Category Archives: All Politics Is Local

We Love to Hate Foreign Aid

Possibly no program of the United States government is more despised by Americans than aid given by the U.S. to other countries.

A cartoon depicts one taxpayer saying to the Internal Revenue Service: “I hope you give my money to some nice country.”

The cartoon is based on a myth but one widely believed: that the U.S. gives money by the fistfuls to other countries for social programs.

In fact, about one percent of the U.S. budget proposed by Obama in 2016 went to foreign aid, including military aid.

A Kaiser Family Foundation study in 2015 found that the average American thought about 26 percent of the U.S. budget went to foreign assistance.

The five countries who receive the most aid are: Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan.

Much of the aid is military assistance, overseen by the Department of Defense.

A much smaller percentage of the aid budget is for humanitarian assistance programs, such as those dealing with health and food, usually overseen by the Department of State.

Any program devised by humans can always be made better and more efficient. Certainly changing times demand new ways of doing things.

However, in calling for drastic cuts at the Department of State of about 29 percent, the budget may cut assistance programs that benefit both the recipients and the United States.

They include programs to cut down on infections from AIDS, to prevent maternal deaths from childbirth, and to provide services for improving children’s health. Healthy, educated children grow into productive adults, more likely to contribute to a functioning society, one that resists radicalism and terrorism.

In fighting diseases like the Ebola virus, containment is easier when the U.S. already has established health programs, as well as personnel, in the affected countries in embassies and other missions.

For a better understanding of foreign aid, explore a link from the Council on Foreign Relations.

They’re Walking Out the Door: What “Draining the Swamp” Means

David Rank, senior U.S. diplomat to China, recently resigned because he said he could not, in good conscience, represent President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord to the Chinese government. Walking out the door was a diplomat with twenty-seven years of foreign policy experience and one reported to be fluent in the language of the country where he supported U.S. foreign policy.

Rank said the withdrawal from the Paris accord broke three barriers for him. It was a mistake from a foreign policy perspective. It bothered him as a parent. And it conflicted with his Christian faith.

When we talk blithely about cleaning the government’s house, we should remember the sacrifices some of those supposed “swamp dwellers” have endured. In an interview with Robert Siegel on NPR (June 28 2017), Rank alluded to career duties that caused him to be absent during family milestones: the birth of one of his children and also the deaths of his parents.

Others have given more. Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed by a mob in Libya as he attempted to carry out U.S. foreign policy in that country. Anne Smedinghoff, a young political diplomacy officer, was killed by a roadside bomb while on the way to deliver books to Afghan school children.

We so often win militarily but neglect the harder issues that follow. The needs remaining after the end of a war require day to day contact with shattered populations trying to rebuild.

The hard work of building a functioning society will be done, if it is done, by the local governments. This is when we need American diplomats to work with them to push again and again for a society that serves its people, not a few warlords, their corruption tempting the re-emergence of radicals. The work needs to be targeted and appropriate. It takes time and it requires a trained, focused diplomatic effort.

Will enough people remain for those efforts after we drain the swamp?

Attacking the Right to Know

Long before the American Revolution, Americans created a free press, enshrining the right to know what their leaders are doing and to comment on their actions.

In the mid 1730’s, the newspaper owner of the New York Weekly Journal, John Peter Zenger, severely criticized a corrupt royal governor. Zenger was charged before the court with seditious libel. His lawyer argued that Zenger had printed the truth, even if it was critical of the governor. Based on that argument, the jury refused to convict Zenger. Over a period of time, this judgement contributed to truth as the principal argument for press freedom during times of controversy.

A Sedition Act in the tumultuous 1790’s, held that anyone who impeded the policies of the government or defamed its officials, including the president, would be subject to fine and imprisonment. Enforcement ended after Thomas Jefferson’s election in 1800.

The United States has suffered many divisive periods. What is presented as news has not always been as responsible as it might have been. However, the right of citizens to debate and criticize their officials in the media is a long-cherished stone in the wall against abuse of power by those in office.

President Trump appears unable to accept criticism. Even further, his administration apparently wishes to banish any unfavorable reporting about his administration’s policies. Trump and his officials brand even reputable, long established news organizations as existing to create “fake” news.

Check Trump’s own tweets for a long list of unsubstantiated fake news.

One only has to consider Russia or Turkey to see what happens when people who disagree with officials are silenced.

We Need a Third Political Party, Maybe Even a Fourth

Our two main political parties once cooperated to govern the country. Now, according to reports, Democrats and Republicans are hardening to the extent that parents supporting one party become upset if their children wish to marry someone from the other party.

Third parties have been around for a long time, but they tend to focus on a few issues. What if enough brave politicians (hopefully this term is not an oxymoron) broke off from one or, better, both political parties, to form a true third party. This party would not be tied to a few particular issues but have a broad agenda like Democrats and Republicans do now, but a moderate one.

This new party would be a centrist party. As a minority third party, members would often hold the deciding votes on congressional legislation. They would shore up either Democrats or Republicans at different times, depending on a need to swing left or right to correct extremist views. A third party would polish off the hard edges of polarization and enable Congress to function again.

It might attract those who are so turned off by traditional political parties that they don’t vote.

Alternatively, we might create not one, but two political parties. One would be center left and one center right. They would counteract swings to hard left or hard right.

We need another party (or two) for better choices.

Praise for the Senate Health Care Bill

Dr. Ben Danielson, senior medical director at a Seattle children’s clinic, commented on the current health care bill before the Senate:

“I have to start off by, I guess, congratulating all the millionaires on the incredible gift they are about to get. I always wondered what you get for the person who has everything, and now I know; it’s cutting benefits to young children, poor families, the infirm, the elderly.”(Quoted by Danny Westneat, The Seattle Times, “Doctor Calls GOP’s Bluff on Health Bill,” June 25, 2017.)

The sarcasm of the obviously frustrated doctor aside, what might a truly praiseworthy health care bill look like?

First of all, it would provide preventive based health care for every American. The goal is health care that encourages healthy lives, not just paying medical bills when we are sick.

Compare it to preventive maintenance on our cars. People who care about their vehicles don’t wait to change the oil after it’s become so dirty that it begins to damage the engine. We change oil at set times and perform other maintenance checks as well: brakes, tires, and so on.

Preventive health care requires care for the healthy at least as much as for the sick. It works best when it begins early and lasts throughout life. Requiring all to buy health insurance that pays for regular checkups saves money in the long run.

Today, the money we spend on health insurance for the elderly is more expensive because we didn’t begin it an earlier age.

Starting healthcare at the beginning of a life has the potential to lessen drug abuse, not to mention obesity and other health challenges.

Prevention is so much less expensive than emergency room management.

Abolishing Groupthink—Searching for Loyal Opposition

Each year, a “dissent” award is given to one or more U.S. diplomats for disagreeing with their bosses.

It’s awarded for constructively dissenting from official foreign policies of the U.S. government. So far as I know, it’s unique in government service, begun during the turmoil of the Vietnam conflict.

Perhaps we need constructive dissent awards for Democratic and Republican politicians. They could be awarded to those loyal members of their parties who constructively dissent from the direction their party is heading.

Recently, an article in The Economist questioned groupthink—being so concerned with harmony within a group that no one questions irrational or wrong policies. The article suggested that a group lower the cost of disagreement and perhaps defuse crises that arise in democracies (“Free Exchange: How to Be Wrong,” June 19, 2017).

We tend to become polarized and fall into yes or no positions on issues. Yet solutions to problems are seldom cut and dried. Considering alternates or alterations to policies may yield wiser solutions. More realistic answers are found in the center.

Hiring Bank Presidents to Perform Appendectomies

When we need surgery, we don’t ask a bank president to perform the operation. To lead soldiers into battle, we don’t assign data engineers.

Yet, in assigning leaders for our foreign policy teams in U.S. embassies, we sometimes appoint those with no experience in foreign affairs. Instead, the criteria used for ambassadors to some of our embassies, is how much the candidate has contributed to the election of the president.

Both political parties have used the appointment of ambassadors to reward political donors and party apparatchiks. Around thirty percent of our ambassadors have been political appointees. Some talented and conscientious appointees use their career staff and function well. Others are more interested in refurbishing the ambassador’s residence than in meaningful work.

American men and women enter the U.S. Foreign Service, our diplomatic corps, after rigorous exams and vetting. Once appointed, they study foreign languages, statecraft, relevant computer applications, leadership training, and the regions where they will be assigned. They advance through the diplomatic ranks according to an up or out system like the military, gaining experience in the foreign countries where they begin at the lowest levels.

Yet when ambassadors are assigned to our largest embassies, career Foreign Service officers often are ignored for the positions.

My first assignment as a new Foreign Service officer was to Saudi Arabia, shortly before the first Gulf War began in 1991. As the war progressed to victory for the American led alliance against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, we worked under a competent team. Charles Freeman was the U.S. career ambassador working with the Saudi government, as General “Stormin” Norman Schwarzkopf directed the military operation.

Since then, although U.S. military leadership in the Middle East is still entrusted to career soldiers, all ambassadorial appointments to Saudi Arabia have been political appointees. Perhaps that’s one reason we so often seem to win the war but lose the peace.

Coup: The Day the Democrats Ousted Their Governor, Put Republican Lamar Alexander in Office Early, and Stopped a Pardon Scandal

This book, by Keel Hunt, recounts the story of how a scandal plagued Tennessee governor was relieved of his duties so the recently elected candidate, of the opposition party, could be sworn in early.

It is an excellent story of a democracy’s triumph, but important to that triumph are the news organizations that investigated allegations against the governor.

After Ray Blanton, a Democrat, was elected governor, the publisher of the Tennessee Journal discovered that a convicted double murderer was working as a photographer for the state of Tennessee. The felon had served only a couple of months of his sentence. Governor Ray Blanton had apparently gotten the murderer a work-release status as a favor to a friend.

Reporters of other news organizations began investigating. When asked repeatedly about the case, Blanton became defiant, at one point vowing he would not “answer any more negative questions.”

As questions persisted and news organizations continued probing, other dubious practices by Blanton came to light. Eventually, he was voted out of office, losing to Lamar Alexander. (Alexander now serves as one of Tennessee’s congressional senators.)

In his last days in office, Blanton began signing papers to pardon some prisoners and offer clemency for others. This included the commutation of sentences for several murderers. In order to avoid a continuance of what was termed “cash for clemency,” his own Democratic party joined with Alexander’s Republican party to swear him in early.

Politicians put in a bad light, whether or not they are guilty as was Blanton, tend to dislike negative publicity. They dislike being put on the spot or to be annoyed.

Sometimes they lose control, as Greg Gianforte apparently did before he assaulted a reporter asking him a question about healthcare. He is recorded as screaming at the reporter, “I’m sick and tired of you guys.” Gianforte has since apologized, saying he “made a mistake.”

As far as I know, President Donald Trump has not apologized for calling certain leading American news organizations “the enemy of the American People.”

Having lived in countries where the news was managed and reporters could not ask those obnoxious questions, I have come to believe nosey reporters are as important to a democracy as are elections.

Oops! Man Discovers He Is an American After All

Danny Westneat, in a column for The Seattle Times (May 3, 2017) recounted the story of a retired Seattle schoolteacher, Ruben Van Kempen, who applied for his social security benefits and was refused. (He’d received letters from Social Security for years that totaled up his retirement benefits.)

Van Kempen, of Indonesian heritage, immigrated to the U.S. from Holland in 1962. He became a U.S. citizen in 1982. For 37 years, he taught drama in Seattle public schools.

With his application for Social Security, he had submitted evidence of his U.S. passport and his naturalization certificate granting him U.S. citizenship. Then Van Kempen received a letter from Social Security saying his application could not be processed because of his immigration status.

He tried again in person, submitting all his documents at a Social Security office.

Social Security sent him a letter saying they were unable to verify his immigration document. Further, the letter read, “Please contact us when your alien status changes or is renewed, so you can work in the U.S.”

Van Kempen couldn’t help but wonder: “Am I being swept up in something related to immigration? Is it something about my Indonesian heritage? . . . Can I travel? If I leave my country, will they let me back in?”

It would also cost him money. Without the Medicare medical coverage he had been paying into for 37 years, he would have to pay over $625 a month for health coverage.

Van Kempen’s political representatives went to work for him, including the state governor’s office and his congressional representatives.

Westneat reported two weeks later (May 17, 2017) on a response from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services: “It appears that in Mr. Van Kempen’s case, there was a technical error.”

His information had been wrongly entered into a database called the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE). Its purpose is to vet non citizens who have visas to work in the U.S. and other non citizens applying for benefits. No U.S. citizen is supposed to be entered into that database.

The entry of Van Kempen, a U.S. citizen, into the system may very well have been a technical error. Mistakes do happen.

Yet, the current furor over refugees and immigration issues has caused questions about U.S. citizens being erroneously targeted.

“It turns out,” Westneat reported, “Republicans have been championing efforts to expand the same Alien Verification program he got caught up in as a means to purge the voter registration rolls.”

So what might happen to other Americans if voter rolls are entered into databases such as SAVE?

Trump’s Tax Proposals: Boon or Boondoggle?

President Donald Trump’s tax proposals are interesting, to say the least. On May 4, 2017, The Economist magazine talked with Trump about the proposals. Steve Mnuchin, treasury secretary, and Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council also were present.

Trump suggested that the elimination of certain taxes, including, for example, taxes paid by the wealthy for the Affordable Care Act, would result in tremendous savings for taxpayers.

The proposals also call for drastic cuts in many social and environmental programs. However, the cuts to these programs would not offset deficits caused by less money coming in from taxes.

When questioned by The Economist about the increase in deficits, Trump said such deficits were “priming the pump.”

He claimed the deficits would only last a couple of years and then magically disappear because eliminating the taxes would result in a stronger economy. Trump officials talk of a 3% growth rate, which most economists think is unsustainable. (While campaigning, Trump talked of a 5% growth rate.)

The Economist’s assessment of the tax proposals:

“Trumponomics is a poor recipe for long-term prosperity. America will end up more indebted and more unequal. It will neglect the real issues, such as how to retrain hardworking people whose skills are becoming redundant.” (The Economist, “Courting Trouble,” May 13, 2017.)

According to The Economist, Trumponomics “is not an economic doctrine at all. It is best seen as a set of proposals put together by businessmen courtiers for their king.”

Grace Under Firing: The Gift of Gratitude

An American diplomat, Thomas Countryman, was fired by the Trump administration a few days after Trump took office as president. Countryman was on his way to a conference on arms control when he learned of his sudden ousting.

Countryman had given thirty-five years of service to his country. He was a talented career officer, relieved of duty in a purge reminiscent of the old Soviet Union.

One might expect him to be bitter. Instead, in a farewell address to his U.S. State Department colleagues, Countryman wrote: “Some of you have asked if recent events have left me disgruntled. The answer is no; I am probably the most ‘gruntled’ person in the room.”

He quoted from another retiring ambassador: “The State Department doesn’t owe me anything. It has given me everything.” Countryman went on to count the blessings in his career of service.

Another official unceremoniously relieved of his duties, James Comey, wrote in a similar vein to his former FBI colleagues: “I have long believed that a President can fire an FBI Director for any reason, or for no reason at all. I’m not going to spend time on the decision or the way it was executed. I hope you won’t either. It is done, and I will be fine, although I will miss you and the mission deeply.”

He ended the letter: “Working with you has been one of the great joys of my life. Thank you for that gift.”

Donald Trump also has much to be thankful for. He was granted the opportunity to serve his country in ways given only to a few.

However, his tweets, his main form of communication, show little evidence of grace or gratitude. Perhaps he should ponder the words of those public servants that he has attempted to humiliate.

The New Elites

We common people watch as the new government elites, those who won political power in 2016, battle among themselves.

Will the family clan, represented by Jared Kushner, win? Will they defeat the ultra conservatives, led by Steve Bannon? Or will Bannon’s group claim victory and bring down government as we have known it since our recovery from the 1930’s Great Depression?

Yet the battle over healthcare suggests an outside chance for ordinary Americans to influence outcomes. How will their interests fare in the looming battle over tax reform?

Will tax changes benefit mostly the wealthy, including the Trump family? Or will changes lead to the wealthy paying their fair share and taking some of the burden off working and middle class families?

Will popular government programs like social security, benefitting ordinary Americans, survive or will we continue our slide toward the inequality of the robber baron era?

Will tax breaks, sometimes used by big corporations to pay little or no taxes, continue to feed our deficit? Or will we ask for a level playing field for the small businesses that provide so many of our jobs?

In the 2016 election, voters supposedly defeated government elites. Now we will see if they can defeat business elites.