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Trump and Erdogan: Bringers of Chaos

16 January 2019

“Where America retreats, chaos follows,” said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Cairo last week. It’s not the sort of remark you’d expect from an American diplomat only three weeks after President Donald Trump declared that US troops were pulling out of Syria. Is it possible that behind Pompeo’s severe and even pompous exterior there lurks a secret ironist?

Probably not. Pompeo truly believes (like many American evangelical Christians) that the United States is engaged in a struggle of good against evil in the Middle East. “It is a never-ending struggle … until the Rapture,” he said three years ago. He may just be angry at Trump, in a passive-aggressive way, for abandoning Syria to the (evil) Iranian and Russian forces that back Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator.

At any rate, Pompeo is right about the chaos that will follow, but it would be wrong to blame it all on Trump. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan is much better informed than the American president and probably a lot smarter too, but he is just as impulsive, just as ruthless, just as much a bringer of chaos.

It was Erdogan, in a telephone conversation in mid-December, who persuaded Trump that pulling all the US troops out of Syria would be a good idea. Turkey would be happy to take the strain instead.

Trump has always opposed America’s endless Middle Eastern wars, so he swallowed Erdogan’s suggestion hook, line and sinker – and tweeted his decision to pull the US troops out without discussing it with anybody. Only later did the remaining grown-ups in the White House explain to him that Erdogan planned to subjugate or kill America’s main allies in Syria, the Kurds.

To his credit, Trump hated the idea of betraying the Syrian Kurds, whose militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), suffered thousands of deaths while helping US forces to defeat the fanatical jihadis of Islamic State.

Trump still wanted to bring the US troops home, but now he had one condition. The Turks must promise not to invade north-eastern Syria and crush the YPG as soon as the US troops leave.

Erdogan replied that nothing Trump said or did could stop him from destroying these Kurdish ‘terrorists’ (who have never attacked Turkey). At which point, on Monday past, Donald Trump tweeted that the United States “will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds.”

All clear so far? Good.

You’d never guess, from the story thus far, that the United States and Turkey have been close allies for the past half-century, but the alliance is fading fast. Erdogan has been playing his own hand in the Middle East, and playing it quite badly.

The ‘Sultan’, as his admirers call him, wants to secure his own one-man rule and re-Islamise Turkey, which had evolved into a secular and democratic republic over the past eighty years. He also wants to promote Sunni Islam throughout the region. The two goals are not fully compatible, so he shifts position a lot.

When the revolt in Syria broke out in 2011 during the Arab spring, Erdogan supported it because Bashar al-Assad’s regime is dominated by Alawites, a Shia Muslim sect. He kept the border open and let supplies and recruits flow into the rebels, including even the Islamic State extremists.

When Russia intervened militarily to save Assad in 2015, Erdogan was so angry that he even had the Turkish air force ambush and shoot down a Russian bomber. But he was almost equally angry with the United States, which had made a an alliance with the Kurds of northern Syria to fight against Islamic State.

The Kurds gradually choked off the aid coming in to Islamic State from Turkey, and IS (aka ‘Isis’) has now lost almost all its territory. So Erdogan told Trump he could bring the US troops home now, and Trump believed him. But what Erdogan actually wants to do is crush the Syrian Kurds, which he can do once the US troops leave.

Erdogan thinks the Syrian Kurds are allied with the Turkish Kurds, who make up one-fifth of Turkey’s population, live just across the border from Syria, and are currently at war with Erdogan’s regime. (That’s why he calls them ‘terrorists’.)

The weird thing is that four years ago Erdogan was on the brink of making peace with the Kurds. There was a ceasefire, the Turkish Kurds were no longer demanding independence, and he was negotiating a compromise settlement that enhanced Kurdish rights within Turkey.

But then he lost a parliamentary election in 2015, mainly because the Kurds stopped voting for him. So he re-opened the war against the Kurds, wrapped himself in the Turkish flag, and won the next election on an ultra-nationalist platform. All Kurds are now the enemy, they are all terrorists, and they must be crushed.

Given Erdogan’s ruthlessness and Trump’s volatility, I have no idea how all this works out. Badly, I suspect. But I actually admire Trump’s refusal to betray his allies, once he realised what Erdogan was up to. You don’t see that much in the Middle East.

Of course, it probably won’t last.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 16 and 17. (“The weird…crushed”)

Trump and MbS: Shared Delusions

“It’s a suffering tape, it’s a terrible tape,” the Snowflake-in-Chief told Fox News on Sunday, defending his refusal to listen to the recording of journalist Jamal Khashoggi being murdered and sawn into pieces in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on 2 October. “I know everything that went on in the tape without having to hear it. It was very violent, very vicious and terrible.”

At least five weeks after the Turks made the recording available to American intelligence, Donald Trump has finally admitted that it exists. (It only exists because the Saudi hit team who did the murder were so amateurish that they didn’t even sweep the consulate for bugs.)

But Trump’s purpose in going on Fox was to say that the man who almost certainly ordered the hit, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), is still his friend and ally. “It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t,” said Trump, but “the United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia.”

Fair enough. We all have to consort with murderers and torturers occasionally as we go about our business. But this relationship between Trump and MbS, genuinely warm and yet deeply cynical, does offer us an entry-point into the weird pseudo-strategies that bind the White House and the Saudi leadership together.

The focus of the US-Saudi relationship for the past four decades has been shared enmity towards Iran. This is perfectly natural for Saudi Arabia, which faces a far more populous and powerful Iran across the Persian Gulf. The sheer disparity of power, combined with the fact that Iran has a revolutionary regime and Saudi Arabia a deeply conservative one, guarantees that the latter will see the former as a threat.

It’s harder to explain the US obsession with Iran. The mullahs engage in lots of anti-American and anti-Israeli sloganeering, but they are much too sane to act on it. Iran’s ability to project hard military power abroad is so limited that it couldn’t possibly invade Saudi Arabia. It poses no threat whatever to the United States. And yet….

The depth and duration of the American obsession with Iran is best explained not by strategy but by psychology. Iran, like Cuba, overthrew an American puppet ruler long ago (the Shah in Iran, Batista in Cuba) and successfully defied subsequent US attempts to snuff out the revolution. For that, neither country has ever been forgiven.

It is that long-cherished American grudge, not some subtle strategic calculation about potential Iranian nuclear weapons, that drives Trump’s current trade embargo against the country. If he were really worried about nukes, he would be concentrating on North Korea, not Iran.

Both Saudi Arabia and Israel feed Trump’s obsession with Iran, because they would love to entangle the US in a war with that country. Much better to get the Americans to do the fighting, if war is inevitable.

But war is actually far from inevitable, and even Trump’s close advisers (with the possible exception of John Bolton) know that attacking Iran would be a very bad idea. It is, for a start, much bigger than Vietnam.

However, Trump himself seems to have drunk the Kool-Aid. He prefaced his statement about sticking with Saudi Arabia despite the Khashoggi murder with a rant about the evil Iranians who are allegedly waging “a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen.”

Despite constant claims that the Houthi rebels in Yemen are just a front for Iran (for the most part swallowed uncritically by the Western media), there are no Iranians in Yemen, and no Iranian weapons either. On one side there are Houthi fighters and the home-made, hopelessly inaccurate missiles that they occasionally fire at Saudi cities in retaliation for the huge, relentless bombing campaign by the Saudi-led ‘coalition’.

On the other side is the aforesaid coalition, the military wing of Arab Military Dictators and Absolute Monarchs Inc., plus some mercenaries that the United Arab Emirates has hired to stiffen the local pro-government forces. And MbS waded into Yemen almost three years ago to put that ‘government’, installed by the Saudis in 2012 without an election, back into power.

There’s not an Iranian in sight anywhere. The geography alone makes the claim utterly implausible. How could this farrago of shameless lies and distortions be repackaged into a casus belli for an American attack on Iran?

Alleged North Vietnamese attacks on American warships in the Gulf of Tonkin, subsequently disproved, gave US President Lyndon Johnson an excuse to start bombing North Vietnam in 1964. Saddam Hussein’s non-existent ‘weapons of mass destruction’ were President George W. Bush’s pretext for invading Iraq in 2003.

So yes, the Yemen war, creatively reinterpreted, could indeed be used by MbS and Trump to justify an American attack on Iran. It is said that war is God’s way of teaching Americans geography, but the wars always come first.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 8. (“At…bugs”; and “It…Iran”)

It’s Not (Quite) As Bad As It Seems

In a particularly bad week for wrecking behaviour, Donald Trump trashed the NATO summit, declared the European Union a “foe”, undermined Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempts to get a ‘soft’ Brexit for Britain, sucked up to the Russians and betrayed his own intelligence services. But his actions made it clear that the NATO alliance is of limited relevance and that a new military confrontation with the Russians would be pointless folly.

He didn’t actually say either of those things last week (although he has said them both in the past). But despite the usual blizzard of off-the-cuff, contradictory Trumpian statements, a couple of truths did become obvious.

One is that Trump is Russia’s man in the White House. It is not clear what kind of hold Moscow has on him, but it clearly has one. The other is that there is almost no military dimension to the ‘Russian threat’ in Europe, so NATO does not need to spend more money.

Trump likes to sound tough. “Get ready, Russia, because (American missiles) will be coming, nice and new and smart!” he tweeted over a transient crisis in Syria three months ago. After last week’s NATO summit he claimed to have bullied the Europeans into spending much more on defence (against the Russian threat, of course).

But he never fired those missiles although the Russians didn’t back down. He didn’t really get any new promises from the Europeans last week to spend more money on NATO. And when he went to Moscow on Sunday, he declared that America was to blame for the poor state of US-Russian relations.

“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” Trump tweeted. Three hours later the Russian Foreign Ministry replied: “We agree.” And it’s true, apart from the bit about the ‘witch hunt’.

After a two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin with only translators present, Trump announced that he accepted Putin’s denials about Russian attempts to use social media to influence the 2016 US election. “They (the US intelligence services) think it’s Russia,” Trump said. “President Putin just said it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

Well, Putin himself mentioned one plausible reason for Russia to interfere in the US election at the very same press conference: he wanted Trump to win the election. But there was a great outcry in every part of the United States about how Trump had “thrown America under the bus,” as one Fox News reporter put it.

Now, let’s pick this all apart and try to make sense of it. Trump’s betrayal of the American intelligence services was a natural and necessary part of his campaign to discredit them, because he fears that they have or will discover evidence that links him to the Russian intervention in the US election.

There was a huge backlash in the US because even Trump’s own supporters were dismayed to see him value the Russian dictator’s words more highly than those of American intelligence professionals. Within a day he had been forced to admit, for the first time, that there had indeed been Russian meddling in the US election process in 2016.

He also had to backtrack on his claim that the United States was to blame for the heightened tension with Russia, tweeting that “We’re all to blame” and that he held “both countries responsible.” But actually, he was right about that the first time.

If the United States had treated the badly wounded post-Soviet Russia less brutally in the 1990s, nurturing the fragile new Russian democracy instead of taking all the Eastern European countries into NATO and pushing the alliance’s military frontier right up to the former Soviet border, there might never have been support in Russia for an aggrieved nationalist like Putin.

It’s too late to fix that now, but Russia is still not a major military threat. It has lots of modern tanks and missiles, because that’s what nationalist leaders do, but its economy is only the size of Italy’s and it could not sustain a prolonged military confrontation with NATO. That’s why Putin concentrates on non-military initiatives like his interference in the 2016 US election (and apparently in Britain’s 2017 Brexit referendum as well).

So it makes perfectly good sense for NATO’s European members to spend 2% or less of their resources on defence. NATO is really about defending Europe, and Europe doesn’t need much defending.

It’s true, as Trump regularly points out, that the United States spends 4% of its GDP on defence, but that’s because it has military commitments all over the world. In fact, it’s unlikely that even 2% of US resources is spent on forces, weapons and tasks that are specifically related to NATO.

The good news is that though the populists and ultra-nationalists are on the rise in the West (including Russia), raw military power still plays a minor role in the relations of the great powers. Hacking and the other digital dark arts are playing a much bigger role, and it is proving hard to get them under control. But which would you prefer?
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 8 and 15. (“Our…hunt”; “Well…it”; and “It’s…NATO”)

The Singapore Summit

If the Singapore meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un had been a zero-sum game, then Trump definitely lost. But maybe it wasn’t.

Kim got a meeting with Trump on terms of strict equality right down to the number of flags on display, which is a huge boost for his regime’s claim to legitimacy. He persuaded Trump to end America’s annual joint military exercises with South Korea (and even got Trump to call them ‘war games’ and say they were ‘provocative’, which no US spokesperson has ever done before).

And he got Trump to accept North Korea’s deliberately vague language about the “denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”, with no specific reference to North Korea’s nuclear weapons, let alone any talk of dismantling them. In fact, the agreement they signed talked about “re-affirming” North Korea’s denuclearisation pledge, so obviously no progress there.

This is several light-years distant from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s pre-summit definition of the US goal as “permanent, verifiable, irreversible dismantling of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction,” which must happen “without delay.”

There’s no cause for surprise here. Trump is not a great deal-maker; he’s a man who is accomplished at playing the role of a great deal-maker. The reality is more like the contract he signed with Tony Schwartz, who ghost-wrote ‘The Art of the Deal’, the book that made him famous: 50% of the advance, 50% of royalties, and equal billing on the cover. Schwartz was as surprised and pleased then as Kim undoubtedly is now.

If Trump had had a little more time in Singapore, he could have bought a T-shirt saying ‘My president went to Singapore and all I got was this lousy T-shirt’ and taken it home to give to the American people.

He would have needed a bigger apology-gift for the South Korean government, which was blindsided by Trump’s spur-of-the-moment promise to stop the joint military exercises. “We need to find out the exact meaning or intention behind his comments at this point,” Seoul said in an unmistakably sulky tone of voice. (Seoul’s mistake is to assume that Trump himself knew his “exact meaning or intention.”)

But this was not really a negotiation. It was a show, staged for the benefit of the two main participants, and they both got what they came for. They were bound to get it, since they had the power to define the meeting as either a success or a failure. Naturally, they said it was a success – but that doesn’t mean it was actually a failure.

All this zero-sum game nonsense is irrelevant to what is really happening here, or at least could happen in the months to come: the gradual acceptance by the United States that North Korea is irreversibly a nuclear weapons power, although a small one, and the negotiation of some basic rules for this new relationship between two nuclear powers of radically different size.

Diplomatic and military experts have been saying for years that there is no way that North Korea will ever give up its nuclear weapons. The whole country lived on short rations for a generation to get them, and Kim is well aware of what happened to dictators who didn’t have nukes, like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

The experts are right, but they do not see this situation as necessarily a cause for panic. After all, more evenly matched pairs of nuclear powers, like India and Pakistan, or the United States and Russia, have managed to avoid nuclear war for decades. Nuclear deterrence, as Bernard Brodie pointed out more than 70 years ago, works even when there is a huge disparity in the number of weapons possessed by the two sides.

If North Korea has even a marginal ability to destroy one US city with a nuclear weapon, the United States is effectively deterred from using nuclear weapons against it. (Except if the US could count on destroying every one of Kim’s nuclear-tipped missiles in a surprise first strike – but that’s why North Korea will move them around or dig them in deep.)

North Korea is and will remain totally deterred from attacking the United States, because it would be utterly destroyed in a massive American counter-strike. So the deterrence is mutual and relatively stable, barring huge technological surprises or crazy or suicidal leaders.

That is the destination the US-North Korean relationship is heading for, because it is the only one that reality permits. Kim is almost certainly seeking it quite consciously, although it’s unlikely that Trump has ever thought of it in these terms. Indeed, there is some evidence that he is not even clear on the basic concept of deterrence.

No matter. That’s what Trump is heading for, and by the time he gets there he will undoubtedly think that it was his goal all along. There will be more meetings, probably including a Kim visit to the White House, and the two countries will move, slowly and crabwise, towards the mutual deterrence that will define their future relationship.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“There’s…now”; and “He would…intention”)

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