Trump’s nuclear no-no

Oy! It was another week of bellicose theatrics from our president. Trump, ever eager for more attention, went places that no recent president would have ever dreamed of going. As usual Trump picked the worst location to threaten nuclear war: the United Nations, an organization we helped create to promote peace and understanding and reduce the likelihood of war through the promotion of civil dialog.

Trump’s target this time was North Korea, which keeps lobbing missiles over Japan and recently concluded a likely hydrogen bomb test. Trump’s implicit threat to utterly destroy North Korea is today only possible using our nuclear arsenal. This means, if it’s true, that Trump is considering proactively using our nuclear weapons. He’s also assuming it can be done in a way that won’t send a nuclear warhead at us or our allies, a dubious assumption at best.

Trump isn’t the first president to threaten North Korea with nukes. President Eisenhower did too, mostly out of frustration because the interminable peace talks at the time were going nowhere. We were basically the only nuclear power at the time, with the USSR just getting into the game, so it was a viable threat. The threat didn’t bring peace in 1953, but it did lead to a cessation of hostilities, making the 38th parallel a neutral zone and an exchange of prisoners.

All these years later we are still grappling with a way to bring true peace to the Korean peninsula. Trump’s strategy seems to be to try Eisenhower’s strategy again, as if you can still scare the North Korean government into submission. All it has done so far is ratchet up the tensions and lead to ever more bizarre and bellicose statements from the “leaders” of both sides. With each exchange of insults, these “leaders” look more puerile. If only the United Nations could take them out of the sandbox and give them long timeouts instead.

As for utterly destroying North Korea, that’s exactly what our air force did during the Korean War with conventional weapons. It wasn’t enough. We had total dominion over the Korean skies. Toward the end of the war North Korea looked pretty much like Dresden after World War Two. The Chinese helped of course by supplying soldiers and material. As the Vietcong also learned, there are ways to move militaries without being seen. North Korean and Chinese soldiers were very fast with their feet and traveled mostly at night. So total destruction did not mean winning the war. Nuking North Korea would not end this war either. It would also not necessarily destroy North Korea’s nuclear program or its arms caches, which are likely well underground. It would likely kill tens of millions, including millions of South Koreans, and at best provide the illusion of peace. It would leave a generational memory that would resurface again and again.

Not content with chastising just North Korea, Trump excoriated Iran during his U.N. speech too. He called our nuclear deal with Iran the worst deal ever. Yet even his administration agrees that Iran has fully complied with the terms of the agreement. If the United States were to cancel the deal, the effect would likely be disastrous. Iran would be free to continue to develop its nuclear stockpile and work on nuclear weapons. It’s understandable that Republicans would be upset by what the deal doesn’t do. It doesn’t keep Iran from developing long-range missiles, but it wasn’t designed to be comprehensive. It was designed to keep a new nuclear power from forming in the worst possible part of the world. So far it’s succeeding in those goals. The Trump administration could open talks on these other issues, probably multilateral talks like the Obama Administration used. Or we can start a war with Iran instead. Which is likelier achieve our aims?

Like it or not, the United States can no longer use military power to achieve its aims, at least not with countries beyond a certain size. Most use of military power like this is counterproductive both in the short and the long term. The conflicts we are dealing with are much more complex than they used to be. Today they are less nationalistic than ideologically driven, and that includes here in the United States where a great conflict of ideology is underway. With Republicans in charge, the bias is toward using the military to achieve its goals, which means there is a bias not just toward war, but also toward creating wars.

Because Republicans respect force, they think it is the solution to all these problems. While certainly Democratic administrations have had similar proclivities (Kennedy and Johnson in particular, although they inherited the Vietnam War), it’s been mainly Republicans that have proctored our involvement in new wars. Eisenhower proctored proxy wars in Iran and Guatemala that were covertly run by the CIA. Our meddling in Iran eventually saw the eviction of the Shah and the creation of a deeply anti-American Islamic Republic there. In essence our involvement caused the animus Iran now has toward us. Reagan’s meddling in El Salvador led to civil war and right wing death squads that continue to this day. It certainly did not lead to stability in Central American. Nixon’s secret war in Cambodia and Laos exposed a larger war but also proved ineffectual. George W. Bush’s war in Iraq has proven to be disastrous and also based on lies. It led to among other things the creation of the Islamic State and the collapse of Syria.

Trump seems almost eager to continue this Republican losing streak, perhaps reigniting the Korean War as well as setting off a potential war with Iraq. It’s really about showing American potency and relevance. It’s effectively being the muscular guy on the beach and taunting guys coming by so you can kick sand in their faces.

Solving these problems is going to be very hard and requires new thinking. It will require a bias toward multilateral solutions and diplomacy rather than force, in short using bodies like the United Nations more rather than less. It will mean dialog and engagement, particularly with those we find most difficult to engage with. It will take time and trust and verification. It will mean we will have to make concessions to affect a greater deal.

It’s painfully clear none of this will happen until not just Trump is gone, but Republicans no longer control the White House.

No good options with North Korea

At one time President George W. Bush had lumped Iran, Iraq and North Korea into an “axis of evil”. No such axis actually existed, except possibly in the paranoid delusions of conservatives like Bill Kristol. The device was useful in selling a scared post 9/11 America on the necessity of starting a “preemptive” war with Iraq. Of the three countries that President Bush mentioned as part of his “axis”, only North Korea truly deserves the “evil” rap. At least the world has managed to somewhat contain North Korea these last fifty plus years. However, it probably will not be able to deter it from aggression much longer.

The Korean War never officially ended. Instead, it was suspended. Both North and South Korea remain technically in a state of war. Now, as North Korea demonstrates missiles with increasingly long ranges and its nuclear weapons, it is clear that this loco genie cannot be contained in its bottle much longer. What the hell can we really do about North Korea anyhow?

Apparently, not much, but it is not from a lack of trying. Various administrations have tried all sorts of carrots and sticks to help the North Korean leadership see the light. All rested on the fundamental assumption that the North Korean leadership could be persuaded to behave rationally. Experience has repeatedly shown that North Korea has no intention to act as a civilized state. If North Korea were a person, it would be diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Worse, this paranoid schizophrenic refuses to takes its medication. Worse even still, he may be a paranoid schizophrenic but he is not stupid. North Korea has enough knowledge to maintain large armies, build increasingly sophisticated missiles and develop nuclear weapons. It clearly does not care about its citizens, who can starve for all it cares. It is essentially a Mafia state, which means it can do things no other country in the world would dream of doing, like creating counterfeit American money, and doing so with total impunity.

Unfortunately, it is now wholly reasonable to assume that reason will never work with North Korea. Until now, the West has at least been successful in containing North Korea using the Cold War tactics. It is no longer clear that this strategy will continue to work. North Korea is stronger now than it has ever been. It seems eager for an excuse to lob a missile or two into South Korea or at an American ship. Boarding a North Korean vessel to inspect its cargo, a perfectly legal action under numerous U.N. resolutions, could by itself embroil the Korean peninsula in another long and bloody war. This one though could well include use of actual nuclear weapons, particularly if the war goes poorly for North Korea.

The time of kicking this can down the road is ending. Philosophically I have always been a pacifist, but if there ever were a justified case for preemptive war, North Korea would be its poster child. Unfortunately, any preemptive war is likely to be large scale and kill hundreds of thousands. Even if the North Korean leadership can be dethroned, attempts to manage the country after the war are certain to inflict even more suffering on its people, and likely leave it an international basket case for decades. Given these realities, it is no wonder that successive administrations have hoped that North Korea would see reason. The best hope at this point is that its current leader Kim Jong-Il will die unexpectedly and that his successor will be less paranoid. That is very unlikely. Extreme paranoia seems to run in the family.

So war of some sort in the next few years is likely and its cleanup, assuming it can be won, will be long and costly. Moreover, the peninsula is armed to the teeth. North Korea has an estimated 1.1 million active soldiers. Add in its reserve and paramilitary forces and it has almost 6 million of its 22 million people are potential combatants. In response, South Korea has about 655,000 active military forces, but with its reserves and paramilitaries could bring over five million forces to bear. The United States has about 26,000 soldiers currently stationed in South Korea.

My daughter is of draft age and I certainly do not want to see her involuntarily fight in that hellhole. My suspicion is that the longer the world drags its feet on cleaning up the North Korea mess, the more expensive it will ultimately be in lives, treasure and destruction. If I were the president’s national security adviser, I would reluctantly be making the case for a preemptive war with North Korea. Of course, we currently have our hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tactically it would not make much sense to go to war with North Korea until our troops are out of Iraq, rested and our army has been rebuilt. Perhaps this more than anything else is the reason the United States is disengaging in Iraq as quickly as it can. President Obama is a smart man. Al Qaeda and the Taliban remain threats to our national security, but are diminished threats. Unless Al Qaeda finds a way to acquire a nuclear weapon, today biggest national security threat is North Korea.

In the Korean War, the North Koreans had the Chinese to fight with them. One thing that has changed is that China has become something of a lukewarm ally of North Korea. China’s leaders are aware that North Korea is a huge problem that it helped create. Aside for voting with the United States on a few U.N. resolutions, China is a long way from taking a huge step like helping depose North Korea’s leadership.

Since China is unlikely to assist in a new war against North Korea, if there is to be a preemptive war, the best the United States can hope for is a tacit agreement by China not to interfere. My suspicion is that China would be glad to if it had reassurances that the United States would not occupy North Korea. China could help in the war’s aftermath by readying and administering the huge amount of humanitarian aid that would be needed and acting as civil administrators. If China were to participate in cargo inspections or a blockade of North Korea, that also might help deter North Korea from starting a war. It is unclear whether China would participate in such an endeavor, although by doing so would demonstrate its emergence as a sober world power. North Korea is big, but not big enough to win a war against China should it decide to enter into the fray.

Presumably, war plans are constantly being updated. North Korea has already drawn its line in the sand and has said that inspections of its international cargo shall lead to war. The United States and South Korea should also set clear criteria for actions that will lead to war. It could reasonably include attempts by North Korea to interfere with the legal inspection of its cargo. Certainly any missile attack on South Korea or United States possessions should constitute grounds for going to war. Initial actions would presumably include the rapid destruction of North Korea’s nuclear facilities, airbases and weapons depots. Our attacks should also target Kim Jung-Il and the senior leadership personally. In the next Korean War, surrender is likely to be as elusive as in the last war. However, there may be de-facto capitulation. If executed smartly there would hopefully be minimal loss of life. More likely though, both sides would quickly find themselves reliving the Korean War quandary.

Unfortunately, there is no way to know what will happen when the North Korean genie finally comes out of its bottle. The genie seems poised to come out within the next few years, whether we want it to or not.

America: An Empire In Decline

The era of the United States as the world’s superpower is ending. A new superpower is emerging: China. It is likely that when the history of the 21st century is written that it will be a century marked by the decline of the United States and the emergence of China as the world’s new superpower.

In truth our self-proclaimed superpower title is more fiction than reality. Yes, our current military and intelligence spending is unprecedented. But we still delude ourselves into thinking that we are shaping world events. Rather events are shaping our country. At best our presence in Iraq keeps the country from slipping into total anarchy and civil war. It is at least half there already. In Afghanistan the situation is somewhat better. But after three and a half years the Taliban are still a force that has not been vanquished. As our forces get stretched and are needed elsewhere, it is likely that our long-term presence in Afghanistan will be more token than a controlling element.

Terrorism is the 21st century equivalent of anti-colonialism and revolution. We have become targets because our economic empire has become too extended. Gone are the days when territory could be controlled through the strategic use of gunboats and garrisons. Revolutions against well-established powers are unlikely to be won by conventional armed forces. Consequently terrorism and insurgencies seem attractive. These new kinds of conflicts are won through attrition. Eventually one side tires enough to go home. Perseverance wins.

We will see this happen in Iraq over the next few years. In reality the war in Iraq is already lost. It is lost because you know what I know in my heart: we don’t have the stomach to fight this war indefinitely. For all of Bush’s bravado you can see the reality in declining armed forces’ recruitment rates. By embracing an all-volunteer army we have decided in effect that we will wage only elective wars. Only those who choose to fight it will put their lives at risk. Even College Republicans, meeting this weekend in Arlington, Virginia don’t seem to have the stomach for it. They are glad to support our troops by saying the right words. But they are largely unwilling to put their bodies where their mouths are. War has become somebody else’s problem. For those of us not fighting it, our part is reduced to that of cheerleader.

Sensing a lost cause and no sense of urgency, baby boomer parents are encouraging their children to go to college rather than fight America’s distant wars. Congress has repeatedly said no draft, no way, most recently right before the last election. The message is clear: like with our deficit spending and reckless tax cuts, we shall have our cake and eat it on the national security front too. This translates into armed forces, already stretched to the breaking point that must eventually break. Money alone cannot win wars. It requires both materiel and boots on the ground. Lacking either of the two it fails.

We were briefly awake after 9/11 but have gone back into our happy, delusional slumbers. It is better to slap yellow Support Our Troops stickers on the back of our SUVs than encourage Junior to enlist or even to buy hybrids. Life is good. Our X-Boxes have the latest games. And besides, there is a new Batman movie at the multiplex. In our hearts we know the war on terrorism is in shambles. Yet it provides a certain balm to not openly acknowledge the fact and to throw the onus on our dysfunctional leadership.

So others step in where we increasingly fear to tread. While we are distracted in unnecessary and unwinnable wars much more tangible threats exist that we are poorly prepared for. One exists above the 38th parallel. A madman that now seems to have acquired nuclear weapons runs North Korea. But because more troops are needed in Iraq, we shuffle some from South Korea. Our pompous behavior will not even let us engage in dialog with North Korea unless they will first agree to all our conditions. Meanwhile North Korea lobs practice missiles over the Sea of Japan and scares the bejesus out of their long time enemy, the Japanese.

But North Korea is hardly the only worrisome national security issue facing us. It turns out that North Korea may have gotten a lot of its nuclear parts from our so-called ally Pakistan. And Pakistan seems to be rife with its own internal problems that could explode into civil war. And this could place its considerable nuclear arsenal in the hands of real terrorists. Instead, we are more concerned about Iran doing the same thing. In addition there are unsecured or poorly secured nuclear stockpiles all over the remnants of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. While Iraq represents zero threat to our national security, those vulnerable nuclear stockpiles offer very real and scary threats. It is unlikely that while we have been distracted in Iraq and elsewhere that terrorists have been idle. In fact there is evidence that terrorists are hard at work trying to put together a nuclear bomb.

While our buttons keep getting pressed we are largely missing the strategic problem of an emerging Chinese superpower. Much like the British showed the Japanese how to create a modern navy, we are busy giving China many of the tools it needs to challenge our superpower status. And the Chinese have been very busy moving from an agrarian to an industrial economy. We help them build automobile plants and open Wal-Marts. This infrastructure provides the basis for sustaining their wealth and gives them the means to rapidly improve their own military. Meanwhile the Chinese are spreading their influence across East Asia and the Pacific. They are creating a de facto commonwealth where loosely aligned countries like Indonesia and Vietnam provide the oil, goods, or the labor that helps them sustain their growth rates. China is a country about the same size of the United States. With no real adversaries it is free to fully tap its abundant resources to build up an Asian version of the United States, just without our democratic principles. In the short term we love the cheap goods we get in return. In the long term we exacerbate our own superpower status.

We can hope that China will emerge as an enlightened superpower like Great Britain was. But the early readings are that this will not be the case. Their sense of nationalism and their history of warfare suggests otherwise. It is a country that seems determined to grow very quickly into both an economic and military superpower. Finding conscripts for their armies is no problem. The supplies of peasants are plentiful and military service is not necessarily an elective. It is a country where you learn to do as you are told and to subsume your individual desires when needed for the goals of the state. Despite its modern trappings it remains a dictatorship.

A nuanced approach by America over the next generation toward China might allow us to become long-term strategic partners instead of future adversaries. But that probably will not happen. It is not part of the Chinese culture to integrate their culture too much with other cultures. We lack a nuanced approach because our political system encourages short-range tactics rather than long-range strategic approaches that are broadly supported by both parties. So it is likely that China will continue to be far down our list of national security concerns. Instead, we’ll be dealing with increasingly costly brushfires caused by our complex needs from the rest of the world.

But mostly we will find it more convenient to ignore these problems. For it is always Morning in America now. We are fat, happy and easily distracted by our vices. Sometime in the next decade or two we will wake to find that we are no longer the superpower we thought we were, the Chinese are in the driving seat, and that we will be playing an increasingly poor defensive game.

Every empire has its time. Ours is drawing to an end.