Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Income Inequality and Public Relations


Martin Wolf’s column in the Financial Times on “A Republican Tax Plan Built for Plutocrats” raised an interesting issue for me as a former Southerner.  Wolf wrote:

The pre-civil war South was extremely unequal, not just in the population as a whole, which included the slaves, but even among free whites. A standard measure of inequality jumped by 70 per cent among whites between 1774 and 1860. As the academics Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson note, “Any historian looking for the rise of a poor white underclass in the Old South will find it in this evidence.” The 1860 census also shows that the median wealth of the richest 1 per cent of Southerners was more than three times that of the richest 1 per cent of Northerners. Yet the South was also far less dynamic….

The South was a plutocracy. In the civil war, whose stated aim was defence of slavery, close to 300,000 Confederate soldiers died. A majority of these men had no slaves. Yet their racial and cultural fears justified the sacrifice. Ultimately, this mobilisation brought death or defeat upon them all. Nothing better reveals the political potency of tribalism.
Why wasn’t the antebellum South more upset by income inequality.  My great-grandfather, who fought in the Civil War as a colonel in the 21st Alabama regiment, moved to Mobile, Alabama, from Iowa just a few years before the war started.  He worked for a Mobile silversmith, James Conning, and had no slaves.  During the war, he was often so short of money that he asked to Mr. Conning to help out  his wife while he was away fighting.  (See From That Terrible Field by John Folmar.)  There were, no doubt, some in the South who resented the wealthy plantation owners, but as Gone with the Wind brings out, most Southerners looked at the aristocracy favorably, while the aristocracy exercised a sort of benevolent dictatorship that cared for the lower classes, even if they didn't do much to improve their situation.  

The lesson for me then is that income inequality is less of a problem if there is a friendly relationship between the classes.  The aristocracy had a sense of “noblesse oblige.”  In the South, this relationship had been built up over generations, and was made easier to bear because income and class inequality was widespread and accepted in in Europe at that time.  The US was much more democratic than Europe, which lessened the perception of differences in America.  We had rebelled against the British royalty and their decrees: “No taxation without representation.”  We declared that “All men are created equal.”  There was a softening at both ends, with the aristocracy showing sympathy for the lower classes, and the lower classes feeling empowered by their power in the democracy.  

Alexis de Tocqueville was apparently not as impressed with the South as he was of the Northern United States.  He thought that slavery and the agrarian economy made the South less responsive to the democratic trends sweeping the North.  But this view ignores the fact that many of the leaders of Revolution and creation of the new country were Southerners, particularly from Virginia , the bastion of the plantation aristocracy, or plutocracy as Martin Wolf calls it.  Most of the early Presidents came from Virginia, starting with Washington, as did many other political leaders.  The fact that Southern secession was widely supported in the Southern states is evidence of the support by the lower classes of the slave-holding aristocracy.  

Today, one problem of the aristocracy of the 0.1 percent is that they are not widely liked by the lower classes particularly by the white middle class.  Many of the upper one percent are recent arrivals in the US -- Jews, Indians, Asians -- who have made no effort to ingratiate themselves with the broader population.  If anything, they have isolated themselves in Manhattan or Silicon Valley.  Mark Zuckerberg went on some sort of a tour of the US, which turned out to be mainly a joke.  Buzzfeed reports that the trip increased Zuckerberg’s Q Score, a popularity rating, from 14 percent to 16 percent, about the same as Ashton Kutcher, Rachael Ray, Charles Barkley, Warren Buffett and Mark Cuban.  Elon Musk’s Q Score is 24%.  Tom Hanks has a Q Score of 46%.  Billionaires are not particularly well liked.  

The billionaires’ contempt for everybody else explains the resentment against them, and thus the rising concern about inequality.  The public perception is that these people don’t deserve the wealth and privilege they hold, that they gained it dishonestly, even if they came up with some brilliant new invention.  I would guess that Steve Jobs is viewed much more favorably that Bill Gates, because Jobs was concerned about the beauty and functionality of the products he built, while Bill Gates pretty much only cared about the money.  He is trying to make amends by giving money away now, but he has lots of evil to atone for.  Today’s billionaires might take a lesson in public relations from the plantation owners of the old South.  

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Bad WSJ Op-Ed on Israel

Why did the Wall Street Journal publish the op-ed “Anti-Israel Activists Subvert a Scholarly Group”?  I have never heard of the group or the people involved.  Does this warrant national attention?  My reaction from reading the article is that everyone involved, the professors attacked in the article and the authors of the article are all racists.  A pox on both your houses!   Furthermore, I found the legal analysis unclear.  It sounds as if a court has refused to throw the case out, but has not yet decided the case on its merits.  If this is so, couldn’t the WSJ at least have waited for a final decision to comment on the case?  Why are you wasting my time on this?

Italian Fisheries

Following up the last post, on my last full day in Rome, I had to accompany the Ambassador to meet with the Italian Agriculture Minister.  The swordfish issue that my office was sued over was such a big issue that the US had sent a delegation of 15 or 20 Americans to meet with even more Italians to decide on a course of action on limiting Italian use of driftnets to catch swordfish.  They came to an agreement that was pretty restrictive.  Among other things, the Agriculture Ministry would send enforcement officers out with fishing boats to make sure that the fishermen were following the rules.  
My American assistant took the lead on the fisheries issue.  She had served in Venezuela, where she had been responsible for fishing matters.  I had never dealt with fishing policy, and was less interested in it than in other functions of the office, such as nuclear non-proliferation and space.  She took the lead in the big bilateral meeting, which ended with both sides being pretty happy.  

When the results of the meeting reached Sicily, however, things did not go as well.  Most of the fishermen affected by the agreement lived in Sicily, and they felt that the agreement damaged their livelihood.  As a result the took out hit contracts with the mafia to kill Agriculture enforcement officers were controlling them.  In addition, the organized a huge sit-down demonstration against the Ministry in downtown Rome that tied up traffic for hours.  Thus, the Minister called in the Ambassador to request that the restrictions be eased somewhat in order to appease the fishmen, and hopefully protect his enforcement officers from being killed by the mafia.  

I told the Ambassador that because of the suit that the government had lost against the environmental groups, he was not in charge of US policy on the issue.  A district judge in New York was.  Anything the Ambassador agreed to would have to be approved by the judge, and that often meant consultations with the environment groups, who in turn always asked Greenpeace Italy for its recommendation.  

We agreed to a slight relaxation of the rules, which I then sent to Washington for approval.  As far as I know they were approved.  The fishermen cancelled the mafia hit contract and quit tying up traffic in Rome.  However, I was gone before the changes were implemented.  

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Foreign Service vs. Civil Service

While I was serving as Science Counselor in Warsaw, Poland, around 1995 my main job was to oversee a science cooperation agreement between the US and Poland.  They had signed a five year agreement to fund the program, which would consist of approved projects between American and Polish scientists.  For two years, the US and Poland funded the agreement with matching contributions of two million dollars each year.  The third year, Newt Gingrich led a Republican takeover of the House, which then refused to fund any more cooperation in future years.  In the one year he oversaw the cooperation, my predecessor in Warsaw had funded only one small cooperation project.  In the first year I was there, I created a panel of senior scientists to vet proposals, and obligated the entire amount of the funds in the bank.  Thus, when funds were cut off, we could approve no more projects.  The Poles were anxious to continue the cooperation and offered to fund it at any level the US suggested, but Washington suggested zero.  I was called in to the office of the Polish Foreign Ministry official responsible for all of the Western Hemisphere, who berate me and the United States for being dishonest and failing to fulfill a formal promise we had made in the original cooperation agreement.  I was deeply embarrassed for myself and my country.  

About this time, the State Department called me and said that the Science Counselor in Rome was leaving, and that Italy was about to hold the rotating presidency of the European Union, more or less doubling the work of the embassy there, because it would have to handle EU matters as will as bilateral US-Italy issues.  Since my main job in Rome had gone up in smoke with the failure to fund the science cooperation agreement, I agreed.  I delayed my departure, however, because as another part of my job, I had secured an agreement to use ten million dollars of the debt that Poland owed the US for environmental projects administered by a Polish NGO, the Ecofund (Ekofundusz).  I was the embassy representative on the Ekofund board, and I wanted to attend the first board meeting after the approving of the new funding to make sure that everything was in order before I left.  It was, but then it happened that the day I was scheduled to leave Warsaw was the day Newt Gingrich shut down the US government.  We were told not to leave Warsaw after we had send all of our clothes and other belongings to Rome except for what we had in our car for a two or three day trip.  I protested, and we finally arranged approval to leave Warsaw for Rome.  Rome had promised me an office and housing when we got there.  

When we arrived a few days later, it turned out that there was no apartment available.  The embassy housing office had given the apartment that they were supposed to be holding for me to a new DEA agent.  I had no gripe with the DEA agent, whom I didn’t know, but the State Department had promised me to have an apartment ready, and the embassy housing office worked for the State Department, not DEA.  It seemed like they could have said the apartment was already reserved.  That was my first clue that something was rotten in Rome.  My wife and I lived in temporary housing for months before the embassy finally found us an apartment, which was quite distant from the embassy, making for a long commute.  

I discovered that the man I replaced as Science Counselor was a long-time colleague of Ambassador Reginald Bartholomew.  He was not a career Foreign Service officer.  He had apparently been brought into State on a Schedule C appointment, a political appointment that allows the person to stay only eight years (the maximum length of a presidential term) unless he converts over to career status.  I sounded like this man had tried to convert to career status but had been turned down by the State Department, which meant that he had to leave because his eight years were up.  That is why he was leaving just as the office’s workload doubled when Italy assumed the EU presidency.  

After a while I began to understand that I was not wanted by the embassy.  The Ambassador appeared to be mad with the Foreign Service for refusing to extend the tenure of his friend.  As a result, he did not want a Foreign Service officer in this position.  Bartholomew was not a career Foreign Service officer, having come in as political appointee, working at senior levels of first the Pentagon, and later State.  Thus, he had no particular loyalty to the Foreign Service, of if he had, it was offset by his anger at its refusal to accept his science protege.

I found when I arrived that the embassy had tried to have a Civil Service officer who worked at the State Department appointed as Science Counselor, but apparently the Foreign Service had rejected that request, too, since the position was designated for a Foreign Service officer.  Ironically, the person the embassy wanted was someone I knew.  He was the deputy director of the office that was supposed to be the Washington support for Foreign Service science officers in the field.  It was an office in the State Department Bureau of Oceans, Environment, and Science (OES) that dealt with the bureaucracy of science activities, including supporting science officers in the field, and administering science cooperation agreements like the one in Poland, that had been cancelled.  So, in less than a year, I had been stabbed in the back twice by this office.  It did not defend the Polish agreement, and it did not support me as the chosen science officer in Rome.  And when I left, I was going to be replaced by the number two man in that office.  The director of that office was Martin Prochnik; I can’t remember the name of his deputy who replaced me in Rome.  Prior to going to Poland, I had been the deputy director of the OES office across the hall from that office when I worked on wildlife and forestry environmental issues.  Apparently they really hated my guts for some reason; I don’t know what I did to them.  

In any case, from the moment I arrived in Rome, it was apparent that the embassy wanted that deputy director of the science cooperation office to replace me.  I could have stayed.  I had all the qualifications for the job, and my assignment was for three years.  On the other hand, I was old enough and senior enough to retire.  And i was not happy with the Foreign Service and the State Department.  First, it (actually Congress) had cancelled the Polish cooperation agreement, leaving many Polish scientists in the lurch.  Under the old Communist government, almost all scientists worked for the government.  With the downfall of the Communist government, they were all out of work.  Eventually they would find work in the new private sector, but the cooperation agreement was intended to give them a little cushion while they made the transition.  When it collapsed, many of the scientists faced additional financial hardship.  And I was the one who had had to give them this news, making me persona non grata in the Polish science community, and the target of criticism from the Polish Foreign Ministry that the American government was dishonest and did not honor its agreements.  Adding insult to injury, the government shut down on the day I was supposed to leave Poland, for a few hours effectively putting my wife and me on the street in Warsaw with no place to live.  

When I arrived in Rome the government was still shut down, and the embassy had given my assigned house away.  Only essential personnel were allowed even to come to the embassy.  I had been declared essential, because that was the only way to allow me to travel from Warsaw to Rome.  But, that meant that there was no one to talk to about how the office worked, even about where the files were, what the safe combinations were, who my contacts were in the Italian government, etc.  Meanwhile, my staff who were sitting at home were not getting paid.  It was a mess.  Because I had had almost no warning that I was going to Rome, I spoke no Italian.  It was an inauspicious arrival.  

One of the main issues that the office handled was fisheries.  Just before I arrived, four environmental groups had sued the State Department, claiming that it had failed to enforce a UN resolution concerning swordfish fishing by the Italians in the Mediterranean.  The Justice Department, which apparently handles all trials for the government, assured us that they would win, but they lost.  As a result, the person most responsible for fisheries policy was a federal district judge, in New York.  He had to approve any policies and actions by the State Department regarding swordfish fisheries.  In practice this meant that we, the State Department, would propose something to the judge.  The judge would then ask the environmental groups whether they approved.  They would always ask the Greenpeace staffer for swordfish what he thought, and his opinion would be run back up the chain of command.  If he approved, it was okay, if not, then no.  Greenpeace’s Italy office was effectively put in charge of US policy on this issue.  

Another issue I handled was nuclear non-proliferation.  The Republicans in Congress had cut off funding for an agreement that was supposed to end the North Korean nuclear bomb program, the Korean Energy Development Organization (KEDO).  As a result, the US was unable to fulfill its obligations under the KEDO agreement, thus freeing the North Koreans from the restrictions they had agreed to.  Since the US Congress would not fund our obligations, we asked the European Union (through the Italians) if they would pay what we owed.  It fell to me to ask them.  This was too much like what I had experienced when the Republican Congress had cut off funding for the Polish science cooperation agreement.  I felt awful asking the Italians to do what the Americans had promised to do, but now refused to do.  

I also handled space issues.  Over the years, I had been NASA’s representative in the country where I was posted, and it was always one of the best parts of the job, because everyone loves NASA.  However, the Shuttle had carried an Italian “tethered” satellite into orbit, which was lost.  It attached to a wire that was reeled out from the Shuttle to run experiments, and then it was supposed to be reeled back in.  However, the line it was attached to broke, and the multi-million dollar satellite drifted off into space.  Thus, this visit by the Shuttle crew was sort of an apology tour, although no one said that out loud.  Again, a less than stellar performance by the US.  
Finally, while at a cocktail party celebrating the launch by the US of a satellite for the Italian telephone company, one of the executives of the company approached me and said something like, “America must really hate me since you won’t give my daughter a visa to visit Disneyworld.”  I didn’t know what he was talking about, but when I asked the Consular Counselor about it, she said, yes, the Helms-Burton Act barred issuing visas to any family member of anyone who connected to Cuba.  It turned out the Italian phone company had some connection to the Cuhan phone company which triggered the Helms-Burton Act.  I had earlier read Herman Wouk’s “Winds of War” in which the child of the heroine in the book is denied a visa to leave Italy by the Nazis in World War II.  The Nazis prevented her from leaving by preventing her child from leaving.  The tool was a visa that was withheld in Rome by the Nazis.  The parallels were uncomfortable.  

The embassy did not want me.  My office’s fishery policy was being dictated by Greenpeace via a federal judge in New York.  The US was not fulfilling more promises it had made, this time to North Korea, South Korea, and Japan.  We had lost an Italian satellite.  And we were following the footsteps of the Nazis in refusing to issue visa to people we didn’t like in Rome.  I had thought I was doing the State Department a favor by agreeing to move to Rome on such short notice, and would be welcomed with open arms, but it was quite the contrary.  My heart was not in it.  I decided to call it quits and retire.  I left shortly after Italy gave up the EU presidency and the embassy workload returned to normal.  

The embassy got the Civil Service officer they wanted.  I might have stayed if I had gotten more support from the Foreign Service as an institution, but maybe not.  The Foreign Service also has the goal of moving people out when they are near the end of their careers to make from for younger officers coming up.  I was never an outstanding FSO, but I was not the worst either.  I had a number of years more before I would have been forced to retire by the State Department’s up-or-out promotion system.  

The Foreign Service is facing serious problems as senior officers leave under Secretary Tillerson, but it will probably turn out to be a good thing for younger officers who will find faster promotions some time in the future.  


Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Veterans Comments in the Atlantic

The Atlantic Masthead sent out an email with comments by some veterans on patriotism.  As a Vietnam veteran, I think they ring true.

After returning from Vietnam, Bernard Seiler realized Americans have very different definitions of patriotism.

After I finished my tour in Vietnam, I flew to San Francisco. As I got off the plane, a protestor of the Vietnam War approached me, hurling insults. As he got closer, he hocked a loogie at me. This is a stark example of how divergent our views of patriotism can be. Later, when looking for my first job after leaving the military, I was told by multiple recruiters that it was a shame that I had wasted three years in the service because it made me a less desirable candidate for jobs. The fact that I had managed over 50 people in combat situations had no relevance to them. Nothing prepared me for that level of hostility.

Today, communities are still very divided on definitions of patriotism. At least now people are less inclined to blame the warrior for a conflict. However, this has presented some issues as well. For example, I now hear on a regular basis, “Thank you for your service.” I know it’s meant well, but I find it to be a hollow comment. You can see in the eyes of the person saying it. They feel uncomfortable. They’re more mystified by what you’ve done than grateful for it. The saying serves to reconcile their definition of patriotism with yours. Even more rankling to me is when I hear someone in the media using a cliché like, “the fallen soldier who died for our freedoms.” It may be true on one level, but my experience tells me that it’s much more complicated than that. The soldier likely died for his comrades—his brothers and sisters in arms—rather than the more collective, “our freedoms.”

—Bernard Seiler

Over the 20 years he spent in the Marine Corps, John Daily never felt like American values were under threat from enemies abroad.

I never once woke up in the morning and thought, “I’m going to protect the rights of my fellow American citizens today—the right of the free press, or the right of free speech." I don’t think those rights have been threatened from without for a considerable amount of time. I see bumper stickers every day that say, “If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read this in English, thank a veteran.” You don’t need to thank me for that. I don’t think I had a whole lot to do with that. The problem, I think, is not that our rights are being threatened from without. It’s that the right of free speech is being threatened from within—from both sides of the political spectrum. If I was to fight for a right, I’d fight to make sure we had our opinions heard, especially opinions that are different from our own.

—John Daily

Michael McNeill worries that too many Americans have an excessively macho conception of patriotism.

I’d love to say that I joined the military because of 9/11, but it was mostly to have a steady job and learn a foreign language. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, there began to emerge an image of the 21st century American soldier: Sun-beaten man, mismatched camo, armed with every tactical weapon he needed to burst down the door and take down the terrorists. This image was being imitated by civilians across the country—with a special emphasis on the weapons. I dismissed this because most of the soldiers I knew were just footsore 19-year-olds who just wanted to go home and alternately watch porn and South Park until four in the morning. But I shouldn’t have dismissed them because the image just further solidified. And soon this image became the quintessential image of patriotism. But it was all image, no substance. My own version of patriotism, which is more about civic duty and shared American values of civil liberty is often discounted as un-American.


—Michael McNeill

Monday, November 13, 2017

Depletion of Foreign Service

As a retired Foreign Service Officer, I want to call to your attention the rapid depletion of the ranks of the State Department Foreign Service under the Trump administration.  Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, the president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), recently wrote an open letter in the Foreign Service Journal calling attention to the problem.  By Washington standards, the Foreign Service is a small organization.  It is often said that there are fewer Foreign Service officers (about 6,000) than there are members of military bands.  It will be difficult for the Foreign Service to recover from a mass exodus of senior Foreign Service officers. 

I was pleased when President Trump named Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State, and to a certain extent I sympathize with his desire to reduce the size of government, but I do not think the small Foreign Service is the place to start drastic cuts. Good senior officers are important to the nation, as well as to the Foreign Service because of the skill and experience they bring from their years of dealing with foreign countries.  When I was a junior officer I was fortunate to work with Ambassador Tom Pickering, who was one reason I decided to stay in the Foreign Service and make it a career.  In Denver we have a senior FSO who has brought us his talent and experience, Ambassador Christopher Hill, the head of the Korbel School at Denver University. 

I admit that I retired from the Foreign Service under similar circumstances in the 1990s.  Under President Clinton, the US had promised multi-year funding for two projects I was working on, one in Poland and one involving North Korea.  When Newt Gingrich brought in the House Republican majority, they cut off funding for both projects, despite America’s earlier promises.  I was disappointed and ashamed of being called dishonest by foreign governments.  Thus, I sympathize with the current retirees, but I think the US government should do something to keep a cadre of experienced Foreign Service officers.  Otherwise, the US will suffer genuine losses in its future diplomatic dealings around the world. 

I hope that you will do whatever you can to prevent further gutting of the Foreign Service. 

Links to Ambassador Stephenson’s letter and to her appearance on the PBS NewsHour are below. 





Wednesday, October 18, 2017

US Government Failure to Honor Its Commitments

Hillary Clinton on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria

On Fareed Zakaria’s CNN program last week, Hillary Clinton complained about how the US was failing to honor its promises under Trump.  This is true.  I am disappointed that Trump is not honoring the Iran nuclear agreement in full without complaint as long as there is no indication that Iran is violating its terms.  The fact that Iran may be doing some things we dislike, is a point for discussion, but not reason to invalidate a working agreement that is reducing the threat of nuclear war.  I also think it was unwise for the US to leave the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement.  It’s purpose was to try to forge a closer agreement between the US and Asian countries neighboring China in order to offset China’s dominance in the region.  Withdrawing probably strengthens China’s hand.  

Nevertheless, failing to honor international agreements is nothing new for the US.  It usually happens when administrations change and a new party takes over the White House, which is the case with Trump.  I personally experienced three occasions when the US failed to honor its agreements, and I was not happy to be representing the US when it did.  

Brazilian Nuclear Reactor

After I had served in Sao Paulo, Brazil, issuing visas in the 1970s, I was assigned to the Brazil desk as a junior officer.  Before I arrived on the desk, Westinghouse had signed an agreement with Brazil to build a commercial nuclear power reactor for about one billion dollars.  There was no legal objection to the sale.  Later, however, Senator John Glenn (the former astronaut) sponsored and passed a bill saying the sale could not take place unless Brazil imposed full scope nuclear safeguards required by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  At that time Brazil adamantly refused to join or comply with the NPT, because it claimed the NPT was unfairly discriminatory between nuclear powers, like the US, and non-nuclear states, like Brazil.  As a result, Westinghouse had sold much equipment to Brazil, and much of the reactor was constructed, but the Glenn amendment meant that the US could not sell the uranium fuel to run the reactor.  

In its obituary of Senator Glenn, the New Yorker said:

Glenn was a good legislator, in the end, more comfortable operating the machinery of government than he was selling it. His greatest success came in 1978, when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act, a bill that was designed by one of his top aides, Leonard Weiss, became law. The act provided a framework for nations that were not bound by international treaties—India, Brazil, South Africa—to safely acquire nuclear-energy technology.

In the end, Brazil was able to acquire uranium fuel from Europe, but the deal with Westinghouse, which could have included several more reactors, was terminated.  In addition Brazil was so offended that it signed a big deal with Germany to get the technology to produce its own reactor fuel, which also would have given it the ability to produce enriched uranium for a bomb.  Whether by design or not, the German enrichment system never worked properly, and Brazil poured a lot of money into a useless technology.  

More recently, Brazil joined the NPT in 1998; so, Sen. Glenn was ultimately successful in getting Brazil into the nonproliferation regime, but by imposing new terms on the Westinghouse sale after it was signed, he created bad blood between the US and Brazil for years.  

Maria Skłodowska Curie Fund

When I was assigned to American Embassy in Warsaw in the 1990s, shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall, one of my main duties was oversight of the Maria Sklodowska Curie Fund, which the US had just signed agreeing to cooperate with Poland to fund joint US-Polish scientific projects for five years.  The US funded two years of cooperation for $2 million each year, matched by the Poles.  After two years, the Republicans under Newt Gingrich won control of the House and refused to approve any more funds for the remaining three years.  The Poles wanted very much to continue the cooperation and offered to match any level of US funding, but the US refused to commit any money.  

My predecessor had not funded any projects.  The only expenses had been for two meetings to discuss cooperation, one in the US and one in Poland.  Counting on the five year agreement, I had approved cooperative projects using all the money that had been appropriated so far.  I was blindsided by the decision not to fund the program.  One of the meetings I remember with the most disappointment was a meeting with the head of the Americas Department of the Foreign Ministry (who usually spoke to the Ambassador, not me) in which he harshly criticized the US (and me) for being dishonorable.  However the reason he met with me was that more than anything, Poland wanted to be part of NATO as a protection against Russia, and it did not want the funding dispute to interfere with its potential NATO membership. But I still remember sitting in his office and being very embarrassed for my country and myself.   

North Korea  and KEDO

I left Warsaw and went to Rome at the request of the State Department because Italy was taking over the Presidency of the European Union, which meant double the work for Embassy Rome, just as the Science Counselor there was leaving because of some personnel problem.  One of the issues I was responsible for was the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, which had been created as part of an agreement to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.  In return, the KEDO group which included Japan and South Korea, would build two light water power reactors for North Korea, which would not provide material that could be used in bombs.  While the reactors were being built, they would supply North Korea with heavy fuel oil to produce electricity in conventional power plants.  The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training has just posted an oral history by Ambassador Stephen Bosworth describing his problems as head of KEDO.  In this interview, he describes how because of the change in administrations the US effort to fulfil the agreement was hobbled.  

Fuel deliveries were proceeding. We never had enough money for that either. The political reality is that within about a week after the U.S. and North Korea signed this agreement, the Republicans gained control of the U.S. Congress, and the conservative branch of the Republican Party hated this agreement because it was seen as basically submitting to North Korea and its forces. So, there was a strong determination from the beginning to kill this plan.

One of the efforts Bosworth made was to try to persuade the European Union to put uf some of the funds which the Republicans were refusing to supply.  As Science Counselor I had the job of asking the Europeans to give us money so that we could meet our obligations.  Our main argument was that the world would be safer without North Korean atomic bombs.  However, the argument looked pretty weak if it didn’t persuade our own Congress to meet the terms of the agreement.  Coming on the heels of the US failure to fund the Madam Curie joint science project, this failure of the US to honor its promises felt pretty bad.  It was a major factor in my decision to retire from the Foreign Service.  I didn’t make a stink about it, but I did not want to be part of something that I was not proud of.  

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Kurdish Independence Vote

The results of the vote on Kurdish independence are not yet in, but are almost certainly to be in favor of independence, according to the Washington Post.  While the Kurds have been great allies of the US in Middle East, the creation of a Kurdish state is certain to create problems among the four countries with large Kurdish populations - Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria.  Each of these countries view the creation of a Kurdish state differently, but none of them entirely favorably.  The most strongly opposed is Turkey, which views some Kurdish organizations as terrorists, and for that reason is suspicious of all Kurds.  Iraq has enough problems with ISIS and the Sunni-Shiite split without adding Kurdish independence or autonomy to its inbox.  In Syria the Kurds pursue their own self-interest in creating a Kurdish state, but sometimes this means fighting against the Syrian government and in some cases fighting for it, or at least fighting its enemies.  Assad has many more important problems on his plate than Kurdistan, although Kurdistan would occupy a significant part of Syria, about one-quarter of it.  Iran opposed the vote on Kurdish independence, but it too has not put Kurdish issues at the top of its agenda; the Kurds seem to have a better relationship with the Iranian government than with the governments of the other three countries affected.  The US is also upset by the vote because of the confusion it may create in the region, although the Kurds have been America’s best ally in the fight against ISIS. 

In any case the creation of a new Kurdish state out of portions of four existing nations is almost certainly to be problematic.  The most recent example is the creation of South Sudan, which has led to civil war, famine, and thousands of deaths.  Arguably the creation earlier creation of several nations from the disintegrating Yugoslavia should have been peaceful, but it led to a terrible Balkan war among the new states - Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Montenegro.  The split up of Czechoslovakia into Czech and Slovakia went somewhat more smoothly. The creation of Israel has led to seventy years of violence and unrest in the Middle East.  Given the existing conflict in the Middle East and the countries involved in the creation of Kurdistan, it seems likely that it would be violent. 

Iraq has said that it will not recognize the results of the vote, but the Kurds may not allow the Iraqis to ignore it.  Iraqi Kurdistan is rich in oil; the Kurds will want it, and the Iraqis will not want to give it up.  Turkey will not want to do anything that it perceives as strengthening the hand of Kurdish separatists in Turkey.  This already appears to mean closing the border to shipments of oil, according to the NYT. 

As a sign of things to come, Iraq has demanded that Kurdistan surrender its airports.  Iraq asked other countries’ airlines not fly into Kurdistan.  Kurdistan does not have its own airline.