State Bloat?

In a recent interview on Fox News, which does for Donald Trump what ANN7 does for Jacob Zuma, Trump defended his tardiness in making political appointments at the State Department. Some 70 top positions remained vacant. These included Assistant Secretary of State for Africa and ambassador to South Africa. The president said he was not convinced all of them needed filling.

As for the department’s career officers, “we have some people I’m not happy with their thinking process.” Then, illustrating why those people might not be entirely thrilled with his “thinking process” either, he went full l’état c’est moi. “Let me tell you, the one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be. You’ve seen that. You’ve seen it strongly.”

Unsurprisingly, the department is hemorrhaging senior talent. Its leadership ranks were being “depleted at a dizzying speed,” Barbara Stephenson, a former ambassador who now heads the American Foreign Service Association, the diplomats’ union, writes in the current issue of the Foreign Service Journal. By her count, 60 per cent of officials of ambassadorial rank have quit since the start of the year.

This does not bother Trump. He wants to slim the foreign service drastically. When Vladimir Putin demanded that US downsize its official presence in Russia by 775 last July, Trump thanked him, only half in jest. Rex Tillerson, his Secretary of State, may not deny calling the president a moron, but is on board with at least this part of his programme. Tillerson reportedly aims to cut 2 000 of the department’s roughly 25 000 full time positions through a mix of attrition and buy-outs.

Does he have a point?

Audits by the State Department’s inspector general would give pause to any bottom-line conscious business executive — and Tillerson was certainly one of those as ExxonMobil’s CEO.

The most recent available report on the US embassy and consulate in SA dates to 2011. The ambassador at that point was Donald Gips, among the very best. But was the gargantuan complement of 954 staff, compromising 357 US government employees seconded from the US and 597 local hires really necessary to advance US interests?

The inspector general himself wondered, inter alia, whether it was really necessary to have, in addition to press relations officers in every embassy in the continent, a parallel Africa Media Relations Hub based in SA giving rise to turf wars and bruised egos.

Did the US taxpayer get value from the 1 020 embassy employees in Nigeria as of February 2013? Or the 1 304 in Kenya as of August 2012? Or the 92 in Swaziland (June 2010) now housed in a new $182 million terrorist-proof embassy.

For comparison’s sake, the British embassy in Washington is Her Majesty’s largest. It gets by, according to latest diplomatic list, with 100 seconded officials. Putin manages with 126. Admittedly, these numbers do not include local hires and trade and consular offices outside Washington. But we are talking here about representation in what is still the first among major powers, not in a picayune nation of 55 million. SA, for what it’s worth, gets by in Washington with 50 seconded and local staff.

Trump, solidly in the tradition of populist American demagoguery, loathes the State Department and the “pointy-headed intellectuals” of the foreign policy establishment because they read and think and have experience and hold him in deserved contempt.

Tillerson, on the other hand, seems rationally keen to debloat the State Department and its ancillaries like the US Agency for International Development, deflate their vanities and make them altogether more fit for purpose. Unlike Trump, he is not driven by the demon insecurity or a craving for revenge upon his betters.

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Collusion?

“Efforts will be made…to disrupt national self-confidence, to hamstring measures of national defense, to increase social and industrial unrest, to stimulate all forms of disunity…Poor will be set against rich, black against white, young against old, newcomers against established residents…Everything possible will be done to set major western powers against each other…Where suspicions exist they will be fanned; where not, ignited.”

That, warned George Kennan, then deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Moscow, was what the Russian regime had in mind for the West. The year was 1946. Stalin was in charge and the Cold War was just beginning. Seventy one years later, Soviet communism supposedly in the grave for a generation, Stalin’s latest successor, Vladimir Putin, appears to be guided by something uncannily akin to Uncle Joe’s playbook as Kennan described it in his famous “Long Telegram”.

Whether or not the active measures Putin’s security services deployed against Hillary Clinton in last year’s election were what put Donald Trump over the top is probably beyond knowing, given all the other variables. That they did meddle is incontrovertible.

They exploited social media platforms Facebook and Twitter to disseminate agitprop designed, in many cases, to inflame the resentments of carefully targeted audiences, in others, to suppress voter turnout. They hacked email accounts and made sure the fruits of their hacking were delivered to the media at strategic moments. If they failed to tamper with voter rolls, it was not for want of trying. This was war by other means.

No longer contested, either, is that people in Trump’s camp, including his son Donald Jr,. agreed to meet with creatures who represented themselves as close to the Kremlin and said they had dirt on Clinton. George Papadopoulos, a Trump foreign policy adviser, has admitted to lying to federal authorities about the content and timing of discussions with Kremlin cut-outs who were offering to supply the Trump campaign with “thousands” of Clinton-compromising emails.

Was there collusion between Teams Trump and Putin? That is what Special Counsel Robert Mueller has been tasked with determining. Announced on Monday, the indictments of Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, the bottom-most of all Washington bottom-feeders , and sidekick Richard Gates, do not on their face get us any closer to an answer. Neither does Papadopoulos’ guilty plea.

Much, of course, depends on how you define collusion. Does it only occur when the parties are actively and deliberately conspiring? Or can one collude passively, by letting things be done on one’s behalf which one knows to be improper but which one has neither directly encouraged nor requested? If blind-eye but mens rea collusion is actual collusion, Trump most assuredly colluded — or has no mens. But is that a crime? Or is it a purely political question, to be decided at the polls rather than by a court? Perhaps Mueller will supply an answer.

In the interim this we know: Trump, as a candidate for president, knew that relations between the US and Russia were, to put it mildly, adversarial. Otherwise why would he have campaigned on a pledge to improve them? He knew also that the Russians had stolen Democratic National Committee emails, yet he made light of it, openly inviting the Russians to find emails that had been erased from Clinton’s controversial private server.

A honourable man who cared about his country and its constitution, a genuine patriot, would have denounced the dirty tricks of a power known to wish the US ill, not encouraged or joked about them. Instead, he played and continues to play straight into hands of Stalin’s heir, setting Americans on each other at home and sundering America’s partnerships abroad — fanning suspicions where they exist, and igniting them where they do not.

Stacked for the Sticks

There are two Americas. One vibrant and dynamic and heavily Democratic, the other stagnant, troubled, backward-looking and now all but exclusively Republican. The latter elected Donald Trump.

That may sound a deplorably broad generalisation — until you look at the map of last November’s presidential election results broken down by counties. You will observe an ocean of Republican red swamping small islands of Democratic blue.

Trump looks at the map and sees in it validation of his fatuous claim to have won a historic landslide in spite of coming second by nearly 3 million votes. The truth is different. Those blue islands are, for the most part, the densely populated counties that are the engine rooms of a full employment American economy, encompassing the country’s largest cities and their teeming suburbs.

Hillary Clinton may have won in only 472 counties to Trump’s 2 584, but Hillary’s counties are responsible for 64 percent of America’s GDP, according to calculations by the Brookings Institution based on Moody’s data. The contrast with the previous election that put a Republican in the White House is striking: the 2 397 counties that went for George W. Bush in 2000 accounted for 46 percent of GDP; Trump’s haul, though nearly 200 larger, for 20 percent less..

Like Jacob Zuma, Trump owes his office to the hinterland.

America’s great cities, unlike its hinterland, are hugely diverse. They are fuelled by migration from both within and without the nation’s borders. They attract, as metropolises generally do, the best and the brightest. They are magnets for those with the get and go to get up and go, people like Trump’s Hebridean mother, not to mention his German grandfather, who didn’t hang around in the boondocks after making his first pile as a gold rush brothel keeper but headed straight back to New York to launch a dynasty.

The diversity and openness of New York, Miami, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other such metros contribute mightily to their economic dynamism. What John Stewart Mill wrote in 1848 is no less apt today:

“It is hardly possible to overrate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar…Such communication is peculiarly in the present age one of the primary sources of progress.”

To the growing detriment of American democracy, the political deck is stacked in favour of the sticks (just as it was under the Nationalists in SA).

This is not new, of course. To guard against a tyrannical majority (that might, inter alia, strip the agrarian South of its slaves) the founders decided that each state should be represented in Washington by two senators regardless of its population. Today, minority protection has morphed into something dangerously akin to minority rule.

With 84% of Americans now resident in metros — up from 63% in 1960 — it is technically possible to achieve a majority in the upper chamber with the votes of senators representing just 16% of voters nationally. And it will likely get worse. By some estimates, come 2040, 30 per cent of the population will control 70 of 100 senate seats.

At the congressional level, gerrymandering of district boundaries (the Nats were very good at that, too) is reckoned to have given Republicans two-thirds of their current edge over Democrats in the House of Representatives. Republican-controlled state legislatures have proven themselves adept at passing laws to discourage voting by Democratic constituencies. If Trump gets to appoint another Supreme Court justice or two, such injustices could be locked in for generations.

And that will leave this once great country in the grip of rubes and the plutocrats who cynically manipulate them with slogans, fake piety and phony patriotism.

Was Paddock a Terrorist?

“Why is Steven Paddock referred to as a “shooter” and a “lone wolf” and not a “terrorist”?,” former Primedia news chief Yusuf Abramjee tweeted on Tuesday, referring to the Las Vegas butcher. He attached a definition of terrorism proposed by Rice University sociologist Craig Considine: “a propaganda term used to manufacture anti-Muslim sentiment…deployed only when Muslims commit violence.”

Simultaneously making the rounds on Facebook was this, attributed to one Yasir Qadhi: “Do you know what white privilege is? It is to murder over 50 people and injure 450 only to have authorities claim, within minutes and without any verification, that you are not a terrorist.”

Like Dr Considine, I am in complete sympathy with Muslims who find themselves automatically under suspicion in the US and elsewhere because a tiny minority of their coreligionists have taken to slaughtering innocents. Nor have I any doubt that Donald Trump exploits and exacerbates Islamophobia in playing to his base.

What I do wonder, though, is whether taking umbrage that the “t” word was not instantly applied to Paddock is going to help. Here I side with Sally Kohn, a CNN commentator who describes herself as “America’s second favourite cable news lesbian”. She tweeted:

“Look, we don’t know yet what motivated the shooter in Vegas. If it was political views/ideology, then it is terrorism. By definition. But we should wait for facts. As we should with any shooter regardless of race or religion.”

One thing we do know is that Islamic State’s semi-official news agency, Amaq, quickly took credit for the massacre. It claimed Paddock converted to Islam several months ago and then assumed a nom de guerre, Abou Abd el-Bir Amriki.

Credibly getting its fingerprints on the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history would certainly serve IS’s purposes. Not everyone rules out that the fingerprints may really be there. Amaq has hitherto been pretty reliable, says Graeme Woods, author of Among the Believers and a top-ranked IS watcher. The Amaq he has tracked does not normally want to get caught in an obvious lie.

Whether or not IS was involved, the umbrage taken at Paddock’s not being branded a terrorist will surely be a source of satisfaction for the jihadists. One of their immediate aims, after all, is to promote a sense of grievance and alienation among Muslims living in Western societies. Donald Trump and his nativist advisers and fans are their witless helpers.

So it would be useful to come to a consensus on a better definition of terrorist than Considine’s, one that distinguishes between terrorism and other forms of mayhem that involve indiscriminate or collateral killing and maiming.

The distinguishing mark of terrorism, as CCN’s Kohn suggests, is political or ideological purpose. Terrorists commit heinous acts to trigger responses from their adversary which they believe will work to the advantage of their cause. The responses they desire may range from straightforward capitulation to disproportionate counterterror that delegitimises the adversary.

However you regard their tactics from a moral standpoint, true terrorists are in it for more than personal gratification. Their causes, dare one say, may sometimes even be just. In his fight against slavery, John Brown hacked pro-slavery men to death with a broadsword quite deliberately to terrorise their friends.

A friend in California, a wonderful writer, accused me of splitting hairs when I argued against calling Paddock a terrorist until we knew more. In the current climate, I replied, we need to be exact with our language. From loose language follows feckless, knee-jerk policy.

At this point, Paddock has all the characteristics of a rampage killer driven by internal demons and made massively deadly by Second Amendment fundamentalists who regard Sunday’s carnage as a hecatomb well sacrificed on the altar of Freedom. What he represents is a problem entirely other than terrorism, properly defined.

Provocateur

Anger at the status quo and loathing for his opponent, far more than his own attractiveness, drove the fluke that landed Donald Trump in the White House. If he is to survive and have a chance at a second term, he evidently reckons his best hope is to keep bating his adversaries to act in ways that trigger the ire and hate of his base.

That is what his “on many sides” blame allocation for last month’s violence in Charlottesville was all about. He’s a provocateur, not a closet neo-Nazi or Ku-Kluxer. He regards such fringe ethno-nationalists as “losers”, than which there is nothing lower in his hierarchy of bad. But if his enemies want to accuse him of being a racist, he’s fine with that. In fact, he courts it. Witness his repellent quest to prove Barack Obama was not born in the US.

“The longer they (Democrats) talk about identity politics, I got ‘em,” Trump’s Rasputin, Stephen Bannon, explained. “I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.” Bannon may since be gone, but he left behind his playbook.

It must have made Trump’s day when Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats’ leader in the House of Representatives, suddenly discovered, after a quarter century walking past them, that “the Confederate statues in the halls of Congress have always been reprehensible.” To Trumpies, who had voted to “take our country back” from Pelosi’s kind, it was just one more example of political correctness run amok. Besides, call Trump racist and you’re implying they’re racist too and that makes them even angrier.

Not that it isn’t high time America stopped airbrushing its past. If and when I am ever called for my citizenship interview, I may be asked what caused the South, in 1861, to commit the equivalent of Rhodesian UDI. According to the cheat sheet, there are three answers the immigration examiner may accept: slavery, state’s rights or “economic factors”. The second and third choices are prevarications but they still get equal billing in the official story. That needs changing.

Will removing Confederate iconography — statues, flags, plaques — from public spaces help? Much of it was erected long after the war itself as part of a concerted project to re-render the South’s cause as a noble if tragically doomed crusade to vindicate the founding fathers’ conception of liberty. This humbuggery is critical to understanding America. Might it therefore make sense to leave its artefacts in place to be reflected on rather than give demagogues like Trump a wedge issue?

Andrew Young, the former UN ambassador, congressman, Atlanta mayor and aide to Dr Martin Luther King, thinks it would. He has seen the politics work out badly. A battle over the Georgia state flag cost Democrats the governorship, he says, and with it, “$14.9 billion and 70 000 jobs that would have gone with the Affordable Care Act.”

In 2009, a newly inaugurated President Obama was asked to continue the annual tradition of placing a wreath on the Confederate memorial in Arlington cemetery, official burying ground of America’s war dead. The elaborate 10 metre tall bronze sculpture, consecrated by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914, features inter alia a female slave tearfully holding up a baby so that its father, her owner, may bid it farewell as he heads to war to keep her in bondage. Also depicted is an African-American soldier marching to defend the Confederacy. It is a stunning example of Southern cant.

Obama had a wreath sent over in the usual way, but insisted that one simultaneously be laid on a memorial for black soldiers who died fighting for freedom on the Union side.

Not Truman

Donald Trump, hyper-nationalist, loves the word “sovereignty”. With and without the -ty he deployed it 21 times in his speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday. Andrew Jackson, his favourite president (other than himself), was also a fan, relying on it to justify all manner of unconscionable behaviour.

Jackson, first elected in 1828, held that in America “the people” were sovereign (not exactly what the founders had in mind). He saw himself as the people’s instrument, entitled to act on their behalf in disregard of Congress and the courts whenever the need arose.

Here was Trump on Tuesday: “In America…the people are sovereign. I was elected not to take power, but to give power to the American people, where it belongs.”

Jackson’s “people” — the “we” endowed with inalienable rights by their Creator and the Declaration of Independence — did not include the millions of involuntary immigrants from Africa then resident in the US, free or unfree, or the native population, or women of any colour or provenance.

If white men wanted land that belonged Indian tribes under treaties signed with the federal government and ratified by the Senate, then, by God, white men must have it, the law be damned. If white men wanted to extend slavery into every state added to the growing Union, that was their decision to make, not Washington’s. The people ruled. Not the law. Beastliness ensued.

A fitting icon, this Jackson, for his latest successor.

As for the foreign policy Trump enunciated at the UN on the American people’s behalf, no one could accuse his speechwriter — principally Goebbels re-enactor Stephen Miller — of being elite. To be fair, this was not quite the “some weird s..t” George W Bush was quoted calling Trump’s inaugural address. But it came close.

It will chiefly be remembered for the bit where Trump went verbally Valley Girl and threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” if “Rocket Man” Kim Jong Un didn’t “denuclearize”.

Asked whether wiping out an entire nation might perhaps be construed as a crime against humanity, Trump’s hapless press secretary Sarah Sanders just managed to get some racquet on the ball. Barack Obama, she tried, had said the same thing. Out. His actual words: “We could obviously destroy North Korea with our arsenal, but aside from the humanitarian costs of that, they are right next door to our vital ally (South Korea)”.

What really raised the bile, though, was Trump’s call for all right-thinking countries join in a great “reawakening” of “patriotically” reasserted sovereignty as the path to global peace and prosperity.

Trump tried to portray himself as a new Harry Truman, on whose watch the post-World War II order was founded, multilateral institutions like the UN, IMF and World Bank created, and the Marshall Plan launched — all to resuscitate a world ravaged by nationalisms cynically inflamed by demagogues like Trump who saw themselves as incarnations of national will. Truman was the anti-Trump.

Trump, of course, is an identity freak as we learnt from his crusade to prove that Obama was not an American but a Kenyan. Were he a man of logic and conviction as well, one could see him having been an avid apologist for the bantustan policy, advocating for free what the Nationalists paid his mentor, the McCarthyite lizard Roy Cohn, millions of rands to defend.

How seriously to take this boob? There was tight-jawed stoicism on the faces of his secretary of state and UN ambassador, and face-palming by his chief of staff, as they contemplated the size of the shovels they would need when he was done. The General Assembly applauded politely. Politeness is what the UN is all about. The whole point of the institution is to render, through process and protocol, dangerous fools harmless and murderous passions inert.

Xi to the rescue

Sometimes it helps to have a narcissistic ignoramus in the White House. As we hover near the edge of a new Korean war this may one of those times.

China’s Xi Jinping has the measure of Donald Trump having spent a couple of days with him at his Mar a Lago beach palace last April. That would explain why, on Monday, he was happy to make unanimous the UN Security Council vote to tighten sanctions on North Korea. He knows a problem child he sees one. Pyongyang’s Kim Jong Un has company.

In fact, as the Korean crisis escalates, the other guy with odd hair may be the more alarming of the two. Kim may soon have the ability to land a nuclear warhead on a US city, but if anyone is going to fire the first shot, at this point it looks more likely to be Trump. That’s what would be keeping me awake if I were Xi.

We don’t know how his tete a tete with Trump really went, but thanks to the Washington Post’s sources, we now have verbatim Trump’s conversations with two other leaders, both US friends. Whoever leaked the transcripts clearly wanted to give the world a heads up.

Trump’s January 27 phone calls with Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Neto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull confirm that he is an obtuse, ill-informed and self-obsessed bully.

Candidate Trump, on the stump last year, preposterously insisted that Mexico would pay for the wall he promised to build on the southern border. Pena Neto has been adamant that Mexico will not pay. Trump now demanded that the Mexican stop contradicting him because “the press is going to go with that and I cannot live with that…If you are going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the wall then I do not want to meet with you guys any more.”

As infantile as that was, it was in the call with the Australian that the depth and purity of Trump’s crassness truly shone.

Turnbull cut a deal with President Obama last year under the which US would take in up to 1250 migrants Australia held in camps offshore. Try as he might, the PM could not make Trump understand that these people, ”economic refugees from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan”, had been interned not “because they are bad people” but to shut down “people smugglers” by discouraging their wouldbe clientele from buying passage on leaky boats. “We said if you try to come to Australia by boat, even if you are a Nobel prize-winning genius, we will not let you in.”

Trump would not listen. The “stupid” deal was “going to kill me” because “I am the world’s greatest person that does not want to let people in the country…I guarantee you they are bad…They are not going to be wonderful people who go on to work for the local milk people.” Turnbull must have wondered what the president was on about. He tried again. Trump finally heard the word “boats”. “What is the thing with boats?” he asked. “Why do you discriminate against boats?”

Turnbull gave it one more shot, earning this from Trump: “I have had it…This is the most unpleasant call all day. Putin was pleasant. This is ridiculous.” Would Trump like to discuss North Korea, the prime minister asked, but Trump wasn’t interested. “This is crazy,” he said. The call was over.

Diehard Trump-splainers like Dilbert creator Scott Adams (who is starting to sound as clever as his strip’s pointy-haired boss ) want us to see in these exchanges a brilliant dealmaker whose unorthodox approach to statecraft will yield terrific victories while outraging the establishment. When it comes to dealing with North Korea, its ICBMs and nuclear warheads, I have a different theory.

The last thing Beijing wants is another hot round of the never officially ended Korean war. It would likely lead to the devastation of Koreas North and South, millions of casualties, a massive influx of refugees from the North, quite possibly the return of American forces all the way up to the Yalu river, and conceivably, an exchange of nuclear weapons.

The Kim dynasty, as deranged as it may seem to most outsiders, is not suicidal. It wants to survive. Hence its desire for nukes both as a deterrent and for bargaining purposes. Domestically, it needs to perpetuate the narrative, familiar to readers of 1984, of being constantly at war. That does not mean it seeks an actual fight.

The real danger comes from the White House being occupied by an ignorant, intemperate, insecure boob whose own party is starting to desert him as his polls tank and whose presidency is on the brink of historic failure. Look to China to save the day and give Trump something he can call a win. The US will pay a price in lost regional clout, but that was ebbing anyway with Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.