Rocket Man! C’mon Down!

Earlier this month, the president surprised his senior advisers and the world by agreeing to meet with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un “sometime in May.”  As of this writing, the details have yet to be worked out, and the details are important.  There is no word yet on where or when they will meet and no word on an agenda.  Clearly these issues can be worked out, but for such a momentous meeting, planning already should be well underway in order to make it a meaningful meeting.

There are pluses and minuses to this gambit, as with many international affairs of state.  Mr. Trump is taking a huge gamble.  It could be argued that no approach to stopping North Korea from developing nuclear weapons has worked over the past twenty-five years or more.  Certainly, talking is better than fighting, which seemed to be the president’s preferred option right up until it wasn’t. Maybe it will work.  However, if history is any guide, it will not.  It will especially not work in getting Mr. Kim to give up his nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

South Korean envoys met with Mr. Kim and members of his regime following the Winter Olympics.  This is a huge diplomatic break-through and is significant in trying to reach accommodation on the status of the Korean Peninsula.  Mr. Kim had never met with any South Korean delegation, ever.  The talks were described as very productive and resulted in some concrete developments.  Among them were the opening of a hot-line between Mr. Kim and South Korea’s president Mr. Moon Jae In.  Mr. Kim also proposed talks with the United States on denuclearization, and indicated he would suspend nuclear and missile tests before and during any talks.  Significantly, he dropped one of his long-standing demands that the United States and South Korea must stop large-scale joint military exercises.  In fact, he professed an understanding that the annual joint exercises must proceed this spring.  Additionally, he agreed to an April summit with Mr. Moon and chose the “Peace House”, a South Korean building inside Panmunjom at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas, as the location of the talks.

All of these developments are significant measures of progress and form the background to the meeting that took place in the White House.  After briefing their president, the South Korean envoys flew to Washington to brief their American allies, including a closely held invitation from Mr. Kim to Mr. Trump for a meeting.  All involved — North Koreans, South Koreans, U.S. National Security aides — thought that research, debate and analysis would take place before a response would be proffered.  Instead, Mr. Trump crashed the meeting between U.S. and South Korean officials (Mr. Trump was scheduled to meet with them the next day) and within a few minutes of a mention of the proposed summit, he accepted it. Mr. Trump caused some consternation as he then hinted at the upcoming announcement himself with an unusual visit to the White House press room, even before Mr. Kim and other important allies in the region, such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been informed of the decision.  Indeed, it still is unclear whether Mr. Kim actually acknowledges Mr. Trump’s response.

What could go wrong?

Right off the bat, Mr. Trump gave Mr. Kim the biggest international diplomatic success of his regime.  Mr. Kim — and his father and grandfather before him — struggled mightily to be seen as serious players in their own right and of equal stature to all major powers in the world.  Now Mr. Kim will meet the President of the United States on co-equal terms.  He attained his biggest goal with no concessions on his part.  Perhaps this development is worth the price of admission, but it is a huge gamble as it emboldens Mr. Kim and further buffs up his supreme confidence in his own abilities and instincts.

While we think that the North Koreans are coming to the table because of the increased sanctions and Mr. Trump’s belligerent rhetoric, Mr. Kim is thinking that Mr. Trump is coming to the table because we need to deal with them as a nuclear power.  The two views of these vastly different countries are about 180 degrees out of synch due to cultural, regional and political reasons.  There is a high probability of miscalculation and misunderstanding on both sides.

On the U.S. side we will be conferring with one hand tied behind our back.  There is no U.S. Ambassador in South Korea, no Assistant Secretary of East Asians Affairs in the State Department and the top North Korean expert resigned (many of the other policy analysts and subject matter expert offices are also empty) and we have no Secretary of State.  It is unclear whether the Senate can (or will) confirm Mr. Mike Pompeo, the proposed nominee to take Mr. Tillerson’s place, before a meeting in May.  Additionally, rumors are rife that the current National Security Adviser Lt. General H.R. McMaster will depart shortly.

(Intermission:  What is up with the way Mr. Trump treats his senior advisers?  Is he afraid to confront individuals he wants to remove from service or does he relish humiliating them?  Does “winning” mean one has to debase, humiliate and bully people?  Let’s just name a few:  FBI Director James Comey found out he was fired via cable news; Chief of Staff Reince Priebus learned he was fired via Twitter as he was getting off of Air Force One where he was just with the president; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired via Twitter as he returned from a diplomatic tour of Africa; and FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe found out he was fired via an email three minutes before it broke on cable news.  I must have missed finding out about this leadership technique in my many years of service to the nation.)

To Mr. Kim, having nuclear weapons and a ballistic missile program got him the recognition that he craved.  Additionally, as I have written in this space before, he takes a look at what happened to his former dictator colleagues Gaddafi and Saddam when they gave up their programs developing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and I think it naive at best to think that any negotiation will entice him to give his up now.  At best, we may get him to freeze further testing, but without knowing exactly how far along his program may be, it might be too late for a freeze to deter him from using his weapons at some point in the future.

And then there is the terminology.  Given the cultural differences and mightily different world views, what exactly does “denuclearization” — the administration’s goal for the Korean peninsula — mean, anyway?  For us, it is Mr. Kim giving up all of his nuclear weapons, with verifiable inspections and international monitoring to ensure they are gone to stay.  To Mr. Kim, at least from past negotiations, it means that the U.S. pulls its military from the Korean peninsula.  Which of course, is, or at least should be, a total non-starter for us and our Asian allies.  There are other similar areas of concern where words matter but have not, and possible will not, be resolved before the meeting takes place.  It is difficult to meet common ground if both sides have different ideas of what is being talked about.

Take another look at the lack of experienced personnel to lead this effort.  Compare that to years of negotiations by the North Koreans with the U.S. and other nations.  They are reported to be among the toughest negotiators in the world, and even when the West thinks they’ve reached an accord, they are surprised to find that the North Koreans proclaim the opposite and/or quickly break the promises from their side.  In every meeting over many years, their negotiators amply demonstrated that they are tenacious, persistent, and determined. They will do everything possible to unwind sanctions and to achieve their goals without making any meaningful concessions.

There is a reason so little progress has occurred over many administrations, Democrat or Republican.

Other area experts worry that we are starting at the top rather than at the bottom.  The argument goes that a summit should be the culmination of negotiations rather than the start.  As outlined above, the devil is in the details and national leaders are rarely called upon to negotiate specific, very technical aspects of treaties.  Their job is to set the tone and resolve any last minute sticking points, not to start from scratch.  Given the personalities of the two leaders involved, there is a lot that could go wrong (“Lil’ Rocket Man” vs. “Mentally Deranged Dotard”), should the talks ever actually take place.

Two possible outcomes — one relatively positive and one very negative — could result from these talks.  The mostly positive outcome is that no specific agreements come from the summit, but that the meeting of the two leaders “jump starts” meaningful talks that lead to progress.  We should be prepared for incremental progress, perhaps starting with an actual peace treaty between the warring factions of the Korean War rather than the continuing armistice.  (Many people forget that we are technically still at war on the Korean peninsula.)

The negative outcome could be that both sides see no progress and the two leaders assess the other as “weak” or unwilling to break an impasse.  In this scenario, one or both sides could decide that they gave peace a chance, it didn’t work, and the only remaining option is combat — either a renewal of the Korean War, or more likely, a series of aggressive actions, probes, and tests of military resolve that could quickly escalate out of hand.

Big risks sometimes have big rewards.  I would feel better about the risk in this case if I believed that Mr. Trump truly understood the situation and had actually calculated the pros and cons of this unprecedented adventure.  This gambit has the feel of a game show gamble.

 

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Farewell

Yesterday our family made the hardest decision concerning our most loyal friend who always gave us unconditional trust and love.  We put down our dog Clancy who unbeknownst to us was suffering from a fast spreading cancer.  His condition deteriorated quickly over the last few days and an emergency run to the veterinarian revealed the deadly diagnosis. He never came home again.  His mind remained sharp and his spirit never faltered right to the end but his body gave out on him.  It was the right thing to do, but that knowledge provides little comfort.

Please indulge my conceit that yesterday was a very bad, no good day.

To some, grieving for just a dog makes little sense given the suffering of children under relentless bombing in Syria, war in Afghanistan, or the mass exodus of a million refugees from Venezuela.  But he wasn’t “just a dog.”  He came into our lives twelve years ago during one of the most stressful periods of our family life and daily brought us joy and put a smile on our faces.  During his lifetime he had two major surgeries that took weeks of recovery and of course the final outrage of cancer.  Not once in his lifetime did we hear him whimper or cry.  Never.  Even as the vet told us yesterday that he must have been in great pain from the cancer and resulting tumor.  He always tried his best to please us and to make us happy.  And he did exactly that.

I have owned dogs most of my life.  This one was special.  I always gave him the highest canine compliment that I know — he was a good dog.

Not that he was perfect.  No dog is.  He could be very stubborn.  But in nearly every case, he came through in the end.  He was a great traveler, having made two round trips across the country by car.  He visited more than a dozen national parks throughout the nation.  In a lot of ways he was lucky to have us and he had more adventures than many people.  So many adventures over the years.  Unfortunately, the numbers of adventures large and small dwindled as the years caught up to us. But he was always game to try, even if his body could not respond to what his mind was telling him he wanted to do.  His last adventure was last week when he went on a walk with my wife down to our community beach.  He loved the water and loved going down there.  Little did we know that would be the last time as on the following day, his condition started to concern us.

All he really wanted was to be with his “pack” (our family) and to go in the car.  He was always up for a “road trip” be it running errands around town or heading out on a month-long excursion.  Oh, and maybe a little tuna juice on his dog food.  He had a sixth sense about those cans — he would show up in the kitchen at the mere sound of a can coming out of the pantry.  But only tuna cans.

He was the sheriff of our quiet street.  Anyone or anything that came near would hear the loud barking of an obviously big dog.  It was his sacred duty to keep an eye on things and to alert us to anything that was “different.”  But once a visitor entered our doorway, he had a new best friend forever.

His life with us began and ended the same way.  He picked us out as his family as a six month old puppy when we were visiting the county pound.  As we walked by his run, he got down on his side and reached under the gate to stick his paw out to try to touch us.  It worked.  When we took him home he was literally skin and bones. He was abandoned on the streets prior to arriving at the pound and had a tooth and jaw problem that made eating painful.  We should have paid closer attention to his feet, which were nearly the size of a baseball.  Once a dentist fixed his teeth and he could eat without pain, that scrawny pup turned into a 120 pound muscled specimen.  But a big dog without a mean bone in his body. If it is possible for a dog to have a kind soul, he had one.  Putting out a paw and touching was his trademark throughout his life.  He always put that paw out to touch anyone that pet him.  As humans do, I turned that into a series of “shake” and “say hello” and other routines that entertained kids when they came to visit.  He never failed to deliver.  His last act before quietly and gently leaving us was to reach out his paw and touch my hand.

He was a good dog.  Farewell my friend.

 


Dereliction of Duty

There are a number of perplexing events unfolding in and around the White House.  My sense is that many Americans are uninterested, unaware, or just minding their own business until all of the facts are in.  I hope that the lack of concern is the latter and not that we as a nation have become inured to the unprecedented developments and are numb to the plethora of constant noise and fury emanating from the White House.  There are so, so many troubling developments surrounding this administration.  Thus far, only one is an existential threat to our democracy.

Yes, Russia again.

It is now over two weeks since Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations as another step in the ongoing investigation conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in our 2016 election. The indictment shows that the clear intent of their actions was to undermine the presidential election by active measures to disrupt the process, and specifically, to hurt Secretary Hillary Clinton and to favor the election of Mr. Donald Trump.  But don’t take my word for it, if you haven’t done so already, read the full 37 page indictment.  The indictment details how the Russians conducted “information warfare against the United States of America.”  Warfare.

News reports today indicate that Mr. Mueller will soon file more indictments, this time specifically naming Russian hackers and outlining their methods in stealing emails from the Democratic National Committee and from Secretary Clinton’s campaign manager Mr. John Podesta.  Please recall that the hacking of the DNC and the campaign were the original reasons for the investigation into the Russian meddling.

Additional reports inform us that seven states had their systems compromised in some way including in at least two cases, getting into the voter registration data bank.  Attempts were made on a total of twenty-one states to get into the voting system.  While there is no evidence to date that any actual votes were compromised or voter information changed to prevent people from voting, many experts consider these to be “probing attacks” to find vulnerabilities for exploitation in the future such as in the 2018 mid-term elections and/or the 2020 national elections.

Last month the heads of the major U.S. intelligence agencies testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee about the Russian meddling attacks.  This included the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, FBI Director Christopher Wray, National Security Agency Director Admiral Mike Rogers, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. General Robert Ashley and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Director Robert Cardillo.  They were in agreement that the Russians did interfere and that it would happen again.  As Director Coats put it, “There should be no doubt that Russia perceived that its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian midterm operations.”

When asked by committee member Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) if the FBI had been directed by the president to take any specific actions against the Russians, FBI Director Wray said the FBI is undertaking “a lot of specific activities” to counter the Russians but was “not specifically directed by the president.”  If you saw the body language as Mr. Wray answered, it would sound even worse than it does here.

And it does get worse.

This week during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral Rogers, Director of the National Security Agency and the head of the U.S. military Cyber Command, said that he was using his existing authorities to combat the Russian attacks. When asked a question similar to that asked last month of Director Wray — had the president given him any direction — he acknowledged that the president had not asked his agencies that are charged with conducting cyberoperations to find ways to counter the attackers and had not been granted new authorities to conduct counter operations.

Director Wray and Admiral Rogers are saying that they are on the defensive and doing the best that they can.  However, they are inhibited by the apparent lack of interest from the Commander-in-Chief and have been given no authorization to go on the offensive.  I am sure that the hard-working men and women in the intelligence agencies are doing what they can to protect our country, but they are having to do so with their hands tied and with no consequences for our attacker.

Here is the plain truth from Admiral Rogers during his testimony:

“President Putin has clearly come to the conclusion that there’s little price to pay and that therefore ‘I can continue this activity.’ Clearly what we have done hasn’t been enough.”

I can go on, but you know the story.  And it isn’t pretty.

Here are Mr. Trump’s responses, warnings, actions, deterrent activities, and punishments for Russia, in order: Bumpkiss, Nada, Zilch, Nothing, Goose Egg, Diddly-Squat.

Thank you Commander-in-Chief for keeping us safe from our adversaries and protecting our greatest democratic principle.

The latest story from the administration is that it is all President Obama’s fault.  Should one take that story hook, line and sinker, it still begs the question as to why the president, in office for nearly 14 months, has directed nothing to be done to dissuade and deter further Russian meddling, much less to punish them and hold them accountable for their actions in 2016.  He won’t even implement the sanctions voted on by both parties in the House (by a vote of 419-3) and Senate (98-2) last year designed specifically to punish Russia for their attack.

Why?  The most common answer from pundits, politicians and prognosticators is that in his eyes, to even acknowledge that the Russians interfered, much less to help him as delineated in Mr. Mueller’s court papers, lessens his election victory and somehow makes it less legitimate.

I have other ideas as to why he won’t hold Russia and Vladimir Putin accountable for their actions, but so far, that would be pure speculation.  Let’s go with the “my feelings would be hurt” reason.

Why does anyone accept that as an answer?  Even if he feels that way, he is the president.  As president he took an oath “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  To my knowledge there is nothing that precludes that responsibility just because the president’s ego may be bruised.  As Commander-in-Chief he has an obligation to do his duty.  If he refuses, then he is derelict in his duties as delineated in the Constitution.

Why do we continue to pretend otherwise?