It isn’t funny anymore.
The past week showed the lunacy of Mr. Trump and his actions as president in all their weirdest manifestations. From calling American Jews “disloyal” to Israel (among the oldest tropes of anti-Semites) if they vote for a Democrat, to calling the Prime Minister of Denmark “nasty” (his go-to slam on women of power who don’t do what he wants), to acknowledging himself as the “second coming of God” and the “King of Israel,” to calling his hand picked Chairman of the Federal Reserve the “enemy,” it was hard to keep up with his unraveling. It was yet more bafflegab. As the old saying goes, “you can’t tell the players without a score card.”
None of these were the low points of the past week, however. That honor goes to Mr. Trump’s participation in the Group of Seven (G-7) summit over the weekend in France. The G-7 has through the decades provided a forum for the world’s seven strongest democracies to reach a common understanding of problems facing the world and to provide an opportunity to face those problems with a common purpose. This year’s meeting could more properly be called the G-6 and some guy named Trump.
Symbolic of the entire American fiasco were the pictures of the meeting on climate change where all of the G-6 were there, along with the leaders of other nations invited to sit in on the session, and an empty chair where the President of the United States was to sit. The proffered excuse for his no-show was that he was in meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A scheduling conflict. Except that both Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Modi were at the climate change round table as is clearly shown in pictures of the group in session.
Does anything symbolize our current status in the world of international diplomacy more than a picture of an empty chair?
Whatever one’s view on climate change and its importance to the world (I think it an existential threat to our well being, physically, economically and militarily) to have the supposed leader of the free world missing in action shows that the United States is no longer the leader on the world stage. Reports from other weekend meetings indicate that Mr. Trump was marginalized by the other world leaders because they were focused on important issues related to the future of their countries while Mr. Trump spent much of his time bragging about his trade war with China, pushing to have Russian President Vladimir Putin reinstated to the G-7 (making it the G-8 even though Russia still occupies Ukrainian territory in Crimea — the reason they were kicked out — and oh by the way, they are not one of the world’s leading economic powers or democracies) and touting his Doral, Florida golf course and resort as the finest in the world and the anticipated site of next year’s G-7 summit (thus making a profit on one of his business dealings by making foreign leaders and their entourages pay him for the privilege of fulfilling their duties.)
It was clear to observers that the G-6 were merely tolerating Mr. Trump and their goal was not to engage him on substantive issues, but rather to assuage him, flatter him and otherwise keep him occupied so that he did not blow up the primary focus of the work they were trying to do. They knew he would not be part of any solutions so their only objective was to keep him from making the situation worse. They mostly succeeded.
In other words, the world is moving on without the United States. “America First” has become “America Alone.”
It is, once again, obvious that Mr. Trump has no understanding of history or why the world has been at relative peace for the last 75 years. Decades of building trust through multi-lateral organizations such as NATO took down barriers that had resulted in two world wars in the span of twenty-five years. Peace resulted in tremendous economic prosperity in many parts of the world and raised the relative standard of living for most people on earth.
The number one beneficiary of that peace and prosperity? The United States. By taking the lead around the world, we could shape these institutions to our benefit. Other countries were willing to follow our lead because of our economic and military power, but also because they too benefited. It is to our distinct advantage to be part and parcel of these institutions and to set the agenda through our strength and seasoned leadership.
To Mr. Trump this system exists only because previous administrations were chumps and allowed the rest of the world to take advantage of us. Obviously, he has no understanding that the circumstances that led to World War II — the U.S. going it alone in isolation, imposing strict tariffs, the Great Depression — are being recreated by his vacillating and impulsive policy announcements via Twitter.
Real diplomacy aims to achieve a win-win for those involved. Mr. Trump’s core belief is that there are never any win-win situations. Only winners and losers. One must win at all cost — even if that means lying, cheating, and subverting your friends. Otherwise, you are a sucker.
An example would be Mr. Trump’s dealings with Denmark over Greenland. The U.S. could argue that Greenland has important strategic interest to the U.S. for two reasons. The geo-strategic reality that a militarily resurgent Russian Navy must pass through the U.K.-Iceland-Greenland Gap to get to the open Atlantic Ocean — simplifying the U.S. Navy goal to locate those forces, especially submarines. The other is the growing importance of the Arctic to commercial interests, including shipping, for which both Russia and China have ambitious plans. If Mr. Trump understood diplomacy and the multi-lateral nature of our alliances, he would know that Denmark — the Danish kingdom includes Greenland — is one of our greatest allies including sending troops to support us in Afghanistan and Iraq and suffering 43 of their brave soldiers killed in action. Instead of cancelling a state visit — rarely offered by the kingdom — and calling the Prime Minister “nasty” he should have made the visit, talked with the Danish government and worked to see how to meet both nation’s interests while preserving the goals of the U.S. Instead he got mad when they would not sell the island at his demand, as if we would sell Puerto Rico to the French because they want to protect their interests in the Caribbean.
So the world simply moves on without the U.S. and works together without our input. The resulting impact on our foreign policy and national interests is that we lose our seat at the table. All Mr. Trump can do is throw a temper tantrum and disrupt. Indeed, he considers himself a disrupter, a position that has some great appeal to his supporters.
In reality, he is not a disrupter, he is a destroyer. He breaks things and destroys in a fit of pique or just to show that he can. A real leader may shake up the status quo, but has a plan and a strategy to implement a new, and one hopes, better idea. Not so with this president. He breaks things, blames others for it, and expects the world to pick up after his mess. He has no grand plan.
Our friends and allies have learned the game. So have our adversaries. Our friends do not want to play anymore. Our adversaries see a chance to take advantage of the situation. Our friends simply placate him to his face so that he stays out of the way and then they go and do what they want without our input. Our adversaries flatter him and then do whatever they want without fear of consequences.
It may be a stretch to say that we are becoming irrelevant, but our influence is quickly waning.
This may be our weakest international position since before World War II.
One has to wonder where the Trump Administration is headed with their policy towards Iran. There are, to say the least, a number of contradictions. However, before I get too far into this, I would like to make three comments.
- For almost forty years the Iranians have been nothing but trouble-makers. The government is the number one source of state sponsored terrorism in the world. The leadership continues to try and export the revolution and to thwart U.S. interests in the Middle East.
- I am glad that Mr. Trump called off last week’s planned strikes into Iran. Unfortunately, like so many of his decisions, he did so for the wrong reasons.
- While on active naval service, I made two port calls in the 1970’s to Iran. One to Bandar Abbas and one to Khorramshahr. Interesting places, but maybe not too relevant to this piece. Since then I made several trips through the Strait of Hormuz on U.S. Navy ships in and out of the Persian Gulf, and every time we were tested by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) armed boats. No shots fired.
As you know, Iran is responsible for a series of attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman, near the Strait of Hormuz, in recent weeks. Five total as of this writing. Additionally, they launched surface-to-air missiles against U.S. military drones, missing once and hitting two including the most controversial last week. Why?
The most obvious reason is that their economy is being crushed by sanctions imposed by the U.S. It is having a direct and profound impact on daily life inside Iran. The sanctions are succeeding in that respect. While the United States is demonstrating its ability to succeed in this effort, it forces the Iranians to respond in order to demonstrate their own resolve, show their citizens that they will not bow to the U.S., and to attempt to get relief from the sanctions. In other words, they are demonstrating that they can have an impact on the world’s economy by stopping all Persian Gulf oil, not just Iranian oil, from reaching the market, thus having a direct impact on countries such as Japan and others that rely on that oil for their own economic well-being. If they cannot totally stop the flow of oil, then they can make it so costly — insurance rates, the price of oil, military requirements to protect tankers, etc. — that it will still have an impact unacceptable to many countries. (As a side note, when I worked Middle East issues in the Pentagon, insurance rates for shipping in the Gulf was one of our measures of effectiveness (MOE). If they went up, we needed more resources. When they went down, we as a military were being effective in keeping the sea lanes open and secure.) The point is, the Iranians are not going to stop meddling with the shipping lanes in and out of the Gulf until they feel some sanctions relief.
Here is the mismatch. The Trump Administration claims that the sanctions will be eased when the Iranians come to the table to renegotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. Mr. Trump pulled us out of it in May of 2018. One may claim that the JCPOA was a good deal or a bad deal, but in the short term at least it did stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. It opened Iran up to verification of its compliance and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conducts regular inspections to ensure continued compliance. The other members of the agreement besides the U.S. (the U.K, Russia, China, France, Germany, and European Union) agree that Iran is abiding by the terms of the agreement and all remain in the agreement while working with Iran to keep them from violating its terms. Even the U.S. intelligence agencies as late as this spring testified in open hearings to Congress that the Iranians continue to abide by it.
So why would Iran return to negotiate a deal that they had already agreed to but from which the United States withdrew and is now punishing Iran for complying with that treaty? To be fair, one of the main criticisms of the JCPOA is that it addresses only nuclear weapons and not the development of ballistic missiles or Iran’s continued support of terrorism throughout the region. Fair enough. The original idea behind the negotiations was to take it one step at a time. Solve nuclear weapons and then address missiles in another treaty. Solve missiles and then address stopping terrorist activities. A building block approach that would instill trust as each step takes effect and allows for continued negotiations. It may or may not have worked, but now we will likely never know. More to the current point, why would the Iranians trust the U.S? And if this president can tear up a treaty with malice of forethought then what would keep the next president — elections are in 18 months and we may have a new one — from tearing up the Trump Treaty? There is no trust.
Making matters worse for our current strategy is that our trusted allies and friends no longer trust us either. Some, especially Japan and Germany and France, are not even sure that they can trust us when we say that the Iranians are definitely behind the recent attacks. And if they don’t support us now, they will certainly not support us in an armed conflict in the region. The U.S. does not want to go it alone in this arena.
Making it worse, even it if it sounds logical on one level, is Mr. Trump’s tweet that maybe the U.S. would not protect shipping without being compensated.
“China gets 91% of its Oil from the [Strait of Hormuz], Japan 62%, & many other countries likewise. So why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation. All of these countries should be protecting their own ships on what has always been a dangerous journey. We don’t even need to be there in that the U.S. has just become (by far) the largest producer of Energy anywhere in the world!”
While on one level it is imperative for a coalition effort to thwart Iranian attempts to disrupt the shipping lanes, on another it ignores the number one maritime objective of the United States — to protect shipping lanes around the world to ensure the free flow of commerce at sea. Did that just change because “we don’t even need to be there”?
While Mr. Trump once again made himself the hero of a soon to be catastrophe by fixing the crisis he created, still, calling off the strikes last week was the right call. He made himself into some kind of humanitarian savior by implying that no one told him about possible loss of human life. I find that insulting to the U.S. military. He implies that they aren’t doing the job because he didn’t find out about the number of casualties until 10 minutes before the strikes. Hogwash! The president, any president, is offered a series of options for him to choose. Included in the “pros and cons” of any option is the potential loss of life to Americans and to those under attack when the situation is not all out combat but rather a “message” as these were intended to be. He is either lying or cannot comprehend basic information. (By the way, in that series of tweets Mr. Trump tries to sound tough by saying that “we were cocked and loaded” to attack. Anyone that has served in the military would know that no one talks that way in senior, serious discussions and that besides, the expression is “locked and loaded.”)
But I digress.
The best reason for calling off the strikes is that, according to reports from senior, unnamed officials in the Pentagon but thought to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is that there was no second step. There was no consideration for what is called branches and sequels — what happens and what steps do we take when the Iranians inevitably respond. There was no clear understanding of what those strikes would do to enhance our strategy of getting the Iranians to the table. It would in fact, have made that much harder as the Iranians would likely have escalated their attacks and there were no follow-on U.S. plans. Fundamentally, Mr. Trump and his advisers lost sight of the fact that the enemy gets a vote on how things unfold. Without thinking through the next steps, having those strikes go forward would have opened up a potential Pandora’s Box of serious trouble in the Gulf.
Remember this. There is a reason we have fought in Iraq and Syria. They are not Iran. Iran has been a bigger trouble-maker in the region and a bigger counter to our policy goals than the other two ever were or could be. Why haven’t we gone after the Iranians in the same way? Because it will be hard.
In the 1987-88 Operation Earnest Will, the U.S. and other nations escorted tankers to protect them from the Iranians. During the Iran-Iraq War, the Iranians tried to cut off Iraqi oil shipments through the Gulf. Besides escorting tankers, the U.S. and coalition forces fought the “tanker wars” to punish the Iranians for placing mines in shipping lanes and other hostile acts. U.S. Navy ships were hit by mines (none sank) and other Iranian actions resulted in SEAL raids, and attacks on Iranian warships. Operation Praying Mantis resulted in a number of Iranian ships going to the bottom or being put out of action. The point is, the Iranian harassment of shipping quickly came to a stop. The Iranians also learned some valuable lessons in how to combat U.S. forces through asymmetric means.
The Iranian Navy is basically a professional navy built along the lines of most in the world with a recognizable command and control structure. The real bad guys are the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that have their own forces, ashore and afloat, and do not answer to anyone in the Iranian government other than the Supreme Leader. Those are the ones to keep an eye on.
So now what? The Iranians probably think that Mr. Trump is all bluster and no action. Will that encourage more dangerous provocations on their side? How will the U.S. respond? If our policy is to corral Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions than how do we do that? No easy answers.
Whether we are officially in or out of the JCPOA, along with the other members of the agreement, it would seem to provide the best frame work for re-engaging with the Iranians. As far as practical, without losing our advantage in the region, talking is better than fighting. Should it come to war, we will prevail. But keep in mind that we are not talking about a few cruise missile strikes into empty air fields in Syria. It will be messy and we will take casualties. They will not be pushovers and they will test our capabilities. Right now, the rest of the world may not be with us. Most importantly, what is the end game? What do we want from the fighting? In 1988 it was for them to quit interfering with shipping lanes. It worked. Today we say it is guarantees about no nuclear weapons. How do we achieve that when everything the Iranians see around them (hello, North Korea) indicates that Mr. Trump responds with love letters to those with the weapons who test them, fire ballistic missiles and threaten the U.S. main land?
The Iranians tried negotiations through the JCPOA and feel like they were tricked. It will not be easy to get them back to the table, no matter how grim their economy. The Trump Administration needs to re-engage with the Iranians, without preconditions, but without easing sanctions until talks resume. Then a measured give and take — known in diplomatic circles as “compromise” — can result in the easing of some sanctions in return for specific Iranian actions. This may be the best way to ease us out of this growing crisis. Without it, expect the Iranians to continue to act out until they find the limit of U.S. patience.
In the wake of yesterday’s meeting between Kim Jong Un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) and Donald J. Trump of the United States of America (USA) it is hard to assess the level of success, if any. It is likely that we may not know the impact of the meeting for months or even years down the road.
In the short-term it appears that tensions were defused on the Korean peninsula and the likelihood of war decreased. It is always better to be talking to our adversaries than to be fighting. As Winston Churchill said in 1954, “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.” Should yesterday’s meeting in Singapore lead to further dialogue, that in and of itself is not a bad thing. It may lead to larger achievements. Or, it may not.
Given the past history of negotiations with the North Koreans, yesterday’s agreement is less impressive than others under past administrations and therefore does not give anyone solace that the results will be any better. Here are the highlights of part of the history of past negotiations and agreements. Note the continuing pattern. The North Koreans express their willingness to end their nuclear and missile programs in exchange for normalized political and economic relations with the US and the rest of the world. Deja vu all over again?
- In December 1985, the DPRK agrees to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but does not complete the inspection agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — the international inspectors. The DPRK linked its approval for IAEA inspectors to the US withdrawing all of its nuclear weapons from the peninsula.
- In September 1991 President George H.W. Bush announces the unilateral withdrawal of all tactical nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula. In response, in November the South Korean president renounces the all elements of nuclear weapons including deployment from other nations and programs to develop their own.
- In January 1992 the two Koreas sign the South-North Declaration of Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula prohibiting nuclear weapons and allowing for mutual inspection and verification. Later in the year, the DPRK came to allow IAEA inspectors into the country.
- In June 1994, former president Jimmy Carter negotiates a deal where the DPRK agrees to “freeze” its nuclear program in exchange for high level talks with the US.
- In October 1994 the US and DPRK adopt the Geneva “Agreed Framework” where the DPRK will freeze its nuclear program and work to dismantle what is in place in exchange for heating oil and other economic assistance and a call for the normalization of all relations between the US and DPRK.
- In the next few years, the US imposes ever harsher sanctions on the DPRK as they are found to be exporting missile and nuclear technology to countries such as Iran and Pakistan.
- Late in 1998 President Bill Clinton appoints former Secretary of Defense William Perry to coordinate the US response to North Korean missile and nuclear advances. The CIA assessed that the DPRK has the capability to reach Hawaii and Alaska with a ballistic missile.
- Negotiations continue throughout 1999 with an agreement for a reduction in sanctions in response to the renewed inspection of DPRK efforts to dismantle their programs in a “step by step reciprocal fashion.“
- In June 2000 North and South Korea announce an historic agreement to “resolve the question of reunification” of the Korean peninsula.
- Throughout 2000 envoys from the US and DPRK meet in various locations culminating in the unprecedented visit by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the DPRK capital in Pyongyang.
- In January 2002 President George W. Bush includes North Korea in his “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq.
- In April 2003 Trilateral Talks with the US, DPRK, and China get underway and the DPRK announces that they have nuclear weapons, the first time that they admitted having them. They tell the US that they would be willing to get rid of them in exchange for “something considerable in return.”
- Later in the month, Six Party talks are held and the DPRK proposes a step-by-step solution including a “non-aggression treaty,” normalized relations. and the US provides heating fuel and increased food aid, among other things. In return they will dismantle their nuclear facility and end missile testing and exports.
- In September 2005 the Six Party talks resume and the DPRK agrees to work to achieve a “verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in a peaceful manner.” It will be done in a phased manner in a step-by-step way.
- In July 2006 the DPRK launches seven missiles, six of which are assessed to be successful. The UN Security Council condemns the launches and demands that they cease. The DPRK refuses.
- And so on, and so on, and so on. The DPRK comes to the negotiating table, promises to end all of its programs and then proceeds to break all of its promises as the US, the UN Security Council and the world in general condemn them and institute sanctions.
Note how similar the language (in bold, just in case you missed it) is in all of these talks, agreements and protocols compared to Mr. Trump’s announcements as to his belief that Kim will abide by his word.
Kim came to the table because of the nuclear and ballistic missile capability that he now possesses. He came to display his power as a world player co-equal to the President of the United States thanks to his nuclear capability. He did not come to turn them over. The agreements above (and more!) were very, very specific, technical, and based on the complicated and meticulous analytical tools needed to inspect and verify that the North Koreans are complying.
Compare that level of detail with the “agreement” signed in Singapore. (The full text is here.) It is surprisingly short and devoid of specifics. The four main points in the document are (emphasis is mine):
- “The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.”
- “The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula.”
- “Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
- “The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.”
That’s it. The rest of the agreement talks (several times) about the “historic” nature of the meeting and other diplomatic language. No specifics. No timelines. No next meetings. Nothing. Arguably only the recovery of POW/MIA remains is concrete.
In addition, much to the surprise and consternation of our allies in South Korea and Japan, the president said that he verbally agreed to halt all US exercises on and around Korea — or as he calls them “war games.” Mr. Trump opined that “We will be saving a tremendous amount of money. Plus, it is very provocative.” He also went on to say that he hopes to bring US troops home from the peninsula soon.
Provocative? Really? Maybe in Kim’s eyes but hardly in those of the South Koreans or Japanese. There is a reason that there has been no further large-scale conflict on the Korean peninsula all of these decades. In large part it has to do with our presence and demonstrated capability and will to defend our allies as shown through those “provocative” military exercises.
And what did the US get in return? A promise to “work toward” denuclearization. Right in line with roughly three decades of such promises. There isn’t even a delineation of what, exactly, denuclearization means. In all previous instances it was clear that the US has a different idea of what that word means as compared to what the DPRK thinks it means. Whatever happened to “trust but verify?”
Mr. Trump got rolled by Kim.
It was a fantastic public relations coup for both Mr. Trump and Kim. It looked great, sounded good, and caught the world’s attention. There was very little to no substance, but hey, it was a PR success.
Surely we can all start over and forget all about the fact that Kim is one of history’s most ruthless dictators that brutally kills his own family members, has 100,000 or more of his citizens in gulags, and routinely starves the general population when funds are needed to pursue his nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions. Water under the bridge. He took selfies! He has a nice smile! He seems like such a nice young man. Very “talented” and “honorable” according to Mr. Trump. Give a guy a chance to start over, okay?
But perhaps I’m too pessimistic. After all, I’m so twentieth century. Maybe this is a new era with new players and I just don’t see it.
Indeed, I hope that I am wrong. I truly hope that Mr. Trump’s assessment of Kim Jung Un is correct and that he really does want to do the right thing and leave behind everything that he, his father, and his grandfather worked for all of these many years.
I hope that the glass is half full and that this is the beginning a new, safer era. Unfortunately we were fooled and played by the North Koreans for so many years that I can only think that it happened again. The glass is half empty. With a hole in it.
“I’m not the man they think I am at home” — Elton John in “Rocket Man”
On Tuesday Mr. Trump gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly that created controversy. It seems you either hated it or loved it. Some people agree with his “America First” pronouncements and others interpret his remarks as being muddled and inconsistent. Either way, despite the fact that much of the ensuing discussion focused on his use of the term “Rocket Man” in referring to Kim Jong Un of North Korea, there is much more to learn about Mr. Trump and about deterrence. (Besides the third grade use of nicknames to belittle people, perhaps some of our insight into Mr. Trump’s real thoughts starts with the lyrics above.)
You can read the full speech for yourself but the focus here is on his remarks about The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea. To me, it shows a lack of understanding of both international relations and the real ways in which nations influence other nations or deter them from taking actions counter to our own self-interests.
“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary.” — Donald J. Trump at the U.N. on 19 September 2017
Mr. Trump’s supporters may give him high marks for his bravado and willingness to “tell it like it is.” Okay. But what did he really say?
Let’s put this another way. The goal of the United States and other nations is to “denuclearize” the North Koreans. As discussed previously in this blog, Kim Jong Un has no motivation to give up his nuclear weapons. He cares not what happens to his population as long as he and his ruthless regime survive. The lesson he learned from Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya is that if you give in to the West and give up your Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) your regime falls and you get executed. Not very motivational to someone like Kim.
Lesson number two comes from Mr. Trump’s speech. Whether one likes the nuclear agreement with Iran or not, we do not have the same situation developing in Iran as is developing in North Korea. Iran is not testing nuclear weapons. The criticism of the agreement has many parts, mostly along the lines of the United States not drawing enough concessions from Iran. No mention of terrorism, for example. Forgotten in the criticism is that the agreement is intended to be one aspect of a longer term engagement with Iran that does address other areas of concern to us and to them. It showed that a deal could be made with a regime that refused to have anything at all to do with the West for decades. It ensures that today we have only one “nuclear problem” to deal with and not two. I might also point out that it is a multi-lateral agreement. It is not a U.S. – Iran bilateral agreement as many in the current administration seem to address it. The agreement includes the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the European Union representing all members of that organization, and Germany. If the U.S. pulls out of the agreement, as Mr. Trump indicated yesterday that he will do, do not expect the other participants to follow suit. Additionally, any other diplomatic engagement with Iran by the U.S. will die. Iran simply will not trust that the U.S. will abide by any future agreements.
This is where we get back to North Korea. Mr. Trump demands that North Korea come to the table and negotiate a deal to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. Hmmm. Iran did that and now the U.S. calls the deal an embarrassment and threatens to abrogate the agreement. Or as Mr. Trump said of Iran and the nuclear agreement:
“The Iran Deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into. Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it — believe me.” — Donald J. Trump at the U.N. on 19 September 2017
So, let’s see this from Kim’s viewpoint. (Who cares what he thinks, some may say? Let’s not take any grief from those guys — Korean or Iranian. We should care only about ourselves.) Those sentiments are understandable and in a way, correct. Except for one thing. We cannot get Kim (or the Iranians) to do something they don’t want to do just by bullying them.
From Kim’s point of view, those that have trusted the U.S. when it comes to getting rid of their WMD are either dead or betrayed by the U.S. Not much of an incentive to give them up.
It gets worse.
Kim will not give up his missiles or his nuclear weapons as long as he thinks they are critical to his survival. Period. I cannot stress enough that he is all about his personal survival and the continuation of his regime — like it or not. Diplomatic efforts should focus on providing a way to convince him that his regime will survive into the future with some kind of guarantees from those that share a border with him — China, Russia, and South Korea. It might work. But probably not.
It keeps getting worse.
Deterrence is based on several factors, as I’ve discussed in this space in previous posts. Deterrence cannot work if the nation (or individual) that is the focus of the effort, doesn’t know what it is that they are not supposed to do. Additionally, clear and realistic (emphasis on realistic) consequences need to be conveyed and understood by those being deterred. They cannot do something if they don’t know what that is (or out of ignorance they may do it) and the cost/benefit analysis on their end needs to be clear and of a scale that not doing something is better than doing it. One may think that dying is not a good outcome, but it may be if living with the alternative is unacceptable in their calculus, not ours. Understanding one’s opponent is critical. We know very little about what goes on in the DPRK, but what we do know seems to be ignored by the current administration, or at least the guy in charge.
In sum, there needs to be a clear understanding of the behavior desired and a credible response that is unacceptable to the recipient.
With that in mind, let’s return to Mr. Trump’s U.N. remarks where he says, “…but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies…” (meaning if the U.S. is forced to do so). “Defend” against what? He does not say. In the past, North Korea shelled South Korean islands, sank a South Korean naval vessel, killed a U.S. service man in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and other provocations dating back to the capture of the USS Pueblo (AGER-2) in 1968. Not one of these incidents generated a military response from the United States. Expect Kim to test the efficacy of our intention to “defend” ourselves. What will be our response if he again shells a South Korean outpost? I would not expect that the response will be what Mr. Trump threatens, that “…we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” It is not a credible threat. The implication that we will “totally destroy” a population of 24 million, with the additional implication by Mr. Trump that it will be with nuclear weapons (the only way to totally destroy a nation) is preposterous. Or it should be in this scenario. Kim will not see it as a credible threat. Even if he does, it only solidifies his belief that having his own deliverable nuclear capability is his only saving grace. Boasting, bullying, and all the bravado Mr. Trump can muster will not change that and it certainly will not bring Kim to the negotiating table — other than as a delaying tactic to put the finishing touches on his arsenal.
This is why a long list of presidents, Republican and Democrat, warn that the United States “will respond at a time and place of our choosing” to provocations and attacks. It leaves open a wide range of options from doing nothing all the way to “totally destroying” but with a myriad of options in between. I guess that sounds wimpy to the current administration. But leaving one’s options open is the best course.
With no clear “red line” — a term that is misused and misunderstood — that puts realistic limits on Kim’s behavior, and with no credible response for Kim to weigh in his strategic calculations, there is no deterrence and certainly no incentive for him to give up his nuclear weapons.
Mr. Trump fails deterrence 101. There are, of course, many other branches and sequels involved in deterrence theory. But if one does not understand the basics, that empty threats may only precipitate the action one is trying to deter, then there is little point in trying to get the finer points into play.
Furthermore, since the Korean Armistice of 1953, Kim’s grandfather and father created and hammered home the cult of personality so that today the DPRK is Kim and Kim is the DPRK. Every citizen from the time that they can talk is taught that the Americans are the worst people on earth and that the Americans only aim in life is to destroy the DPRK. They believe it. The Korean War is the example taught over and over, given that North Korea was heavily damaged and lost millions of people, military and civilian, in the course of the conflict. To vilify and belittle their leader only adds gasoline to the fire. Mr. Trump handed the North Korean regime a propaganda coup with his statements about Kim and that we will totally destroy their nation. Roll the videotape! It reinforces everything that the population of North Korea has heard for their entire lives.
Which is not to say that we lay down and roll over. The number one role of our national government is to protect our citizens. If Kim pushes we should shove back. We need to continue to reiterate to Kim that he cannot possibly win any military conflict with us or our allies. End of discussion on that point. What is necessary is to convey clearly what we expect of the North Korean regime. Patience and incremental successes may be the path to a common understanding. We don’t back away from conflict where our national interests are at stake, but we also do not want to precipitate a war that will inevitably lead to massive military and civilian casualties on a whim or because we want to play around with cutesy phrases. If one studies the military conflicts which we have entered since the Vietnam War, a pattern emerges. Foreign adversaries continually fail to understand the nature of our society and misinterpret internal political arguments for a lack of will on our part to act militarily. Mr. Trump may reinforce that perception when Kim tests his proclamation with a relatively minor infraction that we ignore (again) or when we do not “totally destroy” his country.
Kim is not a crazy man, even if he and Mr. Trump are trying to out crazy each other in their rhetoric. It is totally sane to have as one’s primary strategic goal the survival of oneself and one’s regime. If the United States truly wants to remove the North Korean’s nuclear capability, the U.S. will have to be more imaginative and creative in our diplomacy. China, and now Russia which has inserted itself onto the scene, are the key players. It is not a mission impossible, but it will take cool thinking and lots of patience. It remains to be seen whether this administration is capable of either, much less both.
With the president on vacation — or “working vacation” as he prefers — and many of us likewise enjoying some time off and therefore not paying much attention to world events, it is possible to overlook the quickly unfolding events surrounding North Korea. It appears that what was possible “five to ten years” from now may have already happened, or is about to happen.
North Korea has or is very close to having Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) with a range to reach the U.S. mainland, carrying nuclear weapons.
Kim Jong Un with nuclear weapons. That should give us all pause.
Given that North Korea is the toughest place on earth to penetrate for accurate information, no one really knows what they do or do not have. However, at the end of July they tested an ICBM that credible experts say has the potential to reach at least to Chicago. This afternoon, the Washington Post has a breaking story that reports that the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) assessed in late July that the North Koreans have the ability to miniaturize nuclear weapons to fit on an ICBM. This is no small technical accomplishment and one that only earlier this summer analysts did not think was within their capability. Giving more weight to the assessment, the Japanese Ministry of Defense concluded that there is evidence to suggest that North Korea has indeed achieved miniaturization. It is still unclear whether they have reached the ability to keep the re-entry vehicle (the bomb) from burning up upon re-entry, but they will achieve that feat as well in due order.
To add to our degree of safety, according to the report, the North Koreans may also have as many as 60 nuclear weapons. Other analysts think the number is much lower, somewhere around 20 to 25. A comforting thought.
This past weekend a step in the right direction occurred when the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) voted unanimously to significantly increase the world-wide sanctions on North Korea. This is a noteworthy event as both Russia and China voted for the measure. Most times they veto almost anything proposed by the U.S. involving North Korea. It remains to be seen whether they enforce those sanctions, but it is a positive step.
History indicates however, that Kim Jong Un cares little for sanctions, no matter how debilitating they may be to his nation’s population. In the past, he allowed his population to starve by the thousands under previous sanctions. He just doesn’t care.
All this is not to say that we in the U.S., or anywhere else in the world, is in immediate danger. It does say that the equation changed. As I have written in this space before, such as on 27 May this year, I do not believe that there is anything currently on the table that will cause Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal. In his mind, those weapons are the key to his survival. Period. He gives them up, the regime will be destroyed. As I’ve written, all he has to do is look at Saddam Hussein and Moahmar Qadhafi, both of whom gave up their Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programs and ended up dead.
Likewise I do not subscribe to the theory that Kim is “crazy” or a “madman” or any other such characterizations of him. That is not the danger. The danger is that he is young, relatively unsophisticated and with little practical experience in world affairs. The possibility of a miscalculation is high. Unfortunately, it is even higher as President Trump talks about North Korea in belligerent terms. This afternoon at his golf course in Bedminster New Jersey, the president said that “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen.” While deterrence is based on making a clear and credible threat of retaliation, and certainly we need to be clear about the fact that we will retaliate, this type of language increases the possibility of Kim miscalculating the threat from the U.S. It also is not clear as to what exactly the president means by that. However, again, Kim is all about survival, he does not have a death wish. The danger comes in him believing a presidential statement or Tweet and calculating that the U.S. and/or our allies are about to attack and therefore he decides to strike first. Cool heads must prevail and look to the long-term to solve this problem.
There is one other little discussed element of this problem. The North Koreans are all about being anti-American. A quick look at their history, and especially their terrible losses in the Korean War, help to explain their position. They may find it convenient to use a proxy, such as a terrorist group or other bad actor, to use one of these weapons. They could sell a weapon or the knowledge of how to build one in order to achieve two goals, hard currency and an attack on the United States.
When the dust settles, the U.S. basically has three options. Conduct a preemptive military strike, negotiate a freeze on further development of North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles or accept the fact that they already have them. All three should be pursued in their own way, but we need to be realistic as to their impact on the situation and understand that there may be no one answer.
Despite the president’s rhetoric, and rightly saying that all options remain on the table, the likelihood of the U.S. precipitating military action is small. Or it should be. As I wrote in May, the costs of a military conflagration on the Korean peninsula, that will surely spread to Japan and elsewhere in the Pacific, are just too high. Not that it could not happen, just that it is very unlikely in a rationale calculus. The one exception I might put out there is an attack to decapitate the North Korean leadership — Kim Jung Un and his cronies — but that is a very risky undertaking. If we miss, Kim will unleash his forces. Even if we succeed, there is no guarantee his successors will not retaliate. Complicating the issue is neither Russia or China desire regime change in North Korea and greatly fear its collapse. They will have a vote — real or in projected reaction — on how things play out. It is nearly impossible to expect a U.S. military preemptive attack to take out the missiles and weapons. They are in hardened locations and are nearly impossible to reach, even if we are sure where they are, which we are not.
The second option is to negotiate. The Russians and Chinese are trying to facilitate those negotiations even as we sit here today. Their proposal is to have the U.S. and South Korea pledge to never again hold military exercises on or near the Korean peninsula in exchange for the North Koreans freezing their nuclear and missile programs. This is a non-starter on two levels. The U.S. will not (or should not) abandon its allies. Secondly, over several decades, the North Koreans have never seriously sat down at the table for negotiations. Negotiations were held in the past, but it quickly became apparent that the North Koreans had no intention of acquiescing to anything. If Kim believes his survival means keeping his programs then there is no reason to believe he will negotiate them away.
The third option, accept the new development as we did when the Soviet Union and later China developed nuclear weapons, is not “giving up.” We have a credible deterrent in both nuclear and conventional weapons that can do great harm to Kim and his regime. He knows this. Additionally, the U.S. has Ballistic Missile Defense Systems (BMD) in California and Alaska that have been successfully tested. They were built with a regime like North Korea in mind. Additionally the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army have BMD systems. There are additional diplomatic and economic measures that can be taken to continue to contain the North Korean threat. It is not a hopeless cause and a North Korean attack is not inevitable in any respect.
Unfortunately, the world just became more dangerous. As a result, the U.S. and our allies must negotiate this new terrain very carefully. We should not take the threat lightly and it does change how we deal in the Pacific Theater. At the same time, never make a threat that will not be carried out. It results in a loss of credibility, which impacts deterrence, and may end up causing the very act that one is trying to deter.
Our national security team has its work cut out for it. Let’s hope they make the right choices.
Even a casual look at the news over the last few days reveals that the United States is about to undertake a military action against the Syrian regime in response to the Syrian’s near certain use of chemical weapons against its own population.
The opinion pieces and talking heads on TV, many of whom are former military officers or Defense Department civilian leaders, are full of cautions about embarking upon a military action without fulling understanding what the results might be. They are right to be cautious. Unfortunately, the United States is in a no-win situation. We cannot draw a clear “red line” that we would respond harshly should Bashar Al-Assad or his regime order the use of chemical weapons, or as they are commonly called, weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and not do so. In order to credibly issue other such warnings in the future we must take action now. Deterrence is totally dependent on the credibility of a nation’s stated reaction to the act to be deterred. Every so often, nations need to act in order to show that their threatened response has credibility — that they actually can and will do what they say. On the other hand, there is no desire for a long-term United States military involvement there, yet the situation is going to become a significant long-term problem for the United States should we act.
I am guessing that the Obama Administration drew the red line over Syrian use of WMD to show that they were concerned with developments in that country and that we would not ignore what happens there. By taking a moral stand we could demonstrate that we actually cared what happens there. I do not think that the Obama Administration believed that Bashar would actually use them. After all, large-scale use of chemical weapons has not been done since the end of World War I. When nearly the entire world agrees that such use is beyond the realm of warfare, we need to take action. The question then becomes, what kind of action and how does it end?
The two most similar situations from the not too distant past are Operation Desert Fox against Iraq in December 1998 and the NATO involvement in Kosovo which began in March 1999. Both are instructive for what did and did not happen. In 1998, the United States and the United Kingdom began four days of Tomahawk missile strikes and bombing attacks from naval and air forces. The action was in response to Saddam’s refusal to comply with United Nations resolutions concerning WMD in Iraq. The Kosovo action was also a combination of NATO missile and air attacks to stop atrocities being carried out by Yugoslav troops against Kosovo civilians and fighters. After over three months of the air operation, the Yugoslavs agreed to withdraw and to allow NATO troops under United Nations auspices to enter the country as peacekeepers.
There are elements in both operations that reflect the current situation. In Iraq we thought we were dealing with WMD. In Kosovo we were dealing with mass killings and atrocities against civilians. Both exist in the current Syrian situation, but the context is totally different.
Operation Desert Fox was never intended to be an extended operation. The stated intent was to degrade Iraq’s ability to produce and use WMD. The United States never set out to totally eliminate any and all stockpiles or production facilities.
The air operation in Kosovo was intended to be of a similar nature — a short duration operation to convince Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw. He and his cohorts turned out to be much tougher than expected as it took him over three months to get the message. Most analysts feel that the air operation would have continued indefinitely if the threat of placing NATO forces on the ground in Kosovo had not been made. British Prime Minister Tony Blair was at the forefront of publicly pushing for a ground operation and Milosevic finally caught on that he could not last forever.
In Syria we have a totally different situation. In 1998 Saddam was not using WMD against his own population like Bashar is now doing. In Kosovo Milosevic was in essence leading an external force into Kosovo and it was possible to withdraw to allow for peacekeepers to enter. There are no external forces to withdraw from Syria — they are caught in a civil war. No credible leader is pushing for putting troops into that country. So what happens now in Syria?
Every military planner knows that no military action should go forward without a clear understanding of the mission. A mission statement must clearly answer the “who, what, where and when” questions of the action. However, most importantly, it also answers the “why” and provides the desired end state. We are going to go in and blow things up and kill people — so why do that and what should it look like when we are finished? The crafting of the mission is crucial to success but not easily accomplished. Everything else stems from this including the analysis of alternative courses of action. It’s impossible to know what to do if you don’t know why you are doing it. We should expect the President to articulate this for the nation just prior to or coincident with the beginning of hostilities. There are signs this may happen soon.
When choosing a course of action one must ask several questions relating to the mission. Is it suitable (does it accomplish the goal)? Is it feasible (are the resources available sufficient)? Is it acceptable (is the level of risk involved worth the payoff)? Is it consistent (is it in keeping with our core values and objectives)? We need to know that all aspects of the situation have been thoroughly reviewed.
Finally, planners must have alternative courses of action ready to go — a “Plan B” if you will. Nothing is certain in life and it is even less certain in warfare. Planners can project what will happen but cannot be certain that the opponent will react as expected. They must have alternatives ready to go and have thoroughly thought through the “next step” or the mission will not be accomplished.
So what will do in Syria? Perhaps a more important question is what should we do in Syria? My honest answer is “I don’t know.” Unfortunately, that is not an acceptable answer.
My guess is that the mission will be similar to Operation Desert Fox in 1998 against Iraq. The goal will be to degrade the ability of the Syrian forces to use chemical weapons again in the future. They will not be able to prevent future use, they will only be able to make it harder for them to do so and also to make it “personal.” We will not threaten to put troops into Syria as was done in Kosovo because that is a step too far for both the will of the nation and our national interests. Therefore the plan will not be for a long-term campaign, but rather a limited action with limited objectives. In other words, to send a message that certain actions in Syria are unacceptable (and perhaps just as importantly, send a message to other bad actors in the world that we will act as promised if they cross the line). Whether or not Bashar gets the message is a different question and we may let loose the dogs of war without really knowing what will happen in the end. An unsettling situation to say the least.
Here is the rough outline of what I think will happen. There will be a limited air operation involving Tomahawk missiles and aircraft from the United States, United Kingdom and some other token NATO involvement including some Turkish and French forces. All of the media attention is on the ships and submarines in the Mediterranean but there will be larger air forces launched from Cyprus and Incirlik Turkey among other places. I would expect token involvement from Arab states — probably a few aircraft from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The planners will expect the operation to last 3-5 days and then they will re-group to assess whether their goals were met. The operation will begin at night, perhaps as early as this Friday night — a weekend night in the Arab world — in the hopes of tactical surprise and also limiting civilian casualties. The exact timing may depend on whether or not the United Nations observers currently in country are gone. They will not hit the chemical weapons storage sites. They will try to take out the means of delivering those weapons such as launchers and command and control sites. They will not target Bashar or his family but it is likely that they will target key military commanders that oversaw the use of the weapons. I am sure that we have fairly good intelligence as to who those people are at the senior tactical levels of command and we will send a “this one’s for you” type message that things will get very bad for any other military leaders that decide to use such weapons.
Just as in the previously discussed operations, Russia will voice its objections in the strongest possible terms, perhaps even threatening some kind of retaliation. Just as in those previous operations, in the end they will be unable to influence the events or prevent them from happening.
There are some serious unknowns to me that I hope the planners and decision makers have a handle on. Foremost among those is whether or not Bashar thinks that his end is near and that he has nothing to lose — thus ordering ever more extensive use of the chemical weapons. This is where the success of the initial strikes will be critical in eliminating the means to deliver those weapons and whether the message gets through to subordinate commanders that their own health and well-being is in jeopardy from us if they follow those orders. Word of further defections by senior leaders in the regime will be a good measure of effectiveness as to whether the “message” hit home.
In the end, the United States and western powers must do something or our future credibility in such matters is seriously undermined. A quick, short duration attack focused on disrupting the Syrian military’s use of WMD in the future seems to be the best short-term approach. Only after that will we know what the future holds for Syria.