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Crushed by debt, refugees have little choice but to return to war-torn Somalia

By Kevin Sieff
Crushed by debt, refugees have little choice but to return to war-torn Somalia
Khairo Hassan's girls watch as their plane lands in Dadaab, Kenya. MUST CREDIT: photo for The Washington Post by Adriane Ohanesian.

DADAAB REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya - Her friends were rushing to say goodbye. They gathered in the sliver of shade outside her mud hut, next to the pile of bags packed with everything Khairo Hassan had accumulated as a refugee.

"I'm going to miss you," said one woman, who kissed her cheeks.

"We hope you are safe there," said a girl who hugged her, while Hassan's eyes filled with tears.

In three days, Hassan, 44, would be leaving this sprawling refugee camp for Mogadishu, Somalia, one of the most dangerous cities on the planet, with two of her daughters and her granddaughter. She hated the idea. Every week, it seemed, Islamist extremists there grew more brazen. In October, a truck bomb had killed 512 people, one of the deadliest terrorist attacks anywhere since Sept. 11, 2001.

Hassan was traveling through a U.N. program called "voluntary repatriation," which provides hundreds of dollars to refugees in Kenya who choose to go back home. But there was nothing voluntary about her journey to Somalia.

Instead, her return was a sign of how a strained international aid system has broken down amid the biggest global refugee crisis since World War II.

The problem started when the United Nations, squeezed by growing demands for aid, slashed food rations in this camp of 250,000. That left the refugees little option but to buy food on credit from local markets.

Hassan, a widow, had borrowed $400 over several months to purchase rice, beans, milk and noodles to feed her family. It was an impossible sum in the Dadaab camp, where she made $3 a month selling bananas. Her creditors began to threaten her with arrest or violence.

Unwittingly, the United Nations created the only viable mechanism for people like Hassan to pay off their debts: by moving to a war zone.

If everything went as planned, in three days, before Hassan boarded a plane to Mogadishu, a U.N. official would give her about $150 per family member for their return to Somalia. She would immediately hand that cash to her creditors.

"I need this debt to be over," Hassan said.

Asked about the practice, the United Nations said it was aware that mounting debt could motivate some refugees to return to Somalia. But officials said they did not know how prevalent a factor it is.

"This is something we are looking into," said Denis Kuindje, the head of protection at the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Dadaab.

The United Nations' voluntary repatriation program started offering the payments in 2016, after Kenyan authorities threatened to shutter Dadaab, one of the world's oldest refugee camps. Some refugees began to pack up and head for neighboring Somalia, which has suffered near-continuous war since the early 1990s. The U.N. assistance was meant to help them get settled.

But Hassan would start her new life in Somalia with almost nothing.

Now, as more people trickled into Hassan's hut to say goodbye, a man in a shiny red robe slid through the crowd, entered her room and sat on her bed, his leather shoes resting on her dirt floor. His name was Bashir Ali. He was one of the shopkeepers to whom Hassan owed money.

"When are you going to pay me?" he asked, twirling a large white smartphone in one hand.

Hassan was getting angry. The previous night, the radio had reported another attack in Mogadishu. Her 19-year-old son, Noor Mohammed Isak, who would be staying behind in Dadaab, had shown her pictures of dead bodies on his phone. Her head throbbed, and she wondered if she had malaria, or if it was stress.

"I told you I will," she told the shopkeeper. "As soon as they give me the money, it will be yours."

The next day, Hassan and the girls took the first step of their journey to Somalia.

Inside her hut, Hassan rolled up her thin mattress and tied it with a headscarf. She packed a Koran with gold lettering on the cover. Her daughter Falhado, 14, was surrounded by friends who hugged her.

"I hope she isn't killed," one friend, Sahro Hassan, 14, said after stepping away from Falhado.

The family crammed into a beat-up silver taxi, which drove off in a burst of dust. Hassan watched as her corner of the camp disappeared in the rearview mirror, heaps of sun-bleached wood, metal and plastic.

She had left Somalia in 2010, walking for 16 days, after the Islamist group al-Shabab had seized control of her town, Dinsor. Her husband had been shot and killed in the middle of the street. Her neighbor had been slaughtered in his house. One of her daughters had disappeared after an unhappy marriage, leaving her baby for Hassan to raise.

Hassan didn't expect to stay long in Dadaab, a string of makeshift encampments in the desert of eastern Kenya, about 50 miles from the Somali border. But the situation back home never improved. Last year, al-Shabab was one of Africa's deadliest terrorist organizations, killing more than 4,200 people. This year, because of conflict and drought, Somalia reached the brink of famine.

Now, Hassan was heading back, despite her friends' warnings. There were few functional schools in Somalia, they said. Some of those who returned from Dadaab had been killed, they said.

Hassan listened and responded: "What other choice do I have?"

The taxi took them to a bus, and the bus took them to a large concrete shelter in the camp where Hassan's family and 27 other refugees were told to wait. They were almost all traveling to Somalia for the same reason - to use the U.N. stipend to pay off their debt.

Adey Ali, a single mother of two, owed $600, which she had spent on food and medicine for her children. Mohammed Usman owed $180. Another woman owed $250.

"This is debt-motivated repatriation," Ali said.

Across Dadaab, the United Nations had posted signs that read, "Return is your choice." Officials had set up information desks where families considering repatriation could ask questions and where U.N. officials could determine whether they were indeed going back voluntarily. It is a violation of international law to force refugees to return home if their lives will be at risk.

But U.N. fieldworkers are aware of how the financial package encourages refugees to return to Somalia. Hassan, Ali and several other returnees said they mentioned in their repatriation interviews that their debts were the primary reason they were participating in the program.

"We know it's the money on their mind," said Abdi Fatah Sadik, a senior repatriation officer with UNHCR in the camp, who is responsible for interviewing would-be returnees.

The United Nations also acknowledges the devastating effect of the decrease in food rations over the past year. U.N. officials say they instituted the cutbacks because donors such as the United States and European countries have not kept pace with surging demand for aid around the world.

Refugees in Dadaab now receive only 70 percent of their nutritional requirements, according to the U.N. World Food Program (WFP). Nearly all of that comes in the form of sorghum, an American government donation, which most Somalis do not eat. The result has been an increase in malnutrition, according to the WFP.

"We can't pretend people will eat a lot less and remain at the same health level," said Paul Turnbull, the agency's deputy country director in Kenya.

To fill the gaps, refugees such as Hassan headed to Dadaab's markets, run mostly by other refugees and stocked with produce and meat from outside the camp. As in Somalia, they can make purchases using a system of credit known as "deen," based on trust between members of the same clans. Except, eventually, they hit their limits.

"The U.N. doesn't give enough food, so they come here," said one shopkeeper named Sheikh Hussein, who sells rice, milk and beans. "We know eventually they'll find a way to pay."

Ali, the single mother, said her creditors sent Kenyan police officers to her hut. She spent seven hours in jail until two clan leaders came to bail her out. But first they asked her: "How will you pay your debt?" she recalled.

"I told them, 'There is only one way. I will enlist in repatriation,' " she said.

Hassan received a different threat. One of the three men to whom she owed money had confronted her a few months ago, she said.

"If you don't pay me, there's going to be a fight," he told her. She signed up for repatriation shortly afterward.

At the concrete shelter, Hassan and the girls unrolled their mattresses and sprawled out in the heat. In a bag, Falhado had brought a notebook full of English homework, with the teacher's comments in the margins. "Splendid," one said. "Brilliant," said another.

Shamso, 11, Hassan's younger daughter, carried sandals that said, "Beautiful Girl." Ladan, 12, her granddaughter, held a plastic bag that said, "See the World."

After a few hours, they were taken to an office to provide fingerprints, sit for pictures and hand over their refugee cards. While Hassan was standing at a table, her cellphone rang. She fished it from her blue handbag.

"Hello," she said.

It was another one of her creditors.

"I heard you are leaving soon," he said.

Her eyes widened with anger.

"You will get your money," she said.

The bus arrived the next morning, pink with a yellow bolt down the middle and stars painted on the windows. Their plane was on its way.

Before this week, Hassan had never been on a bus. Now, she was inside of one, bouncing along the dirt road that sliced through the camp.

She had never flown in a plane before, either. "What is to keep that metal box from crashing into the ocean?" she asked.

The bus came to a stop in front of Dadaab's airstrip. Hassan and the other refugees walked down the steps.

Their bags were weighed. The family's belongings came to 136 pounds.

"Stand over there," a U.N. official said, indicating a small office, and the 32 refugees lined up where they were told.

Inside, a man at a desk was sitting in front of a pile of white envelopes. Hassan's name was called. The man reached into one envelope and pulled out $100 bills. He counted them out loud.

"Six hundred and 30 dollars," he announced at the end, and Hassan took the envelope from him.

"I've never seen this much money," she said in a monotone, leaving the office. "I wish I could keep it."

But her son and her 28-year-old daughter were still in Dadaab. Most of the refugees had relatives remaining in the camp, and they would be hounded about the debt if it wasn't paid.

About 100 yards away, Hassan could see a crowd of men at the fence along the airstrip.

She walked up to Adey Ali, the woman who owed $600.

"Should we ask if we can pay our creditors?" Hassan asked.

Ali approached the UNHCR official in charge, a young man named Mokhtar Abdullahi.

"Can we please pay our debts now?"

"OK. One at a time," he responded.

The U.N. officials knew what was going on; they had even allowed a money changer onto the airstrip, so that the refugees could pay their debts in the local currency.

Minutes later, the refugees were at the fence, slipping bills through the barbed wire.

"This is it," Ali said, as she passed $400 to her sister, who would then pay the creditor.

Hassan pushed $200 to one of her creditor's wives and then gave the rest to her 19-year-old son, who would pay off the remainder of the debt that evening.

"I'm free now," she said, and lifted both hands in the air in mock triumph.

Seconds later, the plane landed in a roar.

"It's like a dream," Shamso yelled.

Hassan wiped sweat from her forehead, collected her things and walked toward the runway, waving at her relatives who were still standing by the fence.

"Take care of yourself," she shouted to her son.

Hassan walked up the stairs and let a security officer pat her down. She chose a seat in the fifth row and leaned her forehead against the headrest in front of her. A flight attendant buckled her in.

Around her, some of the children started to wail.

"Don't cry. Don't cry," said a U.N. airline official. "You're going home."

Three weeks later, back in Mogadishu, Hassan was staying at a red tin house on the edge of the city, in a sprawling displacement camp.

A nephew had helped her find a temporary room in the house. But she had run out of money, and she was getting ready to move again, this time to a tent made of sticks and plastic. It was far too dangerous to move back to Dinsor, her home town.

In Mogadishu, gunshots and small blasts echoed throughout the day and night. The girls were afraid to walk outside.

"They are not used to this kind of fighting," Hassan said. "I don't know if they will get over it."

Shamso could barely sleep. The 11-year-old had nightmares in which animals chased her. When she woke up, she covered her head with a blanket.

"In Dadaab, we never heard gunshots," she said.

Hassan was supposed to receive $800 from the United Nations upon arrival - $200 per family member - but for some reason, that money had not been sent. For at least six months, though, she would receive a small stipend to buy food.

She wondered what would happen after that money ran out, where their food would come from.

In Mogadishu, the returnees from the Dadaab camp had formed a committee to lobby the Somali government and the United Nations for more help.

"Coming back was a huge mistake," said Abukar Mohammed, the spokesman for that committee. Like many other returnees, he was planning to go back to Dadaab.

For now, Hassan was still trying to imbue the lives of her daughters and granddaughter with some sense of normalcy. They ate together each morning. They took turns washing clothes. The girls were attending a temporary school with a placard outside that said, "Education for children affected by drought."

In the classroom, which had a tin roof and no windows, the sound of gunfire punctuated the school day. Shamso recoiled when she heard the shots.

Asli Hassan, her teacher, tried to calm the students.

"I tell them, 'It's OK.' I tell them, 'It's normal.' "

Review: The skeptic's guide to smart home gadgets

By Geoffrey A. Fowler
Review: The skeptic's guide to smart home gadgets
The Ring Video Doorbell 2 gives your front door eyes and ears. MUST CREDIT: Ring

Before you buy any "smart" gadgets, make sure they're not dumb.

This holiday season, a third of Americans plan to buy a smart home device, according to the Consumer Technology Association. And nearly half of Americans use digital voice assistants, according to the Pew Research Center.

But just hooking up the Internet to a door lock, kettle or dog bowl (yes, that's a thing) doesn't make it smart. The trick is figuring out which ones are worth the cost, trouble and inevitable security risks.

I've been in those weeds. After reviewing dozens of smart home products, I've learned to be skeptical of any gadget that feels like a Star Trek prop - and a little paranoid about things that are listening, watching or collecting data. Any gadget you install in your house should work with software from multiple tech giants. And it should be made by a company with years of experience in homes, or at least with top-notch customer support.

The good news is some of these connected gadgets are now actually awesome. I picked five smart home devices that are genuinely useful enough that I've given them as a gift. . . including to myself.

1) Ring Video Doorbell 2, $200

Why it's useful: Who's at your door? The Ring is a doorbell that doubles as a Wi-fi security camera, so you can watch, hear and talk to whoever's there through an app - even if you're not at home. It alerts your phone with a live feed when somebody presses the bell, or any time somebody comes near. No rewiring required. The Ring at my house caught package thieves and vandals, and produced video evidence I gave to the cops.

The downsides: To review, share and store video clips for 60 days requires a $30 per year subscription. If your existing doorbell isn't powered, you'll have to charge the Ring's battery every 6 to 12 months.

Why it's the best: There are lots of video doorbells, but Ring has has solid customer service, delivers on its promises and works with other home devices including Amazon's Echo Show. ("Alexa, show me who's at the front door.") The Ring app also lets you share clips and alerts about criminal activity with neighbors who also own a Ring.

How it handles security: Ring encrypts your video. In 2016, researchers discovered a flaw in the first-generation Ring doorbell that could have let hackers access a home's Wi-fi network. Ring issued a patch, and says it updates doorbell software automatically.

2) Lutron Caseta Light Switches, $80 for starter kit

Why it's useful: Okay, switches aren't exactly an exciting present. But these Lutron Caseta ones only look like regular dimmers - they've actually got superpowers to turn on and off on via app, remote or voice command. That's useful for safety: You can program your porch light to come on after sunset, or set lights to random when you're on vacation. They're also a convenience - like when your bed is just too warm and comfy to leave, so you just say "good night" to Siri and watch the whole house turn off at once. I've programmed mine to wake me by slowly making the room brighter.

The downsides: I needed to hire an electrician to install my Caseta switches, though it's certainly possible to do it yourself. Caseta also requires a hub (included in its starter kit) attached to your home router.

Why it's the best: The Lutron switches require more effort up front than stand-alone connected bulbs like Philips Hue. But Lutron's tech is rock-solid reliable - and allows you to still turn off lights the old-fashioned way, with a light switch. It also plays well Apple HomeKit, Alexa, Nest, IFTTT and more.

How it handles security: If your home's Internet goes out, Caseta switches still work. Lutron does penetration testing for hackers and automatically pushes updates to your hub, but it wouldn't say whether its systems have ever been breached.

3) Eero 2nd generation mesh Wi-fi router, $300 for two-hub pack

Why it's useful: Eero solves the No. 1 home tech problem: Bad Wi-fi. The reason your Netflix stutters is there are corners in your house that one poor, overworked router just can't reach. Eero uses multiple hubs to create a "mesh" that spreads Internet all over. That's a lifesaver in big houses or ones (like mine) with walls filled with metal, plaster and and other materials that act like Kryptonite for radio waves.

The downsides: Eero is pricier than stand-alone routers and also mesh systems like Google Wi-fi and Netgear Orbi. If you want Eero's hubs to work well, you also can't hide them under a stack of old People magazines - they need to be out in the open. (Fortunately, they're pretty.)

Why it's the best: Eero is the simplest home gadget I've ever tested. Other routers may be a little faster or have more features, but Eero is reliable and offers solid customer service. It also now offers a security service, called Eero Plus (for $100 per year), to detect and stop hackers, and help you manage passwords, combat malware and access a VPN when you're on the go.

How it handles security: Eero uses the cloud to give you remote control over your network and to ensure performance, but it doesn't log or store where people go on the Internet. And the cloud lets Eero quickly update your hardware when security problems come to light, like this fall's scary KRACK vulnerability.

4) Ecobee 4 Thermostat, $250

Why it's useful: Baby, it's cold outside. . . and in that room at the back of your house. Thermostats measure the temperature one place (usually the hallway), but who hangs out there? The Ecobee 4 thermostat uses sensors to keep track of which room you're in and what the temperature is there - and then makes adjustments accordingly. It's smart enough to proactively compensate for a cold snap, and it should also be more energy efficient than an old-fashioned thermostat, though your savings may vary.

The downsides: You get one room sensor in the box, but extras cost $80 each. Your installation experience may vary: to make the Ecobee 4 work with my extremely ancient heating system, I had to buy a $15 external AC transformer.

Why it's the best: Google-owned Nest makes the most well-known learning thermostat, but the Ecobee 4 beats it with the room-sensing tech and a few other features. It's got Alexa built into a speaker and microphone on the thermostat, so you have one more spot in the house to chat with your favorite virtual lady-friend. And Ecobee works with lots of different smart home software, including Apple HomeKit, Google Home, and (of course) Amazon Alexa.

How it handles security: The Ecobee 4 works even without an Internet connection. The company does security audits and says its products haven't suffered from any breaches it knows about.

5) Sonos ONE multi-room speaker, $200

Why it's useful: Talking speakers are all the rage, but most priced under $200 don't sound fantastic. The Sonos ONE does, and it has the ability to switch its voice between either Amazon Alexa or Google's Assistant. The Sonos ONE can also join other Sonos wireless speakers that come in many sizes and shapes to fill every room with music. I keep my house on perpetual "party mode."

The downsides: The Sonos ONE costs twice as much the new Amazon Echo and Google Home. Support for Google's Assistant, along with Apple's AirPlay 2, won't come until 2018. And some of its Alexa voice commands are a un-intuitive, but that should hopefully improve over time.

Why it's the best: The ONE is the connected speaker to beat right now because of its neutral status in the talking AI wars, and Sonos' years of experience making great-sounding wireless speakers. But I won't blame you for waiting until professional reviewers get our hands on Apple's much-hyped (and much-delayed) $350 HomePod next year.

How it handles security: Sonos offers frequent free software updates. Like the Amazon Echo, there's a button on top that stops its microphone from listening

Under-fire UN peacekeepers struggle in African nation at war

By Pauline Bax
Under-fire UN peacekeepers struggle in African nation at war
A U.N. soldier stands guard as a mixed UN military convoy of Portuguese special forces and Cameroonian and Mauritanian peacekeepers prepares to patrol the PK5 neighborhood in Bangui, Central African Republic, on Nov. 17, 2017. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Pauline Bax.

Scanning the road from a police armored vehicle, Martine Epopa says she isn't fazed when people make throat-slitting gestures at her United Nations convoy patrolling the capital of the Central African Republic.

Sometimes men jump in the road brandishing machetes, while others just stand and scowl, said Epopa, a 29-year-old Cameroonian police officer and the sole woman in a six-vehicle U.N. patrol that included Portuguese special forces and Mauritanian troops.

"We just wait until they give up and leave," she said, clutching her rifle as her vehicle bounced over potholes. "We're here to make people understand that the U.N. is here to protect them and their country. It can be challenging."

Yet the threat is real. Fourteen peacekeepers have died this year in the Central African Republic, and public hostility is increasing toward what's already one of the U.N.'s most difficult peacekeeping operations. A series of sexual-abuse scandals hasn't helped, nor has the perception that the "blue helmets" favor the minority Muslim population over their Christian countrymen. Hidden from sight behind huge blast walls in central Bangui, the capital, the U.N. headquarters are often a target of violent protests.

In what the U.N. ranks as the world's poorest nation where most state institutions crumbled after a 2013 coup, the peacekeepers face a near impossible task of shielding civilians from armed groups roaming the countryside.

The 13,750-member force, known by its acronym MINUSCA, also does everything from helping ship emergency food supplies across a territory as large as Afghanistan to providing logistical support to aid agencies whose workers themselves are under attack.

The U.N. force has little choice. Fighting rages on in parts of the country and state authority barely extends beyond Bangui. While a few hundred men have been trained for the new army, a U.N. arms embargo means the government can't import weapons.

U.N. peacekeepers face dangers across Africa. This month 15 troops were killed by militiamen in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, believed to be the deadliest assault on U.N. forces in a quarter-century.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister who paid a four-day visit to the country in October, has tried to step up support. About 160 Portuguese commandos have arrived to engage in combat with rebels, and Guterres persuaded the Security Council to expand the mission with 900 military personnel, probably Brazilian.

That makes the U.N. operation in the Central African Republic the only peacekeeping force worldwide that'll be increased rather than reduced as the U.S. has pushed to trim about $600 million from the U.N.'s $7.3 billion peacekeeping budget for the fiscal year ending in June 2018.

Just three years ago, when the U.N. set up a peacekeeping mission to replace an African Union force, expectations were high, with many residents thinking their arrival would be "a silver bullet," according to Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

"There are moments when MINUSCA really didn't step up and protect civilians," Mudge said. "I've seen some contingents bravely protect and others lock themselves in their bases at the first sign of trouble."

Most attacks on peacekeepers have been carried out by militias in the southeast who accuse the U.N. of favoring Muslims, tens of thousands of whom were driven from their homes, often in apparent revenge attacks for abuses perpetrated by mainly Muslim rebels who overthrew President Francois Bozize four years ago.

The top three contributing countries to MINUSCA are Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt, heightening local perceptions that the U.N. force is mainly Muslim.

"The international community is throwing a lot of money out of the window," said Joseph Bendounga, a well-known radio commentator who heads a small political party. "We have a crisis in a country where the majority of the population is Christian or animist and where the troops who come to secure the country are essentially Muslims. It's just making things worse."

While U.N. officials in New York say the situation in the Central African Republic is close to catastrophic, there's no quick solution in sight for a country that's suffered decades of bad government and armed conflict. About a fifth of the nation's 5.5 million people have fled their homes, half a million of whom are sheltering in neighboring countries.

Brazil, which has just wrapped up operations in Haiti, will decide in the next few months whether to send between 700 and 900 troops to the Central African Republic, Foreign Minister Aloysio Nunes said in an interview.

"What we see is a political conflict that is a consequence of the total collapse of the state's authority," Nunes said.

The Portuguese special forces have been very effective and professional, said Human Rights Watch's Mudge. "If the new contingent would do the same, it could make a big difference."

---

Bloomberg's Samy Adghirni contributed. Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women's Media Foundation, as part of the African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.

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A healthy Republican Party can only be built on the ruins of this one

By michael gerson
A healthy Republican Party can only be built on the ruins of this one

WASHINGTON -- I find myself wandering in an unfamiliar place. As a pro-life conservative, I am honestly happy -- no, positively elated -- that pro-choice Democrat Doug Jones won Alabama’s Senate election.

It is an odd position for me, and a complicated one. This change may impose costs to causes I care about. And Democrats did not make my shift of sentiments any easier. A pro-life Democrat (there used to be herds of such unicorns before they were hunted to near extinction) would have won the Alabama race going away, and left me entirely unconflicted.

But even so, it was not a close decision. In reality, the chance that the flip of this seat would somehow determine the fate of Roe v. Wade is vanishingly small. And political leadership does not consist entirely of checking policy boxes. What needs to be considered is the net effect on the country and the cause. And the Alabama election was like looking into the abyss. Roy Mooreism was distilled Trumpism, flavored with some self-righteous moralism. It was all there: the aggressive ignorance, the racial divisiveness, the disdain for governing, the contempt for truth, the accusations of sexual predation, the (just remarkable) trashing of America in favor of Vladimir Putin, the conspiracy theories, the sheer, destabilizing craziness of the average day.

Trump and his admirers are not just putting forth an agenda; they are littering the civic arena with deception and cruelty. They are discrediting even the good causes they claim to care about. They are condemning the country to durable social division. In Trump’s GOP, loyalty requires corruption. So loyalty itself must be reconceived.

What would weaken the grip of Trump on the GOP? Obviously not moral considerations. The president has crossed line after line of decency and ethics with only scattered Republican bleats of protest. Most of the party remains in complicit silence. The few elected officials who have broken with Trump have become targets of the conservative media complex -- savaged as an example to the others.

This is the sad logic of Republican politics today: The only way that elected Republicans will abandon Trump is if they see it as in their self-interest. And the only way they will believe it is in their self-interest is to watch a considerable number of their fellow Republicans lose.

It is necessary to look these facts full in the face. In the end, the restoration of the Republican Party will require Republicans to lose elections. It will require Republican voters -- as in Alabama and (to some extent) Virginia -- to sit out, write in or even vote Democratic in races involving pro-Trump Republicans. It may require Republicans to lose control of the House (now very plausible) and to lose control of the Senate (still unlikely). It will certainly require Trump to lose control of the presidency. In the near term, this is what victory for Republicans will look like: strategic defeat. Recovery will only be found on the other side of loss.

Even if moral arguments do not suffice, the political ones are compelling. Trump and his allies are solidifying the support of rural, blue-collar and evangelical whites at the expense of alienating minorities, women, suburbanites and the young. This is a foolish bargain, destroying the moral and political standing of the Republican Party, which seems complicit in its own decline. It falls to Republican voters to end this complicity.

For conservatives, the ultimate goal is not the victory of Democrats, who, in different ways, are mistaken and offensive (on economics, the role of government, entitlement reform, the protection of the unborn, and much else). The common cause of Trump’s political repudiation is necessary but temporary. It is the emergency method for Republicans to detach themselves from Trump, create a new party identity and become worthy of winning.

In GOP losses such as the Alabama Senate race, it is not rogue Republican voters (or non-voters) who are at fault. It is the blind ideologues who gave them an impossible choice. Similarly, if Republicans lose the House, the Senate, the presidency and (for a time) the country -- and incur some policy losses in the process -- Trump’s Republican opponents would not be to blame. It would be Trump and his supporters, who turned the Republican Party into a sleazy, derelict funhouse, unsafe for children, women and minorities.

A healthy, responsible, appealing GOP can only be built on the ruins of this one.

Such political disloyalty to the president is now the substance of true loyalty to the Republican Party -- and reason enough to welcome Sen. Jones with cheerful relief.

Michael Gerson’s email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

GOP tax bill would usher in a bleak future

By fareed zakaria
GOP tax bill would usher in a bleak future

NEW YORK -- If the Republican tax plan passes Congress, it will mark a watershed for the United States. The medium- and long-term effects of the plan will be a massive drop in public investment, which will come on the heels of decades of declining spending (as a percentage of GDP) on infrastructure; scientific research; skills training; and core government agencies. The United States can’t coast on past investments forever, and with this legislation, we are ushering in a bleak future.

The tax bill is expected to add at least $1 trillion to the national debt over the next 10 years, and some experts believe the real loss to federal revenues will be much higher. If Congress doesn’t slash spending, automatic cuts will kick in unless Democrats and Republicans can agree to waive them. Either way, the prospects for discretionary spending look dire, with potential cuts to spending on roads and airports, training and apprenticeship programs, healthcare research and public health initiatives, among hundreds of other programs. And these cuts would happen on top of an already dire situation. As Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution points out, combined public investment by federal, state and local governments is at its lowest point in six decades, relative to GDP.

The United States is at a breaking point. In August, the World Bank looked at 50 countries and found that America will have the largest unmet infrastructure needs over the next two decades. Look in any direction. According to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, the U.S. has almost 56,000 structurally deficient bridges, about 1,900 of which are on interstate highways -- and all of these are crossed 185 million times a day. Another industry report says that in 1977 the federal government provided 63 percent of the country’s total investment in water infrastructure, but only 9 percent by 2014. There’s so much congestion in America’s largest rail hub, Chicago, that it takes longer for a freight train to pass through the city than it takes to get from there to Los Angeles, according to Building America’s Future, a public interest group.

There is no better indication of the U.S. government’s myopia than the decline in funding for research. A recent report in Science notes that, for the first time since World War II, private funding for basic research now exceeds federal funding. Research and development topped 10 percent of the national budget in the mid-1960s; it is now under 4 percent. And the Senate’s version of the tax bill removed a crucial tax credit that has encouraged corporate spending on research, though the House-Senate compromise version will probably keep it. All this is happening in an environment in which other countries, from South Korea to Germany to China, are ramping up their investments in these areas. A new study finds that China is on track to surpass the U.S. as the world leader in biomedical research spending.

When I came to America in the 1980s, I was struck by how well American government functioned. When I would hear complaints about the IRS or the Federal Aviation Administration, I would often reply, “Have you ever seen how badly these bureaucracies work in other countries?” Certainly compared with India, where I grew up, but even compared with countries like France and Italy, many of the federal government’s key offices were professional and competent. But decades of criticism, congressional micromanagement and underfunding have taken their toll. Agencies like the IRS are now threadbare. The Census Bureau is preparing to go digital and undertake a new national tally, but it is hamstrung by an insufficient budget and has had to cancel several much-needed tests. The FAA now lags behind equivalent agencies in countries like Canada and has been delayed in upgrading its technology because of funding lapses and uncertainties. The list goes on and on.

There are genuine problems beyond underfunding. The costs of building American infrastructure are astronomical. But during the Depression, World War II and much of the Cold War, a sense of crisis and competition focused America’s attention and created a bipartisan urgency to get things done. Ironically, at a time now when competition is far more fierce, when other countries have surpassed the United States in many of these areas, America has fallen into extreme partisanship and embraced a know-nothing libertarianism that is starving the country of the essential investments it needs for future growth. Those who vote for this tax bill -- possibly the worst piece of major legislation in a generation -- will live in infamy, as the country slowly breaks down.

Fareed Zakaria’s email address is comments@fareedzakaria.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

Trump may decry the Russia investigation, but the trail of evidence is long

By david ignatius
Trump may decry the Russia investigation, but the trail of evidence is long

WASHINGTON -- President Trump’s recent denunciations of the Russia investigation recall the famous legal advice: “If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.”

Trump shouted out his defense earlier this month: “What has been shown is no collusion, no collusion!” he told reporters over the whir of his helicopter on the White House lawn. Since then, Trump’s supporters have been waging a bitter counterattack against special counsel Robert Mueller, alleging bias and demanding: “Investigate the investigators.”

But what do the facts show? There is a growing, mostly undisputed body of evidence describing contacts between Trump associates and Russia-linked operatives. Trump partisans have claimed that Mueller’s investigation is biased because some members of his staff supported his rival Hillary Clinton. But Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein disagreed Wednesday, arguing that Mueller “is running his office appropriately.”

As Republicans seek to discredit the investigation, it’s useful to remember just what we’ve learned so far about how the Trump campaign sought harmful information about Clinton from sources that, according to U.S. intelligence, were linked to Moscow. This isn’t a fuzzy narrative where the truth is obscured; in the Trump team’s obsessive pursuit of damaging Clinton emails and other negative information, the facts are hiding in plain sight.

From the start of the campaign, Trump spoke of his affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Trump’s aides followed his lead. In March, a young adviser named George Papadopoulos met a London professor who introduced him to a Russian woman described as “Putin’s niece.” This began months of efforts by Papadopoulos to broker Trump-Russia contacts, described in the plea agreement that Mueller announced in October.

Russian operatives by March 2016 had already hacked the computers of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. Through cutouts, the Russians over the next eight months allegedly spooled out damaging information about Clinton to the media, sometimes egged on by Trump and his associates.

Papadopoulos got the first hint the Russians might share Clinton emails in a late April meeting with the professor, who told him “the Russians had emails of Clinton ... thousands of emails,” according to the plea agreement.

Dishing dirt on Clinton was the pitch of a June 3 email to Donald Trump Jr. from the publicist for Russian oligarch Aras Agalarov’s pop-singer son. He said Russian authorities “offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary.”

Don Jr. eagerly met Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya on June 9 at Trump Tower. When she claimed that an anti-Putin U.S. businessman had looted money from Russia, Don Jr. pressed her: “He asked if I had any financial documents from which it would follow that the funds stolen from Russia were then involved in financing the Clinton’s Foundation,” she told the Senate Judiciary Committee last month.

Trump’s hunt for Clinton emails continued in June, when Jared Kushner hired Cambridge Analytica to do campaign research. The firm learned that WikiLeaks planned to publish a stash of the Clinton material, and Cambridge’s CEO asked Julian Assange “if he might share that information with us,” according to The Wall Street Journal. Trump promised “very, very interesting” revelations about Clinton in June, the same month an alleged Russian cutout dubbed “Guccifer 2.0” began leaking DNC documents.

WikiLeaks dumped nearly 20,000 Clinton documents on July 22. Three days later, Trump tweeted: “The new joke in town is that Russia leaked the disastrous DNC e-mails ... because Putin likes me.” Two days after that, at a July 27 press conference, Trump said: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”

Roger Stone, a Trump friend and sometime adviser, kept beating the WikiLeaks drum through August 2016, saying he was communicating with Assange and that more damaging Clinton leaks were coming. WikiLeaks contacted Don Jr., too, in five messages that continued until Election Day.

“I love WikiLeaks,” said Trump at a rally Oct. 10. And no wonder. This was the campaign’s secret weapon.

U.S. intelligence agencies said on Jan. 6, 2017, they had “high confidence” that Russian intelligence had used WikiLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 “to release U.S. victim data obtained in cyber operations.” CIA Director Mike Pompeo has since described WikiLeaks as a “hostile intelligence service.”

The next time Trump demands a probe of Mueller’s investigation or the FBI’s handling of Clinton emails, remember that he isn’t arguing the facts or the law about collusion with Russia. He’s pounding the table.

David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

Moore’s loss proves America has a bigger following than Trump

By eugene robinson
Moore’s loss proves America has a bigger following than Trump

WASHINGTON -- Who’s afraid of Trumpism-Bannonism? The noxious stew of nativism, xenophobia, misogyny, manufactured grievance and barely disguised white supremacy that put Donald Trump in the White House now appears less an all-conquering juggernaut than a paper tiger -- one that Alabamians, bless their hearts, balled up and threw in the trash.

Incredibly, Trump managed to lose twice in a deep-red state he won by 28 points just a year ago. He supported Roy Moore’s opponent, Luther Strange, in the Republican primary, only to suffer a humiliating defeat. And then -- prodded by his political “wizard,” Steve Bannon -- Trump reversed himself and went all-in for Moore in the days leading up to Tuesday’s general-election vote. As you might have heard, Moore lost to Democrat and now Senator-elect Doug Jones.

“I was right,” Trump pathetically tweeted, having been utterly wrong. Sad!

It is possible to read too much into Jones’ victory. He won by fewer than 21,000 votes out of more than 1.3 million cast, which is not exactly a landslide. And Moore was thought of as a dangerous clown by many Alabama voters even before The Washington Post revealed he was credibly accused of being a child molester.

But let’s not read too little into Tuesday’s vote, either. Alabama is such a solidly Republican state that in 2014, the last time this Senate seat came open, Democrats didn’t even bother to field an opponent against incumbent Jeff Sessions, whose resignation to become attorney general triggered Tuesday’s special election.

Moore was, in many ways, the perfect Trumpist-Bannonist candidate: a populist renegade who perfectly fit the description “all hat and no cattle.” He was once removed and once suspended as the elected chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for insisting that his religious beliefs outweighed the Constitution. He expressed disdain for the constitutional amendments that abolished slavery and allowed African-Americans and women to vote. He initially issued non-denial denials against allegations that he pursued sexual relationships with teenage girls when he was in his 30s. And he had a keen instinct for theatrics, adopting the habit of showing up to vote on Election Day on horseback, as if he were planning to lead a cattle drive later that afternoon.

Responding to multiple accusations of sexual misconduct, Moore took a page from Trump’s playbook, finally settling on the story that the women -- none of whom had anything to gain from coming forward -- were all lying. Like Trump, he painted himself as the victim of a dastardly plot by nefarious elites.

Bannon supported him early, cowed the state party establishment into going along, and reportedly convinced Trump to climb aboard the bandwagon, too, because Moore would surely win. “The people of Alabama will do the right thing,” the president tweeted on the morning of the vote.

Unfortunately for Trump and Bannon, Alabamians did just that.

It is the sweetest of ironies that Jones, when he was U.S. attorney for the northern district of Alabama, successfully prosecuted two aging Ku Klux Klan members for their roles in one of the worst atrocities of the civil rights era -- the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, in which four young African-American girls, attending Sunday school, were killed. How wonderful it is that a man who struck such an important blow for racial justice defeated a charlatan who has actually expressed nostalgia for the olden days before the Civil War.

What should worry Trumpists, Bannonites and the quisling Republicans who go with the flow of this aberrant presidency is that Alabama cannot be seen in a vacuum. A trend is brewing.

Last month in Virginia, a purple state, Democrat Ralph Northam won the governor’s race by the biggest margin for a Democrat since 1985. His Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie, had run an ugly campaign with television ads appealing to white racial animus against immigrants and minorities. Democrats not only sent Gillespie packing but also virtually erased the GOP’s once-unassailable majority in the lower house of the state legislature.

In both Virginia and Alabama, Democratic voter turnout was huge, while Republican turnout was middling. The enthusiasm gap between the parties was more of a chasm. A year ago, Democrats spoke of the 2018 midterm election as an opportunity to make gains in the House and, if possible, keep from losing seats in the Senate. Now, after Alabama, even cautious analysts have to consider the possibility of a wave election that gives Democrats control of one or both chambers.

Don’t get me wrong, Trumpism-Bannonism does have a following. It’s just that Americanism has a bigger one.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

Using The Force to spread the love of ballet

By esther j. cepeda
Using The Force to spread the love of ballet

CHICAGO -- On Friday, I will be subjected to several hours of inscrutable “pew-pew”-ing when I flock, reluctantly, with my husband, my son and a substantial portion of America to the new “Star Wars” movie, “The Last Jedi.”

Enduring another installment of a movie franchise that seems to have no end in sight (especially now that it has mastered the art of re-creating deceased actors in beloved roles) has somehow become a new Christmastime tradition in America. And it has gone far beyond getting on my nerves.

The holidays are busy enough as it is. Having to shoehorn in an annual two-and-a-half-hour space opera leaves even less precious time for other holiday traditions.

Yes, I recognize I’m coming across as some sort of sociopath for not loving “Star Wars” as much as the next light-saber rattling guy or cinnamon-roll-hair-wearing gal. What can I say? My aunt took all the kids to see “The Empire Strikes Back” when I was but a wee 6-year-old and I was bored nearly to tears. I fell asleep.

However, I’ve negotiated a 2017 Christmastime accord: I swore to show up to the theater with love and joy in my heart for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and to not fall asleep. In exchange, I get something similar from my husband and son the next day.

I’m dragging them to a big-screen presentation of the Bolshoi Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.” (In movie theaters across the country on Dec. 17 only.) Don’t miss it -- no one does “The Nutcracker” like the Russians. There are no cute kids cast for the family party scenes at the beginning like in American productions -- professionals play all the roles to ensure the top level of perfection at each performance.

They’ll enjoy “The Nutcracker” as much as I will enjoy “The Last Jedi” -- and this isn’t sarcasm or mere wishful thinking.

The truth is that you’d have to be practically dead not to feel a full load of adrenaline drop into your bloodstream once the endless movie trailers and sundry in-house ads for gourmet nachos finally fade to black and a full orchestral score comes up under the iconic opening crawl, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ... “

But there is just as much ritual, pomp and majesty in the choreography and costuming of the sci-fi blockbuster as there is in the classic ballet.

Plus, both offer sinister, magical guys in long, billowing black capes.

Of course, I’m referring to Herr Drosselmeyer, the shadowy godfather figure who brings young Clara the titular nutcracker in the famous ballet, and “The Last Jedi’s” Kylo Ren, the film’s stand-in for Darth Vader.

I really like Darth Vader -- not as much I liked the totally underrated Darth Maul, who was too short-lived for the taste of this non-true “Star Wars” fan. But still, Vader’s the undisputed top dog of the franchise. He’s the moneymaker.

I’m not alone in thinking this. For as many people who love the “Star Wars” lore for the plucky upstarts, organized under the banner of “The Resistance,” who stage never-ending rebellions against the “Empire,” far more people dress up as Darth Vader for Halloween.

Sure, crowds like to cheer on The Resistance because it represents the underdog fighting for justice. For instance, the main government of the universe, the “New Republic,” considers this Resistance a bunch of “dead-enders with an unfortunate fixation on the past,” according to the StarWars.com database.

But just as many revel in the dark side.

The dark side is seductive, passionate and just plain fun.

And this is why “Star Wars” has been such an enduring, beloved hit -- it plays to the human experience of embodying both darkness and light.

It’s no coincidence that the big to-do going into the premier of “The Last Jedi” is that Luke Skywalker, who is a Jedi, and the putative good guy, appears on both the “light side” and “dark side” movie posters promoting the upcoming movie. It seems like shadows are always hanging over “the force.”

In the end, it’s all good, because when it comes to our entertainment, we can have it both ways -- we can be slightly frightened of Herr Drosselmeyer and beguiled by his magic just as we can revile, but savor, the raw power of the Sith.

And if you’re doing your family a favor this holiday season by indulging them in one of your less-than-favorite favorite traditions, bless you -- and may the force be with you.

Esther Cepeda’s email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

Tell me more about Steve Bannon’s genius

By alexandra petri
Tell me more about Steve Bannon’s genius

Uncle Henry, you’ve been telling me for months that Steve Bannon was a strategic genius. Can you remind me again why?

“Oh, yes, he is, absolutely. The man gets results. He has 2040 vision. Not bad vision -- I realize that sounds like bad vision -- but I mean it in the sense that he is thinking 23 years down the road, to the year 2040.”

Oh.

“He has thrown away the chessboard and is playing the whole game using only his mind! Which is sharp as a Bic pen.”

Is that, like, very sharp?

“He went to Harvard! As he is continually reminding people, the way a smart man who people can tell immediately is smart is forced to do, just constantly name-drop all the places he went to school.”

Peter King has said he “looks like a disheveled drunk who wandered onto the political stage.”

“That’s all noise.”

So what happened in Alabama?

“Well, he picked a candidate who was a true conservative, Judge Roy Moore, to run against Luther Strange, Jeff Sessions’s hand-picked successor.”

Strange.

“Yes, that was the name of the man he ran against.”

Is Judge Roy Moore a real judge?

“Well, he used to be before they removed him twice for being a true conservative.”

Conservative how?

“Well, he [starts winking a lot] believed America was greatest in the past.”

That’s -- is that what a conservative does now . . . ?

“Yes, the past [wink wink] was where it was at.”

This doesn’t seem like a good way of appealing to voters from a historically disadvantaged demographic.

“It seems to work on white women just fine.”

But are there not also black women in Alabama?

“Let’s table that for now. Anyway, Steve Bannon, in his wisdom, selected Judge Roy Moore, a man who believed America was greatest in the 1790s, when there were no malls to ban you, and everyone was trying to court 14-year-olds before dying from the complications of a surgery performed with no anesthesia or sterilization whatsoever, and also slavery.”

Wait, are these good things or bad things about Moore?

“I am just telling you the genius of Steve Bannon’s strategy.”

Well, was Moore a good candidate?

“Before the race ended, he was credibly accused of molesting teenage girls.”

And how did Steve Bannon respond?

“He kept him in the race and tried to discredit his accusers using the website Breitbart.com.”

I see.

“This was his brilliant strategy.”

Did it work?

“It almost did, is the thing.”

I assume people denounced Roy Moore and said they did not want to be associated with him?

“Well, that is complicated. They did at first, but then it looked like he was going to win, and then they came back and said, “Oh, never mind, we’ve evolved on this whole ‘maybe don’t go after children’ issue.” President Donald Trump supported him.”

It seems like it would be a serious problem for the party to do something like that.

“You might think so.”

Does Steve Bannon think so?

“Steve Bannon has a plan that is bigger than any one of us.”

Was it Steve Bannon’s plan that Roy Moore ride to the polls on a horse but, like, very badly?

“That horse did look very uncomfortable.”

If I had to carry a man credibly accused of preying on teenagers to the polls on my back, I would look uncomfortable, too.

“We are getting derailed here from Steve Bannon’s genius.”

He is one?

“Oh yes, if you ignore all evidence to the contrary.”

There is a lot of evidence to the contrary. And now the Republican Party will have a margin in the Senate of . . . one vote?

“Look, what would you rather believe: that you were snookered into rebuilding your whole party by a man much dumber and more evil than you realized, or that there are levels at play here we cannot possibly comprehend? I know which I’d prefer.”

Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

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