Saturday, July 14, 2018
Whether we like it or not, we all reach a certain age when keeping the pounds off and conquering middle-age spread is a chore. And, worse, the pains that come with aging—some of which are payback for the things we did when we were younger—means that losing weight is not just a voluntary matter of looking good, but mandatory quest to relieve the pain on aching joints.
I fought off this realization for a long time, but shortly after my 71st birthday, when I tipped the scales at 230 pounds and my knees—both of them with degraded cartilage and arthritis—ached so much I had trouble sleeping, I knew I had to shed a few pounds.
The problem with that, though, is that I’ve had a complicated relationship with diets. I’ve tried many different regimens over the years, and have managed on occasion to lose a few pounds, but, like a worrisome zit, they always come back. In addition, diets such as the South Beach Diet, or the low- or no-carb diets, require giving up something, and that’s often something I really like, and giving it up only leads to craves, which leads to falling off the wagon, which leads to . . . well, you know the story. I’ve even considered some of those weight loss plans advertised on TV, but only for a few seconds, as their claims sound about as valid as a three-dollar bill. This whole thing is further complicated by the fact that I’ve weighed over 210 pounds since the 1970s.
So, with the new resolve to lose weight, I had to come up with a plan that was unique to me. One that would allow me to take pounds off in a measured way, deal with any cravings that arise, and—most importantly—keep the pounds off.
During the process of mulling it over, I remembered that there have been times in the past when I was able to lose weight and keep it off for longer than a month or two; the times when I lived in Asia and ate mostly local food. I did a little research on Asian cuisine and discovered why that was so. Asian diets are generally based on rice (and sometimes noodles) rather than bread as a source of starch and carbohydrates, and they’re light on red meats, while heavy on vegetables and fruits. In addition, I finally admitted to myself that I was a heavy beer-drinking snacker (pun intended). So, even when I managed to lose a pound or two, I’d inevitably succumb to my cravings for a bag of chips and a cold brew and pack them back on, along with a few friends.
My task was clear. I had to craft a diet that would help me lose pounds, resist the temptation of cravings, and keep those pounds off. It took a while, but I finally did, and I’d like to share it.
Cut Down, Not Out
Several years ago, a doctor advised me to completely eliminate fried foods, red meat, eggs, and dairy products from my diet to lower my cholesterol. The result: my cholesterol went up, for the simple reason that when I stopped ingesting any cholesterol, my liver went on red alert and started producing more. That taught me a good lesson; totally cutting something out of your diet can be a bad thing. The key is to ingest at manageable levels, or to find a suitable substitute before you toss a food.
For example; I love bread, but an ounce of whole wheat bread has 79 grams of calories and 1.53 grams of fat. Compare that to an ounce of brown rice which has 31 grams of calories and 0.23 grams of fat, and you’ll start to see where I was going.
I didn’t totally eliminate bread from my diet, or red meat, or alcohol. I just brought them under control.
Control the Craving
I knew that if I tried to eliminate certain things from my diet, I’d soon experience cravings that could very well destroy my diet plans. So, I made a note of my favorite comfort foods, ice cream, Snickers™ bars, potato chips, craft beer, and established ‘binge’ periods of once or twice a month, when I would partake of them—not in excess, but just enough to remind myself of what they tasted like. Other than my binge periods, I cut out snacks. No more mid-morning pantry raids, or late evening cookie binges for me. I also cut way, way down on alcohol consumption. Not just beer, but all booze. Now, I drink on special occasions; my birthday, my wife’s birthday, or the occasional business lunch.
I kicked off my new diet in January 2017—figuring I was already so depressed that Donald Trump had somehow been elected president that a diet couldn’t make me feel any worse. My weight at the time was 228, and my goal was to be under 200 in a year, and then to finally get down to around 195.
If your diet is to work, you need to know what you eating and what you’re giving up. Read the nutrition labels on food. Go on line and look things up. You’ll be surprised at what you’ll learn. In addition to what I previously mentioned about the comparison between whole wheat bread and brown rice, did you know that those instant Asian noodles have only 30 grams of calories per ounce, but 2.58 grams of fat? They’re also very high in carbs, so you might want to go easy on them. Rice, though, even white rice, is lower than bread in calories and fat, so it’s a good starch, and can be prepared in a variety of ways that are really quite tasty.
Eating lots of fruits and vegetables is always a good idea, but be aware that fruits are high in sugar, so you might want to have a doctor evaluate your sugar levels before you binge on melons and apples.
I’m nuts about nuts. Unlike a lot of people, I’m not allergic to peanuts, which are a great source of fiber and protein. They are, however, high in fat and calories, so don’t be a glutton. A handful a day is enough. If you’re allergic to peanuts, walnuts and almonds are good substitutes.
Go easy on the red meat. My doctor advises me to eat it occasionally for the iron, so I have about two to three days a month that are red-meat days, which seems to be working.
Keep Track, But Don’t Obsess Over the Numbers
Keeping track of your weight will help you monitor your progress. But, you shouldn’t fret the occasional uptick in weight. Particularly if, like me, you occasionally binge. As long as the trend is downward, you’re probably okay. In my case, I started my diet in January 2017 at 228. By October, I was down to 206. It took me until April 2018 to hit my mark of 200, and I’ve gone back up to near 206 once or twice since then, but always come back down and kept going down. Near the end of April, I finally broke 200, and have only gone back over that mark once since. It’s mid-July as I write this, and my weight this morning was 197. I can’t tell you how much better I feel than I did two years ago. The pain and swelling in my knees no longer bother me—in fact, the swelling is gone, and the pain’s hardly noticeable. I am wearing clothes I couldn’t button two years ago. And, I have a new spring in my step. I exercise regularly, and with the decrease in knee pain, have been able to expand my exercise routine to include more leg-strengthening routines. My 195 goal is within reach, and the fact that I’ve kept my weight down for nearly two years is a good sign that I’ve finally found a routine that works.
Will it work for you? Honestly, that’s something that only you can understand. But, I’m no iron man, and it worked for me. Maybe you should do what I did. Study yourself and your circumstances, and then cobble together a plan that is uniquely yours.
What I’ve learned though is that to lose weight and keep it off, you don’t roll the dice; you dole the rice.
Friday, July 13, 2018
Wednesday, July 11, 2018
When the Twenty-sixth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified and went into effect on July 1, 1971, just four days before my twenty-sixth birthday, I’d already been a registered voter for five years, having voted in two presidential elections and one mid-term. I’d never actually been to a polling place, because I joined the army when I was seventeen, and was never in my home state of Texas for an election. So, I’d been submitting absentee ballots.
Local elections were easy for me to decide. East Texas was, and as far as I know still is, solidly Democratic, and when I was a kid growing up in the piney woods of that region, the Democrats were the guys wearing sheets and hoods and burning crosses—or at least, some of them were. So, unless I knew a Democratic candidate personally, which is not difficult to do when you come from a county with a population of less than 12,000, I either voted for the Republican, or left that part of the ballot blank.
At the national level I voted mainly for Republicans, figuring the Party of Lincoln had my interests at heart; sort of. Of course, if I’d been old enough to vote I would have voted for John F. Kennedy, and when Jimmy Carter ran against Ronald Reagan, I left that block blank. If I’d known at the time what I later learned, I would’ve voted for Carter.
For a long time, though, I self-identified as a Republican because of what I thought I knew about the Republican Party. Gradually, however, reality penetrated my thick East Texas skull. I was serving in Germany during the 1964 election, when Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater played the Southern Strategy during the primary, and was, unfortunately, unaware of it.
Later, though, when Nixon reformed that strategy, and took it a step further by appealing to the ‘Silent Majority,’ my eyes were opened wide. I discovered that a lot of Republicans were as racist as I’d always imagined most Democrats to be.
I’d already been confused with Lyndon Johnson, a Texas Democrat, and JFK’s successor after his assassination, championed and then pushed through congress, a civil rights and voting rights bill that infuriated a lot of the southern Democrats, causing them to defect to Nixon’s Republican Party.
At that point, though, I couldn’t purge those robes and burning crosses from my mind, so I began calling myself an Independent; my way of saying, ‘a pox on both their houses, since I’m not welcome in either one.’
Things stayed pretty much that way until Bill Clinton, an Arkansas Democrat, ran for and won the presidency. Damn! How was it that another southern Democrat seemed to be able to treat all people equal? I began to waver and found myself looking more closely at Democratic candidates in national elections. I retired from the army and joined the Foreign Service in 1982 and had a lot of opportunities to meet some of these guys in person, and what I learned stunned me. There were some Democrats who were racist, homophobic misogynists, and some Republicans who, despite leaning to the right, had compassion (the Bush family comes to mind). But, the two parties had taken entirely different roads. The Republicans had gone so far right they were off the map, while the Democrats dithered on the left, but not all that far from the center. The Republicans seemed to be in the pockets of big industry, and under the thumb of the far, far right, and the Democrats were eating from labor’s lunch buckets. Being more of a centrist, I still clung to my Independent label.
Then, a miracle happened. Young, urban, intellectual voters came out in droves and put a black man, a Democrat, in the Oval Office, not once, but twice, and the Republicans pulled off the gloves and did everything they could to make him fail. They failed to do that, but since the 2016 election, the Republican incumbent has been trying to pull an old Soviet trick and erase him and his achievements from the history books.
There’s one thing about me that must be understood at this point; I have always hated bullies. Despite twenty years in the army, I’m a pacifist at heart, but bullies make me want to fight.
So, during Barack Obama’s first term, I went to my local election office and registered as a Democrat
I guess that makes me a political animal now, but unlike many Democrats I know, I still have friends who are Republican—and, not a few relatives. We still get along; we just avoid talking about politics, religion and sex, flash points for many Republicans, and topics I’d always been taught to avoid anyway.
But, I’ve learned that maintaining such cross-party relationships is not an easy thing to do. It’s not big thing for me because I don’t pay attention to detractors, but the Republican friends of my Republican friends probably wonder how they can continue to interact with me, not only a Democrat, but an apostate to boot. I think, though, that these particular friends are true friends, because they’ve not abandoned our relationship. A few of my false friends did after the first election when they found out I’d gone to the dark side.
That is my political journey, one that continues, and I continue to hope that one day things will go back to a semblance of the way they used to be when hands could reach across the aisle in friendship and cooperation, and people could disagree without being so darned disagreeable.
I just hope I live long enough to see that day arrive.
Saturday, June 30, 2018
Recent satellite imagery of North Korea appears to show that country making substantial improvements to one of its nuclear research facilities. This comes just weeks after U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s summit meeting with North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and Trump’s public announcement that ‘there’s no longer a nuclear threat on the Korean Peninsula.
Though marred by widely circulated images of Trump saluting a North Korean general, the summit was generally regarded as a positive step toward a diplomatic settlement of what could be one of the most dangerous situations of this century. As with many of the Trump Administration’s actions, though, this one seems to be mostly smoke and mirrors, and naïve, wishful thinking on the part of a president more impressed with appearance than substance.
In some ways this brings to mind George W. Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ press appearance during the second Gulf War, just before things in Iraq went haywire. The difference this time, however, is that the stakes are infinitely higher, and the situation is even more dire. Iraq was found, after an exhaustive investigation by U.S. and international agencies, not to actually have nuclear weapons, despite some evidence of its efforts to get them. North Korea, as we well know, not only has a number of nuclear bombs, but has made great strides to mount them on missiles capable of reaching U.S. shores.
This tendency the U.S. president has of conducting off-the-cuff diplomacy, consisting of photos of smiling leaders shaking hands followed by rosy announcements of ‘victory,’ might play well to a certain audience, but it does nothing to change the reality on the ground. And, this latest imagery shows what those familiar with North Korea already know; North Korea has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons, the only bargaining chip Kim has in dealing with his more powerful adversary.
It will be interesting to see how Trump deals with this latest development. Clearly a rebuke of his early, off-the-cuff assessment, will he admit he was premature in his announcement and take the necessary steps to get things back on track? Anyone who has observed the man during his time in the Oval Office, and who is willing to admit that when it comes to the complexities and nuances of foreign policy he’s clueless, will have to conclude that he won’t. Incapable of admitting mistakes and lashing out viciously at anyone who dares accuse him of being wrong, he’ll probably tweet some non sequitur, or even worse, ignore the whole thing. No, there is actually something worse he can, and might, do. As he did when the intelligence community published an assessment of Russian meddling in the U.S. election, or the FBI and DOJ did their jobs on the investigation of Russian involvement with the Trump campaign, he might tweet derogatory invective in an effort to undermine this latest finding.
When personal image is the thing foremost in your mind—his mind—and you appear to be ruled by ego gratification and the adulation of others, your actions are not likely to be rational; at least, not rational to rational people.
It would be nice to think that there are a few sane people working in the White House who will sit the man down and explain the ‘real’ world to him. Nice, but not bloody likely. This is a man who, like a mafia don, values personal loyalty above all, and who is not likely to listen to anyone trying to tell him something he doesn’t want to hear. In fact, that person is likely to be looking for a new job shortly after making the effort.
Public diplomacy, reaching out to public audiences to get your message across, is an effective tool in the soft power toolbox, but public relations diplomacy, getting the right picture in front of the largest audience to make yourself look good for a few moments, is a path to disorder, and a dangerous way to conduct international relations. As a matter of fact, it’s a pretty lousy way to conduct domestic affairs as well—but, that’s another story for another day.
Tuesday, June 26, 2018
Having watched the Trump Kakistocracy trample all over human dignity for over a year, I can certainly understand the frustration and anger that would lead patrons to boo the homeland security secretary in a Mexican restaurant, or why the owner of a small independent restaurant would ask the White House mouth piece to leave—I can understand it, but I cannot approve of such behavior. I was distressed when I saw Representative Maxine Waters on TV calling on people to confront these bullies whenever they see them in public, to make it uncomfortable for them.
You see, this kind of behavior is what they do. At the very time spokesperson Sanders was lamenting the call for people to shame the kakistocrats in public, the Kakistocrat-in-Chief was engaged in public name-calling. That is not who we are as a society—at least, not the society I want my grandchildren to grow up in. We should aspire to be a society of people who treat each other with courtesy, regardless of our religions or political affiliation, gender, race, or sexual preference. What we should not be doing is crawling into the sewer these people inhabit.
If we wish to highlight their bad behavior, I can assure you, we will not accomplish it by being even half as bad as them. We do it by being just the opposite of them. Where they try to incite hatred and fear, we encourage love and confidence. When they take actions to drive wedges between us, we work to build bridges.
So, let’s not confront these people when we see them in public places. Allow them to enjoy their meals unmolested. If they make eye contact—and the ones who are still capable of feeling shame probably won’t—smile. That will drive them wild trying to figure out what you’re really thinking about them.
You won’t change their behavior by doing this, but you will show our children that the clown act they see on TV is not how real, adult Americans behave.
Monday, June 25, 2018
Thursday, June 21, 2018
During the English Civil War in 1644, speaking to supporters of King Charles I, Paul Gosnold lamented the rise of the Kakistocracy. Those who read former CIA Director John Brennan’s April 2018 tweet to President Trump have probably already looked this word up, but for those who haven’t, a kakistocracy is a ‘government of the worst, most corrupt, and most dishonest.’ Brennan used the word to describe what the Trump Administration is doing to America.
I have the greatest respect for Mr. Brennan and wish to state for the record that he has, in a short tweet, described exactly what is happening to the ‘Land of the Free.’ The turmoil of the past few weeks surrounding the administrations ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards immigrants on the Mexican border, resulting in the separation of over 2,000 children (some infants) from their parents, serves to prove just how right Brennan is in his assessment.
First, a bit about this term’s meaning and origins. It is derived from two Greek words; kakistos, meaning worst, and kratos, meaning rule. In other words, a system of government run by the worst, least qualified, most unscrupulous citizens.
Let the events speak for themselves.
In April, the Trump Administration began a ‘zero tolerance’ policy, the intent of which was to prosecute as many illegal border crossing offenses as possible. Because the Justice Department cannot prosecute children along with their parents, the new policy initiated an upsurge in family separations, with an estimated 2,000 children of all ages being taken away from their detained parent or parents in April and May. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, at a White House briefing maintained that DHS does ‘not have a policy of separating families at the border,’ and while the administration’s policy does not specify separation, the reality is that this is just what happened. Pressed, though, she acknowledged that separation is an inevitable consequence of the policy. Nielsen and other administration officials often cite similar actions by previous administrations, especially the Obama Administration, and blame congress for a law that requires them to do what they do. The difference is that in previous administrations, as odious as the practice is no matter who does it, there were at least guidelines prioritizing deportation actions against gang members, those posing a security risk, and those with felony records. The Trump Administration’s policy has no priorities—everyone caught attempting to cross illegally is swept up in the dragnet. The executive order issued by Trump in January 2017 refers only to ‘criminal offenses’ which can include misdemeanors, such as illegal entry, as well.
In some cases, children separated from parents are placed with relatives in the U.S., but in many, they are held in what amounts to juvenile concentration camps. Some child advocates have reported scenes of children in these facilities crying for their mothers while staff are prohibited from having physical contact with them.
To add insult to injury, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, on national TV, even used a biblical passage to defend the government’s policy—which the homeland secretary had previously stated ‘didn’t exist,’ and which Trump blames on Democrats in congress, saying ‘they gave us that law.’ Several things wrong with this scenario. One, Sessions, tone deaf on issues of race and ethnicity at the best of times, used a biblical passage that was at one time used to justify slavery, and Nielsen can’t seem to get her terminology straight. Trump, as usual, blames someone else for a policy that he, as president, can change with a phone call.
And, speaking of his powers, just days before he issued a vaguely-worded executive order calling for an end to family separations (which failed to address those already separated), he told a reporter, ‘we can’t do it by executive order.’
Trump also alluded to the separations as bargaining ‘leverage’ with congress in his efforts to get funding for his border wall and other immigration priorities. This is in sharp contrast to his statement when very publicly signed his executive order, when he said that ‘anyone with a heart would be against separating children from their parent.’
At times, various administration officials, including Sessions, have said that the prospect of family separation was a deterrent, a claim that has been debunked by the fact that the number of arrivals at the border have actually increased since the policy was implemented. And, Trump continues to blame the ‘Democrat’s law’ for the debacle, saying that they must work with their GOP colleagues to pass the law that he wants, a hardline bill—despite the fact that he has threatened to veto even a hardline bill that the GOP tabled.
The rhetoric coming from the White House has been, and continues to be, mind-blowing. Trump has said that without his tough policies, ‘millions will swamp the border and infest our country.’ Where those ‘millions’ will come from he does not say.
I could go on, but the taste of bile in my mouth as I write this is becoming overwhelming. It appears that the kakistocrats have taken over. It’s like the inmates taking over the prison.
Maybe this is the beginning of the third-party system in this country. The Democrats, those Republicans who’ve come to their senses and want to go back to Bush’s compassionate conservatism, and the Kakistocratic Party, made up with those who have glued themselves to the cult of Trumpian personality and seem to be willing to go over the cliff with their hero.
Forever the optimist, I keep telling myself that this, like a kidney stone will eventually pass. But, like a kidney stone, it’s going to be a painful experience.
Monday, June 18, 2018
The Trump Administration has been subjected to a barrage of criticism from many corners over its zero-tolerance immigration policy that has resulted in approximately 2,000 children being separated from their parents and placed in facilities reminiscent of WWII Japanese internment camps.
This issue has created fissures within the Republican establishment like no other, and if sober, mature minds don’t come up with a solution, could be the issue that puts the final nail in the GOP’s coffin.
In the face of criticism of the policy of separating children from parents when the parents are detained for illegally entering the U.S., the president has blamed the Democrats, an accusation that fails to convince any but his most diehard supporters given the fact that the GOP controls the House, Senate, and White House. The law allowing this inhumane practice has been in place since the Bush Administration and was applied in a limited way in both that and the Obama Administration, but it wasn’t until the current administration that it has been so widely applied. Moreover, Trump, though he publicly says he ‘hates to see kids taken from their parents,’ is using the tactic as a bargaining chip to force congress to cave on some of his other immigration demands, a callous attitude if there ever was one.
And then there’s Attorney-General Jeff Sessions using the Bible to justify the practice, and not so smartly using a biblical passage that was at one time used to justify the practice of slavery.
It’s not just Democrats and human rights activists objecting to this odious practice, either. Church groups have spoken out against it. Some prominent Republicans have expressed t heir disapproval. Even figures within the Trump Administration, and other Trump supporters, such as short-time White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, have come out publicly against it.
If the bulk of the Republican Party, with its trademark ‘family values’ stance, doesn’t publicly denounce this practice, and then take immediate legislative action to end it; if the conservative religious institutions don’t speak out against it; and if the administration doesn’t step back and consider the long-term consequences of its actions, we could reach a crisis point, and the GOP could find itself on the brink of extinction or irrelevancy. With the exception of that portion of the American population that is so angry that it cares about nothing about assuaging its anger, I can’t imagine the majority of the American people not being shocked at what’s going on.
This is not my America. Have we not learned from Manzanar? As bad as that was, we at least kept families together? Just because an act is legal doesn’t make it right, and I’d like to point out to Mr. Sessions that the Bible also says that the laws must be just and moral. We have a moral duty to oppose unjust, immoral laws. That’s the America I want to live in again. Forget ‘Make American Great Again,’ it’s always been great, let’s focus on making America ‘Good’ again.
I’m convinced that we will eventually wake up and do the right thing. I just wonder if the GOP will still be sleeping when that happens.
Thursday, June 14, 2018
As someone who has been a fervent critic of Donald Trump even before he was elected president, I will surprise everyone by starting off this piece by complimenting him for being able to bring the North Koreans to the negotiating table. While the method he used to do it was highly unorthodox—and dangerous—it achieved a worthy end.
Now comes the follow-on assessment.
If Trump had simply let the outcome of his meeting with Kim Jong-un stand, perhaps making a somewhat anodyne statement about how historic it was and it presaged long and tough negotiations to achieve our ultimate aim of complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, my compliments would stand. But, Donald J. Trump, it seems, will always be Donald J. Trump. It’s always about him, and he cannot seem to resist making little ad hoc remarks that land like the proverbial dog doo in the punchbowl.
Here are a few examples.
“There is no longer a nuclear threat,” he tweeted. You have got to be kidding. Unlike Iran, which had yet to actually develop a weapon, North Korea has several nukes and has tested delivery systems capable of reaching US territory. No threat indeed. Ask the South Koreans or Japanese, and you’ll get a different answer to that question.
“Kim’s a tough guy, but a good negotiator. I trust him. Sure, he’s done some bad things, but so have many others.” WTF! When did we decide the US President was a publicist for Kim Jong-un? Just off the top of my head I can think of three or four diplomatically-worded statements that would’ve been far better than this.
“We’re stopping the war games. They’re provocative.” That’s a big concession on our part; not necessarily one I would completely disagree with, but not done in the way Trump did it. A public announcement, standing next to South Korea’s enemy and having not warned them in advance. Oh, and by the way, using terminology from North Korean propaganda. We call them military exercises, Mr. President, not war games, and they’re meant to strengthen capability for prevention of hostilities, not to provoke. Sheesh!
I could go on and on, but you get the point. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to do what my grandmother used to say, ‘keep your mouth shut.’ It’s certainly not a good idea to say whatever pops into your mind without considering how it plays with multiple audiences, or how it makes you sound.
Just a small piece of advice from the peanut gallery. I, for one, hope the negotiations going forward will yield success. They are going to be long and hard. Unlike a TV reality show, there won’t be retakes, and the stakes are high. A little less reckless rhetoric and a bit more sober reflection would be welcomed at this point.
Saturday, June 9, 2018
There’s a saying I remember from my army days; ‘when you’re in a hole, stop digging.’ Watching the trajectory of events in US politics over the past several weeks that saying keeps coming to mind.
I sometimes wonder if I’m being paranoid in my fear that in both domestic and international relations, we’ve been dropped in a big pit, and the shoveler-in-chief, rather than stopping and reflecting on the consequences of his actions and words, just continues to dig.
Here are the indicators that worry me.
On the one hand, we bag the Iran nuclear deal that, while not perfect, was a step in the right direction, while at the same time push frantically forward to make a ‘deal’ with the North Korean regime over an existing nuclear weapons capability—which, by the way, North Korea is unlikely to ever relinquish. We have people scrambling to organize a June 12 summit meeting before we’ve had all of the preliminary meetings to set the stage for a realistically productive summit. A case of putting the cart before the horse if I’ve ever seen one. The summit will, in my opinion, based upon over thirty years of experience in international relations as a diplomatic practitioner, either be a total bust, and leave us in worse shape than before, or it will be a colossal PR exercise with both leaders claiming a public relations victory. The North Koreans will be going into the summit with a victory of sorts—Kim Jong-un has already been blessed with desired legitimacy merely by Trump agreeing to the meeting.
The other troubling sign (or signs) relate to our deteriorating relations with our G-7 allies. Tariffs on Canadian goods for ‘national security’ reasons, causing Canada to be a bit cheesed off with us. Man, when the Canadians are mad at you, things are really bad. The administration’s response to this: ‘our relations with our allies are a 10, because the people smile at me.’ And then there’s the call for including Russia in the G-7, making it the G-8. I’m sure the Russians like that, but the G-7, in response to our heavy-handed and bullying approach is already the G-6 plus a weak one. How is including Russia in the G-7 contributing to US security, when our own actions are threatening to embroil us in a global trade war that will cause many American industries and workers to take it ‘in the shorts’ when the affected countries retaliate. Who is the winner from this suggestion? Why, the Russians, of course.
Then, there was the action to relax sanctions against the Chinese firm ZTE, to help reduce Chinese unemployment. How does that help the US economically or politically? ZTE is a company that has long been suspected of unsavory anti-US activities, both economic and security related. So, if we relax sanctions, we help China, but what US company or individual benefits? I think most rational people who follow events closely enough know the answer to that question, and those helped by this action are all in the same family.
We’re so deep in a hole now, it’s hard to see the rim. And, what are we doing? We keep digging.
Saturday, June 2, 2018
Monday, May 28, 2018
Trump Administration officials entered North Korea this weekend in a frantic effort to put the Trump-Kim back on track for its planned June 12 happening. One can only wonder just who these officials are and what their agenda is beyond trying to arrange the complicated administrative arrangements that must precede any such meeting.
As someone who spent 30 years of his professional life practicing diplomacy in the field and having been involved in setting up more than one high-level meeting, I can’t help but wonder just who is working on planning the substance of this meeting.
While anything that might lower the tensions on the Korean Peninsula is welcomed, one has also to consider the implications of the summit failing. The normal way these things are handled is that there are many preliminary meetings, hammering out the details and positions of both sides, so that when the leaders meet at a summit, all they have to do is bless what’s already been decided. Trump seems hell bent on doing things bass-ackwards and treating this whole thing like it’s one of his property deals. He’ll swoop in and stun his opponent with his combination of bluster, bravado and charm(?), and make the deal of a lifetime.
The problem is, international diplomacy is not like real estate. One has to have a good feel for what an opponent’s desires and objectives are, develop compromises that, to a degree, satisfy the goals of both sides, and then slowly and carefully, make the outcome public. One has also to be prepared for the talks to break down. The best time to learn this is before a summit is announced—or even planned—not after the summit itself.
Every president and his (or her) administration has a learning curve. In times of crisis or potential crisis, that curve should be steep. What I’m seeing with this administration is not an upward trending curve, but a flat line, and as in the ICU, a flat line is not a good sign.
I’m hoping this thing doesn’t blow up in Trump’s face, because if it does, we will all suffer.
Thursday, May 24, 2018
There is no instruction book for being President of the United States, and every new president has to learn on-the-job. Most do this in measured ways, taking, or at least considering, the advice of their senior foreign policy advisors before taking action. The incumbent, though, goes about things in a unique, and uniquely dangerous way. I call it, DITTW, or Do It the Trump Way. He blusters, threatens, demeans, and makes grandiose pronouncements, only to have, in light of subsequent events, to walk everything back into the corral.
The summit with North Korean leader Kim Jung-un is a case in point. Trump started out with a war of words, promising ‘fire and fury,’ and calling Kim ‘the little Rocket Man,’ and then, after the North Koreans finally agreed to a meeting and released three Americans they’d been holding prisoner, calling Kim, ‘honorable.’ Of course, his bombastic national security advisor, John Bolton, put his spoon in the soup, referring to the ‘Libya option’ in regard to North Korea’s nuclear program, which caused them to threaten to cancel the whole thing.
Now, with North Korea dismantling an already destroyed nuclear facility with international press witnesses, Trump has cancelled the planned June 12, meeting in Singapore with ‘regret.’
In my humble opinion, as someone who had over 30 years of experience as a diplomat, and several years working on Korean issues, both north and south, a firm date for a leader summit should never have been announced before many preparatory meetings were held, and it should have been realized from the outset that North Korea is not about to unilaterally give up the only thing it sees as protecting it from the U.S. A more stable, wise person would’ve done this analysis before making public statements and promises and would listen and heed the advice from a variety of knowledgeable people before making any decisions. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and some hard lessons are being put forth—I hesitate to say that they are being learned, because, frankly, I have my doubts. We can only hope that the current situation does not go beyond another ‘war of rhetoric.’
Life teaches hard lessons, but only for those who are willing to learn. Too often, though, it is those of us outside the classroom who suffer the consequences when the ‘students’ refuse to learn.
Sunday, May 20, 2018
When I retired from government service in 2012, I began growing a beard, my first facial hair since 1985, when I lived in northeast China and grew a beard to avoid having to shave in the subzero weather that exists for most of the year. My reasons in 2012 were similar. I had just returned to the U.S. from southern Africa, and when I went to buy replacement blades for my razor, I noted that prices had gone through the roof—nay, into the stratosphere. So, I reckoned, if I grow a beard, that means fewer shaves, so less money for blades. As the thing began to grow in, I came up with another rationale; now a private citizen and engaged in freelance activities (writing, art, photography, consulting, etc.), the beard contributed to the bohemian image I wanted to cultivate, or so I tell my wife, who frequently importunes me to shave it off. She’s fine with the mustache, but feels the beard makes me look sinister. So, my image makeover seems to be working.
On May 19, 2018, I think she finally decided to leave my beard alone. Like millions of other people around the globe, she was glued to the TV, watching the wedding of Britain’s Prince Harry to American actress, Meghan Markle. I glanced at the screen occasionally on my way to replenish my water bottle, and have to say, the bride was absolutely beautiful, but what caught my eye, and what just might have changed my wife’s attitude, was the groom. Harry’s a handsome lad, and he cut a fine figure in his military uniform (he’s an Afghan combat vet, by the way, and a helicopter pilot), but what really struck me was the neatly-trimmed, russet colored hair on his chin. That’s right, folks, young Prince Harry sports a beard, and does it quite well, too. In the audience, I also spotted actor George Clooney with his facial adornment, and George, like me, has more salt than pepper in his chin covering.
Well, the day just went on. It seems that every time I went to get water—my doctor has advised me to drink nearly a gallon a day—there would be a commercial, and at least a third of them had a spokesman with a beard. From the guy touting the ‘speak to your remote’ streaming service to the home improvement guru, all had beards.
Wisely, I said nothing about this to the wife, but I think she gets the message. For whatever reason, facial hair is making a comeback. I’d like to think that this is one fashion trend that I was in the leading wave of.
Saturday, May 19, 2018
(Transcript of my statement to the Africa Subcommittee of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs)
Chairman and distinguished members of the subcommittee, I am honored to be able to appear before you today to discuss the path forward in US-Zimbabwe relations. I served as U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe from 2009 to 2012, during the period of the ZANU-PF/MDC coalition government, a time of relative peace and economic stability, but, unfortunately, also a time of lost opportunities to put Zimbabwe on the path of truly representative government and a prosperous economy.
Most American today know very little about Zimbabwe, but for a brief time in November 2017, it was again prominent in the American mass media. After several weeks of increasing political turmoil, primarily within Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party, the first vice president, Emmerson D. Mnangagwa was accused of disloyalty and sacked. He then fled to South Africa, claiming that his life was in danger. Around this same time, Mugabe’s wife, Grace, began to appear more and more in public, making statements that she should be the one to succeed the aging leader, pronouncements that Mugabe did nothing to deny. In an unprecedented—for Zimbabwe—move, Constantine Chiwenga, chief of the Zimbabwe Defense Staff, made a public statement that the military would not stand idly by and allow liberation figures to be removed from government or the party. Shortly thereafter the military made its move. It took control of key installations in Harare, and placed Mugabe and his family under effective house arrest—although, it was quick to publicly announce that what it was doing was not a coup. As one opposition figure said, though, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. It was a palace coup, with the army moving against elements of its own party, but make no mistake about it, it was a coup d’état. Relatively nonviolent, and done in a most unusual way; Mugabe was allowed to meet the press, to phone the South African president, to meet with the coup leader in what on the surface appeared a cordial encounter, and even to call a cabinet meeting; it was still a change of government initiated by force of arms rather than the ballot box.
How the military’s actions will be dealt with is something for Zimbabweans to decide. For the rest of the world, and the United States in particular, the key questions are; where does Zimbabwe go from here, and what role should we play in that journey?
We should start with a bit of background on Zimbabwe’s new ruler, Emmerson Mnangagwa. The question on many minds is, will he be any different from Mugabe? He is, after all, someone who worked closely with Mugabe for more than 37 years after the country’s independence, who served as an intelligence officer during the war for independence, and who, because of his actions in support the crackdown on Ndebele political opposition in the 1980s, and MDC supporters in the 1990s, has earned the nickname, ‘Crocodile.’ Prior to being appointed to the first vice president position, Mnangagwa served as defense minister and justice minister. Though he lacks Mugabe’s charisma, he enjoys the support of most senior military officials. Moving forward, his first priority will be to reassert control over ZANU-PF, a party that has fractured along generational lines, with many of those in their 40s and 50s, known as the G-40, supporting Grace Mugabe against the older liberation-era party members. A united ZANU-PF is essential if the party is to retain power. This won’t be an easy task for Mnangagwa, as the rift between the two demographics was worsened by some of the actions and rhetoric during September-November of last year. The issue is further complicated by the presence of former ZANU-PF number two, Joice Mujuru’s Zimbabwe People First (ZIM-PF) Party. Mujuru, until Grace Mugabe engineered her ouster, was first vice president, and at the time was in competition with Mnangagwa, a successor to Mugabe. A veteran of the liberation struggle, as a fighter with a fierce reputation, she also enjoys some military support, although probably not as much as Mnangagwa. Mnangagwa’s second priority, I believe, will be to ensure ZANU-PF’s continued control of the reins of power in the country. If he can somehow pull all the ZANU factions together, and overcome the possible threat from Mujuru, he will have to decide whether or not to proceed with elections in July 2018. He has indicated that he will do so. While violence and chicanery are still possibilities that can’t be cavalierly dismissed, a united ZANU-PF is likely to be able to do well against the current opposition party lineup. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is still split between the faction led by Morgan Tsvangirai and the one led by Welshman Ncube. As the parties that pose the greatest challenge to ZANU-PF in the urban areas, if they were united, they might do well, but it is unlikely that they will merge. The remainder of the opposition parties, with the exception of ZIM-PF, will only take votes away from MDC, which is to ZANU-PF’s advantage. In the rural areas, ZANU-PF has, in the past at least, had an advantage, and Mnangagwa is sure to capitalize on this.
So, while it’s too early to predict that the 2018 elections will be free, fair and nonviolent, let us assume, for the moment that they will be. Where do we go from that point?
During my time as US Ambassador to Zimbabwe, one of the most frequent topics of conversation was US sanctions. Put in place in response to the violent land seizures and electoral violence of the late 1990s, the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act was enacted in December 2001, and a presidential executive order, targeting individuals and entities involved in the violence and antidemocratic acts was issued in March 2003. Both actions were intended to encourage a return to democracy, something that had not happened by the time of my arrival in 2009. After the MDC won the 2008 elections, although without the necessary 51% majority, there was more violence, but under South African pressure, a coalition government was formed. That government, with the MDC in a subordinate position to ZANU-PF, lasted until the 2014 elections, in which ZANU-PF got the required majority and subsequently formed a government without MDC. The sanctions, in my view, were clearly not having the desired effect, and Mugabe’s party hardliners were using their existence as an excuse for all of the country’s ills. My response to the many queries of, ‘when will sanctions be lifted/’, was, ‘when there is a return to nonviolent elections and democracy. In fact, during one of my final media interviews before my departure in 2012, at the end of my tour, I said, “Sanctions were a response to a violent electoral process. A credible electoral process, free of violence, would make our current policies irrelevant.”
If this year’s elections are head, they are determined to be credible, and there is no violence, the ball will be in our court. If we truly want to see Zimbabwe develop to its potential, we must be prepared to work with the winner of a credible, nonviolent election, regardless of the political party. Even if the election is credible and nonviolent, any new government is almost certain to contain officials who bring a lot of historical baggage with them to the positions they occupy. I firmly believe, however, that we should, in such a situation, put the past behind us and focus on the policy statement in the introduction of the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001; ‘it is the policy of the United States to support the people of Zimbabwe in their struggle to effect peaceful, democratic change, achieve broad-based and equitable economic growth, and restore the rule of law.”
I leave development of the precise modalities of our actions to the policy makers and the professionals in the Foreign and Civil services of our foreign affairs agencies, primarily State and USAID, but I would offer a few suggestions on the way forward. First, we should instruct our embassy in Harare to establish contact with Mnangagwa and his current government to reiterate our policy regarding sanctions, and to inform him that, if upcoming elections are credible and nonviolent, we are prepared to recognize and work with the new government. While we should continue to monitor the human rights situation, our initial focus should be on actions to reinvigorate the country’s economy and empower the private sector to revitalize the agricultural sector, and rebuild stagnant industries, with a view to creating meaningful employment and broad economic security. We should encourage the new government to develop an investor-friendly climate, and take steps to curb corruption, while at the same time, encouraging American business to explore opportunities to increase two-way trade and investment.
During my time as ambassador, we experimented with a local economic development program modeled on an Asian village financing scheme. Women in a few poor rural villages were taught to organize local savings clubs, in which deposits were loaned out to members at low interest rates for income-producing ventures. These programs, though known to the government, were outside government control, and within months of establishment, totally self-reliant. Consideration should be given to implementing such a program in rural and suburban communities country-wide. People who are economically self-sufficient are less vulnerable to political exploitation. The elephant in the room, which can’t be entirely ignored, is the Zimbabwean military. Existing laws and regulations will limit what we can do with the military, but for the long term, peaceful development of Zimbabwe, at some point we will have to figure out a way to work with this institution.
Initially, I believe the primary focus should be on inculcating in the military establishment an ethos of service to the nation as a whole rather than identification with a specific political party. In my limited contact with senior military officials when I was ambassador, I was convinced that there exists within the military establishment a cadre of people who would like to professionalize and depoliticize the institution. The challenge will be to identify those individuals, and develop effective ways of working with them. One possibility might be to establish a working relationship with the SADC Peacekeeping Academy, which is located in Harare, and allowing Zimbabwean military participation in courses of instruction on military professionalism. I leave it to State and Defense, working with the congress, to determine just how such a program would be implemented.
While I have, in making these recommendations, assumed that elections will be held in July 2018, and that they will be credible and nonviolent, I must make clear at this point that I am not making a prediction. I do believe that if everyone approaches the coming months with an earnest desire to see Zimbabwe pull itself out of the doldrums and take its rightful place in the region and the world, it can happen. If it does happen, if everyone then puts the past behind them and focuses on the future, a new and more vibrant Zimbabwe can arise Phoenix-like from the ashes.
Amb. (ret) Charles Ray (r) and Rep. Chris Smith, subcommittee chair, talk after the hearing.
Ambassador (ret) Steve McCann, founder and CEO of The Stevenson Group, was the keynote speaker at a Forum on the State of American Democracy, held at Virginia International University, Fairfax, VA on May 18, 2018.
Panels discussing the state of democracy in the U.S.
The forum consisted of two panels of academics, journalists, and business people who spoke on the state of democracy both in the United States and internationally before a audience of faculty of the university. The first panel discussed the disturbing trend of backtracking on democratic reforms internationally and the trend globally toward autocracy, and the lessons that can be learned here in the U.S. in light of the outcome of the 2016 presidential elections. The second panel then looked at the state of democracy in the United States, emphasizing the fact that political polarization is at its highest since the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, and the trend of closed electoral primaries resulting in mostly extreme candidates in general elections. It was pointed out that while the US has a business climate that is favorable to small and medium-sized enterprises (ranked third in the world), in terms of inequality of income, the US ranks as one of the worst when compared with other developed economies, outperforming only countries like Burundi, El Salvador, and Iran.
McCann delivers keynote address
In his keynote address, McCann acknowledged that the challenges to democracy are great, but stated that as long as the populace remains alert and active, and we continue to abide by the Constitution and honor the rule of law, there is no danger of the U.S. becoming an autocratic state.
Wednesday, May 16, 2018
Modern life, with all the electronic assistance available, is convenient, but at the same time, annoying. Telemarketers, using robo-calling, interrupt naps and mealtimes with their inane, totally inappropriate pitches, and getting to the desired site online is hampered by all the pop-up ads that are inserted in the hopes that you’ll be foolish, or distracted enough to click on. All these things annoy me to no end. But, recently I encountered what has to be the most annoying modern innovation of all. A combination of pop-up advertising and robot-centric telephony.
I called the service department of a company (for legal reasons I won’t name the organization) and got the usual phone message; ‘press 1 if you’re bored, press 2 if you don’t care,’ or something along those lines, delivered by a soothing female voice. I didn’t want what they were trying to sell, I just wanted some technical help, so when I was given the option of pressing the # key in order not to answer, I kept being sent around in a circle, with yet another offer. I’m no great fan of the vanilla music they play when you’re put on hold but have decided after my encounter with this hard sell technique that the music is preferable. I mean, not only did this woman’s voice keep coming back, but when I refused to ‘press 1’ for the third time, her tone became strident. Remember, this was a recording, not a live person, so the darn thing was programmed to do that with people who didn’t follow instructions. Now, I can take a lot from computers, but being chided because I’m not interested in getting a free prepaid card, or whatever the heck it was they were touting, was over the line.
I finally gave up and went on line, where I had to wait (in silence) until a tech came on to help me, but from that point things went smoothly.
A piece of advice to companies; if you want to get new customers, or keep your existing customers happy, don’t install this system. If you already have it, please, oh please, get rid of it. You’re not making any friends with this technique.
Tuesday, May 1, 2018
Wednesday, March 21, 2018
March 21, 2018, the second official day of spring, and here’s the view I have from my kitchen and family rooms in North Potomac, must outside Washington, DC. And, while it doesn’t show in the photos, the snow is still falling, and is forecast to continue to fall until late at night, putting most of the area on snow emergency lock-down.
Sunday, March 11, 2018
Saturday, March 10, 2018
Thursday, March 8, 2018
Tuesday, February 27, 2018
While the English in this online article could use some proofreading, the essentials are correct in this telephone interview I did with VOA on Feb. 23, 2018.
Saturday, February 17, 2018
Thursday, February 15, 2018
Saturday, February 10, 2018
At the start, everyone's there, but soon my daughter and Tommy leave,
and we get down to serious business.