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Staff photo — Jose Yau  

Emilio Arechiga (left) and Jacob Bryant are neck- and-neck in the competition to start under center.

Trump wields sanctions hammer; experts wonder to what end

WASHINGTON — Call it the diplomacy of coercion.

The Trump administration is aggressively pursuing economic sanctions as a primary foreign policy tool to an extent unseen in decades, or perhaps ever. Many are questioning the results even as officials insist the penalties are achieving their aims.

Since taking office in January 2017, President Donald Trump has used an array of new and existing sanctions against Iran, North Korea and others. His Treasury Department, which oversees economic sanctions, has targeted thousands of entities with asset freezes and business bans. The State Department has been similarly enthusiastic about imposing its own penalties: travel bans on foreign government officials and others for human rights abuses and corruption in countries from the Americas to the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

At the same time, the administration is trying to reduce greatly the amount of U.S. foreign assistance, notably cutting money to Latin America and the Palestinians. The White House budget office is making plans to return billions of dollars in congressionally approved but unspent dollars to the Treasury. A similar effort was rejected by Congress last year.

The combination of more sticks and fewer carrots has created a disconnection between leveraging the might of America’s economic power and effectively projecting it, according to experts who fear the administration is relying too much on coercion at the expense of cooperation.

It also has caused significant tensions with American allies, especially in Europe, where experts say a kind of sanctions fatigue may be setting in. The decision this past week by the British territory of Gibraltar to release, over U.S. objections, an Iranian oil tanker that it seized for sanctions violations could be a case in point.

It’s rare for a week to go by without the administration announcing new sanctions.

On Thursday, the administration said it would rescind the visas of any crew aboard the Iranian tanker in Gibraltar. On Wednesday, Sudan’s former intelligence chief received a travel ban. Last week, the entire Venezuelan government was hit. More than 2,600 people, companies, ships and planes have been targeted so far since Trump took office.

“The daily pace is intense,” the treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, Sigal Mandelker, said recently.

She and proponents of the administration’s foreign policy say sanctions are working and have denied Iran and its proxies hundreds of millions, if not billions, in dollars in revenue used for destabilizing activity in the Middle East and beyond. And, they note, the U.S. approach does not involve the vastly more expensive option of military action.

“Overuse of economic warfare is certainly a better alternative to the overuse of military warfare,” said Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He has advocated for even broader sanctions.

Mandelker, whose office is in charge of economic sanctions, says sanctions alone “rarely, if ever, comprise the entire solution to a national security threat or human rights or corruption crisis.” They must, she said in a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, be accompanied by other action to push U.S. national interests.

Experts say the administration has not shown great vision in adopting strategies that do not rely on sanctions or separating punitive foreign policy decisions from purely trade issues, such as the spat with the Chinese over tariffs. While Trump has been reluctant to punish Russia for meddling in the 2016 presidential election, his administration has not relented on sanctions for Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and human rights issues.

“President Trump has completely conflated economic sanctions and commercial policy,” said Gary Haufbauer, a senior fellow with the Peterson Institute for International Economics who was a senior treasury official during the Carter administration. He said that while that approach might work with countries such as Mexico and Guatemala over immigration, trade measures and sanctions against China and Russia do not.

“I don’t see that the U.S. is having any positive effect on Chinese behavior, or for that matter, Russia,” Haufbauer said. He said this was a “pivot point” in world economic relations, with the U.S. losing its leadership role and opening up the possibility for another nation to pick up the mantle. Asian countries, he said, are deferring to China’s perspective on the U.S., and American alliances with European nations are being weakened by Trump’s reliance on sanctions.

“The U.S., through its trade policy, has managed to isolate itself,” he said.

Although many administrations have relied on sanctions, Trump has used them with zeal at a cost to the U.S., said Liz Rosenberg, the director of the Energy, Economics and Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. She was a senior adviser to one of Mandelker’s predecessors at Treasury during the Obama administration.

Where the U.S. once coordinated with Europeans on issues such as counterterrorism and nuclear nonproliferation, Trump’s sanctions are often one-sided and do not prioritize partnerships, Rosenberg said.

“This is a brand new reality that has never been seen in modern times,” she said. “There are those in Europe who feel not just harmed by the United States, but also targeted by the United States.”

The result is that many countries are less eager, or in fact wary, of signing up for American initiatives, particularly when they see the U.S. retreating in areas such as foreign aid. The administration is expected to present a plan soon to cut as much as $4 billion in economic and development aid, drawing wide bipartisan rebukes from Capitol Hill. A similar effort was turned aside in 2018, but there are fears it may to come to pass this year.

“Once again, the Trump administration is hell bent on slashing programs that lift millions out of poverty, turn the tide against deadly diseases, strengthen our economy, and make America safer,” said Tom Hart, the North America executive director for The ONE Campaign, which supports development assistance. “Not only does this undermine U.S. leadership around the world, it subverts Congress’ power of the purse.”

Longtime zoo employee settling in as director of zoo society
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 

When Terri Cox retired from her job at Cameron Park Zoo for a week before becoming the Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society’s new director, it was hard to tell if anyone noticed.

When she would take her great-niece to a camp at the zoo, Cox invariably got caught up answering questions, helping employees and visiting with the staff she has worked with for decades.

“On a good day, I left when she left,” Cox said. “But that’s just the thing, it’s more of a lifestyle than even a career now. I’ve been doing it for so long that I don’t even know what it would be like to totally retire.”

Though much remains the same, Cox is taking over leadership of the zoo society at a time of change, with more potentially on the horizon. Last week, McLennan County called a $14.5 million bond election for November to expand the zoo, which is operated by the city of Waco. The expansion is not expected to change the city’s annual $2.7 million subsidy for operations, and officials have already secured a commitment for a $1 million donation to support the project.

The zoo society’s role in the zoo is also changing in response to inadequate cash handling practices and communication concerns among leaders, including zoo society board members. Indications of those concerns came to light as the former zoo director, Jim Fleshman, was forced out in April of last year. A new contract between the city and the zoo society removes the society from day-to-day zoo operations, transfers most of the society’s staff to the city payroll and cuts the city’s annual payment to the society to about $100,000.

The position of zoo director, formerly hired and overseen by the society, is also transferred to city oversight under the new contract, though the city has yet to hire a zoo director. When the new contract was presented late last year and adopted in April, officials said they expected to hire a zoo director before a zoo society director since the intent is to have the society director support the zoo director.

Under the new model, the zoo society’s focus is narrowed to conservation support, marketing, accreditation work and fundraising, which is a role Cox knows a little bit about. When she first started raising money for the Cameron Park Zoo in 1988 with the Junior League of Waco, she was raising money to create it, re-forming the Central Texas Zoo that had roots going back to a Heart O’ Texas Fairgrounds exhibit in the 1950s.

City of Waco voters rejected a tax hike to support the new zoo in 1983, but by 1988, a $9.6 million countywide bond issue passed. When the new zoo opened in 1993, Cox joined as a buyer for the Zootique gift shop, now under city control, and eventually became special events coordinator.

“It was a wonderful opportunity to shape the new zoo and roll it out to the community and help it grow,” she said. “I started learning everything I could about zoo management and progressed into very different positions over the years.”

Cox designed the herpetarium, the zoo’s reptile house, with current interim zoo director Johnny Binder. Cox, who has had a lifelong love of reptiles, became the curator of the herpetarium, which was built with $1.3 million in interest from the original zoo bond revenue.

“We drew it initially on cocktail napkins and took it the architect and saw it come to life,” Cox said. “I loved working in that building.”

Cox became programs and exhibits curator in 2004 and held the position until July of this year. She said in her previous position, she was free to spend more time in the zoo, visiting exhibits and working directly with other employees on the animal care side. Now her days are taken up primarily by meetings with everyone from staff to other zoos to conservation workers overseas, though she still spends time on the front lines.

“You can guarantee that if I wear shoes like this and forget to bring flats, I’m going to be going around the zoo at least two or three times,” she said, gesturing to her high-heeled shoes with a laugh.

She said the zoo has reached a new level of global engagement, hosting veterinary conferences for international guests and providing funding and equipment for conservation efforts in other countries.

“People don’t work in a zoo because it’s a good way to get rich,” Cox said. “They work in a zoo because they’re passionate about animals and our environment and conservation. It all goes together.”

Education Curator Connie Kassner said she has worked with Cox for 15 years. They met when Kassner was a zoo volunteer and Cox was curator of a different department, but she made an impression on Kassner.

“She was a good person to go to if you had questions,” Kassner said. “One thing about Terri is that she’s good at delegating to people to their strengths. It might not be something they normally do, but she knows they’d be good at it.”

Since then, they have worked closely together to plan events, meetings, workshops and conferences, and occasionally have found themselves working directly with animals.

When one of the zoo’s lion cubs was recovering from a back injury, Cox and Kassner were among the employees who came to the zoo early to let the injured cub, who could not be placed with adult lions until she recovered, visit with her brothers for an hour or so every day.

“She’s never going to ask someone to do work she isn’t willing to do, that she hasn’t done herself,” Kassner said. “Her knowledge of the zoo industry is just incredible.”

Cox said she sees the zoo as a family, celebrating births and deaths and new arrivals as any would.

“We had kids who attended those (first zoo camps) that are now working for us,” Cox said. “It’s really fun to see that now that we’ve been open for 26 years. We see a generation of kids that we’ve influenced and who care about nature.”

One new family member in particular, a baby orangutan named Razak, was especially close to Cox. After he was born, Razak was rejected by his mother Mei, and a team of about nine employees worked in shifts to bottle-feed him, including Cox.

“It was a long seven-plus months that we lived,” Cox said. “We hope we never have to do things like that, but sometimes you do, and it’s such a special privilege to care for an animal, especially if they get to go back to their mom.”

She said a recent trip to the island of Borneo, which belongs mostly to Indonesia, to help efforts to rescue endangered orangutans, was among her most rewarding experiences with the zoo. She said the center she and Binder worked with in Borneo designated for orphaned orangutans may have as many as 40 at a time.

“I never really thought I’d be that enamored with great apes,” Cox said. “I knew well how vastly intelligent they are, and I knew that they were a high-maintenance species, but I did not know I would fall in love with them like I did.”

Cameron Park Zoo, which opened a $3 million orangutan exhibit in 2009, has donated more than $10,000 in funding, equipment, training and manpower to help conserve orangutans.

Stephen Holze, former president of the zoo society board, said Cox was the society’s first pick for the position.

“As soon as we were under this new model, she was a perfect fit,” Holze said. “It’s amazing to just see what she knows about it all.”

Holze said while Cox’s experience at the zoo is unmatched, her talent for navigating the extensive paperwork necessary for Association of Zoos and Aquariums accreditation, conservation and the zoo’s work with endangered species made him confident she was the best choice.

“Animal care is special to her for sure,” Holze said. “She has a really positive, can-do attitude, she’s goal-oriented, and there’s never a negative connotation or thought. It’s never ‘we can’t do that.’ It’s always ‘how can we do it?’ ”

Wildlife now roam where US once forged its deadliest weapons

DENVER — From a tiny Pacific island to a leafy Indiana forest, a handful of sites where the United States manufactured and tested some of the most lethal weapons known to humankind are now peaceful havens for wildlife.

An astonishing array of animals and habitats flourished at six former weapons complexes — mostly for nuclear and chemical arms — because the public and other intrusions were banned for decades.

When they became obsolete, the government converted them into refuges under U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service management, but the cost is staggering. The military, the U.S. Department of Energy and private companies have spent more than $57 billion to clean up the heavily polluted sites, according to figures gathered by the Associated Press from military and civil agencies.

And the biggest bills have yet to be paid. The Energy Department estimates it will cost between $323 billion and $677 billion more to finish the costliest cleanup, at the Hanford Site in Washington state where the government produced plutonium for bombs and missiles.

Despite the complicated and expensive cleanups, significant contamination has been left behind, some experts say. This legacy, they say, requires restrictions on where visitors can go and obligates the government to monitor the sites for perhaps centuries.

“They would be worse if they were surrounded by a fence and left off-limits for decades and decades,” said David Havlick, a professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs who studies military-to-wildlife conversions. “That said, it would be better if they were cleaned up more thoroughly.”

Researchers have not examined the health risks to wildlife at the cleaned-up refuges as extensively as the potential danger to humans, but few problems have been reported.

Most skeptics agree the refuges are worthwhile but warn that the natural beauty might obscure the environmental damage wreaked nearby.

The military closed the sites to keep people safe from the dangerous work that went on there, not to save the environment, said Havlick, author of a book about conversions, “Bombs Away: Militarization, Conservation, and Ecological Restoration.”

“It’s not because the Department of Defense has some ecological ethic,” he said.

Critics say Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Colorado illustrates the shortcomings of a cleanup designed to be good enough for a refuge but not for human habitation.

Roughly 10 miles from downtown Denver, the arsenal was once an environmental nightmare where chemical weapons and commercial pesticides were made. After a $2.1 billion cleanup, it was reborn as Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, with 24 square miles of idyllic prairie.

But parts of the refuge remain off-limits, including specially designed landfills where the Army disposed of contaminated soil. Eating fish and game from the refuge is forbidden. Treatment plants remove contaminants from groundwater to keep them out of domestic wells.

“So there’s a huge downside to converting it into a wildlife refuge, because it allows residual contamination to remain in place,” said Jeff Edson, a former Colorado state health official who worked on the cleanup.

The Army is still struggling with cleaning up Jefferson Proving Ground in Indiana, part of which became Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge .

Soldiers test-fired millions of artillery rounds there, some made of armor-piercing depleted uranium. Its radiation isn’t strong enough to be dangerous outside the body, but its dust is a serious health risk if inhaled or swallowed, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says.

Suburban voters are pressuring Republicans to act on guns

GILBERT, Ariz. — Following the news has grown stressful for Angela Tetschner, a 39-year-old nurse raising four children in this sprawling Phoenix suburb of tile roofs, desert yards, young families and voters who are increasingly up for grabs.

“Sometimes I do think about the school shootings,” said Tetschner, who doesn’t pay much attention to politics but has been disappointed in President Donald Trump, days after sending her 5-year-old boy to kindergarten. She’d like to see Congress tighten gun laws, but her expectations for action are low.

“You can’t not put your kid in school,” she said. “I just hope and pray that nothing happens.”

Tetschner’s worries are weighing heavy on Republicans in Arizona and elsewhere in the wake of recent mass shootings. The party has seen once-reliable suburbs turn competitive as women worry about their children’s safety and bristle at Trump’s harsh rhetoric on race and immigration, and they embraced Democratic alternatives in last year’s midterm elections.

GOP candidates looking ahead at tough races increasingly are eyeing new ways to address anxieties about gun violence, and to do that without crossing the party’s base, which sees gun restrictions as an infringement on the constitutional right to bear arms.

“Republicans’ backs are already against the wall among suburban voters, particularly college-educated women,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican consultant. “And the inability of our political system to pass what most Americans see as commonsense reforms related to gun violence only makes the matter worse.”

That tension is palpable in Arizona, a state with an ardent gun culture as well as a growing population of newcomers seeking sun, jobs and affordable housing in the suburbs that ring Phoenix.

Republican Sen. Martha McSally’s challenge is to navigate that divide. The freshman senator is facing a difficult reelection fight, probably against Democrat Mark Kelly , a former astronaut who became a prominent gun-control advocate after his wife, then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in the head in an attempted assassination in Tucson in 2011.

While gun control often fades from the conversation weeks after a high-profile shooting, the issue is likely to be a steady presence in this race, but not determine the outcome by itself. “It’s a part of their decision-making process, but it’s only a part of it,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster who advises GOP congressional leaders.

Pressure on McSally has been evident since shootings in California, Texas and Ohio. She has adopted a softer tone and spoken forcefully against hate and domestic terrorism. A vocal supporter of gun rights who once called universal background checks unconstitutional, McSally now says she is open to talking about new gun laws. She also says she intends to introduce legislation to make domestic terrorism a federal crime.

“We all need to do our part, whether there’s a federal element, a state element, a society element,” McSally told reporters in Phoenix on Thursday. “Let’s figure out what we can do that’s meaningful, that’s thoughtful, that’s not political theater in order to stop these crimes.”

McSally’s message echoes what other Republicans say.

After two shootings killed 31 people in less than 24 hours, President Donald Trump started talking about tougher background checks on gun buyers and prominent Republicans expressed support for laws that make it easier for authorities to seize weapons from people deemed suicidal or dangerous.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a longtime opponent of gun control laws, said the Senate could not fail to act, although he ignored a push by Democrats to call lawmakers back from summer recess to debate the issue.

McSally’s hopes for holding her seat hinge on holding onto voters in suburbs such as Gilbert, Mesa and Scottsdale where Republicans have traditionally performed well but saw their fortunes wane in last year’s midterms. Before she was appointed to the seat held by the late Sen. John McCain, McSally narrowly lost a 2018 Senate race to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, partly due to voters on the outskirts of Phoenix who split their tickets, voting for both Sinema and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.

McSally said her talk about changing gun laws is not new. She said that as a congresswoman, she sponsored an National Rifle Association-backed bill to improve background checks by making sure the database of people barred from owning guns is complete. But her openness, at least rhetorically, to new restrictions is a departure from her responses to earlier large-scale shootings.

After the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last year, McSally told an Arizona newspaper: “We have to address how we deal with those dealing with mental health issues.”

The Republican Main Street Partnership, a group of about 50 GOP members of Congress representing suburban districts, believes women in suburbs overwhelmingly support action.

Suburban women “want their guns, but they also want some kind of background checks,” said Sarah Chamberlain, the group’s president and CEO.

Democrats have reason to be skeptical of Republican pledges on gun legislation. Trump has shifted gears before, under NRA pressure. McConnell has not taken up a House-passed bill approved in February that would require background checks for most private sales, including online and at gun shows, and not just for transactions involving registered gun dealers.

McSally, who may face a primary challenge from an opponent of gun restrictions, is against the House bill. She said the shooters in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, were cleared to buy firearms. She said she is concerned about making criminals of people who lend a gun to their family members or close friends without a background check.

Polls show McSally’s red line on universal background checks does not align with the views of most Americans and may even face skepticism in Arizona.

Sixty-two percent of midterm voters in the U.S. and 56 percent in Arizona said gun laws should be made tougher, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of the 2018 electorate. A March poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found about 8 in 10 Americans in favor of a federal law requiring background checks on all gun buyers, including at gun shows and by private sale. Three-quarters of Republicans backed the idea.