“This guy, he’s like a maniac, OK? He wiped out the uncle. He wiped out this one, that one. I mean, this guy doesn’t play games. And we can’t play games with him. Because he really does have missiles. And he really does have nukes.”
So spoke President Donald Trump in Iowa in January. North Korea flight-tested a ballistic missile on Saturday night that landed off Japan’s west coast, so what will he do now? What can he do? And is North Korea’s 33-year-old dictator, Kim Jong-un, really a maniac?
South Korea’s foreign ministry certainly thinks so: “North Korea’s repeated provocations show the Kim Jong-un regime’s nature of irrationality, maniacally obsessed in its nuclear and missile development.” The same word was used a great deal after North Korea tested nuclear weapons in January and September of last year.
But why would it be maniacal, or even irrational, for the North Korean leader to want nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the United States? After all, the United States not only has nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach North Korea; it has enough of them to eradicate the country twenty times over.
If it is not maniacal for the United States to have them, why is it maniacal for the North Koreans? Because American leaders are responsible, they explain, whereas Kim Jong-un is a maniac. Begging your pardon, but isn’t that argument rather circular?
The United States is the only country that ever developed nuclear weapons with the deliberate intention of using them. It was at the end of the Second World War, when tens of millions had already been killed, and moral restraints had largely been cast aside.
But the United States never used its nukes again, even when it still had a monopoly on them – and all the other known nuclear powers got them in the name of deterrence: stopping somebody else from using nuclear weapons on them.
The Soviet Union developed them to deter the United States from launching a nuclear strike. Britain and France got them to deter the Soviet Union. China got them to deter all of the above. And Pakistan and India each developed them because they suspected the other country was working on them.
Only Israel developed nuclear weapons for use against enemies who did not already have them (and it still refuses to confirm their existence, although it is common knowledge in the strategic community). But Israel got them out of fear that its people would be “driven into the sea” if it lost a conventional war, back in the 1960s when it was conceivable that it could lose such a war. The intention was still defensive.
So why can’t the rest of the world believe that North Korea is doing this in order to deter an American nuclear attack? North Koreans have lived sixty-five years with the knowledge that the United States could do that whenever it wanted, and it is not maniacal to take out a little insurance against it.
The North Korean regime is brutally repressive and given to foaming at the mouth over minor slights. But since it has actually kept the peace for 64 years (while the United States has fought three large wars and many small ones), it is hard to maintain that it is maniacally aggressive.
So why say it? Because if you don’t characterise North Korea as insanely dangerous, then you cannot justify forbidding it to have ballistic missiles (which several dozen other countries have) and nuclear warheads (which nine countries have, and another four had briefly before giving them up).
Since none of the great powers want North Korea to have them, and they control the United Nations Security Council, they have managed to get special UN bans on both ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons for North Korea. Maintaining that the Pyongyang regime are maniacs is part of the programme, but it does frighten those who are not in on the joke.
It would be better if the ban worked, since the world has more than enough nuclear powers already. However, the ban is essentially unenforceable, and the heavens will not fall if North Korea does get a few nuclear-tipped ICBMs one of these days.
It will never have very many, and they will not be used for some lunatic “first strike” on countries that are tens of times more powerful. They will be for deterrence, only to be launched as an act of revenge from the grave. Just like everybody else’s.
What can President Trump do about this? He could try bribing North Korea into suspending its work on missiles and bombs. That worked once before, but not for very long. There is really nothing useful to be done.
And what will he say about it? Nobody knows, probably including him.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9. (“Only…defensive”)
By the end of 2015 the BND, the German foreign intelligence service, had grown so concerned that it warned the government about Saudi Arabia’s new Deputy Crown Prince and defence minister, 30-year-old Muhammad bin Salman. “The previous cautious diplomatic stance of older leading members of the royal family,” it wrote, “is being replaced by an impulsive policy of intervention.”
At that point Prince bin Salman had been defence minister for just one year, but he had already launched a major military intervention in the civil war in Yemen and committed Saudi Arabia to open support for the rebels in the Syrian civil war. He had also taken the bold decision to let oil production rip and the oil price crash.
No wonder the BND characterised Prince bin Salman as “a political gambler who is destabilising the Arab world through proxy wars in Yemen and Syria.” Not just a gambler, but one who was betting on the wrong horses.
The first bet to fail was his intervention in the Yemeni civil war, with an aerial bombing campaign that has killed at least 10,000 Yemenis (around half of them civilians) and cost Saudi Arabia tens of billions of dollars.
Prince Muhammad bin Salman (or MBS, as he is known in diplomatic circles) sold the war as a short, sharp intervention that would defeat the Houthi rebels in Yemen and put Saudi Arabia’s own choice for the presidency, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, back in power. It has turned into a long, exhausting war of attrition: the Houthis still control of the capital, Sana’a, and Hadi will not be going home any time soon.
Then the Deputy Crown Prince’s second big bet, an open commitment to support the Syrian rebels, failed when the Syrian army, with Russian and Iranian help, reconquered eastern Aleppo last December. Not one of Syria’s big cities is now under rebel control, and Saudi Arabia will have to live with a victorious and vengeful Assad regime.
MBS’s biggest gamble was his plan to restore the Saudi kingdom’s dominance in global oil markets by driving the new competition, the American producers who get oil out of shale rock by fracking, into bankruptcy.
The frackers had doubled American oil production in eight years, but the extra US production was creating an over-supply in the market and depressing the price of oil. Then the prince decided to make matters worse.
He reckoned that the frackers were high-cost producers who would go broke if the price of oil stayed low enough for long enough. So Saudi Arabia kept its own oil production high and persuaded its partners in the Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OPEC) to do the same.
At several points in the past two years the oil price fell below $30 per barrel, compared to a peak of $114 in 2014, but the strategy didn’t work as MBS had planned.
The US frackers shut down their less profitable operations temporarily and some
smaller players went bankrupt, but the survivors are ready to ramp production up again as soon as the oil price improves. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has been burning through $100 billion a year in cash reserves to keep government services and subsidies going.
Last November the prince admitted defeat. Saudi Arabia and its OPEC partners agreed to cut production by 1.2 million barrels per day, and Russia and Kazakhstan chipped in with another half million barrels. The oil price is up to $55 per barrel, Saudi Arabia’s cash flow has improved, and the political stresses at home due to wage and subsidy cuts have eased off.
But many people are asking: “What was all that about, then?”
The prince is not a fool. He should have known that foreign interventions in Yemen rarely succeed, that the Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war meant that Assad was likely to win, and that the American frackers could probably wait him out. In fact, he probably did know.
The problem is that Muhammad bin Salman is in a hurry to produce some positive results. His prominence at such an early age owes everything to the support of his father, King Salman, who ascended to the throne just two years ago. But the king is 81 and in poor health (suffering from mild dementia, according to some), and his son is not his obvious successor.
Normally the successor to the Saudi throne is not the current king’s son, but a senior prince chosen by his peers as best fitted to rule. The current Crown Prince is 57-year-old Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. Even the title of Deputy Crown Prince is new, and MBS owes it entirely to his father.
So to have any hope of succeeding to the throne when King Salman dies, Prince Muhammad bin Salman must prove his worth quickly. That’s why he was open to such high-stakes, long-odds gambles: one big success could do the trick for him.
He is probably still up for another roll of the dice.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 10, and 15. (“The frackers…worse”; At several…planned”; and “Normally…father”)
In Romania, after five straight nights of mass demonstration in Bucharest’s main square, the government agreed to withdraw an emergency decree that decriminalised various abuses of political power (on the grounds that the jails were too crowded). If you defrauded the state of less than $47,500, under the new rules, you might have to pay it back, but you wouldn’t go to jail.
More to the point, those already serving sentences or facing charges for stealing, say, $47, 499 would be released from jail or see the charges dismissed – including the leader of the governing Social Democratic Party, Liviu Dragnea, who was convicted of stealing only $27,000. (That’s not necessarily how much he stole; just how much they could PROVE he stole.)
Romania used to be one of the most corrupt countries in Europe, but since it joined the European Union in 2007 it has been under great pressure from Brussels to clean up its act. There was also huge domestic pressure from ordinary Romanians who are sick of their venal politicians, and the anti-corruption drive was making real progress.
Then last Tuesday Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu’s government issued its decree freeing hundreds of jailed politicians, officials and even judges. It was due to go into effect next Friday, but right away the crowd came pouring out into the streets in Bucharest and all the other big cities.
After five nights of mass demonstrations, the government cancelled its decree on Saturday. The Crowd won, and both justice and democracy were well served.
The other very dodgy decree of recent days was in Washington, where President Trump signed an “executive order” imposing a 90-day ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries seeking to enter the United States (even if they were legal US residents or had been issued visas after vetting by US embassies) and an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees.
Like the Romanian decree, its legality was doubtful. As in Romania, the protesting crowds came out in large numbers in the United States (though proportionally in much smaller numbers, and certainly not for five successive nights). But what really brought Trump’s plan grinding to a halt, at least for the moment, was a judge.
U.S. District Senior Judge James Robarts of Seattle issued an order suspending the Trump ban – and even President Trump obeyed it (although he did refer to Robarts, with typical graciousness, as a “so-called judge”). The whole machinery of government went into reverse, entry visas are being re-validated, and even Syrian immigrants are being admitted to the United States again. The rule of law has prevailed.
Two crises in two democratic countries, and two reasonably satisfactory resolutions. It was the Crowd that did the heavy lifting in Romania, and the Law that did the crucial work in the United States. But they should not be seen as alternatives; sometimes you need them both.
Robarts was not required to make a full legal case for his action at this stage in the proceedings: he simply ordered the ban suspended to avoid serious harm being done to individuals by an executive order that may contravene the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
When the case goes to the appeals court, and possibly then to the Supreme Court, the argument of those opposing the ban will doubtless be that it flouts the First Amendment requirement that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.
This may persuade the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court in San Francisco, which is relatively liberal, and even to the Supreme Court, which will continue to be split evenly between liberals and conservatives until Trump’s nominee for the ninth seat on the Court is approved by Congress. Or it may not.
Even if the appeal courts ultimately rejects Robarts’s argument and reimposes the ban, the Law will have successfully curbed the abuse of executive power. It always has to be curbed, because even with the best of intentions those who hold power will inevitably try to expand it – and sometimes they do not have the best of intentions.
The US Constitution has won the first round of the battle against Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. Full marks to James Robarts (who was nominated, by the way, by George W. Bush’s Republican administration).
But four years is a long time, and there will be occasions when lawyers won’t be enough. The Crowd will be needed as well: demonstrations as large, as disciplined and as patient as those in Romania. And as suspicious of being betrayed once they have gone home.
The night after the Romanian government cancelled its “emergency decree”, there was the biggest demonstration of all: half a million people in Victory Square in Bucharest. Why? Because the government had muttered something about addressing the same “issue” of allegedly crowded jails through normal legislation in parliament, which would still really be about getting crooked politicians out of jail.
So they won’t go home until Prime Minister Grindeanu promises not to bring the subject up again.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“Two…Constitution”)
“Without a proper sense of urgency, we will be eventually defeated, dominated and very likely destroyed,” wrote former general Michael Flynn, President Trump’s National Security Adviser, last year. “They are dead set on taking us over and drinking our blood.”
It’s so early in the new year that nominations for Year’s Most Ridiculous Statement are not even officially open yet, but this has to be a strong contender. Flynn was talking, believe it or not, about the “Islamic terrorist threat”.
He was predicting that the United States, despite having the world’s biggest economy, 325 million people, the world’s most advanced technology, and more than 4,000 nuclear weapons, faces defeat, domination and probably destruction at the hands of ten or twenty thousand Islamist terrorists – unless, presumably, it gets serious and starts torturing people again.
Even if all of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims were politically and militarily united – a event less likely than their mass conversion to the Jedi faith – and they were all committed to a cold or even a hot war against America, the United States would survive. This is not just Doomsday talk. It is extremely stupid Doomsday talk. But there is a lot of it around at the moment.
Take, for example, the famous Doomsday Clock, a metaphorical device concocted by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1947 to signal how close we are to the end of the world. Midnight was the apocalypse, all-out nuclear war. Last week the Bulletin moved the minute hand of the Clock to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight, the closest it has been since the depths of the “Second Cold War” in 1984.
I was already a journalist in 1984 (a much better-looking one than I am now), and I had already interviewed the commanders and the operators of the nuclear forces on both sides of the Iron Curtain. And I was ten times more frightened then than I am now.
What’s going on here is simply inflation. Terrorism is strategically a mere nuisance, and in terms of your personal threat level it is statistically irrelevant. An American, for example, is ten times likelier to drown in the bath than to die in a terrorist attack.
Yet terrorism gets as much media attention today as the threat of a global nuclear war got back in the Cold War. To paraphrase Parkinson’s Law, threats expand to fill the (media) space available.
The scientists who calibrate the Doomsday Clock are serious and sincere people, but they are not immune to the inflationary trend. The Clock was set at seven minutes to midnight during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (which came close to triggering global nuclear war and killing hundreds of millions of people). Now, they say, it’s only two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. Really? Are you sure?
Nonsense. The world is a bit more dangerous than it was just after the end of the Cold War in 1991, when the Clock was set back to seventeen minutes to midnight, but no year in the past 25 has been as dangerous as any of the years before 1991. Nuclear war between great powers is still the real Big Deal.
However, the people who run the Clock have greatly expanded the range of threats they worry about since the risk of a nuclear war declined. They include climate change now, and the resurgence of old-fashioned nationalism from America and Britain to India and Japan, and pretty well everything else down to acne and hangnail. There is no fate worse than being ignored.
That’s how we got to this point, allegedly two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. From seventeen minutes after the end of the Cold War, they pushed the minute hand forward every time anything worrisome happened – and only once pushed it back, by one minute, for only two years.
It went forward three minutes in 1995 because there were still 40,000 nuclear weapons in the world. It jumped forward another five minutes in 1998 because Indian and Pakistan had tested nuclear weapons (although the total number of weapons in the world had halved). And another two minutes in 2002 because the Bush administration in the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
Another two minutes forward in 2007 because North Korea tested a nuclear weapon and Iran was rumoured to be working on one (it wasn’t). Then a two-minute jump forward in 2015 because of “unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals.”
So when Donald Trump came to power two weeks ago, frightening people with his reckless talk and impulsive actions, the Clock was already at three minutes to midnight, and they could only push it forward by another 30 seconds.
That’s about right in terms of the extra threat Trump represents. It’s completely wrong in terms of where the global threat level is now. Trump is a loose cannon, but he’s not the Apocalypse, and most other world leaders are still grown-ups. Let’s say ten minutes to midnight.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 13 and 14. (“It went…arsenals”)