Washington, DC

March 24 - 29, 2019

Jessica McCarthy Dugandzic

Group photo in front of the US Capitol.

Members of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council returned to our Nation’s capital at the end of March for a week full of meetings in a city filled with blossoming trees and breaking stories. Specifically, the conclusion and findings of the Mueller Report meant that the story of what would happen next for the current administration and our relationship with Russia going forward towards the 2020 elections was on everyone’s mind and an important topic of conversation throughout our back-to-back meetings.

The media has become an increasingly prominent part of the political discourse in our nation, and we had the opportunity to reconnect with CSPAN Founder Brian Lamb, as well as LA Times DC Bureau Chief David Lauter, to discuss their work trying to get the truth out to readers in a town notorious for its ability to spin

Brian Lamb told the group “We put on what happens; we don’t tell you what happens,” describing CSPAN’s 40 years of pointing a camera at the leadership in DC and allowing the public to watch the proceedings of our Federal Government. He also chided how high-profile hearings, like the recent one for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, have instantly became political, pointing to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, many of whom have declared their campaign for presidency and seemed to view it as an opportunity for national exposure to bolster their election prospects.

David Lauter of the LA Times discussed the way that newspapers have had to adapt to the 24/7 news cycle, particularly with breaking stories, and having to balance accuracy with readers’ demands for instant answers and online posts, relying on pre-writes where possible (like in the case of a story about a pending Supreme Court ruling), updating stories frequently as facts come in, and making greater use of the Wires than they would have done 10 - 15 years ago. “It’s a new way of journalism because in the past, you wouldn’t go to print until you had the full story.” He also described the real crisis in news coverage today being local. “There are plenty of reporters covering DC. But there are City Councils all over the country where no one is reporting and bad things happen.” David cited the corruption in the City of Bell, which the LA Times covered and earned them a Pulitzer Prize. On the issue of fake news, Lauter shared that “The President finds portraying the press as an adversary is helpful to achieving his political objectives.”

Digging down into international issues, our group met with DAS Walter Douglas, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs and Ambassador Joan Polaschik of Near Eastern Affairs at the US State Department. Douglas emphasized the administration’s focus on China, stating “We want China to be a part of the Community of Nations, but Xi and the Communist Party have taken it in a different direction.” He described the upcoming East Asia Summit in November as being his bureau’s Super Bowl, and discussed the continued cooperation and developments of the ASEAN countries, including the expanding relationship between India and Thailand.

State Department briefing with DAS Walter Douglas and Amb. Joan Polaschik

Ambassador Polaschik provided a comprehensive overview of challenges in the Middle East, stating that with the ISIS conflict resolved, the administration’s priority is Iran, including bolstering Iraq’s sovereignty away from Iran and back into the Arab fold, and realigning Trump’s view on the Golan Heights. She stated that this administration thinks that maximum pressure, referring to continued strong sanctions, will inspire civilians to demand changes in Tehran. She indicated that Ambassador David Friedman, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt have been holding their proposed peace plan very close to the chest but she anticipates that more will be revealed after the upcoming Israeli elections. She shared that Palestinians aren’t engaging in talks, and the administration hopes that Palestinian sanctions will get President Mahmoud Abbas to the table.

Visiting the Mexican Embassy and meeting with MX Ambassador to the US Martha Barcena

We also had the pleasure of a briefing with newly appointed Mexican Ambassador to the United States, Her Excellency Martha Barcena, who outlined President Lopez-Obrador’s priorities to fight corruption, inequality and poverty, and insecurity and violence. She described how he is encouraging economic development in South and South Eastern Mexico, with a focus on energy integration and bringing in other Central American countries, noting that Northern Mexico’s economy is already well established and integrated with the United States. President Lopez-Obrador agrees that migration “should be an option and not an act of desperation,” and described the idea of circulatory migration where laborers would be able to move and work more quickly and legally into the US and be able to return to their homes in Mexico without the complications of the immigration process. But she also described the growing trend of Africans who pay up to $20K to migrate to Brazil, then passing to the US through Mexico, and the security concerns this could present longer term. She shared that if the border region, comprised of 4 US and 6 Mexican states were turned into a country, it would be the 4th largest economy in the world. She stated that their priority in 2019 is getting the USMCA agreement ratified, and shared that “there is no longer a Mexican car, a US car, a Canadian car. It’s a North American car. One part on a car crosses the border eight times.”

We met with experts at two DC Think Tanks, Brookings and the Heritage Foundation, who shared their concerns about issues of terrorism, trafficking, and human rights, as well as looking ahead at the political divide expanding within our nation.

Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institute provided insight on the negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, describing stalled talks as Taliban leaders refuse to meet with Afghan government officials who are serving as intermediaries for the talks with the US. Felbab-Brown highlights that progress has been made regarding the Taliban’s agreement to not be a platform for attacks on US assets and allies, however, the Taliban’s desire for a drawing down of US troops in 2 months and the US militaries proposed 5 years, has been a stumbling block, but she hopes the Taliban will agree to a 3 year withdrawal.

Heritage Foundation briefing with Olivia Enos (In yellow on the right)

At The Heritage Foundation, David Azerrad discussed his views on the ideological divide and identity politics playing out in the US and how fractures in both the Democrat and Republican parties are emerging, which for better or worse, may transform their platforms and challenge leadership and election cycles in ways we haven’t seen before. Luke Coffey, the Director for the Foreign Policy Center, talked about multi-polarity, the idea that the globe is no longer divided between the US and the USSR, but different centers of power around the world who are negotiating their own trade deals and resources, including creating super-national structures like the EU, which was “an organization based on coal and steel that now touches on every aspect of European life.” Olivia Enos, who attended both the Singapore and Vietnam Summits where President Trump and Kim Jong-Un met, discussed her focus on getting the DPRK negotiations to also address human rights, money laundering and their support of terrorism, and going full maximum pressure on DPRK and Chinese banks stating “China is not the silver bullet, but when they do impose sanctions, we see more responsiveness from North Korea.”

Meeting House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy

On the Hill, we met with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy who opened his remarks by stating “This Congress started off on the wrong foot,” describing a widespread sentiment that for one side to win, the other side has to lose. He shared his belief that “When America leads, the world becomes a safer place.” He shared that the priorities he thinks possible, in spite of the divided Congress, could be “health, taxes and infrastructure.” On immigration, McCarthy highlighted that “half the people who are here illegally came here legally on a Visa,” and he outlined a five step solution - enhanced border security, claim asylum in our consulates in their countries, reform the Visa program, get rid of the lottery and bring in based on merit, and for those over 18, provide a system for earned legal status.

In Congressman Schiff’s office, we met with his Chief of Staff Jeff Lowenstein, who said “that there’s a lot of will on the Democrat side to focus on pharmaceutical prices and on infrastructure. Trump breaks from his party by focusing on those but if he wants to get a win, Democrats are ready to work with him.” On the issue of Russian collusion, Lowenstein shared that Congressman Schiff will continue to explore the influence of Russian Statecraft and that Schiff “has made the point that there are plenty of public examples of what could be deemed colloquially as ‘collusion’” however “there would have to be facts made available to us that we don’t have today to move to impeach.”

John Russell, a lobbyist at Denton’s, boldly stated that “The House of Representatives can pass things for campaign ads, but can’t get anything passed in the Senate.” He shared that looking ahead, trade, immigration and sequestration to deal with entitlements, will be priorities for 2019. Regarding 2020, he noted that the electorate seems to want change, electing members who promise to upend DC. He pointed out that one-third of those who voted for Obama twice went on to vote for Trump. He doesn’t see the appeal of the current slate of Senators to voters, and described writers recasting Beto O’Rourke to be the next Bobby Kennedy, though noting the new photos of him by Annie Liebowitz perfectly mimic the Time cover of then-candidate Ronald Reagan. He stated that Biden is doing the Hokey-Pokey, putting his foot in then taking it out. Regarding the KellyAnne and George Conway fight over politics, he pointed out that it was done first, and perhaps better, by Democrat James Carville and his wife, Republic-turned-Libertarian Mary Matalin during the Clinton administration.

Our briefings at the CIA dove into the complications of the new drug wars around opioids and in particular, the widespread use of Fentanyl. The officer described the ways in which the drug threat is different from the past, in particular, its origins (synthesized rather than grown), transported (no longer smuggled by land, air and sea, but mailed because it’s nearly undetectable) sold (ordered from the dark web using cryptocurrencies) and used (now taken mostly in pill form.) They shared how they see Mexican cartels as a national security threat because they have such power and influence against the Mexican government, sharing that the cartels have the resources to buy off law enforcement and government officials so the CIA has to be careful who they share info with while pursuing drug traffickers.

Indo-PACOM briefing with Doug Sevier at the Pentagon

At the Pentagon, we met with Douglas Sevier, Director of Indo-Pacific Command’s Washington Liaison Office, who described the strategy of Admiral Philip S. Davidson, the recently appointed 25th Commander of US Indo-PACOM, is to ensure “A free and open Indo-Pacific.” Recently known only as PACOM, Indo- was added “as India has risen and wanted to cooperate more” noting that it wasn’t included with the East Asian designation. Sevier shared that “Indo-PACOM is not all about China, but it’s all about China.” He shared that in technology, the private sector has outstripped innovation compared to the government, because they are willing to fail. "If a government project fails, you’re testifying in front of the Senate to explain why we lost millions.” The military has focused much of their attention on start-up companies who are doing meta-data, collecting highly detailed feedback on information like fuel usage.

We concluded our trip back where this whole crazy American experiment really kicked off, at the home of our first President, General George Washington at Mt. Vernon. Led by our quick-witted, knowledgeable and insightful guide John Marshall, we wandered the grounds on a private tour, and had the very special opportunity to lay a wreath at the tombs of George and Martha Washington. We then proceeded to the Presidential Library, where we were met by Douglas Bradburn, President and CEO of George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Dr. Kevin Butterfield, Executive Director of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, who showed us books and special manuscripts not available to the public and shared historical context, anecdotes and answered questions from the group. One story that Douglas Bradburn shared with us in particular was that President Trump asked him, during his visit with President Macron “How wealthy of a guy was George Washington?” to which Bradburn replied that Washington was not born wealthy but that he married the wealthy widow Martha, and had at some point built tract houses. Trump replied “If he was smart, he would have put his name on them,” to which Bradburn replied “Well, he put his name on the city.”

(left) Douglas Bradburn, President of Mt. Vernon, in the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington
(middle) members Evan and Dick Mader (son and father) laying a wreath at the tombs of George and Martha Washington
(right) the Head Librarian sharing manuscripts from the archives.

To learn more about our upcoming travel programs, please click here.

A special thank you to Jessica's best friend Rocky who drove down from Baltimore so they could celebrate his birthday together. It was her favorite part of the trip.

The World Affairs Council Travel Program offers members the chance to learn about the world's cultures and countries by experiencing them first-hand and hearing from guest lecturers familiar with the history, culture, and current conditions in the countries they visit.

We aim to make our tours both informative and enjoyable, by including special access to local experts and political leaders who give private briefings and unique behind-the-scenes insights. Having Council members travel together means that you will have the chance to meet globally-minded people from your area, who can share this experience with you during and after your travels.


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