A Little Help Here, Please

Lost in all the discussion of bellicose tweets and NFL pre-game ceremonies is the situation impacting American citizens in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Hurricanes Irma and Maria have caused massive destruction and created a crisis that imperils our fellow citizens.

Without distracting from the damage caused and lives lost primarily in Texas, Louisiana and Florida from hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the islands are in horrible shape.  A truism of this situation is that when one lives on an island, there is no place to hide.  The damage to infrastructure throughout the area impedes the ability to get into many areas on the islands.  Only now, roughly five days after the second hurricane passed through have the authorities been able to more fully assess the damage.  As the full scope of the devastation becomes clear, Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rossello called the situation “apocalyptic.”  And many areas have yet to be reached.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is doing what it can, but with the massive commitment of resources to the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma on the mainland, they are limited in what they can do immediately.  Coupled with the loss of meaningful communications outside of San Juan and the destruction of interior roads, it is not only difficult to assess the need, but also to reach those in need.

Most of us know that in the case of a natural disaster we should have five days of food, water, gasoline and money to hold us over until help can arrive.  It is now past that “hold-over” period and most of the impacted islands have no power — which is needed to pump gas, pump water, and operate ATM’s — and food is scarce.  The few available generators are running out of fuel.  Many necessities come from off of the islands in the best of times.  Now that the hurricanes have destroyed all of the crops on these islands, nearly 100% of basic needs will need to be shipped or flown into the area.  Power companies from as far away as Maine and Nebraska poured trucks and resources into helping out in Texas, Louisiana, Florida and elsewhere.  Obviously, they cannot do the same for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.  Without outside help, those struggling to restore order and work to regain normalcy are overwhelmed.

Help is slowly arriving, not only from FEMA but also from the Army Reserves and the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard.  It is a difficult situation.  Civilian charitable organizations are going to play a big part in helping the residents to survive in the short-term and to rebuild for the long haul.

If you can help, please contribute to the charity of your choice and designate your contribution to be used in Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands.  This link to Charity Navigator gives some tips to make sure your donation does the most good and to check and see that a particular charity puts your donation to work rather than for salaries, professional fund-raising and administration.   Thank you.

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Deterrence 101

“I’m not the man they think I am at home”  — Elton John in “Rocket Man”

On Tuesday Mr. Trump gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly that created controversy. It seems you either hated it or loved it.  Some people agree with his “America First” pronouncements and others interpret his remarks as being muddled and inconsistent. Either way, despite the fact that much of the ensuing discussion focused on his use of the term “Rocket Man” in referring to Kim Jong Un of North Korea, there is much more to learn about Mr. Trump and about deterrence.  (Besides the third grade use of nicknames to belittle people, perhaps some of our insight into Mr. Trump’s real thoughts starts with the lyrics above.)

You can read the full speech for yourself but the focus here is on his remarks about The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea.  To me, it shows a lack of understanding of both international relations and the real ways in which nations influence other nations or deter them from taking actions counter to our own self-interests.

“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary.”  — Donald J. Trump at the U.N. on 19 September 2017

Mr. Trump’s supporters may give him high marks for his bravado and willingness to “tell it like it is.” Okay.  But what did he really say?

Let’s put this another way.  The goal of the United States and other nations is to “denuclearize” the North Koreans.  As discussed previously in this blog, Kim Jong Un has no motivation to give up his nuclear weapons.  He cares not what happens to his population as long as he and his ruthless regime survive. The lesson he learned from Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya is that if you give in to the West and give up your Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) your regime falls and you get executed.  Not very motivational to someone like Kim.

Lesson number two comes from Mr. Trump’s speech.  Whether one likes the nuclear agreement with Iran or not, we do not have the same situation developing in Iran as is developing in North Korea.  Iran is not testing nuclear weapons.  The criticism of the agreement has many parts, mostly along the lines of the United States not drawing enough concessions from Iran.  No mention of terrorism, for example. Forgotten in the criticism is that the agreement is intended to be one aspect of a longer term engagement with Iran that does address other areas of concern to us and to them.  It showed that a deal could be made with a regime that refused to have anything at all to do with the West for decades.  It ensures that today we have only one “nuclear problem” to deal with and not two.  I might also point out that it is a multi-lateral agreement.  It is not a U.S. – Iran bilateral agreement as many in the current administration seem to address it.  The agreement includes the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the European Union representing all members of that organization, and Germany.  If the U.S. pulls out of the agreement, as Mr. Trump indicated yesterday that he will do, do not expect the other participants to follow suit.  Additionally, any other diplomatic engagement with Iran by the U.S. will die. Iran simply will not trust that the U.S. will abide by any future agreements.

This is where we get back to North Korea.  Mr. Trump demands that North Korea come to the table and negotiate a deal to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.  Hmmm.  Iran did that and now the U.S. calls the deal an embarrassment and threatens to abrogate the agreement.  Or as Mr. Trump said of Iran and the nuclear agreement:

“The Iran Deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into. Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it — believe me.”  — Donald J. Trump at the U.N. on 19 September 2017

So, let’s see this from Kim’s viewpoint.  (Who cares what he thinks, some may say?  Let’s not take any grief from those guys — Korean or Iranian. We should care only about ourselves.)  Those sentiments are understandable and in a way, correct.  Except for one thing.  We cannot get Kim (or the Iranians) to do something they don’t want to do just by bullying them.

From Kim’s point of view, those that have trusted the U.S. when it comes to getting rid of their WMD are either dead or betrayed by the U.S.  Not much of an incentive to give them up.

It gets worse.

Kim will not give up his missiles or his nuclear weapons as long as he thinks they are critical to his survival.  Period.  I cannot stress enough that he is all about his personal survival and the continuation of his regime — like it or not.  Diplomatic efforts should focus on providing a way to convince him that his regime will survive into the future with some kind of guarantees from those that share a border with him — China, Russia, and South Korea.  It might work.  But probably not.

It keeps getting worse.

Deterrence is based on several factors, as I’ve discussed in this space in previous posts.  Deterrence cannot work if the nation (or individual) that is the focus of the effort, doesn’t know what it is that they are not supposed to do.  Additionally, clear and realistic (emphasis on realistic) consequences need to be conveyed and understood by those being deterred.  They cannot do something if they don’t know what that is (or out of ignorance they may do it) and the cost/benefit analysis on their end needs to be clear and of a scale that not doing something is better than doing it.  One may think that dying is not a good outcome, but it may be if living with the alternative is unacceptable in their calculus, not ours. Understanding one’s opponent is critical.  We know very little about what goes on in the DPRK, but what we do know seems to be ignored by the current administration, or at least the guy in charge.

In sum, there needs to be a clear understanding of the behavior desired and a credible response that is unacceptable to the recipient.

With that in mind, let’s return to Mr. Trump’s U.N. remarks where he says,  “…but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies…” (meaning if the U.S. is forced to do so).  “Defend” against what?  He does not say.  In the past, North Korea shelled South Korean islands, sank a South Korean naval vessel, killed a U.S. service man in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and other provocations dating back to the capture of the USS Pueblo (AGER-2) in 1968.  Not one of these incidents generated a military response from the United States.  Expect Kim to test the efficacy of our intention to “defend” ourselves.  What will be our response if he again shells a South Korean outpost?  I would not expect that the response will be what Mr. Trump threatens, that  “…we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”  It is not a credible threat.  The implication that we will “totally destroy” a population of 24 million, with the additional implication by Mr. Trump that it will be with nuclear weapons (the only way to totally destroy a nation) is preposterous.  Or it should be in this scenario.  Kim will not see it as a credible threat.  Even if he does, it only solidifies his belief that having his own deliverable nuclear capability is his only saving grace. Boasting, bullying, and all the bravado Mr. Trump can muster will not change that and it certainly will not bring Kim to the negotiating table — other than as a delaying tactic to put the finishing touches on his arsenal.

This is why a long list of presidents, Republican and Democrat, warn that the United States “will respond at a time and place of our choosing” to provocations and attacks.  It leaves open a wide range of options from doing nothing all the way to “totally destroying” but with a myriad of options in between.  I guess that sounds wimpy to the current administration.  But leaving one’s options open is the best course.

With no clear “red line” — a term that is misused and misunderstood — that puts realistic limits on Kim’s behavior, and with no credible response for Kim to weigh in his strategic calculations, there is no deterrence and certainly no incentive for him to give up his nuclear weapons.

Mr. Trump fails deterrence 101.  There are, of course, many other branches and sequels involved in deterrence theory.  But if one does not understand the basics, that empty threats may only precipitate the action one is trying to deter, then there is little point in trying to get the finer points into play.

Furthermore, since the Korean Armistice of 1953, Kim’s grandfather and father created and hammered home the cult of personality so that today the DPRK is Kim and Kim is the DPRK.  Every citizen from the time that they can talk is taught that the Americans are the worst people on earth and that the Americans only aim in life is to destroy the DPRK.  They believe it.  The Korean War is the example taught over and over, given that North Korea was heavily damaged and lost millions of people, military and civilian, in the course of the conflict. To vilify and belittle their leader only adds gasoline to the fire. Mr. Trump handed the North Korean regime a propaganda coup with his statements about Kim and that we will totally destroy their nation. Roll the videotape! It reinforces everything that the population of North Korea has heard for their entire lives.

Which is not to say that we lay down and roll over.  The number one role of our national government is to protect our citizens.  If Kim pushes we should shove back.  We need to continue to reiterate to Kim that he cannot possibly win any military conflict with us or our allies.  End of discussion on that point. What is necessary is to convey clearly what we expect of the North Korean regime.  Patience and incremental successes may be the path to a common understanding.  We don’t back away from conflict where our national interests are at stake, but we also do not want to precipitate a war that will inevitably lead to massive military and civilian casualties on a whim or because we want to play around with cutesy phrases.  If one studies the military conflicts which we have entered since the Vietnam War, a pattern emerges.  Foreign adversaries continually fail to understand the nature of our society and misinterpret internal political arguments for a lack of will on our part to act militarily.  Mr. Trump may reinforce that perception when Kim tests his proclamation with a relatively minor infraction that we ignore (again) or when we do not “totally destroy” his country.

Kim is not a crazy man, even if he and Mr. Trump are trying to out crazy each other in their rhetoric.  It is totally sane to have as one’s primary strategic goal the survival of oneself and one’s regime.  If the United States truly wants to remove the North Korean’s nuclear capability, the U.S. will have to be more imaginative and creative in our diplomacy.  China, and now Russia which has inserted itself onto the scene, are the key players.  It is not a mission impossible, but it will take cool thinking and lots of patience.  It remains to be seen whether this administration is capable of either, much less both.

 


The Tumbling Tumbleweed

Yesterday the Trump Administration put a six month limit on the continued use of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy that was in effect for roughly the last five years.  This is the order that allowed undocumented immigrants brought here as children, with no say in the matter, to stay in the United States as long as they met certain criteria.  You may know the recipients of this policy as Dreamers, which came from the Congressional DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) which is legislation proposed in Congress in various forms since 2001 with chances of passage in either the House or the Senate, but never both at the same time.  After the last failure, President Obama in 2012 put the DACA into practice.  The criteria for being designated as a Dreamer are as follows, although under the policy, meeting these criteria does not automatically qualify the applicant as a Dreamer.  They had to:

  • Come to the United States before their 16th birthday
  • Live continuously in the United States since June 15, 2007
  • Be under age 31 on June 15, 2012 (i.e., born on June 16, 1981 or after)
  • Be physically present in the United States on June 15, 2012, and at the time of making their request for consideration of deferred action with US Custom and Immigration Service
  • Have no lawful status on June 15, 2012
  • Have completed high school or have a certified GED or have an honorable discharge from the Armed Forces or be enrolled in school
  • Have no convictions of a felony or serious misdemeanors, or three or more other misdemeanors, and not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.

It is estimated that there are approximately 800,000 registered Dreamers in the United States.

“Registered” could be a problem because they were promised no retribution if they came in out of the shadows and became useful members of society.  How many are now waiting for the knock on the door that they thought would not be of concern to them?  The talking points distributed by the Administration includes this advice to the Dreamers.

The Department of Homeland Security urges DACA recipients to use the time remaining on their work authorizations to prepare for and arrange their departure from the United States — including proactively seeking travel documentation — or to apply for other immigration benefits for which they may be eligible.

No worries.  They will just go back to a country where they probably know no one and do not even speak the language.  Sure.

There is much ado about how “conflicted” Mr. Trump is about this decision because he wants to follow the rule of law and yet he has “great heart” and “loves” the Dreamers.  Just ask him.  His administration portrayed the decision as a moral dilemma.  Hogwash.  Mr. Trump has about as good of a moral compass as a tumbleweed.  Over time, Mr. Trump has had as many moral and political positions on the widest variety of issues as anyone known to have achieved elected office.  You name a position, and he has had it at one time or another, including on Dreamers.

Mr. Trump is not conflicted over moral decisions.  He is only conflicted in terms of what gives him the best political outcome.  In this case, he got himself into a dilemma because there is no good political outcome.  All he cares about is “winning” and not what the impact of the policy might be.  Follow his argument in the ensuing paragraphs and see how circuitous and illogical it actually turns out to be.

His primary purpose for announcing this change in policy now, under less than optimal circumstances given the need before the end of September to raise the debt limit, pass a budget, provide aid to the victims of Hurricane Harvey, deal with the crisis in North Korea, and prepare for what looks to be another major crisis from Hurricane Irma, to name just a few things hanging over our heads, is to satisfy the hard-liners in his base — which continues to shrink.  Arguably, on this issue he is not even following his base.  Most polls show that about 75% of Americans approve of DACA and only about 15% say the Dreamers should be deported.  Of Trump supporters only 25% say the Dreamers should be deported and about 70% think that DACA should stay in place.

Mr. Trump’s motivation is only and purely political. Yesterday, he showed that he does not have the fortitude to stand by the tough calls.  We all know his penchant for the big show and, as he calls them “ratings.”  So here is a big “tell” — he was nowhere to be found when the announcement that DACA would end was made by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  The Attorney General took no questions from the press after the announcement.  Mr. Trump demonstrated no sense of responsibility for his decision, even as his press secretary constantly turned all questions to Congress and away from Mr. Trump.

There was no moral dilemma for Mr. Trump.  I would say there never is one that impacts his thinking, but I digress.  Instead of addressing the issue, he passed it to Congress in a very Pontius Pilate kind of way.  He washes his hands of it.  If in six months there is no new DREAM Act or something like it, then it is not his fault.  Oh by the way, Mr. Trump gave absolutely no guidance to Congress as to what kind of bill it should be, what he wants to see (or not see) in it, and what problems it should solve.  No guidance whatsoever.  Like many issues, he provided no leadership on the issue.  I suppose as with health care legislation, “I am sitting with pen in hand” to sign a bill.  Any bill.  We are winning.  If nothing passes it is not his fault.  If it does pass he will be the first to proclaim that he solved the problem.  A huge problem.

Mr. Trump cannot take the lead on solving the Dreamer problem because if he does, it will undermine the entire basis of his campaign and post-election rhetoric.  His demagoguery is based on the argument that immigrants are stealing jobs.  But he suspected, and now knows, that there will be a big backlash to heartlessly tossing out young people that are Americans in every way except on paper. Mr. Trump needs to prop up his campaign lies (fact checkers now have him at 1,114 false or misleading statements in the first 227 days of his administration) that deportation helps US jobs.

He rose to prominence as an anti-immigrant fear monger, starting with the despicable “Birther Movement” claiming President Obama was not an American.  Since then has built his coalition around being anti-immigrant.  Simply compare the record of the average Dreamer and what they have done for America (and perhaps more importantly what they will do in the future) to all of the accomplishments of Mr. Trump’s hero, Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Even with that, he cannot be consistent.  Mr. Trump makes an economic argument as to why we should deport all undocumented immigrants because they are taking all the jobs.  But then he turns around and pushes Congress to pass a law to keep them.  Great logic, great morality, great demagoguery.

Houston, we have a problem.  Who is going to rebuild following Hurricane Harvey?  Who does Mr. Trump think is going to do the construction and hard-core clean up following the destruction experienced across many, many square miles of Houston, east Texas and Louisiana? Sure, let’s get rid of all those hard-working $10 an hour folks and bring in, who exactly?  Get real.

Most people may understand what Mr. Trump’s decision means on personal terms to those impacted. Most, however, probably do not understand the economic impact.  Every major CEO and most small business owners opposed the termination of DACA based on economic factors.  Studies indicate that about 91% of all Dreamers are employed.  As their work permits expire, about 30,000 will lose their jobs each month. That translates to lots of lost productivity and expertise for the their employers and adds up to reducing the national gross domestic product by $433 billion (yes, with a B) over ten years.  It also means the loss of nearly $25 billion (another B!) dollars in taxes to programs such as Medicare and Social Security.  (Yes, Dreamers pay taxes.)

None of that takes into account the Dreamers currently serving on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere.  What happens to them?  What happens to the veterans that honorably served this nation? Just throw them out?

There clearly are some Constitutional issues.  These are worthy of consideration and debate.  Clearly Congress should shoulder the burden and do their job, as they should do in so many areas where they seem unable to govern.  Usually, however, Constitutional issues get settled in the courts, not by a unilateral decision on the part of Mr. Trump or Attorney General Sessions.  As I write, many state Attorneys General have spoken up and plan to take Mr. Trump’s decision to court.  We shall see how that unfolds.

But let me ask this rhetorical question.  Early in his administration, Mr. Trump’s Muslim Ban was touted as being totally within the Constitutional bounds of his office.  They argued that he had “extraordinary powers” in cases of immigration and was totally within the power of the office to keep people out. Does it not seem logical that if Mr. Trump can keep people out, he can also use that power to keep them in?

In all, I find this one more example of a tumbling tumbleweed administration.  Mr. Trump is just blowing in the wind, merely reacting day-to-day with no particular vision (and according to reported sources inside the White House, no understanding of the issues or their implications) other than keeping the dedicated base cheering at his campaign rallies.  And oh, spending time watching “the shows” on television and tweeting.