Editorial: Breast milk is best for babies

York Dispatch

As it caroms from controversy to controversy with head-spinning speed, the Trump administration makes it difficult to keep up.

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Proposals or policy changes that would have been ballyhooed for days in previous administrations are quickly overtaken by fresh misdoings — or lost in the fog of obfuscation spun by President Donald Trump and his water-carriers in the White House and on Capitol Hill.

The possibility of making American citizens available to Russian inquisitors? Here and gone. Allowing the National Rifle Association and other groups to keep their donors’ identifies entirely private? Eclipsed by other stories. Declaring the War on Poverty largely over? Bet you don’t even recall that one.

All of these stories broke in recent weeks and none is exactly trending on Twitter.

But the president and his administration have a habit of reviving unflattering episodes (recall how long they kept former White House aide Rob Porter and his spousal-abuse allegations in the headlines).

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They are again refusing to divert the spotlight from another unfortunate misstep: The administration’s ham-handed efforts to water down a World Health Assembly resolution declaring mother’s milk as the healthiest option for babies and urging world governments to “protect, promote and support breast-feeding.”

The resolution was considered a routine piece of business when the WHA, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization, met this spring. After all, decades of research attest to the health benefits of mother’s milk, especially in young infants and particularly in poor and developing countries where other sources of nourishment can be scarce of difficult to obtain.

But the U.S. delegation, according to a July 8 story in the New York Times, turned what should have been swift passage of a matter-of-fact measure into two days of threats and roadblocks.

And according to the Times, delegates were far from subtle. When tiny Ecuador attempted to sponsor the measure, the U.S. unloaded both barrels.

“The Americans were blunt,” reported the Times. “If Ecuador refused to drop the resolution, Washington would unleash punishing trade measures and withdraw crucial military aid. The Ecuadorean government quickly acquiesced.”

Talk about international bullying! And for what? To block a policy that has been embraced worldwide for 40 years? But why?

The smart money says the administration was doing the bidding of baby-formula manufacturers. The proposal urged governments to limit false and misleading advertising by formula makers, a move the manufacturers see as limiting their ability to publicize and market their wares around the world.

It all boils down to public health vs. private profit, and the Trump administration was willing to use threats of trade sanctions and loss of military aid to tip the scales in favor of the latter.

A dozen or so other countries considered introducing the bill but faced similar U.S. opposition. So guess who finally successfully shepherded it to passage? Would you believe Russia? (Funny how they almost never face threats from this administration.)

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In typical, Trumpian fashion, the president shot back at the Times story. “The U.S. strongly supports breast feeding but we don’t believe women should be denied access to formula,” he tweeted. Of course, the WHA resolution said nothing about denying access.

And as recently as last week, two administration officials kept the story alive by arguing in a New York Post op-ed that the president and the administration do not question the health benefits of breast-feeding. Rather, they said, the U.S. took issue with a “guidance document” that puts parameters on advertising and marketing baby formula.

Which sounds a lot like defending baby-formula manufacturers.

Still, the two positions are not mutually exclusive. And the administration is free to lobby for changes. But why the heavy stick? Why the threats and difficulties? Why not make the case through advocacy and diplomacy?

Perhaps because this administration has proven inept at both.

It’s bad enough the brouhaha contributed to America’s growing reputation as a global bully. It’s worse that a practice universally acknowledged to be life-saving and health-rewarding was caught in the crossfire. It’s probably best now to try and forget the entire episode ever took place.

If the administration will let us.