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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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Is there a role for apology in U.S. foreign relations?

President Truman laying wreath at Monument for the Niños Héroes.  Photo, courtesy of Truman library

President Truman laying wreath at Monument for the Niños Héroes. Photo, courtesy of Truman library

The apology that a U.S. sailor gave after being detained by Iranian security forces in Iranian waters has set off a firestorm of criticism over the humiliation of our military. The video that was taken by Iranian soldiers saw the man identified as the commander of the U.S. vessel as saying, “It was a mistake that was our fault and we apologize for our mistake. It was a misunderstanding. We did not mean to go into Iranian territorial water. The Iranian behavior was fantastic while we were here. We thank you very much for your hospitality and your assistance.”

Cries of a “disgrace” and “humiliating” were heard by those who could not bring themselves to credit the diplomats with the sailors’ release and the avoidance of an international incident that could have derailed not only the nuclear deal with Iran, but also, we have since learned, an exchange of prisoners that had been the subject of negotiations for well over a year.  One Congressman, Tom Rooney, from Florida and a member of the House Select Permanent Intelligence Committee, implied that the State Department had instructed the sailors to “make that kind of statement.”  The State Department was vigorous in its denial that an apology had been issued in order to obtain the release of the sailors.

Absent from the back and forth of accusation and denial is any discussion of the merits of apology, either as national policy or behavior, towards foreign or domestic parties.

The rush to reject apology makes one wonder what happens to the approach to family disputes.  Is an apology under those circumstances a sign of weakness, or is it a recognition that the path towards resolution might require an apology?

For sure, foreign policy is not marital reconciliation.  Yet, history shows apologies have been an element of U.S. behavior, at home and abroad.

Coincidentally, the sailor’s apology came within days of the anniversary of the U.S. overthrow of the legitimate ruling monarchy of Hawaii.  On the 100th anniversary of that event, a bipartisan majority in Congress issued a resolution apologizing to “to Native Hawaiians on behalf of the people of the United States for the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom on January 17, 1893” and for the “deprivation of the rights of Native Hawaiians to self-determination.”

Other examples spring readily to mind: the issuance of apology to and even compensation paid to the Japanese-Americans sent to detention camps during World War II (an event that Donald Trump cited as justification to ban the entry of all Muslims into the U.S.)

Less well known was the first visit to Mexico by a sitting U.S. President, Harry Truman, in 1947.  Truman did not have to utter the precise words of apology as he laid a wreath at the Mexican monument to their Niños Héroes on the eve of the centennial of the war with Mexico which saw the loss of nearly half of its territory.  Mexicans not only took the gesture as an apology, but, instead of seeing it as weakness, they received it in the way it was offered.  They enthusiastically embraced Truman as a “new champion of American solidarity and understanding,” in the words of Mexican Foreign Minister Ramon Beteta.  Others went further, as one eyewitness was quoted as saying, “one hundred years of misunderstanding and bitterness wiped out by one man in one minute.”  The response led President Clinton to repeat the gesture in 1997 when he visited Mexico City.

U.S. allies around the world are less reluctant to abjure apology as a component in their foreign relations.  In 2007, the British government expressed regret and authorized payments of £20 million to compensate victims tortured by its forces during the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule in Kenya in the 1950s.  Just last month, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered “apologies and remorse” for the “immeasurable and painful experiences” suffered by women in Korea forced to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers during the World War II.  As part of a settlement with the government of South Korea, Japan agreed to make payments to a fund for victims.  Other examples include Canada’s apology in 2008 to First Nations peoples for the system of Indian Residential Schools and Australia’s apology in 2014 to Indonesia for naval ships straying into Indonesian waters without permission.

The apology last week in the Persian Gulf differed from other examples in that it was likely a spur-of-the-moment decision by the commander, as opposed to national policy arrived at after considerable discussion, and in the Hawaii and Mexico examples, after 100 years has lapsed.  More recently, though, we have the cases of the U.S. and NATO forces who apologized for military operations in Afghanistan that result in civilian deaths.

Presidential politics make the issue of apology harder.  Taking a cue from Mitt Romney’s 2010 campaign book titled, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, candidates and pundits on the eve of the Iowa caucuses rushed to criticize weakness, claiming as well that the Iranians violated the Geneva Convention and its clauses related to treatment of prisoners in wartime.  Such short memories.  Less than ten years ago, these same individuals were trying to back away from and even rewrite that convention to suit U.S. methods of interrogation.

A refusal to accept any measure of accountability for U.S. behavior implies that no actions have been taken that have been either mistaken or misguided or immoral.  Or that they were justified to make America great.

In discussing the negotiations that Secretary Kerry and his team had with Iran over the prisoner exchange, he recalled that the Iranians repeatedly raised the 1953 coup organized by U.S. intelligence to overthrow the legitimately elected Mohammad Mossadegh as President of Iran.  The Iranians remember, and we deny.

I do subscribe to the notion of greatness for my country that I served for almost 30 years.  It is a greatness, though, that has the strength, confidence and wisdom to hold itself accountable for its errors and to aspire to do better.

This post originally appeared on History News Network.

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Melville Helps Us Understand Trump

Perhaps it is time to reconsider Herman Melville, not for the whale, but for his social commentary that speaks to us across generations in this Presidential campaign season.  Melville will return to the news in the next few weeks following the release of the much promoted Ron Howard movie “In the Heart of the Sea,” the account of the sinking of the whaling ship Essex that inspired Moby Dick.   As Americans, we grow up knowing the broad parameters of Melville’s tale (not tail), even if we never made it past the first chapter. Ahab’s chasing the white whale is part of our cultural DNA, shorthand for an obsessive, disastrous pursuit.

Embedded into this novel, written in Pittsfield shortly after Melville moved here in 1850, though, is the story of Ishmael, the sailor-narrator, and Queequeg, the tattooed, heathen Polynesian harpooner who was peddling shrunken heads when Ishmael first met him.  The novel begins with the two sharing a room (and, as was routine in the early 1800s for men of little means, a bed.)   Initially terrified of Queequeg, Ishmael concludes that “The man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him.”  Melville’s summation reaches across 175 years with a pointed rebuke of politics following the San Bernadino shooting after Thanksgiving: “Ignorance is the parent of fear.”

As Melville was writing these lines, he was surrounded by an outburst of nativism, of anti-foreign and anti-Catholic sentiment in Massachusetts, where a new, secret society was gaining adherents: the Know-Nothings.   That anti-party political order bequeathed the nation one of the most colorful but also confounding names, opening up the obvious line of inquiry – who would want to be associated with a movement that embraces ignorance in its title?

Citizen_Know_Nothing

Citizen Know Nothing

The Know Nothing name emerged not from a desire to be equated with stupidity, but from the secretive nature of its early days when adherents were instructed to answer questions about the order by saying they “know nothing.”   Following their success in several state political elections in 1854, they gave themselves the respectable official title, the American Party, but the Know Nothing name given to them by outsiders had already stuck.

In 2015, the current crop of Republican Presidential candidates seems to drawing for their playbooks a page from the 1850s and the Know Nothings.  They are drawing on several themes and tactics from the 19th century movement, most notably anti-immigration and the rejection of traditional politics.  The third pillar of the Know Nothings, anti-Catholicism, could easily be updated using the “replace all” function on a computer, substituting in the word Muslim for the earlier threat to Protestant values.

One Know Nothing member, Henry Wilson, who was elected as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, relayed the 1850s playbook, describing the secret order whose “professed purpose was to check foreign influence, purify the ballot box and rebuke the effort to exclude the Bible from the public schools.”  The societies that fed into the political movement bore their anti-immigrant leanings in their names: Sons of America, the American Protestant Association, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, and the Order of United Americans.  Members took oaths, according to a national convention in November 1854, to “not vote for any man for any office…unless he be an American-born citizen.”  If elected or appointed to any office, the member would “remove all foreigners, aliens of Roman Catholics from office or place.”

The nativism of the Know Nothings crept over into an overarching contempt for politicians, in reaction to a perceived increase of immigrants and Catholics in politics.  The movement then saw its greatest growth spurt in a period of generalized dissatisfaction with the inability of both parties to deal with the major issues of the time.  Failure of the Whigs in the Presidential elections of 1854 and  the only temporary resolution of the slavery issue in 1850 left a vacuum in the two-party system, leading quickly to the disappearance of the Whig party .  New issues such as temperance and the length of the working day emerged but were left untended.

Tactically, the Know Nothings focused their attention at the state and municipal levels of electoral politics drawing on their secret organizations to mobilize voters to head to the polls and reject traditional politicians.  They were most successful here in Massachusetts, when voters in 1854 swept into office Henry J. Gardiner as Governor and nearly all 400 races for the senate and house of representatives.  Races from Maine to Louisiana and California saw gains from Know Nothing candidates, moving Charles Francis Adams of Massachusetts to state “There has been no revolution so complete since the organization of government.”  Adherents replaced professional politicians, most evidenced in Massachusetts by the influx of clergymen replacing lawyers in elected positions.

The parallels to 2015 resound – anti-immigration in the rhetoric of “deny entry to all Muslims” and “build a wall;”  anti-political parties in the rhetoric of “I am not Washington’s candidate;” secret political organizations in the fund-raising behind super-PACs; the tactics of state and local mobilizing paying off in gerrymandered and now permanently safe electoral districts in the House of Representatives; the “purity of the ballot box” in the attempted legislated election restrictions making it harder for minorities to cast their ballot.

One aspect of the current version, though, does not track with its earlier model.  While the 1850s movement did not embrace a lack of knowledge, the 2015 version can lay claim to the connotations of ignorance in Know-ing Nothing, especially when one of the candidates derides the field for its “fantasy” policy proposals.  Ohio Governor John Kasich seemed to be mimicking another one-time candidate, former Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindahl, who, in 2013, urged Republicans to “stop being the stupid party. It’s time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults.”  Instead of answering they “know nothing” when asked a tough question, the candidates resort to an attack on the questioner, for his or her audacity, unfairness or meanness.  Knowing nothing or very little can extend to other statements: listing five cabinet departments for elimination that included naming the same department twice; the unwillingness to walk back claims of thousands of people from New Jersey cheering the collapse of the World Trade Towers on September 11; the claim that Obamacare is the worst thing to happen in this country since slavery.

By spouting ignorance, this year’s crop of politicians is making good on Melville’s dictum of delivering fear.  In considering all they advocate, though, that might just be the up side.  In fact, they could be driving the ship of state in pursuit of a white whale, with its disastrous ending.

This piece also appeared on History News Network and in the Berkshire Eagle.

 

 

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Obama and Netanyahu Differ on History, Not Just Iran

The differences between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama extend beyond their views of the current negotiations to limit Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons.  The two leaders draw on fundamentally different lessons from history as they shape their country’s respective positions in regards to a nuclear Iran. In fact, their whole approach to using history in making their case on whether or not to engage Iran diplomatically differs.

Speaking before the Joint Meeting of Congress, the Prime Minister engaged in historical selection in looking backward to predict what might lay ahead.  After the obligatory political thank you’s, Netanyahu started his speech by citing the Old Testament story of Esther, a “courageous Jewish woman” who warned the Jewish people of a plot to destroy them conceived by a Persian viceroy.  He drew the direct line from the religious holiday of Purim commemorating the story of Esther to what he sees is yet another plot by a Persian ruler to destroy Israel and he cites the sitting Ayatollah’s tweets as evidence.  Another Old Testament figure that Netanyahu chose to ignore is the Persian King Cyrus who ended the Babylonian captivity, called for the rebuilding of a “house of God” in Jerusalem and restored the religious vessels that his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar had taken when he destroyed the temple and the city.

Netanyahu also cites more recent history in highlighting the case of North Korea, when it reneged on its commitments to an international agreement hammered out through diplomatic negotiations to forestall the acquisition of a nuclear bomb.  North Korea, like Iran, was a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement.  To date, North Korea is the only country to have withdrawn from the agreement, and all obligations under it to limit nuclear technology to peaceful purposes and prevent the development and spread of nuclear weapons.  Here again, another historical selection overlooked by Netanyahu is South Africa, which abandoned its nuclear weapon program and signed the non-proliferation treaty in 1993.

The point is not that the appropriate historical parallels ought to be Cyrus and South Africa, but that historical precedents abound and can land on any side of a political debate.

President Obama, on the other hand, uses his understanding of history not to find past precedents but to look for present, transformative opportunities that could reshape history, as understood only by looking backward years from now.

Obama certainly knows of such historic moments.  It’s not hard to anticipate the histories 50 or 100 years from now, citing his election and re-election as the first African-American President.  They may also include his willingness to open a new chapter in U.S. relations with Cuba or to tackle the issue of affordable health care in this country, just to mention two.  In announcing the opening of diplomatic talks with Iran in September 2013, Obama looked ahead and envisioned the possibilities of not only “a major step forward in a new relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran,” but also one that would “help us to address other concerns that could bring greater peace and stability to the Middle East.”

Obama also recognizes that individuals who seek such opportunities run enormous risks, not just for their own political careers but for their nations that they lead.  It’s why he is leaving the door open for tougher sanctions and even the use of military options should Iran decide to use these negotiations as a cover to work towards producing nuclear weapons.   He does not want those histories in the future to write of him as another architect of appeasement.  The roads he has chosen to walk are littered with obstacles and critics.  However, he also acknowledges that the alternatives on Iran, however politically expedient they may be in dealing with crises, do not offer to resolve them, simply delay them, perhaps for another President or Prime Minister.  His model, after all, is Lincoln, not Buchanan.

Both leaders take a long view of history, but while Netanyahu’s view goes backward, Obama’s looks forward.  When Netanyahu looks forward, he sees only weeks, to the next election in Israel on March 17, or to inject himself into the current political stalemate in Washington.  David Remnick’s profile of Obama in the pages of the New Yorker in January 2014 quoted aides repeatedly discussing Obama’s sense of understanding his actions under the long telescope of history.  Obama told Remnick that “at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

The two leaders in the Oval Office, September 2013.  Photo, White House

The two leaders in the Oval Office, September 2013. Photo, White House

There is a great distance to go before reaching any accord with Iran over its nuclear program and its commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and an even greater distance to restoring diplomatic relations with Iran.  But history is the story of change, and that change does not happen without taking the first steps, as risky as they might seem.  Netanyahu uses history to avoid the first step; Obama looks way down the road to see where that first step might lead.

This post originally appeared on History News Network.

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