Grateful that President Bush did not press President Kibaki to have to Government of Kenya investigate Senator Obama’s “birth certificate”

While I cannot prove the negative from personal knowledge, I think we can be assured that such a gambit did not happen.  But absent some sense of “boundaries”, a recognition of a difference between the foreign relations of the United States and the conduct of personal affairs and partisan political campaigns, why not?

Birther John Corsi in Kenya to investigate Senator Obama

Author of “Obamanation” and “Where’s the Birth Certificate” Jerome Corsi in Kenya during my tenure at the International Republican Institute

See “My writing on my experience with the birth of “Birtherism” and Trump’s foreign policy.

Here is my piece from last year in The Elephant discussing the origins of Birtherism in the 2007-08 election campaigns in the United States and Kenya and their enduring legacy in American politics: “FROM BIRTHER TO MORE OF THE SAME: American foreign policy in the age of Trump and its impact on Kenya.”

See also American diplomatic perspective on Obama’s Kenya visit and a few personal thoughts.

My writing on my experience with the birth of “Birtherism” and Trump’s foreign policy

Birtherism is back in the news with statements by Jerome Corsi, author of The Obama Nation and Where’s the Birth Certificate?, that he expects to be indicted by the Grand Jury in the Special Counsel investigation of Russian interference in the American presidential election. News stories this week on Corsi’s role in the current investigation used photos from Corsi at Kenya Immigration in 2008 when he was expelled while investigating Obama while I was Regional Director for the International Republican Institute.

Update: Voice of America, Nov 23, “Roger Stone Associate in Plea Talks with Mueller“.

FILE – Jerome Corsi, center, who wrote “The Obama Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality, follows an immigration department officer holding his passport.

Likewise, Michelle Obama made news in pre-tour snippets from her new memoir “Becoming” that she most especially found birtherism from Trump unforgivable on a personal basis because of “his loud and reckless innuendos putting my family’s safety at risk.” See “In Her New Book, Michelle Obama Denounces Trump’s Sexism and His Promotion of the ‘Birther’ Conspiracy” from The New York Times.

A few weeks ago I had a piece in The Elephant which ran with the title “From Birther to More of the Same: American foreign policy in the Age of Trump and it’s impact on Kenya.” Salim Lone, former Raila Odinga spokesman, commented: “As always, a very interesting and objective look at our elections and the role the U.S. has played here from Ken Flottman. He is on the dot for pointing out the continuity in Kenya of the Bush Obama Trump arc, but on matters election, I’d give Bush an upper hand.” (I would appreciate any thoughts or observations you might have.)

I wrote about Corsi more specifically and his role in the 2008 United States presidential campaign between the late International Republican Institute Chairman Senator John McCain and then Senator Barack Obama back in 20014 here:

“A few thoughts about ethnic polarization in Kenya as we wait on the ICC”

An important thing for outsiders to realize is how complex, and deliberately obscured, these things are in Kenyan politics–and how much of what is said in popular fora in the United States is at least misleading if not flatly wrong factually and in some cases deliberately malicious. (I have finally just now brought myself to read the whole Chapter 4 on “Kenya, Odinga, Communism and Islam” in Jerome Corsi’s book The Obama Nation which was published shortly after I returned from Kenya in the summer of 2008 during the American presidential campaign.  It was a major bestseller and thousands of Americans may have read more about Kenyan politics in that chapter than they have ever read elsewhere over their lifetimes.  Corsi . . . paints a picture of the Kenyan election and the post election violence that is very much at odds with my understanding and experience, as well as anything I heard expressed internally at the International Republican Institute, or through my family’s church in Kenya or from our missionary friends or at my children’s missionary supported school.  In other words, malicious.)

One of the most important and interesting things that I have learned (so far) from my Freedom of Information Act requests to the State Department relating to observation of the 2007 Kenyan election was that the Ambassador’s staff reported to him and up the chain during the campaign that while there was hate speech showing up on both sides of the ODM/Odinga and PNU/Kibaki contest, the greater weight of it was directed against Odinga.  This surprised me because I had relatively limited separate interaction with anyone else at the State Department besides the Ambassador and his personal approach and attitude in my dealings with him certainly gave no hint of this background from his staff in the context of his tactics in addressing the Kenyan campaign.

Barack Obama image New Orleans

The fever ailing the American body politic stems in some part from the infection of Kenya “birtherism” from 2008

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.

Trump campaign rally

See also Abramoff’s Africa and “Obama’s America”

The United States sure could use multiparty democracy, too

Big political news in the U.S. is the election loss of the Majority Leader in the House of Representatives, Eric Cantor, in the Republican primary. Losing a primary is something that “just doesn’t happen” to Majority Leaders (never in the 20th century or the first five elections of the 21st).
While Cantor was substantively to the right of Ronald Reagan and any of the other broadly popular conservative figures of the modern Republican Party, and was known as a key figure in blocking compromise by House Republicans with House Democrats in recent years, there is a perception that his loss will make future legislative compromises even less likely.

John McCain, the International Republican Institute chairman, has previously noted publicly the potential demand for a “third” party that would compete for the plurality of American voters that the Republican and Democratic Parties in present form merely tolerate (naturally he didn’t put it quite that way–he had a Republican primary coming up).

We have a political system that seems to be pretty well ossified under the control of two parties that have both changed quite dramatically during the period of their mutual hegemony. Each party presently has a majority in one house of our bicameral legislature, yet disapproval of this Congress comes about as close to a consensus as you will find in the United States today. Most voters don’t vote in most elections, especially primaries which functionally decide the outcome of vast numbers of legislative seats in districts that are dominated by a single party, often for demographically derived reasons.

The present reality on the ground has departed rather dramatically from our own traditions in important respects, and is at odds with the conceptual rationale for a “two party system” in which each party competes to build a governing majority.

What should we do? My suggestion: let’s enlist our official nonpartisan democracy and party-building experts at the International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute. Offer the help to ourselves that we offer others. Heal ourselves first. Certainly in present circumstances it would be unduly controversial to consult any of the foreign democracy groups like the Westminster Foundation or the German party foundations, but IRI and NDI have well established Congressional relations on both sides.

It would be sort of like the instructions we all get when flying. Even if you are accompanying a child or disabled person, if there is a problem, put the oxygen mask over your own nose and mouth first, so you can breath freely enough to help.

Observations about the Kenyan and American Presidential Cycle for 2012

-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.

Friendly Fire? IRI Chairman McCain Labels Exit Polling as Pork!

Republican Senators McCain and Coburn have issued a purported list of 100 wasteful porkbarrel programs getting funding under federal stimulus legislation–one item targeted on the list is a little over $200,000 for exit polling in Africa by the University of California, San Diego. 

Is this just a political cheapshot at UCSD for publishing the results of the Kenyan exit poll from the 2007 general election and accompanying research? 

For this Kenyan exit poll, McCain’s International Republican Institute (“IRI”), for which I was Resident Director of the East Africa Office at the time, received funding from USAID, along with an extra $10,000 from Dr. Clark Gibson, chair of Political Science at UCSD.  The poll showed the challenger Raila Odinga soundly defeating the incumbent Mwai Kibaki.  When the Electoral Commission of Kenya announced that Kibaki had won amid disputes and allegations of fraud, the US Ambassador Michael Ranneberger initially called on Kenyans to accept the results and the Bush State Department initially congratulated Kibaki (later retracting), even though the Ambassador had received the preliminary exit poll results on the evening of the vote.

Dr. Gibson and his associate James Long designed the poll under a consulting agreement with IRI and Long supervised the field work of IRI’s Kenyan polling firm Strategic.  IRI maintained a six month “exclusive” on rights to publicity on the poll under the consulting agreement and refused to let UCSD or Strategic release or comment on the results.  IRI declined to comment on the poll and then began telling journalists and others in Washington that it was flawed, eventually issuing a statement on February 7, 2008 that it had determined the poll to be “invalid” after hearings that day of Senator Feingold’s Africa Foreign Relations Subcommittee in which Feingold called on Asst. Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer and the Asst. Administrator for USAID to explain why the poll had not been released as post-election violence and negotiations between the contestants continued.

After the expiration of the six month embargo, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) sponsored the release of the poll by UCSD on July 8.  Gibson and Long presented a detailed rebuttal to the alleged concerns raised by IRI.  The UCSD team also presented at SAIS at Johns Hopkins.  In August, more than a month later, on the day before Gibson and Long were to testify on the results of the poll before the Kreigler Commission in Nairobi, appointed to review the election under the February 28 power-sharing settlement, IRI released the poll, having found that it was valid after all. 

In the meantime, IRI continues exit polling all over on the taxpayer dime–and trumpets the “earned media” it gets for this from publications like the New York Times.  But apparently National Science Foundation funding for polling done by actual social scientists at UCSD outside the auspices of International Republican Institute is pork!

As Gibson and Long pointed out in their presentation of their research to the Working Group on African Political Economy last year, the US spends hundreds of millions on democracy promotion, but we don’t even know what motivates African voters.  Of course, if we don’t really always want to know HOW they vote, I guess maybe we don’t care why either?  And for that matter, maybe we don’t want to learn more about how effective that “democracy promotion” money is?

James Long worked tirelessly under pressure to help execute the Kenyan poll for IRI under difficult circumstances, and even provided substantial free assistance on IRI’s September 2007 pre-election poll (which was quickly released, by the way).  File this under the category of “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”.