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Climate Creep and American Frogs

At least a decade ago, a retired general at the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies said to me that the rich countries will never take climate change seriously until some very big and apparently climate-related disaster happens in a first-world country. Hurricane Harvey was not that disaster.

At least twenty people have died in the Houston floods in the past few days, and the number will undoubtedly go up. In Bangladesh, at least 134 have died in monsoon flooding that has submerged at least a third of the country. But the latter fact will have no impact on opinion in the developed countries – “it’s just the monsoon again” – and the Texas disaster is not big enough to change minds in the United States. Nor should it.

Hurricanes are an annual event in the Gulf of Mexico, and their causes are well uderstood. Global warming has raised the amount of rain that this storm dumped on east Texas by 3-5 percent. (Higher sea surface temperature = more evaporation.) It also probably caused the changed wind patterns that kept Harvey loitering off the coast for so long.
But it did not cause Harvey.

The Houston floods are causing so much disruption and misery mainly because of human decisions: putting such a large population on a flood plain subject to frequent hurricanes, and then taking inadequate measures to protect those people from the inevitable consequences.

It’s the same story as Hurricane Katrina – and if more than a thousand dead in New Orleans twelve years ago didn’t change the way Americans deal with these threats, the current
pain in Houston is certainly not going to do so either. Indeed, just a couple of weeks ago President Trump scrapped Obama-era flood standards requiring infrastructure projects to take account of predicted global warming. There was no outcry.

Immerse a frog in boiling water, and it will immediately hop out. Put it in cold water and then slowly heat it, and the frog will not notice that it’s being boiled. The evidence is there, but it’s coming in too slowly to get its attention. Climate change is creeping in quietly, making normal weather a bit more extreme each year, and Americans haven’t noticed yet.

They get lots of help in maintaining their ignorance, of course.. Right-wing “think tanks” like the Institute of Energy Research, the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, financed by the likes of Exxon Mobil and the Koch brothers, have already mobilised to deny any links between the Houston disaster and climate change.

“Instead of wasting colossal sums of money on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, much smaller amounts should be spent on improving the infrastructure that protects the Gulf and Atlantic coasts,” said Myron Ebell, director of environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (and formerly the head of Trump’s transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency, tasked with crippling it).

But do not despair: this is largely an American phenomenon, and the United States does not bulk as large in the climate equation as it used to. Almost all the other developed countries are taking the threat of large-scale climate change seriously, although they have left it a bit late and they’re still not doing enough.

Consider, for example, the Netherlands, which is almost as vulnerable to flooding as Bangladesh: a quarter of the country is below sea level. There is a sentence in the introduction to the annual report of the Delta Programme, which deals with the rising sea levels and other water-related issues that concern the Dutch, that would be quite unthinkable in a US government document even in Barack Obama’s administration.

It reads: “The Delta Programme is tasked with ensuring that flood risk management and the freshwater supply will be sustainable and robust by 2050, and that our country will be designed in a manner that enables it to continue to cope resiliently with the greater extremes of climate.” If the United States had started taking the Dutch approach twenty years ago, far less of Houston would be underwater today, but “designing our country”? It’s un-American.

The United States will get there eventually, but it will take a far greater disaster than the Houston floods – the loss of Miami, perhaps? – before it ends the ideological wars and starts dealing with the realities of its situation. Meanwhile, the rest of the world will have to cope with climate change without American help.

It can probably manage. The Paris climate summit of December, 2015 produced an agreement that was a good start in coping with emissions, and none of the other countries took advantage of Trump’s defection from the deal to break their own promises. New technologies offer more promising routes for cutting emissions, and the world still has a chance of avoid runaway global warming (+3-6 degrees C).

Even if we can stop the warming before +2 degrees C, however, it’s too late already to prevent major climate change. There will be bigger floods and longer droughts, food shortages and floods of refugees, and countries will have to work hard to limit the damage. Including, eventually, the United States.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Consider…un-American”)

Afghanistan: Endless War

In 2010, Barack Obama’s vice-president, Joe Biden, vowed that the United States would be “totally out” of Afghanistan “come hell or high water, by 2014.” In 2014 Obama said that he would leave about 8,000 US troops there after all, and made an agreement with the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, that extended their stay “until the end of 2024 and beyond.”

Donald Trump wasn’t having any of that. Back in 2013 he tweeted “Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.” But it looks like the generals have now got to him with what passes for military wisdom.

On Monday Trump announced that he would be sending more US troops to Afghanistan – probably around 4,000 – and that they would stay as long as necessary. He has a clever new strategy, too: “We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists.” (I bet George W. Bush and Barack Obama wish they had thought of that.)

There is a strong temptation at this point to haul out the hoary old line: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Trump is, indeed, proposing to do the same old things again, ostensibly in the hope of achieving different results.

Peak US troop strength in Afghanistan was 100,000 in 2010-11. If that did not deliver victory then, how likely is it that boosting US troop numbers from 8,500 to 12,500 will do it now?

Neither the Soviet Union nor the British empire at the height of its power were able to overcome Afghan resistance to a foreign military presence, and we now have sixteen years of evidence that the United States cannot do it either.

Both the British and the Russians were able to maintain a military presence in the country as long as they were willing to take the casualties that involved, but in neither case did the regimes they installed long survive their departure. Whatever their merits, those regimes were fatally tainted by their foreign sponsorship.

The United States now finds itself in precisely the same situation. Ashraf Ghani’s government is certainly not the worst that Afghanistan has had to endure, but it lacks legitimacy in the eyes of Afghan nationalists because it depends on foreign troops and foreign money.

Since those foreign troops dwindled from 140,000 in 2011 (including non-American troops from a dozen other Western countries) to only 13,400 now, the Afghan government has lost control of about 40 percent of the country. And the process is accelerating: one-third of that territory was lost in just the past year.

Helmand province, which Western troops took from from the Taliban in 2006-2010 at the cost of almost 600 deaths, is almost entirely back under Taliban control, and Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces are next. Even the capital, Kabul, for so long a bubble of safety, is now regularly targeted by suicide bombers: at least 150 killed in a massive blast in May, 20 more at a funeral in June, 35 more in a bus bombing in July.

So what would happen if the foreign troops all left and the Taliban became the government again, as they were in 1996-2001? Would the country become a breeding ground for terrorism? Would more plots like the 9/11 attacks be hatched there? Probably not.

The Taliban are essentially a nationalist group. Their extremely conservative take on Islam was not seen as a problem by Washington when they were fighting the Russians, and most rural Afghan males do not see it as a problem now. (Nobody asks the women.)

Most urban, educated Afghans are terrified of the Taliban’s return, of course, but they are a small fraction of the population. And many foreigners see the Taliban as the least bad alternative to the US-backed regime. As Zamir Kabulov, the Russian special envoy to Afghanistan, said in early 2016: “Taliban interests objectively coincide with ours.”

What he meant was that the Taliban aren’t interested in foreign affairs at all. They do not dream of a world Islamic empire; they just want to run Afghanistan. Indeed, they are the main military rivals to the jihadis of Islamic State and al-Qaeda who are currently trying to establish a foothold in the country – and by and large they are winning those little private wars.

But what about 9/11? There is good reason to suspect that Osama bin Laden and his mostly Arab companions of al-Qaeda, then guests of the Taliban, did not warn their hosts before they carried out that atrocity, since it would clearly lead to a US invasion and the overthrow of the Taliban regime.

Obviously, few of these considerations will have occurred to Donald Trump, but does that mean he really thinks he can win in Afghanistan? Not necessarily.

Maybe, like Obama, Trump has simply decided that he doesn’t want the inevitable collapse of the Western-backed regime in Afghanistan to happen on his watch. He’s just committing enough American troops to the country to kick it down the road a bit.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 12. (“Helmand…July”; and “The Taliban…women”)

Kim Jong-Trump

“I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, Mr President, but I do say not more than ten or twenty million dead, depending on the breaks.” So said General ‘Buck’ Turgidson, urging the US president to carry out a nuclear first strike, in Stanley Kubrick’s 1963 film ‘Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.’

But nobody in Kubrick’s movie talked like Kim Jong-un (“American bastards would be not very happy with this gift sent on the July 4 anniversary,” he crowed, celebrating North Korea’s first successful test of an ICBM). They didn’t talk like Donald Trump either (“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”)

Kubrick’s film came out the year after the Cuban missile crisis, when the world went to the brink of nuclear war after the Soviet Union put nuclear missiles into Cuba to deter an American invasion. It was a terrifying time, but neither US President John F. Kennedy nor the Soviet leaders used violent language. They stayed calm, and carefully backed away from the brink.

So Kubrick’s fictional leaders had to stay sane too; only his generals and civilian strategic ‘experts’ were crazy. Anything else would have been too implausible even for a wild satire like ‘Strangelove’. Whereas now we live in different times.

Trump may not understand what his own words mean, but he is threatening to attack North Korea if it makes any more threats to the United States. That’s certainly how it will be translated into Korean. And Pyongyang will assume that the US attack will be nuclear, since it would be even crazier to attack a nuclear-armed country like North Korea using only conventional weapons.

Maybe the American and North Korean leaders are just two playground bullies yelling at each other, but even in their more grown-up advisers it sets up the the train of thought best described by strategic theorist Thomas Schelling: “He thinks we think he’ll attack; so he thinks we shall; so he will, so we must.” This is how people can talk themselves into launching a ‘pre-emptive’ or ‘preventive’ nuclear attack.

Is this where the world finds itself at the moment? ‘Fraid so. And although a nuclear war with North Korea at this point wouldn’t even muss America’s hair – the few North Korean ICBMs would probably go astray or be shot down before they reached the US – it could kill many millions of Koreans on both sides of the border.

A million or so Japanese might die as well (that would depend on the fallout), and a few tens of thousands of US soldiers in western Pacific bases (from targeted strikes). Indeed, as the scale of the potential disaster comes home to North Korean strategists, you can see them start to play with the idea of a “limited nuclear war.”

North Korean planners have announced that they are “carefully examining” a plan for a missile attack on the big US base on Guam. In that way they could “signal their resolve” in a crisis by only hitting one isolated American military target. Their hope would be that such a limited attack would not unleash an all-out US nuclear counter-attack that would level North Korea.

‘Limited’ nuclear war typically becomes a favourite topic whenever strategists realise that using their cherished nuclear weapons any other way means unimaginable levels of death and destruction. It has never been credible, because it assumes that people will remain severely rational and unemotional while under attack by nuclear weapons.

Thinking about limited nuclear war, while unrealistic, is evidence that the planners are starting to get really scared about an all-out nuclear war, which is just what you want them to be. Nevertheless, we are entering a particularly dangerous phase of the process, not least because the other two major nuclear powers in the world, China and Russia, both have land borders with North Korea. And neither of them loves or trusts the United States.

What “process” are we talking about here? The process of coming to an accommodation that lets North Korea keep a nuclear deterrent, while reassuring it that it will never have to use those weapons. Because that’s what these North Korean missiles and nuclear warheads are about: deterring an American attack aimed at changing the regime.

They couldn’t be about anything else. North Korea can never have enough missiles to attack the US or its local allies and survive: it would be national suicide. But it can have enough of them to carry out a “revenge from the grave” and impose unacceptable losses on the US if it attacks North Korea. Deterrence, as usual, is the name of the game.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson briefly said that the US was not seeking to change the North Korean regime last week, although he was almost immediately contradicted by President Trump. In the long run, however, that is the unpalatable but acceptable way out of this crisis. In fact, there is no other way out.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“Maybe…attack”; and “They…game”)

North Korea’s ICBM

“American bastards would be not very happy with this gift sent on the July 4 anniversary,” said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un about his country’s first successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Wednesday. And indeed Americans are not happy about it, although it would be overstating the case to say that panic is sweeping the United States at the news that North Korea’s ICBMs can now reach America.

One reason for the lack of public panic is that Alaska is not a central concern for most Americans, and Alaska is the only part of the United States that North Korea’s Hwasong-14 missile can actually reach.

Another reason is that the US authorities insist that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are too big and heavy to fit on its ICBMs. (It’s not clear whether they have actual intelligence that confirms this, or are just whistling in the dark.)

And a third reason might be that Americans are secretly embarrassed by the sheer hypocrisy of their own government’s position in this affair.

Well, no, not really. The vast majority of Americans are blissfully unaware that there is any hypocrisy involved in demanding that North Korea refrain from getting what the United States has had for the past 72 years. So is the US government.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was being entirely sincere when he said that North Korea’s ICBM test “represents a new escalation of the threat to the United States, our allies and partners, the region, and the world.” Wrong, but entirely sincere.

He is obviously aware that the United States has had nuclear weapons since 1945, and has even dropped them on Asian cities. He knows that his country has had ICBMs since the 1950s, and still has hundreds ready to launch on short notice. How is the American posture different from the one that North Korea aspires to?

Two differences, really. One is that the United States has at least a hundred times as many nuclear weapons as North Korea, and delivery vehicles at least two technologcal generations further down the road. Another is that the United States has a clearly stated policy that says it might use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. Weirdly, this just makes American ICBMs sound more dangerous than North Korea’s.

That’s not really true. The United States used its first nuclear weapons as soon as it got them in 1945, but despite all the wars it has waged in the 72 years since then it has never used them again. Nuclear weapons are so terrifying that they actually force the people who possess them to think seriously about the consequences of using them.

Pyongyang has obviously been thinking hard about the grave implications of nuclear weapons too, because it never actually threatens to use North Korea’s nukes in a first strike. It’s always about deterring a nuclear attack on North Korea. And though the North Korean regime lies and blusters a lot, you can believe it about this.

North Korea will probably have ICBMs that can reach big American cities in three to five years if it keeps up the current pace of development and testing. That would buy North Korea a limited degree of safety from an American nuclear attack, because one or more of its missiles might survive a US first strike and be able to carry out a “revenge from the grave.” That is how nuclear deterrence works, at least in theory.

But even full-range nuclear-tipped ICBMs would not give the North Korean regime the ability to launch a nuclear attack on America (or Japan, or South Korea) without being exterminated in an immediate, massive nuclear counter-strike. So you can probably trust the North Korean regime not to do anything so terminally stupid – unless people like Kim Jung-un are literally crazy.

That’s why American diplomats work so hard to convince everybody else that the North Koreans really are frothing mad, impervious to logic, and not even interested in self-preservation. Only then can they argue that the North Koreans should be denied nuclear weapons, although Americans, Russians, Chinese, British, French, Israelis, Indians and Pakistanis can be trusted with them.

There is no evidence that the North Koreans really are crazy. In the 64 years since the end of the Korean War they have never risked a war, and they are extremely unlikely to do so now. And while there is a rather erratic leader in Washington at the moment, there are probably enough grown-ups around him to avoid any fatal mistakes on the American side either.

So North Korea will probably get its nuclear deterrent in the end, and we will all learn to live with it – like we learned to live with mutual US-Russian nuclear deterrence, mutual US-Chinese nuclear deterrence, and mutual Indian-Pakistani nuclear deterrence.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 13. (“Pyongyang…this”; and “That’s…them”)