Tag: North Korea

It keeps getting worse

The problem today is not Charlottesville. The problem is the White House, starting at the top. The President can’t bring himself to denounce white supremacists, or even to say that Nazi flags have no legitimate role in American politics, even if the constitution protects their display. His acolytes likewise willfully ignore white supremacists who have killed many more Americans since 9/11 than Islamist extremists have.

If you put America first and want to protect its citizens, you would deal with the violent protesters in Charlottesville first and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria later. Or at least you would pay some attention to denouncing the thugs who think you are their leader–they gleefully shout “Heil Trump”–and skip the bromides about unspecified violence and vague “unity.”

You would also want to maintain America’s international credibility. Trump has spent the week shredding it. After threatening North Korea with “fire and fury” and claiming we are “locked and loaded,” it appears virtually none of the necessary preparations for military action against Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear programs have been taken. Forces have not been deployed, civilians have not been evacuated, and the Pentagon is denying that the use of force–notably not yet authorized by Congress–is imminent.

To top it off, Trump threatened military action also against Venezuela, where we would almost surely be better off to let nature take its course in ending President Maduro’s shambolic governance.

Trump’s threats are not credible, which means it will be far more difficult to mount a credible threat in the future. We are already at the point that many in the US government are ignoring the president: the Pentagon is not implementing his ban on transgender people, Secretary of State Tillerson is trying to stifle talk of war with North Korea, Republicans in Congress are heading towards a compromise on maintaining Obamacare. Other governments are laughing at Trump’s obsession with undoing whatever his predecessor did. If Trump fails to follow through on his threat against North Korea, and the North Koreans continue to test missiles and nuclear weapons, how much credibility will the United States have in the future?

Of course it is possible Trump will follow this week’s bluster with a cruise missile attack on North Korea, hoping to reproduce the applause he got after the attack on a Syrian air base in April and distract attention from the investigation of Russian interference in the election. But that attack was a one-off that has had little impact. Assad has continued to use small quantities of chemical weapons and to prioritize attacks against the relatively moderate opposition in Syria. A similar one-off against North Korea would predictably have no serious impact on its well-dispersed and hidden missile and nuclear programs.

Nor will many applaud. North Korea might strike back, most likely against Guam, but possibly also against Seoul or even Tokyo. How long do we think America’s friends and allies will remain friends and allies if Washington is seen as having started a war from which they will suffer the most? What are the odds that NATO could be held together once the Europeans conclude the President is rash, unreliable, and likely to provoke adversaries?

The Europeans can be sure of one thing, however: the adversary Trump will never provoke is Vladimir Putin. The reason is increasingly apparent: Russian money sustains Trump’s real estate empire, which was likely used to launder ill-gotten gains of Putin’s best friends. Trump can never turn on Putin, lest Putin pull the plug on Russian financing. This is blackmail, not collusion. We needn’t worry too much about Trump intentionally coming to blows with Moscow, which is using its leverage over the President to gain advantages in Syria.

Can Ukraine be far behind? My guess is that the Administration is busily trying to cut a deal on Ukraine, one that it could argue should lead to lifting of the sanctions on Russia. Fortunately, sharp eyes in Congress will examine any such proposition. It will be difficult for Trump to sell the Ukrainians short, the way he did the Syrian opposition.

The United States matters to friends, allies, and enemies less today than at any time during my lifetime, which corresponds to the entire post-World War II period. The damage to our web of alliances, our international credibility, and our position of leadership in the past seven months is gigantic. Generals Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster are proving incapable of blocking the President from his worst instincts. The only relief will come when Trump is gone. But none of us can tell when that might be. It keeps getting worse.

PS: It got worse within minutes of my publishing this piece. Trump said, in response to a car plowing into peaceful counterprotesters: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides. On many sides.”

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North Korea has the upper hand

I won’t have time this morning to write about President Trump’s foolish “fire and fury” threat against North Korea, which provoked a specific Pyongyang threat against the US territory of Guam. In any event, I wouldn’t do better than Robert Litwak, who had intelligent things to say about the issue this morning on NPR: 

Secretary of State Tillerson is wandering around the world saying the US wants to talk with North Korea, while the President blusters. That isn’t a good way to get the diplomacy going, because the North Koreans have a better alternative to a negotiated solution (BATNA) than we do: they need only continue their nuclear and missile programs and be prepared to launch a conventional artillery attach on Seoul if we start to act. In the game Trump is playing–military threat–North Korea has the upper hand.

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A flicker of bipartisanship

The House has reached bipartisan agreement on a sanctions bill that will make it harder for President Trump undo sanctions on Russia (as well as North Korea and Iran), unless he can present evidence that Moscow’s behavior has changed. That’s extraordinary: it has been a long time since Congress has reached a bipartisan agreement on anything important, much less something on which Trump disagrees.

There are still pitfalls. The House version of the bill will be voted on this week and then needs to be reconciled with the Senate’s version, which did not include North Korea. The Administration will do everything possible to water it down, threatening to veto it if it passes in its current form. But if the bill makes it through to approval in both Houses with veto-proof majorities (more than two-thirds), the White House will hesitate to undermine its already weakened president by vetoing and risking an override.

If and when the legislation passes, the US will have something resembling a tough-minded policy on Russian misbehavior, including its election hacking, its annexation of Crimea, and its invasion of eastern Ukraine (but not Syria). The legislation would also toughen policies on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs as well as Iran’s missile program and regional interventions.

None of this however should be expected to have an immediate impact. Unilateral sanctions, even “secondary” ones that punish other countries’ companies for doing business with Russia, Iran, and North Korea, are rarely effective in the short-term. Their impact is felt when you negotiate relief from them, not when you impose them. And the fact that the legislation makes it hard to provide relief will be a disincentive to Trump to use the authority the legislation provides, in particular on Russia.

We should of course expect retaliation from the countries sanctioned. Russia will of course maintain the prohibition on adoptions that the Trump campaign and Administration have repeatedly discussed with Moscow’s various representatives. Putin may expel some American spies and diplomats or prohibit American imports. North Korea will likely launch more missiles. Iran will too. Tehran can also target Americans in Iraq or Syria, though doing so risks an American military reaction.

Sanctions would be more effective if multilateral, in particular if the Europeans would join in imposing and implementing their own, comparable measures. That isn’t likely with respect to Iran, where the Europeans are doing good business since the nuclear deal. They may be more likely to act against Russia, though the Italians and others are already chafing at existing sanctions. North Korea is easy for the Europeans, though they are unlikely to join in secondary sanctions against Chinese banks and other companies.

The Trump Administration lacks the rapport with Europe (and most of the rest of the world) to get the kind of multilateral cooperation required to make sanctions bite against Russia, Iran, and North Korea. The President may have enjoyed Bastille Day in France with newly elected President Macron, but he has stiff-armed German Chancellor Merkel, who has the real clout. His pal British Prime Minister May is preoccupied now with Brexit, hasn’t been able to form a new government after suffering serious election losses, and in any event carries little weight any longer with the rest of Europe.

So, yes, this flicker of bipartisanship is good news, as it is a counterweight to some of President Trump’s worst instincts, in particular towards Russia. But it does not change international equation. Defiance will continue, as Trump has weakened the United States by offending its allies.

PS: While I was working on this piece, my colleague at SAIS Mike Haltzel published similar but more far-reaching views: A Ray of Hope on our Russia Policy | HuffPost

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Debacle

The Trump Administration is failing, both domestically and internationally.

On the domestic front, last night’s collapse of Republican support for the repeal and replacement of Obama’s health care legislation ends any reasonable prospect of legislative action on this front. Republican Senate leader McConnell says he will bring simple repeal to a vote, which is what President Trump says he now wants.

Were it to pass, the US health care system would be thrown into chaos, with damaging economic consequences. More likely, it will never come to a vote. Instead, the President and his virulently anti-Obamacare Secretary of Health and Human Services will instead try to weaken Obamacare through executive action. That will also cause enormous economic uncertainty and risk stalling an aging economic recovery.

Even if somehow the healthcare debacle is resolved, the Administration needs to raise the debt ceiling by the end of September, in order to avoid a US Government default. There is no agreement yet among Republicans (the Democrats count for little as they are in the minority) on when and how to do this. Since it is a “must-pass” measure, members will try to hang lots of other things onto it, likely delaying passage until the last conceivable moment.

On the international front, it is now clear that not only the President himself but also his son, Don Jr., welcomed and encouraged Russian help during the election campaign, along with the campaign manager and the President’s son-in-law. Special Counsel Mueller will now have to determine whether their behavior violated the legal prohibition on soliciting or accepting foreign assistance.

Judicial standards of proof are much higher than journalistic ones, so we’ll just have to wait and see what Mueller concludes, but in the meanwhile the White House has been reduced to arguing that nothing they did could possibly be illegal, even if it involved active collusion with Moscow. No one should be surprised if Trump welcomes gives Moscow back its spy facilities and the personnel that Obama expelled in retaliation for interference in the US election.

On other issues, the news is no better:

  1. North Korea: The Administration failed to prevent Pyongyang from testing intercontinental ballistic missiles, as the President promised he would do. His efforts to convince China to get tough with Kim Jong-un have likewise failed. Instead, Seoul is breaking with the US hard line and seeking talks with the North. Trump’s bluster and bullying has gotten him no result at all on the Korean Peninsula.
  2. Qatar crisis: While the President was encouraging Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to go after Qatar about terrorist financing, his Secretaries of State and Defense have been trying to smooth things over, fearing that Qatar might lean farther towards Iran due to the blockade Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have levied. Mediation efforts (mainly by Kuwait) have so far failed. The Gulf Cooperation Council remains split and weakened, while someone in Washington yesterday leaked intelligence saying the Emirates intentionally provoked the crisis by hacking into Qatari broadcasts with false information about statements the Qatari Emir never made. This is the umpteenth time the Trump Administration has suffered leaks, which of course it denounces but then does nothing about.
  3. The Islamic State: The military operations to liberate Mosul and Raqqa from ISIS are proceeding, but it is increasingly clear that there are no viable plans for stabilization, reconstruction and governance thereafter. In Mosul, ISIS resistance continues, despite the victory celebration led by Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi. In Raqqa, the Kurdish-led forces taking the city are likely to face Turkish, Syrian government and Iranian resistance once they succeed.

None of these issues is even close to being resolved. All are likely to get more challenging in the future. I confess to Schadenfreude: this Administration and Congress are proving as incoherent and incompetent as predicted. But it is not fun to watch your country paralyzed and weakened. There is no quick way out of the debacle we are in.

 

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Up creek, no paddle

The North Koreans celebrated July 4 with launch of a missile they claim (and some expert observers confirm) could be an inter-continental one. While they are still presumably some distance from being able to mount a nuclear weapon on an ICBM and deliver it to the US, President Trump had said they wouldn’t be allowed to continue to test this capability.

Trouble is, he seems to have no idea what to do about it. The US and South Korea launched a couple of missiles into the sea in response, but that is really pointless. Kim Jong-un knows full well that Seoul and Washington can obliterate Pyongyang, but he also knows that he has the capability to do likewise to Seoul. He has tens of thousands of well-hidden conventional artillery pieces within range of the South Korean capital. Even if most of them miss their targets, they will do colossal damage, mainly to civilians.

Trump’s bluff and bluster is also failing with the Chinese, who have reached an agreement with the Russians not to up the sanctions pressure on the North. Without Moscow and Beijing, American sanctions are essentially meaningless. Even the recent move against Chinese banks that finance business with North Korea won’t have much impact. The Chinese will likely move their operations to more opaque institutions. We’ll discover those and levy sanctions, leading to an interminable game of cat and mouse.

Admittedly, Trump is doing no worse than previous American administrations, which have likewise found a dearth of options. The difference is that Trump mocked “strategic patience” and promised success, repeatedly. He thus put US credibility on the line and thereby forced his own hand. He may have to “do something” for the sake of his own prestige.

What Beijing and Moscow want is a deal that would suspend at least some US and South Korean military exercises in exchange for freezing the North Korean missile program. That would be a good deal for the Washington and Seoul, since they really have little need to continue the exercises, except as a (feeble) response to Pyongyang’s provocations. It is not however clear that North Korea sees much advantage in that sort of mutual freeze, since the threat their missiles pose is a hypothetical one until they gain a real operational capability.

The US finds itself reduced to asking for a UN Security Council meeting. That is the kind of diplomatic gesture Trump would have mocked while President Obama was in office. It is nonetheless a good idea, to see if there might be some area of agreement among China, Russia, and the US.

Jaw-jaw in this case is certainly better than war-war. The US is up a creek without a paddle. Maybe someone will loan us one.

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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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