Of the laundry list of independent U.S. Government agencies Trump’s initial “skinny budget” submission to Congress proposes to eliminate, the USIP and the Wilson Center are specifically active on issues relating to democracy, war and peace in East Africa and the African Development Foundation is the one Africa-specific agency.
The fundamental premise of the Trump campaign was that if Americans would elect Trump he would switch sides and become a patriot, serving the nation to make it “great again” and serving some, albeit conspicuously not all, segments of Americans. He would, he claimed, do unto others on behalf of “us” what he had spent the first roughly seventy years of his life doing to more or less everyone he encountered regardless of creed.
Trump believed the polls well enough to recognize it was always a long shot, as ultimately reflected in his losing popular vote totals (the biggest total vote loss ever for an Electoral College winner, on low turnout). Not expecting to win, Trump did not take serious steps to prepare to actually enter public service or to game out his alternatives.
Having caught some breaks, he ended up getting the Electoral College and is now having to spend some substantial part of his time, and some attention on becoming a president. (Although not to the point so far of taking the situation seriously enough to moderate his behavior on Twitter or otherwise seek self discipline or gravitas in most situations day to day.)
How did Trump end up winning? While Trump’s style of bluster and aggressive and open dishonesty on the stump was not widely endearing, most Republicans were going to vote for anyone their party nominated period, at least so long as they campaigned as at least somewhat illiberal, assuring that Trump would be in a close general election almost no matter what. So in that way, the key threshold actors were the “leaders” of the Republican Party (full disclosure: I identified as a Republican from childhood, served in the Party for years and did not affirmatively quit until 2013.) In other words, Reince Priebus and Paul Ryan were the two Americans who had the most formal responsibility and actual power to determine the legitimacy and acceptability of Donald Trump as a prospective President of the United States (and the new ruling and defining authority in the Republican Party).
In the campaign, Trump’s staff and the Republican Party that he affiliated with to run for the presidency put together a tactical effort to target likely Clinton voters and dissuade them from voting that proved brilliantly effective for the America of now. America and Americans have been profoundly changed by Rupert Murdoch with Roger Ailes and Osama Bin Laden since the Clintons’ last successful campaign outside of New York. The Republican side understood that Facebook and email was far more important to the emotions that would drive the behavior of plausibly likely voters than a “ground game” of a generation ago when Bill Clinton got re-elected in 2016.
Ultimately Hillary Clinton was the Bob Dole of 1996–the candidate who would have won the general election eight years earlier had she been nominated then, but was no longer after waiting eight years in step with the times.
Some state governments managed to reduce voting by what they might call “undesirables” who were likely to vote for Clinton, while the Trump and Clinton campaigns combined to fire up “the deplorables”. Beyond that Trump got consequential help from Putin and at the last minute from the FBI Director, but there is no way to prove what would have happened without their actions nor are we likely to have much clarity about Comey’s intentions. (It is believable to me that Comey acted for reasons related to internal matters within the FBI, the Justice Department and the Government more broadly while expecting that Clinton would win anyway–presumably someday he will present an explanation in a book, by which time the consequences of Trump’s rise to power will be clearer.)
So now, like the proverbial dog who finds that the car he was chasing has stopped, Trump is confronted with what to do with his prize from winning the chase. The biggest hassle seems to be that taking the job threatens to cost Trump a lot of money as well as well as quite a bit of time spent in Washington away from his homes in New York, New Jersey and South Florida and some living in public housing. He has declared that any limitations on his business activities, and his residence, are to be negotiated or announced over time rather than governed by existing law and past practice.
Having no foreign policy experience and having been condemned publicly and privately by much of the cohort from previous Republican administrations, he seemed caught off guard by having to pick a nominee for Secretary of State.
Having Mitt Romney come to dinner at Trump Tower and contradict all of his previous expositions about Trump’s unfitness was a tour de force reminder of Trump’s tactical brilliance in accumulating personal power for himself and humiliating rivals and was important to firmly seizing control of the GOP from what we might call “the 20th Century Republicans.” It was not useful to finding someone that would be useful to Trump as Secretary. As the story has been told to us by the president’s people through the news media, man for all of Washington’s seasons Robert Gates was able to suggest to Trump his client Rex Tillerson who quickly became the natural choice for Trump. This might even be true even if it hardly seems likely to be fully explanatory.
Tillerson is surely better suited to be Secretary of State than Trump is to be President. (For that matter, better suited to be President.) The questions about Tillerson relate to problems about his relationship with a nefarious foreign autocrat with control of the worlds largest nuclear arsenal–as with Trump. Beyond business relationships, which include some other nefarious but less dangerous (to Americans and others if not to their own subjects) autocrats he seems to be a person of more conventional decency than Trump. (Full disclosure, I’m an Eagle Scout, too.)
Tillerson is a surely a loyal company man, having spent his entire career with Exxon Mobile, and it seems plausible to me that he could effectuate a switch of “companies” to work for the United States Government to run the State Department rather than running Exxon Mobile, in a way that for Trump, who so far as I know has never worked for anyone other than his father and himself, was never plausible to me. The problem with Trump’s Putin tilt and undisclosed interests and finances, and with Trump’s character, and with Trump’s willingness to actually change careers and orientation to serve as President of the United States will continue to be there whether or not Tillerson steps further forward out of the shadows to represent us as our chief diplomat.
Confronted with the idea of a less than ideal market to divest his business interests Trump has made it clear that he puts his own pocketbook first and Anerica second (at the very best) by refusing to divest. So now we know that Trump simply refuses to be an actual patriot after all. Contra our founding fathers who staked their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” on the idea of America, Trump, who has, to be direct, no obvious prior personal experience with honor, has said that a small reduction in his alleged $10B net worth is too high a price to pay to be a full-time President.
I do think that Trump will be well received by Kenya’s politicians, as well as those in many other countries on the continent, and I’m assuming his call with Uluru Kenyatta today went fine. Trump’s personal approach to public office will be more familiar and comfortable to Kenya’s leaders than that of Bush or Obama and his socioeconomic background more reassuring than someone as relatively exotic and self-made as Obama.
On Africa, thus back to the era of the American consultants Paul Manafort and Roger Stone working for Kenya’s autocrat Moi through his re-election in 1992. Go back and support right/nationalist movements in white Europe and Russia, rather than internationalist liberalism and NATO expansion.
At the core, repudiate the thinking of the the George H.W. Bush administration in promoting a globalist, rule-based “New World Order” with an alternative that imagines a third Reagan term in which the U.S. turned on the end of the Cold War with the Soviets to engage in a similar confrontation against “expansionist global Islamism” and treated China as a Communist power in rivalry rather than an economic partner whom we would continue to assist to rise on the faith that its role in the economic order would eventually result in liberalization and even democratization.
Reorient to say the problem is not “the arc of instability” and a lack of elections or freedoms, it’s the jihadis.
“Nixon would have told us to stop with the ‘China card’ after we ‘won’ the Cold War. Henry has been hanging out with Hillary for ‘the holidays’ and working both sides and we’ve gotten confused. Never could trust him. We’ve gotten this completely wrong and have to straighten up.”
In this perspective the collaboration between the neocons and the liberal internationalists that drove policy under Clinton and George W. Bush left us weakened and feckless, snatching long decline from the jaws of victory. We ended up paying for European security because they would rather focus on competing for arms exports–nice deal if we are suckers enough to go for it!
And we’ve ended up following the European liberals to the point of underwriting the wrong sides in the culture wars. The Bushes and Bill Clinton were bad enough–but Obama really went far left; we’ll fix that.
Calling Ollie North and Erik Prince.
[Update: Rex Tillerson was confirmed as Secretary of State today, with the votes of those Republicans who had raised questions about his commitmant to human rights and other issues related to his career long tenure at oil major Exxon. He takes over a State Department where perhaps 1,000 officers and employees have signed a leaked “dissent” from President Trump’s immigration and refugee order impacting those of Somali, Sudanese and Libyan nationality, among seven countries. Tillerson has said he was not consulted on the Executive Order.]
Former Obama administration Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson finds “Trump’s Africa policy unclear and uncertain” but expects a broad pulling back from existing bipartisan programs in a piece at African Arguments:
. . . .
Trump has exhibited no interest in Africa. Nor have any of his closest White House advisors. Except for some campaign comments about Libya and Benghazi, the new president has made very few remarks about the continent. And despite his global network of hotel, golf and tourist holdings, he appears to have no investments or business relationships in sub-Saharan Africa.
The one member of Trump’s inner circle that may have an interest in Africa is Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson. He has some experience of Africa because of his many years in the oil industry with ExxonMobil, most of whose successful dealings on the continent were with largely corrupt and authoritarian leaders.
If Tillerson appoints a moderate and experienced Africa expert to run the Africa Bureau – and there are a dozen Republicans who meet that definition – and if he is able to keep policy in the control of the State Department, African issues may not be pushed aside completely. But irrespective of who manages Trump’s Africa policy, there will be a major change from recent previous administrations.
President Obama pushed a strong democratic agenda and launched half a dozen new development programmes including Power Africa, Feed the Future and the Global Health Initiative. Before him, Bush’s “compassionate” approach led to the establishment of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), two of America’s most widely-praised programmes on the continent.
But Trump’s view is more myopic . . .
Under Trump, any focus on Africa will likely be on military and security issues, not democracy, good governance or human rights. These policies are likely to find greater favour with Africa’s autocrats than civil society or local business leaders.
. . . . Photo from church of African-American freedmen from Cumberland Island, Georgia for Black History Month
By electing President Obama we got through with race and became post-racial. Now that we have elected Trump we are surely done with “political correctness”, so lets us speak plainly. What is “Africa” as seen from Washington?
Well, surely Africa is a playground for so many characters, but that is nothing new at all, and we don’t really like to focus on that. From Trump children big game hunting to politically engaged ministers and ex-diplomats involved in unusual investment schemes, Africa abides. With election campaigns to run and autocrats to lobby for in Washington. And missions and aid and economic investment programs continuing apace with varying degrees of pep and power in accordance with the visions and priorities of policy makers.
The thing that is new from U.S. vantage in this century is the overriding common legacy of the Bush and Obama administrations: AFRICOM (recognizing that the new command was primarily planned by the Bush Administration but did not “stand up” until Obama was almost in office).
I never had strong opinions about whether having a separate combatant command for Africa would be better or worse than than the status quo under CENTCOM, et al, that existed in my time working in Kenya and Somaliand in 2007-08. It has escaped my attention if there are many Americans who see our policies in Africa during the Cold War as a highlight of our better angels, and I think on balance our aspirations for our relations in Africa in this century are higher than back in the past; nonetheless, largely staying out of Africa directly with our own military during the the Cold War and its initial aftermath may have reduced risks that are now potentially at play.
I think it is fair to say that ten years in the December 2006 Ethiopian operation to remove the ICU in Somalia with our support has not over time convinced all skeptics. In fairness, perhaps, as with the French Revolution, it is still too early to tell.
So did having AFRICOM as a separate combatant command from late 2008 (with a new “whole-of-government” flavor and hardwired entre for USAID and State Department involvement) result in wiser judgment and better execution in terms of US national security and/or related and ancillary command objectives in recent years?
It is hard to judge because it is a big command (aside from the answer being, in substance, classified) but the experience with regard to the Libya intervention in particular is not altogether encouraging.
Would having CENTCOM engaged from Tampa rather than AFRICOM from Stuttgart have made a difference in some way to our consideration of intervention and our planning-perhaps more hard questions initially to Washington from a more “war wary” perspective as opposed to input from an entity with the bureaucratic equivalent of the “new car smell”? [If inexperience was not a factor, what do we need to change to avoid future repetition if we agree that something went wrong on Libya?]
One way or the other, Trump takes office with AFRICOM at his command, a vast range of relatively small training interactions of a primarily “military diplomatic” nature all over, large exercises and larger programs with many militaries, active limited and largely low profile (from outside) “kinetic” operations across a wide “arc of instability” and the war in Somalia with a new legal opinion, for what its worth, tying the fight against al Shabaab more explicitly to 9-11 and al Queda. Along with a real live emergency in South Sudan and several other critical situations from a humanitarian and stability perspective.
I have declined to be persuaded by a dark view of the intentions behind standing up AFRICOM (versus the status quo ante and any realistic alternatives). Perhaps this is merely self protective since I am, after all, American, but also worked for much longer in the defense industry than my brief foray in paid assistance work. But it is my attempt at honest judgment from my own experience. Regardless, we are where we are, and Donald Trump will be giving the orders at the top to AFRICOM and whatever anyone had in mind, the fact that it is a military command rather than a civilian agency makes a great deal of difference in terms of the latitude that he inherited along with possession of the American White House.
Needless to say I hope it turns out that he has a yuge heart and bigly wisdom however fanciful that hope might look from what he has said and done so far.
[I updated to correct an error — the USAID Inspector General, rather than the U.S. Government Accountability Office, conducted the referenced investigation that found USAID funds went into supporting the “yes” campaign in the 2010 Kenya referendum, rather than providing only neutral process support for Kenyan voters.]
Longtime readers of this blog will well recognize Kenya as a glaring example of the refusal of our government and the surrounding networks of foreign policy elites in the larger Washington Beltway community to seriously self-assess and try to level with the American people in such a way as to build trust and confidence (even in the face of our serious and determined foes).
The stolen election in Kenya and its aftermath in 2007-08 was clearly a catastrophe for both the Kenyan people–whom we are continually trying to assist to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year–and for security interests of the United States (whatever real or rationalized internal claims might or might not exist to justify our policy of “looking, and pointing, the other way” as we saw the election being stolen). So far as I can assume, the Kibaki team would surely have done whatever was necessary to obtain the ECK certificate as “winner” of the election irrespective of the actual voting even if “we hadn’t even been here” (see here) but the very least we have to conclude is that our elaborate and expensive electoral assistance effort was in crucial respects a failure. And we certainly do have to consider the possibility that the other donors could have done better to accomplish what were identified as the common objectives without us and our leading role.
A key reason I have dedicated my “War for History” series to my late friend Joel Barkan–along with my late friend Peter Oriare–was that Joel was one of the rare people in Washington willing to speak out when he saw our country making what he saw as a foreign policy mistake. He wisely warned IRI that we were risking embarrassment along with the State Department. Was he thanked when it became obvious that he had been right?–no, he was attacked instead, in the finest Washington tradition of “CYA by pointing your finger at the person who suggested you ought not to show it in the first place”.
Having found myself playing a bit part due to working for a “charity” that got tagged, along with USAID, by our Ambassador to play a role neither my organization nor USAID sought as of the time I moved my family to Kenya to help out, I find myself being the only one seemingly willing to offer any type of public mea culpa for those decisions that I would make differently in hindsight. And I know that I absolutely did my best even though I was not successful overall. I cannot help but wonder if that is really the case for everyone, given all the various potential interests to be served.
In spite of how badly things went we have just given ourselves credit–and let the individuals who were in key roles publicly pat themselves on the back–for helping to keep the aftermath of the stolen election from being worse than it was. I did not have any personal animus against Ambassador Ranneberger and did not want him to be precipitously “recalled” as a result of my complaint about his interference with the election observation, but I would never have imagined that with a big political turnover in the U.S.–based to a great extent on a public loss of confidence in foreign policy decision making–Ranneberger would still end up being one of the most prominent public actors in Kenyan politics–on behalf of my country–for several more years afterward and be our second-longest serving Ambassador to Kenya ever.
Through the persistence of the subsequent Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Rep. Christopher Smith, we eventually learned through a Kevin Kelly story in Kenya’s Daily Nation that the USAID Inspector General had determined that an “eight figure” sum of money had bled over from lawfully neutral process support for constitutional reform into the 2010 “Yes” referendum campaign. Personally believing that on balance Kenyans would be better off to pass rather than defeat the referendum, I was embarrassingly gullible myself in being hesitant to credit Congressman Smith’s concerns in this regard until I saw the reporting on the USAID Inspector General’s findings. Shocking that the Ambassador who was not neutral in the 2007 vote was not neutral again in 2010!
In the 2013 general election, the administration of the process was in substantial ways even worse than in 2007 as capably pointed out by John Githongo and many others of earned expertise. Our assistance was much more expensive, and while not so controversial, was again not very transparent at all. (Still nothing on my public records request to USAID regarding our spending through IFES on Kenya’s IEBC and its corrupt technology procurements.)
And now, here we go again. The Uhuruto re-election gears up against the ODM-led opposition with the Government of Kenya facing its inevitable referral to the Assembly of State Parties of the International Criminal Court since it–inevitably and predictably–refused to meet its legal obligations to cooperate with the Court.
The individual who served as Assistant Secretary of State during the 2007-08 catastrophe, as a private citizen but identified primarily in her role as a former high ranking diplomat, was a key figure again in the 2013 campaign–this time speaking out (informally I assume) to accuse the United States Government of interfering in the election in the opposite direction, in favor of the opposition and against her preferred candidate, Uhuru Kenyatta. While she was within her rights, her argument seems counterfactual when you look at how U.S. assistance to the Government of Kenya and NDI/ELOG and IFES for the election was actually used in totality: to sell whatever the IEBC decided, even without a transparent tally and even though we had some real knowledge of the corruption issues that have eventually come out to the point of forcing their buyout after the Opposition was willing to protest on the streets this year.
If you will read the ELOG final report from several months after the election, you will see that it appears that the NDI/ELOG Parallel Vote Count had more problems with falloff of planned data collection than the 2007 IRI exit poll–but since it involved a much smaller universe of locations than an exit poll I’m not sure that this could be adjusted for (if attempted). So the idea that the 49.7% PVT result “VERIFIED” that Uhuruto received more than 50% looks that much more like advocacy for the IEBC rather than facts for the voters.
I would never vote in a scenario that I can readily imagine for Donald Trump or someone much like Donald Trump as best I understand him. I agree that his positions–none of which I assume reflect any sincere value judgments–are dangerous to our country now and for my children’s future. But if you don’t understand why many Americans might have some temptation to go for “the candidate of the middle finger” out of frustration with a sense that “Washington” isn’t actually working on their behalf as they send their taxes, you cannot be getting out enough.
Back in 2012, I drafted but didn’t publish a post with a couple of long quotes about the International Republican Institute programming at the Republican convention. I’m posting it below following a brief introduction.
2012 was back in the “good old days” when the Republican Party could still nominate a candidate for president who could be elected and had served as a state governor ahead of running for president. Way back in 2007-08 during my brief time working for IRI the GOP chose the Chairman of IRI, Senator John McCain, as its nominee for president; clearly a different era.
And thus now we see especially starkly one of the risks of using the two current political party institutes as primary vehicles for official U.S. democracy assistance: does Donald Trump represent democratic ideals and values outside the U.S? does Trump himself believe in democracy as an ideal as opposed to a personal opportunity (see V. Putin)? will people who actually work for IRI democracy programs vote for Trump with a secret ballot? do we want potential democrats from developing nations to come to witness Trump’s convention? how can IRI be partners with “center right” parties in Western democracies if Republican primary voters have repudiated the “center right”? (some less polite questions come to mind, but I’ll stop there–the basic point is that IRI and NDI should be merged to be truly non-partisan to do taxpayer funded democracy assistance overseas without the baggage of Trump, Clinton and whomever else as partisan figures in U.S politics).
Without further ado:
Conventions, however, serve another equally as important but perhaps under-appreciated purpose. These four days in Tampa will be an opportunity for Republicans to unify under a common goal (the nomination), to reinvigorate party members tired from a long campaign, and to get ready for that final push toward November.
The RNC hosts a multitude of important and fascinating guests. One such group is the International Republican Institute (IRI), which hosts foreign diplomats from conservative parties from across the globe. Some 150 international leaders have convened in Tampa to observe the RNC, meet with political advisors and American politicians, and have the opportunity to discuss what American foreign policy might look like under the next administration.
These high powered men and women shape the conservative movements in their own nations and will take away from the RNC a deeper understanding of the atmosphere of American politics. They will come to understand that we are a divided nation, but the division is narrow, nuanced, and difficult to govern by.
But at the convention, the campaign was careful not to draw any controversial conclusions from these philosophical musings about American greatness. The main session on foreign policy was hosted by the International Republican Institute, which Congress established in 1983 along with its partisan twin, the National Democratic Institute. Run by a former John McCain aide Lorne Craner, it exemplifies the non-problematic side of Republican neo-conservatism—the emphasis on encouraging democratic movements in authoritarian or formerly authoritarian countries through education and training. It held a meeting at an auditorium in Tampa on “The Future of U.S. National Security Policy.” The speakers consisted of four Romney foreign policy advisors, led by Richard Williamson, a former Reagan administration official who was also one of McCain’s principal surrogates in the 2008 campaign. The graying heavy-set Williamson, who looks like former Secretary of State Richard Eagleburger, would probably not fill a high post in a Romney administration, but he is perfect for this campaign, because he can, if necessary, take the edge off Romney’s more bald assertions.
The panelists sat on stage before a table, with several hundred campaign delegates, press, present and former Republican officials, and foreign diplomats in attendance. Former Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe, who chaired the meeting, asked the panelists at one point about Romney’s statement that Russia is America’s “chief geopolitical foe.” Williamson explained that Romney was not trying to revive the Cold War. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “He talked about a geopolitical not a military foe.” (In fact, Romney has warned of Russia as a military threat.)
Another panelist former Minnesota Senator Norman Coleman jumped in to offer a further clarification, or dilution of Romney’s statement. “He talked about a ‘foe’ and not an ‘enemy,’” Coleman explained, although Coleman did not explain what the difference was, and I don’t think a dictionary would be much help. The panelists praised the bill coming up in Congress that would penalize any foreign official involved in human rights violations—a bill that is aimed partly at the Russians—but conspicuously steered clear of redline proposals, such as re-committing the United States to building anti-missile systems in Eastern Europe.
Romney’s representatives took a similar stand on other specifics. They said we should sell weapons to Taiwan, but adhere strictly to the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. We should arm Syrian rebels (which it turns out the Obama administration has been doing covertly), but—in answer to a question from Foreign Policy blogger Josh Rogin—not establish a “no-fly zone.” We should declare that an Iranian nuclear weapon was “totally unacceptable,” but merely keep armed force an option. We should support human rights, but need not do so, Williamson assured the audience, by putting “boots on the ground.”
The speakers kept calling for a “robust” foreign policy and insisting that America should lead, and they denounced the Obama administration for failing to lead, but they offered very little indication that Romney would act any differently from Obama. That’s clearly what they intended to do. They wanted to get the rhetorical message across without committing Romney to any specific policies. Interestingly, Williamson and another Romney advisor, former George W. Bush State Department official Pierre Prosper, took a harder rhetorical line toward Russia at a posh smaller gathering at the Tampa City Club hosted by the neo-conservative Foreign Policy Initiative, which has key Romney advisors among its founders, and the institute of Modern Russia, headed by Pavel Khodorkovsky, the son of the jailed tycoon. That was probably because of the audience. But they still steered clear of proposing any provocative actions that could invite a serious examination of Romney’s foreign policy.
[2016 Note: For a view of how this year’s Republican operation in Cleveland looks from the perspective of a close American “developed world” ally and overseas development partner, see “Jumping the shark at the RNC” from Australia’s Lowy Institute.
We have a hegemonic two party political system in the United States. Neither party attracts the identification of a consistent majority of voters, yet most “independent” voters primarily vote for one party or the other rather than choosing between candidates on a case-by-case basis. During the period of their hegemony the Republican and Democratic parties have changed their regional, ideological, cultural and racial make-up without losing their shared control of substantially all of government at a federal and state level.
At present, American politics is primarily about culture, which is reflected in what political scientists identify as an ideological separation in which the two parties in Congress no longer substantially overlap, especially due to the defeat of liberal and then moderate Republicans especially in the Northeast and Midwest and the success of “tea party” and other movements and political funding mechanisms that have moved Republican representation well to the right. At the same time, the Democratic Party has to a lesser but perhaps growing degree moved left and does not seriously try to compete in large swaths of the country that were its traditional strongholds.
The specific policy issue that constitutes a near absolute “litmus test” divide between the parties remains abortion, which is primarily determined in the courts and is little legislated on at the federal level. While each of the parties has reinforced the rigor of the divide on that issue in recent years they have moved to “sort” across a whole diverse range of issues– most any issue that arises really.
This divide between the parties, culturally derived, then generates reverberation back into the broader culture. While most Americans don’t care that intensely about politics and politicians as such, we seem to me to be becoming more disputatious about issues that come to the fore in politics and governance, more suspicious of each other, less willing to accord legitimacy to opinions we don’t reflexively agree with, and less inclined to listen and learn in a way that would support mutual persuasion and/or compromise.
Shortly after returning to the United States from Kenya in the summer of 2008 I remember being struck in reading Rick Perlstein’s then new sociopolitical history Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America how glad I was to have been too young to have had to really deal with the depth of divisions of “The Sixties” and the “culture wars” and “generation gap” of that era. Unfortunately these divisions have been gearing up since that summer.
Some of this is surely just the ordinary social cycle, some of it is the inevitable stress of an unprecedented era of seemingly permanent war, along with economic trauma from globalization and the finance crisis, but just as the political strategies of Richard Nixon and George Wallace and others had broader consequences of historical import from the late 1960s and 1970s, the decision of so many leaders and elected officials in the Republican Party to actively or passively indulge and humor the bizarre conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was secretly born in Kenya and somehow smuggled into the country as an infant is to me a factor that future historians may view as quite profound.
Obama was a candidate of thin experience with significantly opaque aspects to his background with some legitimate controversies–this was always fair game politically for the Clintons and for Republicans. But, when you are mute or noncommittal when conspiracy theorists turn the basic facts of what could be seen as a uniquely American success story aside from divides of policy, party and ideology into a sinister, evil conspiracy resulting in a wholly illegitimate and unlawful usurpation of the White House by the clear winner of the election you cannot expect to easily manage the impacts over time. Surely any upstanding, patriotic citizen who actually believes the conspiracy is duty-bound to oppose the usurper?
Most senior Republicans could never have believed any of this–I am afraid they just did not have the courage to confront it because they knew it had profound traction at the grassroots as consistently confirmed by polling. John McCain as Obama’s GOP opponent (and International Republican Institute chairman) was notably above the nonsense personally but he was also notably outside the cultural mainstream of the party even by 2008 and more so now. The problem was not so much the campaign as the deligitimization of the elected President.
Thus now we have Donald Trump, unapologetic carnival barker of the birther conspiracy from its revival in 2011, as the dominant front runner for the Republican nomination for President to the chagrin of probably most people of his generation who have actually been involved in the party over the years. Whatever happens from here on out in this particular election campaign which remains partially in flux, the nature and trajectory of one of our only two parties, at the least, has been profoundly impacted. And the consequences will continue to play out well after the next President takes office.
-Four years ago I was just moving to Nairobi. The “Housing Bubble” was still inflated, along with the broader “Finance Bubble”. The Bush Administration had become deeply controversial and substantially unpopular, in particular because of Iraq, along with some of the whole Jack Abramoff/Tom Delay scenario in Congress that helped the Democrats retake the House in 2006.
-At that time, neither John McCain, the long time chairman of the International Republican Institute, for which I was going to work, nor Barack Obama, the young, fresh-faced green black Senator from Illinois, looked to the pundit class to be likely nominees for President. McCain had stumbled from his incumbent front-runner status, with various others seeming to emerge. Obama, obviously, needed to cap his expectations at a running mate slot if he did really well.
-It was interesting that Obama’s father had been from Kenya, and that Obama had written a memoir in part about growing up essentially without that father, but with some awareness of who he was and some communication, and then finally a visit to Kenya as a young adult. It would never, ever have occurred to me to imagine that later, many millions of Americans could imagine that Senator Obama had been born in Kenya, smuggled into the United States secretly and his story concocted as part of a vast conspiracy by someone for some purpose deeply dangerous to the country. That all these years his birth in Kenya had been known in Kenya but kept secret in the United States.
-Now that the President has gone to some lengths to make a very high profile release of the State of Hawaii’s actual “long form” certificate to supplement his previous release of a copy of his own birth certificate, the politicians who tried to advance their careers by enabling this nonsense have been damaged and the President’s re-election prospects improved.
-So why the exact timing?
It seems to me that Obama’s people would likely have assumed initially that the whole “birther thing” would die down, rather than grow, after he took office. I would have. I wouldn’t have been cynical enough about Republican politicians to realize how many would refuse to disown it or would even tacitly encourage it.
At some point it must have become clear that it should be addressed for the 2012 campaign. So why wait so long? Maybe the “rope a dope” factor. Why interrupt “silly season” among people who are obviously going to be attacking you on some basis, until the time that more independent minded people are starting to think about who to vote for next year?
The conventional wisdom in the media seems to stick with the narrative that this was a “response” to Donald Trump dictated by the traction Trump was suddenly getting through the media. Maybe, but I haven’t noticed the sourced reporting on this, as opposed to the repetition of assumption from circumstantial observation. I think this may well be wrong. Because the media seems to have had no idea about something a lot more consequential going on at the same time as the rump Trump boomlet: the preparation for the raid on the Bin Laden compound.
To me, it would seem that it was necessary for Obama to release the “long form” birth certificate to protect himself, and the country, from the kinds of things that might be said if the Bin Laden raid had failed. Jimmy Carter’s re-election was riding on the 1980 attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran–likewise the Bin Laden raid was a singular high risk event in U.S. domestic politics.
-Meanwhile, the Kenyan 2012 campaign is gearing up as well, with the ICC cases from the last election still in their early stages. Even with the birther issue behind him, I would expect that Obama will want to minimize any personal contact with Kenyan controversies until after his own election, relying on Secretary Clinton and his new ambassador, Scott Gration.
Here is the AP today: “Kenya’s tribal ‘O’ factor: Obama, Ocampo, Odinga”. Apparently it is always easier to believe objectively outlandish things about people who are members of different ethnic groups–no big surprise I suppose.
Perhaps the next thing will be to see Donald Trump start expressing interest in the Kenyan presidential race.
In Kenya a lot of the problem is the degree to which news reporting is skewed by the government and other interests, whereas I think in the U.S. it is more a matter of the crowding out and dumbing down of news by the commercial celebrity culture, and the “narrowcasting” problem whereby people get their news from either opinionated sources conforming to their ideological predispositions or from superficial “he said, she said” reporting that provides nothing except the two adversarial arguments of the usual political combatants, irrespective of facts. It may be that Kenya is on the upswing in this regard whereas here in the U.S. we are on the downswing.
At least no one in Kenya so far as I know believes Obama was born there.