Archive for the ‘foreign policy’ category

The North Korean Test

April 15, 2017

Is it Deja Vu all over again? The Trump Administration appears to be facing a similar “going nuclear” threat former President George W Bush saw before invading and occupying Iraq. There are some key differences, however. North Korea is already nuclear so there is no need to doctor the intelligence reports. Hmmm.

North Korea appears to be its own worst enemy. North Korea runs a bizarre isolated State where there is the Kim family and a close group of associates and everyone else. Starvation and deprivation are common conditions while the elite eat well and the country spends billions upon armaments and nuclear research. But what separates North Korea from other two bit authoritarian States is its willingness to tell the world of its plans. Irrational maybe but secretive, not.

If one plays along with the North Korean narrative, one should expect to see North Korea soon with tactical nuclear bombs and delivery devices (submarines and intercontinental rockets) capable of reaching any country who threatens North Korea (read US). What then one might ask?

Does anyone think North Korea could survive and exchange of nuclear bombs? Does anyone think the US would sue for peace if attacked by North Korea? Don’t think so.

So, if that is North Korea’s stated strategic intent (nuclear weapons and delivery systems), to what end would this capability be put? Does North Korea still seek to unite the Korean peninsula under their leadership? And would that be the end or would there be further territorial targets, like pay back goals such as attacking Japan or Russia?

Who knows what evil lurks in men’s minds?

One can see even better now what a poor example the Iraq Invasion and Occupation serves. To be sure a nuclear capable Iraq would have been a highly destabilizing factor in the Middle East. But the Iraq War was never really about potential nuclear weapons, there were none. The Iraq War was about enormously misguided neoconservative views about establishing a democracy in the heart of Arab fiefdoms, a shining light so to speak in a dark part of the world. The Iraq War would also show the rest of the world how powerful the US was and consequently make it much easier for the US to exert its will in other trouble spots. Oh, if that had been true?

North Korea is much different, or is it? What might happen if the US (even with China’s tacit approval) launched a pre-emptive attack. What if, as a result of this attack, there was regime change. What might follow? Would there emerge a lawless State bent on disrupting everyday life in South Korea or even China, sort a pirate like Asian Somalia.
Or would the US (and South Korea and Russia) accept Chinese occupation of the North in order to provide law and order. Or if one is really dreaming, would China (and South Korea and Russia) accept US occupation?

Hmmm.

This is the mess facing President Trump. Clearly North Korea is a failed State and if magic could rule, North Korea should be transformed into a peaceful nation. But there is no plan or expectation of this positive outcome at this time.

So, does the Trump Administration just watch and hope for the best? Does the Trump team work on China in hopes of forming a combined effort to change North Korea’s behavior? And what role, if any, does Russia play?

Logic would demand that the three great powers work together and resolve the North Korean threat. North Korea’s nuclear weapons could be aimed at anyone. But working together requires trust and tell me how much trust exist betweens Russia, China, and the US at present?

Arguably the North Korea Test is one the Trump Administration is least able to handle. President Trump has a career of “bullying” tactics, followed by a deal, followed by selective reneging. Is that the type of person Russia and China might want to make a deal?

Consequently, the Trump Administration is left with a “wait and hope” that China can/will apply more pressure on North Korea so that North Korea voluntarily muzzles its provocative statements and puts into moth balls its current efforts to weaponize its nuclear capability. The North Korean Test, far more than the Syrian civil war, teaches the basics of, like it or not, the US cannot be an isolationists (America first), and being a globalist is an extremely difficult act.

Metamorphous?

April 12, 2017

When the US sent Tomahawk missiles streaking towards a Syrian airbase, the impact on the American media was startling. “OMG, President Trump had reversed himself, maybe he was not an isolationist after all”. Like one rose does not make a summer, the same can be said of the Trump presidency.

There appears to be several seismic forces at work (behind the scenes) in the White House. Unlike the irresponsible (eg Bannon, Miller, and Flynn) early influencers, a much more seasoned and predictable group has been gaining control and access to President Trump’s ear. Appointments such as Secretary of State Tillerson, Defense Secretary Mattis, and Director of National Security McMaster along with Vice President Pense have brought a certain amount of deliberateness to policy.

Of course, one bombing raid does not make a sustainable foreign policy either.

It would be easy to ascribe the early White House disarray to what is euphemistically called a “populist” perspective and the feeding of those views to the President. It is just as likely, however, to consider President Trump as a person without any specific world strategy and flying by the seat of his pants, so to speak.  In other words, President Trump can be swayed in any direction if the public reaction is favorable. With the President’s current advisors, the White House is on an asymptotic path toward George W Bush’s world view.  Hmmm.

Many might think this change is a huge slap down for President Trump. Unlikely.

President Trump wants to be a two term President and in doing so validate his narrow 2018 election. Mrs Trump may have had some dumb children but Donald J was not one of them. He sees the more conventional foreign policy as conducive to enacting more of his domestic priorities. Hmmm, President Trump has a domestic agenda?

As with foreign policy, there is a perennial conservative strategy for domestic policy too. Lower tax (for the wealthy), smaller government/less regulations (for wealthy businesses), and all sorts of perks for the evangelicals (to gain the votes needed to reward the wealthy with less government and lower taxes).  Gutting the EPA, FDA, and the Justice Department are distractions.  Why the lack of clarity on a plan for the perennial favorites in favor of the slash and burn items?

President Trump will be 100% in favor of any domestic policy unless the public opinion runs strongly against him (like with Obamacare). Remember President Trump wants two terms and if the votes aren’t there, neither will be Trump.

IMO, the change the media has highlighted with the Syrian raids is not a metamorphous at all. Rather it is a group of competent statesman shouldering out populous agitators. In time, the infamous rules specifically designed to block Muslims from America will go silently into the night. These rules are impractical and represent a lot of effort and unfavorable blow back with no measurable gains to be seen. A similar fate most likely awaits the Mexican border fence too.

Sooner or later, the Trump Administration will get to domestic policies.  The enormity of the task of tax cuts coupled with large infrastructure spending can not be overstated.  Tax cuts (or as it will be pitched) are about the greedy taking more and the average American paying the bill.  Infrastructure spending could be very positive for employment and overall productivity but it will be expensive.  Republicans will almost assuredly be unable to agree upon how to finance the tax cut and infrastructure policies. Hmmm.

So, one last question. Does the apparent resoluteness exhibited in the Syrian strike capture the Trump we should expect next week, or next month, or next year? Unlikely, because Donald Trump is a on-off, transactional person who won the election on an unachievable platform.  President Trump will not take predictable set backs lightly and will try with other domestic policy subordinates.

But at least with the foreign policy team, he should make far fewer bozo policy moves.

2017 and World War I

April 9, 2017

The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (PAFA) is currently hosting a show titled “World War I and American Art”. The show, timed to coincide with America’s entry into the European war, is compact, contains timely reminders of what man can do, and reminds us of our liberties. Most of us have some acquaintance with horrors of trench warfare and the introduction of chemical (gas) killing methods, both made famous in the great war.

World War I made no sense to most historians but each of the belligerents gave it their all. Deaths and traumatic injuries left people around the world hoping WW I was the war to end all wars.

The show traces America’s involvement with paintings designed to glamorize the “going to war” attitude. There are “posters” advocating every man’s duty to register for the draft, for women to chose some line of work which supports the war effort, and astonishingly, encourages and praises the participation of “the colored boys” (even though US troops were segregated).

Some American artists were embedded with military units and recorded everyday life at the front along with heroic acts against the enemy. It wasn’t, however, until the war ended that art critical of war, especially depicting broken men and senseless slaughter appeared. Why might that have been?

America was extremely divided over entry into World War I. When the Germans began indiscriminately sinking US shipping after three years of war, the tide shifted and Congress declared war on Germany and its allies. And that was not all Congress did.

Congress passed “The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918” both of which violate 1st Amendment rights. Congress’ intent was to intimidate and silence opposition to the war and keep the nation focused upon the fight in Europe. Speech, writings, and art which opposed the government or its efforts were subject to fines, confiscation, and detention.

Fortunately the war ended about a year and a half after the US entered. Then the flood gates opened and so many artist produced paintings, pictures, and sculptures depicting the unglamorous, horrific realities of the War.   War’s real message could no longer be suppressed.

“World War I and American Art” completes its display with a cross section of works clearly showing what price so many people had to pay. As we know, the war to end all wars failed and most historians say World War I actually precipitated an even more horrible war, World War II… and in turn the Korean War, the Vietnamese War, and Gulf Wars I + II.

In 2017, Americans can again see war from the comfort (and security) of their living room. Americans also feel they can protest in person or write anti-government works with no fear of repression. So why is the PAFA show so important?

Civil liberties can be ephemeral. Most Americans enjoy life and do not spend free time researching where their freedoms came from. Ideologues, on the other hand, are so sure they are correct in their goals that any means are justified.  Rejecting refugees and making it very difficult for certain peoples to enter the US is an early warning signal about civil liberties.

Words are strong, pictures are stronger, and art can be the strongest of all in telling or warning what is or what might happen. World War I teaches us allowing only one set of words, photos, or art works (meeting some government standard) informs us of all we should know.  Rather, we must consider pros and cons, reports from sources we trust and sources we are uncomfortable with. Most importantly suppression of information or expression has never benefited society regardless of how dangerous the enemy is described.

Civil liberties are elusive and can disappear quickly.   Ends never justify means.

The Fog Of Syria

April 8, 2017

President Trump ordered a military strike against a Syrian airbase in response to horrific pictures of a Syrian Government suspected Sarin gas attack on defenseless Syrian civilians. Initially most members of Congress welcomed the action and those who did not, kept quiet because the tide of public opinion was demanding some US response. Now as the dust is settling, other voices are being raised. Hmmm.

Supporters of President Trump’s actions (actually the specific plans are the product of the Defense Department, not the President) describe the airbase attack as proportional and an appropriate first step. Supporters are also quick to say they hope this action was not be lost on the North Koreans or the Chinese. No more President Obama – Mr Nice Guy – foreign policy, they say. Hmmm.

Other observers point out that the Sarin gas may have come from stock piles held by terrorists and were released when an errant bomb hit the stash. Possible, and an extremely important point if true. But, rebel held chemical weapons seems highly unlikely while Syria has already admitted to possessing chemical weapons in the past.

What’s next?

Bashar Assad’s opponents point out that innocent civilians are dying everyday when Syrian forces drop conventional barrel bombs. What is the difference (gas or bombs) for defenseless people?

This line of reasoning supports the US taking further steps, like disabling other airbases, establishing no fly zones, or even partitioning Syria thereby liberating areas for Assad opponents to set up government. Sound reasonable?

No sooner have such proposals been made than others point out that ISIS, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and other similar groups make up some of those who think one of the partitioned Syrian areas would be just fine for their control. Is that what President Trump is thinking?

Yesterday, about 150 protesters blocked traffic in Philadelphia as a protest against President Trump’s Syrian airstrike. The protesters were against the use of force. I wonder what these people think about the nature of the Syrian civil war?

Former President Obama assessed the Syrian situation as one not amenable to western, non-Muslim intervention. Peace would return to the Middle East only when local leaders agreed to live together in harmony. Obama was willing to supply training and coordinating help but severely limited the direct US fighting involvement.

Under Obama, the US policy was still pregnant, but much less than obvious than a full fledged occupation.

Some foreign policy wonks describe the Syrian conflict as a proxy war for the Iranian-Saudi relationship. With Russia’s involvement, there is the possibility of a resumption of the old East-West proxy wars. And some only see the Syrian mess as a conflict between Sunni and Shiite or a battle waged by a greedy authoritarian family against a poor population. Hmmm.

Former President Obama’s strategy may have been wise but it did not “feel” good, it was not decisive in nature. President Trump’s quick and timely response feels better. Only time will reveal whether President Trump has acted wisely or whether his actions will help or hinder a resolution to the Syrian civil war.

Not much is clear in the Syrian fog of war.

Trump’s Syria

April 5, 2017

How many people do you know, besides yourself, who wished they could take back something they may have said in haste? Plenty I bet. Former President Obama is surely one of them too. His unfortunate “red line” warning is a good example.

Former President Obama was quite on the mark when he expressed outrage that anyone, and in particular, the Syrian Government would use chemical warfare, and use these outlawed weapons on its own people. Obama’s issuing of a warning he could not enforce was at its best like pulling for an inside straight. There was no way the treat would alter the behavior of a regime fighting for its life. At it worst, Obama’s red line reinforced the impression that the US would not act in any decisive manner to end the Syrian insurrection.

A lot has happened since the former President’s ill fated words. Russia’s entry into the conflict seems to have tilted power back into the Syrian Government’s hands. While needless deaths have continued, there seems to have been every indication that the civil war was heading to a conclusion. And then yesterday, Syria used chemical weapons again.

Pictures of the aftermath are horrific. Shown are defenseless civilians, including children, reacting to the painful and life threatening effects of these weapons (believed to be sarin gas). In what had already been documented as a war against humanity, a new outrageous chapter was opened.

President Trump now has the spotlight on him. What will the President do?

President Trump, in a pattern which seems genuinely him, immediately blamed someone else, this time President Obama. If President Trump really believes these words, America and Americans are really in trouble.

Lest we not forget, in another place on the globe, North Korea has continued to act provocatively on President Trump’s watch and other than words, the President has done nothing. Now President Trump has two failed States acting up and both apparently uninterested in making any deal with the great deal maker.

Syria sits in the middle of the Middle East. The invasion and occupation of Iraq opened Pandora’s Box, destabilizing the entire region. Thinking that an outside force, especial a non-Muslim force, can put Humpty Dumpty together again is wishful thinking.

North Korea, which lies snuggly against China’s northeast border, represents a different but equally dangerous challenge. Like President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Kim Jung Un is all about how to keep himself in power, and like Syria, North Korea cares little about the well being of its citizens. President Trump has said “all options are on the table” in response to North Korean provocations (striking the US west coast with a nuclear weapon). Does that sound like a red line?

Whether President Trump likes it or not, his Administration now owns North Korea and Syria. What ever goes right or wrong in either regime will be like fly paper. The great deal maker will not be able to get it off his hands.

Brexit Implications

March 30, 2017

Yesterday British Prime Minister Theresa May signed the official document triggering the European Union’s exit provision, Article 50. With that move Britain has begun its retreat from Europe opening the doors to an uncertain future.

From the British perspective, Brexit is about sovereignty and the ability to more effectively deal with non-British labor, (read to exclude those Britain decides it does not want). The measure passed narrowly but in a Democracy, an inch is as good as a mile.

From the EU perspective, Britain’s departure is unwelcome but not for a want for Briton in particular. The EU worries that Brexit is just the first shoe to drop and more are around the corner. Question, if the EU is so good why would countries want to get out?

In forming the EU, member countries traded some sovereignty for a large common market where trading rules were fixed and not subject to populous tariffs or other whims. Regrettably, the EU also formed a parliament and a wide range of bureaucratic branches fully committed to establishing regulation on all facets of commerce and life in general. Critics see the EU and its Directorates as needless expense supporting a gigantic jobs program.

One of the more troublesome outcomes has been how the EU deals with immigrants. Any immigrant who gains access to a EU member State, for example refugees fleeing war in central Africa, once these immigrants set foot in a member State, they are free to travel to any other State seeking work. And of course, while seeking work, the immigrants are qualified to receive welfare support. IMO, the EU’s inability to deal with this one issue, more than any other, tipped the British vote to leave the EU.

Reports indicate that France may want to follow Briton. France’s reasons center on right wing politics. Life will be better if France calls the shots, the right claims.

The danger embedded in Brexit requires one to check history and see what happened when there was less dependance among European Countries. World War I and II, and all the other wars leading up to world wars should be a sobering reflection. Remember, European Countries have both a long history and a sharp memory.

In addition, these countries are, in comparison to the US, relatively ethnically pure (not much diversity).  Germany tend to be german, France tends to be french, etc. (Ironically, this homogeneity is want makes Italy or Spain or France etc so nice to visit.)

Following World War II the western world was fortunate to have leaders who knew the old world order had to be changed. Within Europe, a series of government agreements, for example the EU (European Government and flag), the Euro (European wide common currency), and NATO (European wide military alliance which include the US). These agreements provided enough grit that the nationalistic urges to settle differences between members would give way to more rational solutions.

The EU common market represent one of the top three markets in the world. Within world currencies, the Euro is often viewed as second only to the US dollar. And visiting Europe with its advanced transportation network (and trouble free border crossing) is a preferred vacation destination. Brexit is a short sighted and most likely unwise move by Britain.

With the rise of China (wealth and military strength), the implosion of the Middle East, the economic stagnation of Japan, and nuclear uncertainty of Pakistan, India, and North Korea, world order is under pressure. Britain by itself provides no reassurance that the British can wield diplomatic or economic strength useful in hammering out a functioning world order better than Britain being an EU member in good standing. The odds are that Briton is on a slide to obscurity (nice place to visit, but….).

Brexit could not have come at a worse time given the naivety of the incoming Trump Administration. Can a “one off deal making” mentality summon up the strategic vision necessary to guide other countries towards a peaceful world order?

The Jacksonian Revolt, Is That What’s Really Happening In Washington-Land

March 21, 2017

There are some bizarre events taking place in the nation’s capital. The President is tweeting (bizarre enough on its own) outrageous charges about President Obama which impugn the office and are completely baseless, and the President refuses to admit his mistake. The Senate is itching to confirm a new conservative Supreme Court Justice as if it were a long overdue (thanks to obstructionist Democrats) even though the Republican majority refused 12 months ago to consider Merritt Garland. And in Senate hearings, FBI Director James Comey confirmed that the FBI had open investigations focused on possible collusion between Russian operatives and members of President Trump’s campaign staff. Most Republicans dismissed the implications and instead wanted to talk about who might have leaked this information earlier.

How can grown intelligent people act this way?

“Foreign Policy” is carrying an article by Walter Russel Mead titled The Jacksonian Revolt. Mead lays out various US foreign policies (Hamiltonian, Wilsonian, Jeffersonian, and Jacksonian) and their points of emphasis. Broadly, Hamiltonian and Wilsonian have dominated foreign policy thinking since World War II while Jeffersonian and Jacksonian have taken a back seat. Now the prospect that President Trump might be a 21st century Jacksonian is getting people’s attention.

What’s so wrong with Jacksonian foreign policy?

Both Jefferson and Jackson sought a low profile for the US. They believed this posture would be the least costly and the least likely to entangle the US in foreign wars. America first, so to speak.

Hamilton thought the US needed a sturdy presence around the world in order to fend off other countries who might interfere with foreign commerce. Neither school of thought sought conflict and both thought their strategy was superior.

Since the Second World War, US (Hamiltonian) foreign policy sought to build alliances globally and through economic development stabilize foreign actors who might be prone to war otherwise. Wilsonian believers tended to emphasize human rights and rule of law as key components of US foreign policy. With one off exception of Korea and Vietnam, the world has been relatively free of war (regional ones but no world wars) until the Gulf War I.
Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and a coalition of western countries combined to over turn the invasion and expelled Iraqi forces.

In 2003, for reason still unclear, George W Bush’s Administration felt compelled to once again invade Iraq and in doing so, opened Pandora’s box. There are no mitigating explanations for what will be recorded in history as a tragic foreign policy failure but happen it did. Seventy years of broad based foreign policy support began to erode and 19 century world views once again seemed credible.

Mead speculates that Jacksonian Americans saw nothing good about US foreign policy but were more concerned (and felt personally threatened) by a changing US population demographic. Immigration was a direct threat, one cleverly encouraged by Democrats, thought the typical Jacksonian American. Donald Trump was their Andrew Jackson, and had come at not a moment too soon.

Mead’s concerns are strictly foreign policy and domestic policy and its attendant politics are secondary it seems. Mead does not support isolationism, but warns that future efforts on world order must consider to a greater degree the needs of other nations to feel their identities are respected (I think he is saying a little less Wilsonian flavor).

What Mead does not say is also important. Jacksonian Americans are still a minority. The coalition which elected President Trump and who have precipitated the US foreign policy rethink are far from a single mind on future steps. Libertarians and Neoconservatives feel free to plot new courses for the US.

America is not living in the age of sailing ships or horse drawn artillery as Jackson knew it. America is living whether we like it or not in the age of nuclear weapons, missile technology, and cyber warfare. Jeffersonian or Jacksonian foreign policies are incompatible with America’s best interests.

A rethink of Hamiltonian and Wilsonian foreign policy principles is probably necessary but with a President who seems unable (or unwilling) to value truthfulness, the prospects of more neoconservative policies (like invading Iraq) present a greater threat to our way of life.