Thursday, May 5, 2011

State Department to Editorialists: Africa Is Not a Country

“Press coverage of Africa is essential, good and insufficient,” Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson told a group of editorialists from the National Conference of Editorial Writers Monday in Washington. The head of the Bureau of African Affairs called for journalists to make sharper distinctions among the 53 states that make up the continent, 48 of which are Sub-Saharan.

There’s progress on the continent, he averred, urging writers not to focus just on stories of death and destruction, wars and famine. Africa comprises not just authoritarian regimes but many with good governance.

There is a democratic spring across the continent. There were just three democracies in the 1990’s. Today, some 20 sub-Saharan African nations are on their way to stable democracies. The United States has been actively involved in many of the 15-16 nations planning elections this year. Most notably, it has been helping Sudan bring about a successful referendum and transition to an independent state in the southern part of that country as of July 9.

The United States isn’t alone in seeing Africa – with its enormous mineral resources and pressing human needs - as central to its interests. China has come in in a big way. It has made clear its overriding interest is to extract oil and other minerals to support its own burgeoning economic development. And many African states have fallen under its sway. A byproduct of this is China’s attempt to woo Africa away from the influence of American media.

Unlike past administrations , we’re now told that United States Africa policy places Africa not at the periphery but at the center of our international interests. That policy has five “central pillars.

• Strengthening democracy and good governance.

• Promoting economic reform and sustaining economic development

• Dealing with enormous health challenges (HIV, malaria and tuberculosis) and food crises

• Working to prevent, mitigate and resolve crises in the Sudan, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Conakry

• Addressing global issues affecting Africa like terrorism and money-laundering - plus climate change, employment, and economic needs

Despite these generally applicable themes, remember, Africa is not a country. Differences among countries are real.

Take climate change, for example. The snow caps in Tanzania will be gone by the end of the decade. There is diminishing water in Lake Victoria. Snow is gone from Mt. Kenya., and some of the great rivers, needed to drive turbines in Kenya, are not flowing.

Africa has ten percent of the world’s population but 60 percent of AIDS cases, South Africa having the largest number.

The State Department’s Feed the Future program is a principal tool for creating sustainable agriculture, where the problems are pretty basic: seeds, fertilizer, water management and inefficient distribution system. Africa, says Carson, is capable not only of ending hunger at the family level but beginning to export as well. He looks to Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo for vigorous movement to self-sufficiency.

The bottom line: the media should look at Africa with as discerning an eye as we currently do in Asia, which itself was once considered a largely undifferentiated whole . Thirty-seven years in the Foreign Service, most of them spent in different Africa countries, combine to make Johnnie Carson the consummate professional and one who can articulate what such a discerning eye can see in analyzing the multiplicity of peoples, problems and promise on the African continent, at the center of our international interests.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

American opinion in line with Obama administration message on bin Laden

A fresh Washington Post/Pew Research Center poll shows that while Americans feel really good about the demise of Osama bin Laden, few think we’re home free when it comes to the threat of terrorism. Seven in ten believe the world is more secure, but a scant five percent think that terrorism is no longer a danger. And that mirrors what the Obama Administration is saying.

Both the President and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, after expressing prayers for the families of the victims of 9/11 and praise for the courage of our military, intelligence experts and diplomatic officials on the front lines, warn that the death of Bin Laden doesn’t end the fight against Al Qaeda. Making her first public statement at the State Department yesterday, Clinton looked tired but together. She was strong but very measured in predicting the future.

The message to those who would do harm around the world: “you can’t wait us out; you can’t defeat us.” Clinton restated that the administration. As if speaking to reassure those people reflected in the Post/Pew poll, she said, “The fight continues, and we will never waver…..This is America. We rise to the challenge, we persevere and we get the job done.”

In making her public statement yesterday, Clinton took no questions. But afterwards, speaking informally with a small group of editorialists from the National Conference of Editorial Writers, she said, “Our goal is to shape the meaning and create the message.” They’re doing a good job at that.

She restated United States commitment to a “partnership” with Pakistan. As if to underline one of the reasons for that partnership, she reminded us that bin Laden had ordered the killing of many Pakistani men, women and children. Obviously, we still need the Pakistanis, however duplicitous and undependable, in meeting the challenge in Afghanistan, but Clinton wouldn’t be drawn into criticism of them. She avoided the concerns about Pakistani duplicity raised, for example, in Foreign Policy about “the Pakistani government’s web of deceit.”

A corollary message has to do with money. As the strategy in Afghanistan shifts from military to foreign aid as a tool for strengthening international security, we have to support the effort. The State Department budget has been cut by $8 billion, which otherwise would go for diplomatic and development work, conflict prevention and resolution, improving health and hunger and supporting American businesses in far-flung areas of the world. Economic development is an important arrow in the quiver of tools to fight terrorism.

Foreign aid as a concept gets little support among the American people. If asked about how much of the federal budget goes for foreign aid, a majority assume about 20-25 percent. Asked how much they think it should get, they say, oh, around 10 percent. In fact, it get just one percent of the federal budget.

If, indeed, people around the world look to America for its values and strength, then we need to view these kinds of diplomatic, economic and health initiatives as enduring necessities in the ongoing fight against terrorism.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Donald Trump a buffoon candidate, but will the birthers go away?

Donald Trump takes credit for President Obama’s release of his full birth certificate, saying he’s proud that he (Trump) was “able to do something that no one else was able to do.” Well, if you say so, Donald. Guess you’re a can-do guy.

I’d like to think that this puts an end to the birther movement, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see supporters a) claim collusion between Obama and the Honolulu registry that produced the document; b) return to the assertion that the Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim (slurring the President’s credibility as a Christian and implying the unacceptability of all Muslims in the process; c) find some equally meaningless basis on which to condemn the President.

There are other reasons the attitude, if not the issue, won’t go away. Jerome Corsi, he of Swift Boat fame, is coming out with a book “proving” that Obama is not a U.S. citizen. Where's the Birth Certificate?: The Case that Barack Obama is not Eligible to be President will be available May 17. It was #1 on the Amazon best seller list last week but dropped to #27 following the release of the birth certificate.

One wonders why the President didn’t put out the birth certificate earlier and put an end to the issue. Is it too cynical to think he delayed because it made sense politically to let these idiots build up their momentum, only to snuff them out at the time of Obama’s choosing. Enter the Donald, a buffoon who nonetheless moved the issue to page one again. As one writer put it, the birthplace challenge was “ the primary wind beneath the hairwings of Donald Trump.” So what will the Donald do next?

A Trump candidacy seems both ludicrous and unlikely. Bill Maher and David Letterman (on the Letterman show) each bet a week’s salary on whether Trump would actually run. Maher said yes; Letterman, no) Would Trump really want to submit his financial records to the kind of scrutiny a serious candidacy would require? But the mere possibility, not to mention his first-place standing in some polls, has to be an embarrassment to the Republican Party, even if it is the party of Sarah Palin. Candidates like Mitt Romney or even Mike Huckabee are serious and, despite their occasional reliance on mindless slogans and contrived 30-second sound bites (as do most candidates), they’re perfectly capable of debating policy differences rooted in different political philosophies. Trump is decidedly not.

No doubt Trump is building a bigger audience for the end of The Apprentice season. If that’s his goal, more power to him. As the great American journalist and essayist H.L. Mencken wrote,” no one has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”

The political process is sometimes entertainment, but not always. For entertainment we can watch the royal wedding or the Red Sox. We need serious and thoughtful debate on the issues of the day, and political jokes should not trump political policy discussions.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Municipal health costs solution may be within sight

Finally, some of our traditionally intimidated politicians are showing a bit of common sense on the issue of excessive health benefits for local public workers unions. We’re not there yet, but we’re moving in the right direction.
The problem is cost sharing, or, in the case of local public workers, lack of sharing. State employees in Massachusetts pay up to 25 percent of their premiums. Private sector works often pay 30 percent. Local workers typically pay a far less. Municipal employees also do far less cost sharing when it comes to deductibles and co-pays than do state workers and the rest of us, for that matter. All this is laid out in The Boston Globe by writer Sean Murphy. Check it out.
Health costs are sucking the oxygen out of municipal budgets, necessitating belt tightening that translates into job loss, larger class size, shortened library hours, and shrinking programs.

Governor Patrick took the first step in his first term by supporting a law permitting cities and towns to buy health insurance for municipal workers through the state’s Group Insurance Commission, which covers all state workers. But the change required the approval of 70 percent of the local union membership to join the GIC, which is a very high threshold and shows why only a couple of dozen communities were able to join. In the first year after joining the GIC, the first 15 communities to do so saved $35 million, according to The Boston Foundation.

Mayor Menino then filed a home rule petition in this legislative session allowing Boston to go forward without union approval. That bill is pending.

Rep. Marty Walsh filed a bill to give local officials and the unions 45 days to come up with acceptable cost-sharing arrangements. If they can’t, it would go to arbitration. That’s a recipe for delay and failure. Local officials grappling with cannibalized budgets are desperate to get their workers into the Group Insurance Commission. Frankly, if the plan is good enough for state workers, why wouldn’t it work for local public employees as well? Globe columnist Scot Lehigh absolutely nailed it in his column on why the arbitration approach is dead wrong.
House Speaker Bob DeLeo gives local officials the right to set copayments and deductibles without union approval but keeps the premium cost sharing on the bargaining table. That’s more power than private sector workers get, but it may be a compromise that can get through the legislative process.

AFL/CIO boss Robert Haynes has linked how legislators vote to union support in the next election. It’s the unions’ right, of course. Still, one hopes that our noble solons have the backbone to keep the plight of municipalities and local taxpayers and residents in mind when they cast their votes on this most important issue.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Recent encounter shows barriers to biker/driver peaceful coexistence

At about 3:30 Thursday afternoon, a group of boys, older teenagers, on bicycles road swooped down Cambridge Street toward Charles Circle in Boston. Rather than riding single file in one lane, they simply rode ten abreast with little care about the danger they presented, both to drivers and especially to themselves. Note, I said, ten abreast. They were feeling their oats and obviously took pleasure in controlling the street, which as usual was heavily trafficked. There was no way around them, and no way through them.

Most drivers held back and refrained from honking, thinking these crazy kids must soon come to their senses and move over.

But one frustrated driver tried to exploit a gap in the middle of the pack and go through it. It didn’t work out too well. The white car sideswiped a weaving cyclist, who flew in one direction, his bike in the other. The car never stopped or pulled over. Fortunately, the bicycle rider picked himself up, retrieved his bike and his helmet and, somewhat shakily, rode to rejoin the other riders in the pack, who had stopped not far from the Liberty Hotel.

At the very same time, our car radio was reporting the Mayor’s announcement of a bike sharing plan for Boston, putting 600 rentable bikes at 61 stations across the city. It’s to be sort of a two-wheeled Zipcar system, with reasonably priced memberships that, according to City Hall, may generate 100,000 trips a year. Trips under 30 minutes will be free. I’ve seen a bike-sharing plan work effectively in Miami Beach. Other Greater Boston communities have plans similar to Hubway, and they’re a great idea, great for mobility, health, and the environment.

Yesterday afternoon, in a surreal moment, as the bike gang temporarily took over Cambridge Street, Menino’s voice came over the radio in a surreal declaration “the car is no longer king.” Well, maybe so, but the car is still 2000-3000 pounds of steel and a couple of hundred horsepower, and the bike rider, no matter how oblivious or delusional, is a poor match for that. By riding irresponsibly, an errant biker can wreak havoc to himself and others.

Who’s out there teaching bikers that they have to follow the same laws as cars do? Who’s going to enforce the requirement that bikers have to stop at red lights, signal when they’re taking turns and otherwise obey the rules of the road? When was the last time you saw a police officer pulling over a bike rider for an infraction? Do we need licensure tests to make sure that cyclists demonstrate they even know the rules?  I hope not. We need Bikers and drivers to co-exist. The only way that will happen is if they both show their respect for each other by abiding by the law.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ken Burns, the best of PBS, looks to individual and foundation funding for future projects

Ken Burns, historian, film maker, story teller and recorder of people and events, has become something of an institution himself. His highly acclaimed body of work is gargantuan in scope and impact: The Civil War, Baseball, The War, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea; The West; Lewis & Clark. His films are sought out by teachers and by adults, whose history courses left them hungry for more. The films should be watched by more young people, who, studies show, believe the Americans and Germans fought together against the Russians in WWII.

During the 1980s, Burns met with President Ronald Reagan at a White House reception. The President enthusiastically encouraged his public- private funded Civil War series, noting that the government should prime the pump for projects like this but that the bulk of funding should be private. One wonders where Reagan would be today in the debate over PBS funding.

New England Council members got a sneak preview of “Prohibition” yesterday morning, Burns’ compelling new series that will air on PBS later this year. His planned projects stretch out to 1919 and include The Dust Bowl, The Roosevelts(Teddy, FDR and Eleanor), Vietnam, Country Music and two American biographies (Jackie Robinson and probably Ernest Hemingway). Burns is prolific, smart, and, as he displayed today, personally charming and articulate.

So, what was an intellectual, albeit a celebrity intellectual, doing in the midst of this gathering of corporate types? As Willy Sutton said in response to the question, “Why do you rob banks?” “Because that’s where the money is.” Burns’ remarkable films don’t come cheap. Projects in the pipeline will cost nearly $100 million. And they have to be supported not just by public dollars (e.g., public broadcasting, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities), but also by corporations and individuals, particularly individual foundations.

Bank of America is the sole corporate sponsor. Public funding is under attack, and foundations that have been traditional sources have been hit by the recession. So, while Burns has already raised some $70 million, he is casting his net wider and is looking to raise the rest. Hence, the formation of The Better Angels Society, dedicated to “helping Ken Burns tell America’s stories.” The Society is seeking “significant” philanthropic donations, as in $100,000-$1,000,000. (A spokesperson confirmed that they wouldn’t turn their backs on smaller amounts. More information is available on

Burns’ work is very important, enhancing the ability of a diverse culture to understand what we, whatever our background or political philosophy, have to bind us together. As one retired executive in the audience observed, he intends to stay healthy and take care of himself so he’s around in 2019 to witness the fruits of Ken Burns’ labors.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Obama held hostage on the budget, displaying Stockholm syndrome?

Stockholm syndrome describes what happens when someone taken hostage develops positive feelings for his captors. Barack Obama has been held hostage by the Republicans in Congress and in some ways is beginning to emulate them. Cut the deficit, slash fuel assistance for low-income people, shrink community health centers, eliminate community development block grants. This isn’t the Tea Party/GOP phalanx; this is putative Democrat Barack Obama. Who said you couldn’t turn a donkey into an elephant?

As Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson notes, those left of center elected Obama to finish the work of Lyndon Johnson but are seeing the rhetorical reincarnation of Ronald Reagan.
I think of myself as an Independent, both in terms of registration and philosophy. And I can appreciate that being centrist is necessary for Obama’s reelection in 2012. Just consider what the alternatives on the far right are. But, on the budget deficit, the President has been more of a mediator than a leader, and the more he caves, the less I know exactly what he stands for.

Everyone knows we have to do something about the federal debt, but should Draconian steps be made just as the economy is struggling to recover? As Paul Krugman pointed out in the NY Times, Obama made major concessions under threat of government shut-down, but this is just the first round. Perhaps Obama thinks that celebrating the largest spending cut in the nation’s history will satisfy the Tea Party, but it won’t. He is, in effect, negotiating against himself, offering conciliation but leaving a woeful compromise as the next starting point for still more drastic cuts. The debt ceiling debate will likely be a repeat performance. It will be raised but with more theater and unbalanced concessions conceded. And then next year’s budget?

I want to know what he’s going to stand firm on and hope to hear that tomorrow night. But, in the end, talk means less than action. Isn’t it time to reduce some defense spending? It can be done while being fully supportive of the troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya, even those deployed to assist Japan. Should pay-as-you-go apply to our wars? Think of what Iraq costs alone have added to the deficit. In Economics 101, we learned that you can’t have guns and butter without paying for them. If your mantra is fiscal discipline, that restraint should be applied to all areas of the budget.

Medicare is one of the knottiest problems, and something has to be done. But shouldn’t the President push to expand the base level of income on which Social Security taxes are computed? Eliminating the Bush-era tax cut for the wealthiest Americans would go a long way to alleviate the problem. How about the enduring tax subsidies for oil companies and for agribusiness? What elements from Simpson-Bowles should the President embrace? Where’s the honest debate on these issues?

As Russ Douthat writes, Washington needs to enhance working-class opportunity while paring back subsidies to the affluent. Congressman Paul Ryan, the GOP’s budget guru, has put forth a proposal that gets all its savings from cuts, two thirds of them from the least affluent among us. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, who has been an admirer of Ryan, now says Ryan's approach is unworkable.
So far, the Republicans have controlled the debate about the budget. The President will rhetorically win back some yardage in tomorrow night’s speech. But it’s what he will do afterwards that counts.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.