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Rational Accommodationism

Here we go again. Whenever North Korea launches a new long-range missile or does another nuclear test, President Trump condemns the test and warns Pyongyang not to do it again, while his generals and diplomats point out that it “threatens the entire world.” But latterly, the pattern has been evolving.

North Korea has carried out seven long-range missile tests and one underground nuclear explosion (its first hydrogen bomb) since Trump took office in January, and until August Trump’s language on these occasions was blood-curdling. In July, when two ballistic missiles were tested, he said that any further North Korean threats “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never see.”

That was actually a threat to attack North Korea with nuclear weapons: Trump was deliberately using the same language, even the same phrases that Harry Truman had chosen to use in a warning message to Japan just before an American plane dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

His defence secretary, General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, continued to talk in apocalyptic terms even after North Korea tested an H-bomb in September: “We are not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea. But as I said, we have many options to do so.”

Maybe Mattis just didn’t get the memo, but Trump’s own response on that occasion was less dramatic, and even rather gnomic. Asked whether he planned to attack North Korea, he only said “We’ll see.” That is the response of a poker-player, not the berserker he often pretends to be.

It was striking, even from the start of his presidency, that Trump has never made specific threats with details and deadlines, and his tone has continued to soften. After North Korea tested its first full-range ICBM this week, one that can reach any part of the United States, he just said “We will take care of it,” adding later that “It is a situation that we will handle.”

This suggests that he knows there is nothing he can usefully do to stop these tests, and that he will just have to live with a North Korean nuclear deterrent. He is clearly frustrated by it, and is often abusive about the North Korean leader – he called Kim “little rocket man” at the UN General Assembly in September – but he is now a long way from the “fire and fury” of July. Has someone been getting at him?

I suspect somebody has, and my leading candidates are the three generals who are now his closest advisers on this issue: Mattis at Defence, General H.R.McMaster, the National Security Adviser, and General John Kelly, Trump’s Chief of Staff.

In fact, I’m pretty sure it was mainly Kelly. The other two generals have been in their jobs practically since Trump entered the White House, and although I’m sure that they tried to talk sense to him about North Korea, it didn’t seem to be having much effect. Whereas Kelly only took up his job in late July (so the timing works), and since then he has had more face time with the president than anybody else.

At any rate, Trump is behaving as if he has finally been persuaded of the strategic realities by the generals who now surround him. None of them believes that a war in the Korean peninsula would be a good thing for the United States, and they will have been working hard to persuade the US president to accept that fact. It looks like they have succeeded.

Don’t expect Trump to go public and explain to Americans that there are no good military options available to the United States. He’s not going to tell them that they are ultimately going to have to live in a state of mutual deterrence with North Korea like they already do with Russia and China, because his default mode is sounding tough. But if he understands that himself, that’s enough.

Trump is ignorant and bombastic, but he is not stupid. If his generals tell him the facts often enough, he can be persuaded to behave with appropriate caution. He CANNOT be persuaded to tone down his rhetoric, especially the midnight tweets, so the sense of crisis will continue, but we may be safer than we think.

I would not be suggesting that Trump is privately willing to accept a rational accommodation with North Korea and live with their bombs and missiles if his evil twin, Steve Bannon, were still his Chief Strategic Adviser. To Bannon, ‘rational accommodationism’ is the worst crime of all. But that’s why Bannon’s resignation was one of General John Kelly’s conditions for taking the job of White House Chief of Staff.

Bannon is gone, and I think that Trump may now have secretly accepted reality. Of course, I could be wrong.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 12. (“That was…Hiroshima”; and “Trump…think”)

A Different Kind of Tweet

“The president has absolute authority, unilateral power to order the use of nuclear weapons,” said Bruce Blair. The nuclear codes are “the length of a tweet. It would take them one or two minutes to format and transmit that directly down the chain of command to the executing commanders of the underground launch centers, the submarines and the bombers.”

While serving in the US Air Force in the 1970s, Blair was a launch control officer for Minuteman ICBMs. Weekly dry runs down in the capsule, turning the keys that would send 50 nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles on their way, has led to profound reflection in many of the people who did it. It led Blair to found Global Zero, a group that advocates eliminating nuclear weapons entirely.

Blair was being interviewed in connection with the controversy that has erupted in the US since President Trump’s August tweet threatening to rain “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea if Kim Jong-un threatened the United States again. Does he actually have the unillateral power to do that, and if so should it be taken away from him?

Senator Ed Markey and 13 co-sponsors introduced a bill that would require Trump to obtain a declaration of war from Congress before launching a nuclear first strike. Senator Chris Murphy, a co-sponsor, explained that “We are concerned that the president is so unstable, is so volatile, has a decision-making process that is so quixotic, that he might order a nuclear weapons strike that is wildly out of step with US national security interests.”

The bill will never get past the Republican majority in Congress, but it did lead to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week that examined the president’s power to start a nuclear war. As you would expect, various generals rolled up to say that everything is under control. But it wasn’t very reassuring.

The star witness was Robert Kehler, a former head of US Strategic Command, who said that in his former role he would have followed the president’s order to carry out a nuclear strike – if it were legal. If he doubted its legality, he would have consulted his own advisors – and he might have refused to do it. One senator asked: “Then what happens?” Kehler replied: “I don’t know.”

The current head of US Strategic Command, General John Hyten, had another go at it on Saturday. He told the Halifax International Security Forum that he and Trump have had conversations about such a scenario and that he has told Trump he wouldn’t carry out an illegal strike. (Under international law, using nuclear weapons first is almost always illegal.)

“If it’s illegal, guess what’s going to happen. I’m going to say, ‘Mr President, that’s illegal.’ And guess what he’s going to do? He’s going to say, ‘What would be legal?’” Hyten said. “And we’ll come up with options with a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is, and that’s the way it works.”

But Trump doesn’t have to consult General Hyten, or any of his own military advisers, before ordering a nuclear attack on North Korea – or Iran, or anywhere else. He just puts the launch codes into the ‘football’ that an aide always has nearby.

As Bruce Blair pointed out, it would only take a couple of minutes for the launch orders to cascade down the chain of command and reach the “commanders of the underground launch centers, the submarines and the bombers.” It’s even possible that none of the people on duty who would have to execute the orders would be generals.

The generals would get the order too, of course – but as Blair says: “If they felt that it was a really bad call or illegal, and they wanted to try to override it, they could try to transmit a termination order, but it would be too late.” Trump really could make a nuclear first strike on North Korea all on his own. On this vital issue, there is no “adult supervision”.

This bizarre situation dates back to the early days of the Cold War, when both the United States and the Soviet Union had ‘launch-on-warning’ policies because they feared that an enemy first strike could destroy all of their own nuclear weapons and leave them helpless. “Use ‘em or lose ‘em” was the mantra, so the US and Soviet leaders both had the authority to launch their missiles in minutes.

Later on both countries buried their ballistic missiles in underground silos or hid them in submerged submarines so they could not lose them in a surprise attack. They no longer had to launch on a warning that might be false: if there really was an attack, they could ride it out and retaliate afterwards. But the US never took back the president’s ‘instant launch’ authority. That was an oversight that needs to be rectified.

It would be a simple matter to restrict Trump’s unilateral launch authority to situations where there is hard evidence that a nuclear attack on the United States is underway. Simple in legal and technical terms, that is. In political terms, very hard if not impossible.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“This bizarre…rectified”)

All Quiet on the Climate Front

“Promoting coal at a climate summit is like promoting tobacco at a cancer summit,” said Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, but President Donald J. Trump did exactly that. He sent a team of American diplomats and energy executives to the annual world climate summit, being held this year in Bonn, Germany, to extol the wonders of “clean” coal.

Bloomberg, now a UN special envoy for climate change, got it right. The audience at the US presentation heckled and mocked the presenters. Where people who were concerned about global warming once worried about whether the US government would dare to defy the fossil fuel lobby at home, the denialists now control the government – and it turns out not to matter all that much.

There are several reasons for that. One is that global coal use has gone into steep decline as the cost of renewable energy has dropped. It’s just not competitive any more, and China and India have cancelled plans for hundreds of new coal-fired power plants this year. Even in the United States, the share of electricity coming from coal fell from 51 percent in 2008 to only 31 percent last year – and US coal companies are going bankrupt.

A second reason is that Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement has had zero impact internationally. The fear that other countries would also default on their commitments proved to be unfounded, and the United States is the literally the only country on the planet that does not subscribe to the treaty.

Indeed, Christiana Figueres, the UN’s chief climate negotiator, actually thanked Trump for his attempt to wreck the Paris deal. “It provoked an unparalleled wave of support for the treaty,” she said. “He shored up the world’s resolve on climate action, and for that we can all be grateful.”

Finally, Trump has been outflanked by a new alliance announced in Bonn on Monday that links the fifteen US states committed to strong climate action with the Canadian and Mexican governments in a continent-wide group that concentrates on phasing out coal power and boosting clean power and transport. Much of the US contribution to emissions cuts that Trump reneged on will be covered by these state-level American initiatives.

There are other causes for alarm, of course. There always are. After three years when global carbon dioxide emissions stayed steady, albeit at a very high level, they have started rising again. And there is an unexplained rise in methane emissions in the tropics, not caused by burning fossil fuels, that leads some scientists to suspect that one of the dreaded feedbacks is kicking in.

Feedbacks are the spectre at the feast. You can get everything else right, your emissions are going down nicely, and you are on course to stop the warming just before the average global temperature reaches two degrees C higher – and then suddenly, the whole global system goes into overdrive. The warming that human beings have already caused has triggered some other, natural source of warming that we cannot shut off.

The consensus among scientists is that the risk of triggering feedbacks rises steeply in the vicinity of plus 2 degrees C average global temperature, which is why the world’s governments have all promised never to exceed that target. But there could be some unknown trigger in the system that would set off runaway warming at a significantly lower average global temperature: the whole process, as they say, is “non-linear”.

So we are still living dangerously, and it is still uncertain whether we can ratchet down emissions targets fast enough to stop the temperature rise in time. But there are big changes in the offing that will make it easier to cut emissions: meat substitutes and lab-grown meat, electric vehicles, and rapidly falling prices for renewables like solar and wind.

There is also now a unity of purpose that was previously absent from the climate talks: the long struggle between the rich and the poor countries over who is to blame for the problem and who pays for the damage is largely over. And although President Xi did not come in person, China is definitely taking the lead.

Nobody in Bonn is celebrating the US government’s defection from the fight against climate change, but their panic is long past. The Bonn meeting is concentrating on writing the rules for measuring how countries are complying with the promises they have made on emissions cuts. They also need to figure out how to organise the five-yearly reviews at which the countries are supposed to adopt progressively higher targets for cuts.

When the conference closes on Friday, there will be no exciting new announcements of breakthroughs, but we don’t need that. The real breakthrough came in Paris in 2015, and the objective now is to keep the show on the road. So far, so good.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“Indeed…grateful”; and “The consensus…non-linear”)

Trump and Iran

“…One orb to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”

Five months ago, during Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, he was invited to open the “Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology”. (I’m not making that up.) The huge, darkened room they were in looked like a cross between a starship bridge and a television control room. And there was a photo op, as there always is at these events, but this one was different.

There was a glowing orb on a pedestal, with the continents in black and the seas in pale grey. Trump, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, and Egyptian dictator General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi all put their hands on it as if they owned it – and held the pose for almost two minutes.

The radiant globe (and the illuminated floor) lit their faces from below. If you want to make somebody look evil, light the scene dramatically from underneath, and they did look evil in a comic-book sort of way. Like the three witches in Macbeth, suggested conservative commentator Bill Kristol. And everybody knew that their curses were aimed at Iran.

Now Trump has directed more curses at Iran, declaring that he will pull the United States out of the 2015 agreement that prevents Iran from developing nuclear weapons for the next ten years. Or rather, he has announced that Congress will do that – but the Republicans probably don’t have enough votes in the Senate to make it happen.

Why didn’t he do it himself? Maybe he just wanted to share the blame. Every one of Trump’s senior officials and advisers has told him not to do it, and so have all of America’s allies. Every other signatory to the treaty – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union – also says it will continue to abide by it no matter what the United States does.

Trump says Iran is cheating on the deal, but Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Iran is implementing it faithfully, and all the other signatories agree. Trump doesn’t like the fact that Iran tests ballistic missiles, or supports dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and says they are against the “spirit” of the treaty, but those things were not part of the deal.

If there is one thing Trump understands, it’s contracts. If the words are in the contract, then it’s part of the deal. If they aren’t, then it’s not part of the deal. There is nothing in the treaty with Iran that says it has to do everything the US wants, and nothing either that says it must not do things that Washington does not like. It’s strictly about Iran not working on nuclear weapons, and the other countries dropping their sanctions against Iran.

And why does Trump want to kill the treaty anyway? One reason is that he is pursuing a bizarre vendetta against ex-president Barack Obama, seeking to erase every one of his legislative and diplomatic achievements regardless of their value. But he has also fallen in with bad company.

Trump really is one of the three witches now: he has joined the alliance of conservative Arab states against Iran, although it doesn’t serve any imaginable US interest to get involved in a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. You can blame that choice on Trump’s ignorance, perhaps, but Saudi Arabia and Israel are run by well-informed and intelligent people. Why do they want to cancel the nuclear deal?

On the face of it, it makes no sense. If your choice is between Iranian nuclear weapons some time after 2025 (if the treaty isn’t renewed or extended before then), or Iranian nuclear weapons in one or two years’ time (if it is abrogated now), why would they prefer the latter? Yet they do. Their unspoken calculation may be that if the nuclear agreement does get trashed, then there will eventually be a war – but the United States will be on their side.

There is no doubt that Trump can pull out of the treaty even if Congress will not do it for him. He just has to declare new sanctions against Iran, which is well within his power. And if he does, other Western companies trading in Iran will find themselves banned from the huge American market unless they go along with the ban, so they will probably comply no matter what their governments say now.

But even if all that comes to pass, Trump cannot stop Iran from making nuclear weapons once the treaty is gone. The United States would probably suffer no grave damage as a result, as it is a long way from Iran. The Arab states and Israel could suffer greatly, but turkeys vote for Christmas all the time.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 8. (“If there…Iran”)