Descartes Muttering In His Grave

December 13, 2000, was a long time ago. That evening, Al Gore conceded the election to George Bush, and it was an odd time to be in Paris. It was already the next day in Paris. Gore’s concession had been carried live on CNN International just before dawn – and watching that in the hotel room – the Hôtel Madison where Camus had finished writing L’Étranger – with a view of the old church across the street where Descartes was buried – was disconcerting. What had just happened? Al Gore knew more about everything in the world. Al Gore had probably forgotten more than George Bush had ever known about the world. George Bush knew nothing, but Bill Clinton had messed everything up. There had been eight years of economic growth. There had been eight years of peace, except for that Kosovo business. There was a surplus, not a deficit – and all the while Clinton had been a wonky goofball impeached over a sex scandal and had done just fine.

That must have proved something. How hard could the job be? Anyone could do the job. Al Gore was a prissy prig. George Bush was a good ol’ boy. People liked him. He seemed harmless. He’d do just fine – and Dick Cheney and the other adults would make sure he didn’t do anything really stupid. He had almost enough votes to win the presidency, and the Supreme Court did the rest. He’d do just fine. Al Gore conceded that.

Descartes was muttering in his grave. This wasn’t going to work out. Things didn’t work out. George Bush was a disaster. Eight years later, when the Republicans ran John McCain against Barrack Obama, they never mentioned George Bush. He was an embarrassment, and he knew that. He hid – and there was that day after the concession in Paris – walking the streets of the hyper-intellectual Left Bank in the rain. America is not hyper-intellectual. America has always been anti-intellectual – and this was going to happen again.

It happened again with Donald Trump. The unpleasant Hillary Clinton – a former senator and former secretary of state – was beyond highly qualified for the office. Donald Trump never held political office before and his grasp of how our government (or any government) works is a few steps below rudimentary. He has no experience in foreign policy or in much of anything else – but he had almost enough votes to win the presidency and the Electoral College did the rest – and Donald Trump was rich and brash and angry. That would do. How hard could the job be?

Now we know:

More than 200 former U.S. ambassadors and veteran diplomats have signed a letter expressing alarm over the slide in U.S. leadership in the world and urging senators to grill Mike Pompeo about his plans to reverse the corrosion of the State Department if he is confirmed as secretary of state.

That’s because there’s hard work to do:

The letter is addressed to the Republican chairman and the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is expected to hold confirmation hearings for Pompeo next month. The CIA director has been tapped to replace Rex Tillerson, who was unceremoniously fired by President Trump two weeks ago.

The letter does not mention Trump or Tillerson by name, but says Pompeo’s nomination is an opportunity to focus on “the urgent need to restore the power and influence of American diplomacy.” It was organized by Foreign Policy for America, a nonpartisan advocacy group.

In fact, someone needs to know what they’re doing:

Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs and ambassador to NATO, called the letter a “cry from the heart” for diplomats who have watched despairingly as the State Department has been marginalized and undercut during the Trump administration.

“There’s a hope maybe a strong secretary like Mike Pompeo, with a good record at the CIA supporting career people, will decide it’s time to rebuild the State Department,” said Burns, who was among those who signed the letter. “What Tillerson tried to do was a disaster for the Foreign Service.”

Everyone knows that, so everyone jumped in:

Word of the letter’s existence spread quickly in the foreign policy community, and it gathered signatures in less than a week as people who have served in both Republican and Democratic administrations raced to sign. They span generations, with some signatories at the end of their diplomatic careers and others who resigned somewhere in the middle.

The signatories included many former State Department luminaries, including William J. Burns, a onetime deputy secretary of state who is now president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Nancy McEldowney, who used to head the Foreign Service Institute and now teaches aspiring diplomats at Georgetown University; Wendy Sherman, who as undersecretary of state for political affairs was the lead negotiator of the Iran nuclear deal; and Thomas Pickering, a retired former ambassador to Russia and the United Nations who is so esteemed that a foreign affairs fellowship is named in his honor.

And there’s a first practical step to counter the no-nothing in the White House:

The letter asks Congress to reject the White House proposal to cut the State Department’s budget by $20 billion, or almost a third, and keep it at the same level as last year.

But there’s the larger issue too:

Senators also were urged to ask Pompeo for his views on diplomacy’s “critical mission” in advancing American interests and values. The fact that the letter spells out such a fundamental principal is a sign of the mounting concern among former diplomats as Trump has pulled out of the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, threatened to walk away from the Iran nuclear deal and driven a wedge between Washington and many European capitals.

The idea seems to be that the man that knows nothing could get us all killed:

“The letter is a product of profound concern about the broad attitude of dismissiveness to diplomacy, the marginalization of professional diplomats and the corrosion of the institution,” said William Burns, who served under ten secretaries of state and five presidents.

Burns cited the recent expulsion of Russian diplomats, not only from the United States but from more than 20 allied countries, as a classic example of good diplomacy requiring a lot of diplomats working in coordination.

That, however, opened far more problems:

Russia on Thursday escalated a confrontation with Europe and the United States over the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain, saying it would expel 60 American diplomats and an unspecified number of envoys from other countries to retaliate for a mass expulsion of Russian diplomats working in the West and beyond that was ordered this week.

Furious at what it described as an anti-Russian campaign orchestrated by Washington and London, the Kremlin exceeded an equivalent response to the United States and ordered the closing of the American Consulate in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city. The consulate is bigger and far more important to relations than the Russian Consulate in Seattle, which the Trump administration ordered closed on Monday as part of its expulsion decree.

The crisis over the March 4 poisoning of a former Russian double agent and his daughter has driven tensions between the Kremlin and the West to their highest pitch in decades and forced European countries like Germany that are usually wary of clashing with Moscow to choose sides.

This is getting hot:

Voicing alarm that the East-West confrontation was spinning out of control, the secretary general of the United Nations, António Guterres, said that the crisis recalled the Cold War, only without the controls and channels of communication established before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union “to make sure things would not get out of control when tensions rise.”

Meanwhile, America has a president who knows nothing about foreign policy:

The intensifying crisis has also put new pressure on President Trump. He has been loath to criticize Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, and, against the advice of his advisers, he avoided any mention of the March 4 nerve agent attack in Salisbury, England, when he telephoned Mr. Putin to congratulate him on his lopsided victory in Russia’s March 18 election.

Following his practice of avoiding public criticism of Russia, Mr. Trump made no mention of the expulsions during a speech on Thursday afternoon in Ohio.

Hours later the White House issued a muted response, calling the Kremlin actions “a further deterioration” in United States-Russia relations.

That’s it? That was it, and the Russians loved it:

In a sign that Russia’s political elite still retains hope that President Trump wants to take a softer line on Moscow, Vladimir Dzhabarov, deputy chairman of the international affairs committee in Russia’s upper house of Parliament, told the Interfax news agency on Thursday that Mr. Trump had been forced to expel Russian diplomats on Monday under “pressure” from unidentified foes of the Kremlin who were angry that he had congratulated Mr. Putin.

They know he didn’t want to do it, or hope he didn’t want to do it:

Russian politicians and state-controlled media outlets have long clung to the idea that Mr. Trump is Moscow’s friend and would like to improve relations but has been pressured into taking a tough line by what they describe as America’s “deep state,” a supposed network of hidden powers hostile to Russia and often loyal to former administrations.

This resilient trust in Mr. Trump, however, has been severely undermined by the American decision to rally behind British accusations that Russia was to blame for the nerve agent attack on Sergei V. Skripal, a former military intelligence officer who spied for Britain, and his daughter, Yulia. The Russians also are angry over Washington’s role in mobilizing a broad coalition of European and other countries in support of Britain.

They love Trump and hate his government that’s always pushing him around and of course Trump seems to feel the same way about “his” government. It’s supposed to be “his” government but somehow it isn’t.

NBC News reports on the odd ways this plays out:

President Donald Trump’s national security advisers spent months trying to convince him to sign off on a plan to supply new U.S. weapons to Ukraine to aid in the country’s fight against Russian-backed separatists, according to multiple senior administration officials.

Yet when the president finally authorized the major policy shift, he told his aides not to publicly tout his decision, officials said. Doing so, Trump argued, might agitate Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to the officials.

“He doesn’t want us to bring it up,” one White House official said. “It is not something he wants to talk about.”

That happens when the president had no experience in foreign policy:

Officials said the increasingly puzzling divide between Trump’s policy decisions and public posture on Russia stems from his continued hope for warmer relations with Putin and stubborn refusal to be seen as appeasing the media or critics who question his silence or kind words for the Russian leader.

Critics have suggested that Trump’s soft approach to Putin has nefarious roots that are somehow entwined with Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and the federal investigation into whether the president’s campaign colluded in that effort, something the president has repeatedly denied.

That, in turn, makes all of this personal:

A now familiar back-and-forth also played out behind the scenes over Trump’s decision two weeks ago to levy new sanctions against Russia in response to Moscow’s 2016 election meddling and costly worldwide cyberattack last year.

One official involved in the discussions said Trump pushed back on the sanctions proposals by saying Russia’s meddling didn’t affect the election, but began to relent after Putin’s boast about nuclear weapons.

Since approving the sanctions, officials said Trump has given White House officials conflicting messages on whether they should showcase the move publicly. In some instances Trump says he’s fine with it, while at other times he’s directed aides not to talk about it, they said.

That’s personal policy, not foreign policy, but there is a way to work with that:

An argument the president’s national security advisers have found to be successful in trying to persuade Trump to adopt aggressive Russia policies is that Putin responds to strength and the way to achieve better relations is to be tougher on him, officials said.

One official described it as a way to “motivate” Trump on Russia.

“He digs in his heels,” the official said. “He thinks a better relationship with Russia is good for the U.S., and he really believes he can deliver it.”

Moreover, the official said, Trump wants a better U.S. relationship with Russia to prove he can accomplish it.

As with George Bush, the adults in the room will keep Donald Trump from doing anything really stupid. None them are, as yet, as unhinged as Dick Cheney would eventually become. They can use Trump’s huge reactive ego to save the world. Descartes, however, is muttering in his grave.

He should mutter. Eugene Robinson comments on a domestic instance of what America has done this time:

You can’t make this stuff up: President Trump has announced he will nominate a medical doctor who has no discernible management experience to run the second-largest agency in the federal government.

Can presidents be sued for malpractice?

This is absurd:

The man Trump has named to become secretary of veterans’ affairs, Ronny L. Jackson, happens to be the president’s personal doctor. More to the point, given Trump’s perpetual hunger for sycophancy, is the fact that Jackson showered the president with hyperbolic Dear-Leader-style praise during a widely viewed television appearance in January.

Trump has “incredibly good genes,” the White House physician said in describing an examination he had given the president. Trump’s overall health is “excellent.” His “cardiac assessment” put him “in the excellent range.” If his diet were a bit better, “he might live to be 200 years old.” In any event, “I think he will remain fit for duty for the remainder of this term and even for the remainder of another term if he’s elected.”

That is an unusual way to describe a 71-year-old man whose height was reported as a generous 6 feet 3 inches, and weight at an eyebrow-raising 239 pounds, which classifies him as overweight – but conveniently one pound short of obese. Jackson’s are odd words characterizing a man whose cheeseburger-laden diet my doctor would describe as suicidal and whose coronary calcium scan results, according to many other physicians, indicate some degree of heart disease and a clearly elevated risk of heart attack…

Am I suggesting that flattery, rather than merit, is what makes him Trump’s choice to replace ousted VA Secretary David Shulkin? Absolutely, because no other explanation makes sense.

And there’s this too:

In a New York Times op-ed, Shulkin wrote that he believed he was being sacked because he opposed a push by the Trump administration “to put VA health care in the hands of the private sector.”

That’s a problem:

“I am convinced that privatization is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans,” Shulkin wrote in his Times op-ed. “The private sector is ill-prepared to handle the number and complexity of patients that would come from closing or downsizing VA hospitals and clinics, particularly when it comes to the mental health needs of people scarred by the horrors of war.”

Shulkin wrote that “in recent months” the political environment in Washington had become “toxic, chaotic, disrespectful and subversive,” making it impossible for him to do his job. “It should not be this hard to serve your country,” he wrote.

But it should be hard to get a job running any organization as big, complex and vital as the Department of Veterans Affairs. Perhaps Jackson has an innate genius for management that awaits only the opportunity to flower. If not, Trump will be doing a grave disservice to men and women who are owed the nation’s thanks and gratitude.

But everyone has seen this before. Al Gore was highly qualified. George Bush was not. Hillary Clinton was highly qualified. Donald Trump was not. Here we go again:

Shulkin is a physician, but before he took over VA, he also had experience running hospitals. With no comparable administrative background, Jackson – if confirmed by the Senate – would take over a sprawling agency with about 360,000 employees, a $186 billion budget and responsibility for providing medical care to 9 million veterans who deserve better, faster service than they now receive.

Shulkin was one of several high-ranking Trump appointees under fire for lavish spending on the taxpayers’ dime. He was also a holdover from the Obama administration, and even though the job is perhaps the least partisan in the Cabinet that prior association clashed with Trump’s bratty determination to oppose everything President Barack Obama supported and support everything he opposed.

And how hard can the job be, really? And so it goes:

Trump put neurosurgeon Ben Carson in charge of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, despite Carson having zero experience in housing policy. He put Betsy DeVos in charge of the Department of Education, despite her apparent unfamiliarity with actual schools. He put politician Rick Perry in charge of the Department of Energy, which Perry wanted to eliminate until he learned what the agency does.

Perry actually said that during his confirmation hearing. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Descartes, the philosopher of pure rationality, is muttering in his grave, but he would appreciate this:

Robert Redfield Jr., the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gave a deeply personal agency-wide address Thursday in which he repeatedly underscored the importance of science and data and said the CDC’s most critical public health mission is to protect Americans “from that which we don’t expect.”

The 66-year-old Redfield, a longtime AIDS researcher appointed to the job a week ago, was overcome by emotion twice during his brief remarks and a question-and-answer session. The University of Maryland medical professor had sought the top job at the CDC and the National Institutes of Health for more than a decade.

About 30 seconds into his address, he choked up and then regained his composure. He spoke of the honor of leading the best “science-based, data-driven agency in the world. I’ve dreamed of doing this for a long time.”

Descartes would be proud, but that place is full of Cartesians:

Several staff members noted his strong embrace of science and said they were especially gratified to hear him say that if the CDC has evidence to support a public health intervention, the intervention should be applied…

He takes the agency’s helm at a time when scientists and public health experts are concerned about the commitment of the CDC and HHS to science- and evidence-based research. Just three months ago, CDC employees were advised to avoid seven words or phrases in narratives in preparing the fiscal 2019 budget. Some “words to avoid” were spelled out in an HHS style guide, and instruction about others, including “evidence-based” and “science-based,” were given verbally by a CDC official. Department officials have provided different accounts of how that verbal guidance took place but said it was not official administration policy.

The agency is “science-based and data-driven, and that’s why CDC has the credibility around the world that it has,” Redfield said Thursday, before choking up again as he talked about the chance to work there after a 20-year academic career.

And then there was the woman he replaced:

The job heading the country’s foremost public health agency had been vacant since Jan. 31, when former Georgia public health commissioner Brenda Fitzgerald resigned after serving only half a year. She was unable to divest from “complex financial interests” in a “definitive time period,” according to an HHS statement. Fitzgerald had also purchased shares in a tobacco company shortly after becoming CDC director.

She found out how hard the job could be and this was a win for the Cartesians – but there are few of those in America. After the wonky Bill Clinton, who knew every detail of every policy, it was the good ol’ boy George Bush., who didn’t know much about anything. After the hyper-intellectual Barack Obama it was the rich and brash and angry Donald Trump, who proudly sneers at people who know things, as does his base. And this isn’t Paris, which is pretty nice this time of year.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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