Friday, April 28, 2017

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

Waynesboro Police Investigate Cases of Pet Cats Being Shaved - NBC 29 WVIR

"Our world grows stranger and stranger, with each passing day" - Waynesboro Police Facebook post

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

USAID, Brother, It's Starting to Rain

Browsing the news about budget cuts, government reorganization, and the likely dismantling of USAID, I came across this Moment in Diplomatic History from the website of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training: The ACDA-USIA Merger into State — The End of an Era .

ACDA? USIA? That era ended so long ago that many currently-employed types might not remember those agencies, but they were once independent foreign affairs agencies until they lost a political fight and were absorbed into the State Department.

As the Cold War began to go into full swing, the United States soon realized the need for distinct agencies that would operate outside of the existing federal executive departments. Accordingly, independent agencies such as the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) and the United States Information Agency (USIA) were created in 1961 and 1953 respectively to address new challenges and issues that were occurring in the ideological struggle of the time.

However, as the conflict gradually came to an end, certain individuals such as Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), who was the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, began to see these organizations as superfluous and unwieldy and viewed them as “Cold War agencies.” He then pushed to fold them into the State Department. With the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act of 1998, both agencies were fully absorbed into the State Department by 1999.

-- snip --

When the Cold War was over, Helms, as the powerful Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led a campaign to eliminate the three foreign affairs agencies – USAID, ACDA, and USIA – arguing it was necessary to cut costs and reduce the size of government. His primary targets were USAID and ACDA. He was not opposed to an independent USIA, but the Agency got swept up in his larger argument about the need to eliminate government agencies.

When these issues were debated in the first Clinton Administration, Vice President Al Gore and Elaine Kamarck, one of his senior staff advisors, led a vigorous campaign to maintain the independence of the three agencies. In letters to Congress, they argued their merger with State was unwise organizationally and would not save money. The Advisory Commission was deeply involved in this discourse and supported USIA’s independence.

In 1996, however, the politics changed. Incoming Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wanted to have a good working relationship with Senator Helms as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee more than preservation of the three agencies. As President Clinton confirmed in his recent memoir, My Life, the administration needed the Committee’s support for its Chemical Weapons treaty. The reorganization of USAID, ACDA, and USIA was part of the deal.

-- snip --

When the dust settled in 1999, USAID had effectively fought to remain semi-autonomous. ACDA preserved its organizational coherence within State. USIA’s activities were decentralized throughout the Department.

One of the ways USAID fought for its survival was to do a data call and document how surprisingly few of its development dollars ever ended up with foreigners; a large portion of its budget stayed with contractors and vendors inside the Beltway, or so it told Senator Helms, anyway. But even that ploy might not help USAID this time.

With such a heavy budget rain about to fall, it looks like it's the end of foreign aid as we know it.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Jason For What in 2028?

Jason pops smoke and leaves the AO

I cannot help but see our esteemed Representative from Utah's 3rd Congressional District, Jason Chaffetz, as other than a Walter Mitty would-be tough guy, which is why I like to depict him as an action figure. Something small and harmless, but big in little-boy macho fantasies.

He posted this long goodbye to his political career on his FB page two days ago:
After long consultation with my family and prayerful consideration, I have decided I will not be a candidate for any office in 2018.

Since late 2003 I have been fully engaged with politics as a campaign manager, a chief of staff, a candidate and as a Member of Congress. I have long advocated public service should be for a limited time and not a lifetime or full career. Many of you have heard me advocate, “Get in, serve, and get out.” After more than 1,500 nights away from my home, it is time. I may run again for public office, but not in 2018.

For those that would speculate otherwise, let me be clear that I have no ulterior motives. I am healthy. I am confident I would continue to be re-elected by large margins. I have the full support of Speaker Ryan to continue as Chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. That said, I have made a personal decision to return to the private sector.

What did he ever do in the private sector before he ran for Congress? He was a marketing guy for a Utah-based pyramid scheme called Nu Skin International, which is his biggest campaign contributor, and then he unsuccessfully applied for a job with the U.S. Secret Service. It's not like he has a private sector career to go back to.

It's hard to believe that such a major self-promoter as Rep. Chaffetz would ever leave politics. Some don't believe it, and point out that Chaffetz's campaign committee registered the domains and just a couple weeks ago.

The answer must lie in the world of Utahn politics, where Senator Hatch really is retiring, and the manuvering to replace him is in high gear. Jason no doubt has something in mind for his future, and I don't think it's hawking that get-rich-quick scheme again.


Six Flags Over Mecca?

There's a new vacation destination coming soon, maybe, that will be about the same size as Las Vegas (129 sq miles) and will offer sporting and entertainment activities, including a Six Flags amusement park.

Sounds good. The only thing is, this desert hot spot will be in Saudi Arabia, so don't expect to find yard-long margaritas.

According to Reuters:
U.S.-based Six Flags announced in June that it had begun talks with the Saudi government to build theme parks as part of Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 efforts to expand its entertainment sector and diversify the economy.

Chief Executive Jim Reid-Anderson said later in the year that the company aimed to build three parks in Saudi Arabia, with each costing between $300 million and $500 million.
There were more details at Arab News, New Saudi initiative for giant entertainment and sports city welcomed:
“The mega city will also draw millions of visitors annually besides providing ... billions of dollars in commercial opportunities,” said Al-Qayid optimistically. This new sports and entertainment city, in fact, will have four geographical segments — an entertainment area, a car sports area, a general sports area and a housing and hospitality area.

Asked about his views on the plan to establish the giant entertainment city, Ghaffar Ahmed, a Pakistani actor, who co-starred in the famous “Ja Jawazat” song, said that “the mega entertainment complex will change the cultural landscape of the Kingdom.” “The city is definitely going to be one of the biggest development projects around,” added Ahmed, who is working on a few documentary projects at the moment.

Aside from gaming, culture and arts facilities, the project also involves developing residential units, world famous restaurants as well as international hotel brands. The city will be developed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), which is headed by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed. The project comes to support the Saudi Vision 2030 by creating opportunities in different sectors for investments. The foundation stone of the project will be laid in 2018, while its first stage will be opened in 2022.

I hate to sound like a buzz-kill, but really, so many things can go wrong with this idea.

Russian FM Lavrov: "I don’t remember any case of a dictator being removed smoothly, without violence"

Is there any example of a dictator being removed without violence, and/or an example of regime change that didn't make things worse, at least in the near-term? There are none that I can think of, anyway.
“Death is the solution to all problems — no man, no problem." The quote is actually from Anatoly Rybakov, the dissident Russian writer, and not Josef Stalin. But I thought of that quote while trying to answer the question Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov tossed back to the press at his press availability with SecState Tillerson earlier this week.

Josh Lederman, Associated Press, asked the two how they plan to remove Bashar al-Assad from power. Lavrov was having none of it.
FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) As far as Syria is concerned and Bashar al-Assad, we talked today about the history, and Rex said that he was a new man and is not interested so much in history; he wants to deal with today’s problems. But the world is so constructed that unless we look at what’s happened in the past, we won’t be able to deal with the present. Particularly in a situation where a group of countries – Western countries, the NATO countries – were absolutely obsessed with eliminated – eliminating a particular dictator or totalitarian leader.

When it was a question of ousting Slobodan Milosevic, NATO unfurled a huge campaign. It was a very coarse, blatant violation of international law. They even bombed the place, which is certainly a war crime whichever way you interpret the Geneva Convention, and they bombed the headquarters. And there were also attacks on trains, the Chinese embassy, bridges, and so on and so forth. This lasted some two months, and after all this, which was very near to dual purpose – weapons of dual purpose, then they ousted him.

Then there was the question of Saddam Hussein. We know after the invasion – we know what it was based on, and then Tony Blair afterwards repented publicly that all this was a fake. And you all know about that, know worse than we do.

And then there was Qaddafi. It was declared that this dictator had no place in his own country and this was against democracy. We know what happened in Libya. The Libyan Government is now under a huge question mark. We spoke about this, or President Putin did speak about it yesterday with the Italian president, and we are both trying to stop the situation of the country slipping into full illegal immigration, gun running, and so on.

So, incidentally speaking, we have some quite recent – even more recent examples. Sudan – President Bashir was declared to be under prosecution by the International Court of Justice, and President Obama decided that in order to settle this problem, you had to divide the country up into two. And the southern part very actively asked for our assistance in dealing with President Bashir, that the Americans want to see – (inaudible) that he should be the head of the – both states. He kept his word. He divided the country into two parts according to the American project of the administration of President Obama, and with that – with the effect that sanctions were introduced against their own child, on Southern Sudan.

So this insistence on removing or ousting a dictator or totalitarian leader – we have already been through it. We very well know, only too well, what happens when you do that. I don’t remember any case of a dictator being removed smoothly, without violence. So in Syria – and I have stressed this on many times – we are not staking everything on a personality, on President Assad, as is being done in Libya at the moment. We are simply insisting that everybody sits around a table and talks about it and comes to agreement. As has been enshrined in the Security Council resolution, we want to install dialogue with all the players concerned, and we want the Syrians themselves, without any kind of exclusion, to be represented in this process.

That was a darn good press conference, I think. I'm not sure I like the new Loquacious Rex as much as I did the old Silent Rex Tillerson, but he still kept his remarks brief and to the point. So far, so good.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Rex Drops Another Mic, and Syrians Get On the Trump Train

Silent Rex spoke yesterday in his remarks with National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster on the Syrian airfield strike, and - unlike with most official yada-yada - he actually had something to say.

He and NSA McMaster obviously don't need any help dealing with the press, but if they should ever want to bring in a guest spokesman, I suggest they get that CNN interviewee in the clip above. He hit all their points about chemical weapons, the value of retaliatory strikes, settling the Syrian civil war, safe zones and refugees, and did it in only three minutes. Plus, he made CNN sad.

I thought "Mic Drop" Tillerson gave a really impressive performance. He spoke in complete sentences (a rarity for American politicians, and something I always admire with their British counterparts), said no more than needed, and then he got out. Most of all, he - got - out. So many of our officials don't stop talking when they should. The entire remarks and press Q and A are at the link above, but the key words were: normalizing the use of chemical weapons, proportional, coordinated very carefully with our international partners, deliberative process, and existential threat.

For a big bonus, "Mic Drop" gave this cogent statement of the administration's strategy for dealing with the mess in Syria. This is the first time I can recall hearing anything even close to a practical approach. None of that vaporous "international values" stuff, or "red line" hollow threats.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, if I could, obviously the diplomatic considerations here are of a magnitude that didn’t exist a number of years ago. When you went into this, unlike President Obama, who was dealing simply with Bashar al-Assad, you’re dealing with Russia, you’re dealing with the Kurds, you’re dealing with Turkey. Can you give us a little bit of the diplomatic calculation in undertaking this action?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, my expectation is that all of those parties, with the exception of Bashar al-Assad and perhaps Russia, I think are going to applaud this particular action or effort. Overall, the situation in Syria is one where our approach today and our policy today is first to defeat ISIS. By defeating ISIS, we remove one of the disruptive elements in Syria that exists today. That begins to clarify, for us, opposition forces and regime forces, and working with the coalition – as you know, there is a large coalition of international players and allies who are involved in the future resolution in Syria. So it’s to defeat ISIS; it’s to begin to stabilize areas of Syria, stabilize areas in the south of Syria, stabilize areas around Raqqa, through ceasefire agreements between the Syrian regime forces and opposition forces; stabilize those areas, begin to restore some normalcy to them, restore them to local governments – and there are local leaders who are ready to return, some who’ve left as refugees that are ready to return, to govern these areas; use local forces that will be part of the liberation effort to develop the local security forces – law enforcement, police force; and then use other forces to create outer perimeters of security so that areas like Raqqa, areas in the south, can begin to provide a secure environment so refugees can begin to go home and begin the rebuilding process.

If all that ever gets done, he said, then we can move to the the Geneva Process and the future disposition of Assad.

Well done. Always leave them wanting more. And if the news media want to chew this subject over endlessly to fill their 24-hour news cycle, they can call that Syrian guy CNN interviewed. I think CNN is done with him.

P.S. I wonder what the Public Diplomacy people make out of the crazy gratitude some Arabs are showing President Trump?

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Gimlet Eye

Whatever you do, don't look him in the eye

Official Washington continued its jeremiad against Silent Rex Tillerson this week, and added a couple new complaints to the list of lamentations. Tillerson, of course, maintained his quietude.

Here are a few quotes from the WaPo story, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spends his first weeks isolated from an anxious bureaucracy:
Many career diplomats say they still have not met him, and some have been instructed not to speak to him directly — or even make eye contact … It has sown mistrust among career employees at State, who swap paranoid stories about Tillerson that often turn out to be untrue.

Untrue like, for instance, the WaPo's preceding debunked gossipy tidbit about the “some” who have been instructed to keep silent and avert their gaze from the man.
Rep. Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Tillerson called him after the proposed cuts were announced. Engel said Tillerson seemed to share Engel’s concern that the cuts are “draconian” and counterproductive. But Engel said Tillerson seemed to signal his acquiescence when he called them “a glide path to what was about to happen.”

Silent Rex was right. Budget cuts in foreign affairs ARE about to happen. That is a consequence of the election. The SecState is not there to obstruct the administration’s plans – that’s Rep. Engel’s job. The SecState is there to take the Department down a glide path to budget cuts rather than make a sudden drop.

Rep. Engel continued:
“When you put it all together, it certainly seems they’re trying to downsize the State Department and make it irrelevant. I’m at a loss for words. Why would Tillerson take the job if he was not going to defend his agency?”

That’s an easy one. I repeat, he’s not there to fight the administration’s plans; he’s there to implement them. The simple fact is that State is on the losing end of a change in national policy and objectives. It happens. The last administration made the policy choice to downsize and make irrelevant the U.S. Customs and Border Protection service by, for instance, declining to enforce various immigration laws against unlawful aliens who had arrived as children, decreasing funding for immigration enforcement, and failing to deport some 900,000 aliens who had already received deportation orders. Administrations prioritize what they want. Now, on this turn of the wheel, DHS/CBP is on top and it’s foreign aid and some other unpopular international programs that will be downsized and made irrelevant. To quote our previous President, elections have consequences.
Current and recently departed State Department officials — all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer candid assessments of what one called the “benching” of the oldest Cabinet department — said Tillerson is paying a price.

“Benching” is a good word for it. Some agencies are back in the game, and others will sit this administration out.  

And lastly, this heartfelt one:
“We’re rooting for our secretary of state to come around, and trying to figure out a way to convince him we [the State Department staff] do work for administrations of both parties,” the official said.

I understand the sentiment, but, frankly, it’s too late. The perception of partisan bias has been there for decades, and not without reason. I think back to the rapturous crowds that came out for Hillary’s arrival and Obama’s first visit to HST. Obviously, there is bias. That’s okay by me, you understand, but just don’t think the other party doesn’t notice. In any case, I expect Tillerson came to the job with a firm fixed opinion of State that he'd already acquired during his years of dealing with Exxon’s overseas interests. Those current and recently departed State Department officials aren’t likely to change that impression in any way other than by simply carrying out the new administration's agenda without foot-dragging.

And, that might already be happening, with a consequent improvement in the administration's negative attitude. See today's New York Times story in which President Trump's chief strategist fairly gushes with praise for the Under Secretary for Political Affairs, who implemented the administration's Executive Order on travel restrictions without delay.

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

Now, THAT is deep concealment

Stolen gun falls from inmate's body cavity during search at north Alabama jail -

It's not yet clear whether the owner wants it back, but Limestone County authorities recovered a stolen gun when it fell from an inmate's body cavity during a search at the jail.

"I immediately considered that he defecated on himself before noticing a familiar shape in the form of a pistol in his boxers," a corrections officer said in a report.