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Archive for March, 2018

Tillerson Gone, Trump Unleashed

Rex Tillerson did not suffer fools gladly. He called Donald Trump a “moron” in a private conversation after one meeting at the Pentagon, and did not take the opportunity to deny it when a journalist asked him in public. In meetings with the president, he would “roll his eyes and slouch” whenever Trump said something he thought was particularly stupid. It’s amazing that he lasted as long as he did.

He wasn’t a very good Secretary of State either. He gutted the State Department in the name of efficiency, and large numbers of experienced diplomats quit in despair as he ‘downsized’ the organisation. His only real achievement in his fourteen months in office was to restrain Trump from doing some truly dangerous things like starting a major confrontation with Iran. But we’ll miss him now that he’s gone.

Donald Trump used to enjoy dismissing people with a brutal ‘You’re fired!’ when he was doing reality television, but he seems to have problems doing it face-to-face. Tweets addressed to the world at large are more his style, with his actual victims left to find out from the media. But he is getting rid of the people who question his judgement at an impressive rate: 35 senior people have been fired or quit in little more than a year.

The net effect of all this ‘turmoil’ in the White House, unsurprisingly, has been to remove most of the people whose ideas, values, or experience and knowledge of the world led them to disagree with Trump’s obsessions, his policies (to the extent that he has any), or just his whims of the moment. What’s left, for the most part, are the yes-men and women.

The most notable remaining exceptions are the three generals who hold high positions in the Trump administration: his chief of staff, John Kelly, the defence secretary, James Mattis, and the national security advisor, H.R. McMaster. But McMaster is widely rumoured to be next for the chopping block, and even Kelly’s willingness to continue shouldering the role of senior grown-up indefinitely is to be doubted.

The era of adult supervision in the White House is coming to an end, and Donald Trump is more and more “free to be Donald.” As he said on Tuesday, “I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want.”

The Cabinet he wants is one that is entirely free from the constraints that were initially imposed on him by the Republican Party’s establishment. He is a populist who cherry-picks ideas from anywhere, and no more a Republican than he is a Democrat. In fact, he once was a Democrat, and even considered trying to hijack the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination before the 2008 election.

In the end he hijacked the Republican Party instead, but it did try to rein him in by putting orthodox Republicans in key positions in his administration. His struggle to be free began with the dismissal last July of the Republican Party’s choice as his chief of staff, Reince Priebus. It has ended in total victory in the past two weeks with the resignation of his chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, and the firing of Rex Tillerson.

Cohn resigned last week because of Trump’s decision to to impose steep tariffs on US imports of steel and aluminum. The Republican Party has been a staunch supporter of free trade for the past half-century, and Cohn feared that the new tariffs were likely to cause an international trade war that impoverishes everybody. Trump doesn’t care about that. “Trade wars are good,” he said. “And easy to win.”

His new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, is a hard-liner who shares Trump’s obsession with breaking the international deal that stops Iran from developing nuclear weapons for the next ten years. “When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible. I guess (Tillerson) thought it was OK,” he said. “With Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process. I think it’s going to go very well.”

So stand by for Trump to alienate all of America’s main allies by sabotaging a treaty they worked very hard to achieve. Since he has swallowed Saudi Arabia’s argument that Iran is an ‘expansionist’ power that must be stopped, even direct military clashes between the US and Iran, especially in Syria, become a lot more likely.

And what about the unprecedented meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that Trump agreed to last week (without consulting Tillerson)? In theory it’s a good idea, because nuclear war in the Korean peninsula is a very bad idea. But there are few people left around Trump who can steer him away from disastrous decisions. They can’t even make him read his briefing papers.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“The most…doubted”)

Trump and Kim

I think I know why President Donald Trump suddenly agreed to hold talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un after a year of mutual threats and verbal abuse.

Anything short of a complete breakdown at the talks would virtually guarantee Trump next year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Moreover, it would seem bigger and shinier than the one they gave to Barack Obama, because Obama hadn’t actually earned it. He got it just for being a nice guy.

Oh, no, wait a minute. If they gave it to Trump they’d also have to give it to Kim Jong-un, and that would be even sillier. Yet there probably won’t be a complete breakdown at the talks, which are due by May, because both men are strongly motivated to make them look successful.

Kim’s minimum goal is to establish North Korea as a legitimate sovereign state that is accepted by other sovereign states (including the United States) as an equal. Just having a one-on-one discussion with Trump about the security problems of the Korean peninsula gives him that. He will do his best to keep the meeting civil, and under no circumstances will he break off the talks first.

Trump’s main goal is to look good – to get a ‘win’ – and Kim’s advisers will have told him to let Trump win something. It doesn’t much matter what, so long as Trump can wave it in the air and claim victory when he gets home. But it will definitely not be an enforceable agreement to dismantle North Korea’s new nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles.

Look at it from Kim Jong-un’s standpoint. Saddam Hussein gave up his nuclear weapons programme (involuntarily) after the first Gulf War in 1990-91, and twelve years later the United States invaded Iraq, overthrew Saddam, and hanged him. Well, the new Iraqi regime provided the rope and the gallows, but the US invasion would never have happened if Saddam had really had nuclear weapons.

Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi gave up his quest for nuclear weapons too. It never really amounted to much, but it worried Western powers enough to make them leave him alone most of the time. Then Gaddafi handed over all his pathetic scraps of nuclear weapons-related technologies – and NATO airpower subsequently backed the tribal rebels who finished him off with a bayonet up his backside.

So if the US sees you as a problem and you value your life, don’t stop until you get your nukes, and never give them up. The North Koreans understand this lesson very well.

No promise Trump could make would persuade the North Koreans to surrender their nukes. As far as Kim is concerned, nuclear deterrence against the United States has now been achieved, and he’d be mad to give it up again.

It’s a pretty flimsy form of deterrence – his rockets aren’t very accurate and his nuclear weapons don’t always explode in a fully satisfactory way – but even a 10 percent chance that North Korea could kill half a million Americans in a ‘revenge from the grave’ attack should be enough to deter the US from using nukes on North Korea.

A nuclear war between the US and North Korea would probably kill ten times as many North Koreans including practically every member of the regime – Pyongyang would be a glowing, radioactive pit – so Kim’s regime would never initiate such a conflict. But he needs the assurance that the United States will never resort to nuclear weapons either, and only North Korean nuclear weapons can provide the necessary deterrence.

You may deplore this kind of thinking, but it is entirely rational and it is at the heart of North Korea’s strategy. Kim’s willingness to talk about the “denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula” is therefore just that: a willingness to talk, but not to act. And there’s plenty to talk about.

Does ‘denuclearisation’ mean no American nuclear weapons can be located in South Korea? Given the range of those weapons, how would that make North Korea any safer? Does it mean dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons? Certainly not. It’s just what Kim had to say to get the talks started.

His ultimate goal is to ‘normalise’ North Korean nukes, as Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons were eventually accepted as normal. This can only happen if the United States acknowledges a state of mutual nuclear deterrence between the two countries, which Trump is not yet ready to do. But even by talking to Kim about it, he begins to give the concept substance.

Kim can promise Trump a “moratorium on nuclear and missile tests” because he doesn’t really need more tests. His nuclear weapons and rockets are far fewer and much less sophisticated than their American counterparts, but mutual deterrence can work effectively even when one side has a hundred or a thousand times more nuclear weapons than the other.

So Trump gets an early ‘win’, and Kim gets to nudge the United States a little closer to an understanding that its future relationship with North Korea will be one of mutual deterrence. Or maybe locking two narcissists in a room is bound to end in tears, but it’s well worth a try.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 8. (“Look…well”)

Syria Hellish Clash

In weeks of heavy fighting, Syrian government forces have taken back about a quarter of the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta enclave, but you won’t have heard much about that. Whereas you will have heard a great deal (unless you are trapped down a coal-mine) about the “massive bombing campaign” that has allegedly killed 500 innocent people there in the past week.

It is “hell on Earth” in the Eastern Ghouta, said United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres, and you may have seen video clips of some of the victims of the bombing (always including women and children). You will not, however, have seen any footage of armed rebels belonging to various Islamist groups, although they are there in large numbers.

You will probably have heard at some point that 393,000 people are trapped in this rebel enclave on the eastern edge of Damascus, Syria’s capital, and you may even have wondered who counted them? That was the area’s population seven years ago, at the start of the Syrian civil war, but until about a year ago it was very easy for people to leave. Most probably did.

Civilians can’t leave now, mainly because the rebel fighters won’t let them: they need the civilians as shields against even heavier bombardments by government forces.

Sieges of cities are always dreadful events.

Maybe government troops are stopping them from leaving too — decisions are not always rational seven years into a civil war — but that would not make sense from a tactical or a propaganda standpoint.

At any rate, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops and aircraft are not being deterred by the presence of civilians who may or may not be hostages. The offensive continues, including the bombing. If it follows the same course as the government siege of rebel-held Eastern Aleppo in late 2016, the Eastern Ghouta enclave should fall towards the end of this month.

At that point, if the siege of eastern Aleppo is any guide, there will be no massacre of civilians (who will again turn out to be around a quarter of the number claimed to be present during the siege). The remaining fighters will be allowed to surrender and may be transported to some other rebel-held enclave, although those are dwindling in number. And Damascus will be free of bombardment for the first time since 2012.

Sieges of cities are always dreadful events. They involve close-quarters combat in the midst of a civilian population. Street-fighting eats up soldiers’ lives faster than any other kind of combat, so the side that has access to massive amounts of firepower (generally the attackers) deploys it ruthlessly to keep its own military casualties down.

In terms of the scale of the bombardment, Eastern Ghouta is no different from Eastern Aleppo — nor indeed from Mosul in northern Iraq, which was retaken from Islamic State forces last year by U.S.-backed Iraqi troops after a brutal, grinding nine-month battle. Indeed, the worst of the three sieges, in terms of civilian casualties, was almost certainly Mosul.

We heard less about civilian casualties in Mosul, however, because most international news providers are based in Western countries that backed that operation, and many of the aircraft doing the bombing were American. (Belgian, British, French, Iranian and Iraqi aircraft were also involved.)

We hear much more about the bombing in Eastern Ghouta because the planes involved belong to the Syrian regime and perhaps to its Russian backers (although Moscow denies that). The reporting is utterly partisan and therefore completely unreliable.

None of this constitutes a defence of the Syrian regime, whose behaviour before and during this civil war has been indefensible. Indeed, there is reason to suspect that the Baathists’ decision to release more than a thousand Islamist radicals from prison when non-violent protests first broke out in 2011 was designed to turn the revolution into a civil war against extremist Sunni “terrorists” that the regime would stand a chance of winning.

That’s what happened, in any case, and now, with the help of Russia and Iran, the regime has won. More fighting will not change the outcome; it will merely prolong the agony.

It also carries the risk that there will be a clash between the major foreign powers who now have troops in the country, including Turkey and the United States.

The humanitarian thing to do now would be to negotiate a ceasefire that acknowledged Assad’s control of the country but gave refuge to all those who do not wish to live under his rule. That’s impossible, however, because nobody wants to accept more Syrian refugees, and especially not the Islamist leaders who now command almost all the rebel forces.

So the war must go on, one bitter step at a time, until all of Syria that is not occupied by American or Turkish forces is back under Damascus’s rule. And then, unless they decide to partition Syria, the Americans and the Turks will have to be persuaded to leave.

Italy: The Migrant ‘Flood’

Lucky old Italy just got two Donald Trumps for the price of one. One of the big winners in last Sunday’s Italian election was the Five-Star Movement, whose 31-year-old leader Luigi di Maio has promised to stop sending out rescue boats to save migrants from drowning when their flimsy craft sink halfway across the Mediterranean. A “sea taxi service”, he calls it, and promises to send all the survivng illegal immigrants home.

So does Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League (formerly the Northern League), the other big winner in the election. “I’m sick of seeing immigrants in hotels and Italians who sleep in cars,” Salvini told supporters at a recent rally in Milan. He pledges to send 150,000 illegal migrants home in his first year in government.

It is not yet clear whether Salvini and/or di Maio will actually be in government. A coalition between the Five-Star Movement and the League would command a majority in parliament and is one possibility, but other combinations are also possible. However, it’s already clear that these two populists won more than half the votes on openly racist platforms.

‘Openly racist’? Di Maio and Salvini generally stop just a millimetre short of that, but Attilio Fontana, the senior League member who has just won the governorship of Lombardy, Italy’s richest region, has no such qualms. “We have to decide if our ethnicity, if our white race, if our society continues to exist or if it will be canceled out,” he said recently.

Now it’s true that 600,000 illegal migrants, mostly from Africa and the Middle East, mostly Muslim, and mostly young men, have arrived on Italy’s shores in the past four years, which was bound to startle the older residents. On the other hand, there are 60 million people in Italy, so that’s just one percent of the population. Why is that such a big deal?

You might as well ask why it’s such a big deal that an estimated half-million illegal migrants enter the United States each year. That is only one illegal immigrant per year for every 600 people who are already in the country. Half of those illegals aren’t even Mexicans, and yet Donald Trump won a lot of votes by promising to build a Wall on the Mexican border to stop them.

Both in the United States and in Italy, the real fuel behind the populist surge is high unemployment (the official US figure is a fantasy) and long-term stagnation in the incomes of the lower-paid half of the population. The immigration issue just serves as a visible symbol of the displacement so many feel as the economy pushes them to the margins.

The popular discontent and the political malaise cannot be cured by sending a few hundred thousand migrants home, even if that were easily done. In many cases, it is practically impossible.

The Mexican government currently cooperates with the US, so at the moment it is relatively easy to send illegal immigrants back across that border. The illegal migrants in Italy and other European Union countries are a quite different story, because their countries of origin will generally not want them back, and EU human rights laws make it hard to just give them parachutes and push them out of planes.

What we are seeing now, however, is a foretaste of the time when the migrant flows grow very large and the politics gets really brutal. In the not too distant future the Mediterranean Sea and the Mexican border will separate the temperate world, where the climate is still tolerable and there is still enough food, from the sub-tropical and tropical worlds of killer heat and dwindling food.

This is a regular subject of confidential discussions in various strategic planning cells in European governments, and also in the grown-up parts of the US government.Ten years ago a senior officer in the intelligence section of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff told me that the US army expected to be ordered by Congress to close the Mexican border down completely within the next twenty years. And he was quite explicit: that meant shooting to kill.

This was many years before Donald Trump came up with the Wall, and even today it’s still not needed. But one day it will be, because global warming will hit the countries closer to the equator far harder than the fortunate countries of the temperate zone, and the main casualty will be food production in the tropics and the sub-tropics.

So the hungry millions will start to move, and the borders of the richer countries in the temperate parts of the world will slam shut to keep them out: the United States, the European Union, Russia, South Africa, Australia. If you think the politics is ugly now, just wait

Of course, a miracle could happen. There could be early and very deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, so that most of the catastrophe never arrives. But I’m having trouble even believing in the Easter Bunny any more. This is harder.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. (“Openly…recently”; and “The Mexican…planes”)