Tag: North Korea

Trying to hem him in

The appointment of H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser is one more step in trying to hem in President Trump on national security policy. He remains in charge of immigration, health care, trade and many other subjects, but the Washington establishment (aka “the blob”) is trying to reassert control of some important foreign policy issues:

  • Vice President Pence has been in Europe reassuring the NATO allies of the Administration’s wholehearted commitment to the Alliance and openness to partnership with the European Union, despite the President’s often expressed skepticism of both.
  • Defense Secretary Mattis has done likewise with NATO and also visited Baghdad, in part to reassure the Iraqis that we are not, as the President has suggested we would, going to “keep” their oil (whatever that means).
  • H.R. is well-known for his book criticizing the generals for not objecting to escalation of the Vietnam War–he isn’t likely to stand by idly if Trump pursues courses of action that can’t be justified or sustained. Nor is he likely to ignore or denigrate the intelligence community.
  • Secretary of State Tillerson has been reassuring Ukraine of America’s support, including on Crimea, and calling out the Russians for failure to implement the Minsk 2 agreement.
  • Republican Senator McCain has trashed Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin, with Senator Lindsey Graham and other Republicans cheering him on amidst growing pressure for serious investigations of the White House’s Russian connections.

With those holes plugged, the main thrust of White House thinking about foreign and national security policy still has two major outlets: Iran and North Korea.

The nuclear deal with Iran is safe because the Europeans have made it clear they will not reimpose sanctions if Trump undermines it and the Israelis have told Trump they prefer the current restraints to none at all. But Tehran’s support for Bashar al Assad in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, and Shiite militias in Iraq gives people in Washington heartburn. Despite the nuclear deal, Tehran has few friends in DC because it has been far so aggressive in pursuing its regional interests.

The May 19 Iranian presidential election is already raising the political temperature in Tehran. The Revolutionary Guard is doing military exercises and shooting off missiles, though it is not clear whether any of them since General Flynn’s “notice” violate UN Security Council resolution 1929:

Iran is prohibited from undertaking any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons and States…

President Rouhani is feeling the heat, both from the Iranian right wing and from the Americans. Reformists have no one else to vote for, so he will likely to tilt towards the hawks in an effort to improve his prospects, which are good but by no means unassailable. He is also trying to improve relations with the Gulf Arabs, which would solidify his claim to restoring Iran’s influence and prestige in the region.

North Korea is the far easier and more worthy target. Let’s not even consider North Korea’s assassinations, human rights abuses against its own population, and oppression. Kim Jong-un is well on his way to getting missiles that can reach US bases in the Pacific and eventually the US West coast. The Chinese appear to be at their wits’ end with him. The problem is this: no one knows what, if anything, will bring the North Koreans to heel. If we were to try and fail, Pyongyang can retaliate with massive artillery barrages against Seoul. He could even use a few of his nuclear weapons.

If the establishment professionals succeed in their effort to hem Trump in with respect to Russia, Ukraine, NATO, and Iraq’s oil, he still has the opportunity to make a giant hash of things. The President is in charge. Getting Iran and North Korea right will not be easy, especially if the President decides he is better off listening to Steve Bannon than H.R. McMaster. Bad judgment is Trump’s consistent vice. He can get the United States into a lot of trouble.

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Good riddance, but problems persist

It’s hard not to celebrate the departure of General Flynn from the position of National Security Adviser. He was both pro-Russian and anti-Muslim beyond reason. A sworn enemy of the American intelligence establishment, he got caught by them talking sanctions relief with the Russian ambassador even before Donald Trump was sworn in. Then he allegedly lied to the Vice President about what was said. His comeuppance is well-merited.

Congressional Republicans are now pledging not to investigate him. Why would they do that? They are trying to contain the damage. Their reluctance suggests it is more than likely that Trump knew what Flynn was discussing with the Russians. Flynn’s testimony, or that of others cognizant of the contents of the phone calls, would call into question the President’s own behavior: did he authorize Flynn to discuss sanctions? Was he pleased that Flynn did so? Was this part of a broader scheme of accommodating Moscow’s interests?

The Congressional cover raises other questions: was it part of a deal to obtain Flynn’s resignation? Why wasn’t Flynn just fired? What are his non-disclosure arrangements with the Administration?

Whatever the answers, it is clear that Flynn’s resignation does not solve the basic problem, which is Trump’s unrestrained and so far unconditional desire for an improved relationship with Vladimir Putin. The President has never made it clear what he expects from this improved relationship, only that it would somehow magically make things better in the world. He also hasn’t specified what he would be prepared to give up in return: recognition of Russian annexation of Crimea? Southeastern Ukraine? Independence of Transnistria? Annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are already nominally independent? NATO accession of Montenegro, now on the Senate’s agenda for ratification? Further NATO expansion in the Balkans? NATO expansion further into Scandinavia? An end to American support for rebels in Syria?

These questions persist even without Flynn. Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson may restrain the White House from some particularly bad impulses, especially Trump’s inclination to ditch NATO altogether, but their leverage will be limited. If the President is prepared to pursue a rapprochement with Russia despite the failures recorded by his two immediate predecessors, he will no doubt pick a new National Security Adviser prepared to pursue his policy direction. I doubt that can be David Petraeus, who in any event is already tarred with the brush of security violations. But I trust there are lots of other people who will do the work if given the opportunity.

In the meanwhile, the resignation of the National Security Adviser (and according to the press his deputy) will throw a National Security Council already roiled by leaks into further turmoil. President Trump has already failed to respond with anything but a few thin words of support to Japan when North Korea tested a missile in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. He is looking unprepared for a crisis, which of course means that someone somewhere on earth is likely to think this is a good time to precipitate one. An already messy transition has unsettled America’s relationships across the globe and now seems likely to open the door to a serious security challenge.

It is easy enough to say good riddance to Flynn. But there are real risks involved in a presidency committed to cooperation with Putin’s aggressive Russia and unprepared to meet even the challenge of a North Korean missile test.

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Hard to keep up

It really is: the novice President has set a blazing pace in destroying alliances, alienating friends, strengthening adversaries, and provoking enemies. To wit:

  1. Phone calls with the traditionally friendly President of Mexico and Prime Minister of Australia ended in acrimony, with the former over who would pay for the border wall and with the latter over whether the US would keep its commitment to take some refugees.
  2. Europeans are predictably objecting to the ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. Chancellor Merkel has scolded the White House. The Brits are going to debate in parliament whether to go through with their Prime Minister’s invitation to Trump for a state visit, which would likely generate record protests.
  3. The Islamic State (ISIS) is using the immigration ban for recruiting purposes, as it fits perfectly with its narrative that the United States is at war with Islam while doing absolutely nothing to reduce the likelihood of terrorist attacks.
  4. National Security Advisor Flynn and the President have explicitly put Iran “on notice” about its missile tests and its assistance to the Houthi side of Yemen’s civil war. Watch this space for more sanctions or military action, though it is also possible the Americans are bluffing or just satisfying their domestic constituencies. The Iranians are likely to continue both missile tests, which they say do not involve nuclear-capable vectors, as well as assistance to the Houthis.
  5. Trump approved a Special Forces operation in Yemen that largely failed (he announced that it succeeded) and killed civilians, including children, as well as one American.

Binyamin Applebaum, who writes for the New York Times, has helpfully prepared a map illustrating those Trump has angered since taking office (click on the legend to read it):

No doubt more is in the offing. And the domestic front has been no less hyperactive: nomination of a Supreme Court Justice whose high school years included leading a club called “Fascism Forever” (you really can’t make up stuff as good as this), preparation of an executive order on “religious freedom” that would create giant loopholes enabling discrimination, and approval in the Senate of an Attorney General with a compelling record of racism and (il)legal efforts to suppress voting by minorities.

This would all be comical but for the likelihood it will lead to tragedy. While offending friends and allies, Trump remains committed to his bromance with President Putin, who shows no sign of giving Washington anything of value in return for its affection. The war in Ukraine is heating up and the Russians have nixed Trump’s proposal for safe zones in Syria, which can’t be created unless Russia as well as its Iranian and Syrian allies sign on.

Iran is the most likely point of serious friction, not only because of Flynn’s warning but also because the new administration appears determined to teach lessons that Tehran doesn’t want to learn. But North Korea is another possible friction point, as Pyongyang has the same attitude. War with either would be a major enterprise rife with risk and gigantic expense that few allies would be willing to share with a president who has no appreciation for the long history of America’s relationships with them. Trump is a unilateralist who will incur the full costs of any intervention against Iran or North Korea. He will find it difficult even to get multilateral sanctions beefed up against the North Koreans, as he has already done a lot to offend China.

America First is America on its own.

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This isn’t likely to go well

While there are a lot of other candidates for first international crisis in the new administration, North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs are a likely one.  Donald Trump tweeted yesterday, apparently in response to a remark by North Korean President Kim that his country would soon have an intercontinental ballistic missile:

North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!

He then added a bit later:

China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won’t help with North Korea. Nice!

If Trump intended that first tweet as a threat of unilateral US military action, he was not the first to propose it. More than ten years ago, current Defense Secretary Carter and former Democratic Defense Secretary Perry proposed the same thing. They wanted to destroy any North Korean missile capable of reaching the US on the launch pad.

But of course it is not clear what the tweet really means. Nor is it clear why Trump assumes that the ICBM in question would be capable of carrying a nuclear weapon to a US target. What he is doing here is what he often does: throwing ambiguous remarks into the public sphere with little or no concern for their factual basis or their impact on others.

That is also true for the second tweet about China. Trump wants Beijing to help with North Korea and to stop what he regards as unfair trade practices. Nothing wrong with that: presidents from Clinton onwards have wanted pretty much the same. But criticizing the Chinese publicly for the one is not likely to get you help on the other. And linking the two is disadvantageous for negotiating both. Trump has threatened to improve his negotiating leverage on trade by unilaterally imposing tariffs, a move that would precipitate Chinese retaliation. What would the odds be then for getting Beijing to move more firmly on North Korea?

Trump is now in a world far more complex than the one he is used to. I’m willing to believe that his business deals are complicated, but they are basically questions of how much people will pay to use his name. There are few other, unrelated, issues between him and his business partners. In international affairs, there are a lot of linked issues between major powers, making it exceedingly difficult to predict the consequences of any particular move. In military parlance, these are “wickedly” complex problems.

Trump can of course learn. He learned that he couldn’t make money running casinos, got out of that business, and started to sell his brand instead. But he doesn’t readily learn from the experience of others. He may listen attentively to Al Gore, but then nominated an Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency who doesn’t believe in human contributions to global warming. He pretended to listen to Mitt Romney, who has named Russia as the greatest strategic threat to the US, but he passed him over for Secretary of State.

A possible exception: his position on torture appears to have shifted after talking with his Defense Department nominee, General Mattis. But that is a rare exception. He has stubbornly persisted on many other issues where the weight of evidence is against his policy prescriptions: the wall with Mexico, repeal of Obamacare, making nice with Vladimir Putin, moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, blocking Muslims from entering the US and registering them once they are here….

We’ve got a president-elect who listens mainly to himself (and has even said as much publicly). The odds of that going well, especially when it comes to North Korea and China, are piddling.

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2016 sucked, but the world really doesn’t

John Oliver has already said it:


For me, 2016 was a lousy year on many fronts:

  • Russian and Iranian intervention reversed the tide of war in Syria and chased many more innocent civilians from their homes and their country.
  • North Korea has continued its increasingly capable missile and nuclear weapons programs.
  • Major terrorist attacks have succeeded in Paris, Nice, Brussels, Berlin, Orlando, Lahore, Istanbul as well as on board a Paris/Cairo Egyptair flight.
  • Britain voted in a referendum to leave the EU.
  • Donald Trump won the American presidential election, despite a notable lack of qualifications, reasonable policy proposals, and a majority of the popular vote.

Sure some nice things happened too, like the Paris climate change agreement, but global warming continued apace. The Islamic State lost a lot of territory in Syria and Iraq, but many innocent people got killed in the process. The Cubs won the World Series, but Cleveland lost.

Really unalloyed good news has been rare. Or at least not enough to counter the sense of an inexorable slide into more instability, less equity, and more confusion.

Most concerning is that liberal democracy–based on individual rights and rule of law–is losing ground. It’s not just Putin and Russia, but also Xi Jinping and China, Sisi and Egypt, Netanyahu and Israel, Erdogan and Turkey, Duterte and the Philippines, Khamenei and Iran, Kabila and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, even Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma. Leaders and countries are turning in illiberal if not outright autocratic directions. Hopes for liberalizing politics and economics are limited to places like Tunisia and Taiwan, important in their own right but peripheral to the center of gravity in their regions.

2017 is likely to be worse rather than better. There is no visible barrier to deterioration in the Middle East. The North Korean regime is increasingly consolidated. China is exploiting Trump’s provocations to ratchet up its own defiance, the movement of the US embassy to Jerusalem is likely to provoke dramatic Arab reactions, Angela Merkel is in peril, Marine Le Pen has a chance to win the French presidential election, Italian banks may fail, Khamenei, Erdogan, Duterte, and Kabila are determined to hold on to power.

But despair is no more a policy than hope. What counts more than anything else is not the pace of change. That might be very fast under Trump. But it is the direction that really matters. We need to find ways to make the world safer, more stable, more prosperous and more free. Even small steps in the right direction will eventually get you where you want to go. Let’s keep that in mind as we approach the end and the beginning.

Here’s the proof the pudding, but you have to take the long view to see it:

The next four years is unlikely to reverse any of these fabulously positive developments.

Or watch this via Zack Beauchamp (which dates from 2015 and therefore does not include the uptick in war deaths of the past couple of years, which still leaves the numbers low in historic terms):

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Rein him in!

Let’s count the potential international crises the President-elect has signaled he is prepared to initiate:

  1. Conflict with China over the South China Sea and/or Taiwan.
  2. Across-the-board tariffs that would cause a trade war with China.
  3. A nuclear arms race with his putative pal, Russia.
  4. Encouraging South Korea and Japan to get nuclear weapons.
  5. Movement of the US embassy to Israel to Jerusalem, precipitating an Arab and Palestinian reaction.
  6. Conflict with Russia and Iran by initiation of a no-fly zone in Syria.
  7. Withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), negotiation of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), and/or the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Let’s not count withdrawal from NATO, as he has already reneged on that promise, or withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, as even Prime Minister Netanyahu no longer favors that but rather prefers its strict implementation. Let’s also forget about the wall on the Mexican border, as the Mexicans won’t pay for it and Congress is likely to balk as well, and other immigration restrictions, which are inevitable now but will hurt the US more than any other single country. Let’s however add, because it is probably unavoidable:

8. A North Korean demonstration of nuclear and/or missile technology that threatens the US.

This is a spectacular list of things likely to provoke dramatic international reactions. It is also a list too long for any US government, even one led by experienced statespeople, to manage all at once. The neophytes of the Trump administration–including the President-elect himself, his Secretary of State nominee Tillerson, National Security Advisor Flynn, and his trade czar Peter Navarro–are guaranteed to make a hash of it if Trump tries to do even two or three of these things at the same time, never mind all of them.

Trump is blithely unaware of the challenges. He continues to use Twitter as his main means of communication, not only for his personal vendettas but also for what would be major policy shifts, provided he is serious. His defenders have been reduced to claiming that obviously he doesn’t mean exactly what he says on Twitter, as the issues deserve fuller treatment. Let’s not take him too literally, only seriously, they suggest, espousing something closer to a reasonable position on the issues Trump has tweeted wildly about.

This ambiguity about what Trump really intends is an added peril. Our adversaries no longer know what to think and are therefore compelled to prepare for what they regard as the worst. Minor confrontations are inevitable, as is escalation, given Trump’s irascibility. While the US was definitely under a greater external threat during the Cold War (because of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons) than it is today, the likelihood of major confrontation is now much higher, due to the uncertainty Trump has perpetrated.

Some are hoping for our institutions to compensate. But Congress and the courts can do little to reign Trump in. The confirmation process for some of his cabinet nominees may give a few in the Senate opportunities to signal their concerns, but there is little that can be done if Trump does not take the signals seriously. The courts rarely intervene on international issues, and then only after years of due process and appeals.

Two other possible brakes on Trump are likewise handicapped. The states can intervene effectively on domestic policy but are able to do little to affect foreign policy. American civil society–its citizens organized in nonprofit groups–will likely focus on domestic policy. The first big demonstration of the new era is likely to be the January 21 Women’s March on Washington. Preserving the benefits of Obamacare is likely to be a major domestic policy concern for civil society in coming months, along with exposure of Trump’s colossal conflicts of interest.

Ironically, it could be the business world that eventually reins in the businessman elect. The kinds of crises Trump is likely to precipitate are not good for US business, which knows how to get its voice heard in Washington. The US Chamber of Commerce was on the outs with Trump even before the election, over trade issues. But a South China Sea crisis or one of the others might be equally devastating to US business interests. Any international crisis will take a toll on economic growth, which is moving along at a decent pace even seven years into the recovery. Trump, whose personal business interests are paltry by big business standards, is going to come under a lot of pressure not to upset the apple cart.

Trump needs to be reined in. Whoever does it will merit the gratitude of the nation.

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