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White House

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Tillerson Gone, Trump Unleashed

Rex Tillerson did not suffer fools gladly. He called Donald Trump a “moron” in a private conversation after one meeting at the Pentagon, and did not take the opportunity to deny it when a journalist asked him in public. In meetings with the president, he would “roll his eyes and slouch” whenever Trump said something he thought was particularly stupid. It’s amazing that he lasted as long as he did.

He wasn’t a very good Secretary of State either. He gutted the State Department in the name of efficiency, and large numbers of experienced diplomats quit in despair as he ‘downsized’ the organisation. His only real achievement in his fourteen months in office was to restrain Trump from doing some truly dangerous things like starting a major confrontation with Iran. But we’ll miss him now that he’s gone.

Donald Trump used to enjoy dismissing people with a brutal ‘You’re fired!’ when he was doing reality television, but he seems to have problems doing it face-to-face. Tweets addressed to the world at large are more his style, with his actual victims left to find out from the media. But he is getting rid of the people who question his judgement at an impressive rate: 35 senior people have been fired or quit in little more than a year.

The net effect of all this ‘turmoil’ in the White House, unsurprisingly, has been to remove most of the people whose ideas, values, or experience and knowledge of the world led them to disagree with Trump’s obsessions, his policies (to the extent that he has any), or just his whims of the moment. What’s left, for the most part, are the yes-men and women.

The most notable remaining exceptions are the three generals who hold high positions in the Trump administration: his chief of staff, John Kelly, the defence secretary, James Mattis, and the national security advisor, H.R. McMaster. But McMaster is widely rumoured to be next for the chopping block, and even Kelly’s willingness to continue shouldering the role of senior grown-up indefinitely is to be doubted.

The era of adult supervision in the White House is coming to an end, and Donald Trump is more and more “free to be Donald.” As he said on Tuesday, “I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want.”

The Cabinet he wants is one that is entirely free from the constraints that were initially imposed on him by the Republican Party’s establishment. He is a populist who cherry-picks ideas from anywhere, and no more a Republican than he is a Democrat. In fact, he once was a Democrat, and even considered trying to hijack the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination before the 2008 election.

In the end he hijacked the Republican Party instead, but it did try to rein him in by putting orthodox Republicans in key positions in his administration. His struggle to be free began with the dismissal last July of the Republican Party’s choice as his chief of staff, Reince Priebus. It has ended in total victory in the past two weeks with the resignation of his chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, and the firing of Rex Tillerson.

Cohn resigned last week because of Trump’s decision to to impose steep tariffs on US imports of steel and aluminum. The Republican Party has been a staunch supporter of free trade for the past half-century, and Cohn feared that the new tariffs were likely to cause an international trade war that impoverishes everybody. Trump doesn’t care about that. “Trade wars are good,” he said. “And easy to win.”

His new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, is a hard-liner who shares Trump’s obsession with breaking the international deal that stops Iran from developing nuclear weapons for the next ten years. “When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible. I guess (Tillerson) thought it was OK,” he said. “With Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process. I think it’s going to go very well.”

So stand by for Trump to alienate all of America’s main allies by sabotaging a treaty they worked very hard to achieve. Since he has swallowed Saudi Arabia’s argument that Iran is an ‘expansionist’ power that must be stopped, even direct military clashes between the US and Iran, especially in Syria, become a lot more likely.

And what about the unprecedented meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that Trump agreed to last week (without consulting Tillerson)? In theory it’s a good idea, because nuclear war in the Korean peninsula is a very bad idea. But there are few people left around Trump who can steer him away from disastrous decisions. They can’t even make him read his briefing papers.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“The most…doubted”)

Nuclear Posture Review

The US ‘Nuclear Posture Review’ published by the Pentagon late last week announced that the United States will be getting two new types of nuclear weapons to provide, in the words of US officials, “more flexible capabilities to give tailored deterrence.”

‘Tailored deterrence’? What on earth is that supposed to mean?

It’s a brand new euphemism that is designed to disguise an old, largely discredited and very dangerous concept. The United States is once again playing with the notion of a ‘limited’ nuclear war – and everybody else is very unhappy about it.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, called the move “confrontational”, and expressed “deep disappointment”. The Chinese defence ministry said: “We hope that the United States will abandon its Cold War mentality [and] earnestly assume its special disarmament responsibilities.” Even the Iranian foreign minister warned that the new move would bring the world “closer to annihilation.”

What the United States is actually going to do is change some of its existing nuclear weapons so that they make a smaller explosion. It’s also going to to put nuclear-tipped cruise missiles back on some of the navy’s ships. At first glance, this is not very exciting stuff, but it really is very foolish and quite dangerous.

Various justifications were offered for the new weapons by Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, including the “growing threat from revisionist powers” such as China and Russia. ‘Revisionist powers’ are countries that would like to change the world’s pecking order so that the United States is no longer the sole superpower. It doesn’t mean they are planning to attack the United States.

The main reason that the Nuclear Posture Review gives for the new weapons is that the US military are worried that other countries may see its existing nuclear weapons as too big to be used. So the Pentagon also wants lower-yield bombs and ‘low and slow’ cruise missiles in order to convince everybody else that the US would actually use them.

Really? Do they really think that when those ‘revisionist powers’ see the new, smaller American nukes (no bigger than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima), they will say to themselves: “I never believed the Americans would use megaton-range thermonuclear weapons on us, but they might actually use piddling little atomic bombs, so I’d better not invade Lower Slobbovia after all.”

Nonsense. The Pentagon pretends that the new nukes will just fill a gap under the deterrent fence so that “Russia understands that any use of nuclear weapons, however limited, is unacceptable,” but what it is really after is a credible nuclear war-fighting capability. This is the old fantasy that you can safely fight a ‘limited’ nuclear war in some distant part of the world without risking major damage to the homeland.

It’s a fantasy that has been killed many times, but it never stays dead for long. It just seems wrong and unnatural to the military mind that you should have these hugely powerful and expensive weapons and never be allowed to use them in any circumstances – that they exist entirely and exclusively to deter the other side from using its own nuclear weapons.

It’s so frustrating that in every military generation there are people who spin theories about how you might safely fight a ‘limited’ nuclear war. The first time their ideas gained a temporary foothold in American strategic thinking was in the late 1950s, and they have resurfaced for a while at least twice since then.

Here they come again. It’s as predictable as the monsoon, and once again more sensible people will have to devote time and energy to defending the core concept of nuclear deterrence.

As Bernard Brodie, the father of the theory of nuclear deterrence, wrote in 1946: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.”

That is true, but it is not compatible with traditional military thinking, so ‘limited’ nuclear wars that you could actually fight keep sneaking back onto the agenda, usually in disguise. The current proposal is not some transient whim of Donald Trump’s. It has been gestating within the US military for some time.

It may be possible for the US military establishment to sell this really bad idea to the American media, the Congress and the White House, but do not imagine that the Russians or the Chinese are fooled. They know exactly what the Pentagon is up to, and they don’t like it one bit. In due course they will respond, and the world will get a little more dangerous.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 6. (“Various…States”)

Syria: A Carnival of Treachery

There are comical elements in the current Turkish invasion of northern Syria. Its name, for example: Operation Olive Branch. Or the frantic back-pedalling by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about the announcement that triggered (or at least provided a pretext for) the Turkish offensive.

A week ago the US declared that it was building a new 30,000-strong ‘border security force’ in the territory controlled by the Syrian Kurds along the Turkish border. It would be backed by 2,000 US troops, who would remain there indefinitely. Whereupon Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan exploded, and declared that his army would strangle this new Kurdish ‘terror army’ in its cradle.

Tillerson, who had been attending a pointless meeting in Vancouver of all the countries that sent troops to fight in the Korean War 67 years ago, was caught on the hop, and quickly denied it all. “That entire situation has been misportrayed, misdescribed, some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all,” Tillerson said on the way to the plane. The lack of adult supervision in Washington extends beyond the White House.

In any case, too late. The Turkish army is now fighting its way into the Kurdish-controlled Afrin enclave, with further operations promised to eliminate the rest of the Kurdish-led ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ that the United States used to destroy Islamic State’s troops in eastern Syria. From Erdogan’s point of view, all Kurds are bad Kurds.

And Washington, as predicted, is betraying and abandoning its Kurdish allies. They were useful at the time, but it’s more important to keep Turkey happy. It’s the most powerful country in the Middle East, it’s a NATO ally (with the second-biggest army in the alliance), and it controls the Straits that give the Russian navy access to the Mediterranean. So the United States confines itself to urging ‘restraint’ on the Turks.

That’s what great powers say when they have no intention of intervening to stop something bad from happening – and the Russians are also urging restraint, so they are not going to stop the Turks either. The ally the Russians are betraying is the Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad.

“We warn the Turkish leaders that if they start fighting in the region of Afrin, it will be seen as an aggression by the Turkish army against the sovereignty of Syria,” said Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad last week, adding that Syria would shoot down any Turkish planes bombing Afrin. But then Turkish military and intelligence chiefs flew to Moscow on Thursday and got Russian and Iranian approval for their bombing campaign.

The Damascus regime hates Turkish tanks on its soil, but it accepts Moscow’s hands-off policy because it still depends on Russian and Iranian military support for its remarkable come-back in the Syrian civil war. Besides, it suspects that America really was planning to create a Kurdish-ruled protectorate in the north-eastern part of Syria as a US base and counter-weight to the Russian presence in the country.

Why has Russia given the green light for the Turkish invasion? Because Vladimir Putin senses an opportunity to prise Turkey out of NATO and make it a Russian ally. That’s probably not going to happen, but Turkey has just bought $2.5 billion of Russian arms so he has some reason to hope. And he too suspects that the United States was planning to use the Kurds to maintain a foothold in Syria.

The Syrian Kurds are also lying. They insist that their army, the People’s Protection Units (YFP), has no links with the PKK, the nationalist and sometimes separatist movement of the Turkish Kurds, which is listed as a terrorist organisation by NATO, the United States and the European Union (although not by the UN). But of course they have links, and they share the same long-term goal: an independent Kurdish state.

In fact, everybody is lying, everybody has ulterior motives, and the Syrian people’s best interests are the last thing on anybody’s mind. Business as usual, in other words, including the usual betrayals.

This is a very old game, so old that the rulers of the first Sumerian city-states would recognise it. Indeed, even the head-men of warring aboriginal tribes in the New Guinea highlands would understand what is going on in Syria now – and realise that it is probably inevitable but generally futile.

A few thousand people get killed, a few pawns move on the strategic chessboard, and then it’s time for the next round. Once in a while things get out of hand and a great deal of death and destruction ensues over a broad area, but not often: maybe every second generation. And there is no final outcome: the leading players change from time to time, but the game never ends.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 9. (“The Syrian…state”)

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”)