• The Medium is the Message: “Created News” in the Age of Trump

    December 11, 2017 // 16 Comments »


    About a week ago most major media outlets announced, again, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was about to be replaced. He is still in office. Was the story a non-story? Time will tell, but no matter what happens to Tillerson, we are in the era of created news, stories based on no facts, written to dominate the news cycle, not inform.

    Take Billy Bush and that infamous Access Hollywood tape. The New York Times recently reported a source (“a person familiar with the conversation,” so at least second hand) claimed Trump privately questioned the authenticity of the pussy grabbing tape. Nearly all established media outlets quickly jumped on the report, giving it greater validity simply by repeating it across the web until it could not be ignored. Sheer volume sent the story trending on social media.

    Amplification also carried a neat twist: the source for the secondary tranche of articles became in most cases a credible “New York Times reports…,” not the second-hand somebody from the original report. But unless you bothered to chase the tale around the web links, you’d never know how little the whole thing was based on.

    The next cycle were stories claiming Trump didn’t deny (the modern equivalent of the “Are you still beating your wife?” question) the anonymous-sourced original story. No one questioned the logic of having to deny something that may never have happened in the first place. Those non-denial stories were followed by commentary from second-tier media who proceeded as if the initial story was true, seasoned with the anxiety and outrage their readers demand as salve to their own anxiety and outrage. The third wave of articles were more sober, such as Op-Eds back in the New York Times, full circle, proclaiming Trump’s non-denial of what may not have ever happened as evidence of his instability. Or something.

    The point is no longer to inform — remember, journalism — it is just to keep the ball in the air, in this case to score political body blows against an easy, unpopular target. And for those who are fans of the surreal, the one person who truly seemed to benefit from all this was former Access Hollywood host Billy Bush himself. Bush, fired in 2016 for essentially being too much of a bro’ with Trump back in 2005, made late night rounds auditioning for redemption by sanctimoniously confirming the authenticity of a 12 year old tape no one was seriously questioning.

    This is all damaging enough when the subject is a puff of air like the Access Hollywood tape. The tape is from 2005, and its importance to voters was adjudicated by the last election. The game turns darker when the same strategy is applied to people.

     

    Welcome to Rex Tillerson’s world. Last week’s stories of his impending firing/resignation (and in other weeks past and future, those for Sessions, Mueller, Mattis, Kelly, Kushner, Ivanka, et al.) were crafted whole by the media out of anonymous sources. They have circulated almost since his first day in office. They have alternated between announcing UN Ambassador Nikki Haley as Tillerson’s replacement and proclaiming CIA Director Mike Pompeo as his replacement. Each story was based on the usual anon-sources, themselves a mystery even in anonymity — were the no-names actually Chief of Staff John Kelly with a trial balloon, or a White House intern passing on a bit of cafeteria gossip? We don’t know and the reporters do not seem to care to differentiate. What did matter is that each story published was blown bigger as multiple media outlets re-gifted one another’s pieces, a house of cards with no real base to stand on that grew taller and taller as new outlets grew not much of nothing into breaking news.

    The stories themselves eventually reached a critical media self-generated mass such that the administration was forced to again formally deny something that may not have even happened. The media in turn took the denials from Tillerson, Trump, and the White House spokesperson, and simply dismissed them — of course they are lying! It was the White House against the word of an anonymous source! Anything short of a full declarative denial was relabeled “did not actually deny,” something in 2017-speak that counts as a sort-of “yes.”

    Of course Rex Tillerson will leave office at some point, and you can expect the media to claim his skin when he does, much like a weather forecaster announcing rain every day, taking credit for being correct on the wet days and saying on sunny ones “Just you wait, I’ll be proved right in the end!”
    The disturbing arrival of created news on the media table is mirrored by other unpleasant trends. While much of this has deeper roots, the mass nervous breakdown that afflicted America on November 8, 2016 seems as a good an official start date as any other. Tricks that used to be the stock and trade of rags like the National Enquirer and its ilk, things like clickbait headlines at odds with body of the story, are now part of CNN and the Washington Post’s vocabulary. Opinion and commentary blend together with “reporting.” Where once journalists took pains to separate their personal political beliefs from their reporting, follow modern journalists on Twitter to see their pride in being hyper-partisan in their unedited, personal comments. There are other new normals: it is perfectly acceptable to call out the president with schoolyard-taunts, or make a crack about the orange man-child, or toss out homophobic jokes about Putin and bromance. Writers build whole columns out of lists (“ignorant… churlish… tacky”) of personal insults.

    Donald Trump’s victory was loathsome to the majority of journalists, whose cultural and partisan blindness lead to them misreport the election. Their reaction is this “new journalism.” Though it is unlikely to fade during Trump’s tenure, despite continuing issues with falling public trust in the media, the real question is what will happen after that. Will the hyper-partisan new journalism shift to Target Pence? Will it follow a Democrat into the White House? Is it possible for journalism to snap back?

     

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

    December 8, 2017 // 3 Comments »


     

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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


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    Whither Rex Tillerson?

    December 6, 2017 // 8 Comments »



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

    May 2, 2017 // 11 Comments »



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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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



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

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

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

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



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

    March 23, 2017 // 41 Comments »


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

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

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

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

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

    Bigger stuff over smaller stuff, who could imagine?

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

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

    NATO is covered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

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    Advice for Trump: It’s All About the Infrastructure

    March 21, 2017 // 25 Comments »



    Dear Donald:

    I didn’t vote for you and generally don’t support what you do, but hey, we both live in this country for now, and I don’t want to see you mess things up more than they are. So, as a public service, here’s some advice. I don’t see a lot of this in the media; mostly they just write articles mocking you. I’m pretty sure if you came out against poop the media would demand sh*t sandwiches for everyone in response.

    But we’re Americans, we look forward not behind where the poop comes out, so here goes.

    You need a grown up in the White House right away. Your team clearly hasn’t figured out how to work Washington when you need to do so. So go get yourself a James Baker. Baker was White House Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Treasury under Reagan, and Chief of Staff under George H. W. Bush. He may still be alive (check Wikipedia) but if not, someone like him. Not an ideologue, but someone who prefers to work behind the scenes, trusted by most in Congress, calm and steady but still enough of a conservative that he’ll fit in at meetings. He’ll be, what can we call it, a kind of Chief of Staff-concierge combo. That will also be very reassuring to your own party members.

    Next up is a new Secretary of State, in a few months. I get that Tillerson is there to debone the Department of State, and it is good that he do so. Let him get that done, make all the enemies, do the heavy lifting, and then get someone new in there who can take over the hassles of day-to-day foreign policy. It’s clear, Donald (if I may) that you don’t like the photo-ops and glad-handing with foreigners. OK, we’re not all good at everything. So outsource that part of the job, same as you’ve done pretty successfully with James Mattis over at Defense (see how that no-drama appointment thing can work out?) Get a SecState who can play nice with allies and let you be you on other stuff. C’mon, you know how to do this. As a businessman you delegated tasks all the time.

    With that team in place, get your plate clear of the ideological things you owe your base. Pass your healthcare, throw a bone to immigration reform, whatever The Wall, stop messing around too much with arts funding, just get that stuff off the front pages except in areas of the country where it being on the front pages is to your benefit.

    Then move on to the big deal, the thing that should be the signature event of your term, rebuilding infrastructure. You promised jobs, America needs jobs, the Democrats can’t be against jobs (well, they can, but at that point they’ll join the Whigs in political party trivia answers.) Don’t spend a lot of time at first sorting things out, just get money into the economy. Cut Retire one aircraft carrier, something. Have states send in proposals, or just start. Build a bridge. Fix an airport. Put people to work in Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, places that really have been hit hard.

    Make it fast, make it visible, show (pardon the pun) concrete results.

    ALTERNATE POINT OF VIEW: “Forget your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap,” Kevin Williamson wrote of the white working class in National Review. “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible.”

    Or from NY Magazine’s Frank Rich “Maybe they’ll keep voting against their own interests until the industrial poisons left unregulated by their favored politicians finish them off altogether. ”

    BONUS: For the Democrats, don’t chase away the man or woman who feels like a third party candidate. Don’t push a hack forward who you think you’ve dressed up to look like a third party candidate; it’ll just come off fake, like when Dad tries to look “cool” around the teenagers. Stop acting smug about how all those Trump voters won’t get the change they sought. You don’t have the best record there, either. Don’t tell people who have really been living with Obamacare in its imperfect form that it is not imperfect.

    Imagine yourselves taking control of the healthcare debate. Imagine saying “Obamacare has problems. We’re going to fix them, and yeah, it means working with the Republicans, but people before party.” Now there’s something to take into the 2018 and 2020 campaigns, especially if you do fix Obamacare.

    And for the love of Gawd, find something more to be in favor of. “We’re not Trump” and “Trump’s a stupid jerk” were the policy positions that cost you the election. Nobody besides your own paranoid base bought deeply into the Putin controls Trump line, and the longer you stick to that the more it will end up looking like the endless Benghazi hearings.

    See, people outside your base will see through your current war cry: July Comey bad, March Comey is good. July investigations mean nothing, March investigations are the end of democracy. Saudi money into the Clinton Foundation had no proof of quid pro quo, Some Trump guy appearing on RT.com is proof that the Kremlin controls Washington DC.

    Understand that you have to build your base out from the coasts; you will not lure middle-of-the-road voters back with #resistance. Resistance is just blunt opposition and you tried that and the result was President Trump. Don’t make it President Pence down the road.

     

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    Dissent and the State Department: What Comes Next?

    March 2, 2017 // 59 Comments »



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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

    So what happens next?


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

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

    Experience suggests no.


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

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




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    Let’s Play Journalism, and Make Fake News

    February 14, 2017 // 98 Comments »



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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    What Will Rex Tillerson Inherit at the State Department?

    February 2, 2017 // 39 Comments »


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What’s really left for State to do?

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

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




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