Posted tagged ‘Russia’

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.

Russian Voodoo

March 4, 2017

For the past few days the news media has been gaga over Attorney General Jeff Sessions apparent mis-information about his contacts with the Russian US Ambassador. To the extent that Sessions may in the future have intervened in any Justice Department investigations over Russian State sponsored interference with the recent Presidential election, his recusal from participating in these investigations is a positive step forward.

Whether recusal is enough is unclear but anyone who thinks a Session’s resignation is a do or die issue is most likely naive about who might be nominated to replace him.
Answering remaining questions about the extent of Russian activity ought be pursued by Congress and the FBI, and optimally by an independent prosecutor. With what is know today, the independent prosecutor is not going to happen.

Progressives need not waste much time worry about this issue. Of course the Russians interfered and almost assuredly Russian intermediates were in touch with the Trump campaign (and likely in contact with the Clinton campaign, in both cases gathering information). While this is undesirable intervention in the US political process, don’t be so naive to think that the CIA and NSA have not done the same type of things with both Russia and China.

The hacking of the DNC server and transfer of the DNC emails to Wikileaks (for further distribution) was preventable (shame on DNC), but we must recognize that this leak could have happened just as easily by a disgruntled DNC employee if it had not been the Russians. So, let it go and let the professional spies “get even” in ways the Russians would understand.

Does this mean the Russian interference was not important and out of bounds?

No, Russia’s actions, particularly the distribution via Wikileaks, took advantage of a US strength… freedom of speech (the press). Who thinks it is a good idea to suppress free speech?

It is times such as these where Americans ought to be focused less on what is not being blasted in the headlines and more what is cooking in the back rooms of Congress and the White House. While the press is hyperventilating over Russia, the Republican Congressional leaders and the Trump Administration are busily working on changes to healthcare and the tax code. Both issue could have far more dramatic impact upon Americans than the Russian interference.

Progressives should be alert for two issues. (1) The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has aspects which are not acceptable to all parties. Some (but not all) individuals have ended up with healthcare insurance which come with large deductibles and co-pays. Some employers (but not all) have incurred added expense because they were mandated to provide healthcare insurance to their employees. And some (but not all) individuals were forced to buy healthcare insurance coverage when they did not want to spend their money that way.  To claim ACA is perfect and no modifications are needed is short sighted.

The more fundamental issue which needs to be discussed is what type of healthcare Americans should expect. Obamacare increased the number of Americans receiving coverage by 20 million. Should a replacement insure less?

(A rich discussion over the obscene cost of US healthcare is long overdue but there is virtually no chance that the GOP has the stomach for such a discussion.)

(2) Tax code reform, the second important issue, has been built as a way to “jump start” the economy. President Trump has hailed the cuts as huge, massive. What is almost for sure is that large corporations and wealthy individuals will receive massive windfall gains from lower marginal tax rates. Whether there will be meaningful crumbs for the rest of Americans is an open question.

There is undoubtably a fairness component of tax reform. Progressive tax rates have long been viewed as “fairer” than a straight flat tax. Eliminating the top marginal rate doesn’t take much thinking to realize someone very rich is getting a big break. But even more sinister is the budget pressure a tax cut will create. The Trump/GOP crowd will cry, “we can’t afford” this or that (of course the opposite will be true of planes, ships, and tanks).

So, once again a wise person must keep one eye and ear on the future and not on the brouhaha of the day.

The Trump Administration tactics are about control through deception and confusion. Regrettably, this Administration’s goals are heavily influenced by policies which enrich the already wealthy while singing a populous tune to unemployed, disillusioned, or outrightly hate mongering.

Hmmm.

Call Me Cynical

March 2, 2017

President Trump has announced his intentions to increase Defense spending by $50 billion, an increase “badly needed” according to the President. Hmmm.

The President’s story gets a little cloudy when he says he can pay for this budget increase by shifting money from the State Department and the EPA. This proposed slight of hand is necessary because (1) President Trump and most Republicans want to cut taxes, (2) the President wants to launch a $1 trillion dollar infrastructure plan, and (3) there is the inconvenient law restricting what increases in spending are possible (sequestration). Do we hear the deficit increasing on the GOP’s watch?

President Trump has proclaimed that part of making America Great Again is “rebuilding” the military, woefully underfunded, the President says. Hmmm. The Defense budget weighs in at slightly under $600 billion, more than all other countries combined. An increase of $50 billion or 8% could procure some more airplanes and ships, or could be used to outfit more sailors or troops. But for what purpose?

The Presidents suggestion of taking money from the State Department is laughable unless there were to be across the board reductions in Federal Government spending. But even the act of decreasing Defense and State Department budgets begs the central question, what is to be the over arching US foreign policy?

Many observers have had their fill of the notion that the US is world’s policeman. And to be sure, the US policies in Afghanistan and Iraq have been poorly thought through and to date, failures. But policeman and deterrent can be two different situations. A deterrent if effective can keep other nations from aspiring to enforce their wills on other nations, for example Russia, China, or Iran. Does the President or his advisors really think that buying more planes, ships, and tanks will be sufficient for him to “bluff” other countries into following America’s wishes?  And what will happen if the President’s bluff doesn’t work?

Beefing up the military is a nice sop for his nationalistic followers, especially those who have never worn a military uniform (like the President). More Defense spending will also please a lot of Defense Contractor CEOs. Hmmm.

Taking the money from State Department and the EPA, however, may reflect other motives. Weakening the State Department could (and most likely would) make implementing US foreign policy dependent upon military action. A self fulfilling prophecy so to speak.  Will President Trump be a war President?  Neoconservative rhetoric can be infectious until implemented, then if becomes deadly for the sons and daughters of other Americans.

It is the EPA donation may shine more light on an underlying and even more sinister motive. Which sounds more responsible to you, (1) cutting the EPA budget purposely so the EPA will become resource starved and cannot continue key programs like enforcement of clean air and water regulations or those related to global warming, or (2) cutting the EPA to fund serious national security concerns, and oh yes, unfortunately with a restricted budget the EPA simply cannot do as much as before?

Hmmm.

Danger Ahead?

February 11, 2015

It is relatively quiet on the domestic political scene. Alabama’s Supreme Court Justice, Rory Moore has fiendishly interrupted the gay marriage issue in Alabama, and in the process, struck a blow for State’s rights. In Congress, funding of the Homeland Security Department raises the prospect of a potential “shutdown” if agreement between Democrats and Republicans cannot be reached. Other than that, the Washington grid lock seems mostly in recess. Is this a time President Obama can relax?

Probably not. Look around the world and tell me what his next steps should be.

Syria is a political (and humanitarian) mess. Attempting to remove Basher Assad predictably has lead to an Iraq repeat, Arab killing Arab (and anyone else who gets in the way). Iraq is still highly suspect and shows no signs of uniting Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis into one functioning State. Egypt appears to be tilting further towards absolute authoritarian rule, albeit a secular dictatorship. Jordan, while currently flexing its muscles in its revenge battle with ISIS forces, is only inches away from chaos should the Monarchy be usurped.

And then there is Iran and Israel.

Iran’s government seems quite stable, but its foreign policies extend (and meddle) well into the Middle East.  Experts claim Iran is pursuing centuries old Persian and Shiite aspirations. Iran’s fingers are in Hezbollah, Hamas, Yemen, and Iraqi’s Shiites goals. Iran is also engaged in negotiating a nuclear development agreement with the West. This agreement may come to pass or may continue to be drawn out while Iran continues its nuclear programs in secret.

Israel suffers from a different type of instability. Israel is a full blown democracy where religious interests continue to hamper a secular view of the world. As a result, Israel sees advantages is Egypt’s authoritarian government, is ambivalent over the turmoil in Syria and Iraq because it sees these situations as enablers for its ambition in the West Bank. But Israel’s largest concern is Iran and in particular Iran’s nuclear program. Negotiations with Iran is out of the question because Israel fundamentally does not trust Iran to keep any promise, as well as Israel is not keen on making any concessions itself.

Hmmm. Is that all on the foreign stage?

Don’t overlook China and its aspirations to regain the leadership role China played in South East Asia thousand of years ago. (India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea may take exception to this goal.) And who can forget about Russia and their aggression in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. On one level, Russia can be said to be reliving its Eastern Europe role dating to back long before the Czars.

While the pundits may look for an over arching foreign policy, it is hard to see one. Prioritizing these situations might be more helpful and in the long term present a better chance for lasting solutions.

First, the Middle East is not the most important hotspot in the world regardless of the chaos taking place.

Second, Russia is significantly more important than the Middle East. Russia has a second rate economy but a first rate military with both nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. Confronting Russian military aggression, which may become necessary, must be a last resort.

Third, China represents the most important place where American diplomacy needs to be placed. With 1+ billion people and the first or second strongest economy, China is going to become more powerful whether we like it or not. If you want fo think about doomsday, consider India has also 1+ billion people and nukes, Japan has a highly advanced technical and manufacturing infrastructure and is said could convert to a nuclear power over a weekend, and places like Vietnam, the Philippines, and South Korea are proud people who want to access minerals lying off their shores, these countries might be ready to fight for what they see as their rights.

But China represents something more. China has a lot to lose. China is now a very rich country after centuries of poverty. Under the motivation of not regressing, China could choose to exercise positive leadership including economic development and defense against rogue states in its region.

Similarly, Russia has both much to lose and much to gain by behaving responsibly on the world stage. Russia could also provide economic leadership through export of oil and gas, and security with targeted action against rogue regimes from India to Turkey.

I hope that President Obama sees the path forward as going through China (first), Russia (second), and then and only then through the Middle East. Of course both Russia and China may choose to pursue their own future vision.  And then what?

The alternative that peace is achieved in the Middle East (in some presently unknown manner) but relations with Russia and China sour. Are we better off?

Hmmm.  Better focus on those policies with the greatest potential payoff.

Pass The Bullets

November 16, 2014

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Martin Dempsey, candidly testified before Congress that he would look favorably upon a request to send ground (read combat) troops into Iraq. Their purpose, to take back ground already taken by ISIS. So is General Dempsey just being honest or is he trying to goad his superiors or subordinates to make the request?

It would appear that General Dempsey knows his role. The military is suppose to carry out civilian orders.  The military’s role includes recommending the most appropriate strategy and executing it to accomplish these civilian goals. Anyone who has been in the business as long as General Dempsey also knows that in a political world, he can influence sometimes both the goal and the strategy. Maybe that what’s behind the General’s comments.

Whether the US should pursue ISIS is not a trivial decision. Pursuit requires resources and attention that could have been placed elsewhere. Were there to be more important uses for the military, for example confronting other situations which actually represent threats to vital national interests, America’s response might not be as good as necessary.

The current “pro-fight ISIS” cohort sound similar to those who argued for invading Iraq or doubling down with the “surge”. Behind every tree could be a terrorist and if we want to prevent that, the US must take the fight to them. Hmmm.

This argument raises skepticism. There seems to be no end of these groups who hate the West (especially the US) and love Allah (their way). Today the concentration of these Muslim extremists lies from Afghanistan to Libya. Less publicized groups, however, lie scattered across Africa and South East Asia including the Philippines. Are we to look forward to decades of “crusades” to strike down each of these religious zealots once they figure out how to hold others hostage for ransom?

America has traditional been an isolationist country. WWI and WWII shook the nation out of this way and since then, America has accepted the role of world policeman.

The fundamental business model being used by the likes of ISIS, the Taliban, al Qaeda, and Boko Harum do not need religion to thrive. In the past we have label similar groups as insurgents, pirates, or renegades. There seems to always be one of these groups active someplace in the world. Should the US prepare to fight them all?

With the inevitable rise of China and the apparent resurgence of Russia, America needs to lead with diplomacy rather than the military in order to secure its commercial ambitions. To that end, there is also no better time than now to focus on North America and South America to foster civil relationships. In this way, America can focus upon how to deal with opposing economic philosophies so that the American economy can continue to grow.

Recognition that dealing with the ISIS crowd is irrelevant in the pursuit of American economic growth might be a good place to start.

Slow Boil Over A Surrogate War

July 20, 2014

The downing of Malaysian Air flight 17 was a shock. As time as progressed, the justification of the senseless murders of almost 300 people is no less murky.  Our madness slow boil seems centered upon a surrogate war.

Was this simply an accident of war or was the missile attack part of a premeditated message? The 300 unlucky passengers had nothing to do with either side in the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Malaysian Airlines is based in Kuala Lumpur, in an entirely different continent.

What message could be contained in this tragedy?

Reports that insurgents or possibly just local residents were scouring the debris fields picking up valuables including credit cards has added disgust. Instead of treating the death scene with respect, it appears to have turned into an opportunity for quick gain, at least for some.

Is that the message, human condition is abominable?

According to a New York Times report, the air route which the plane was using was open… open that is until the plane would have reached the Russian border. Unbelievably, the Russian airway authorities had closed the airspace beginning with its Ukrainian border eastward.

Flight 17 was downed about 50 miles short of the border. The question of the day is what would have happened had the plane not been short down?

The second question of the day, why would Malaysian Air have flown a route it could not have completed?

There are many conspiracy theories possible. A more straight forward explanation is human error. Sophisticated surface to air missiles in the hands of irregular military types makes no sense on all accounts. Command and control is lacking with irregulars.

Non-combatants should be expected to assume they are not a target, so flying the same route they have always flown ought to be expected. A responsible airline, however, would have been expected to have checked for any alerts.

The Ukraine conflict is a surrogate war. The West (Europe plus the US) versus the Russian Federation. The West is trying to extend its influence east and the Russians are trying to block these efforts. For the West, bluffing and then looking the other way is a preferred strategy. For Russia, bluffs normally do not exist. This contrast of style was for sure a contributing factor.

The top people on both sides know this, yet were willing to play the surrogate game.

The surrogate game is being played in other lands too. Syria, Iraq, Gaza, and to an extent, in Afghanistan to name a few. The mess called central Africa is another place to observe non-combatants dying from outside influence.

The problem with these wars is that the sides are not clear. Who are the good guys and who are the bad ones. The US has a role to play but it is not around the use of US military force.

More likely the US role is to reiterate where our influence will be placed, where we will be neutral, and where we will not exert any influence. Once these positions are made clear, then we must ensure our actions support them. The current world confusion has arisen because the US has gone silent (while still exerting force) and allowed itself to believe it could expand its influence unrestrictedly.

Expanding the European Union was risky, expanding NATO was bordering on foolish and trying to convince the Russians that “star wars” was good for them was a joke.

Most of the world is poverty stricken. Most of those region’s would be leaders are simply people in pursuit of personal wealth. Democratic rule (as we know it) is just not going to happen. Some form of benevolent authoritarian government is the best those populations can hope for.

Telling the American people that open elections, capitalism, and human rights will bring much of the world into the 21st century is a disservice to everyone and for countries such as Russia and China, represents a threat to their established governments. It times for the rhetoric which President Obama and members of Congress select to get real.

Real in the sense of the facts, real in the sense of what is truly possible.  Real in the sense of McDonalds or Subway or Nike or Facebook or Twitter.  These social forces will do more than bullets and bombs.

Non-Combatants

July 18, 2014

On a certain level, the Ukrainian insurgency is understandable. The West wants to draw the Ukraine away from Russian Federation’s influence in an attempt to weaken Russia.   The Russian Federation wants to do the opposite.

Russian strategy involves weakening the Ukrainian government (minimizing nationalism forces) and as a result, allowing century old natural ties between the Russians and Ukrainian people to show through. Just as drawing boarders around certain middle east territory and calling it “Iraq” or “Syria” does not make a natural nation, claiming the lands known as the Ukraine are separate and distinct from Russian ties is just as hollow.

On another level, however, special interests in both countries are mainly interested in their personal wealth.  Surprise, surprise. These special interests are closely linked to the national leaders (who also seek wealth enhancement).   From this alliance, foreign policy is drawn.

A weakened Ukraine will serve the needs of corrupt leaders best allowing them to divert money to themselves. In this regard, the Russian Federation’s self interest plays into the time honored practice of political leaders fleecing their people. The West’s strategy assumes a “zero sum game” and what Russia loses, the West gains.  

The Ukrainian insurgency has pitted Russian supplied “insurgents” against the formal Ukrainian military (surrogates for the West). Innocent Ukrainians as well as combatants from both sides have died in sporadic skirmishes. The loss if life on both sides has been senseless especially given the stated goals of the common people.

I wonder whether the political leaders think about these deaths?

Yesterday, however, there was an event that made these deaths look small. A Malaysian Airline Boing 777 jet plane, carrying close to 300 non-combatant passengers, was shot down while flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

The already senseless insurgency can boast of even greater collateral damage.

It might be understandable were the downing of the 777 an isolated non-combatant event. When boys play with guns, bad things happen.   Just look to Gaza, Iraq, or Syria to see the impact of proxy wars upon the local non-combatant population.

I wonder whether they teach this (non-combatant collateral damage) in the schools where young men and women go to get their Statecraft degrees?