Production by U.S. embassies of the State Department’s long-running series of annual “Background Notes” covering every country in the world had long been considered a useful service for the American public. Now, however, they appear to have morphed into yet another taxpayer-subsidized campaign commercial for the Obama Administration.
The old Background Notes were sui generis—useful reference materials that were more comprehensive than the practical but choppy CIA “Factbook” and other U.S. government publications. Now, though, State has dropped everything from the Background Notes but the section on relations with the U.S. No more historical context, no recounting of complex and long-standing issues in the country. Just cut to the chase—that is, the time when the current Administration came to power.
Compare the nearly 1,200-word “Fact Sheet” published this week by the U.S. embassy in Brazil with the last Background Note on Brazil written during the George W. Bush Administration.
The 4,100-word Bush document, chock full of facts and figures helpful in analyzing the country and its importance to the U.S., never once mentions the name of any U.S. President. The 300-word section on U.S.–Brazil relations takes up about 7 percent of the document.
Conversely, fully 70 percent (830 words) of the Brazil Fact Sheet, which is focused exclusively on U.S. relations with Brazil, discusses President Obama either directly by name (twice!) or in the context of the plethora of programs his Administration has launched with Brazil, including a shared “commitment to combat discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, or lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) status; to advance gender equality; a bilateral instrument that targets racism; support for HIV/AIDS prevention, promotion of clean energy technologies in Brazil, and mitigation of climate change.”
There is no mention, however, of how much these many programs are costing the American taxpayer.
Of course, the degree of glowing prose about a country’s relationship with the U.S. might depend on the political philosophy of the government. While the center-left government of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, which took office in 2011, warrants buckets of praise, the center-right government of Chilean President Sebastian Piñera, elected in 2010, gets much less ink (522 words) ,and the first paragraph dwells on the long-past bad old days in Chile under Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s.
So, apparently, the need for historical context is selectively applied. And although President Obama visited Chile on the same March 2011 trip he made to Brazil, there is no mention of it in the document.
Since President Obama took office, the budget of the State Department has increased from $38.7 billion to $50.2 billion, and thousands have been added to the payroll. Seems pretty easy to tell what many of them are doing.