Really? I Mean, Really…

QUESTION: Mr. President, do you have any response to the Russian president expelling 755 workers from our embassy in Russia?

TRUMP: No, I want to thank [Putin], because we’re trying to cut down on payroll. And as far as I’m concerned, I’m very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll. There’s no real reason for them to go back. So, I greatly appreciate the fact that they’ve been able to cut our payroll for the United States. We’ll save a lot of money.

President Trump made these comments during an impromptu press conference on Thursday at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey.  He doubled down on them on Friday.

His press secretary related that the president was “joking” and being “sarcastic” — seemingly the go-to response for every comment he makes that receives significant push back for its outrageous nature. But let’s assume that, in fact, he is joking.  It is still an outrageous comment coming from a president and it shows no respect for his diplomats and the important work that they do, including at times putting their own well-being at risk.  Perhaps a little context will help to bring this home.

At the end of July Russian President Putin  gave the United States until 1 September to remove 755 diplomatic and technical support personnel from our embassy in Moscow.  In addition, he seized two properties used by the U.S. embassy.  All of this was in retaliation for the sanctions bill passed by the U.S. Congress a few days earlier.

Until last Thursday, the president made no comment about the Russian actions.  None.  Eleven days without comment on that situation despite having lots to say about stories on “Fox and Friends” and a significant number of insignificant matters. He had time to Tweet numerous attacks on his own Senate Majority Leader, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), but has yet to utter one negative word about Russia, or Mr. Putin.  He still has not done so.  His first comment on a long-standing dispute with Russia was to “thank” Mr. Putin.  Ha.  Ha.

His remarks also reveal a lack of understanding of how these things work. It is also possible  that he thinks of the diplomats as “employees” — perhaps the same way he thinks of the workers that make his shirts in Bangladesh. Obviously, Mr. Putin did not “let go” U.S. diplomats.  He can’t, they are American citizens working for the U.S. government.  And Mr. Putin did not “cut the payroll” or “save a lot of money” because those impacted people still receive pay checks.  They will return to the U.S. or posted elsewhere overseas. Mr. Putin’s actions will have some impact on his own citizens’ pay checks, as there are some Russian nationals that work in our embassy and consulates in supporting roles that will lose their jobs.

The reported response from the career diplomats, current and past, was predictably swift.  And they were not pleased. Coupled with what appears to be a secondary role for Secretary of State Tillerson and the fact that countless senior positions in the State Department critical to shaping and implementing U.S. foreign policy have yet to be nominated, much less in position to help — including an ambassador to South Korea, which might be useful about now — it appears that President Trump has little use for, and certainly no regard for, the role our professional diplomats play in keeping our nation safe.  I expect many to start voting with their feet and leaving the foreign service, further debilitating our ability to meet our national goals.  Of course, to some presidential advisers, those that work in the Department of State are the worst of the “deep state.”  They will be happy to see these professional diplomats resign. Apparently, President Trump agrees with that view.

He also apparently does not understand that far more U.S. government departments work in our overseas embassies than just from the Department of State.  In an embassy such as ours in Moscow (the largest we currently have) there are personnel from the CIA, FBI, Agriculture, Commerce, Treasury and just about every agency in between.  Losing these positions inhibits our ability to maintain some programs (remember, for example, that our NASA astronauts ride Russian rockets into space) but also inhibits our ability to gather valuable intelligence on every facet of life in Russia.  The reduction will also have a significant impact on services provided to Americans in Russia as well as on Russians that may need visas or other assistance in travelling to the U.S.

President Trump’s cavalier attitude about nearly everything that does not benefit him directly is not only short-sighted in ensuring an effectively functioning government, it also shows his disdain for patriotic Americans that are at the front lines in keeping our nation safe.

In a week of events that were mind-boggling, one more reckless statement from the president was probably lost in the news of so many outrageous statements and careless Tweets.  To me, however, his Russian statement represented all of the things that I worry about concerning our president.  His lack of knowledge, his lack of intellectual curiosity about anything that has to do with basic civics, his lack of concern over anything that does not involve him personally, and the cavalier way that he treats people trying hard to serve him and the American public.  I could go on.

Really Mr. President?  I mean, really.  As my grandmother would have said, “for goodness sake…”


A Real Crisis

With the president on vacation — or “working vacation” as he prefers — and many of us likewise enjoying some time off and therefore not paying much attention to world events, it is possible to overlook the quickly unfolding events surrounding North Korea.  It appears that what was possible “five to ten years” from now may have already happened, or is about to happen.

North Korea has or is very close to having Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) with a range to reach the U.S. mainland, carrying nuclear weapons.

Kim Jong Un with nuclear weapons.  That should give us all pause.

Given that North Korea is the toughest place on earth to penetrate for accurate information, no one really knows what they do or do not have.  However, at the end of July they tested an ICBM that credible experts say has the potential to reach at least to Chicago.  This afternoon, the Washington Post has a breaking story that reports that the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) assessed in late July that the North Koreans have the ability to miniaturize nuclear weapons to fit on an ICBM.  This is no small technical accomplishment and one that only earlier this summer analysts did not think was within their capability.  Giving more weight to the assessment, the Japanese Ministry of Defense concluded that there is evidence to suggest that North Korea has indeed achieved miniaturization.  It is still unclear whether they have reached the ability to keep the re-entry vehicle (the bomb) from burning up upon re-entry, but they will achieve that feat as well in due order.

To add to our degree of safety, according to the report, the North Koreans may also have as many as 60 nuclear weapons.  Other analysts think the number is much lower, somewhere around 20 to 25.  A comforting thought.

This past weekend a step in the right direction occurred when the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) voted unanimously to significantly increase the world-wide sanctions on North Korea.  This is a noteworthy event as both Russia and China voted for the measure.  Most times they veto almost anything proposed by the U.S. involving North Korea.  It remains to be seen whether they enforce those sanctions, but it is a positive step.

History indicates however, that Kim Jong Un cares little for sanctions, no matter how debilitating they may be to his nation’s population.  In the past, he allowed his population to starve by the thousands under previous sanctions.  He just doesn’t care.

All this is not to say that we in the U.S., or anywhere else in the world, is in immediate danger.  It does say that the equation changed.  As I have written in this space before, such as on 27 May this year, I do not believe that there is anything currently on the table that will cause Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal.  In his mind, those weapons are the key to his survival.  Period.  He gives them up, the regime will be destroyed.  As I’ve written, all he has to do is look at Saddam Hussein and Moahmar Qadhafi, both of whom gave up their Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programs and ended up dead.

Likewise I do not subscribe to the theory that Kim is “crazy” or a “madman” or any other such characterizations of him.  That is not the danger.  The danger is that he is young, relatively unsophisticated and with little practical experience in world affairs.  The possibility of a miscalculation is high.  Unfortunately, it is even higher as President Trump talks about North Korea in belligerent terms. This afternoon at his golf course in Bedminster New Jersey, the president said that “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States.  They will be met with fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen.”  While deterrence is based on making a clear and credible threat of retaliation, and certainly we need to be clear about the fact that we will retaliate, this type of language increases the possibility of Kim miscalculating the threat from the U.S.  It also is not clear as to what exactly the president means by that.  However, again, Kim is all about survival, he does not have a death wish.  The danger comes in him believing a presidential statement or Tweet and calculating that the U.S. and/or our allies are about to attack and therefore he decides to strike first.  Cool heads must prevail and look to the long-term to solve this problem.

There is one other little discussed element of this problem.  The North Koreans are all about being anti-American.  A quick look at their history, and especially their terrible losses in the Korean War, help to explain their position.  They may find it convenient to use a proxy, such as a terrorist group or other bad actor, to use one of these weapons.  They could sell a weapon or the knowledge of how to build one in order to achieve two goals, hard currency and an attack on the United States.

When the dust settles, the U.S. basically has three options.  Conduct a preemptive military strike, negotiate a freeze on further development of North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles or accept the fact that they already have them.  All three should be pursued in their own way, but we need to be realistic as to their impact on the situation and understand that there may be no one answer.

Despite the president’s rhetoric, and rightly saying that all options remain on the table, the likelihood of the U.S. precipitating military action is small.  Or it should be.  As I wrote in May, the costs of a military conflagration on the Korean peninsula, that will surely spread to Japan and elsewhere in the Pacific, are just too high.  Not that it could not happen, just that it is very unlikely in a rationale calculus.  The one exception I might put out there is an attack to decapitate the North Korean leadership — Kim Jung Un and his cronies — but that is a very risky undertaking.  If we miss, Kim will unleash his forces.  Even if we succeed, there is no guarantee his successors will not retaliate.  Complicating the issue is neither Russia or China desire regime change in North Korea and greatly fear its collapse.  They will have a vote — real or in projected reaction — on how things play out.  It is nearly impossible to expect a U.S. military preemptive attack to take out the missiles and weapons.  They are in hardened locations and are nearly impossible to reach, even if we are sure where they are, which we are not.

The second option is to negotiate.  The Russians and Chinese are trying to facilitate those negotiations even as we sit here today.  Their proposal is to have the U.S. and South Korea pledge to never again hold military exercises on or near the Korean peninsula in exchange for the North Koreans freezing their nuclear and missile programs.  This is a non-starter on two levels.  The U.S. will not (or should not) abandon its allies.  Secondly, over several decades, the North Koreans have never seriously sat down at the table for negotiations.  Negotiations were held in the past, but it quickly became apparent that the North Koreans had no intention of acquiescing to anything.  If Kim believes his survival means keeping his programs then there is no reason to believe he will negotiate them away.

The third option, accept the new development as we did when the Soviet Union and later China developed nuclear weapons, is not “giving up.”  We have a credible deterrent in both nuclear and conventional weapons that can do great harm to Kim and his regime.  He knows this.  Additionally, the U.S. has Ballistic Missile Defense Systems (BMD) in California and Alaska that have been successfully tested.  They were built with a regime like North Korea in mind.  Additionally the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army have BMD systems.  There are additional diplomatic and economic measures that can be taken to continue to contain the North Korean threat.  It is not a hopeless cause and a North Korean attack is not inevitable in any respect.

Unfortunately, the world just became more dangerous.  As a result, the U.S. and our allies must negotiate this new terrain very carefully.  We should not take the threat lightly and it does change how we deal in the Pacific Theater.  At the same time, never make a threat that will not be carried out.  It results in a loss of credibility, which impacts deterrence, and may end up causing the very act that one is trying to deter.

Our national security team has its work cut out for it.  Let’s hope they make the right choices.


It Just Will Not Stop

Just when one thinks that just about everything that could happen under the Trump Administration has already occurred — it can’t possibly get any crazier, but it does.  Last week was chock full of newsworthy items, any one of which would have been worthy of discussion but they just kept coming and coming. Over the last week or so, we’ve seen proof that President Trump still does not understand the dignity and impact of the presidency.

To quickly cover a few of the highlights before getting to the main event — health care bills — let’s do a tour d’ horizon.  Two venerable institutions, the Boy Scouts of America and Police Departments across the country, had to issue apologies and “clarifications” following President Trump’s speeches to the annual Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia and to a Long Island New York police department.

In the former he gave a political speech that was short on inspiration to America’s youth and long on past grievances, politics, and a reminder of how personally great everything Trump is and will be. Some parents threatened to pull their kids from the Scouts.  President Trump supporters opined that the “kids loved it” forgetting that they are boys and teens and that when you get 40,000 kids together in one place, especially mostly boys, they will laugh and cheer at just about anything, especially if flatulence is involved. On Long Island the president seemed to say that police brutality when arresting suspects was okay.  As usual, whenever called out on similar pronouncements, it was proposed that it was a “joke.” Police departments around the country could only cringe and issue statements that such statements were no joking matter and that their (fill in the city) police department does not condone such action.

Within days of President Trump announcing the new White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, aka “The Mooch”, aka “Mini-me” Mr. Scaramucci went on a rant to a New Yorker Magazine reporter that disparaged key senior members of the White House staff and included numerous references, in full graphic detail, to acts of biology that to my knowledge are impossible.  No comment from the president at the time.  Others in the Administration opined that he’s just a “New Yorker” and apparently that’s how New Yorkers talk about co-workers.  Having lived for a number of years in New York state I don’t recall anyone talking that way and certainly not in the name of the President of the United States.

In Tweets (Tweets!) the president continues to disparage his own Attorney General and his first and for a very long time, only official supporter for president.  According to some accounts this is a prelude to cleaning out the senior levels of the Department of Justice including the Attorney General, his deputy, the Acting FBI Director, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller.  No problem there.  In another Tweet the president arbitrarily told all active duty transgender military personnel that their services were no longer required “in any capacity” because they are a burden and “disruptive.”  Suddenly somewhere around 7,000 soldiers, Marines, Sailors and airmen are in limbo and told that somehow their patriotism and willingness to defend the nation does not count.

In yet another Tweet, the president fired his chief of staff Reince Priebus.  The Tweet announced that retired Marine general and serving Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly would be the new chief.

Whew!  A full week.

On the upside for those of us rooting for a successful and appropriate presidency there were several positive developments.  As I write this, reports are that Anthony Scaramucci was removed from his job of ten days as the Communications Director.  I have no inside information but I suspect that the new chief of staff had something to do with that as Mr. Scaramucci bragged last week that he only reported directly to the president and did not have to answer to anyone else on the staff.  My knowledge of General Kelly, although limited, would indicate that he would absolutely not tolerate antics such as those of Mr. Scaramucci.  Perhaps the General can bring order to the White House staff.  We’ll see, but a good first step.

Also positive, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, USMC let it be known that the military does not act on Tweets or any other form of informal communications when a policy decision is to be made, even a Tweet by the president concerning transgender policy.  Hurrah. It remains to be seen what actual policy evolves, but it is good to know that spontaneous utterances by the president will not precipitate military action.

Further good news came out of the Congress that overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill strengthening sanctions primarily against Russia, but with some additional provisions against Iran and North Korea. The Congress felt it necessary after listening to, and observing the actions of, President Trump with regards to Russian President Putin and our president’s apparent fascination with him.  The White House staff had worked hard behind the scenes to stop the passage of the bill but both houses of the Congress got up on their hind legs and said “no” to the president on this issue. A positive sign that they may increasingly exercise their role in governing as an equal branch of the government.

Many Republican Senators and Representatives also went on the record along with their Democrat colleagues to oppose President Trump’s Tweet policy on transgender individuals in the military and the treatment of Attorney General Sessions.  Clear signs that the president will not get blanket support from them.  As an aside, the president now taunts Republicans as well as Democrats via Twitter seeming to make it clear that he does not consider himself a Republican.  But to most of us, that is no surprise.

And of course let’s not forget that North Korea tested new Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that experts think can reach targets on the U.S. mainland as far as Chicago.

Arguably the biggest news of the week was the failure to repeal or repeal and replace or otherwise get rid of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) lovingly known as Obamacare.  Most of us followed the news and at least heard of the ins and outs of the entire suspense filled week of “will they or won’t they?”  They did not.  One could ask why after seven years of clamoring for (and voting over 50 times for) the repeal of Obamacare the Republicans were not ready to put forward their own coherent health plan. One could also ask why the only argument put forward by most Republicans, and especially by the president, had nothing to do with the merits of the proposed replacement plan(s) but rather the only argument was that Obamacare was “bad” — nothing about why the new plan would be better.  SAD!

But be careful.

I do not think the health care battle is finished, only in a strategic pause.  There will be further efforts to repeal or repeal and replace.  For supporters of Obamacare, or supporters of a bipartisan effort to repair Obamacare and to make it better, do not relax.  The fat lady has yet to sing.

Over the weekend President Trump tweeted out (how else?) that Obamacare was going to implode and implicitly that he would make it happen.  On Sunday the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Mick Mulvaney went on television to be explicit about the president’s threats/promises. As I have written in this space before, the president can do grave harm to the current Obamacare system, primarily through non-enforcement of the mandate and by withholding funds to subsidize premiums. He also made news by threatening the Congress and Congressional staffers with actions to increase their premiums.  I am no expert in this area, but this is what I understand is the issue.

Is it possible for the president to make Obamacare “implode” as he promises?  As with most things, the answer is “it depends” on what part of Obamacare one refers to during the discussion.  Since Obamacare remains the law of the land, the president cannot make it go away at once.  He can, however, create enough chaos in the system that it can degrade over time.  Remember that most Americans get their health insurance through their employers or through the government (military, VA, military retirees, Medicare, etc.).  For middle to low-income working adults and for children that do not have employer or government health insurance they mostly get their insurance through Medicaid or in a market place created by the ACA.  Although a major factor in the latest debates, Medicaid is provided by law and cannot be legally changed without a change to the law. What is really under discussion are the ACA market places.  Since the ACA was fully implemented, about 10 million Americans get their coverage via the government market place.  These are the people you most hear about on the news and in political rallies, be it how bad the system is or how wonderful the system is.

The administration has a number of ways to degrade the ACA.  In a slow motion effort, they could stop advertising and marketing the exchanges so that people either don’t know that the markets still exist (a lot of Americans are unsure as to what is available after all the latest hubbub) or miss deadlines to sign up because there was no public advertising as to how or when to get on board.  Additionally, if the administration follows through by not enforcing the mandate (either get insurance or pay a fine) healthy people will get out of the market which causes costs to rise for the insurers which is then passed on to those still in the market — their premiums rise — or the insurer gets out of the market because it isn’t profitable for them if they have to eat the added costs.  (Remember the three legs from my 23 June post. To work, if we want to cover pre-existing conditions, the system needs a mandate to keep the pool costs low by balancing healthy folks with those that we already know have problems, but then to be fair, we subsidize those that have to have insurance but cannot afford it.  Get anything out of whack, and the system starts to wobble — the promised “death spiral.”)

President Trump is threatening/promising to speed up the process by withholding cost sharing payments. As I write, they are only released through the end of July — today. (The next deadline is in late August.)  The ACA requires insurance companies to hold down the deductibles, co-pays and premiums for those in the individual market place. However, the insurance companies are not charitable organizations and they are in business to make money.  To make up the loss of revenue to those companies every month the government makes up the difference on the costs — currently about $600 million a month.  Should the Trump administration stop paying those subsidies, premiums for those on the market place would sky-rocket or the insurers would just pull out of the market.  This is a lot of what you hear about when those that oppose the ACA say it is “collapsing.”  Health care and health insurance is not “collapsing” for most Americans, but it could for those middle to low-income Americans that are on the individual markets should the president follow through and try to cause the ACA to “implode”.

He claims the Democrats will “own it” and he will take no blame.  I think he is fooling himself if he takes deliberate action to make it tough on the citizens he swore to protect.

There is one more esoteric wrinkle in the president’s threats that you may hear more about this week. Mr. Mulvaney explained the issue and says that the president is serious about implementing it.  This involves the health insurance for members of Congress and their staffs.  Despite rumors to the contrary, by law the entire Congress and their staffs are on the ACA — they get their insurance from Obamacare. But with a wrinkle.  President Obama’s administration put out a policy that allowed them to treat each individual office of each Senator and Representative each as a small business.  This means that they are eligible for the subsidies just talked about above, saving them lots of money out of their own pockets. Before setting our hair on fire, take a minute to think about it.  Certainly the individual Senators and Representatives could afford to pay full price in an employer plan, but most staffers, interns, administrative personnel, etc. working in their offices are young folks not making much money.  It would have a huge impact on them should President Trump change the policy to exclude them from the subsidy program.

Today is the start of a new week.  Let’s hope it is a dull one.  We need to take a collective deep breath and take a few minutes to enjoy the summer.  And summers in official Washington D.C. are supposed to be dull.  Nothing going on.  If so, hold on to your hats come September.


The Korean Dilemma

United States policy for many past presidential administrations firmly states that a nuclear armed North Korea is unacceptable to our national security interests and is a threat to peace around the world. This stance continues with the current administration.  Unfortunately, despite sanctions and diplomatic isolation, North Korea already tested five nuclear weapons between 2006 and 2016. Some intelligence reports, as widely cited in the media, indicate that there may soon be another such test. Meanwhile, the North Koreans continue to test ballistic missiles, ever-increasing their sophistication and range.

The threat of a nuclear armed North Korea becomes real when they reach the capability to mount a nuclear weapon on top of a long-range missile.  Experts differ on that estimate.  Some say it is “years” away and some say it could come as soon as 2018.  No one knows for sure, but they do know that the pace of the Korean progress towards that goal is steadily increasing.

When that day arrives, a clear and present danger will exist for the United States and for our friends and allies in the Pacific area.  Thus the question:  How to implement our stated policy of preventing that danger from becoming real?  There is no easy answer.

The Trump Administration, like those before it, states that “all options” are on the table.  The implied but not so subtle threat is one of military action.  To take such action is not so simple as it may seem to some.  In practical terms, North Korean nuclear sites are underground and the intelligence community is not positive that it knows where all of those sites are located.  Reaching a hardened underground site with a conventional missile or bomb is difficult, if not impossible.  It is possible to destroy such a site with our own nuclear weapons, assuming we have it correctly located, but despite the facile way some people talk about nuclear weapons, no credible official thinks that taking a first strike with nuclear weapons is part of the solution at this point. A bomb without a delivery system is not able to reach the target.  To stop the threat, eliminate the delivery system.

However, further complicating the issue is that part of the North’s missile development includes mobile Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that makes targeting the delivery system before launch that much more difficult. They have also tested submarine launched ballistic missiles, which are even harder to locate without sufficient warning and planning.  So while the military option is and should be on the table, the practical aspects of eliminating the threat without a major conflict are daunting.

The ace in the hole held by North Korea is the fact that Seoul, the capital with a population in the city and suburbs of nearly 24 million, is only about 40 miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).  The North amassed and maintains large numbers of artillery, rocket, and ballistic missiles along the DMZ, many with a range capable of reaching Seoul.  This is a huge deterrent to unilateral U.S. or allied strikes. Additionally, North Korea already has operational ballistic missiles that can reach Japan, the Philippines, Guam and other locations with U.S. military bases and U.S ex-pats. There are other threats as well, but you get the picture.

The Korean War began in 1950, and technically never ended, although an Armistice was reached in 1953. The war resulted in approximately 2.7 million Korean deaths, with an additional 800,000 Chinese and 33,000 American dead. Since then Civil Defense capabilities in the South have vastly improved and the citizens practice taking shelter. Also new are the preemption plans of the United States and South Korean military that in the early stages of conflict would seek to take out the North’s ability to wreak wide-spread damage in the South. However, despite these plans and practices, the devastation of extended combat would be real and with a lasting impact.

The key to a non-military solution in North Korea is China.  President Trump tried to impart to Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to the U.S. in April the importance we place on this issue and the need for Chinese influence to reign in the North Koreans.  Presumably President Xi took the information on board, but China has their own interests on the peninsula.  First and foremost, they do not want a united Korea, especially one allied with the United States.  Secondly, they are unwilling to deal with the economic fallout of a massive refugee and humanitarian crisis on their border should the regime of Kim Jong-un fall.  Kim is the ruthless Chairman of the Worker’s Party of Korea and Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or as we call it, North Korea.

Most of us know of the ruthless leadership of Leader Kim, including having his uncle and half-brother killed.  He does not appear to be “crazy” as some would have it, but he is isolated, inexperienced, and convinced of his infallibility.  For a minute, take a look at the world from his point of view.  Assume that he is committed to his personal and the regime’s survival.  Assume also that he believes his own propaganda and that the world really is out to get him.  Here is what he sees.

Kim knows well of the fate of two previous strongmen, Muammar Mohammed Abu Minyar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.  Both had programs to develop Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).  Both were pressured by world leaders, diplomatically and militarily, to give up their WMD programs.  We now know that both actually did give them up.  One ended up sexually violated and killed in the desert and the other was hung.  Kim Jong-un is not about to fall prey, as he sees it, to the same trick.  He will not willingly give up his nuclear and missile programs just because the U.S. threatens him or China cajoles him.  Economic sanctions seem to hurt only the North Korean population, Kim and his cronies are immune from the deprivations that seriously impact his citizens.  Rebellion from within is nearly impossible given the total control over the population wielded by the state and the total immersion into a way of life and a propaganda machine that influences the average citizens from the day that they are born.

During the Cold War, the superpowers possessed nuclear weapons and competed for influence and territory for many decades without nuclear war becoming a reality.  There were many reasons for our survival despite some serious crises such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the lesser known 1973 Arab-Israeli War when the U.S. military world-wide went to DEFCON III (Defense Condition 3), the two closest instances of direct conflict between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.  Foremost among these reasons is the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (aptly known as MAD) where the chance of total and equal destruction deterred each side from using their nuclear weapons.  (Although in fact, most nuclear war plans did not contemplate an all or nothing use of nuclear weapons.  There were (are?) war fighting plans using nuclear weapons in limited strikes that may or may not escalate based on the war aims.  It also has to do with hitting counter-value or counter-force targets — in over simplified words, hitting cities or military forces.  But I digress, although it useful to remember this concept of counter-value versus counter-force targeting in thinking about North Korea.)

It is unlikely that North Korea can be deterred from using its nuclear force based merely on the concept of MAD.  Kim does not want to die, he wants to survive, but he will not go down without a fight.  If his survival is threatened in a way he finds credible, he may go down swinging.

Diplomatically, it is difficult to know what will bring the North to the table with a credible negotiating team willing to provide a solution to inhibiting or eliminating their nuclear program.  On-site inspections and verification must be part of any solution, but Kim has signaled he will never allow them to occur.  Past U.S. administrations have entered into negotiations with them only to find them unserious and uninterested in a real solution.  They were only interested in finding out how much they could get from the West before opting out of any reciprocal actions.

There may be some value in taking a similar approach to the one that the world took with Iran.  While President Obama is often and furiously “blamed” for “caving” to the Iranians, a few things need to be remembered about the agreement.  First, it was not a bilateral U.S.-Iran agreement.  It was a multi-lateral agreement that includes, among others, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, the European Union, China and Russia.  Second, it in fact did stop Iranian development of nuclear weapons, at least in the short run.  The idea is that eventually Iran will benefit sufficiently economically without a nuclear weapons program that they will forgo it rather than suffer more sanctions in the future.  Third, it did open the country to outside inspectors.  No deal is credible without continued verification. The deal was a result of focused sanctions that hurt the Iranians where it counted.

Using this model may or may not be possible, but it could be a starting point for a meaningful international diplomatic effort to resolve the Kim issue.  However, thus far other world leaders have been content to allow the U.S. and China to solve this problem as they are less threatened by the DPRK. China is the key to any solution, but particularly one involving meaningful sanctions.  To be meaningful, they must hit Kim and his fellow oligarchs where it hurts — in their pocket books and life styles.  So far there is no evidence that current sanctions are having any impact on the leadership, only on the population. Thus China (and others) need to meaningfully and consistently enforce economic sanctions.

For other world leaders that do not seem too concerned, they should consider what may be the biggest threat from the North Korean nuclear program.  Cash strapped and looking for a market, it is conceivable that the DPRK will (and maybe already has) export their knowledge and expertise to the highest bidder.  This may and probably will in the future include terrorist organizations and rogue states. That alone should be enough to get most of the world on board with solving this problem.

Finally, and, as it should be, a last resort, there are a number of military options that may preclude full-scale war.  Cyber attacks that cripple the nuclear infrastructure for example could be carried out. (Remember reports in 2010 that the “Stuxnet” virus crippled the Iranian nuclear centrifuges in what is thought to be a combined U.S.-Israeli operation.)  Other clandestine operations are surely in the U.S. playbook.

Should conventional military force be required, a counter-force strike aimed at limiting the DPRK’s ability to do damage in South Korea could be followed by an offer to negotiate with Kim.

Another option is to specifically target Kim and the senior leadership in a decapitation strike that removes the DPRK leadership and thus limits their ability to retaliate.  This seems to have the biggest chance of success.  If a pre-emptive U.S. military strike could lead to a massive conflict on the peninsula and surrounding areas anyway, then go for the leadership first in the chance that the command and control abilities and the will to fight may be eliminated before the conflict spirals out of control.

While the DPRK is increasing its capabilities, so are the U.S and our regional allies.  While we may not be able to locate and eliminate all of the nuclear sites and mobile launchers on the ground, using increasingly sophisticated Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) systems the U.S. can limit the impact of a strike by destroying the missiles in flight.  Current systems include Ground Based Mid-Course Defense (GMD) based in California and Alaska which tested well against ICBM targets, the Navy’s Aegis destroyers and cruisers have proven adept at hitting ballistic missiles and the Army’s Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems have as well, depending on the threat and the environment. You may recall that the U.S. is presently deploying the THAAD system in South Korea, although in April President Trump inexplicably called on the Koreans to pay us one billion dollars for the system unless they terminate or renegotiate a bilateral trade agreement — “a horrible deal.”  For now, the deployment continues.

It does not take a crystal ball to determine that the Trump Administration will face its toughest international challenge in North Korea.  Whether in the coming months, as the DPRK accelerates its testing of missile and weapon systems, or in the coming years, one should expect action in one form or another in the near future.  It will take a confident and realistic combination of diplomatic and economic measures from the international community coupled with unparalleled military readiness.  What is certain is that the problem will not go away on its own.


Doing The Right Thing

Last night U.S. Navy war ships launched over 50 Tomahawk missiles against an airfield in Syria.  The airfield was the base from which the Sarin attacks on civilians were launched earlier this week. We can only speculate at the moment as to where this leads , but I am glad that the Syrian’s actions did not go unpunished.  This time, the Trump Administration did the right thing.

The mechanics of delivering the missiles to the target are relatively simple.  Well, not simple in the abstract, but simple because the targets were on the list for years and the ships’ crews have practiced endlessly for this type of scenario.  They take no pleasure in it, but they understand that this is this their profession and so they professionally executed the mission.

The strikes were tactical and an appropriate and proportional response to send Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad the signal that his actions will have consequences.  Now he cannot act without calculating possible future responses from the United States, and hopefully, our allies.  It is also an appropriate signal to Russia and Iran that they cannot continue to enable Bashar without consequences.  Their rhetoric will increase but it is doubtful that either nation will make an immediate retaliatory response.

The larger question is “what next?”  Tactics only make sense in the context of a larger strategy and I am not sure that the Trump Administration has a fully developed strategy for dealing with Syria in the days and months to come.  What is apparent, is that the strategy outlined only days ago by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, that we will pay little attention to Syria and the Syrian people will decide their own future, is no longer relevant.

The Syrian Civil War can only end through diplomatic efforts.  The U.S. should increase the pressure on Russia and Iran to stop enabling Bashar and to bring him to the table for serious negotiations. This can be accomplished by a combination of diplomatic efforts that hold them responsible for Bashar’s actions and direct pressure, such as through increased sanctions on Russia and Iran. Secretary Tillerson is scheduled to visit Moscow later this month.  It will be interesting to see if those talks are still on, and whether Secretary Tillerson can use that opening to put Russian actions in Syria in the spotlight.

On the domestic front, for those White House West Wing watchers that believe “personnel is policy”, several interesting developments occurred in the days leading up to the strike.  What it means is not yet entirely clear, but consider what happened.  When the statements concerning Syria and our policy were put forward by Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Haley, Mr. Steve Bannon was thought to be the architect of those statements which reflect his “America First” outlook.  Likewise when President Trump put out his inane statement that the Obama Administration was responsible for the chemical attack. The next day, it was announced that Mr. Bannon was demoted and removed from the National Security Council, also leading to his threat to quit and go home (he didn’t — yet).  Then the President’s son-in-law Mr. Jared Kushner, probably the only man in the West Wing that President Trump absolutely trusts, returned from a trip to Iraq with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The next day President Trump, in a news conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan, changed his tune on the chemical attack, condemning it in the strongest possible terms, taking responsibility as president, and hinting at further actions. He was then known to meet with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.  President Trump then ordered the retaliation last night.  Personally, I do not think that the changes in personnel and the influence yielded by his son-in-law and, most importantly, the experienced national security advisers, prior to the Tomahawk strikes, was coincidental.

Only time will tell whether the national security adults in the room will continue to be the most influential or not.  There is still much to be worried about in Syria and North Korea.  However, this was the right thing to do and a good first step.


It’s Not Funny Anymore

“What in the wide, wide, World of Sports is going on here?”

— Slim Pickens as “Taggart” in Blazing Saddles

I made a promise to myself, and to many others, that I would give President-Elect Donald J. Trump a chance to prove himself as our next president.  After all, I reasoned, he has yet to take office, has not had any Cabinet officers confirmed or proposed any legislation to the Congress.  I thought to myself, let’s give him a chance and see what he actually does rather than what he might do.

Too late.  Mr. Trump is already showing us what kind of president he will be.  In so doing, it appears to me that he has forgotten that he is not yet the president.  We only have one president at a time and currently Barack Obama is our president, like it or not.  Yet Mr. Trump has already meddled in foreign affairs, the market place, labor union affairs, and other areas properly the purview of the person that is the president.  In addition he continues to refuse to reveal anything about his business interests, or tax returns or any other aspect of his dealings that may well impact his decisions as president.  Mr. Trump was to have a news conference this Thursday to outline how he will deal with all of those interests, but he announced yesterday that the news conference has been deferred to an unspecified date in January. Don’t count on him actually holding it.  Despite frequent promises, he has not held a news conference since 27 July 2016.  In that one, he famously invited the Russians to hack Secretary Hillary Clinton’s emails.

My biggest concerns with his actions thus far relate to national security.  He has been reckless in his statements and actions to date.  One can argue that in the United States domestic economic concerns are the biggest motivators to the voting public.  However, the number one role of a national government is national security.  If the government cannot protect its citizens from all enemies foreign and domestic, then it has failed.  Otherwise, there is no ability to focus on any other aspect of government.  I find that Mr. Trump is woefully uninformed and reckless in his actions thus far and has already put our national interests in jeopardy.  One can only imagine what may take place once he assumes the office.

If you have only glanced at the news (real news, not fake news) you know that Mr. Trump has muddled our relations with both China and Taiwan.  His original conversation with the Taiwanese President sent shock waves through our diplomatic corps and the Chinese were not amused.  This week, Mr. Trump compounded the mess by saying in an interview on Fox News Sunday that in essence, his comments on China and Taiwan was an opening gambit in trade negotiations.  This thrilled Taiwan because now they are considered bargaining chips in our relations with China.  Their take away over the last 48 hours is that Mr. Trump would not expand the relationship with Taiwan but rather bargain them away as a pawn if it meant a “good deal” with China on trade.  In only a few days he managed to scare and to irritate both a friend and a foe, without stating any clear policy to move forward.

There are always new policies and ways of doing business with each new administration.  But as they say on Monday Night Football, “c’mon man!”

Most troubling, and seriously dangerous, is Mr. Trump’s reaction to the profoundly disturbing news that the Russian involvement in the presidential election is much deeper than imagined.  As I have written in this space before, it was disturbing to me that during the campaign the discussion was about the juicy tidbits in the hacked information and not that it was illegally obtained through the auspices of a foreign nation.  If you have not recently read about the intricate details, there is a primer in the New York Times that provides the outline of the case and what is known and unknown.

In short, the Russians have been acting deliberately to interfere with our election in a wide variety of ways.  One can argue whether the intent was to “merely” undermine the integrity of the democratic process or whether it was actively trying to derail Secretary Clinton’s campaign in order to help Mr. Trump.  Either way, we as a nation should be outraged and demand an investigation.

Unless you are Mr. Trump or his advisers that is.  They repeatedly called the notion “laughable” and “ridiculous.”  Or as Mr. Trump said on Sunday;

“I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it. I don’t know why, and I think it’s just — you know, they talked about all sorts of things. Every week it’s another excuse. We had a massive landslide victory, as you know, in the Electoral College.”

— Mr. Donald J. Trump on Fox News Sunday on 11 December 2016

This followed a Friday night press release where they ridiculed the CIA and Mr. Trump has repeatedly said that he does not take the daily intelligence briefs because “I am a smart person.”

It baffles me why Mr. Trump and his advisers didn’t just say something along the lines of this:

We are deeply troubled by the revelations of possible Russian intrusion into the 2016 presidential election.  While there is no evidence that the election results were tampered with or otherwise illegitimate we welcome the Congressional investigation into what happened in order to confirm the basic tenets of our democracy.  President-Elect Trump looks forward to working closely with the intelligence community to keep our nation safe.

Here is the problem.  He must believe that the CIA and other intelligence agencies — which are unanimous in their conclusion that the Russians tried to influence the election, but not on why they did so — are not good at their job and politicized.  Either or both assumptions are dangerous to our well-being.  Today Michael V. Hayden, former director of the NSA and later of the CIA wrote an opinion piece that explains the danger.  The question is not really about whether or not there are political overtones to the Russian involvement or what their intent may be.  The real question is why Mr. Trump refuses to seek the assistance of the intelligence agencies in solving problems and to use the information to help inform his decisions.  An adversarial relationship with the intelligence agencies is not going to help protect our nation.  To be dismissive of the information that they provide is reckless.

Through my personal experience and confirmed by all knowledgeable accounts, the members of our intelligence communities work very hard to keep us safe.  More importantly in this context, they are career professionals that have faithfully served both Republicans and Democrats.  They are apolitical. They seek only the facts.

There are cultural differences between the agencies, which could be used to the new president’s advantage rather than as a weapon to delegitimize their efforts.  For example, the CIA lives in a mushy world where the preponderance of evidence gives them signals to interpret events and to predict potential adversarial relationships in order to inform decision makers as they set policy.  They themselves do not set any policies.  The FBI on the other hand, has a different culture.  They are a law enforcement agency that works to convict criminals and others in a court of law.  They must gather proof beyond a reasonable doubt that can stand up in court.  An entirely different mission.  Add to that the fact that the CIA is focused on the international scene and that the FBI has an internal domestic focus. Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that there are areas for disagreement as to the degree of surety about a particular case.

Look at it another way.  Many CIA employees risk their lives to gather information to keep our nation safe.  How motivated are they going to be to do so if the Commander-in-Chief basically calls them liars and political operatives attempting to “re-litigate the election”?

As a side note, but related, Mr. Trump seemingly due to his thin skin and lack of understanding, attacks anyone that he surmises does not support his election.  And that happens to anybody that does not tout his “landslide” victory.  I have yet to conclude whether Mr. Trump’s numerous untruths are the result of wishful thinking, studied ignorance or outright lies.  I suppose it could be all three, but it is continual. Let’s just use the election results as an example.  Mr. Trump claims that he won the election in a landslide.  The fact is that his percentage of electoral votes ranks him 46th out of the 58 presidential elections in our history. Not even the top half.  He is also losing to Secretary Clinton in the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes — her total is more than that received by any presidential candidate in history except Barack Obama — a result he claims is the result of “millions” of illegal voters that otherwise would have afforded him the outright win.  There is no proof of any voter fraud, much less “millions.”  I could go on but I don’t have enough time or space to enumerate the misinformation that comes from him and his aides — even if I just limited it to the last seven days.

This is dangerous.  We need an informed and truthful president — or at least one that doesn’t create his own facts.

Even more troubling is his cozy relationship with Russia and seemingly endless admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Let’s take a look at but a few examples.

Mr. Trump’s son said that Russian investors are a major factor in the family business.  Or more precisely he said, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

Members of his campaign and future administration have close business ties with Russia, including his national security adviser LT General Michael Flynn, USA (ret.).  He famously sat at a banquet with Mr. Putin and lambasted American news media outlets during a Russian propaganda television broadcast.

Mr. Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State is a personal friend of Mr. Putin and was awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship in 2013.  Oh, by the way, Mr. Rex Tillerson, as the CEO of Exxon-Mobil, has done a lot of business with Mr. Putin and other Russian oligarchs over oil.  Secretary-nominee Tillerson is a staunch advocate for removing sanctions against Russia imposed after Russia illegally annexed Crimea. He is quoted as saying the sanctions cost his company one billion dollars.  I am sure that will have no bearing in his dealings with the Russians.

I have no doubt that Mr. Trump did not personally collude with the Russians to interfere with the election and I am equally sure that no actual votes cast changed as a result of the Russian actions. I do feel strongly that their actions did impact the election, but it is impossible to know whether the outcome would have been any different without the Russian efforts.  Mr. Trump will be our president.

That said, I think it perfectly reasonable to investigate the extent and intent of Russian interference.  I think it perfectly reasonable to investigate Mr. Tillerson’s ties to Russia and his other dealings.  I think it perfectly reasonable to investigate Mr. Trump’s business dealings and relations with foreign powers. I think it perfectly reasonable for Mr. Trump to continue to receive pressure to release his tax returns and to build a firewall between himself and his businesses — just like everyone that works for him will have to do.

Thankfully, members of the Senate are going to do that on a bi-partisan basis.  They should dig deep and hard.  The point is not to undo the election.  That will not happen.  The point is make sure that undue influence from foreign powers is deterred in future elections and to make sure that going forward, the ties to Russia that are obvious to all but Mr. Trump do not inhibit the national interests of the United States of America.  Our nation and citizens come before the business interests of the billionaires that apparently will be running our country.  Let’s keep the pressure on Congress to provide the over sight needed to keep our nation safe.

 

 


A Growing Dilemma

In case you lost track, events in Ukraine are increasingly leading towards a chance of significant conflict. Today, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Francois Hollande of France traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin concerning the escalating fighting in Ukraine.

Roughly a year ago, Chancellor Merkel stated that she would no longer deal with President Putin until he became serious about working for a solution to the problem in Ukraine.  Nothing has changed regarding Putin’s stance on events there.  He continues to claim that there is no Russian involvement there and that, indeed, NATO troops are the bulk of the fighters for the “illegal” Ukrainian government. Yet Merkel felt it necessary, along with the other most influential leader in continental Europe, to go to Moscow. This demonstrates their concern that the situation in Ukraine is becoming increasingly dangerous. Influencing their decision to meet with Putin is a growing sentiment in the United States Congress and with senior advisers to President Obama that the United States should provide the Ukrainian army with increased aid, including heavy weapons.  At present, the U.S. supplies only non-lethal aid and diplomatic support to the Ukrainians.

Last September, the Ukrainians and pro-Russia separatists agreed to a ceasefire that held, with some exceptions, until early this year.  Since the new year began, the separatists have launched several offensives to expand their territory to the west and south.  Fierce fighting in cities and towns left scores of civilians dead, in addition to casualties among those fighting.  The situation continues to escalate. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Ukraine this week to renew U.S. pledges of support to the Ukrainian government and to call for renewed sanctions if Russia does not bring the fighting to a halt. Indeed, last week, the European Union voted to consider increased sanctions against Russia.

You will recall that I wrote about this subject last September (“Where Do We Go From Here?”) and stated that over time, the events in Ukraine potentially provide a bigger threat to our long-term strategic goals than does ISIS.  I also pointed out that European leaders should review their history as NATO was formed for this exact reason — to protect Europe from Soviet (Russian) invasion. Ukraine of course is not a member of NATO, but the threat is the same and nothing that Putin and the Russians have done since last fall provides any shred of evidence that the Russians intend to stay out of Ukraine.  In fact, it is very much the opposite, and in my mind, the situation is even more dangerous. Yet the United States, and indeed all of Europe, walk a tenuous high wire trying to balance our strategic interests elsewhere in the world, while working to inhibit Russian adventurism.

According to most experts, the sanctions have had a real impact on the Russian economy.  The exchange rate for the Russian ruble plummeted over the course of 2014 and the Russian economy is suffering. Even Putin admits that the economy is in bad shape but places the blame squarely on the West and claims that western nations are trying to destroy Russia.  Exacerbating their economic woes is the plunging price of oil, which until the bottom dropped out of the market, allowed Russian economic policies to continue through oil revenue.  No longer.

Given the extent and effectiveness of Russian propaganda within their own population, Putin has been able to build an “us against them” mentality.  Historically, what is the track record of nations run by dictators and near dictators when they face economic troubles or domestic unrest? They drum up a problem outside the country’s borders, rally the population around (in this case) the Motherland, and blame all internal problems on external forces. Putin and his cronies are experts at this.  The tightening of sanctions only validates his story.

At the same time, when Ukrainian and Western European leaders call on the Russians to withdraw from eastern Ukraine, the Russians claim that there are no Russian troops, equipment or aid to the so-called rebels fighting for their “freedom.”  It is difficult to imagine how the West will get Putin to withdraw his forces from Ukraine when he steadfastly argues that none are there.

Other complicating factors to unified western action include:

  • the close economic ties of several European nations to Russia
  • the requirement for unanimous consent among the European Union’s twenty-eight nations to take action on further sanctions or anything else
  • the same requirement for the twenty-eight nations in NATO (not all the same ones as in the EU)
  • the need to have Russia at the table to bring Iran to heel
  • the many cooperative endeavors between Russia and the U.S. not the least of which is the manning and resupply of the International Space Station
  • the many other areas of strategic interest around the world where Russia must either be included, or pacified to keep them from meddling.

In short, given the degree of the response from the West, the large number of areas where western nations want Russian cooperation, and the positive impact on Russian domestic politics of continued adventures in Ukraine, with little to no adverse effects, Putin has no incentive to cease his meddling.

So, what can be done?  As I wrote last September, as a minimum the West should:

  • Provide the Ukrainian military with the supplies, including heavy weapons, that they require to combat the immediate threat posed by trained Russian “volunteers.” These Russians operate weapons beyond the capability of Ukrainian “farmers” and “factory workers” rebelling against the central Ukrainian government.
  • Provide training to Ukrainian military leaders at the tactical and operational levels to instill a long-term ability to combat Russian military adventures.
  • Increase the numbers and types of rotational deployments of United States military forces to the Baltic states and eastern Europe.  These deployments underline the importance the United States puts on the tenants of the NATO treaty and the independence of nations.  Although such deployments are underway, it is at small levels with minimal impact on public or diplomatic perceptions.
  • Increase meaningful sanctions on the Russian economy.  This will necessarily impose hardships on some sectors of the European economy, but the costs of dealing with Putin will only increase over time.

To be sure, there are dangers in this approach, or any approach that Putin feels threatens Russia. Some caution that arming the Ukrainian military and escalating the conflict only plays into Putin’s hands, providing an opening for invading Ukraine and leading to a much wider conflict, with more casualties, and one that the West does not have the will to stop.  Indeed, Russia holds the strategic and tactical advantage in geography, troop levels, and will to win.  It is unclear that the EU or NATO will be willing to engage Russia militarily should Putin decide to expand his adventure in Ukraine and annex large parts of the country as he did in Crimea.  Putin declared last fall that he could “march into Kiev” at any time — he had only to give the order.  Some argue that the West could give him the incentive do so if the situation escalates through increased military support or harsher sanctions.

In my view, Putin is playing the long game and will continue his adventurism until he is stopped.  The sooner the West demonstrates its resolve and the sooner that he feels actual consequences to his actions, the sooner he will look for a diplomatic solution.  In the end, only diplomatic solutions will provide a long-lasting resolution to this crisis.  However, it is clear that increased military resistance is the only thing that is going to make Putin decide to end his shenanigans.  And it is the only thing that will keep him from playing similar games to restore other portions of the former Soviet Union. In addition to Crimea, one need only look at Georgia, Chechnya, and Moldova to see that Putin will not hesitate to use his Armed Forces in the interest of “protecting” Russians.  A quick survey of the map and a review of nations formerly part of the Soviet Union, or in its sphere of domination, will determine that there are large ethnic Russian populations in many other areas that Putin could decide to “protect.”

Putin will only stop meddling when he determines that the costs outweigh the benefits.  To date, he is a long way from that conclusion.  It is time for the West to demonstrate true resolve.