Trump is bumbling his way toward getting us out of the Middle East

Most of us were grinding teeth this week. After our country assassinated a general in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, we waited for the inevitable military response from Iran.

Shortly after Iran’s bombs hit two bases in Iraq where our soldiers were stationed, my Facebook page lit up with friends saying we were beginning war with Iran, or maybe even starting World War III.

In general, no one plans to start a world war. Certainly no one expected one after Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in 1914. Our political assassination of General Qasem Soleimani was more or less its equivalent.

We may still get one, but I noted on Facebook that Trump really listens to Fox News, and Tucker Carlson was against going to war with Iran. So ironically, we may have Tucker Carlson to thank for this not escalating this further, at least for the moment. But also, Iran showed more sanity in its response than we did when we killed its general, deliberately targeting its missiles at places on these bases away from American soldiers.

The strange thing is, the more saber rattling we do, the more effectively we push ourselves out of the Middle East. The Iraqi government’s response to our assassination on its soil is to send us packing. At the moment, the Trump administration is playing tone deaf. In reality, our 2003 war in Iraq has brought nothing but misery for the Iraqi people. As bad as Saddam Hussein was, they’d have been much better off had he stayed in power. Most likely most the 200,000 or so Iraqis that subsequently died would still be around, and their infrastructure wouldn’t have collapsed. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard probably would not be in the country. ISIL probably would not have arisen because there would have been no power vacuum. And of course thousands of our soldiers would not have died and we could have spent trillions of dollars on something else, probably more tax cuts for the rich.

Effectively, we made it easier for Iran’s paramilitary forces, not to mention its Revolutionary Guard (an official part of Iran’s government), to extend their influences west and south. This caused even more conflict, principally in Syria and Yemen, but also in places like Lebanon. For the real war in the Middle East is Sunni vs. Shia. Thanks to us, it looks like the Shia now largely control Iraq.

In a way this is good. Those who attacked us on 9/11 were not Shia, but Sunni-aligned. Ironically, the very nation that supplied almost all of the terrorists that caused 9/11 (Saudi Arabia) is now the getting more U.S troops so they can create more future Osama bin Ladens. So, effectively, Iran is winning a lot of ground in the Middle East, largely thanks to our country’s ineptness, and people who practice Shia Islam are occupying and controlling more territory.

None of this is good for peace or for the millions of refugees these conflicts have caused. And arguably it was counterproductive for Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and forces like ISIL related to al Qaeda. A lot of the success for driving out ISIL can be attributed to Iran-leaning paramilitary forces in Iraq and Syria. At times, our troops have worked somewhat awkwardly with these forces. At times, we have even working with General Soleimani, somewhat indirectly, to accomplish the same aims.

If Trump’s secret desire is to disengage us from the Middle East, he may be doing just that in his stupid and inadvertent way. If Iraq succeeds in forcing us to leave its country, at least they won’t have us to cause more death and destruction. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has proven quite effective at getting rid of ISIL. An Iran-dominated Iraqi government with the USA out of there may give Iraq something close to the peace it had before we invaded, minus the prosperity and liberality its citizens often enjoyed.

Withdrawing our modest forces from Syria is doing the same thing: making Syria safe for continued Shia domination. And without an actual war with Iran, which Trump seems now to want to avoid, the net effect of all of this is to extend Shia influence across the Middle East. It’s likely though that none of this had happened had not a headstrong George W. Bush plunged us into a war in Iraq, and our even more inept president Donald J. Trump had not bungled his way through the unbelievable complexities of the politics of the region.

All this of course is not so good if you care about restraining Russia’s sphere of influence. Trump’s actions seem all about letting Russia do just this. None of this brings more freedom and democracy to the people of the Middle East; in fact is does just the opposite. But if you truly want to make the United States more isolationist, Trump seems to be bungling his way toward accomplishing just this, while making his supporters think he is doing just the opposite.

And it will be a lot easier to be isolationist when increasingly the world community see us as crazy and radical as our supposed enemies. We’re not bringing freedom and democracy. We’re doing just the opposite instead. Reagan saw our country as the shining city on the hill. Trump sees our nation as a deeply isolationist one where only white people retain privilege and where we let the rest of the world fend for itself.

Trump is making our country an outlaw country like Iran, one increasingly not even subject to rule of law. Those looking for countries with real freedom and democracy best look elsewhere.

Why I think Trump won’t go to war with Iran

Traditionally, starting a war is a pretty one good way for a president to get reelected. It worked for George W. Bush, but his Iraq war was kind of a sequel to his war with Afghanistan, seen by Americans as a justified war after 9/11. The complications of his invasion were not totally understood by voters when they gave him a second term in 2004; he essentially got the benefit of the doubt. Reagan did some gunboat diplomacy and it served him well in his reelection. We’ll never know if Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion would have cost him the 1964 election. Teddy Roosevelt saw the Spanish American War as a good war, i.e. not too complicated, where America could flex its growing muscle and try the empire thing without too much cost. Much like our potential war with Iran, it didn’t have much in the way of plausible justification. Yet Teddy Roosevelt enjoyed great popularity.

The times though may be changing. Last night Donald Trump aborted three planned airstrikes on Iran while they were already in flight. Supposedly, this was because he was concerned about the reported 150 casualties that would have resulted from the strikes. (They didn’t brief him on this before authorizing the strike?) Most likely, Trump just got cold feet.

Or it could be someone on his staff looked at polling on the issue. For example, a May Reuters/Ipsos poll found that while half of Americans believe we will go to war with Iran within the next few years, 60% said the U.S. should not strike first. Also 61% of Americans still support the agreement negotiated between Iran, the Obama Administration, and many other countries to curb Iraq’s use of nuclear materials. Just 12% of Americans want us to strike first.

Iran recently shot down one of our drones near the Strait of Hormuz. It’s unclear whether it was done in international waters or not. Killing 150 people to avenge an attack on a bunch of metal does seem to be (forgive the pun) massive overkill.

It’s quite clear that Trump sees his 2020 reelection as essential and will do just about anything to achieve it. He’s already invited the Russians and other states (Norway?) to keep interfering in our elections, and Congressional Republicans seem not to care too. His reelection is literally do or die for Trump. If he can’t win reelection, then he may be charged for potential crimes documented in the Mueller report. But if he wins, the statute of limitations will pass, so at worst he’s charged for various state offenses. Starting a war with Iran is risky, but might be effective in ensuring his reelection.

Then maybe not so much. Trump is clearly no student of history, but it didn’t work well for George H.W. Bush, who ran a war against Iraq very successfully with a coalition of countries, yet still managed to lose reelection. If the 2004 elections had been held six months later, George W. Bush might not have won as the consequences of his botched Iraq war became more noticed and Americans turned decisively against it.

When it comes to armed conflict against a significant adversary, my bet is that Trump is mostly a paper tiger. He talks big about being ruthless with our enemies, but he seems to sense that running an actual war is something out of his league. To begin with, the senior leadership of his Department of Defense is largely gone. He has no Secretary of Defense, the acting one just quit and the acting-acting one is hardly the best person for the job. A president that actually managed his government would have filled these positions by now. Not Trump. He remains distracted and is unconcerned about tending to the mechanics of government. I think he senses that a conflict with Iran is better punted than acted on.

Why? Because he would actually be expected to manage the war and that’s hard and boring. It means convincing a reluctant Congress to fund it, which probably won’t happen. He would lose face and look weak. It’s much better, easier and most importantly less risky to punt on it, like he’s doing on North Korea, Venezuela or for that matter much of Central America. Many of his problems are caused by his neglect, i.e. refusal to actually govern. Governing a country at war is hard.

Reports suggest he’s already had open conflicts with John Bolton, his super-hawkish national security adviser who is openly salivating at the idea of a war with Iran. But when Trump acts on it, he’ll own it, not Bolton. Not that when it goes bad he won’t try to make others take the knee for it. But it paints a bad picture next year when he is running for reelection while this conflict likely becomes tit-for-tat actions instead. Any war or conflict with Iran will be a conflict of his own making. Remember that Trump belatedly called our Iraq War a mistake.

It’s much easier to tweet all day and make bullying noises, plus it avoids a lot of accountability. So I think he’s going to talk strong but ultimately do little in the way of a military response. I hope I’m right.

Same story in Gaza, just different year

It’s not hard to be an accurate prognosticator when it comes to wars between Israel and Hamas. Does this post from 2009 sound eerily familiar?

At what is likely to be at least a thousand dead, many more thousands injured and virtually every resident of the Gaza Strip traumatized for life, Israel may succeed in halting rocket fire for a while from Gaza. However, this action, like all the other military actions on Palestinian land will not win them peace. Others will soon be lobbing rockets inside of Israel again, or will blow themselves up at bus stations or will be finding other gruesome ways to seek retribution for the disproportionate violence inflicted on them, their families, their neighbors and friends. In reality, this incursion into Gaza simply sows the seed of future violence. Why should anyone whose home is destroyed or whose family members are killed or injured by the Israel military want to make peace? In truth, every bomb lobbed on either side simply creates a multiplier effect that ensures future military actions will be deadlier and that genuine peace will never arrive.

It’s hard to keep track of the body count in this latest battle in the extended war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Today’s press report says that at least 1060 Gazans have been killed as a result of this twenty-day (so far) battle between Israel and Hamas. It’s hard to estimate the number of wounded, but conservatively it should be at least six times as many people as those who were killed. Let’s round the number of dead and wounded to 10,000. With approximately 1.8 million people living within this 139 square mile area bordering the Mediterranean Sea, that’s roughly 1 in 200 people killed or injured within the Gaza Strip as a result of just this latest battle. To put that in perspective, if the same thing happened proportionally here in the United States, that would be 189,000 Americans dead and 1,589,000 wounded from 22 days of fighting. Over the course of this endless conflict of course, these numbers would be much higher. It would be on par, at least, with the casualties in our own Civil War, which at least ended definitively after four years.

Syrians embroiled in their own civil war can at least become refugees. Life may suck in a refugee camp in Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey, but at least you are alive and in relative safety. There is no such escape for Gazans. Of course Israel won’t take them in. Egypt won’t let them in either. You would think they could become boat people, but the Israelis have banned even fishing and their navy would sink anything that dared to leave the Gaza Strip by sea. Residents there are trapped, with nowhere to escape to. They are doomed, it seems, to spend lives traumatized by war and made more miserable by poverty and a continuously degrading infrastructure.

Living in Gaza is sort of like living in a huge concentration camp, only it lasts much longer than the Second World War. Rather than dying in gas chambers or in work camps, the dying occurs principally during these battles, all occurring at close range, or afterward from wounds or as a result of the generally pervasive poverty. You would think Israelis would know a thing or two about concentration camps, but they seem thrilled that their army is inflicting punishment on these defenseless people, cheering from the highlands as their air force drops bombs on Gazans.

Not that the Israelis are getting off scot-free. As these battles go, it’s been painful for their army. 43 soldiers have died so far, and three citizens have died from rockets lobbed from the Gaza Strip by Hamas. Most missiles are mistargeted but those that aren’t are generally picked off by their Iron Dome defense system supplied by the United States. From Hamas’s perspective, they are doing well in this disproportionate battle. For a change the Israelis are hurting, at least a bit. None of this though is doing much to establish a cease-fire, at least one that seems likely to endure.

During the January 2009 battle I noted:

Israel says it will not agree to a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip until Hamas stops shooting rockets into Israel. It also demands international guarantees that armaments will not be smuggled into the Gaza Strip via tunnels from Egypt. Hamas says will not agree to a cease-fire unless Israel ends its blockade, which for months earlier has reduced living standards to subsistence levels and ratcheted up unemployment. It also demands that all Israeli troops leave the Gaza Strip.

Curiously, these are the same demands both sides are making to “end” this latest battle. It should be noted that this battle was wholly avoidable. Supposedly it was the natural reaction to the murder of three Israeli youth by Hamas, as claimed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But that claim appears to be false. As a reaction some extremists Israelis killed a Palestinian youth. That was all of a spark necessary for this latest battle to get underway.

Not only is this war unspeakably cruel, it won’t affect any meaningful change and will actually make things worse. It is the definition of insanity, which is to try the same thing again expecting it will render a different result. Israel lives in the fantasy that if it were somehow destroy Hamas, the remaining supplicant sheep in the Gaza Strip will somehow forever accept Israeli control and domination. You can see how great this is working out on the West Bank. The truth is that every time Israeli has yet another battle with Hamas, they only exacerbate their long-term problem. Hamas looks like a crazy government, but whatever replaced it is likely to be much worse. Hamas is at least reasonably secular and coherent. Israel does not have to look too far to see what would be worse than Hamas as it is emerging now in Western Iraq, and now goes by the name of the Islamic State. Hamas is not al Qaeda, but if they actually destroy Hamas, something like the Islamic State will likely replace Hamas, and it will be on Israel’s doorstep.

Conflicts like this generally succeed in hardening the positions of both sides. Israel of course is swinging more toward the right, having the effect of reducing the possibility of a solution that might actually achieve peace: a two state solution. Instead, Israel is busy tearing down more homes in the West Bank, a cruel policy of retribution against the relatives of those who hurt Israel. It’s doing this while expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank and more recently by picking fights on the West Bank. All of this simply inflames passions more, making future conflict and war more likely, not less.

The “clear-eyed realists” in Israel are simply shortsighted thinkers, not looking at the larger dynamics and demographics. Peace is in their long-term interest. Indeed, it is the only way the nation of Israel will survive. But peace simply cannot be achieved wholly on Israel’s terms. Momentum is already underway internationally for nations to boycott Israel, since it is practicing apartheid, not against blacks, but against non-Jews. So Israel can expect more sanctions and economic boycotts as its positions harden. As I noted in 2009, their survival is dependent on us giving them the means to do so. The United States will not support Israel the way it does not indefinitely. As some point the international outrage will be too large for our country to stomach, just as happened with South Africa.

Israel has the chance, looking increasingly far away, to change the dynamic now through a two-state solution. It’s their only hope to still be a state a hundred years from now. Stupidly, Israelis are letting their emotions rather than logic dictate where they should be going. They are sowing the seeds for their own second Diaspora. However, during the next Diaspora there may not be an escape. The Islamic states that surround them will probably not let one of them out alive.

A bad dream realized: Iraq 10 years later

Sometimes you hate being right. Today on the 10th anniversary of our counterproductive invasion of Iraq, I looked back on my post dated March 17, 2003 are realized, tragically, I called this war right from the start.

Ideology is dangerous. If you have ideology, you don’t have to worry about whether an action is advised or ill advised. You know you are right because your ideology tells you that you are right. That’s the sort of immovable force that is George W. Bush. Morality has become a substitute for critical thinking. Circled by his coterie of advisers who only reinforce his inclinations, he does not feel dissent. When antiwar protesters come to town he is conveniently at Camp David.

If you have ideology you can pretend that our forces spread out across Iraq won’t be a target for every fanatical Muslim in the region, and there are plenty. You can pretend that because we can “liberate” Iraq, that the Iraqi people will love us, even though they hold us responsible for years of sanctions. You can ignore the minor problem that Muslims will consider our occupation something like a holy war, and that they will see us as Christians on a Crusade.

This is what “your either with us or against us” gets us as a nation: virtually the whole world is against our preemptive war. Close to half of the American people are against it too. This sort of attitude causes only further polarization, making compromise impossible.

I am deeply ashamed of our president, and aghast at what our country is about to do in the name of peace. We will not have peace, we will only be throwing more gasoline on the fire. Why do they hate us? We will be giving them plenty more reasons, rest assured.

Please tell me this isn’t happening. Please tell me this is all a bad dream.

To the people of Iraq: I am so ashamed by what we did to you and your country. Some of us tried really hard to stop this counterproductive war. Sadly, we were drowned out by an overwhelming chorus of “if you are not with us, you are against us” so-called patriots. Still we marched, we hollered, we wrote our representatives, we petitioned. It was just not enough.

Our Afghanistan folly

So General Stanley McChrystal has been fired by President Obama for remarks to a Rolling Store reporter that disparaged he and top officials. General David Petraeus will assume his duties as the top commander in Afghanistan. Obama is expecting that Petraeus will succeed in Afghanistan like he “succeeded” in Iraq.

There is no question that Petraeus made a bad situation much better in Iraq. However, it is premature to call Iraq a success. Bombings, ethnic and religious-driven murders continue daily in Iraq, albeit at a reduced level compared to the height of violence in 2006 and 2007. Its government remains shaky at best, corrupt and unable to provide many basic services, including dependable electricity. With luck, something resembling a real and stable government may eventually emerge.

We won’t care. Once the last American troops leave Iraq, it will become just a bad memory. Of course, we don’t really plan to wholly exit Iraq. The 50,000 troops that remain are there primarily as catastrophe insurance. Fifty thousand troops won’t help much should Iraq devolve into a large scale civil war, but if used strategically they might prevent a fragile country from devolving back into a civil war. At least the level of violence is down in Iraq. However, this is largely due to our withdrawal. It’s harder to work up a dander when the people you hate the most are no longer patrolling your neighborhoods and killing your friends and neighbors.

Iraq and Afghanistan have vastly different cultures and climates, but they do share some similarities. Both have a history of corruption, shaky governments, foreign occupations and playing pawn in larger superpower conflicts. The success of the otherwise reviled Taliban was in part due to their ability to inject something like rule of law in a country that rarely had it before. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan quite qualifies as countries because there is not enough commonality to bind together the ethnic factions into something resembling a nation. Nationhood seems only possible during dictatorships like Saddam Hussein’s or when inflicted by repressive local powers like the Taliban. Resistance to foreign occupation is the major uniting factor among these disparate tribes. Loose federations are a more natural fit than strong centralized government, when they work at all.

So given this history, what can we expect in the way of accomplishments in Afghanistan from the wonderful General Petraeus? It’s not hard to figure out and we are seeing it unfold already. First, the government (to the extent it exists) will continue to be corrupt. Petraeus really cannot do anything about that. Second, the level of violence and our casualties will be directly proportional to the number of our troops in the country. Third, and this is really what matters the most, anything we do to bring about a stable government will at best have a very temporary effect.

Since the country has no history of strong and effective central government, in all likelihood the Afghanistan we imagine will never evolve into it. Yet, without an effective central government, any hope we have that its government will, by proxy, control the Taliban for us is just not possible.

Petraeus will try strategies similar to those he used in Iraq. Those strategies have had mixed success. Some of the local Sunni militias that he sponsored felt betrayed when the U.S. withdrew, leaving them outnumbered by larger groups of Shi’ites out to wreak revenge. Expect Petraeus to say that we cannot start to bring troops home in 2011. President Obama seems to already be tacitly agreeing, saying that people are getting too wrapped up around dates. In short, the groundwork is being prepared for an even more extended American occupation. On the surface, this is kind of nuts because our war in Afghanistan is now our longest war. In a few months, we will be beginning our tenth year of war in the country.

This strategy is something akin to making a basket from center court on a first try. It is theoretically possible, but the odds are maybe one in five hundred. Why is our strategy doomed? There are too many risky variables.

  • First, the vast majority of Afghans see us as hostile occupiers, not friends. Why would you take advice from your enemy?
  • Second, corruption is everywhere and deep seated. Our military is contributing to it by giving payola to warlords there to move supplies in.
  • Third, the strong central government we crave has never really existed in Afghanistan before. If it can be created at all, it will take decades to achieve, not eighteen months. Still, this throw from center court might be worth taking if it could be attempted at a reasonable cost, but it is already proving ruinous. Since 2001, we have spent around $280 billion just on our war in Afghanistan.
  • Fourth, the Afghan army is even less coherent than Iraq’s army, rife with the usual corruption and frequently absent if not wholly indifferent soldiers.
  • Fifth, the American people already realize the war is lost, and don’t support it.
  • Sixth, if it can work at all, it will likely take decades and trillions more dollars. We have neither the money nor the time.

At best, Petraeus will stabilize the situation for a short while. However, in the end he cannot possibly achieve the goals Obama laid out. He will be exceptionally lucky if he can succeed just to the extent he did in Iraq. No general, no matter how committed and brilliant, can lead a people or a country to a place they do not want to go.

President Obama is a smart man so he should be smart enough to realize his strategy is doomed. Afghanistan has trapped many a political leader in a box. He will be just another and it may in retrospect be seen as his most unwise action as president.

We need to cut our losses and just get out.

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.

Review: Downfall (2004)

I can think of few places that I would want to be less than in Adolph Hitler’s bunker during the last few weeks of the Third Reich. The Russians were approaching from the East, the Americans from the West, and the proud city of Berlin was quickly being reduced to rubble by invading forces. A few German armies outside the city still fought but were quickly being encircled. They were unable to assist Adolph Hitler in his final days. In April 1945, Hitler’s empire, which had at one time extended from the Russian Front to Northern Africa, was rapidly being reduced to a strip a thousand meters wide in downtown Berlin. Some Germans, including a boy on the edge of adolescence, rallied to defend the city. Many that did not were shot or hung as traitors. Artillery shells rained down on central Berlin. In the bunker beneath the city, the final remnants of the Third Reich catered to an increasingly dysfunctional Adolph Hitler, tried to reconcile the dichotomy between their devotion and their understanding that the Reich was ending, drank to excess, partied and fornicated.

At least that is the story presented by Traudi Junge in the movie Downfall. Junge was the personal secretary to Adolph Hitler, and lived with him in the bunker during those last days. She was one of a few to escape and lead something like a normal life afterwards. As played by Alexandra Marie Lara, Junge was a pretty, lithe and early twenty-something single woman dutifully devoted to the Fuehrer but blithely unaware just how evil her boss was. She also possessed an ability to remain largely unruffled by the chaos around her. These turned out to be useful survival skills in those final days. Somehow, despite the death outside and the dying and amputations inside the bunker she dutifully knew her place, always looking clean and fresh, and could faithfully take dictation or type when called asked.

The real Traudi Junge, who survived nearly to the 21st century, is interviewed at the start and conclusion of the film. This, and a brief scene near the start of the film capturing the night she was hired by Hitler, are virtually the only parts of this two and a half hour movie that do not occur in or around Hitler’s bunker. The film is disturbing for its high level of violence but like most fine great war movies feels uncannily accurate.

Hitler’s inner circle ranged from the fanatically devoted, to the pragmatic realists and to those who found escape in drinking or dancing. Hitler himself veers sharply between lucid and crazy. At times, he seems resigned to his defeat and at other times, he feels that he will somehow turn things around and resurrect the Third Reich. His mistress Eva Braun, on the other hand, is portrayed as something of morale officer. Knowing her end is imminent, she seems determined to dance, have fun and spread some cheer until the moment of death. You might say she fiddled while Berlin burned.

Bruno Ganz’s portrayal of Adolph Hitler is chilling, intimate, memorable and feels eerily accurate. Hitler is not always portrayed as mad. At times, you see something in him resembling a common man. Mostly though he is a man consumed by passion, his ego and his feelings of righteousness. Faults ultimately lie in his staff and his generals, but never in himself.

The most chilling of many portrayals in this movie is probably Corinna Harfouch’s, who has the dubious privilege of portraying Mrs. Goebbels, the Ann Coulter of the Nazi Era. Mrs. Goebbels knows only unquestioned duty, so of course she dutifully drugs then poisons her own children as the end nears. If her children have to die, she figures, it is best if their mother does the evil deed. Yet, she is one of many memorable characters in this movie. The subject matter may be hard to endure, but once you begin watching Downfall, it is hard to turn it off. It is riveting.

Downfall thus is one of those really good but awful movies, excellently directed and acted but certain to churn your stomach if not empty it altogether. The end of this war is portrayed in all its garish horror. It should be hard to feel any sympathy but you do at times for men, women and children foolishly devoted to this wretch of a man, as well as the dutiful and patriotic soldiers doing their best in an impossible situation.

The movie was shot in German and is subtitled.

3.4 on my four-point scale.

Eyeless in Gaza (and Israel)

784 Gazans are dead. It is likely that the actual count is much higher. After all, it is hard to find bodies when they are buried beneath all that rubble. Traumatized children watch their parents die. Injured or unable to escape these children stay next to the corpses of their parents, crying, thirsty, starving, wounded and traumatized for life. There is no food, no heat, no water, no toilets and no escape from this war. Instead, there are massive, disproportionate and random acts of madness, terror and death. Bombs fall from the air and level buildings. For four days, the Israel army refused entry by the Red Cross to certain areas where innocent people were known to be dying. Even U.N. aide workers in the Gaza Strip are not safe. While driving a clearly marked UN vehicle during a three-hour suspension of violence, a UN relief driver is killed by Israeli soldiers.

Hamas retreats but continues to lob rockets into Southern Israel. The United States unhelpfully abstains from voting for a cease-fire resolution in the United Nations Security Council. Israel says it will not agree to a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip until Hamas stops shooting rockets into Israel. It also demands international guarantees that armaments will not be smuggled into the Gaza Strip via tunnels from Egypt. Hamas says will not agree to a cease-fire unless Israel ends its blockade, which for months earlier has reduced living standards to subsistence levels and ratcheted up unemployment. It also demands that all Israeli troops leave the Gaza Strip.

At what is likely to be at least a thousand dead, many more thousands injured and virtually every resident of the Gaza Strip traumatized for life, Israel may succeed in halting rocket fire for a while from Gaza. However, this action, like all the other military actions on Palestinian land will not win them peace. Others will soon be lobbing rockets inside of Israel again, or will blow themselves up at bus stations or will be finding other gruesome ways to seek retribution for the disproportionate violence inflicted on them, their families, their neighbors and friends. In reality, this incursion into Gaza simply sows the seed of future violence. Why should anyone whose home is destroyed or whose family members are killed or injured by the Israel military want to make peace? In truth, every bomb lobbed on either side simply creates a multiplier effect that ensures future military actions will be deadlier and that genuine peace will never arrive.

How is this war in the Gaza Strip being funded? Much of this death and destruction comes courtesy of you, the U.S. taxpayer. Since 2001, the United States has provided more than $15 billion in direct military aid to Israel, as well as over three billion dollars to an Economic Support Fund, which Israel is free to also use for military procurement. In addition, special supplemental appropriations for Israel for over a billion dollars have been signed into law since 2001. When many of those bombs have “Made in U.S.A.” written on them, is it any wonder why Palestinians do not trust the United States as an honest peace broker?

Here is the truth: Israel cannot have both genuine peace and remain a Jewish state. Moreover, Israel really does not want genuine peace because it will not make the concessions needed to actually achieve peace. The Israeli terms include rights to a monopoly on the water resources in the region, the right to indefinitely expand Jewish settlements in occupied territories and requiring that East Jerusalem never be the capital of a Palestinian state. They want all this along with the assurance that not one of the millions of Palestinians will ever engage in violence against them. And I want a pony!

Despite the carnage, probably a majority of Palestinians would love to have peace, maybe even on Israel’s usury terms. Unfortunately, among them is a virulent minority of militants who will never agree to peace under any circumstances. They are making it their mission to make sure their children carry on the cause after they are gone. It is not that hard to keep the cycle going. Every few years you just irritate Israel to the point where they feel they must take some sort of Orwellian action to keep the state “safe” again. Every time this happens, the cycle is guaranteed to continue into another generation. Israel seems to suffer from some cognitive dissonance. It seems to believe that by continually making war more miserable for the Palestinians, they will see the light. It has never worked with any other ethnic group, but they are sure it will eventually work with the Palestinians. In reality, fear spawned by vengeance ensures future violent retribution.

Can you pick the ultimate winner in this game? Perhaps it is obscene to suggest anyone can come out ahead when this ends. It will probably not end in our lifetimes, but it will end. It will end someday, probably after millions have died. Israel will dissolve because this is a war of attrition. Whoever remains standing “wins”. Since due to the toxic dynamics in play genuine peace is impossible, it will end when one side folds. Israel’s opponents will never fold because they also outnumber Israelis ten to one. So in the end it will be Israel that folds, probably some years after the United States decides to stop funding the carnage. And that will happen when the cost of supporting Israel eventually grows too burdensome for U.S. taxpayers to bear any longer. Then yet another Jewish Diaspora will begin.

Sadly, to hasten Israel’s end, smart Middle Eastern terrorists will emulate Osama bin Laden. Israel cannot be beaten militarily, but in a part of the world where it is vastly outnumbered, it cannot afford its military indefinitely without a benefactor. The United States is the only significant benefactor of note. We provide the means for Israel to exist when it could not survive long by itself. If it could survive without us, there would be no reason for us to give it aid. The terrorism will migrate to the United States because we are Israel’s Achilles Heal. They will find ways to explode dirty bombs on the National Mall. They will blow up airport terminals and metro stations. At some point, we will realize that the only way to stop them at home is to stop supporting Israel. While we support Israel, we will not support it indefinitely if it is at the cost of our standard of living and way of life.

A Jewish homeland is a wonderful dream, but it exists only through denying and oppressing the legitimate grievances of the residents that Israel evicted. Until these grievances are rectified, there can be no peace. They cannot be rectified if Israel is to remain a Jewish state. Meanwhile, as is demonstrated from this latest incursion into Gaza, Israel can only survive at the price of its soul. Such a state, like the quasi-state run by the thugs who run Hamas, is unworthy of any nation’s support. We would do all sides, including ourselves a favor by gradually reducing our aid to Israel now.

The war taxes you are already paying

Doubtless, you have noticed rising oil prices. At closing today, a barrel of light sweet crude oil was selling at $105.15 on the New York Mercantile Exchange. In my neighborhood, this translates to a price of $3.15 to $3.25 a gallon for unleaded gasoline. Diesel was priced at $3.95 a gallon at a gas station I passed today. In fact NPR reported today that gasoline is now more costly in constant dollars than it ever has been, including during the first Arab oil embargo in the 1970s.

Some investors are seeing crude oil as the new inflation hedge. An NPR analyst estimated that these investors are driving up the cost of oil by about $20 a barrel. Whether their investment will be the inflation hedge they are looking for remains to be seen. These investors may be fooling themselves. At some point, oil may become so overvalued that the price of oil returns to what now seems like reasonable levels, $80 a barrel or so, or even less. I will not shed too many tears for these speculators, but $80 a barrel oil still strikes me as expensive, since it typically results in gas prices of about $2.60 a gallon.

One thing is clear, as these graphs in today’s Washington Post point out. A good portion of the cost of oil is not because the commodity is in greater demand, but because its price is tied to the price of the dollar. If the demand and supply of oil are relatively constant as is currently the case and the value of the dollar diminishes, oil will cost more dollars per barrel.

In case you have not paid attention, the U.S. dollar is reaching record lows too against most major currencies. Last September for the first time since 1976 when we were in the midst of a stagflation epidemic, the Canadian dollar and the U.S. dollar were worth the same amount. Oil prices went up 75.6% since the beginning of 2007, according to the Washington Post. Because the Canadian dollar is in better shape than the U.S. dollar, oil prices went up a more modest 46.6% in Canada. If you bought your oil in euros, prices rose 49.6%. The price of our relatively weak currency means that we pay considerably more for oil than some of our closest trading partners with better-managed governments and economies. As you can imagine, we pay extra for many other things because of our fallen dollar. Oil is an easy one to quantify because it is tied directly to the dollar.

Perhaps you are thinking that our government is doing something to stem the drop of the dollar. If you think this, you are sadly naïve. No, the situation is quite the opposite. Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, told Congress recently that the Fed would drop interest rates again to stimulate the economy. This will undoubtedly drive the dollar even lower. It will also put more upward pressure on the cost of oil and cause inflation to rise, likely adding to the likelihood of the stagflation we saw in the 1970s. In addition, sometime around May you will get a fat check from the government. The government wants you to go out and spend the money to stave off a recession that looks like it arrived in the end of 2007. Where is the money coming from? The government is borrowing it. Who is loaning their money to the government? While many of us do this by buying bonds and treasury bills the bulk of this money will come from foreign governments and creditors. To make sure we have the money now we will raise interest on U.S. treasury bills until it becomes worthwhile for creditors to buy all the bonds we need to sell. Not surprisingly, rates on treasury bills are up.

When the time comes to pay creditors for loaning them their money, the government will not pay them in assets like military aircraft or wheat surpluses. No, it will pay them off in dollars. The problem is that the government has no spare dollars sitting around in a teller’s drawer to give them. The government will not hold up an investment group like Vanguard Securities until they cough up $100 billion. Instead, they will print more money. They are doing this today to pay off creditors who bought securities years ago. Because the economy is not growing fast enough to keep up with our spending, this means there is more money in circulation chasing the same relative assets. Creditors know what this means: their investment is worth less. Thus, the dollar loses value against other currencies and investors require higher interest rates. Prices for everything become comparatively more expensive but the effect is worse for prices pegged to the dollar, like oil.

In short, deficit financing drives down the value of the dollar and is inflationary. Granted sometimes it is hard to tell. When the economy is doing well it may seem that there are no inflationary effects from deficit financing. This is an illusion. Of course, there are times when you have to borrow for an important need. I borrowed money recently to replace the windows on my house. I did receive some value from it. My house is much more energy efficient, our rooms are less drafty and we use fewer kilowatt-hours of power. Unlike the government, I have been paying off my debt. The way our government works, it only very rarely pays down the principal. Instead, it keeps borrowing more and more money. All that matters is whether the government can meet its interest payments. If it can, creditors keep loaning us money. As Dick Cheney reputedly said, “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” Oh, but they do. They do.

While there were many reasons for the prosperity of the 1990s, I think that it was mostly due to the government living within its means. Steadily decreasing deficits gave investors confidence that government was being run by rational people. No recession stimulus could provide that kind of boost. Like a savings account, the interest started compounding, resulting in true wealth that affected all income levels.

If we can stop our addiction to deficit spending, real prosperity is likely to reemerge. However, it will not be easy. Deficit spending cannot be cured by trimming the fat in a few government departments. I do not believe we will have real prosperity again until we end our War in Iraq. It is paid by foreign creditors, many of whom do not have our best interest at heart. It is like a chest wound to the national body. We are losing a lot of blood. We must stanch the wound. Waging a hundred year war, like John McCain has suggested, will simply bankrupt the country. If the country is bankrupt then in some way the terrorists have won because whatever is left of our country will sure not resemble the America we know today.

We should not throw good money away on a bad investment. Iraq not only a bad investment, it is increasing your costs of living. The Iraq War costs us about three billion dollars a week. Those are the short-term costs; the long-term costs of the war are truly frightening. When you factor in costs like caring for our disabled soldiers, paying interest on the debt (but never the principle) the real cost of the war will reach at least three trillion dollars.

If you think you are not already paying a war tax, you are mistaken. If you are applauding President Bush for not raising taxes, you are naïve. You pay the war tax every time you go to the gas station and fill up your gas tank. You pay it in $3 a gallon milk. You pay it in high credit card interest rates and in huge tuition costs. You pay it every day but you do not necessarily associate these costs with the war because the money is not going through the U.S. Treasury. The falling dollar and the inflation it brings is the price of a country living way beyond its means. It is the price of financing a war that we cannot afford but chose to start anyhow. These indirect taxes though do not buy you any additional prosperity. It goes to oil companies and foreign governments, many of whom we do not like. In fact, much of this war tax simply provides the financial means for us to become embroiled in more wars, because we give the money to states that do not like us. It gives them more capital to carry on their animosities. This money does not build new bridges. It does not improve the educational standards of Americans. They are in effect squandered dollars, and squandered wealth — your wealth.

We will leave Iraq and sooner than we think simply because we cannot afford to finance it must longer. What point do gas prices have to reach for us to pull the plug? My guess is about four dollars a gallon. Perhaps at that threshold we will reach national consensus and end this pointless and foolish war.

The Rise of Soft Power

When I first read this story in the Washington Post this week, I felt the need to check my glasses. Surely, I needed a new prescription because I read that our Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates was promoting soft power. Poor Donald Rumseld must have had a heart tremor when he read this story. Surely, Gates’ speech this week at Kansas State University, was one of those “unknown known” threats that Rumsfeld had rambled about when he was Secretary of Defense. Gates’ words must have risen the hair on his head and the heads of everyone in the Pentagon’s E corridor. Say it ain’t so, Mr. Secretary!

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called yesterday for a “dramatic increase” in the U.S. budget for diplomacy and foreign aid, arguing that al-Qaeda does a better job than Washington of communicating its message overseas and that U.S. deployment of civilians abroad has been “ad hoc and on the fly.”

In a speech that emphasized the importance of “soft power” to prevent and end conflicts, Gates suggested beefing up the State Department’s foreign affairs budget of $36 billion, even as he acknowledged that Pentagon observers might consider it “blasphemy” for a sitting defense secretary to make such an appeal for another agency.

What is shocking is that in the insular world of the Pentagon, where the mantra has always been that all national security problems can be won if necessary by wielding the Pentagon’s vast military and intelligence machine, its top man was saying this was no longer true.

“One of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win,” said Gates, delivering the annual Landon Lecture at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan. The wars of the future, he said, are likely to be “fundamentally political in nature” and will not be solved by military means alone.

I think inside the Pentagon, on Monday a paradigm shifted without a clutch. For many of the rest of us though, this is hardly news.

Yes, of course future wars cannot be solved by military means. I mean, duh! We did not need to invade Iraq to find this out. It is just now, 65 years after the Voice of America was created that the Pentagon has finally acknowledged the obvious. Wars are political conflicts. In today’s world, using military might to achieve political results is by far the least effective way of getting the results you want. It is also the most expensive way, if it can be done at all. War as we practice it today is the manifestation of the late Isaac Asimov’s belief, embodied in his character Hari Seldon that “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

When the dogma no longer fits the real world, we need better dogma. Soft power should be our new dogma. Soft power, typically exercised through diplomacy does not always work. Rarely do all parties in a dispute come out victorious when conflicts are resolved diplomatically. However, diplomacy does have some advantages. First, diplomacy does not kill anyone. Second, it costs pennies on the dollar (if that) compared to warfare. Third, since wars are the military manifestation of political conflicts, until the political issues are resolved the war does not really end. It may have the appearance of ending but instead it will eventually return. Adolph Hitler understood this. That is why he instigated genocide as his “final solution” to the perceived problem of the Jews and others. It is why the Huns and the Mongrels left no survivors when they pillaged Europe. They may have been bloodthirsty, but they were not stupid.

Now of course the world is much more populous and multiethnic. The atomic bomb was a neat trick but really, you could use it to win a war just once. To win conflicts in today’s world, you have to win hearts and minds. You do not do it by bombing people back into the Stone Age. It is good that our brave troops in Iraq have stemmed a lot of violence there, but do not mistake a lessening of violence with success. The political quagmire in Iraq is as confounding as even, with few signs that it will be resolved any time soon. Our invasion of Iraq merely allowed the centuries old animosities to resume. It is highly unlikely that anything that this country can do can resolve these political conflicts, although we should try.

The new reality, as I mentioned in an earlier entry, is that the United States alone cannot dictate the order of the world. It is folly for us to try. We squander more than half a trillion dollars a year annually on a defense budget in an attempt to ask the military to do for us what it cannot. Essentially, the military can blow up stuff and kill people. At great expense, it can hold land and the skies. It is most effective in a defensive role, such as keeping incoming missiles from hitting the United States. Our power will be based on our willingness to join up with other states and organizations of like mind. We will win through collaboration and negotiation. However, winning will not mean surrendering our goals. Instead, it will mean understanding that partial winning is okay because mutual accommodation in win-win, and win-win fosters a long term collaborative climate. At best, victory will be getting 80% of what we want. We will never get 100% again.

Secretary Gates is right. We need to become adept at exercising soft power again. It is a skill we lost sometime in the early Reagan years, but it is one that we can acquire again. We saw its manifestation after World War II in the Marshall Plan and in alliances that kept the Cold War from exploding into a real war. Frankly, in our new reality we need only a fraction of our armed forces. Much of our armed forces are engaged in futile work: preparing as best they can to win types of wars we are unlikely to win again. Instead, money should be redirected to keep small problems from exploding into larger problems. We could use some of our defense money to stem the tide of AIDS in Africa and improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians. To the extent we can win, we will win through a strategy of prevention and international cooperation.

The United States will never again win a conventional war. However, we will “win” through preventing wars from occurring in the first place. Robert Gates understands this. If only our other leaders would too.