Citizen

Last week I became an American citizen. It took me nearly 40 years to make the leap. I’d had a green card allowing me to live and work in the US since 1979 when I was made a hereditary resident alien on the coattails of my father. He was invited to join the club as a “cultural asset”.

What finally convinced me to file my papers in early 2016 was the possibility that Donald Trump might be the Republican nominee for president. My hope that I would be able to vote that year proved beyond optimistic. It took more than two years from the date I applied until I was called for the interview at which they ask you what the First Amendment is and which ocean lies off the east coast and then make you take an oath that you have never committed genocide or been a member of the Nazi party.

The delay at least gave me to opportunity to give disapproving English friends a different excuse for forswearing allegiance to the Crown. “Boris made me do it,” I would say, referring to the boorish Johnson, now Foreign Secretary, who helped con my now former country out of Europe where it firmly belonged.

I was sworn in on World Refugee Day, June 20,  at a ceremony in Baltimore with 48 others, most of whom really were refugees. They were from various corners of Africa, Latin America and Asia (or as Trump calls them, “shitholes”), neither pampered heirs of cultural assets nor faux escapees from Brexit. The venue was a grand Presbyterian church that had be repurposed by the University of Maryland as an assembly hall. In the graveyard outside lay the bones of the poet and writer of horror stories Edgar Allen Poe.

We were shown a stirring film celebrating America’s proud history as refuge for “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, with archival footage of same getting their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty before passing through Ellis Island to become part of the great American experiment. The high point, though, was the keynote by the university’s president, Jay Perlman, whose parents, born in Ukrainian shtetls, fled pogroms to find new lives and each other in Chicago.

Regrettably, the rules required that we also sit through a video welcome from Trump. He stumbled through his script with the enthusiasm of a ill-tempered man about to undergo root canal surgery. Decorum obliged us to applaud. There was a smatter of hands colliding limply. It was hard to forget that this was the guy who was talking about Latin American asylum seekers as an “infestation” and who had ordered infants to be dragged from their mothers’ breasts to deter further attempts at asylum-seeking and to blackmail Democrats into giving him his wall along the Mexican border.

With half an hour to kill before the ceremony got underway, I had a choice between letting the Twitter feed on my iPhone work me into a righteous but futile fury or reading the pocket Constitution contained in the packet they gave us when we checked in. I chose the Constitution, a warty document in some respects given its original concessions to slavery, but at its core still a work of collective genius, the DNA of what we were all here to become a part of. It put me in a good frame of mind for the oath.

It has only been 10 days, and in every one of them Trump and his claque has given me reason to rue my decision and I expect they will continue doing so until the day he is voted out of office. That day will come. Of that there can be no question. One of those votes will be mine. Which is why I have no regrets.
 

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Teaching the dog to eat carpets

Perhaps you’ve heard of the banqueting king who spots his favorite mastiff chewing a priceless rug and tosses the animal a rib to get it to stop. “Your majesty,” his chancellor whispers, “you have just taught that dog to eat carpets.”

This week in Singapore, Donald Trump did his best to teach North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un the same lesson. To persuade Kim to scrap his nuclear weapons, Trump, ever promiscuous in his choice of words, slathered the world’s most brutal dictator with over-the-top accolades for his integrity and statesmanship.

Remember Ronald Reagan’s constructive engagement with the PW Botha regime? Well, if you’ll excuse a salty epithet, this was constructive gatkruip. How constructive remains to be seen.

Greta Van Susteren, formerly of Fox News, who now reports for another state broadcaster, Voice of America, asked the president if he had a message for the people of North Korea. He replied, as if on the stump for his counterpart: “Well, I think you have somebody that has a great feeling for them. He wants to do right by them and we got along really well.”

Presumably Kim will let his people (other than the 120 000 in his gulag) hear that, along with Trump’s description of him as “very talented” — as anyone would have to be “who takes over a situation like he did at 26 years of age and is able to run it and run it tough…Very few people at that age, you can take one out of 10 000, probably (could) do it.”

Kim did a little counter-flattering of his own, which Trump proudly relayed as entirely sincere and meaningful: “He said openly that no other president could have done this.”

When FW De Klerk surrendered South Africa’s nuclear arsenal, some in the ANC chafed. They would have liked to keep the apartheid bomb for the clout. Trump’s fawning over Kim tempts one to say they had a point.

The summit was “a dream come true for Kim,” said Senator Chris Coons (the Democrat who gave SA such hell over chicken), “something his grandfather and father long hoped for — legitimacy on the world stage, an invitation to the White House, without concessions on human rights or a timeline for a process of denuclearisation.”

Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law and “senior advisor to Donald J. Trump for President Inc.”, channeled Pyongyang’s style of spin with her statement on behalf of his 2020 reelection campaign: “History will demonstrate that the historic summit..and the initial agreement to denuclearise the Korean peninsula was an end product of President Trump’s bold and vigilant leadership on behalf of the American people.”

It is to be hoped that the agreement Trump and Kim signed is not an “end product” but the start of something genuinely constructive for parties other than Kim, his dynasty and its protector China. The omens are not good.

The ink was scarcely dry on their piece of paper when Trump unilaterally yielded to Kim’s demand that the US cease “provocative” training exercises with South Korea. In the same breath he expressed his desire to withdraw the US troops that act as a tripwire to deter a replay of the North’s invasion in 1950. The agreement itself commits Pyongyang to even less with regard to scrapping of nukes than accords signed with previous US administrations. The strongest concession Trump extracted was a pledge to return some bones.

I doubt Kim was much impressed by the propaganda film Trump showed him touting North Korea’s potential as the next south Florida complete with Trumpian beachfront condos. If Kim is as sharp as Trump says, he surely worries that rising living standards, and the economic opening required to achieve them, will be the death of his dictatorship. He has every incentive to eat keep eating the carpet.

Playing into Xi’s hands

Monday was Memorial Day, the day America takes off to honour its war dead and celebrate the start of summer. The great and the good nowadays pay their respects via tweet. Donald Trump, neither great nor good, tweeted a tribute to himself. Referring to the ghosts of Normandy, Iwo Jima, Chosin, Ia Drang and countless other fields, he boasted how proud of him they would be for today’s economy, concluding exuberantly: “Nice!”

My point is not that he is a repellent human being. That is already well established.  What interests me more is the encouraging message his twitter-spew sends to all who yearn to see America in retreat.

It confirms that the US is led by an insecure, autocratic and vainglorious man who wants to believe he is uniquely clever but in truth knows and feels no history, reads no books, cannot be briefed and is entirely self-obsessed. This is the lens through which to view the curious off-again, on-again bromance between Trump and North Korea’s uber-thug Kim Jong Un, in which China is quietly operating as matchmaker.

In his tweets, a toxic smog of bluster, lies and crank conspiracy theory, Trump is telling any sentient observer that he is in a desperate state of mind — scared of what special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is turning up (and not just about the role Russia played in getting him elected), and no less worried that the Democrats will take control of the House of Representatives in November and vote to impeach him. He is crying out for help.

One cannot blame Kim or, rather more importantly, China’s Xi Jinping, for reading things that way and making the most of it.

The fate of the Kim dynasty depends on China, today no less than it did in 1950 when Mao sent 400 000 People’s Volunteer Army conscripts to their deaths to rescue founder Kim Il Sung (the Americans lost 34 000). Ninety percent of North Korea’s trade is through China. China, aspiring hegemon, wants to see US military footprint in the region shrivel and its alliances “anaesthetised”, in the phrase of Michael Green, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University.

Trump has already proven himself an able geostrategic gas-passer, pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership the moment he took office. He has dismayed allies far more than foes with wild threats of tariffs on steel, aluminium and cars. He has complained, ignorantly, that Seoul has not been paying adequately for the US military tripwire that guarantees it against attack from the North. In February, according to the NBC television network, he had to restrained from pulling US forces out of the Korean peninsular altogether.

If I’m Xi, I am seeing a huge opportunity here to hasten America’s abandonment of East Asia. From a position of weakness, Trump is effectively pleading with the Chinese leader to orchestrate a deal, any deal, he can use to con voters and the Nobel jury into thinking him a statesman and saving his presidency.

Xi, playing chess while Trump fumbles tiddlywinks, seeks to replace the US as South Korea’s security blanket. To that end, Beijing wants the Korean War, suspended by an armistice since 1953, officially over on terms acceptable to Pyongyang so that the rationale for a US military presence falls away and Seoul no longer sees its relationship with Washington in existential terms.

From Xi’s standpoint, Trump must be a dream come true — and he did not even have to brainwashed first in Manchuria. Helping keep him in office makes eminent sense. And of course, it he ever gets uppity about Chinese trade policy or sanctions-busting by a Chinese phone maker, he’s for sale. Just invest in a Trump-branded development somewhere or give his daughter a few more patents, and he’ll calm down nicely.

 

Nagy

The first triplets born in Zimbabwe after independence were American, much to Robert Mugabe’s irritation.  Their father was the Hungarian refugee Donald Trump has finally got around to asking the Senate to confirm as his assistant secretary of state for Africa.

Tibor Nagy was an admin officer at the US embassy in Lusaka in 1980 when his wife, Eva Jane, a Texas farmer’s daughter who had been his college sweetheart, went into labour. She had a bad case of toxemia. The nearest hospital equipped to save her was in Harare.

Nagy, 69, spent almost all of his 25-year career as a foreign service officer in one or other African post, ending as ambassador in Ethiopia (during the Ethiopian-Eritrean war) and Guinea, before returning, in 2003, to his alma mater, Texas Tech University, to head its international affairs programme.

In 2010 he sat down to be interviewed for a candid oral history. That he cleared the transcript for public release suggests he was not expecting a return to African diplomacy.

As a child in Budapest, he wore the red kerchief of the Communist Young Pioneers, it being safer to conform. His father, an army officer, fought the Nazis on the Eastern Front only to be charged with being a western agent after the war. Stalin’s death saved him from execution, but not before the authorities had persuaded his wife — Nagy’s mother — to divorce him if she wanted to keep their child.

Spared, he supported the uprising against the Soviet puppet regime in 1956. When it failed, he fled to Austria with his son, second wife and her children. The US welcomed them in 1957. They made their home in Washington. Nagy Sr. went on to a successful career in the US Agency for International Development.

Most of the kids at Nagy Jr.’s elementary school were black. When they went on to middle school together, he was placed on a higher track. “I am convinced to this day it was based on skin colour because those kids were just as sharp as I was.”

Needless to say, he grew up staunchly anti-communist. In 1964, he went door-to-door for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and has remained unabashedly loyal to the party ever since. He failed his first foreign service exam. On his successful second try, he was asked to name his two favourite presidents. Theodore Roosevelt, he said, then, less predictably, Richard Nixon.

State Department careers are compartmented into various “cones”. Political and economic tend to be the ones to which high fliers are assigned. Nagy found himself in administration, making sure his colleagues were properly housed, fed, transported, equipped and protected.

By design or good fortune, his first assignments were to small or unpopular hardship posts — after Zambia, the Seychelles, Mengistu’s Ethiopia, Togo, Cameroon — where he could step in as de facto deputy head of mission and build a reputation for being an indispensable jack-of-all-trades. Among his many adventures were a near death experience in the Seychelles where a Tanzanian soldier put a gun to his head mistaking him for one of Bob Denard’s dogs of war.

Reading his oral history, I incline to the view that he is coming back to Washington not out of any admiration for the xenophobe, immigrant-bashing, trash-talking Trump but from a sense of duty to the country and its foreign service — which the Trumpists have been doing their utmost to degrade — and from a genuine affection for the continent and its people. He may have bided his time until being sure that the new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, would have his back.

As the Roman historian Tacitus wrote of his father-in-law, Julius Agricola, a most able proconsul who served the depraved Domitian, “even under bad emperors there can be great men”.

 

Honest giraffe

To save his skin, Jacob Zuma disbanded the Scorpions. Donald Trump fired a giraffe, the creature with which two metre tall former Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey associates himself in his memoir, A Higher Loyalty, published on Tuesday.

The book, in which Comey calls Trump “morally unfit” for office and says reminds him of the mob bosses he prosecuted at the start of his career,  is getting mixed reviews.

Among  the kindest was by New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani. Of Comey and Trump, she wrote: “They are as antipodean as the untethered, sybaritic Al Capone and the square, diligent G-man Eliot Ness in Brian De Palma’s 1987 movie “The Untouchables”.”

From Trump himself came the inevitable twitter tantrum, closely coordinated with his Fox News mbongi chorus and nicely illustrating Kakutani’s comparison. Comey was a “slimeball”, the president said, and ought to be in jail for a range of (imaginary) offences.

Supporters of Hillary Clinton expressed their disapproval more delicately, though their underlying rage is scarcely less fierce. Comey, they are convinced, put Trump over the top in 2016 when he told congress, days before the election, that he was reopening the FBI’s enquiry into whether she had knowingly compromised US secrets by using a private email server while secretary of state.

Comey, to my mind quite convincingly, argues that of the terrible choices with which he was confronted he made the least ghastly to preserve the integrity of the FBI as an institution that must, for democracy’s sake, remain outside the political fray.

He had announced the previous July that while Clinton had been “extremely careless” with her email, there was no evidence she knew she was breaking the law, let alone that she intended to break it. Then, in October, police in New York  discovered a whole new trove of potentially incriminating Clinton emails on a laptop belonging the the estranged husband of one of her closest aides, Huma Abedin. The husband, former Congressman Anthony Weiner, was under investigation for digitally exposing himself to an underage girl.

Comey’s critics argue he should have kept mum about this discovery until after the election. But he had every reason to believe it was about to be leaked by anti-Clinton cops in New York. If that happened before the election, as was likely, the FBI would be accused of trying to protect the Democrat. If Clinton won as the polls predicted and it then became know that the FBI had been sitting on incriminating evidence, the legitimacy of her election would be thrown into doubt and Trump’s charge that the result would be rigged validated.

In the event, Comey’s team had time to the examine the emails before  election day and confirm his earlier decision not to prosecute, but the reclosing of the enquiry came too late to unbreak camels’ backs broken by the last straw of its reopening.

If there is a case to be made against Comey’s handling of an impossible situation, it is that to protect the institution he loved he allowed himself to be intimidated by the howling heads of the rabid right.  The terrible irony is that in doing so he helped deliver the FBI into the hands of a man with zero respect for its independence.

Trump, in Comey’s telling, wanted the FBI director to act as one of his “made men” in Mafia parlance — to drop the probe into the Kremlin’s meddling with the election, go easy on Mike Flynn, his first national security adviser facing prosecution for lying about his Russian contacts,  even to find some way of disproving allegations that Trump had cavorted with urinating prostitutes in a Moscow hotel suite during the Miss Universe pageant in 2013.

Comey, a stiff-necked but honest giraffe with a nice eye for the telling detail, wouldn’t play.

 

Rag outrage

So Rwanda, an African success story whose president, Paul Kagame, currently chairs the African Union and just hosted the launch of the Continental Free Trade Area, faces US trade sanctions. Reason? Kigali has chosen not to import clothing woven and sewn in Asia, worn and tossed out in America, then sorted and cleaned in India before finally being dumped into East Africa.

Apparently the reluctance of Rwanda and its East African Community partners, their combined GDP less than Hawaii’s, to welcome unlimited container loads of the rich and careless world’s detritus has been doing the US a damage. We are told it is  threatening the livelihoods of some 200 000 Americans and costing the “industry” that would employ them $124 million a year in lost sales.

That, at any rate, is what the industry’s Washington swamp rat, the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, or SMART, would have the office of the US Trade Representative believe, pulling the numbers from one of its anatomy’s darker places. The lobby presents no basis for its claim other than untested “member surveys”.

Donald Trump’s trade enforcers have accepted this hogwash. Previous administrations, receiving similar petitions, have politely tossed them into their round files, suppressing gag reflexes as they did so. But not the minions of a president who describes the continent in scatological terms. Nothing can make them gag.  They have gone to bat for the scavengers.

Their bludgeon is denial of access to the world’s largest market under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. Do as we say or we will drive away the very investment in garment manufacture AGOA was meant to help you attract. We will force you to thrust back into poverty the thousands of women employed in the factories we gave you incentives to build.

What is particularly galling is the way in way the new US Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, has used the AGOA cudgel to divide the East African Community, all of whose members initially stood together to protect their nascent industries from America’s degrading hand-me-downs. But one by one, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have been bullied into kissing Washington’s ring. Rwanda alone has stood firm.

It was alright for Alexander Hamilton, America’s first treasury secretary, now the subject of a Broadway musical to which no ordinary mortal can afford a ticket, to erect tariffs behind which a fledgling US industrialised. But let Africa erect a wall against products that America does not make, only soils, discards and sends to India to refurbish, and Africa must be punished.

Of course, the argument is made that used clothing is all many people in EAC countries can afford at this point and, besides, provides livelihoods to countless traders. But that is precisely the colonial paradigm from which Africa is surely trying to break free, which is why the EAC acted as it did.

Without industrialisation and the emergence of robust regional value chains and markets, the majority of African nations are likely to remain exporters of raw commodities and importers of goods to which value has been added elsewhere. Isn’t breaking out of that  dead end historical path what the Continental Free Trade Area is all about?

Not all of Washington is as narrow-minded as Trump’s trade heavies. Congress, thanks to the leadership of old-fashioned Republicans like House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce and Democrats like Delaware’s Senator Chris Coons (a statesman when not in the thrall of Big Chicken) are pushing through measures to fund investment in Africa’s economic integration.

But they are having to deal with a demoralised, deskilled bureaucracy headed by a reality TV star/failed casino owner whose views on trade are no more sophisticated than those of a heroin hustler fighting for his turf in the Bronx he came from.

 

Clubbing Africa with AGOA

It has taken the Trump administration to change my mind about the African Growth and Opportunity Act and to see that Nelson Mandela was right to worry about its “conditionalities”.

The epiphany came as I listened to US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer talk about AGOA not as a way of encouraging investment in African export industries or of moving from aid to trade, but as a stick to get African governments to play by America’s rules. “They get duty preferences when they do that.”

I am not so naive as to deny there was always a stick element to AGOA, but I believed the stick would be applied judiciously and was worth tolerating in return for pretty much unfettered access to the world’s largest market.

I thought SA was foolish to protect its lame poultry sector when AGOA was helping the country run a substantial trade surplus with the US, much of it accounted for by manufactures. I also believed SA erred in balking at a reciprocal trade agreement with the US years earlier in place of unilateral AGOA. That way the chicken row might have been avoided.

But now comes the orange bully boy who equates Africa with excrement and is on an imbecile mission to “make America great again” at everyone else’s expense (and ultimately, its own). In his hands, AGOA, its conditions and coming expiration in 2025, are brass knuckles.

If there’s any doubt Trump’s trade office will use them, consider its disgraceful decision to side with America’s rag and bone men against members of the East African Community. The latter are being told that if they continue resisting imports of America’s cast-off t-shirts, their AGOA privileges will be cancelled, their aim to build their own textile and apparel industries be damned.

Lighthizer is under orders to strike “as many bilateral agreements as possible”. Divide and conquer is the Trump way. It’s much easier to “win” when dealing with smaller countries one at a time.

“I think that before very long we’re going to pick out an Africa country, properly selected, and enter a free trade agreement with that country,” said the trade representative. “And then that, if done properly, will become a model for these other countries.”

With yesterday’s launch of the Continental Free Trade Area, Africa is moving in precisely the opposite direction to Trump’s crude zero sum bilateralism.

A grown-up US policy would be predicated on supporting the CFTA vision, not trying to cut separate deals. In the closing days of the Obama administration, Lighthizer’s predecessor laid out some options along those lines in a thoughtful report, Beyond AGOA. But association with Obama is the kiss of death in Trump world.

Lighthizer said he saw “enormous potential” in Africa and that “we’re only a few years away from (it) being the population centre of the world.” Good to hear. Then he spoiled things:

“If we don’t figure out a way to move them (Africans) right then China and others are going to move them in the wrong direction.”

So China is moving Africa in the wrong direction? Is any outside country doing more to address Africa’s infrastructure needs or help the continent integrate and industrialise?

In any event, Mr Lighthizer, Africans are perfectly capable of deciding the direction that works for them without guidance from a president who holds them in contempt and hasn’t even bothered to name an Assistant Secretary of State for Africa.

Here’s hoping you do not succeed in using AGOA or its expiration date to separate one or two countries from the pride, and that none takes the bait or caves to threats.  Africa should wait till reason returns to the White House. Why negotiate with the trade representative of a highly eccentric one term administration.