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Kim-Trump Summit 2019

On a scale of one to ten, what are the chances that the meeting between Chairman Kim Jong-Un and President Donald Trump in Vietnam on 27-28 February (or any subsequent meeting) will end with a clear and irreversible commitment to the ‘denuclearisation’ of North Korea? Zero.

What are the chances that this summit (plus lots of further negotiations) could substantially reduce the threat of war between the two participants in this week’s meeting in Hanoi, and also between the two states in the Korean peninsula? Quite good, actually.

Kim Jong-Un, and his father and grandfather before him, have devoted enormous time and money to providing North Korea with an effective nuclear deterrent against the United States, which requires the ability to strike the American homeland. He may make all sorts of other deals, but he will never give that up.

North Korea doesn’t need to match US nuclear capabilities – the ability to deliver only a few nuclear weapons on American soil would be a sufficient deterrent – but Kim will be well aware of what happened to Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, heads of state who both died precisely because they didn’t have nuclear weapons.

There is no deal available that would protect North Korea from US nuclear weapons, since they can reach the North directly from the United States. No amount of local disarmament – the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea, even the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from all of East Asia – could change that reality, and the United States is not planning to abolish its strategic nuclear deterrent.

The only safe road to the future, therefore, is a political deal that greatly reduces tensions between the two countries while acknowledging that a state of MUTUAL nuclear deterrence will henceforward prevail between them.

Mutual deterrence is what has now obtained for a long time between the United States and its two peer rivals, Russia and China. The huge asymmetry between the power of the US and North Korea does not lead to a different conclusion. Nuclear weapons are the great leveller: in practical terms, just a few are enough to deter, even if the other side has hundreds of times as many (which the United States does).

It’s going to be a long negotiating process, because few Americans are ready yet to accept that this is the logic of the situation. Many would even reject it on the grounds that Kim Jong-Un is crazy and might make a first strike against the United States, although there is no evidence to support that belief. Being a cruel dictator is not at all the same as being suicidal, and a nuclear attack on the United States would be suicide.

Trump almost certainly does not understand that the only successful outcome of this negotiation must be mutual deterrence. Indeed, most senior American officials, although far wiser and better informed than Trump, still do not accept that fact. But they will probably get there in the end, and the negotiations will lead them along the path.

That’s why Trump’s fulsome praise of the North Korean leader, however naive – “He wrote me beautiful letters and we fell in love” – is actually helpful. So is the vagueness on all the hard questions that marked the first Kim-Trump summit last June, and will doubtless mark this one as well.

Equally useful is South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s parallel initiative to get a North Korean-South Korean detente underway. Cross-border trade and travel, the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Park (where South Korean industries were producing goods using hundreds of thousands of North Korean workers), and direct meetings between Moon and Kim (three in the past year) all help to build confidence about a peaceful future.

A much better relationship, not unilateral North Korean nuclear disarmament, is the right goal to aim for. The kind of concessions that could help include a gradual relaxation of the sanctions that stifle the North Korean economy and a formal peace treaty ending the 1950-53 Korean War, perhaps in return for very big cuts in North Korea’s huge conventional army (twice the size of South Korea’s, in a country with half the population).

Later on, there could be talks about permanently capping the number of North Korean nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles (which is still in the dozens, not the thousands), in return for withdrawing some or all of the US troops from South Korea. But leave that stuff for now and just work on confidence-building measures.

Holding this summit in Vietnam was a good move, since it will show Kim a country that has built a prosperous economy without ceasing to be a Communist-ruled dictatorship. He will be much more flexible if he believes (rightly or wrongly) that he can open up the North Korean economy without being overthrown.

And there’s no need to work on building up Donald Trump’s confidence.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“That’s…future”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Nigerian Election

Lengthy delays before announcing the results of African elections are commonplace (the Democratic Republic of Congo last month, Zimbabwe last July, etc.). It just means that people voted the wrong way, and the government needs time to re-arrange the results before publishing them. Postponing the vote at the last moment is much less common, and not so easy to explain.

That’s what happened in Nigeria last Saturday. Only five hours before the polls were due to open, the Independent National Election Commission postponed the election for a week, citing as reasons attempted sabotage, bad weather and problems with delivering the ballot papers. It’s weird, but it’s hard to see who benefits from it. It may be down to simple incompetence.

There are 79 candidates for the presidency, but only two count. The incumbent, former general Muhammadu Buhari, is running again despite a less than stellar performance in his first term as an elected president. (He also held the office as a military dictator for twenty months in the 1980s, before being overthrown by another general.)

Buhari won power in 2015 by claiming to be a born-again democrat and a ‘new broom’ who would sweep away corruption, and many Nigerians dared to believe him. He was the first opposition candidate ever to win a free presidential election. But four years later Nigeria has fallen another twelve places on Transparency International’s corruption index: it now ranks 144th out of 180 countries, just ahead of Mauretania.

Buhari is personally clean, but his anti-corruption measures almost exclusively targeted politicians of other parties. Nigerian average incomes fell by more than a third and unemployment doubled on his watch (mostly because of the collapse in oil prices). He didn’t deliver on his promise to eliminate the Islamists extremists of Boko Haram, affiliated with ISIS, who have terrorised the north-east of the country.

He is also so lethargic, perhaps due to chronic illness, that he is popularly known as ‘Baba-Go-Slow’. He took six months to name his cabinet, and he was abroad so long on sick leave (five months) that when he finally came home conspiracy theorists claimed that he had died and been replaced by a body double (‘Jubril from Sudan’) who had undergone plastic surgery.

Buhari should lose, and he probably will, because three ex-generals (all former presidents) who once backed him have switched to his challenger, businessman Atiku Abubakar. ‘Atiku’ is a billionaire who started out as a humble customs officer. People speculate that this made him very useful to generals and other powerful people who wanted to parlay a small fortune into a big one.

Be that as it may, Atiku then went into the oilfield supply business and prospered mightily (maybe with a little help from his friends). He served two terms as vice-president, after the first of which he was accused of having diverted $125 million of public funds to his own business interests.

A US Senate report in 2010 accused him of having transferred $40m of “suspect funds” to the US, using his American wife’s bank account, but he has never faced a court. But he vows to use his skills as an entrepreneur to sort out the country. If he succeeds, and some of the money sticks to him, who cares? At least it can be said on his behalf that he supports Arsenal.

This is the choice that faces Nigeria, and it’s really no choice at all. Both candidates embody exactly the characteristics that define the country’s problems.

First, they are very old – Muhammadu Buhari is 72, Atiku Abubakar is 72 – in a country where half the voters are under 35, and half the population is under 18. The country is run by a congeries of mostly rich old men, mainly for their own benefit, and it has been thus ever since the return of democracy twenty years ago. Before that it was run by a bunch of somewhat younger soldiers, also mostly for their own benefit.

Nigerian politicians switch parties as often as they change wives, and show only rhetorical concern for the ten million young people who are unemployed. You would think that such a system could not survive, and perhaps one day it will be swept away, but there is no sign of it happening in this election.

The other thing the two chief presidential candidates have in common is a plethora of children. Buhari has ten offspring from two marriages (one after the other). Abubakar has 28 children from four marriages (simultaneous). Humbler people can’t afford quite that many, but most people are doing their bit to ensure that Nigeria’s population outgrows its resources.

This is a sensitive topic, obviously, but not to talk about it is to ignore Nigeria’s biggest problem. In 1960 Nigeria had a quarter of the population of the United States. Now it has more than half as many people, and by 2050 it will overtake the United States to become the world’s third most populous country.

At that point it will have over 400 million people. Nigeria is only slightly larger than Texas (pop. 28 million).

It will probably be a ‘free and fair’ election next Saturday, but it won’t change any of that.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 6, 9 and 12. (“He is…surgery”; “A US…Arsenal”; and “Nigerian…election”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Trump the Promise-Keeper

Donald Trump is a man of his word, and he promised his ‘base’ to build a wall on the US border with Mexico to stop an “invasion of gangs, invasion of drugs, invasion of people.” It turns out that Mexico isn’t willing to pay for it after all, but a promise is a promise. So he has declared a fake ‘national emergency’ to get his hands on the money he needs.

It’s fake because the days when huge numbers of illegal immigrants were trying to come in across that 3,200 km. border are long past. Fifteen years ago it was more than a million and a half people a year. It had fallen to 400,000 by the middle of Barack Obama’s first term in 2010, and has not exceeded that number since.

Half of those 400,000 people are caught while crossing, so let’s just focus on the 200,000, more or less, who currently sneak through the border far from any legal crossing point, and whom a wall might stop. Let’s imagine that it could stop them all.

The predicted cost of the wall is $23 billion, so how much would the United States be spending for each of these would-be border-crossers? Around $11,000 per person, and very, very few of those people are gang members or drug-smugglers; they are just looking for work and a better life. The United States is fully entitled to turn them all away, but this is ridiculous.

The wall is largely symbolic, but it is a very important symbol for Trump. It was one of the key promises he made to the true believers in his ‘base’, and it was striking how angry they got at him when it looked like he would be thwarted by Congress. As Ann Coulter said: “The only national emergency is that our president is an idiot.”

But the ‘national emergency’ will probably do the trick for Trump. It will face all sorts of legal challenges, but the rules for declaring national emergencies are so vague and the precedents so numerous that he will probably win in the courts in the end.

In the meantime, he will have around $8 billion to play with, mostly taken from the military and disaster-relief budgets. It’s only a third of what it would take to build a full border wall, but it will let Trump look busy and persuade the ‘base’ that he is making progress.

So there’s one promise kept, more or less. The other two that really count are his promise to “bring the jobs back” and his commitment to outlaw abortion.

He can’t bring the jobs back because they never left. The vast majority (around 85%) of American manufacturing jobs lost since the turn of the century were killed by automation, not by free trade. But the fantasy statistics about near-full employment pumped out by the government may suffice to keep his base quiet, even if jobs are strangely scarce or low-paying around where they live.

What Trump does need to deliver on is banning abortion. He cannot do that himself, of course, but he promised to appoint ‘pro-life’ justices to the Supreme Court during the 2016 election campaign. He has probably managed to create an anti-abortion majority on the Court by now (although you can never tell with judges). But there is a problem for him and the Republican Party if he delivers on that promise.

47% of white women voted for Donald Trump in 2016, but around half of them were not part of his ‘base’. They were just traditional Republicans who voted as they always did, some of them perhaps holding their noses this time.

If the Supreme Court reversed its historic 1973 Roe vs Wade decision that made abortion legal throughout the United States, a lot of these women would be very cross with Trump and the Republican Party. Given that Trump only won by a hair’s breadth in 2016, he cannot afford to lose their votes.

Therefore he definitely doesn’t need a big win on Roe vs Wade in 2019 if he wants to be re-elected in 2020. Does he know this? It’s his own future at stake here, and he’s usually very alert to developments that might threaten it.

He can’t really control what the Court might decide, but he will be hoping that they just nibble at the fringes of the issue, not reverse Roe vs Wade outright. And the Court is quite likely to do just that, because senior judges hate to overthrow decisions of long standing that enjoy wide acceptance in the society. (Two-thirds of Americans support the current law.)

Trump doesn’t care about the outcome on most issues, probably including this one. He just wants a ‘win’, and he can conjure it up out of the most unpromising material. If the judges make a few minor changes to the law, he will portray it as a triumph and drop the subject.

The real secret of dealing with Trump? Throw him a fish, and he will go away.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“Half…ridiculous”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Afghanistan: Seventeen Years Too Late

“The Taliban have committed, to our satisfaction, to do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, the US official in charge of Afghanistan peace talks, on Tuesday. So why didn’t the United States have this discussion with the Taliban seventeen years ago, in October 2001?

The American representative has just spent six days negotiating with the Taliban in Qatar, and he has their promise that they will never let terrorist groups like al-Qaeda or Islamic State use Afghanistan as a base. The Taliban are Islamists and nationalists (despite the incompatibility of these two principles), but they were never international terrorists.

The next steps are setting dates for the final American withdrawal from Afghanistan (in around 18 months) and opening direct talks between the US-backed Afghan government and the Taliban. There is still much to do, but this could work.
So congratulations to Donald Trump – and shame on the Washington analysts and experts who could never bring themselves to recommend just ending America’s longest-ever war. Some of them are the same people who didn’t realise seventeen years ago that these talks should have happened then.

The US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 was always about 9/11 and nothing else. The country was targeted because the Taliban, who had come to power five years before, had allowed Osama bin Laden and his band of Islamist extremists to set up a base in Afghanistan, and they were assumed to be implicated in the horrendous attacks on New York and Washington.

That assumption was almost certainly wrong. The Taliban had come to power in 1996 after a ten-year war against the Soviet invaders and the seven-year civil war that followed. They had been a long time out in the hills, and they were really enjoying power.

What the Taliban did in power was both ridiculous and atrocious. They drove women from public life and closed girls’ schools. They made men grow beards and women wear burqas. They banned music, movies and television.

They mutilated people for small offences and executed them for slightly bigger ones (most of which were not offences at all in other Muslim countries). And they took absolutely no interest in the rest of the world. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan really didn’t have a foreign policy at all.

But the leader of the regime, Mullah Omar, was a personal friend of Osama bin Laden, whom he had met in Pakistan in the 1980s. (Both men were then involved in the war against the Soviet occupation.)

So when bin Laden was forced out of his refuge in Sudan by the Clinton administration in 1996, Omar let him set up camp in southern Afghanistan – and told him not to carry out political activities on Afghan soil. Bin Laden abused that hospitality, and approved the 9/11 attacks from there. (The actual planning was mostly done in Germany.)

Did Mullah Omar have anything to do with the attacks? Did he even know about them in advance? Try to imagine the telephone conversation. (Bin Laden didn’t speak Pashto, but Omar did speak Arabic.)

“Omar, habibi, it’s Osama. How are the wives and children?”

“Not bad, thanks. Yours?”

“Listen, Omar, I’m giving you a heads-up. Next week my guys are going to attack the United States and kill a few thousand Americans, and I’m afraid they’re going to blame you too. So you’ll get invaded and overthrown, and your Taliban guys will have to spend another ten years in the hills being hunted by gunships. But it’s in a good cause. I hope you’re OK with that.”

“Sure, Osama. Good luck with it.”

I’m pretty sure that conversation never happened. Why would Osama bin Laden tell Mullah Omar about the attack in advance, and run the risk that he wasn’t OK with it? Most of the Taliban would certainly have been outraged by the mortal danger bin Laden was exposing them to.

Could the US have persuaded the Taliban to hand bin Laden over in order not to be invaded and driven from power? Maybe you couldn’t have persuaded Mullah Omar, but many of the younger leaders were really not looking forward to being bombed out of the cities and chased back into the hills.

And if they don’t listen right away, spread some money around. You can’t buy religious fanatics, but you can sometimes rent them if you find the right words to go with the money.

Why wasn’t it at least tried? Probably because there was a strong need to ‘kick ass’ in the United States. Such a horrible crime couldn’t be answered with mere diplomacy and legal proceedings. What was needed was bloody vengeance and catharsis. So Afghanistan got invaded, and several hundred thousand people died in the next seventeen years.

And since it has always been very easy to invade Afghanistan (though almost impossible to stay there), one invasion didn’t provide enough catharsis. Thirty months later George W. Bush also invaded Iraq, although there were no terrorists there (and no ‘weapons of mass destruction’), and hundreds of thousands more died.

And now they are finally negotiating the very same deal with the Taliban that could probably have been made in 2001. It would have saved a lot of time.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 7, 18 and 20. (“The American…terrorists”; “What…television”; “And if…money”; and “And…died”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.