John S. Dickson

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Correcting the first draft of history – Obama’s Red Line

The great undoing has started.   President Obama’s most defining achievements — from healthcare reform and economic recovery to the drawdown of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — divided the country to the extent that our new President and Congress are hell bent on undoing anything that might be considered an enduring legacy.

Of the many arenas for expected change, perhaps the most consequential will be the departure from Obama’s approach to advancing and protecting U.S. interests in the world.  Obama consistently prioritized diplomacy.  His two major international accomplishments came through diplomacy: securing an agreement to prevent Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and the international climate change agreement.  Unfortunately, both are high on the list of the great undoing of the Trump administration, regardless of the possible costs.

Donald Trump and his team cite a presumed loss of international prestige and influence around the world as a result of Obama’s reluctance to use military force without exhausting diplomatic solutions.  As their case in point, they have advanced a narrative about the no-good options case in a prolonged Syrian civil war.  Such a narrative has taken on a conventional wisdom that ignores the events that actually transpired.

The narrative has its own short-hand nomenclature: the red line.  In Syria, Obama laid down a “red line” in August 2012 that, once crossed by Syria’s President Bashar Assad, would draw the U.S. into military engagement in Syria.  Obama’s exact words were “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.  That would change my calculus,” referring to a decision on military involvement in Syria.

Within a year, video footage out of Syria began to seep out of Syria forcing such a “change of calculus.”  An August 21, 2013 attack against a suburb of Assad’s own capital revealed use of chemical weapons, and UN inspectors arrived in Syria to investigate.  Obama began preparing the groundwork for a military response, first by consulting with allies and then exploring options of limited strikes to cripple Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons.  Planners assessed the risks of military strikes against caches of chemical weapons.  While the U.S. had a stated policy of regime change in Syria, Obama focused his planning for military option on one achievable goal – the removal of chemical weapons.

A timeline of events over the next few weeks reveals how quickly events on the ground shifted to disrupt Obama’s plans.

On August 29, the British Parliament voted against Prime Minister Cameron’s motion condemning Assad for the attack, the first step for British participation in military intervention.  Weighing heavily on that vote was the still fresh memory of the consequences of British involvement in the Iraq war.

Faced with the loss of his closest ally, Obama made two announcements two days later.  First was his decision to “take military action against Syrian regime targets.”  The second was more consequential.  He also decided to “seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.”

At the time, Obama sounded confident that he would be able to convince Congress on the appropriateness of military action, despite his awareness of the public’s weariness with war after Iraq and Afghanistan.

After just one week, it had become clear that Congress would not back Obama’s request to use military force in Syria.  Public opinion polls also opposed U.S intervention, and Obama was running into the same brick wall that a Republican Congress imposed on any proposals emanating from the White House.  On September 8, five Republican Senators announced their opposition and a sixth, Lindsey Graham, said “It’d be great if the Russians could convince Assad to turn over his chemical weapons to the international community. That’d be a terrific outcome.”

Faced with a near certain defeat in Congress, Obama’s room to maneuver was limited.  In what has been portrayed as an off-the-cuff remark, Secretary of State John Kerry opened up a potential avenue to achieve the same outcome as a military strike of eliminating the chemical weapons that Assad could use on his own people.  In response to a reporter’s question on September 9, Kerry said Assad could avert military action by the U.S. if he would “turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.”  The Russians moved quickly to propose just such an outcome.  Obama responded tentatively, holding out the use of military action if such a plan was merely cause for delay.

The next day, Obama asked Congress to postpone a vote to allow for diplomacy to play out the diplomacy set in motion by Kerry’s remarks.

After an intense, accelerated negotiations, Kerry and his Russian counterpart announced on September 14 the framework of an agreement that would start a process to remove the chemical weapons in Syria under the supervision of the international community.

British destroyer escorting shipment of chemicals out of Syria in February 2014; photo courtesy of British Ministry of Defence

British destroyer escorting shipment of chemicals out of Syria in February 2014; photo courtesy of British Ministry of Defence

Less than a year later, on June 23, 2014, the UN certified that the last of Syria’s chemical weapons had been removed.  That included over 1300 metric tons at over 45 different sites in Syria.  The size alone of that stockpile makes it hard to conceive that military intervention would have had the same outcome.

Obama’s detractors, especially those in Congress who worked to thwart approval of military engagement in Syria in September 2013, suffer from amnesia.  Not content with this erroneous story line, some have connected the red line statement to the continued suffering in Syria, to the military involvement of Russia to bolster Assad, to a mass migration to escape what looks to be genocide in Aleppo and Syria’s other war-torn regions.  This is misplaced; Assad and Putin hold full responsibility for those crimes against humanity.

The red line narrative that ought to be taking hold as the nation prepares for the transfer of power reveals a leader who laid out a concrete goal and achieved it, through a diplomacy that involved the UN, friends and allies, and even adversaries.  We will come to appreciate such strategic deliberation.  My thread of hope is that we as a nation do not pay too high a price for the untethered, transactional bullying that lies ahead.

This article first appeared in the Berkshire Eagle and History News Network.

 

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The Wall Trump Should Build

 

A 10 page summary of conflicts of interests that municipal employees could encounter

A 10 page summary of conflicts of interests that municipal employees could encounter, followed by this signature page

Recently, I received in the mail a notice from the city of Pittsfield that, as a member of the Pittsfield Historical Commission, I had to complete my annual review of conflict of interest rules and laws.

Dropping off the signed form at the city clerk’s office gave me pause:  why would I, a volunteer member on a small municipal commission, be subject to conflict of interest rules and regulations, but not the President of the United States?

On the one hand, it’s discouraging that it’s even necessary to remind people that service such as mine is not to enrich oneself, but to fulfill objectives on behalf of a larger community.  As a public servant for almost 40 years, I have had to abide by the many conflict of interest rules and laws, such as filling out financial disclosure forms and refusing gifts over $50 from any foreign entity.

On the other hand, though, I do understand the need for promoting the public’s trust and confidence in the institutions that serve them and in the people who run those institutions.  The motivations in making decisions should be based on the merits of the issue at hand, weighing the benefits and costs to the greater public.  We are, after all, human and susceptible to temptation, so such rules and laws are needed to draw the lines clearly for public servants.  On more than one occasion over the course of my career, I had cause to refer to the Office of Government Ethics to get a ruling on situations that arose within our work.

I also had good role models.  Our Ambassador to Canada, and former Governor of Massachusetts, the late Paul Cellucci, beamed when he showed off the high-end driver he received from the professional golfer Vijay Singh, but he also quickly went to his checkbook to reimburse the cost of the club.  Singh earned his visa renewal at the Embassy on his own merit, not on the gift of a golf club.

Here in Pittsfield, it does not take much research to uncover past dealings that jar our 2016 sensibilities regarding strict separation of business dealings with public service.  In the early 1800s, the first Berkshire County mill operators appealed to their Congressman in Washington, Henry Shaw, to support a tariff to raise the price of the imported goods, and help their products compete.  A supporter of Henry Clay’s “American System” that included a tariff on imports, Shaw voted for its passage in 1824.  The next year, Shaw (who happened to be Josh Billings’ father) took full advantage of the tariff he helped pass when he led a group of investors to buy land south of Pontoosuc Lake and build a woolen mill, the Pontoosuc Woolen Mill.  The national politician Henry Clay returned the favor to Shaw whom he visited on a trip to the Berkshires that, naturally, included a tour of his mill.

Thirty years later, another politician, Thomas Allen, the grandson of the Congregational minister who helped recruit soldiers during the Revolutionary War, moved to Missouri where he made a fortune as an early railroad builder, becoming President of the Pacific Railroad in 1850.  The same year, he won election as a state senator and used that position to secure land grants from the state legislature for his railroad.  Allen kept his ties to Pittsfield, and used some of his fortune from the railroad business to make the initial large donation to establish the Berkshire Athenaeum on Park Square in 1876.

It would have been right for citizens to question whether the tariff that Shaw voted for was in the country’s best interests or Shaw’s?  Likewise, was Allen serving the people of Missouri in promoting the construction of railroads or his own business interests?  Examples like these led to laws enacted as early as the Civil War that made it a crime “for Members of Congress and Officers of the Government of the United States from Taking Considerations for Procuring Contracts, Office or Place from the United States.”  Civil service reform followed in 1883 and, the law that set up the Office of Government Ethics was passed in 1978 in the wake of Watergate when public confidence in the integrity of government dipped to all-time lows.  The new law laid out the rules and penalties relating to financial disclosure, acceptance of gifts, outside earned income and post-government employment, among others.

Massachusetts passed its first conflict of interest law fifteen years before the federal law governing state and municipal employees.  Once the federal law was passed though, Massachusetts set up its own ethics commission and added a financial disclosure requirement for political candidates and state employees in  “major policy-making positions.”

Our incoming President-elect is legally correct in stating that the 1978 federal law exempted the President and Vice-President from the conflict of interest requirements.  That exemption had more to do with concerns over restricting the President’s ability to have the full range of options in the course of carrying out his duties.

The legal exemption, though, is not the same as Donald Trump’s claim that “a President can’t have a conflict of interest.”  Being “legally exempt” is not the kind of statement that builds public confidence in its government and institutions.  The line is blurred between his vast empire of business holdings and the decisions he will have to make on, for example, tax reform or foreign relations with countries where he conducts business. Former White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray (a Republican) agrees that “presidents should conduct themselves as if conflict of interest laws apply to them.”  He was elected, after all, with a promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington, so he really needs to start by leading by example.

Over the next few years, the public will undoubtedly learn more than it ever imagined about the intricacies of conflict of interest law, picking up terms like “nepotism” and “emoluments.”   Unless, of course, the incoming President takes the steps needed to ensure the line between his personal assets and the public interest is not blurred.  That’s the wall he should build.

It’s what every public servant does.

 

This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle and History News Network

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To Russia With Love

When wondering how to make America great again, encouraging a foreign government to influence our election, does not come to mind.  Neither does denying that it happened, let alone refusing to even receive the intelligence reports that indicate the extent of that foreign involvement.

The tables have been turned.  For decades, the U.S. did meddle in foreign elections.  The cases are well known, whether it was CIA financing a propaganda campaign to ensure victory for Italy’s Christian Democrats in 1948, Edward Lansdale of the CIA running the campaign for Philippines President Ramon Magsaysay in 1953 or even spending millions of dollars to prevent Salvador Allende from winning the Chilean election in 1964.

The U.S. did not stop at trying to influence elections, but actively sought to overturn elections that had put into power leaders inimical to our interests.  Declassified documents spell out efforts in Iran, Congo, Chile and Guatemala to destabilize the countries in order to lead to the overthrow of the elected leaders.

Perhaps, this is the era of greatness that Donald Trump had in mind when he adopted the slogan for his campaign.  However, these activities did not make the U.S. great, but in the long term harmed our reputation around the world.  More recently, overt attempts by the U.S. to weigh in on foreign elections have backfired.  In 2002, U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia Manuel Rocha warned that the election of Evo Morales as President might result in the cutoff of aid to the country.  Morales lost that election but rode to victory in the next elections, riding on resentment against the U.S.

Foreign media seek out U.S. statements on their elections, but most Ambassadors are careful to avoid becoming part of the electoral debate.  In the Philippines elections this year Ambassador Philip Goldberg resisted the temptation to criticize the authoritarian candidate Rodrigo Duterte and echoed the refrain taken by the U.S. in foreign elections, “Our job and my job and also the job of the people in the U.S. is to stay out of your politics and to let the Filipino people decide who is going to be your President.”

Montage by Donkey Hotey, Flickr, Wikimedia Commons

Montage by Donkey Hotey, Flickr, Wikimedia Commons

Now, however, we are faced with the likelihood that the U.S. has been on the receiving end of foreign election meddling.  In considering this turnaround on the sanctity of democratic elections, it is important to note a series of troubling aspects:

— this is the electronic equivalent of the Watergate burglary, where operatives physically broke into the offices to seek physical files from the Democratic campaign.  This time, files were copied electronically.

— the release of the files did influence the outcome of the election.  The e-mails did not break news of illegal activities, but did highlight embarrassing statements from Democratic party officials on a recurring basis over the course of the final weeks of the campaign.  Further, they provided enough material for a candidate who is so cavalier with the truth to repeat his “Crooked Hillary” theme to audiences primed to chant for her arrest.

— Donald Trump denying that this happened is a little like Donald Trump repeating for years that President Obama was not born in the U.S.  Just because he says it, does not make it so.  And even knowing it is false doesn’t mean he will stop saying it.

— it is not out of character that the man who is famous for not having even a short attention span would reject intelligence briefings.  Those analysts preparing the briefings were not the people behind the lead up to the Iraq War in 2003.  That was George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and George Tenant who politicized the process and got the intelligence they wanted, even if they had to make it up.

— the connection to Russia and to Vladimir Putin that Donald Trump, his campaign and now several of his Cabinet selections should raise questions about the motivation of the Russians and of the Trumps.  There are many ways to reset relations with Russia, and perhaps good reasons to do so.  But, denying their involvement in our elections?  Next, he might deny they have taken over Crimea.  No, he actually already did say that.

Most alarming, though, is contemplating what should be done as a result of this electoral meddling, and further what could be done.  The constitutional crisis borders on the unthinkable and the unprecedented.  The courage to investigate this fully, first by President Obama and then by members of both parties in Congress, is the best example of a democracy still intact.

This post originally appeared in History News Network.

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Trump’s approach to foreign policy: all tweets, no depth

 

trumptweetsFor our President-elect, history starts now.  Except for a slogan referring to some vague, bygone time of American greatness, Trump’s understanding of history appears to be limited only to what has personally happened to him, as he has built casinos and golf courses and hotels here and abroad.

Nowhere has that been more clear as he stepped into foreign affairs this week, clunking and stomping around on an equilibrium of highly nuanced policies on Cuba, on Pakistan and India, and on China and Taiwan.  Our relations with these nations have run a course of balancing inconsistencies and quasi-fictitious arrangements that have led to a calm, stable, even muddle-through status quo.  As a result, potential areas of distrust, resistance to U.S. interests, and even conflict have been avoided.

With a Twitter threat to Cuba following the death of Fidel Castro, Trump vows to break the recently restored diplomatic relations.  As if the Obama administration’s overture to Cuba in 2014 were a real estate sale, Trump wrote “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.”  Prior to the normalization of relations, 55 years of policies that sought to overthrow Castro, even kill him, isolate the country and penalize its people economically fed Castro’s iconic reputation as the man who stood up to the United States.  After the Cuban missile crisis and Castro’s forays into the proxy wars in Africa and Latin America, Cuba became a symbolic talking point in U.S. politics, an easy throw-away line to garner a small, but influential voting block in the state of Florida.

What Obama accomplished in his overture to Cuba extended beyond the island nation and advanced U.S. interests in the rest of the hemisphere that was tired of American views toward Latin America that focused on a small island nation.  Obama’s breakthrough allowed the U.S. to approach the region with a clear understanding of where our interests truly lie: in large trading partners such as Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Chile or in states threatened by criminal organizations whose populations are fleeing to the U.S. to seek refuge.

In taking the phone call from the leader of Taiwan, Trump stepped into another untidy region with a complex history.  With one simple tweet, “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency,” Trump upended 35 years of a one-China policy balancing act that gave our diplomatic recognition to the Beijing China government, but also, according to the Taiwan Relations Act, “promote(s) extensive, close, and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan, as well as the people on the China mainland…”  That law passed in 1979 commits the U.S. to support Taiwan’s self-defense.  It’s not “interesting” that the U.S. sells Taiwan military equipment, as Trump defended his call in a subsequent tweet, it’s the law.  The U.S. doesn’t refer to the Taiwan leader as President, because, in the law the U.S. doesn’t recognize Taiwan as a country.

The Taiwan-China relationship is a third-rail, highly potent issue for both the island and the mainland.  For the past 35 years, the U.S. has been careful not to touch it.  Until now.

The call raised all kinds of questions whether the President-elect received any prior briefing where these issues might come up.  Trump’s communications advisor, Kellyanne Conway, insisted on CNN that Trump receives briefings prior to these foreign calls.  That implies that his actions and statements were not errors, but part of a conscious strategy.

However, in the one transcript released from a call – with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – the nature of those briefings raises further questions.  The transcript read: “Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, you have a very good reputation. You are a terrific guy. You are doing amazing work which is visible in every way. I am looking forward to see you soon. As I am talking to you Prime Minister, I feel I am talking to a person I have known for long. Your country is amazing with tremendous opportunities. Pakistanis are one of the most intelligent people.”  Is it remotely possible that one of his advisors actually briefed the President-elect and told him to say those things, or that it might be advantageous to say “I am ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems?”  What exactly might those outstanding problems be?

It has been widely reported that Trump is not attending the daily intelligence briefings, delegating that responsibility to his Vice President-elect.  However, if there were in fact briefings by members of his new foreign affairs team, one must wonder what the strategy behind the calls might be.  Conversations with foreign leaders are opportunities to advance U.S. interests, to push for a specific point.  Of course, he is only the President-elect, and of course it is natural for foreign leaders to make congratulatory calls.  If he claims that he doesn’t require a strategy since he is not yet President, then he must surely be aware that these foreign leaders are pursuing their own strategies.  Why, otherwise, would Pakistan be so eager to release a transcript from the call, except perhaps to send a message to its rival India?  Or to embarrass Trump and the United States in front of the rest of the world?

History didn’t start on November 8.  The candidate whose supporters overlooked egregious views and activities is soon to be our next President, interacting with peoples who may not be so forgiving.  He will have no choice but to engage in corners of the world with long, untidy, complicated histories, with us and with their neighbors.   A President Trump will not be rewriting history from January 20, 2017 on; he will enter the stage well into the play.  And if he doesn’t take these complicated pasts into account, he runs the risk of getting outmaneuvered and manipulated by other countries for their own interests, rather than defining and advancing our own.

This article first appeared in the History News Network and the Berkshire Eagle.

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Our democracy lost

Every year for the past 40 years, the State Department has issued annual human rights reports as mandated by Congress.  It falls to each U.S. Embassy to prepare the draft country report, based on news clippings collected and interviews and meetings held throughout the year.

Each country report follows a standard format with sections that address topics ranging from protection of individual liberties, arbitrary arrest, freedom of the press, and elections and political participation.

These reports invariably generate controversy, from foreign governments that chafe over the criticism and from human rights organizations who complain that friendly or strategically important countries are not criticized enough.  Most object to the U.S. setting itself up as the arbiter of human rights practices around the world, and a few, including China, have started preparing their own reports on human rights in the United States.

We don’t need reports from other countries, though, to appreciate the flaws in our political system or to understand that we now have a minority run government, in all branches.

The evidence is clear.

Popular vote.  At the executive level of government, for the second time in five elections, the candidate that lost the popular vote has won the election, thanks to the archaic apparatus of the Electoral College. The original framers of the Constitution were nervous about direct democracy and set up mechanisms to limit the vote to white men owning property and to create indirect elections for both Senators and the President.  Only once since 1992 have the Republican candidates for President won the popular vote, but by the end of Donald Trump’s term they will have run the Executive branch for 12 years.

Redistricting.  In the legislative branch, redistricting has allowed the Republicans to put themselves in a near-permanent majority.  New census data each ten years requires legislatures in states with changing populations to re-draw districts.  The result has been a patchwork of districts drawn to protect incumbency and isolate racial and ethnic minorities.   Justin Lewitt from Loyola Law School who tracks redistricting has identified which party controls the process in each district.  He estimates that Republicans “unilaterally control the process” for 210 congressional seats in 18 states, while Democrats have primacy in 44 congressional seats in 6 states.

This resulted in an election where a total of 380 incumbents were re-elected to the House of Representatives out of 393 who ran, for the highest percentage of incumbency since 2004.

Voter suppression.  Redistricting is just one factor in a minority maintaining political control.  This year was the first Presidential election since 1968 held without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.  In the last six years, 20 states have enacted new voter requirements that effectively suppressed the vote by requiring photo IDs, by curbing voter registration efforts or by limiting early voting.  The lower turnout in 2016 than in 2012, particularly among racial and ethnic minorities, helped ensure a Trump victory and the retention of a Republican majority in the Senate.

Take the case of Wisconsin. With a new voter ID requirement, voter turnout was its lowest in 20 years, with a 13% drop in Milwaukee.  More than 300,000 people who voted in the last Presidential election could not vote, in a state that was decided by a margin of less than 20,000.

Supreme Court.  Before the election, the New York Times referred to the Senate Republican failure to act on President Obama’s nomination to the Supreme Court as a “coup against the Supreme Court.  The Constitution provides the President with the authority to make appointments with the advice and consent of the Senate.  Prior to the election, when Senate Republicans were convinced of a Clinton victory, they indicated that they would reject any of her nominees, for the duration of her term.  With a Trump minority victory, Republicans can now protect a solid conservative majority on the bench that can sustain these efforts to maintain minority control by suppressing voting rights further or preventing curbs against unlimited financing in campaigns by businesses and political action committees.

Even more egregious than the redistricting or suppressing votes or failing to act on the Supreme Court nomination were the separate, unprecedented interventions in U.S. electoral politics by two entities: the FBI and the Russian government.  To the clear advantage of the Republican party, both influenced the outcome of the election more than a Watergate break-in intended to find out campaign strategies of the opposition.  That we were powerless to prevent either of these from influencing our elections does not mean that both should not be fully investigated, especially since Rudolph Guiliani, a prominent Trump supporter, boasted that he had inside information that the FBI was going to announce its re-opening of the e-mail investigation.

These are systemic flaws which, if they occurred in another country, would find their way into the human rights report and raise questions as to the integrity of the political process.

Since the election, the political discussion has moved away from these systemic issues, reviewing the real and repeated mistakes of the polls, the media and the campaigns.  We are reminded of the need to unite the country behind the winner and are deep into the machinations of a transition and a parlor game on appointments to the new administration.

An annual human rights report gets away from the daily news and focuses on broader systemic issues.  Even though there is no provision to write a report on our own country, it is obvious we need a longer term review of our flawed electoral processes.

Fifty years from now, historians will not be reviewing the transition and appointments.  They may, though, be reviewing this election as one of the steps on the way to the erosion of our democracy.

This article originally appeared in History News Network and the Berkshire Eagle.

Annual report on U.S. support for human rights. Photo, State Department

Annual report on U.S. support for human rights. Photo, State Department

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