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Archive for April, 2017

Cui Bono?

Donald Trump has spent a lot of time in the courts, so he must be familiar with the legal concept of “cui bono” – “who benefits?” When a crime is committed, the likeliest culprit is the person who benefited from the deed. But he certainly did not apply that principle when deciding to attack a Syrian government airbase with 59 cruise missiles early Friday morning.

The attack against Shayrat airbase, the first US military action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in six years of civil war, was allegedly a retaliation for a poison gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun three days before that President Trump blamed on the Syrian regime. But who stood to benefit from the chemical attack in the first place?

There was absolutely no direct military advantage to be derived from killing 80 civilians with poison gas in Khan Sheikhoun. The town, located in al-Qaeda-controlled territory in Idlib province, is not near any front line and is of no military significance. The one useful thing that the gas attack might produce, with an impulsive new president in the White House, was an American attack on the Syrian regime.

Who would benefit from that? Well, the rebels obviously would. They have been on the ropes since the Assad regime reconquered Aleppo in December, and if the warming relationship between Washington and Moscow resulted in an imposed peace settlement in Syria they would lose everything. (Only a few days ago US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that removing Assad from power was no longer Washington’s priority.)

Al-Qaeda – and probably several other rebel groups – have access to chemical weapons. The country was awash with them before the war, because the ability to make a mass chemical-weapons attack on Israel was Syria’s only deterrent against an Israeli nuclear attack. (Assad, and his father before him, understood clearly that Syria would never be allowed to have nuclear weapons of its own.)

Chemical weapons were stored in military facilities all over Syria, and at one point half the country was under rebel control. So of course the rebels have had some for years, and are known to have used them on occasion in their own internecine wars. Would al-Qaeda have hesitated to use them on innocent civilians order to trigger an American attack on the Syrian regime? Of course not.

The results have already been spectacular. The developing Russian-American alliance in Syria is broken, the prospect of an imposed peace that sidelines the rebels – indeed, of any peace at all – has retreated below the horizon, and Rex Tillerson has just declared that “steps are underway” to form an international coalition to force Bashar al-Assad from power. Not a bad return on a small investment.

But we should also consider the possibility that Bashar al-Assad actually did order the attack. Why would it do that? For exactly the same reason: to trigger an American attack on the Syrian regime. From a policy perspective, that could make perfectly good sense.

The American attack didn’t really hurt much, after all, and it has already smashed a developing Russian-American relationship in Syria that could have ended up imposing unwelcome conditions on Assad. Indeed, Moscow and Washington might ultimately have decided that ejecting Assad (though not the entire regime) from power was an essential part of the peace settlement.

Assad doesn’t want foreigners deciding his fate, and he doesn’t want a “premature” peace settlement either. He wants the war to go on long enough for him to reconquer and reunite the whole country (with Russian help, of course). So use a little poison gas, and Donald Trump will obligingly over-react. That should end the threat of US-Russian collaboration in Syria.

Either of these possibilities – a false-flag attack by al-Qaeda or a deliberate provocation by the regime itself — is quite plausible. What is not remotely believable is the notion that the stupid and evil Syrian regime just decided that a random poison gas attack on an unimportant town would be a bit of fun.

Villains in DC Comics do bad things simply because they are evil. The players in the Syrian civil war do bad things because they are part of serious (though often evil) strategies. Whoever committed the atrocity at Khan Sheikhoun wanted the United States to attack the Syrian regime, and Donald Trump fell for it.

But if Trump was taken in by the Syrians, he certainly exploited his attack to send a very serious message to China and North Korea. He is a player too, after all, and it can hardly be an accident that he timed the attack for the day of his meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping.

Wheels within wheels. It is going to be a wild ride.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“Al-Qaeda…own”)

South Africa: Last Chance for the ANC

The African National Congress has ruled South Africa for 23 years, ever since the end of apartheid and the first free election in 1994. Twenty-three years is a very long time in politics, and you would expect it to be losing power some time around now. But it was a great and noble institution in its prime, and it would be a pity if its ending was merely squalid.

Nelson Mandela, the first ANC President of South Africa, was a secular saint admired world-wide. Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, was a honest and intelligent man, but also reclusive, completely lacking in empathy, and obsessive (he spent thousands of hours searching the internet for evidence that HIV did not cause AIDS, and at least half a million South Africans died because his government did not make the standard drugs available).

And then, eight years ago, came President Jacob Zuma, a man who is neither honest nor intelligent, but who is wily enough politically to have survived the endless corruption scandals that litter his past. This time, however, he has done something that damages the whole country economically, and if the ANC cannot force Zuma to resign now then its political future is likely to be short and miserable.

Ironically, it’s not clear whether Zuma’s motives in this latest initiative are entirely corrupt. He has feathered his own nest and those of his cronies and allies quite adequately over the past eight years without getting rid of the incorruptible finance minister, Pravin Gordhan. Why dismiss him now, only two years before Zuma must retire at the end of his second term?

Maybe Zuma is just doing a final big favour for his friends – but maybe he has been talked into this by smarter men who told him that if he just spent a lot more money (which isn’t there to spend), that he could finally raise the living standards of the multitudinous South African poor.

Zuma is an “old comrade”, after all: he spent years imprisoned on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela and the other ANC icons. Maybe some shreds of his old idealism remain, and it was his associates inside and outside the government who persuaded him that Gordhan was the only thing standing between South Africans and prosperity.

That’s how the rhetoric justifies it. Zuma talks about the need for a “radical socio-economic transformation” in South Africa, and the new finance minister, Malusi Gigaba, points out that “the ownership of wealth and assets remains concentrated in the hands of a small part of the population.” All true, of course, but these are not the people you would hire to fix it. And meanwhile, the resistance to Zuma’s move builds.

Pravin Gordhan was seen by foreign investors (and many South Africans) as the only guarantee that Zuma would not turn the country into a feeding trough for his associates. The finance minister held the purse-strings tight, blocking many of the government contracts that would have enriched them further. Now he is gone.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa called the dismissal of Pravin “totally unacceptable” and condemned “greedy and corrupt people” in a broadside clearly aimed at Zuma. Gwede Mantashe, secretary-general of the ANC, said the list of new ministers which Mr Zuma presented to the party leadership was compiled “elsewhere”. Even his old allies in the trade union movement have called on Zuma to step down.

The South African currency, the rand, lost 5 percent of its value on the foreign exchanges, but far more serious was the fact that one of the big ratings agencies, Standard and Poor’s, downgraded South African bonds to “junk” status. If only one of the other two agencies follows suit, big international investors like pension funds will be obliged to dump their South African government debt, and the government will be unable to raise loans abroad.

The reactions against Zuma’s action are so intense that you would think he cannot just ignore them and carry on running the country into the ground. Unfortunately, he may be able to do just that, because real power within the ANC lies in the National Executive Committee, and he has devoted much attention to ensuring that most of the NEC’s members owe him for past favours received.

The odds on Zuma really being forced from office by this incident are less than even. If he gets two more years in office, now with a pliable finance minister who allows the looting of the state coffers to proceed unhindered and with wicked foreign investors to blame for the resulting havoc in the country, the ANC will be discredited beyond hope of resurrection.

What comes afterwards may be better and it may be worse, but the familiar ANC-ruled South Africa of the past quarter-century will be gone.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“That’s…builds”)

“Solving” North Korea

Never mind the legalities of the situation. Never mind morality either. Just answer the pragmatic question: Is it ever a good idea to start a nuclear war? Because that’s the notion that Donald Trump is actually playing with.

He didn’t say exactly that, of course. He said that “If China is not going to solve (the nuclear threat from) North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.” But in the context of that interview with the Financial Times, it was clear what he meant.

Trump was saying that if China did not use the tools at its disposal (political influence, trade sanctions, withholding financial aid) to make North Korea give up its nuclear weapons and long-range rockets, then the United States would use the tools at its disposal (the world’s most powerful armed forces) to accomplish the same goal.

This does not necessarily mean that the United States would launch a large nuclear attack against North Korea. If you are really serious about carrying out a “disarming strike” that destroys all of North Korea’s nukes, you probably should do exactly that. (You never get a second chance to go first.) But maybe the US Air Force would promise that “precision” non-nuclear weapons could accomplish that goal, and maybe some gullible people would believe it.

It would still turn into a nuclear war in the end, unless American “surgical strikes” miraculously eliminated every last one of North Korea’s nukes at the same time. Kim Jong-un’s regime would find itself in the position known in nuclear strategy as “use them or lose them”, and it is hard to believe that it would not launch whatever it had left.

The targets would be in South Korea, of course, but probably also American bases in Japan. Maybe even Japanese cities, if North Korea had enough weapons left. The regime would know it was going under – the United States would not take this huge risk and then leave it in power – so it would take as many of its enemies as possible down with it.

North America would probably not be hit, because Western intelligence services do not believe that Pyongyang has ballistic missiles that can reach that far yet. (But “intelligence” is not the same as knowing for sure, and they could be wrong.) At worst, the victims would be one or two cities in the Pacific north-west of the United States.

This would be a very bad outcome for people living in Seattle or Portland, but it would not actually be a “nuclear holocaust”. The kind of war that the super-powers would have fought at the height of the Cold War, with thousands of nuclear weapons used by each side, would have killed hundreds of millions, and might even have triggered a “nuclear winter”.

A nuclear war over Korea would be a much smaller catastrophe, perhaps involving a few million deaths – unless China got drawn in. Unfortunately, that is not inconceivable, because China, much as it dislikes and mistrusts the North Korean regime, is determined not to see it destroyed.

Many people are uncomfortable with this kind of analysis, especially when it draws comparisons between “bad” and “less bad” nuclear wars. Herman Kahn, the dean of nuclear strategists in the 1960s and 70s, was frequently the target of this kind of criticism: how could he talk about potential mass death in such a cold-blooded way?

His response was always the same: “Would you prefer a nice, warm mistake?” “Thinking About the Unthinkable”, as he put it in one of his books, is absolutely necessary if the Unthinkable is not happen. In this case, that means taking the possibility that China might be drawn into the conflict seriously.

The destruction of the North Korean regime would bring American military power right to China’s own border. You might reasonably ask: So what? This is the 21st century, and what matters strategically is the big, lethal long-range weapons (like nukes), not the whereabouts of a few American infantry battalions. Quite right in theory. Not necessarily right in practice.

During the Korean War, when American troops were operating very close to the Chinese frontier in late 1950, the Chinese regime sent troops in to save the North Korean regime – and succeeded. The scenario this time, with nuclear weapons already being used on both sides of the North Korea-South Korea frontier, would be different, but it could be even more dangerous. China has lots of nuclear weapons, and delivery vehicles too.

Donald Trump is the fourth American president to be faced with the challenge of North Korean nuclear weapons, and none of them has found a safe and effective way of dealing with it. But all the others avoided making open threats of violence, because that would probably just make matters worse.

Of course, Trump may just be bluffing. In fact, he almost certainly is. But if your bluff is called, you have to go through with your threat or accept being humiliated. The Donald doesn’t do humiliation.
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To shrten to 725 words, omit paragraphs10 and 11. (“Many…seriously”)