Reflections on the Inauguration

Posted January 26, 2009 on 2:34 pm | In the category Bush/Cheney, Election 2008, Inauguration, Obama, Uncategorized | by Jeff

“George W. Bush did enormous damage to America’s standing in the world and its strength at home. Yet the vitality of the US system resurfaced, and American voters have chosen in Barack Obama a man of vision and statesmanship. It now falls to him to renew the confidence and restore the reputation of the American republic.” Financial Times editorial, January 18, 2009

The inauguration was a blast –for many reasons: it was the end of the Bush/Cheney era; it was a symbolic period at the end of a long sentence of overt and then nuanced racism; it was the end of a generation of conservative mis-rule of America’s treasure; and an opportunity for people to celebrate possibilities and for a few days put aside the worries produced by the destruction of the Bush years.

As someone who tends to avoid huge crowds I felt some anxiety as I headed for the mall with my friend John for the Sunday concert. Joining some 800,000 people between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument turned out to be a glorious event – full of great music, thankfully brief speeches (has Joe Biden ever before spoke for less than five minutes?) and a huge crowd of happy and grateful citizens. No one complained about the cold or the relatively brief wait to get through security. John and I began our hike back to his car as the President-elect spoke, thinking the concert was over but were brought up short as the recognizable voice of Pete Seeger came loud and clear singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is My Land”.  Stopped us in our tracks.

Following a festive dinner Monday night, Tuesday began with an early morning trip to the security point to get to a law office on Pennsylvania Avenue to which a friend’s brother-in-law had gotten invitations for us to view the afternoon parade.  My wife and I then spent three hours in what the press later called a “line” but which was actually a mob. The National Park Police and DC police had efficiently managed Sunday’s security, but on Tuesday we were under the control of the Secret Service. It is enough to say that after 2.5 hours in a “line” two-plus blocks long and 15-20 people across in frigid weather, moving at a dead snail’s pace, we were confronted by a DC policeman who declared a medical emergency and ordered everyone to disperse. This turned out to have no effect; the crowd simply surged forward threatening to crush the people in front against the metal cage security gates. Imagine a Brazilian soccer crowd on an acid trip and you get the drift. So we bagged it.

We gave up standing in the bitter cold for the comfort of seats at a friendly bar at Dupont Circle two feet from a flat screen TV and Bloody Mary mix. The bar was full for the actual inauguration and people drank, wept, cheered and totally ignored Bush and Cheney when they were introduced. Someone wondered whether old white guys would tear up when Obama took the oath. The answer? Yes we can.  Yes we can.

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Iceland the canary bird

Posted January 21, 2009 on 3:07 pm | In the category Economy | by Mackenzie Brothers

With its 800 billion dollar attempt to stop the bleeding of an economic system in trouble because it spent too much money based on borrowed money, the US sent out the most dramatic warning to the world of the dangers of credit financing. But that tremendous amount of money, which is being followed by more, is about 5% of the US GNP. Iceland, its smallest NATO ally, was in hock for no less than 12 times its GNP, a situation that had led its rational economists to predict forlornly that the Icelandic economy would collapse like a house of cards when credit became harder to get and debts were called in. The private jets that continually discharged Icelandic salesmen who were busy buying products throughout the world with monopoly money would suddenly stop flying and their passengers would disperse like rats from a sinking ship.
On October 6, 2008, Icelandic prime minister Geir Haarde announced that he would make an afternoon speech on television, which normally is not on the air at that time and told the Icelandic people “that the moment had come in the history of Iceland when the people must gather themselves together and face the enemy courageously in the eye …. we must convince our children that the world is not at the edge of the abyss. God protect Iceland.” These words that seemed to be taken from an Old Icelandic saga, referred to a very contemporary problem – the collapse of Iceland’s financial house of cards. Within days all 3 big international Icelandic banks were bankrupt , and had to be taken over by the government, which itself couldn’t pay their debts, their employees were suddenly unemployed and Great Britain froze all their assets in the UK, crudely using legislation that had been passed with regard to terrorists, because at least 300,000 Brits had bought into the Icelandic credit system through their pension plans. While Icelanders felt betrayed and insulted by their NATO neighbour, whom they had defeated in the Cod War only a couple of decades ago, there was nothing they could do about being declared a pariah. Economically they were and continue to be as there is no solution in sight other than the one offered by our second cousin in Shanghai, Loki, who worked for the Icelandic bank there until very recently. “No problem, we can always fish and raise potatoes”, he opines. It is a solution not open to many other credit-happy societies, who haven’t protected their fish stocks while sinking into debt, though not to the depth of the Icelanders.

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Canada, Obama and the Northwest Passage

Posted January 15, 2009 on 8:29 pm | In the category Canada, International Broadcasting, U.S. Foreign Policy | by Mackenzie Brothers

Things have started out well with regard to relations between the new Obama regime in Washington and the old Harper one in Ottawa. It has been announced that Obama will make his first foreign visit to Ottawa – apparently it is his first visit to Canada – as had long been the tradition before George Bush decided to go to Mexico City first. This first apparently trivial but symbolically weighty step led to 8 years of poor relations between the supposedly friendly neighbours when Bush failed to mention Canada in his public thanks to many countries for aid after the attack on New York. He later went on to explain that he sort of considered Canada to be part of the US so it didn’t need any special mention. That hardly helped matters and nothing he did later did, either, although his views on such an important matter as free trade seem to be closer to Canada’s than Obama’s have been at times.

Now Hilary Clinton, who had much experience in Canada as first lady, went out of her way to point out to the Senate committee considering her nomination as Secretary of State that she intended to work hard on improving relations with Canada which happened to be the US’ leading trade partner and one of the very few countries that was punching way above its weight in Afghanistan, while most US allies preferred watching from the bleachers.
That is all promising particularly since the new secretary of state is so much better informed than her clueless predecessor. But Bush threw out one more mine into troubled waters just as he was abandoning ship. In his last week in office he proclaimed the US position on sovereignty in the Arctic in such a way that no Canadian government can accept it, saying that the US had the right and even the obligation to extend military control over Arctic waters, including the northwest passage, that Canada considers to be internal Canadian waters between Canadian islands. Harper has announced plans to increase the presence of the Canadian Armed Forces on northern islands exponentially along with the strength of icebreakers and arctic warships. The two proposals do not mesh and the topic will inevitably come up during the upcoming meetings in Ottawa. It is clear what Canada’s position will be, and that will likely be even more forceful if Michael Ignatief, who has many former Harvard colleagues among Obama’s closest advisors, becomes Prime Minister, so it will be up to Obama to comment on Bush’s view of the north. It is an areas where Obama has little or no experience and his response could be an interesting clue on how he will attempt to guide his ship of state through troubled waters where he has never sailed before.

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The Trivialization of Public Diplomacy

Posted January 7, 2009 on 1:27 pm | In the category International Broadcasting, Public Diplomacy, U.S. Foreign Policy | by Jeff

When Edmund Gullion, Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, coined the term “public diplomacy” in the mid sixties it’s unlikely he thought the best way to carry out such a program would be to send American sports figures around the world. But that is how it has seemed to have evolved during the Bush presidency.

The United States’ practice of public diplomacy preceded the coining of the phrase with serious and effective cultural and educational programs including Voice of America, and the many cultural and arts programs of the United States Information Agency (USIA). While on one level America’s public diplomacy has traditionally been a governmental effort to promote American interests by informing foreign audiences, on another level it has included efforts by private individuals and groups to develop and maintain civil, educational dialogues among people throughout the world. These non-governmental efforts took on increased importance while the government’s efforts have veeered toward the trivial over the past eight years. In addition, surrogate broadcasting efforts like Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty provided domestic news to countries with state monopolized media.

In the age that gave us rendition, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the Iraq War a strong public diplomacy program was an oxymoron, but as we come out of the Dark Ages the government can do better.

While there is nothing wrong with sending athletes like Cal Ripkin, Jr and Nancy Kwan out into the world, it is not enough to rely on sports figures and/or minor league actresses to be “public diplomacy envoys”. Furthermore, the recent use of Twitter as a public diplomacy tool is simply a victory of style over substance. Surely we are at a point where we can begin to rebuild the cultural, educational and artistic exchanges and programs that over the years have slipped into disuse.

Hopefully the Obama transition team is considering the range of possibilities that together form our “soft power” and will make the kind of long-term investment that can pay off over time. The current state of our image in the Arab world reminds us of the need both to match policy with our traditional values and to make the investment to clarify those values to the outside world.

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Politics and Sport – Part 5

Posted January 4, 2009 on 3:20 pm | In the category Canada, Sports, U.S. Foreign Policy, Uncategorized | by Mackenzie Brothers

There is one area – and maybe only one – in which Canada comes together as a whole. French and English, Inuit and Nu-cha-nulth, maybe even Newfoundlanders – all stop bickering long enough to agree that as far as the national sport is concerned Canada stands in nobody’s shadow, particularly not that of our rambunctious southern neighbour. That area is, of course, hockeyworld, and nothing drags the national interest together – certainly not another sideshow of an election – more than an international tournament, in particular when it takes place in Canada. When that happens, the bragging rights that used to be ritualistically fought over by the largest and second-largest country on earth have been irritatingly disturbed in recent years by bellowing from the third-largest country .
And so it is that a country being bombarded from coast to coast to coast with the most wintry winter in memory – 50 cm on the ground in usually tropical Vancouver as the snow continues into its fourth week and the new year arrives – focusses its attention on the World Junior (Under 20) championship that annually begins on Boxing Day and ends two weeks later. This year it is in Ottawa and more then 400,000 tickets have been sold to a sporting event that will undoubtedly receive no mention in the US sporting bible, Sports Illustrated. But the US boys arrived full of confidence and swagger, only to lose to Canada in a spirited affair, and then collapse and be eliminated by little Slovakia. Meanwhile super power Russia lost decisively to Sweden, but was very much prepared for a semi-final meeting with Canada, which almost matches it in size but not in power, except in hockey. It was a match that made Canucks forget the blizzards outside. Having gained and lost a lead 4 times only to find themselves trailing with two minutes left, Canada got a goal with five seconds to go and went on to win in a shoot-out. When was the last time you saw tough Russian guys actually crying as somebody else’s national anthem played?
There is one more hurdle, however. On Monday, Canada meets Sweden in the final, and lots of people think that Sweden has the strongest national and junior team in the world at the moment – just wait for the Olympic Game matches in Vancouver a year from now, though it will cost you a couple of thousand bucks to get a ticket to the final – and that it will not be the first second or third largest nation in the world that hears its anthem played, but the twenty-fifth. In any case don’t miss the game.

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