Tag Archives: Ann Gaylia O’Barr

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.

What Is the Alt-Right and Why Did the Largest Protestant Denomination in the United States Denounce It?

“Resolved, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, June 13-14, 2017, decry every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy, as antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; . . . ”

Thus, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States announced itself against alt-right white supremacy.

What is the alt-right?

The Seattle Times defined the alt-right, or alternative right, as “a loosely defined far-right movement associated with white nationalism, racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and a desire to keep the United States a majority white country.” (November 29, 2016, “What Is the ‘alt-right’?”)

Why did Southern Baptist delegates from an evangelical denomination vote as they did? The denomination was founded in 1845 partly because of issues over slavery, some leaders at the time espousing slavery as supported by biblical texts.

However, in recent years, Southern Baptists have begun dealing with their past history. In 1995, they apologized for their role in supporting slavery. The convention now includes more non-white members.

No doubt a more diverse membership contributed to passage of the resolution. One of the bulwarks of the evangelical belief of Southern Baptists is that people can repent and change.

Hallelujah.

When We Want the Good Guy/Gal to Win, but They Don’t

The good guy or gal traditionally wins in movies and books because we want him/her to do so. Most of us want good to win. We want fairness to win. We want the oppressed underdog to win. Stories that play to this deep-seated hunger satisfy us.

More books and movies today project a dark edge. Evil may win or, as in Gone Girl, the story doesn’t have a “good” protagonist.

Perhaps we are exhausted by the violence and hatred we witness in today’s world, the seemingly endless acts of anger: ISIS, school shootings, road rage, political hatred, slaughter of children in Syria—they go on and on and on. Perhaps the new stories cater to our pessimism.

Choosing hope while working for change during times of hopelessness requires courage. Those who do so are the placeholders. They keep hope alive for better times.

 

Not Your Grandmother’s Cold War

“I Led Three Lives,” a TV show in the 1950’s, was based on the story of an actual person, Herbert Philbrick. He lived as an American businessman, a Communist spy, and an American counterspy for the FBI. In those old days of the Cold War, the different sides used espionage and radio broadcasts.

Today, hacking and cyber warfare have overtaken the earlier methods.

Some worry that politics surrounding the testimony of former FBI director James Comey will blind Americans to Comey’s warnings about the serious Russian intrusion into our elections.

“The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle,” Comey said. “They did it with purpose. They did it with sophistication They did it with overwhelming technical efforts. And it was an active-measures campaign driven from the top of that government.”

Whatever Donald Trump and his election team did or did not do, the evidence overwhelmingly indicates the interference of a hostile power in our election process. European democracies have also been attacked. These attempts should be taken seriously by all political parties.

It seems like an age since the end of the old Cold War in the early 1990’s. Today’s young people weren’t around, and the over thirty crowd have forgotten the euphoria in Europe and the United States when Eastern Europeans danced in the streets and reclaimed their countries from the Soviets.

Americans were going to have a peace dividend and beat their swords into plowshares. Russians were going to have free elections and a free press and join the rapidly escalating democratization of the world.

Instead we seem to have fallen, like Alice, through a rabbit hole into a crazy place of fake news, hacked political systems, and the rise of strong men with dictatorial powers, like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.

Our governments, national and local, are tasked with developing technical methods to neutralize cyber attacks. Citizens, however, have the duty of reading widely and responsibly. Fake news disappears without followers.

 

Bet on Endurance Rather Than Brilliance

“Washington had finally hit upon a way to win this seemingly unwinnable war—not through military brilliance but by slowly and relentlessly wearing the enemy down.”

–From Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution; by Nathan Philbrick

For me, Philbrick’s study of our founding father and eventual first president portrays a practical leader. He won the American Revolution because of his honor and his tenacity, not because of any military genius.

First, having taken over the command of his country’s military forces, Washington would not go back on his word to lead them, through bad times and good.

Second, after several losing battles, he appears to have concluded that he could not defeat the mighty British army through brilliant campaigning against them. Instead, he took advantage of his native environment.

He withdrew into the countryside when British superior forces threatened to overwhelm his army. At his own choosing, he would return and attack, then leave the field again, then return.

Time was on his side. The British were fighting the French all over the world. They needed their forces elsewhere, not bogged down by a few colonies.

During another conflict, the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the United States also made use of tenacity. The U. S. won, not by military victory (Vietnam was a failure) but by growing a middle class with a stake in an open economy.

Except in a time of obvious attack, military campaigns cost lives and money that are better spent at home. Staying power and a system that allows ordinary citizens a fair share of the economic pie count for more.

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.

Religion: Wrestling with its Role in a Democracy

Over the centuries, nations and empires that tolerated different religions generally have fared better than ones who didn’t. The Roman and Mongol empires, two of the most powerful empires in history, were generally tolerant.

Some Roman governments persecuted Christians, but only when they were convinced the Christians were a danger to Roman authority. So long as a religion didn’t threaten the government, both Roman and Mongol rulers generally exercised benign neglect. They avoided expending effort on costly maneuvers to force alien beliefs on their subjects.

Adherents of a particular religion, often dealing with matters of eternity and salvation, may believe they must gain control of their government for the good of all.

Such a view ignores the more powerful option: living lives of such compassion and kindness that fellow citizens are voluntarily drawn to their faith. Christians in the Roman empire followed this model, with much success.

Christianity fared less well when Christians formed alliances with political rulers, leading to brutal crusades and inquisitions.

European nations, emerging from such sullied religious histories, shook their heads in disbelief at the upstart new United States, allowing freedom for all religions. Surely, having no alliance with a particular religion, the country would fall prey to godlessness.

The opposite happened. Religion flourished. The Christian religion especially grew and influenced the culture of the country.

American Christians, now challenged by other emerging faiths, including atheism and secularism, wrestle with the temptation to use political power to advance their beliefs. Or will they follow the more successful option of living out their faith?

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.