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Saddam Hussein

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Syria: Two Unconvincing Explanations

The FBI raid on the office, home and hotel room of President Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, may persuade the president that a larger, longer-lasting distraction is needed, but it’s still likely that his response to the alleged poison gas attack by the Syrian government in Douma on Saturday will be short, sharp and soon forgotten.

That’s how it worked last April, when Trump ‘punished’ Bashar al-Assad’s regime for another alleged poison gas attack in rebel-held Idlib province by dropping 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on the Syrian airbase at Shayrat from which the attack supposedly originated. Lots of explosions, not many hurt, no lasting political consequences.

Trump is talking tougher this time. Asked on Sunday if military action was possible, he said: “Nothing is off the table…If it’s Russia, if it’s Syria, if it’s Iran, if it’s all of them together, we’ll figure it out.” And what if Russian President Vladimir Putin bears some responsibility for the attack? “He may, yeah, he may. And if he does, it’s going to be very tough, very tough. Everybody’s going to pay a price. He will, everybody will.”

It may just be the usual Trump bluster, but the Russians are so concerned that their UN envoy, Vasily Nebenzia, warned on Tuesday that the use of “armed force under mendacious pretext against Syria, where, at the request of the legitimate government of a country, Russian troops have been deployed, could lead to grave repercussions…I would once again beseech you to refrain from the plans that you’re currently developing.”

Now, it’s hard to believe that the Russians would not know if the Syrians were using poison gas: after all, they are using the same air bases. American advisers certainly knew what was going on when they were giving Saddam Hussein targeting data for poison gas attacks against Iranian troops in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

“The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas,” said retired US air Force Col. Rick Francona, who was a military attaché in Baghdad during the 1988 strikes. “They didn’t have to. We already knew.” The Russians would know, too – but then why would they go along with it?

The great puzzle about poison gas use in Syria is that it has no plausible military purpose. The targets are never fighters. The victims in the various videos are always civilians, and using poison gas obviously has a big political price. Why would the Syrian regime pay it, especially when it has already won the military battle?

It just doesn’t make sense for the regime to be deliberately killing civilians with poison gas. Maybe it doesn’t have to make sense: you will often hear explanations that essentially say that Assad and his partners-in-crime are simply evil. They do it because it’s wicked, and because they can. But even then you have to explain why the Russians would let them do it.

Moscow says that the Douma gas attack didn’t actually happen. “Our military specialists have visited this place, along with representatives of the Syrian Red Crescent… and they did not find any trace of chlorine or any other chemical substance used against civilians,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday.

Instead, Lavrov suggested, it was a ‘false flag’ operation in which the besieged rebels deliberately staged a gas attack and blamed it on the Assad regime, or at least used video footage from somewhere else and pretended it had been shot in Douma.

Can you really believe that Syrian rebels would kill their own innocent civilians in such a horrible way? Well, if they are losing the war, and the only way to turn the tide is Western military intervention against Assad, and the only way to mobilise Western opinion to support that intervention is to get him blamed for using poison gas, then maybe they would.

Getting the poison gas would be no problem: the rebels overran about half of Syria in the early stages of the war, and gained control of a number of chemical weapons facilities belonging to the Syrian army. They are almost all Islamist radicals by now, and would be comfortable with the argument that the end justifies the means.

I don’t know which of these explanations for the gas attacks is true. Is it the brutal, incredibly stupid Syrian regime that unfailingly undermines every one of its successes by making a pointless gas attack on civilians just as it wins a major battle fought with conventional weapons?

Or is it ruthless Islamist rebels making false-flag chemical attacks because that is the only thing that might trigger a Western military intervention big enough to save them from ultimate defeat? Very stupid monsters or very clever monsters, or maybe both. Who knows?

What I do know is that I feel as isolated, writing this, as I did back in early 2003 when I was one of the few Western journalists questioning all the nonsense and outright lies about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear and chemical weapons that provided a justification for the invasion of Iraq.

And I know that the evidence is not strong enough either way to justify a major Western military attack on the Assad regime now.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 12. (“Now…it”; and “Getting…means”)

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”)

Coping with Trump

We have to face facts: there is no US federal government any more in the normal sense of the word. Social Security payments still get made and the 2.79 million federal civil servants still get paid, but there is no such thing as US government policy – especially foreign policy. Take the US defence secretary, former General James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis.

Depite his nickname, Mattis is a rational human being who thinks that the proliferation of nuclear weapons is a bad idea. He knows that it’s too late to stop North Korea from getting them, but he also knows that it is still possible to stop Iran from doing the same. In fact, the job is done: Iran signed an agreement in 2015 that takes the whole issue off the table for ten years.

Matts is well aware that his boss, President Donald Trump, regularly fulminates about how bad the Iranian ‘deal’ is and keeps hinting that he will cancel it – in which case, of course, Iran could go ahead and get nuclear weapons in just a year or two. So he put his own job at risk on Tuesday by telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States should keep its word and abide by the agreement with Iran.

Now he’s waiting for President Trump’s next tweet, which may well repudiate what he said. Trump won’t fire Mattis – he prefers to humiliate people in tweets until they quit – but his usefulness as secretary of defence is nearly at its end. Foreigners, including Iranians, know that Mattis is serious, but they also know that he does not speak for the president. Trump will do whatever he likes, so why bother even talking to Mattis?

It’s just the same with Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state (foreign secretary). On Sunday he said that the United States has “lines of commuunication” open to Kim Jong-un’s North Korean regime.

The subtext was clear: don’t worry about a nuclear war, folks. We’re talking to them (or about to talk to them, or talking about talking to them), and there’s still time for a deal that defuses the whole crisis.

It’s not clear that that’s actually true, if the deal must include North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons and missiles. Kim is well aware of what happened to other people who defied the United States but did not have nuclear weapons, like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein (dangling from the end of a rope) and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi (a bayonet up the backside), so he is strongly motivated to hang onto his. But it is what Tillerson should say now, and it might help.

Trump didn’t wait 24 hours before he tweeted: “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man…Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!” Like what? If negotiations are a waste of time, then the only alternative is force.

Does Trump mean he’s going to attack North Korea (whch would almost certainly involve the use of nuclear weapons)? Of course not. He doesn’t mean anything; he’s only venting, as usual. He has no idea what he’s going to do about North Korea, if anything. He doesn’t even know what he is going to think or say tomorrow.

The trouble is that Kim Jong-un probably doesn’t realise how aimless and inconsequential Trump’s tweets usually are. What Kim sees is most likely a death threat to him by the ruler of the most powerful nation on Earth. He has seen a dozen more messages like it in the past six months, and he must be looking frantically for a way out.

Talking to Tillerson might have shown him a way out, or at least bought him some time, but he’s definitely not going to talk to a diplomat who has been repudiated by his own president. As foreign secretary, Tillerson is toast.

There have been calls in Washington for Tillerson to resign to avoid further humiliation, but others hope he will swallow his pride and stay in office as long as he can to postpone the appointment of a super-hawk like John Bolton or Nikki Haley. In fact, it probably doesn’t matter very much either way, because they would find that the Boss is undermining and discrediting them too. It’s what he always does to his subordinates.

In the circumstances, it’s not surprising that America’s allies and its opponents are both coming to the conclusion that they will just have to ignore the US and make their deals wihout it. Iran, for instance, has said that it might stick by the nuclear deal if all the other signatories stay loyal to their commitments.

Trump is a problem, of course, but for all his threats and boasts he doesn’t actually do much. It could be a viable strategy for the next three years.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. “The subtext…help”

Washington: The Playbook is Back

It was striking, in US media coverage of Donald Trump’s first hundred days in office, that most observers noted with relief that his foreign policy has turned out to be less radical than they feared. In fact, it’s not radical at all. He has already fired cruise missiles at a Middle Eastern country, a ritual that has been observed by every American president since Bill Clinton.

The old Donald Trump was an “isolationist” who opposed US military intervention overseas unless US interests were directly threatened.. When it seemed likely in 2013 that President Obama would attack the Syrian regime over its alleged use of poison gas on civilians, Trump tweeted: “The only reason President Obama wants to attack Syria is to save face over his very dumb RED LINE statement. Do NOT attack Syria, fix U.S.A.”

And lo! Obama did not attack Syria after all, although it had crossed the “red line” he had drawn in a statement the previous year.

On sober second thought – and after being warned by James Clapper, his Director of National Intelligence, that the evidence suggesting that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime was responsible for the gas attack, while robust, was not a “slam dunk” – Obama decided not to launch cruise missiles at Syria. (Curiously, there was no Trump tweet praising Obama and taking credit for his change of mind.)

This was the moment when Obama broke decisively with the foreign policy orthodoxy in Washington, and the think-tank “experts” and the reigning media pundits never forgave him for it. Towards the end of his second term, he explained his decision to Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, in the following terms.

“There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarised responses….In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”

It did not apply because destroying the Assad regime would just hand Syria over to the jihadi fanatics of Islamic State and al-Qaeda. It did not apply because the Russians might intervene to save Assad, perhaps leading to a direct US-Russian military confrontation. It did not apply because there was no support for an attack in Congress. And it did not apply because it was not even certain that the Syrian regime was to blame.

“Don’t do stupid shit” was Obama’s prime rule in foreign policy, and emulating George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in order to destroy Saddam Hussein’s non-existent “weapons of mass destruction” definitely qualified as stupid. Even treating the Middle East as a region vital to American security was stupid. With the Cold War over and the United States no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil, it wasn’t even important any more.

Fast forward to 2016, and Obama must have been torn when he contemplated his successors. Hillary Clinton had worked for him and would preserve his legacy in domestic affairs, but she was totally orthodox in foreign policy and would follow the playbook wherever it led. Whereas Donald Trump, in his crude and simple way, actually shared Obama’s distrust of the foreign policy elite.

But with Trump it was just gut instinct, not a reasoned analysis of why the playbook was wrong. Once he was in office, and another poison gas attack in Syria landed on his desk, that instinct was swiftly overwhelmed by an even stronger urge to do something dramatic.

In politics, the Law of Mixed Motives always applies. No doubt Trump was truly horrified by the images of dead “beautiful babies”, but he was also aware that his policy successes in the first hundred days were sparse and that his popular approval numbers were way down.

So off went the cruise missiles, although the evidence that the Assad regime was responsible for the gas attack was even less certain than last time. It was purely a gesture, aimed mainly at the US domestic audience, and there has been no follow-up. But it did conform to the playbook’s rules, and the response by the “lamestream” media verged on the ecstatic.

Trump doesn’t give a fig for the playbook, but he does care about popularity. He campaigned as an isolationist, but now he has discovered that a little sabre-rattling abroad yields instant popularity at home.

He is surrounded by people who still believe in the playbook, and they now know how to press his buttons. There will probably be more “limited” military strikes with cruise missiles, not just in the Middle East but also in north-east Asia. And there may well be more wars, because sabre-rattling is not a precise science.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8. (“Don’t…more”)