trump administration wraps up its first term focused on domestic issues, it occurs the United States has passed almost four years without a foreign policy, and without the need for a Secretary of State or a department of diplomats behind him.
     
    On his first anniversary in the job Pompeo told assembled diplomats “We needed everyone in their place, working on the mission, if we were going to achieve this mission on behalf of the president” but never actually said what that mission was. A Google query shows “Searches related to Mike Pompeo Achievements” include “mike pompeo weight – mike pompeo net worth.” One can easily imagine Pompeo, even pre-COVID, slipping out the side door at Foggy Bottom shouting “I’ll be working from home, check with my deputy if anything comes up” while his wife is waiting in the car for him, Ferris Bueller-style.

    We had high hopes for Mike. He and John Bolton (as National Security Advisor) were the Bad Boys who were supposed to start wars with Iran and North Korea, outdo Cheney and even challenge the legend himself, Henry “Bloody Hands” Kissinger. Pompeo watched as not much happened between the U.S. and North Korea. He watched as the ending of the Iran nuclear treaty caused not much to happen. John Bolton, who liberals expected to see on a throne in Tehran rolling a mullah’s bloody head around his lap, instead sits by the phone hoping a think tank will offer him an intern to listen to his stories, or maybe Dancing with the Stars will ring needing a last-minute. That show on Fox?

    Prior to Pompeo, the Secretary of State was Rex Tillerson. Tillerson couldn’t even come up with an elevator speech of his accomplishments when asked, listing as he left office North Korean sanctions which achieved nothing, alongside his own mea culpas for failing to make progress in Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq, where with a straight face he noted there was “more to be done.” A bit hard to blame him, as Trump chose a policy of stasis, not wanting to withdraw the last trooper and forever be the man who lost Afghanistan. Imagine if the U.S. had followed similar political caution and still garrisoned Vietnam?

    Commentators wrote Tillerson would be remembered as the worst secretary of state in history. Wrong. He made no significant blunders, gave away nothing. He just didn’t do much at all. His actual only real accomplishment was a humiliating apology tour of Africa meeting with leaders on the periphery of U.S. foreign affairs grouchy over the president calling their nations sh*tholes.

     

    It would be easy to blame Trump, his open mic night style of making decisions, his decrees by Twitter, sucking all of the diplomatic air out of the room and suffocating up-and-coming diplomats like Mike and Rex before they even had a chance to try on their plumed hats. Unlike his predecessors, Trump never took advantage of his get-one-free foreign incursion along the lines of invading Grenada, occupying Lebanon, or an adventure in Somalia, never mind the big ticket items like Iraq Wars I-III. Sure, Trump did bomb Syria (who hasn’t?) and nipped at Iran, but the tumescence was over before the media could even declare the end of the world again.

    One can imagine meetings with friendly foreign nations in the Age of Trump: “Anything new from your side? No, you? Nah, something on Twitter from POTUS about armageddon, misspelled. Say, Crimea still giving you trouble? A little, whatever, you watching Tiger King? Pretty funny. Quite.”

     

    So turn the page backwards to John Kerry, Obama’s second term Secretary of State. Kerry imagined himself a Kennedy-esque man of action, Flashman at the ready, and had the State Department keep an online tally of how many miles he had traveled doing diplomatic stuff. The Nation called him “One of the Most Significant Secretaries of State in the Last 50 Years,” heady company when you realize the list includes Acheson, Dulles, Rusk, and Kissinger.

    OK, but… Kerry’s signature accomplishment, the Iran Nuclear Agreement, faded quickly. As negotiated the thing was only for ten years anyway, and would be about half over even if Trump had not walked away. And that’s giving Kerry full marks for getting an agreement where the National Security Council did much of the heavy lifting, and one which the Iranians wanted badly enough to help their economy they were willing to trade away a lot of Wonka tickets. Kerry’s work with the TPP and Paris Agreement also showed good effort. We’ll put them up on the fridge next to the one song Ringo got onto each Beatles album. Kerry’s muscular efforts came to little substance (albeit through little fault of his own) but the legacy business is harsh.

    After that, you have John Kerry helping muck up Syria. Kerry floundering in the Ukraine and Crimea. Kerry failing to move the ball forward in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, Palestine, or blunting China as it assumed a pivotal role in Asia in every way except militarily (they’re working on it.)

    That Nation article praising Kerry also cites as achievements “the military retaking of Mosul, the sponsorship of an Oceans Conference, the strengthening of the Gulf Cooperation Council…” all of which mean what in 2020? Kerry did sing Happy Birthday to Vladimir Putin at the APEC conference in the midst of a U.S. government shutdown. Kerry’s most significant achievement was leaving many Democratic voters secretly wondering whether the country dodged a bullet in 2004 when George W. Bush beat Kerry to take on a dismal second term.

     

    But Hillary! Never mind “one of,” Google chair Eric Schmidt called her “the most significant Secretary of State since Dean Acheson” (suck it, Kerry.) Secretary of State was only the first half of the prize Hillary got for clearing the way for Obama in 2008 (Barack shooing Joe Biden aside for her in 2016 was the second) and Clinton made the most of it. For herself. Ignoring America’s real foreign policy needs (or was she being ignored?) she turned the State Department into an arm of her Foundation, projecting “soft power” on things like women’s issues and AIDS to match her eventual platform, all the while generating B-roll for the campaign like a chunky Angelina Jolie. She also had the Department obsessively document her constant travels, with formal photos of Secretary Clinton alongside world leaders as well as selfies of Hil letting her hair down among her own diplomats. “Texts from Hillary” predated Instagram. Not a pair of dry panties to be found over at the Council on Foreign Relations.

    But in the tally of history, Hillary Clinton accomplished… not much. Time Magazine listed her key accomplishments as “the liberation of Libya, establishment of diplomatic ties with Burma and the assembly of a coalition against Iran.” In a summary piece, USA Today singled out “Clinton convinced Chinese leaders to free blind dissident Chen Guang Cheng,” who returned the favor by joining an American think tank opposing abortion and gay marriage.

    From the horse’s mouth, quoting Hillary Herself, key accomplishments were “hosting town halls with global youth, raising awareness for religious minorities, protecting Internet freedom and advancing rights for women and the LGBT community around the world.” Not resume items as momentous as forever changing the Cold War balance of power by opening China like Henry Kissinger or assembling the first Gulf War coalition like James Baker. Meanwhile, the world owes Hillary for her significant contributions to the failed state of Libya and the subsequent refugee flow, the human misery of Syria, the missed chances of the Arab Spring, and failing to end other wars she helped start or voted for.

    A generation before Hillary we have Colin Powell and Condi Rice, whose only accomplishments as Secretary were to march America into the desert and abandon her there (Colin) and march the State Department into the desert with the guaranteed-to-fail mission to create democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan and abandon her there (Condi.)

     

    The good news is the U.S. is experiencing a peace of a sorts not by sweating out the sins of diplomacy, but just by not going around the world throwing matches into buckets of gasoline. Trump has made little use of his Secretaries of State and their Department. No recent president made much use of those diplomats either, so they are unlikely to be missed.

    The next Secretary, whether working for Trump or Biden, will find themself in charge of a Cabinet agency is search of a mission. They may very well end up somewhere between the traditional ceremonial role of the Vice President, attending conferences and funerals, or perhaps simply overseeing a network of embassies to serve as America’s concierge abroad, 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.

    If the U.S. government had to downsize into a smaller capital, the State Department would likely end up on the curb, alongside those boxes of the kids’ elementary school drawings. Cute, sentimental, good times, but why did we keep them all these years?

    How did this happen? In Part II of this article, we’ll look at the factors internal to State and the United States, and those external, global changes, that left the Department adrift.

      

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    Looking for Jim Jones Amid COVID-19

    March 30, 2020 // 12 Comments »


     
    I’m not worried about the guy coughing next to me. I’m worried about the ones who seem to be looking for Jim Jones.
     
    Jim Jones was the charismatic founder of the cult-like People’s Temple. Through fear-based control, Jones took his followers’ money and ran their lives. He isolated them in Guyana, where Jones convinced over 900 followers to commit suicide by drinking cyanide-laced grape Kool Aid. Frightened people can be made to do literally anything. They just need a Jim Jones.
     
    So it is more than a little scary Never Trumper and MSM zampolit Rick Wilson wrote Twitter to his 753k Twitter followers “People who sank into their fear of Trump, who defended every outrage, who put him before what they knew was right, and pretended this chaos and corruption was a glorious new age will pay a terrible price. They deserve it.” The Tweet was liked over 82,000 times.

    The NYT claims “the specter of death speeds across the globe, ‘Appointment in Samarra’-style, ever faster, culling the most vulnerable.” Others are claiming Trump will cancel the election to rule as a Jim Jones. “Every viewer who trusts the words of Earhardt or Hannity or Regan could well become a walking, breathing, droplet-spewing threat to the public,” opined the Washington Post, which suggested they should be placed on hiatus. And the rest of you, drink the damn Kool Aid and join in the panic enroute to Guyana.

    In the grocery store in Manhattan just after the announcement of the national state of emergency was pure panic buying. I saw a fight broke out in one aisle after an employee brought out a carton of paper towels to restock the shelf and someone grabbed the whole carton for themselves. The police were called. One cop had to stay behind to oversee the lines at the registers and maintain order. To their credit the NYPD were cool about it. I heard them talk down one of the fighters  saying “You wanna go to jail over Fruit Loops? Get a hold of yourself.” Outside New York, sales of weapons and ammunition spiked.

    Panic seems to be something we turn on and off, or moderate in different ways. Understanding that helps reveal what is really going on.

    No need for history. Right now, in real time, behind the backs of the coronavirus, is the every-year plain old influenza. Some 12,000 people have died, with over 13 million infected from influenza just between October 2019 and February 2020. The death toll is screamingly higher (as this is printed corona has killed just 69 Americans.) One does not hear much about that. Why?
     
    Bluntly: more people have already died of influenza in the U.S. than from coronavirus in China, Iran, and Italy combined. Double in fact. To be even more blunt, no one really cares even though a large number of people are already dead. Why?
     
    The first cases of the swine flu, H1N1, appeared in April 2009. By the time Obama finally declared a national emergency seven months later, the CDC reported 50 million Americans, one in six people, had been infected and 10,000 Americans had died. In the early months Obama had no HHS secretary or appointees in the department’s 19 key posts. No commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, no surgeon general, no CDC director. The vacancy at the CDC was especially important because in the early days of the crisis only they could test for the virus; states weren’t allowed until later (sound familiar?) The politically-appointed DHS secretary, not a medical doctor, led the federal effort. Some 66 percent of Americans thought the president was protecting them. There was no panic. Why?

    Of course Trump isn’t Obama. But if you really think it is that black and white, that one man makes that much difference in the multi-leveled response of the vast federal government to a health crises you don’t know much about the federal bureaucracy. In fact, most of the people who handled the swine flu are now working the coronavirus, from rank and file at CDC, HHS, and DHS to headliners like Drs. Andrew Fauci (in government since 1968, worked Obama-ebola) and Deborah Brix (in government since 1985, prior to her current role with Trump-corona was an Obama-AIDS appointee.)

    Maybe the most salient example is the aftermath of 9/11. Those who lived through it remember it well, the color threat alerts, the sneaky Muslims lurking everywhere, the sense of learned/taught helplessness. The enemy could be anywhere, everywhere, and we had no way to fight back. We panicked like never before. But because the Dems and Repubs were saying basically the same thing, there was a camaraderie to it (lead by Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg, where are they now?), not discord. But the panic was still very real. Why?
     
    Why? We panicked when people took steps to ensure we would. We were kept calm when there was nothing to gain by spurring us to panic (the swine flu struck in the midst of the housing crisis, there was enough to worry about and it could all be blamed on the previous administration.) The aftermath of 9/11 is especially clarifying. A fearful populus not only supported everything the government wanted to do, they demanded it. Nearly everyone cheered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and not believing the government meant you were on their side, either with “us” or against us. The Patriot Act, which did away with whole swaths of the Bill of Rights, was overwhelmingly supported. There was no debate over torture, offshore penal colonies, targeted assassinations, kidnappings, and all the other little horrors. The American people counted that as competent leadership and re-elected George W, Bush in the midst. Fear and panic were political currency.

    Jump to 2020. Need an example of how to manipulate panic? Following fears of a liquid bomb, for years after 9/11 TSA limited carry-on liquids to four ounce bottles. Can’t be too careful! Yet because of corona they just changed the limit for hand sanitizer only (which with its alcohol content is actually flammable, as opposed to say shampoo) to 12 ounces. Security theatre closed down alongside Broadway tonight.

    False metrics are also manipulative because they make fear seem scientific. We ignore the low death rate and focus on the number of tests done. But whatever we do will never be enough, never can be enough, the same way any post-disaster aid is never delivered quick enough because the testing is not (just) about discovering the extent of the virus. For those with naughty motives, it is about creating a race we can’t win, so testing becomes proof of failure. Think about the reality of “everyone who wants one should get a test.” The U.S. has 331 million people. Testing 10 percent of them in seven days means 4,714,285 individuals a day for seven consecutive days while the other 90 percent of the population holds their breath. Testing on demand is not realistic at this scale. Selective decision-based testing is what will work.

    South Korea, held up as the master of mass testing, conducted at its peak about 20,000 a day. Only four percent were positive, a lot of effort for a little reassurance. Tests are valuable to pinpoint the need for social distancing but blunt tools like mass social distancing (see China) also work. Tests do not cure the virus. You can hide the number of infections by not testing (or claim so to spur fear), but very sick people make themselves known at hospitals and actual dead bodies are hard to ignore. Tests get the press, but actual morbidity is the clearest data point.
     
    There will be time for after-action reviews and arguments over responsibility. That time is never in the midst of things, and one should question the motives of journalists who use rare access to the president to ask questions meant largely to undermine confidence. If they succeed, we will soon turn on each other. You voted for him, that’s why we’re here now. Vote for Bernie and Trump wins and we all literally die. You bought the last toilet paper. You can afford treatment I can’t. You’re safe working from home while I have to go out. Just wait until the long-standing concept of medical triage is repackaged by the media as “privilege” and hell breaks loose in the ERs. We could end up killing each other long even as the virus fades.

    At the very least we will have been conditioned to new precedents of control over personal decisions, civil life, freedom of movement and assembly, whole city lock-downs, education, public information, and an increasing role for government and the military in health care. More control by authorities over our lives? Yes, please! Gee, it’s almost as if someone is taking advantage of our fears for their own profits and self-interest. Teachers who just digitized their classes at no cost to their employers and created the online infrastructure to eliminate classrooms, don’t be surprised if less of you, and fewer actual classrooms, are needed in the virus-free future.
     
    There are many reasons to take prudent action and not downplay the virus. There are no good reasons for fear and panic. The fear being promoted has no rational basis compared to regular influenza and the swine flu of 2009. We have a terrifying example in 9/11 of how easily manipulated fearful people are. Remaining calm and helping others do so is a big part of what your contribution to the disaster relief is going to be. As John Kennedy said, “We cannot expect that everyone will talk sense to the American people. But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense.”
     
    That’s one way to see this. Too many right now however seem to be looking for Jim Jones.
      

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    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    Memories of Baghdad

    December 31, 2019 // 16 Comments »


     

    Watching events in Baghdad with sad interest. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, once the world’s largest, is now nothing except a symbol of our multi-decade failure in that country. It sounds like most of the civilians are already evacuated. There were once some 5,000 in that compound at the peak of Occupation.
     
     
     
     
     

    I hope the protesters don’t trample the huge green lawn we planted as a monument to our hubris. When I was in Iraq the ambassador organized lacrosse games out there. It took millions of gallons of water to keep that lawn green. What were we thinking?

    I remember that entrance way into the Baghdad Embassy you see in the videos well. When I came into the Embassy from the field as a “State Dept” person I used another way in, just for us.
     
     

    But when I came in from the field with the soldiers I was embedded with, State made us go through the gate you see on the videos being breached, the “public” gate, and submit to a full security screening. It was a way for State to say fuck you to the soldiers and assert their fake alpha male status. I remember asking the Embassy RSO security officer what the security status was, and he replied “WiFi’s down in the lounge, Iraq is pretty much the same.”

    If any of those soldiers from 2ID are watching the video, I am sure they are thinking these same things.

    The soldiers had their rifles taken away at the gate “for security” and one time a fight almost broke out when one refused to surrender his weapon at first. On that trip I also smuggled a female trooper into the Embassy beauty salon where she got her nails and hair done. She couldn’t stop laughing about how the Embassy women could go there daily, and said it was the first (and only) time she felt clean in a year.

     

    Ah, that street where the protesters are massed. On one visit the Embassy security goons decided the armored MRAP vehicles we arrived in had parked too long inside the Embassy and had to leave NOW. They were waiting for me, and I was running late. Embassy security told the soldiers to park outside on that street and when I arrived at the inside gatehouse they’d re-clear the vehicles into the compound, I’d jump in, and we’d return to the real war. The soldiers were in a hurry (and pissed off at how they were treated) and so called me on the only communications device we had in common, local Iraqi cell phones. They said it would take too long to re-clear and told me just to come outside the walls and board the truck. I felt like the baddest of bad asses pushing past the Embassy guards to just step out of the compound alone and walk the maybe 20 yards to the vehicle.

     

    I also remember those tall apartment buildings you see in the background of the videos, the ones outside the Embassy walls. They were part of the Green Zone, the huge area inside Baghdad once sealed off from the population by Saddam, then by the U.S. occupation forces. Those apartments were once gifted to Saddam’s lower-level toadies. The U.S. chased them away in 2003, and the apartments were issued to new toadies of the Iraqi puppet government (I’m guessing a decent number were the same people, toadies are pretty adaptable.)
     
     

    That area had a few small shops, and led to the naughty parts of the Green Zone, the many fortified compounds run by various “other” agencies, contractors, media organizations, British and Australian I-don’t-know-what-they-do folks, and the like. It was inside the Green Zone but outside the Embassy fortress walls, so existed as a kind of gray zone. I remember just after I arrived being driven by a contractor colleague all through the area. We even stopped at a semi-convenience store for him to buy cheap smokes and I felt like Lawrence of Fucking Arabia and Colonel Kurtz all at once. Later in my tour I’d make fun of people who thought they were cool traveling basically across the street from the Embassy but since people made fun of me once for doing the same thing it was all part of karma balancing.

    Good times.
     


     
     

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    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    We Meant Well in Afghanistan

    December 16, 2019 // 22 Comments »

     

    If only someone had written a book about the mistakes in Iraq, the waste, the fraud, the endemic corruption which was clearly leading nowhere to warn everyone before they made the same errors in Afghanistan, Anne Smedinghoff would be on her fourth tour and I’d be Consul General in Belize.
     

    But how about those Afghan Papers, crazy stuff huh?

        

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    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    State Department Shoots Itself in the Foot at Impeachment Hearings

    November 24, 2019 // 23 Comments »


    The State Department, where I worked 24 years as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) and diplomat, reminds me a lot of my current hometown, New York City. Both places spend an inordinate amount of time telling outsiders how great they are while ignoring the obvious garbage piled up around them. It’s almost as if they’re trying to tell themselves more than others everything is OK.

    Like NYC convincing itself the Broadway lights mean you won’t notice the wicked homeless problem and decaying infrastructure, the State Department fully misunderstands how it really appears to others. Across Facebook groups and internal channels, FSOs this week are sending each other little messages tagged #FSProud quoting Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch’s the closing soliloquy from her impeachment testimony. Yovanovitch’s testimony otherwise read like the HR complaint from hell, as if she was auditioning for a Disgruntled Employee poster child position to cap off her career. She had already been fired by the time the alleged impeachable act took place — during Trump’s July 25 phone call — and was stuck in a placeholder job far removed from Ukrainian policy. She witnessed nothing of the “high crimes and misdemeanors” the House is investigating, and basically used her time to complain she knew more than her boss did so he fired her.

    At the end of her testimony Yovanovitch unfurled a large metaphorical flag and wrapped herself and the entire Foreign Service in it. Her lines had nothing to do with Ukraine, and were boilerplate recruiting prose about how FSOs are non-partisan servants of the Constitution, how everyone lives in harm’s way, yada yada. She name checked diplomats from forty freaking years ago held hostage in Iran, and rolled in a couple of CIA contractors when tallying up the “State” death toll in Benghazi. She omitted the we-don’t-talk-about-that-one-death of FSO Anne Smedinghoff in Afghanistan, whose 25-year-old life was destroyed participating in a propaganda photo-op.

    This is the false idol image the State Department holds dear of itself, and people inside the organization today proudly christened Ambassador Yovanovitch as its queen. Vanity Fair summed it up better than the long-winded FSOs bleating across social media: “A hero is born as Yovanovitch gives voice to widespread rage at State. ‘I think people are feeling huge pride in Masha,’ says a former ambassador.” Yovanovitch uses her Russian nickname, Masha, without media comment because of course she does.

    And that’s the good part. Alongside Yovanovitch, bureaucrat-in-a-bow-tie George Kent issued pronouncements against Trump people he never met who ignored his tweedy advice. Ambassador Bill Taylor leaked hoarded text messages with Trump political appointees. Taylor’s deputy, David Holmes, appeared deus ex machina (Holmes had a photo of Yovanovitch as his Facebook page cover photo until recently!) to claim back in the summer he somehow overheard both sides of a phone conversation between Trump and political appointee ambassador Sondland. Holmes eavesdropped on a presidential call and dumped it in the Democrats’ lap and now he’s non-partisan #FSProud, too.

    Interesting the major political events (scandals?) of the last few years have all criss-crossed the State Department: Clinton’s emails and Foundation shenanigans, the Steele Dossier and many things Russiagate, and now impeachment and Ukraine. And never mind two major Democratic presidential candidates-in-waiting, Clinton and Kerry, had a home there. That’s an awful lot of partisanship for an organization bragging about being non-partisan.

     

    Gawd, I need to wash my hands. I am #FSProud that in my 24 years as a diplomat I never perjured myself, or claimed to or actually eavesdropped on someone else’s phone call, then spoon fed the info months later to my boss on TV to take down a president mid-campaign, all the while accepting cheers that I was non-partisan, and thinking my role as a snitch/boot licker was going to help people vision my organization as honorable.

    FSOs see themselves as Marvel superheroes who will take down the Bad Orange Man. The organization flirted with the role before; a 2016 mid-election “dissent” was designed to force the winner into war in Syria. Then another “dissent” by State strayed close to insubordination opposing Trump’s so-called “Muslim Ban.” Everyone remembers the Department’s slow-walking the release of Hillary Clinton’s emails (after helping hide the existence of her private server for years.) The State Department turned a blind eye to Secretary Clinton’s nepotism hiring her campaign aides as State employees (remember Huma?), and use of America’s oldest cabinet position to create B-roll of herself helping women around the globe ahead of her soiled campaign. Hillary of course was handed the Secretary job itself by Barack Obama as a treat for dropping out of the race in 2008.

    Maybe the State Department’s overt support for Candidate Clinton did not make clear enough what happens when the organization betrays itself to politics.

    While FSOs are gleefully allowing themselves to be used today to impeach Trump, they fail to remember nobody likes a snitch. No matter which side you are on, in the end nobody will trust you, Democrat or Republican, after seeing what you really are. What White House staffer of any party will interact openly with his diplomats, knowing they are saving his texts and listening in on his calls, waiting? State thinks it is a pitbull waiting to bite on its master’s command when in fact it is an organization that has betrayed its golden nonpartisan glow and is out of control. Hey, in your high school, did anyone want to have the kids who lived to be hall monitors and teacher’s pet as their lunch buddies?

    The real problems go much deeper, and are either the cause of or a reflection of the current state of things, or a little of both. A Government Accountability Office report showed more than one fourth of all Foreign Service positions were either unfilled or filled with below-grade employees. At the senior levels 36 percent of positions were vacant or filled with people of lower rank and experience pressed into service. At the crucial midranks, the number was 26 percent unfilled.

    The thing is the report is from 2012, and showed similar results to one written in 2008. The State Department has danced with irrelevancy for a long time and its efforts to be The Resistance as a cure today feel more like desperation than heroism. State’s somnolent response, even during the legendary Clinton and Kerry years, to what should have been a crisis call (speculate on what the response might be to a report the military was understaffed by 36 percent) tells the tale. As the world changes, State still has roughly the same number of Portuguese speakers as it does Russian among its FSOs. No other Western country uses private citizens as ambassadors over career diplomats anywhere near the extent the United States does, doling out about a third of the posts as political patronage mainly because what they do doesn’t matter. The Secretary of State hands out lapel buttons reading “Swagger“; imagine a new Secretary of Defense doing the same and then being laughed out of office.

     

    FSOs wade in the shallowest waters of the Deep State. Since the 1950s the heavy lifting of foreign policy, the stuff that ends up in history books, mostly moved into the White House and National Security Council. The increasing role of the military in America’s foreign relations further sidelined State. The regional sweep of the AFRICOM and CENTCOM generals, for example, paints State’s landlocked ambassadors weak.

    State’s sad little attempt during the Bush years to stake out a new role in nation building failed in Iraq, failed in Afghanistan, and failed in Haiti. The organization’s Clinton-Kerry era joblet promoting democracy through social media was a flop. Trade policy has its own bureaucracy outside Foggy Bottom. What was left for State was reporting, its on-the-ground viewpoint that informs policy makers. Even there the intelligence community has eaten State’s sandwiches with the crusts cut off lunch — why hear what some FSO thinks the Prime Minister will do when the NSA can provide the White House with real time audio of him explaining it in bed to his mistress? The uber revelation from the 2010 Wikileaks dump of documents was most of State’s vaunted reporting is of little practical value. State struggled  through the Chelsea Manning trial to convince someone actual harm was done to national security by the disclosures. Some nine years later there hasn’t even been a good book written from them.

    That leaves for the understaffed Department of State pretty much only the role of concierge abroad, the one Ambassadors Taylor, Yovanovitch and their lickspittles Kent and Holmes complained about as their real point during the impeachment hearings. Read their testimony and you learn they had no contact with principals Trump, Giuliani, and Pompeo (which is why they were useless “witnesses,” they didn’t see anything first hand) and bleated about being cut out of the loop, left off calls, not being on the inside. They testified instead based on overheard calls and off screen voices. Taylor complained he had to contact the NSC, not State, to find out if policy had changed, and whined Pompeo ignored his reports.

    Meanwhile, America’s VIPs need their hands held abroad, their motorcades organized, and their receptions handled, all tasks that fall squarely on the Department of State. That is what was really being said underneath it all at the impeachment hearings. It is old news, but it found a greedy audience as it was repurposed to take a whack at Trump. State thinks this is its moment to shine, but all that is happening is a light is being shined on the organization’s partisaness and pettiness in reaction to its own irrelevance.

    Nice bow tie on George Kent though, shows he’s “with it.”

     

    BONUS:

    One of The Blob’s greatest accomplishments has been to convince a large number of Americans everything pre-Trump was normal and everything since is extraordinary. That sets up the idea that extraordinary means are needed to deal with unique threats, and that sets up throwing away the rules because when the Republic is at stake ends justify the means.
     
    No one here is claiming any virtue for Trump. He is a bad president. But he is not uniquely bad such that he is a threat to democracy, etc. That is a myth which is used to justify things that can become threats to the democracy.
     
    Dems want to impeach over… not much because not much is what they have. Ukraine really is not important. Most of us never heard the names outside of Foggy Bottom of the State Dept people now raised to heroic status. But if this process is normalized then it will come back again, against a president “you” do like.

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    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    Lessons for Afghanistan: My Time in Iraq 10th Anniversary Edition

    April 18, 2019 // 8 Comments »

    I recently spoke with some college students. They were in fifth grade when I first got on a plane to Iraq, and now study that stuff in classes with names like “Opportunities and Errors: 21st Century America in the Middle East.” I realized about halfway through our conversation it’s coming up on ten years ago I first went to Iraq.

    I was a Foreign Service Officer then, a diplomat, embedded with the U.S. Army at a series of forward operating bases. I was in charge of a couple of reconstruction teams, small parts of a complex failure to rebuild the Iraq we wrecked. I ended up writing a book about it all, explaining in tragic-comic terms how we failed (those “Errors.”)

    The book was and wasn’t well-received; people laughed at the funny parts but my message — it didn’t work and here’s why — was largely dissipated by a cloud of government and media propaganda centered on The Surge, David Petraeus’ plan to pacify the Sunnis and push al Qaeda away while clearing, holding, and building across the country, apparently to make room for ISIS and the Iranians to move in. Meanwhile the new American president, elected in part based on his “no” vote to go to war in 2003, proclaimed it all a victory and started bringing the troops home even while I was still in Iraq. When I got home myself, my employer from not long after I was taking classes called “Opportunities and Errors: America in the Middle East Since WWII,” the U.S. Department of State, was unhappy with the book. Over a year-long process State eventually pushed me into early retirement. My career was history.

    People asked in line at Trader Joe’s and in interviews on semi-important TV shows “Was it all worth it to you?” and I always answered yes. I wasn’t important, I said, the story was. We’re making the same mistakes in Afghanistan, I ranted at cashiers and pundits, and there is time to change.

    See, my book wasn’t aimed at cataloguing the failure in Iraq per se, but in trying to make sure we didn’t do the same thing in Afghanistan. The initial title wasn’t the unwieldy We Meant Well: How I Lost the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People but Lessons for Afghanistan from the Reconstruction of Iraq. The early drafts were pretentious scholarly stuff, outlining our mistakes. Harvard Business School-like case studies. Maps. Footnotes. It would have sold maybe five copies, and so my editors instead encouraged me to write more funny parts. NPR’s Fresh Air actually added a laff track to my interview. They were all right, and I figured I’d get the lessons across with humor more effectively anyway. In such situations you have to think that way. You can’t believe what you went through didn’t matter and keep getting out of bed every morning checking if it was yet Judgement Day.

    I now know officially it did not matter. It was pointless. SIGAR shows I accomplished nothing.

    SIGAR is the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, a government oversight body that is supposed to prevent waste, fraud, and mismanagement of the billions of dollars being spent rebuilding Afghanistan but which has its hands full just recording a CVS-receipt length list of what’s wrong. Sounds familiar? SIGAR just released The 2019 High-Risk List which points out especially egregious things that will follow in the wake of any peace agreement in Afghanistan. Here are some highlights:

    — Without financial support from international donors, the government of Afghanistan cannot survive.  [Peace] will come at an additional price that only external donors can afford.
    — There are over 300,000 Afghans currently serving in the security forces, most of whom are armed.  If, because of a loss of financial support, their paychecks were to stop coming, this could pose a serious threat to Afghanistan’s stability.
    —  A failure to peacefully reintegrate as many as 60,000 heavily armed Taliban long-term would threaten any peace agreement as disaffected former Taliban who may have been expecting a peace dividend may return to violent and predatory behavior.

    — Effective policing will require a force that gives citizens the presumption of innocence, rather than anticipating and taking preemptive offensive operations against perceived threats… There is no comprehensive strategy for a competent civil police force backed by the rule of law.

    — Failure to effectively address systemic corruption means U.S. reconstruction programs, at best, will continue to be subverted and, at worst, will fail.

    — The lack of sustained institutional capacity at all levels of government undermines the country’s development and ability to address the production and sale of illegal drugs. The opium trade plays a significant role in the Afghan economy and it is difficult to see how a peace accord between the Afghan government and the insurgency would translate into the collapse or contraction of the illicit drug trade.

    — If the U.S. reduces its presence in Afghanistan but feels compelled to provide significant financial support for reconstruction, there may be little choice but to provide a greater proportion of funding as on-budget assistance. But if that road is taken and conditions are lacking, we may as well set the cash ablaze on the streets of Kabul for all the good it will do.

    That last line really got me; in my book I’d written “While a lot of the money was spent in big bites at high levels through the Embassy, or possibly just thrown into the river when no one could find a match to set it on fire…” Had SIGAR read what I’d written or was the joke just so obvious that we’d both come to the same punchline ten years and two countries apart?

    A former State Department colleague is on her fourth (or fifth?) tour in Afghanistan. She likes it over there, says Washington leaves her alone. Her job has something to do with liaising with the few NATO military officials still around. It’s pretty easy work, they’ve known each other for years.  She harbors no illusions, and in a sober moment would likely agree with SIGAR that after over 17 years of American effort, Afghanistan has almost no chance of survival except as a Taliban narcoland with financial support needed indefinitely to avoid whatever “worse” would be in that calculus.

    We all know but try not to talk too much about the over 6,900 U.S. service members, 7,800 contractors, and 110,00 uniformed Iraqi and Afghan “allies” who died for that, and its companion Iranian client state in Iraq. A tragically high percentage of veterans have also died since returning home of drug overdoses, car accidents (?) or suicide. Nobody really knows how many civilians died, or even how to count them. Bombs and bullets only? Hunger and cold? Abandoned kids and enslaved women? Do we count deaths in Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, and wherever too?

    Iraq wrecked me, too, even though I initially somehow didn’t expect it to. I was foolish to think traveling to the other side of the world and spending a year seeing death and poverty, being in a war, learning how to be mortared at night and decide it doesn’t matter I might die before breakfast, wasn’t going to change me. In the military units I was embedded in three soldiers did not come home, all died at their own hands. Around us Iraqis blew themselves up alongside children. Everyone was a potential killer and a potential target, sides appearing to change depending on who was pointing the weapon even as we were all the same in the end. I did this once, at age 49, on antidepressants and with a good family waiting at home for me. I cannot imagine what it would have done to 18 year old me. And I had it easier than most, and much, much easier than many.

    The only way to even start to justify any of it was to think there was some meaning behind it all. It didn’t do anything for me but fill my soul with vodka but maybe it… helping someone? A buddy I saved? No, I didn’t save anyone. The Iraqis? Hah, not one was better off for my presence. Maybe America? Please.

    Around the same time as the SIGAR report, the Army War College released its official history of the Iraqi Surge, a quagmire of dense prose I’m only about halfway through, but so far no mention of the impact of reconstruction. The theme so far seems to be the Army had some good ideas but the politicians got in the way. Fair enough, but they often misspelled Vietnam as i-r-a-q all through the book. The Army seems committed to calling things like suicide bombing and Shiite militias running whole neighborhoods as crime syndicates “challenges” instead of the more vernacular “failures.” That answers all questions about whether anyone will be held responsible for their work.

    The post-9/11 wars spread across three presidencies so far. Pick the thing you detest most about Bush, Obama, and Trump, and complain how it was never investigated enough, and how there weren’t enough hearings, and how he got away with it. And then I’ll disagree, for most everything that happened and continues to happen in Iraq and Afghanistan has gone uninvestigated, unheard, and unpunished. It’s all ancient history.

    All those failures have had no consequences on the most significant decision makers. Bush is reborn as a cuddly old goof, Obama remembered as a Nobel peace prize winner. Trump is criticized bizarrely both as a war monger and for talking about reducing U.S. troops in Middle East. The State Department ambassadors and senior leaders responsible retired, many to sweet university teaching jobs or think tanks. The generals found similar hideouts in pseudo-academia or as consultants; some are still in the military. I’d like to hope they have trouble sleeping at night, but I doubt it, and that kind of thinking doesn’t do me any good anyway.

    Oh, and on April 8 four Americans were killed in a suicide bombing attack in Afghanistan, including a New York City firefighter (9/11, Never Forget!) The incident occurred when an IED exploded in a vehicle near Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul. Taliban forces claimed responsibility for the deadly attack, which also wounded three additional U.S. servicemen.

    We all want to believe what we did, what we didn’t do, the moral injury, the PTSD, the fights with spouses, the kid at home we smacked too hard when she wouldn’t eat her green beans, all of what we saw and heard and smelled (oh yes, the smells, you know there’s a body in that rubble before you see him) mattered. You read that SIGAR report and tell me how. Because basically I’m history now.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    Venezuela: What Happens in an Evacuation?

    January 30, 2019 // 7 Comments »


     

    Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered American diplomats to leave his country. The United States refused. What happens next?
     

    Last week in Venezuela opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido declared the current Maduro government illegitimate. President Trump agreed, announcing the U.S. considers Guaido “interim president.” Maduro responded by cutting off diplomatic ties and ordering American diplomats out under a deadline now extended for 30 days. Washington said Maduro’s orders are invalid as he no longer has “legal authority to break diplomatic relations or declare our diplomats persona non grata,” and thus will not withdraw embassy staff. Standoff.

    Trapped in the middle of this high-level muscle-tussle are America’s diplomats on the ground in Caracas. Maduro threatened to cut off the electricity and water to the embassy, and more than one person inside State remembers it was 38 years ago last week American diplomatic hostages were finally released by Iran, after government-sponsored “students” took over the American Embassy in Tehran. Will Maduro, who still enjoys the loyalty of the Venezuelan military, harm U.S. diplomats, leading to some sort of military intervention by the U.S.?

    Unlikely. Shooting one’s way out of Dodge is used only as the last resort when no one is in charge, and thus there’s no one to negotiate with. Whether it’s Maduro, or Guaido, or some as-yet nameless colonel in the Venezuelan army, that is not the situation in Caracas. It is always safer to talk your way out. That said, such rescue scenarios are part of Marine units’ special operations qualification tests, and are regularly practiced. I participated in three such field exercises and many tabletop versions during my 24 years as an American diplomat.

    With the glaring exception of Tehran, diplomatic hostage situations, and evacuations under force are uncommon. Instead, traditions dating back to the Greeks are generally followed. The host country, Venezuela in this case, is always responsible for the safety of diplomats inside its borders. Embassies are special places that while not “sovereign soil,” are inviolable, off-limits to host country law enforcement and military. As such, diplomats’ physical presence is often used to send a message. Things will get tense — the symbolism almost requires them to get tense — but in the end both sides know the boundaries.

    The norms were respected throughout the Cold War and beyond. The former U.S. Embassy building in Afghanistan was left largely untouched even as the Taliban swept to victory. Saddam did not take any U.S. diplomats hostage despite two wars, and the old American Embassy in Baghdad was never attacked. The list of all 250 diplomats killed since 1780 has only a handful who lost their lives under direct attack; the majority of deaths were due to disease.
     
    The idea behind this record of general safety is treatment of diplomats affects a country globally, and is reciprocal. A government or militia leader knows his relationship with the United States and all that entails can be affected for decades (see: Iran) if protections are violated. You mess with our people one place, it comes back to bite you in another — playground rules, push and you get pushed back.

    It’s easy enough to confidently write that now, but it is also easy enough to remember a mob outside the embassy shouting, then hearing glass break, while I hid under my desk wondering if I’d get home that day. The rules are clear, but in the breach will the local cops risk harming their own countrymen to protect you? Did the local cops even show up? Is the strongman, seeking to rally his support, really ready to trade on violating diplomatic tradition?

    So while it would be significant step for Maduro to attack the embassy, every embassy plans for just that to happen. Every outpost, including Caracas, has an Emergency Action Plan (EAP). The EAP explains how the embassy will be defended by its local security forces and/or Marine guards, where people will take safe haven, the locations of friendly embassies, and more. In updating the EAP, staff pace off local green spaces to see if they are wide enough for helicopters to land, and find out how much blood local hospitals keep in reserve.

    The embassy and Washington will then establish highly classified tripwires for the EAP, agreed upon events to trigger some action. If Maduro does this, we will do that type of things, leading toward an evacuation of all personnel in the extreme.

    A critical tripwire to watch in Venezuela is the availability of outbound commercial transportation, the most common assurance of escape. If local infrastructure is compromised (flights canceled, blockades on airport access), the State Department often moves to arrange an evacuation via chartered transportation.

    Military options, including non-violent ones like large transport planes, are a last resort. As the State Department advises “Rescue by helicopters [and] armed escorts reflect a Hollywood script more than reality.” I once watched a Secretary of State twist the arm of an airline CEO to get commercial flights to fly uninsured into a beleaguered foreign airport, to avoid using U.S. military planes which would have roiled the local conflict during an evacuation. In the Mid East, the U.S. at some cost negotiated a temporary stop to an artillery attack by a foreign entity to allow commercial barges to enter a harbor in lieu of the U.S. Navy.
     
    The airport outside Caracas is still open. So what’s happening in Venezuela?

    Most likely following an EAP tripwire, the State Department evacuated dependents and non-essential personnel with a requested local police escort. The evacuation flight was conducted using commercial transportation as an ordered departure. The U.S. is not releasing numbers, but the Washington Post stated there were originally 124 Americans, including 46 family members, at the embassy. A ballpark figure of diplomats still present in Caracas today would be in the dozens.

    Even in the most routine evacuations, things go wrong. There are never enough diapers for the inevitable delays. Women go into labor. Pets may have to be left behind. Most evacuations limit how much luggage you can leave with, and a senior person shows up way over the weight set. Serious stuff, too, like a scared soldier at a roadblock who didn’t get the message to allow the Americans to pass. A once-junior diplomat now an ambassador is a minor legend for smoking a pack of cigarettes (he never smoked before) with a group of trigger-happy militia at a checkpoint to calm them enough to allow a convoy of evacuating dependents through.

    With only a core staff left, the next big job at the embassy is reducing the amount of classified material just in case the building is attacked. Every embassy is required to know how much classified material is on hand, and how long it would take to destroy it. Say there are three feet of paper in a file drawer, how many hours of shredding would it take for 500 drawers? The whole idea is to destroy the most sensitive materials well-ahead of the threat without tying up the whole staff to do it.

    Under the “no double standard” rule, the embassy also notified private American citizens of the dependents’ evacuation. As long as commercial transport is available, citizens are expected to make their own way out of the country, though unlike staff they can’t be ordered to do so. Local-employed staff, Venezuelans, are rarely evacuated. The embassy’s cooks, drivers, and translators are usually left to make their own way in what can be a very dangerous environment for someone seen as an American collaborator. Should it come to it, physical control of the embassy compound is handed over to a locally-contracted security force if possible. Some American is then literally is the last one out, locking the front door behind her.

    We’re not anywhere close to that in Caracas.
     
    One path out of crisis would be to use the extended 30 day window Maduro declared for Americans to depart Venezuela to negotiate a downgraded level of relations. The U.S. and Venezuela could continue diplomacy through “interest sections,” de facto embassies for nations with no formal ties. The “diplomats” would be gone, at least in name, while talks continue. This is the most likely outcome unless one side demands a fight.

    Meanwhile, events continue to happen both on the ground and in Washington. Secretary Pompeo announced $20 million in “humanitarian aid” to somebody in Venezuela, and don’t be surprised if that is eventually funneled through the military. For the short term, the embassy is stocked with food, water, and fuel for the generator, mitigating threats to cut off services. Washington on Saturday fanned the flames, urging the world to “pick a side” in Venezuela.

    Will Maduro push back? If protesters show up at the embassy, do they appear to be under someone’s control? Are they at the front gate, where the news cameras are, or are they seeking to encircle the building? Are diplomats being hassled on the street by law enforcement, or ignored when they are “off stage?” These things are being watched as staff hunker down. It is a nervous time inside the American Embassy in Caracas.

    In such situations it is hard to say goodbye to evacuated colleagues and dependents, and hard to stay focused on work when your safety is in question. The big decisions may be happening outside of your control. Is your physical presence sending a resolute signal of support as diplomats’ presence often does, or are you bait deliberately placed in harm’s way by the Trump administration hoping for an incident? Like the song, in the end the waiting is the hardest part.
     
    BONUS: For those who believe Trump is beholden to Putin and skews American foreign policy to his benefit, maybe you can explain below why Trump is trying to oust Putin ally Maduro in Venezuela in the first place. Does access to oil beat out the risk of the Russkies uploading the pee tape to Instagram?

    The Russians are warning the U.S. not to interfere with their friends, the current Venezuela government. Russian security contractors are helping guard Maduro. China stated it too opposes foreign interference in Venezuela’s internal affairs. Imagine the reaction if following the 2016 election powerful nations declared they would not recognize Donald Trump as president and demanded Mike Pence take the oath instead.
     
    BONUS BONUS: Under near-ancient rules governing the exchange of diplomats, the host country approves foreign diplomats for service in their nation; Venezuela, Russia, Canada, Great Britain and all the rest say yes or no when the U.S. wants to ship in a new foreign service officer. The concept works in the inverse as well; the host country can order diplomats out. Formally that’s called declaring them unwanted, no reason needed, persona non grata (PNG.) It happens regularly, often tit-for-tat among enemies. It was back in May that Maduro did PNG the acting American Ambassador Todd Robinson and his deputy Brian Naranjo, claiming they were part of some “conspiracy.” The U.S. has no ambassador in Venezuela, with just another acting person in charge.

    With friendly nations, the formal process exists only in the extreme. More likely the host country Foreign Minister will phone up the American Ambassador first with an informal “suggestion” someone be packed out, or a visa will be denied for some technicality to preserve face for bigger issues. So the trick of the light being used here by the U.S. is fully acknowledging Venezuela’s right to throw our people out, while saying the current president Maduro no longer makes those decisions. Delicate protocol is preserved even while a harsh message is sent. Diplomacy is tricky when played well.
      

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    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    Progress or Failure in North Korea?

    November 16, 2018 // 5 Comments »



    In this same week the New York Times asserted North Korea is engaged in a “great deception” over its nuclear forces, South Korean unification minister Cho Myoung Gyon is visiting the United States with plans to meet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a Member of Congress, and to address several forums

    Will he speak of diplomatic failings and deceptions? Or will he talk about how to make progress as the two allies seek a balance between economic rewards and North Korean denuclearization?

    It’s likely the latter. Cho may compare the situation to one year ago, when the Council of Foreign Relations put the chances of nuclear war at 50%. Since then: the Olympics attended by North and South, the Trump-Kim-Moon summit, multiple intra-Korea summits, and positive steps economically and symbolically. The reality is we are watching complex diplomacy unfold in real time, meaning things can appear to move slowly. But with the Americans, the minister is likely share a perspective that with the movie played at double-speed a different picture emerges.

    The question is not so much if progress is occurring, but if, driven more by the Koreas than Washington, it isn’t moving fast enough. Jeong Se Hyun, former unification minister, reminds it is “unprecedented” for Seoul’s unification ministry to deal directly with the State Department. The reason? “In this situation where the United States is putting the brakes on United States-North Korea relations, there is a need for the unification ministry to directly persuade the State Department,” Jeong said.

    A year ago it was reported the United States was imminently preparing to attack North Korea. Instead of holocaust, what followed was a summit in Singapore. Officials from North and South now meet regularly, Secretary Pompeo has been to Pyongyang, and there is a new American Ambassador (a career Navy officer whose father fought in the Korean War) and Deputy Chief of Mission (a professional diplomat with nearly a decade of Korean experience) in Seoul. The United States has a Special Representative for North Korea. Diplomatic infrastructure is being built.

    Yet the headlines this week raise concern over a “great deception” by the North Koreans, evidenced by a think tank “discovering” North Korean missile facilities already long known to United States intelligence. As dramatic as that sounds, South Korea’s presidential spokesperson put those “new” missile facilities into a more accurate perspective, saying “North Korea has never promised to shut down this missile base. It has never signed any agreement, any negotiation that makes shutting down missile bases mandatory… There is no agreement, no negotiation that makes it necessary for it to be declared.” All of this was to be expected; Kim Jong Un in his January 2018 New Year’s Day guidance stated North Korea would shift from open air testing to maintaining nuclear weapons in such facilities.

    The larger story left in the shadows of such created-drama is the ongoing rush forward driven by the two Koreas themselves, the most likely subject of discussion this week between Minister Cho and Secretary Pompeo.

    Since the Trump-Kim-Moon summit the two Koreas established pseudo-embassies just north of the Demilitarized Zone, where representatives have met more than 60 times. The offices have become clearinghouses for over a dozen joint economic initiatives, including a massive project in preparation for greater cross-border trade to link roads and railroads severed during the Korean War. North and South Korea have removed landmines and other weapons from the border and drawn back border guards. Kim offered to permanently dismantle two key ICBM facilities under the observation of outside experts, and to negotiate further on the permanent shut down of the nuclear facility at Yongbyon.

    While Minister Cho and Secretary Pompeo will no doubt agree that’s not a bad start for the first five months since Singapore, of likely concern to the United States is South Korean President Moon Jae In’s belief economic progress is a necessary fore step to ultimate denuclearization. He almost certainly sent Cho to Washington seeking American concurrence to increase economic cooperation with the North, including asking for changes to sanctions now limiting some financial transactions. Moon himself lobbied Russia leader Vladimir Putin along the same lines, and will make a pitch to Vice President Pence on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ASEAN Summit this week.

    Moon seeks sanctions relief as negotiations move forward, no doubt holding little is accomplished without some give and take. “I believe the international community needs to provide assurances that North Korea has made the right choice to denuclearize and encourage North Korea to speed up the process,” he said this week in Paris. American domestic politics sees things flipped 180 degrees, with sanctions relief a thank-you gift delivered after the last nuke is carted away.

    Despite the situation as described by pundits – a sneaky North Korea duping an uninformed American president – the reality appears much closer to a process now at a crossroads between two visions of a way forward. North and South Korea appear to want economic progress, paced with concessions by the North. Under criticism Trump is naive, the American side wants aggressive steps toward denuclearization first, with economic progress largely withheld instead of fed incrementally. How much the United States is willing to incentivize denuclearization is much more likely the subject Minister Cho and Secretary Pompeo will discuss then North Korean missile bunkers both have long known about.

    Time matters. A new American president in 2020 will be unlikely to press the case in North Korea, receding back into the politically safer waters of previous decades’ policy of largely ignoring things. Washington is not alone in seeing strategy held hostage to domestic politics. In the South, progress with North Korea is widely supported, and Moon will see electoral challenges if he does not deliver results. Kim’s domestic situation is less clear, but he faces pressure for economic progress from his growing middle class while at the same time must tamp down the suspicions of his hard line supporters that he may give away too much too soon at too low a cost.

    Minister Cho may remind his reluctant American interlocutors decades of sanctions have yielded only a nuclear North Korea. The nukes are part of a problem solved by a comprehensive solution that takes into account what the North is really at the table for: engagement with the world system and assurance of its own survival. That ultimate goal will require the North’s nuclear weapons to become unnecessary, as Pyongyang agrees internally to and is allowed externally to become so engaged with the global system it finds itself no longer in need of such a powerful deterrence. It can be done; the world has the broader road map of Deng Xiaoping and China to follow forward.

    This isn’t faux optimism. This is diplomacy, chock-a-block with hard choices and twisty decisions, a push and pull between priorities. The underlying challenge for the three parties is not about media bleating, North cheating, and Trump tweeting, but finding the proper balance of economic incentives which match both strategic and domestic needs, in three national capitols. All that before time runs out.



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    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    Deception in North Korea? Nope, But a New Flavor of Neocon

    November 15, 2018 // 2 Comments »




    What is the state of diplomacy on the Korean peninsula? Are we again heading toward the lip of war, or is progress being made at an expected pace? Are there Asian Neocons fanning the flames for conflict in Pyongyang much as others did with Baghdad?


    A year ago, in November 2017, John Brennan estimated the chance of a war with North Korea at 20 to 25 percent. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the odds were 50/50. The New York Times claimed we were “slouching toward war” with the North, on a “collision course.” National security adviser HR McMaster said North Korea represented “the greatest immediate threat to the United States” and that the potential for war with the communist nation grew each day. The U.S. lacked an ambassador in Seoul; Victor Cha was rejected by Trump because, according to “sources and reports,” he didn’t support a preemptive strike on Pyongyang. It was reported the U.S. was “imminently preparing for an attack on North Korea,” driven in part by hawks like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton.

    All that was wrong.


    Cha, it appears, didn’t in fact support what Trump actually was planning: not a preemptive strike, but a summit meeting with Kim Jong Un, held some five months ago in Singapore following a first try at courtship aside the Seoul Olympics in January 2018. World leaders meeting to talk peace is historically seen as a good thing. Yet the American media consensus was a president they believe is roundly despised globally conveyed “legitimacy” on Kim Jong Un, no matter that his family has ruled North Korea for some seven decades, and his country already holds a seat at the United Nations. No shortage of experts from South Korea universities and American think tanks were found to support those claims.

    The media generally ignored, in return for the U.S. postponing a handful of military exercises (“concessions,” which were deeply criticized by an American media which has failed to note the U.S. has actually resumed some exercises, the North unilaterally stopped ICBM testing (the missiles which might someday be able to reach the U.S.) and nuclear detonations. It released American hostages, and took steps to close down two nuclear missile facilities. Kim Jong-un fired top military leaders who dissented over his approaches to South Korea and the United States.

    Officials from North and South now meet regularly, and U.S. diplomats engage with both sides on an ongoing basis; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been to Pyongyang. Numerous practical steps have been taken along the DMZ to reduce the chance of accidents. South Korea’s unification minister in charge of North Korea issues Cho Myoung-gyon will visit the United States this week, where he is expected to meet Pompeo. This is the first time in four years for South Korea’s unification minister to visit Washington. On the last visit, in 2014, then-Secretary of State John Kerry refused to meet with his predecessor in line with the Obama (and Bush) administrations’ policy of ignoring North Korea in hopes the problem would go away.


    Yet the headlines this week in the New York Times and other major U.S. outlets scream of a “great deception” by the North Koreans, evidenced by a hardline think tank — helmed in part by Victor Cha — “discovering” North Korean missile facilities already long known to U.S. intelligence (Cha’s lo-rez commercial satellite photos are dated March, months before the Trump-Kim summit, so everyone who mattered already knew.) In a matter of a few paragraphs, Cha and the Times blow this “discovery” up to announce, without any evidence, “What everybody is worried about is that Trump is going to accept a bad deal — they give us a single test site and dismantle a few other things, and in return they get a peace agreement” that formally ends the Korean War. Mr. Trump, he said, “would then declare victory, say he got more than any other American president ever got, and the threat would still be there.”


    What is the real state of diplomacy on the Korean peninsula? Are we again heading toward the lip of war?

    Of course not. South Korea’s presidential spokesperson put those “new” missile facilities into the perspective Trump’s critics lack, saying “North Korea has never promised to shut down this missile base. It has never signed any agreement, any negotiation that makes shutting down missile bases mandatory… There is no agreement, no negotiation that makes it necessary for it to be declared.” In other words, there can be no deception where there was no agreement.

    To call what the Times discovered a “deception” is deeply misleading. The Singapore declaration and the inter-Korean summit declarations of April 27 and September 19 this year do not commit Pyongyang to disclose the sites. What is new to the Times is actually old news; Kim Jong Un in his January 2018 New Year’s Day guidance stated North Korea would shift to the mass producing nuclear weapons in such facilities. “The nuclear weapons research sector and the rocket industry should mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles, the power and reliability of which have already been proved to the full, to give a spur to the efforts for deploying them for action,” Kim said. The Times in fact more or less acknowledged all this in September, before being suprised by it in November.

    And the Times’ big scary takeaway, that the old/new facilities are in caves, confuses tactical concealment with some sort of nefarious political “deception.” Did they expect the missiles to be worked on in the parking lot outside Kim’s villa?


    One issue only lightly touched by a western media obsessed with parsing tweets as their stab at journalism is the ongoing rush forward driven by the two Koreas themselves, what under any other media climate would be hailed as a huge series of successes but which falls in 2018 under the Trump Is Always Wrong Shadow. In a short time the two states established psuedo-embassies just north of the DMZ, where representatives from the two Koreas have met more than 60 times. The office has become a clearinghouse for over a dozen projects launched during the summit. There are plans for a massive binational project to link roads and railroads severed during the Korean War.

    North and South Korea have begun removing landmines from the border, drawn back some troops, and most recently held a third leaders’ summit in September in Pyongyang North Korean leader Kim offered to permanently dismantle two key ICBM facilities under the observation of outside experts. He also offered to negotiate further on the permanent shut down of the nuclear facility at Yongbyon. South Korean President Moon Jae-In, for his part, better than the U.S. understands the future is ultimately about economics, not nukes. Moon seeks sanctions relief as negotiations move forward (little is ever accomplished without some give and take.) “I believe the international community needs to provide assurances that North Korea has made the right choice to denuclearize and encourage North Korea to speed up the process,” he said this week in Paris during a visit with French President Emmanuel Macron. If the western media is correct that Trump is being duped, played, deceived, and cheated by the North, what must they think about the faster pace set by the South? After all, a U.S. miscalculation means we all switch from Samsung to Apple phones made in China, while South Korea risks being turned into a wasteland dotted only with signs for Nuka Cola.


    Left off to the side is that it has been only five months since the historic summit in Singapore. Obama’s agreement with Iran, which did not even involve actual working nukes, took almost two years to conclude. Cold War negotiations with the Soviet Union ran across administrations, extending the broader process into decades of talks, and were aimed at goals much shorter than full denuclearization. Five months is barely enough time to grow a decent garden, never mind resolve multinational problems that reach back to 1945.

    With North Korea, there is no history of trust, no basis of goodwill to build on. That all has to be created, built from scratch, as part of the heavy lifting of diplomacy. The ultimate goal — denuclearization — may or may not someday come to pass, but if it does it will be the result of years of more small steps forward than small steps back. Diplomacy is about moving the goalposts and embracing the long game, not playing chicken. It will require the North’s nuclear weapons to become unnecessary, as the North agrees to and is allowed to become so engaged with the global system that it finds itself no longer in need of such a powerful deterrence to attacks by its neighbors. Diplomacy requires one to at least understand the opponent’s goals and motivations, even if you don’t agree with them.


    There exists an industry of sorts devoted to portraying North Korea as an eviler than evil empire, with Kim as a parody of the movie Dr. Evil. These hardliners, ensconced mostly in universities in South Korea and think tanks in the U.S., have been around since the Cold War to make sure the case for the militarization of South Korea and American support for various South Korean military dictators never lacked public advocates. They act as mouthpieces for North Korean defectors with horror stories, and are quick to seize on anything to amplify the threat. Older readers will remember similar mostly defunct “industries” set up to do the same over the actions of Cuba, China, and the Soviet Union once (though the Red Threat gang is trying to make a comeback over Bond villian wanna-be Putin.)

    Victor Cha himself is a kind of one man gloom machine, writing regularly of the impossibility of denuclearization. His old articles focus fearfully on meetings canceled them (but since successfully concluded; fatalism ignores the future) he in fact represents a kind of Asian neocon, an industry dedicated to the impossibility of peace on the peninsula as long as the Kim dynasty remains in power. Cha’s home organization, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, for example, features multiple former Secretaries of Defense on its board and as trustees, and is well-funded by elements of the military industrial complex. Of the plan to link railroads across the DMZ, what any sane person would see as progress, the organization grumbled the “move is expected to increase friction with its traditional ally Washington over the pace of inter-Korean engagement.”

    So shame on those hardline groups — let’s call them Asian Neocons, for they want regime change in the North in the same way as Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al, wanted it in the Middle East — and shame on the New York Times for morphing its Trump-is-always-wrong editorial policy into presenting something long-known to U.S. intelligence as something new enough to declare deception has overtaken the diplomatic long game on the Korean Peninsula. As they did during the run up to the Iraq War, the Times is once again serving as a platform for those who cannot see or will not wait for a peaceful way forward.

    Deception? The deception, it is clear, is all (again) on the side of the neocons. They seek to destroy any chance of lasting peace with unrealistic expectations and by announcing failure at goals never actually set. Because if not diplomacy, then what is the alternative? Theirs is not pessimism, it is fatalism. Success instead should be measured by the continued absence of war and the continued sense that war is increasingly unlikely. Anyone demanding more than that wants things to fail.


    BONUS Reading!


    https://www.cnn.com/2017/12/02/politics/mcmaster-potential-war-north-korea/index.html
    https://www.vox.com/world/2018/1/31/16954880/trump-north-korea-south-korea-ambassador-victor-cha
    http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/news/2018/11/13/0200000000AEN20181113001000315.html

    https://www.nknews.org/pro/what-to-make-of-a-new-report-on-n-koreas-undeclared-missile-operating-bases/

    https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/no-donald-trump-isnt-going-to-nuke-north-korea/
    https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/dont-be-cynical-about-an-olympics-detente-with-north-korea/
    https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/what-if-kim-jong-un-is-looking-to-liberalize/
    https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/what-if-the-trump-moon-kim-summit-fails/
    https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-diplomacy-101-lessons-that-washington-forgot/




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    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    Trump and the New McCarthyism

    August 3, 2018 // 23 Comments »

    There was no explanation for what had happened, how certain victory had boiled off. Fear took over. An answer was needed, and one was created: the Russians. 1950s Cold War America? Or 2018 Trump America? Yes.

    WWII ended with the U.S. the planet’s predominant power. But instead of recognizing its strength, darker forces saw profit in creating new fears. The Soviet Union morphed from an ally decimated after losing 20 million soldiers fighting fascism to a powerful equal locked in a titanic struggle with America. How did they get so powerful so quickly? Nothing could explain this, except… traitors.

    Some realized fear was not a problem, but a tool — one could defeat political enemies simply by accusing them of being Russian sympathizers. There was no need for evidence, Americans were desperate to believe, and so assertions someone was in league with Russia were enough. Joseph McCarthy fired his first shot on February 9, 1950, proclaimed there were 205 card-carrying members of the Communist Party working for the Department of State. The evidence? Nothing but McCarthy’s assertions, but they were enough.

    Pretending to be saving America while he tore at its democratic foundations, over the next four years McCarthy made careers for those who cooperated in his accusations, such as a young red-baiting Richard Nixon, the president of the screen actors guild, Ronald Reagan, who supported the blacklisting of many artists simply by pointing a finger at them and saying “Communist”, and Roy Cohn, a vicious young attorney who ironically would later work for Donald Trump. The power of accusation was used by others as well; the Lavender Scare was an off-shoot of McCarthyism that concluded the State Department was overrun with closeted homosexuals who were at risk of being blackmailed by Moscow. By 1951, 600 people were fired based solely on evidence-free “morals” charges. All across America, state legislatures and school boards mimicked McCarthy. Thousands of people lost their jobs. Books and movies were banned or boycotted based on the “hate speech” of the day, accusations they helped promote Communism. Libraries, for example, banned Robin Hood for suggesting stealing from the rich to give to the poor. The FBI embarked on campaigns of political repression, suspecting Martin Luther King was a Communist. Journalists and academics voluntarily narrowed their political thought and tamping down criticism and inquiry in the 1950’s and beyond.

    In 2018, watching sincere people succumb to paranoia is not something to relish. But having trained themselves to intellectualize away Hillary Clinton’s flaws, as they had with Obama, about half of America truly could not believe she lost to the antithesis of what she represented to them. She was strong (they called her the most qualified candidate in history.) Every poll (that they read) said she would win. Every article (that they read) said it too, as did every person (that they knew.) Lacking an explanation for the unexplainable, they tried out scenarios that would have failed high school civics, claiming only the popular vote mattered, or the archaic Emoluments Clause prevented Trump from taking office, or that he was clinically insane and had to be carted off under the 25th Amendment.

    After a few trial balloons during the primaries where Bernie Sanders’ visits to Russia and Jill Stein’s attendance at a banquet in Moscow were used to imply disloyalty, the fearful cry the Russians meddled in the election morphed into Trump had worked with the Russians and/or (fear is flexible filling in the gaps) the Russians had something on Trump, that new Russian word everyone learned, kompromat. History may not repeat, but it often rhymes, and Donald Trump became the Manchurian Candidate, the name itself taken from a 1959 novel made into a classic Cold War movie positing an American soldier had been brainwashed by communists as part of a plot to place someone under the thumb of the Kremlin in the Oval Office. The New York Times, Vanity Fair, the New York Daily News, Salon, The Hill, the Washington Post,a nd sure, why not, Stormy Daniels’ lawyer Michael Avenatti have all claimed Trump is 2018’s Manchurian Candidate. Cynical, or prescient?

    The birth moment of Trump as a Russian asset is traceable back to MI-6 intelligence officer turned Democratic opposition researcher turned FBI mole Christopher Steele, whose “dossier” claimed the existence of the pee tape. Somewhere deep in the Kremlin is supposedly a surveillance video made in 2013 of Trump in Moscow’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, watching two prostitutes urinate on a bed the Obamas once slept in.

    No one, not even Steele’s alleged informants, has actually seen the tape. It exists in a land of assertion-is-fact-enough alongside the elevator tape. Reporters, as well as Z-list celebrity Tom Arnold, are actively seeking a tape of Trump doing something in an elevator so salacious the video has been called “Every Trump Reporter’s White Whale.” No one knows when the elevator video was made, but a dossier-length article in New York magazine posits Trump has been a Russian asset since 1987, controlled through a set of big money deals as carrots, whose disclosure would be the kompromat of a stick.

    This is the McCarthy playbook. Trump’s victory seems inexplicable, therefore it could not have happened without outside help. The Russians were certainly sniffing around the edges of the election process, so they must have done it. Trump has done business in Russia, and, a man like him certainly could not have made his money honestly (the tax documents!) The easiest way to bring him down is to offer what his detractors would accept as a plausible explanation — the Russians did it and Trump is in on it — and answer fear with the blind certainty of assertions. As McCarthy did with homosexuality, throw in a few hints of dirty sex to keep the rubes paying attention.

    Suddenly no real evidence is necessary, because it is in front of your face. China fell to the Communists in 1949. The State Department was in charge, therefore was responsible, and therefore must be riven with traitors because why else but on purpose would they fail America? McCarthy accussed Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower of being Communists or Communist stooges. Trump holds a bizarre press conference in Helsinki and the only answer is that he is a traitor. Hillary herself asked which side Trump was on. Nancy Pelosi (“President Trump’s weakness in front of Putin was embarrassing, and proves that the Russians have something on the President, personally, financially or politically”) and Cory Booker (“Trump is acting like he’s guilty of something”) and Lindsey Graham and John Brennan and MSNBC and CNN said Trump is controlled by Russia, even as columnists in the New York Times called him a traitor. As the news did in 1954, when they provided live TV coverage of McCarthy’s dirty assertions against the Army, modern media used each new assertion as “proof” of an earlier one. If they all are saying it, it has to be true. Snowballs get bigger rolling downhill.

    When assertion is accepted as evidence it forces the other side to prove a negative to clear their name. So until Trump “proves” he is not a Russian stooge, he remains one in the eyes of his accusers, and his denials are seen as desperate attempts to wiggle out from under the evidence. Joe McCarthy’s victims faced similar challenges; once labeled a communist or a homosexual, the onus shifted to them to somehow prove they weren’t. Their failure to prove their innocence became more evidence of guilt. It all creates a sense of paranoia. The 1950’s version was well-illustrated in movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or a selection of classic Twilight Zone episodes highlighted by “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” which concludes with the chilling line “a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own.” As with McCarthy, the reaction to a threat outweighs in damage anything the threat may have ever posed.

    And so in 2018 a journalist thinks someone is sending agents disguised as Uber drivers to spy on him. Another on Twitter says she personally has hard info of Trump’s collusion with Russia and faces death threats. They hate Trump and wake up each morning hoping it is Judgment Day. When it is not, they project themselves into the center of global events hoping they personally can bring on Judgment. You could see this in earlier times in parts of the Sy Hersh story, and now so clearly with once sharp minds like Rachel Maddow (“We haven’t ever had to reckon with the possibility that someone had ascended to the presidency of the United States to serve the interests of another country rather than our own,”) and Lawrence Tribe. They struggle to resolve cognitive dissonance by imagining they will defeat Trump where Clinton failed. These same people 10 years later still mock Trump over the silly birth certificate conspiracy, yet find it perfectly normal to claim he is a Russian agent. Meanwhile, we are kept at DefCon levels with an obvious goofball like Carter Page mediaized into a linchpin while an improbable Russian student is arrested to put a sexy, red-haired face on everything.

    And yet… and yet there is no evidence of treason, of collusion, of the assertion the president of the United States, almost two years in control of America’s nuclear arsenal, is by choice or coercion acting on the orders, desires, and initiatives of Russia. None.

    The IRS and Treasury have had Trump’s tax documents for decades. If Trump has been a Russian asset since 1987, or 2013, he has done it behind the backs of the FBI, CIA, and NSA. Indictments against Russian uniformed military who will never see the inside of an American court are presented as evidence, when in fact they are simply Robert Mueller’s own uncontested assertions to sit alongside those of Anderson Cooper and Chris Matthews. With impeachment itself on the table, Mueller has done little more than issue the equivalent of a series of parking tickets against foreign nationals whom he has no jurisdiction over, that provide no link between Trump and Russia. Intelligence community summaries claim without detail the Russians meddled, but fall far short of accusing Trump of being involved. There is simply the assertion, the belief, that some outside explanation, and we seem to have settled on the Russians, is to blame for Trump.

    So we live in a state of constant tension. Fear is powerful. A sound triggers a memory that sets off involuntary, subconscious processes: the heart rate jumps, muscles twitch, higher brain functions switch to fight-or-flight. Live in this state long enough and you lose the ability to control your reaction to certain stimuli. Fear, hatred and venom are expressed through fevered calls for impeachment for not being sufficiently patriotic and for aiding the enemy. Reality is used to prove fantasy — we don’t know how Trump is helping Putin because they met in private! And anyone who questions this must themselves be at best a useful fool, if not an outright Russia collaborator (Wrote one pundit: “They are accessories, before and after the fact, to the hijacking of a democratic election. So, yes, goddamn them all.”) In the McCarthy era, the term was fellow traveler, anyone, witting or unwitting, who helped the Russians. Dissent is muddled with disloyalty.

    The burden of proof is always on the party making an accusation, yet the standing narrative in America is the Russia story must be assumed at least valid, if not true, until proven false. Joe Mccarthy was allowed to tear America apart for four years under just such standards, until finally public opinion turned against him, aided by a small handful of journalists, lead by Edward R. Murrow, brave enough to ask real questions about his factless assertions and demand answers McCarthy ultimately did not have. There is no Edward R. Murrow in 2018, simply journalists who see themselves serving as oppo researchers and adjuncts to the accusers.

    The process already 200 indictments underway — the Mueller investigation — is in Year Two. America faces a crucial set of midterms in November, and thus the need to know for the American people is established; if anyone has hard evidence, why are they waiting to show it with a Russian asset in the White House? At some point one has to account for why no one has found what they insist is there. They can cry “Just wait for Mueller!” for the same four years it took to shut down McCarthy but at some point we all have to admit no evidence has been found that pigs can fly, and thus conclude they can’t, and the collective purpose of Russiagate has shifted, as with McCarthy, from tamping down hysteria to stoking it.

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    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    American Credibility Requires a Turning Point on Trump

    July 25, 2018 // 4 Comments »



    I remember when as an American diplomat I realized my government was no longer credible. We may be at that same point in the Trump presidency.


    My moment was in 2006, in Hong Kong, where I was assigned to the American Consulate. It had been a difficult few years as an American diplomat, as crimes against humanity under the George W. Bush administration were being talked about in government circles, even if they had not yet been acknowledged publicly. America was torturing people. American invaded Iraq under a blanket of lies. And America opened a prison at Guantanamo. It was there the United States held Omar Khadr, and the Canadians wanted him out.

    Omar Khadr was a 15-year-old Canadian grabbed off the battlefield in Afghanistan in 2002, believed to have killed an American soldier. After learning the child had been tortured, the Canadians wanted him transferred to their custody for his own safety, and in 2006 ordered their diplomats globally, to every American foreign service post, to make that demand (a demarche in diplomatic language.) I had never heard of Khadr before, but sitting there hearing from the Canadians how he had been treated I realized America had no credibility left when, among other things, it criticized Saddam Hussein for harming his own people as a secondary justification for the Iraq invasion.

    At the table in far-away Hong Kong we knew none of us were going to free Omar Khadr, but the Canadians did their job and I did mine, pre-written talking points all around. We knew each other, and our kids went to the same school. So informally I also heard “we may not be able to work with you anymore on a lot of things if this fails.” Canada had sent troops to Afghanistan, withheld them from Iraq under American criticism, but the message was now a step too far had been taken, and while routine business would continue, they were probably going to wait on any big stuff until George W. Bush was out of office (Khadr was released to Canadian custody in 2012, and freed in Canada in 2015.)


    I am hearing from former colleagues in diplomacy and intelligence Helsinki may have been a similar moment, requiring now a resolution of some sort in what is known as “Russiagate” to maintain credibility in America’s international interactions. Trump has more than two years left in office, some say six, far too long to wait out given the number of global issues requiring international cooperation.

    As a diplomat you represent your own complicated country, and all sides understand that, hence the careful use of pre-written talking points over the fate of Omar Khadr. But from the Secretary of State on down, credibility is a crucial tool in getting things down. Can you be trusted, not just personally, but to accurately convey what Washington wants to say to its allies, friends, and those it negotiates against? If you explain an American policy today, and the other side acts on that only to find the president tweeting out something else, however close your relationship may be personally with your counterparts, across the table you become a non-entity. How’s your daughter doing in school? Fine, just fine, let’s have lunch Tuesday, but please don’t ask me to support your UN resolution.

    If I was sitting in an embassy job today and was asked informally by an ally to explain the president’s remarks in Helsinki, I would stumble for coherence. I know those foreign diplomats are reading the same media I am: a columnist in the New York Times calling Trump a traitor, an article in New York Magazine speculating Trump met Putin as his intelligence handler, a call by a former Central Intelligence Director to impeach the president, former counter-terrorism coordinator Richard A. Clarke speculating Trump was meeting with Putin to receive his next set of orders, a former intelligence officer warning “we’re on the cusp of losing the American constitutional republic forever,” or maybe just the parsed criticism of Trump from within his own party.

    And alongside of all that, an indictment of Russian military personnel for hacking into the Democratic National Committee servers, the details released at a time that can only be read as as attempt to disrupt whatever initiatives Trump planned to pursue with Russia, followed by an arrest of a Russian agent timed to bookend the Helsinki summit. Some overseas will perceive those acts as a power struggle within the American government.

    There is a lot in the air. In the face of all that, after what at best can be called a bizarre performance by Trump in Helsinki, how can American diplomats assure their counterparts they know who is in charge, that what they claim is American policy actually is policy, and that… that… in some way the president of the United States is not more sympathetic to an adversary than to his allies? No American diplomat today can answer to those points. It was thus unsurprising Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had little to say in Helsinki.


    America’s global needs cannot wait out a Trump presidency, nor do they appear able to wait out whatever investigative process has been underway through two administrations. American intelligence began looking into Russiagate two years ago, with little substantive action taken by the Obama administration. The process has continued on the intelligence side undisturbed, along with new efforts by various parts of Congress, and by the Special Counsel. The multiple threads do not appear driven by a sense of crisis, and that is wrong.

    There have of course been far worse moments in American history: the presidents who watched helplessly as the storm over slavery broke into Civil War, FDR and the Japanese internment camps, Nixon bombing Vietnamese civilians and prolonging the Vietnam war to help get himself reelected, and George W. Bush setting the Middle East aflame.

    But we are here now, and Helsinki says either present the best possible evidence after two years of effort Donald Trump or his close associates actively worked with the Russian government, and thus remain beholden to it, or make it clear that is not the case. Getting things done in the world requires credibility, and it is now time to set aside chasing indictments that will never see the inside of a courtroom, those concerning financial crimes unconnected to the campaign, and a clumsy series of perjury cases. Post-Helsinki, we — America’s diplomats, its allies, its people — need to know who is running the United States.




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    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    Diplomacy 101 Case Study: Singapore Summit

    July 4, 2018 // 15 Comments »

     

    While I can say there isn’t a formal class at the American State Department called Diplomacy 101, some training offered to new hires comes pretty close. Those basic tenets of statecraft, largely unchanged from Thucydides to Bismarck to Pompeo, are important to review in light of the widespread criticism of the Singapore Summit.

    You make peace by talking to your adversaries. Diplomacy is almost always a process and rarely a big-bang scale event. Steps backward are expected along with steps forward. Realizing America’s foreign policy goals often means dealing with bad people. As an American diplomat I purposely flattered and befriended gangsters in Japan to help American citizens in trouble, Irish Republican Army terrorists when a change in administration in Washington saw them eligible for visas, and militia leaders in Iraq who sought deals during the Surge. So has every diplomat, along with most intelligence officers and military officers. Many in the media have done exactly the same things to cultivate sources.

    The Etruscans, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Eritreans, and Everyone else from A-Z have been conducting diplomacy with adversaries of all flavors, titles, and moral standards since before the word was even invented by the French. A leader whose family has been the sole ruler of his nation for seven some decades, who controls nuclear weapons, whose nation has a seat at the United Nations and embassies in multiple countries around the world already meets any practical test of “legitimacy.” Kim’s nuclear weapons exist whether or not he meets a sitting American president, or ex-presidents Clinton and Carter, though the only chance those weapons may someday be gone rests in such meetings.

    Now protocol is always tricky. President Obama had no obligation to bow to the Emperor of Japan, but decided to convey respect; same with American male diplomats holding the hands of or exchanging kisses with their Arab counterparts; I kissed a lot of bearded men while on duty myself. Mistakes happen — Trump did not need to salute that North Korean general — but what matters most is the effect on your counterparts. No damage was done, and maybe even some additional humility was conveyed in a situation where offense could have easily derailed more important matters.

    Diplomacy 101 advises you can’t control how your adversary, or even your friends, will portray events. Signals to the international community are important, but if you get too concerned about controlling them you’ll end up advising your boss she better just stay in Washington. One expert writes, “Foreign policymaking is not an omnidirectional antenna that clearly emits messages in all directions, which are correctly interpreted and acted upon by the intended audiences. Indeed, refraining from pursuing diplomatic initiatives because of how an adversary might characterize that initiative is surely a signal of weakness. And in the case of North Korea, allowing the propaganda efforts of a totalitarian government to influence United States policy making priorities is just self-crippling.”

    It’s different with created messaging directed at your adversary, because nobody else matters. Much mockery was slathered on the video Trump played for Kim in Singapore, depicting him as a great leader facing a history-bending decision. The video was spiced full of symbols that resonate with Koreans, including sacred places and holiday images that mean little to outsiders. The audience was one man, and the video was designed to do one thing, speak to Kim in a visual language he understood. Diplomacy 101 suggests everyone else might stand aside, the way older folks should do when people say such-and-such a new dance song is good or bad, knowing they’re not the intended audience.

    Negotiations are rarely an even exchange. But how long will you sit at the table if someone else seems to win every hand? Everyone has to at least feel they can win, so they don’t have a reason to cheat, and thus stay in the game. Even when stakes are high the good news it’s hard to give away “the store.” The store in whatever form usually isn’t something that can be irrevocably stopped, boxed up for shipment, or destroyed forever. Never mind the checks, balances, and bureaucratic brakes built into something as complex as the United States government, or even what may appear to be mostly a one-man-rule system. Diplomacy 101 encourages a thoughtful approach to score keeping, knowing the score only really matters at the end anyway.

    Diplomacy 101 also reminds the most important purpose of a good first date is to make sure there’s a second. It doesn’t make sense to call it a failure if no marriage proposal follows dessert. Love at first sight is best left for the movies. A kiss goodnight is great, but international relations is a chaste process and demanding or expecting too much too early isn’t a long game strategy. Setting an artificial clock running alongside something as delicate as nuclear disarmament accomplishes nothing. Negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union sometimes spanned administrations.

    Even failures are part of the process. William Johnson, a Foreign Service Officer who served as the State Department’s political advisor on special operations to the United States’ Pacific Command, explained to me “Diplomacy is often a series of failures, and in the best case, the failures become incrementally less bad, until sometimes the least spectacular failure is declared 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 future Diplomacy 101 class may examine the Singapore Summit alongside President Richard Nixon’s summit with Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung. That 1972 meeting ended over two decades of isolation between the two nuclear-armed countries, and is universally hailed as brilliant diplomacy. But looking back, the main takeaway, the Shanghai Communique, is full of vague phrases promising to meet again, to somehow make “progress toward the normalization of relations,” and “reduce the danger of international military conflict.” The status of Taiwan, which had almost brought the Americans and Chinese to war, was dealt with in almost poetic terms, able to be read with multiple meanings.

    There was no timeline for anything. No specific next steps listed, though Nixon did agree to the “ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all U.S. forces and military installations from Taiwan.” Nothing about China’s horrendous human rights situation. Few details at all, and the biggest problem was treated obliquely. It took seven more years before full diplomatic relations were restored. Yet scholars see the visit as one of the most impactful ever by an American president, to the point where the term “Nixon to China” is now shorthand for a breakthrough leaders’ meeting.

    It is of course too early to fully assess the Singapore Summit, never mind to see if it will rank anywhere near the Nixon-Mao meeting. But we do know personal diplomacy has sometimes been the right strategy, and that Americans have met with dictators, nuclear-armed and not, before. Simply amending “But Trump!” to those and other realities of diplomacy does not change them. As the United States-North Korea relationship evolves, it is important to avoid valuing the sharp elbows of partisan politics over the earned lessons of Diplomacy 101. Class dismissed — for now.

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    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    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 Biden, Embassy/State

    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 Biden, Embassy/State

    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 Biden, Embassy/State

    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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    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    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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    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    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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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    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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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State

    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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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Embassy/State