Tag: North Korea

Escalation

Military escalation is happening in several places these days:

  1. Syria:  in addition to the March cruise missile strike on a Syrian base in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons, we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks US attacks on Iranian-backed forces approaching US-backed forces, downing of at least two Iranian-built drones, and downing of a Syrian warplane. Tehran and Damascus are pressing hard in eastern Syria, in an effort to deny the US and its allies post-war dominance there.
  2. Yemen: the Saudis and Emirates are continuing their campaign against the Houthis while the Americans amp up their campaign against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Today’s promotion of Mohammed bin Salman, the architect of the Saudi intervention in Yemen, to Crown Prince of the Kingdom presages more rather than less war there.
  3. Somalia: the Administration has expanded AFRICOM’s latitude in attacking al Shabaab militants, who are proving more resilient than many anticipated.
  4. Afghanistan: the White House has delegated authority to increase US forces to the military, which intends to deploy several thousand more Americans to help the Afghans counter the Taliban.
  5. Russia: Moscow’s warplanes have been conducting provocative maneuvers against NATO for some time, and yesterday a NATO F-16 allegedly approached a Russian plane carrying the Defense Minister.

Meanwhile Iraq’s disparate security forces are closing in on Mosul, civil wars continue in Libya and Mali, and North Korea continues to test its increasingly long-range missiles.

This military escalation is occurring in a vacuum of diplomatic and civilian efforts. Syria talks sponsored by Turkey, Iran and Russia are slated to reconvene soon in Astana, but prospects for serious progress there on military de-escalation are poor. The UN-sponsored political talks in Geneva are stalled. Planning for governance of Raqqa after the defeat of the Islamic State there is unclear.

The UN has announced a new Yemen Special Representative of the Secretary General, but it will be some time before he can relaunch its efforts. The UN-backed government in Libya is still unable to exert authority, especially over the eastern part of the country. The UN’s Mali mission has been suffering casualties, inhibiting any civilian efforts there. President Trump has tweeted the failure of Chinese diplomacy (more accurately, his diplomacy with China) to produce results with North Korea.

None of this should surprise. Apart from North Korea, the Americans are committed to not relying on diplomacy (in particular through the UN) and to avoiding anything resembling state-building. While they may sometimes think about financing removal of rubble or mines in newly liberated areas of Syria, they are determined to avoid any responsibility for governance or law and order. The Trump Administration wants to follow the formula Bush 43 tried in Afghanistan: kill the Islamic State and Al Qaeda enemies and get out. The failure of that approach has apparently been forgotten.

The only substantial diplomatic effort the Trump Administration has been pursuing is with Israel and Palestine, where there is an almost 70-year record of failures, with only occasional, if important, moments of partial success (I am thinking of the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, not the Oslo accords). No one is taking bets that Jason Greenblatt’s efforts will succeed, though they may restrain the Israelis a bit and produce some modest improvements in the conditions under which Palestinians live. The two-state solution is, however, as far off as it has ever been.

The worst may be yet to come. The Trump Administration has aligned itself firmly with Israel, the Saudis, and the UAE against Iran. The Iranians seem increasingly determined to carve out their Shia crescent from Iraq through Syria and Lebanon all the way to the Mediterranean. We are on a collision course with Tehran, even if the nuclear deal hold for now

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Trump excels at disappointing

I regret to inform my august readership that Piglet is correct. Trump isn’t gone. He is claiming to have been vindicated, 100%. That of course is false. He was wounded, not vindicated, by the revelation that he hoped former FBI Director Comey would let former National Security Adviser Flynn off the hook and wanted the “cloud” of the Russia investigation lifted. But wanting and hoping are arguably not obstruction, even if I–like Comey–would have taken a president’s hope as an order.

Obstruction for now is in the eye of the beholder. Democrats see obstruction, though they might not if the president were one of their own. Republicans don’t, though there is no doubt they would if the president were not one of their own. Both seem to agree that Special Counsel Robert Mueller should make the determination, which demonstrates his considerable value added: removing the issue from a venue in which it can’t be settled to one in which it can be, on technical legal grounds.

But that will take time. In the meanwhile the Administration is demonstrating once again that it is incoherent. Yesterday, the President blasted Qatar again for financing terrorists, almost in the same moment that the Secretary of State was asking the Saudis and Emirates to back off their embargo of the tiny monarchy that hosts the largest US base in the Middle East:

A bit of inconsistency

Weeks after his disappointing appearance at NATO, the President also reaffirmed the Alliance’s “Article 5” mutual defense obligation, though in doing so he continued to suggest that the money is “pouring into NATO” as a result of his effort to press the allies to meet the commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defense. That isn’t the way this works: the money goes to the allies’ own defense efforts, not to the Alliance, and it is trickling in as allies begin to meet a commitment set in 2014 under President Obama, as a goal to be reached by 2024.

Some are happy to point out that Trump has not yet had a complete foreign policy disaster. A chipmunk could make it over that bar. He has however

  • weakened NATO,
  • split the Gulf Cooperation Council,
  • boosted China by withdrawing from the Paris climate accord,
  • ended a trade agreement for the Asia Pacific without proposing anything else as a keystone for US policy in the region,
  • failed to respond effectively to North Korean provocations
  • even begun to repair relations with Turkey,
  • and proposed a budget that would decimate US diplomacy and international aid.

America is in worse shape on the international stage than it was at the end of the Obama administration, when many thought we were already in pretty bad shape. Ironically, the best that can be said for Trump is that he has continued Obama’s military efforts against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, though he shares with Obama failure to enunciate a clear plan for how areas like Raqqa and Mosul will be governed once liberated.

Yesterday the President promised “100%” to testify under oath in the Special Counsel investigation of his campaign’s and administration’s connections to Russia. File that with his promise to release his tax returns, to provide documentation of his wife’s legal employment in the US, to prove his claim that millions of fraudulent votes were cast in the election, and a dozen other commitments. The President is unprepared, unreliable, and inconsistent. To my satisfaction, he has even botched repeal and replacement of Obamacare and is well on his way to botching tax reform. The alleged adults in the Administration haven’t yet fixed anything. Trump excels at disappointing.

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Concerned and uncertain

Pantelis Ikonomou, a former IAEA nuclear safeguards inspector who holds a PhD in nuclear physics from the University of Vienna, writes:

Nuclear capability is a key factor in global alignments and strategic balances. President Trump has upset both:

  1. He has failed to block North Korea’s nuclear program or insist on its adherence to the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
  1. He has encouraged US friends such as Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia to obtain nuclear weapons, in breach of the NPT, which could initiate such efforts by other middle powers, including Turkey and Egypt.
  1. During his visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel, Trump did not refer to a Middle East Nuclear-Weapons-Free-Zone, a goal set by UN Security Council Resolution 687 (April 1991) and reinforced in the 2010 NPT Review Conference. Neither did the US president urge the Saudis to abandon the notion of a possible nuclear capability under “certain circumstances,” as often expressed by Saudi Arabian officials.
  1. The US president has suggested abandoning the P5+1 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which would end the related International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring mission that provides unprecedented transparency for the Iranian nuclear program.
  1. President Trump additionally disrespected basic international commitments (NPT article VI and the New Start Treaty) by planning to extend and upgrade the US nuclear arsenal.

These moves cast a shadow over the NPT, which is the cornerstone of global arms control and non-proliferation efforts. Lack of US adherence dramatically weakens the treaty, since universality is already its Achilles heel.

The May 2015 NPT review conference in New York failed to produce conclusions, which demonstrated the gap between the nuclear weapons states (and their allies) and the rest of the world. Most UN member states have now joined an effort to produce this year a legally binding global treaty to make nuclear weapons illegal. The objective is to pressure the nuclear powers to eliminate nuclear weapons.

German chancellor Angela Merkel at the Munich Security Conference this year questioned the President’s understanding of the UN and EU. She wondered “will we be able to act in concert together or (will we) fall back into parochial policies?”

Trump has not offered a clear vision of a new world order. Nor does he (and the rest of the Western world) appear ready to accept the ongoing redistribution of power and international realignments. Aristotle defined the “final cause” as “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done.” Trump’s purposes remain obscure. The world remains concerned and uncertain.

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Making America grate

Donald Trump is a bully. We need only recall his treatment of his Republican competitors, especially Marco Rubio, and his stalking of Hillary Clinton during the last presidential debate, to realize that the President has an irresistible impulse to try to intimidate and dominate others. He tried it again this weekend with his threat to make recordings of their conversations public if former FBI Director Comey leaks to the press. He has also tried it with Kim Jong-un, alternately with offering to talk with him if the conditions are right. He has even tried it with Tea Party Republicans, when they refused to go along with a lousy revision of Obamacare that failed to meet their definition of “repeal.”

It isn’t working, because most adults know how to respond. Kim Jong-un is simply proceeding with his missile tests, knowing full well that ratcheting up UN Security Council sanctions is going to be difficult. By contrast, Comey, though reportedly fine with the existence of tapes of his phone conversations with the President, is not going to testify this week. I imagine he and his lawyers need to weigh a lot of pros and cons, since the Senate Democrats will want to ask him about ongoing investigations. That’s understandable, but sooner or later Comey will also defy the bully.

The bully ends up giving in more often than not, because he hasn’t got all the powers he pretends to wield. Trump has clearly overestimated his powers as president: the courts have stymied his immigration ban, his executive orders are often empty, and the Republicans in Congress are starting to bite back, even if not enough to satisfy me. Trump’s effort at rapprochement with Russia are going nowhere, he has backed off his promise to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and he is now figuratively licking the boots of the Chinese he once accused of raping America.

He really has only confirmation of a Supreme Court justice the Senate Republicans wanted, roll back of environmental and other regulations, and the cruise missile attack on Syria to show for his more than 100 days in the presidency. The former two items are important and something I regret. Gorsuch has already concurred in executing someone who might have been exonerated by DNA evidence. The US will be unable to meet its climate change commitments, even if it doesn’t withdraw from the Paris agreement.

The cruise missile raid has no significance, as it was done as a temperamental one-off without proper diplomatic and military followup that might have tipped the Syrian war in a new direction. Assad has used chemical weapons several times thereafter, without any American response, and now the State Department says he is building a crematorium to hid the execution of thousands of prisoners. In fighting ISIS and Al Qaeda, Trump has racked up a record of doing pretty much what his predecessor was doing but with bigger bombs, more drones, and more civilian casualties. The big difference is the lack of any diplomatic strategy other than bullying.

This week will be an important one: Turkish President Erdogan is in town trying to get the Americans to back off support for Syrian Kurds he regards as terrorists but the American generals think are the only available force able to remove ISIS from the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa. The generals want to do this quickly, they say, because ISIS is planning attacks on the US in Raqqa. Trump is likely to bully Erdogan, though he may also try to sweeten the pot by offering to be helpful on the extradition of Erdogan’s arch-nemesis, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania. That’s an empty promise, as the courts will make the decision.

A different president might cut a deal with Erdogan on Syria, thus preserving strong ties to America’s Turkish allies: if they want to prevent the Kurds from taking Raqqa, let them try. If they fail, the Americans do Plan B with the Kurds. The rationale for haste doesn’t add up: ISIS can plan attacks from anywhere. Removing them from Raqqa without a serious idea for how to govern the place thereafter reminds me of the myth of Sisyphus. You know: he was condemned to rolling a boulder up a hill, only to see it slide back down when he got near the top. That’s what is going to happen if the post-victory scenario in Raqqa has not been well-prepared. ISIS, or worse, will be back.

But options other than bullying, alternating with obsequious flattery, seem well beyond this president’s tool box. A great negotiator he is not. He is making America grate.

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Still adrift

After a rough start, the Trump Administration has gotten more plaudits lately: the cruise missile attack on a Syrian airfield and the Mother of All Bombs used in Afghanistan pleased those who wanted the United States to show more “resolve.” Vice President Pence then used those two attacks to suggest that North Korea should not try to test the President, all but laying down a new red line. The US would react, he suggested, if Pyongyang tested missiles or a nuclear weapon.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Mattis is rallying allies in the Middle East and National Security Adviser McMaster has been in Afghanistan and India. The President has met with the NATO Secretary General, signed on to Montenegrin accession to the Alliance, endorsed the Export-Import Bank, and certified that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal.

That is all good. It is starting to look like a more or less normal American administration, even if it is using force with more abandon than its predecessor.

It’s not, mainly because of Trump himself. His congratulatory phone call to Turkey’s President Erdogan was the tip-off, as it ignored the obvious problem of a popular referendum used to establish autocratic powers. While Mattis and McMaster are adults who will try to do things right and steer Trump in productive directions, the President’s instincts and mode of operation still raise serious questions. No clear strategy has followed up either the Syrian or the Afghanistan attack. President Assad is still killing civilians with abandon, with help from the Russians and Iranians. The Taliban are still making progress in Afghanistan, perhaps more than ever before. Unless something changes, both American attacks will soon be seen as one-offs that presage no serious plan in either country.

The North Korean situation is similar. While the Americans boast that all means are on the table, Kim Jong-un knows perfectly well that his tens of thousands of conventional artillery pieces targeted on Seoul’s more than 20 million people will deter Washington from serious use of military force. Pence’s bravado was aimed squarely at the American and Chinese audiences. The best he can expect from Pyongyang is a willingness to talk. Kim does not back down on development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, because they are the guarantee of his regime’s survival.

Even if the Chinese exert their maximum leverage, Pyongyang is likely to stay adamant. Meanwhile, the Americans made fools of themselves by losing track of the carrier battle group the White House and Pentagon had said was on its way towards the Korean peninsula when in fact it was near Indonesia. I can only guess how much laughter that is causing in Beijing and Pyongyang. They’ve certainly now learned to doubt whatever Trump claims, which would have been wise anyway.

Despite this and other gaffes, there is at least some reversion to a more normal foreign policy direction. Secretary of State Tillerson remains alone at the State Department, with no other presidential appointees. That in a way is good, as it leaves any issues on which the Administration has given no new guidance in the hands of professionals who will continue to do what they were doing before, albeit with a bit less confidence and a bit more hedging of their bets. But any real progress depends on developing strategies for Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea, not to mention Yemen and Libya, that are clear and achievable. In other words, we are still adrift.

 

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Laconic to a fault

Tomasz Zalewski of the Polish magazine Polityka asked some questions about Secretary of State Tillerson. I replied:

Q: What is the role of Tillerson in making of US foreign policy? Is he its architect, or just an executor of Mr. Trump’s (or other peoples’) orders?

A: If he has any role at all, it appears to be minimal. He hasn’t even been an “executor.” More like a hanger-on.

Q: How valuable are his skills of the former Exxon’s CEO in the US diplomacy?

A: I have seen no value so far. [Maybe I should have added: other than his initial statement to the State Department personnel, which was well received.]

Q: How significant are the 28 percent cuts in the Department of State budget proposed by the White House – and the fact that Tillerson has agreed with them?

A: 28% is a devastating cut in a single year. It won’t happen, but the fact Tillerson agreed to this ridiculous number suggests he has no interest in defending the department he heads.

Q: What to make of the fact that Tillerson does not take the media on his trips and generally says very little in public?

A: He has no understanding of the Secretary of State’s role in public affairs and doesn’t care to learn.

I might add this, the State Department statement on the latest North Korean missile test:

North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.

That’s laconic to a fault, unless there is further action taken. 

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