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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”)

Adult Supervision

Here’s the scenario. Late one evening Donald Trump is watching Fox News and a report comes on that North Korea is planning to launch a missile that can reach the United States. (Kim Jong-un’s regime has said it is going to do that one of these days – but only as a test flight landing in the ocean somewhere, not as an attack.)

Trump misunderstands, and thinks Pyongyang is going to launch a missile AT the United States. After all, there was a graphic with the report that shows the trajectory of the North Korean missile reaching the US, and Trump trusts Fox much more than his own intelligence services. So he orders all US strategic forces to go to DEFCON 1: Defence Readiness Condition One – nuclear war is imminent.

The North Koreans spot all the unusual activity in the American forces – leave cancelled in Strategic Air Command, US nuclear subs in port sailing with zero warning leaving part of their crews behind, etc. – and conclude that an American preemptive attack is imminent.

The North Koreans go to their own equivalent of DEFCON 1: mobilising and dispersing their armed forces, evacuating their leadership from the capital to some bunker in the countryside, and so on. American intelligence reports all this activity, and this time Trump actually listens to them. So he orders a disarming strike on all North Korean nuclear weapons and facilities. With US nuclear weapons, of course. Nothing else would do the job.

That’s how the Second Korean War starts. Not many Americans would be killed, and probably no civilians, because in fact North Korea doesn’t yet have any long-range missiles that can accurately deliver nuclear weapons on the United States, but millions would die in both parts of Korea. With luck, the Chinese would stay out even as their North Korean ally is reduced to rubble, but who knows?

It’s just a scenario, but it’s one that keeps many people awake at night – including many senior people in the US military. That’s why reports have been surfacing recently that the US Secretary of Defence, General James Mattis, the National Security Adviser, General H.R McMaster, and Trump’s Chief of Staff, General John Kelly, have made a secret pact that all three will never be abroad at the same time.

Why not? Because at least one very senior military officer must always be in the country to monitor orders coming from the White House, and countermand them if necessary.

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of these reports, but I believe them. In fact, I was already assuming that some arrangement like that was in place. Mattis, McMaster and Kelly are serious, experienced and professional military officers, and it would be a dereliction of duty for them not to ensure that there is always at least one responsible adult between Trump and the nuclear button.

If one of these generals actually found himself in the position of having to stop Trump, he would face an agonising decision. All his training tells him that he must obey civilian authority, and he will certainly be court-martialled if he disobeys a presidential order. On the other hand, he must not allow millions of human beings to die because of a stupid mistake.

I’m sure they think about it, and I doubt that any of them knows which way he would actually jump if the situation arose. Providing adult supervision is a tricky business, especially when the child is technically your superior.

And having said all this, it occurs to me that some senior military officers in North Korea must face the same dilemma. They too have a child-man in charge, and they will be all too aware that if “little rocket man”, as Trump calls him, stumbles into a war with the United States, then they, their families, and practically everybody they have ever met will be killed.

Their dilemma is even worse, because they serve a petulant god-king who has the power of life and death over them and their families. To stop Kim Jong-un, if he were about to make a fatal mistake, they would have to kill him and accept that they would almost certainly be killed themselves immediately afterwards. Would they actually do that? They don’t even know the answer to that themselves, but I‘m sure they think about it.

There is probably not going to be a Second Korean War. Probably neither set of senior officers is ever going to face this ultimate crisis. A subtle form of adult supervision is exercised on a daily basis in both capitals, because even the loosest of loose cannons has to work through other people in order to get his orders turned into actions.

But things have come to a pretty pass when we can have this discussion without sounding crazy.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 12. (“Their dilemma…it”)

Robot Take-Over?

Wittenberg is the German city where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door 500 years ago and launched the Protestant Reformation. To mark the anniversary, the local Protestant authorities have installed a robot called BlessU-2 to deliver blessings in 5 languages.

The robot priest has a touchscreen chest, two arms and a head. After you have chosen your language the robot raises its arms, recites a verse from the Bible, and says “God bless and protect you.” It also beams light from its hands.

Just what we needed – and it comes with the full support of the Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau. “We wanted people to consider if it is possible to be blessed by a machine, or if a human being is needed,” explained spokesman Stephan Krebs to the The Guardian’s religion correspondent, Harriet Sherwood. “The idea is to provoke debate.”

When pressed, Krebs admits that they are not planning to replace human pastors with machines: “We don’t want to robotise our church work, but see if we can bring a theological perspective to a machine.” Good luck with that, then – but most people will just see this as another, rather comical example of robots taking over what used to be human jobs.

There’s been much talk about the “robot revolution” in the media recently. Automation has already killed millions of jobs, we are warned, and cannot be stopped. To former assembly-line workers and bank tellers whose jobs were automated out of existence two decades ago, that has the ring of truth. Ten years from now, it will probably also ring true to millions of former taxi-, bus- and long-distance truck-drivers.

And automation may also be bringing us a political revolution. Many people suspect that shocking polical events like Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and a 30 percent vote for the ultra-nationalist Marine Le Pen in France’s recent presidential election are linked to the growing numbers of angry, jobless people in the Western industrialised countries.

But wait a minute. What “growing number of jobless people”? The official unemployment rate in the United States is now down to 4.5 percent. That statistic, however, only counts those who are actively looking for work. It does not count those who have given up looking for work.

If you include all those who are not working and not just the job-seekers, then 17.5 percent of American men of prime working age (24-55) are, to use the old word, “unemployed”. The last time US unemployment was at that level was in 1936, in the middle of the Great Depression.

Moreover, this hidden reef of unemployed people is biggest in the former industrial heartland of the United States, now known as the Rust Belt, where a critical number of ex-Democratic voters were so angry that they switched to Trump and put him into the White House.

This new reality is partly hidden by the fact that so many of these unemployed people have managed to wangle their way into disability benefits: one American worker in sixteen is now certified as disabled, whereas in 1960 (when health and safety standards were far lower) only one worker in 134 was. But back then the official statistics on unemployment were pretty close to the truth.

Exactly the same applies to the United Kingdom, where unemployment is officially only 4.8 percent. But Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research reckons that almost one-third of the people on incapacity benefits in Britain would actually be working in a full-employment economy, and that the true jobless rate in some northern post-industrial areas reaches 17 percent.

The “angry men” (and angry women) who make up this hidden reef are the key group who voted for Trump (and Brexit, and the National Front). The Americans among them have been told by Trump that their jobs were stolen by foreigners, but both in the United States and elsewhere they were actually mostly taken by automation.

Not all the jobs will go, of course, but a study released in March by financial services firm PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) predicted 38 percent job losses to automation in the United States in the next fifteen years.

The risk is not just mass unemployment, but the political radicalisation that comes with it. We’re not going to stop the automation, so we will have to redistribute the remaining work. We also have to find ways of putting real money into the pockets of those who have no work, or else the whole capitalist business model will collapse. (Not enough customers.)

And we have to find ways of subsidising people without treating them like “losers”, because that’s what really drove the the anger that put Trump in office. Otherwise, the populist demagogues who get elected in twenty years’ time may make us look back fondly on the Trump years.

But cheer up. We won’t really have robot priests.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“When…jobs”; and “Exactly…percent”)

Coal is Dead

“My administration is putting an end to the war on coal,” said Donald Trump, surrounded by the usual gaggle of officials and (in this case) coal-miners, as he put his super-size signature on the Energy Independence Executive Order. But coal is dying as a major energy source in the United States for reasons far beyond the reach of executive orders.

“The miners are coming back,” Trump boasted at a rally in Kentucky last week, but no less an authority than Robert Murray, founder and CEO of Murray Energy, the biggest US coal company, promptly rained on his parade. “I suggested that (Trump) temper his expectations,” he said. “He can’t bring them back.”

Trump’s latest executive order is not just about coal, of course. It’s a frontal assault on all the Obama-era regulations that aimed at curbing climate change. But while it will slow the decline in US greenhouse gas emissions, it will not have a major impact on global emissions.

That is partly because US accounts for only 16 percent of global emissions. Compared to China’s 29 percent, it doesn’t matter all that much, and China remains committed to big cuts.

In January China scrapped plans for 104 new coal-fired power plants, and it intends to invest $361 billion (equal to half the US defence budget) in renewable energy between now and 2020. The Chinese government is spending that kind of money because it is rightly terrified about what global warming will do to China’s economy and above all to its food supply.

Like the Indians, the Europeans, and pretty much everybody else, the Chinese remain committed to the climate goals agreed at Paris in December 2015 even though the United States has defected. Their own futures depend on meeting those goals – and they know that the American defection does not destroy all hope of success. Globally speaking, it’s not that big a deal.

It would seem like a much bigger deal, however, if they were not confident that American greenhouse gas emissions will continue to decline under Trump, though not as fast as they would under a less ignorant and less compromised administration. Coal provides an excellent example of why.

In 2009, when Barack Obama entered the White House, coal provided 52 percent of US electricity. In only eight years it has fallen to 33 percent, and the decline has little to do with Obama’s Clean Power Plan. First cheap gas from fracking undercut the coal price, and then even solar power got cheaper than coal – so 411 coal-fired plants closed down, and more than fifty coal-mining companies went bankrupt.

Half the 765 remaining big coal-fired plants in the United States were built before 1972. Since the average age when American coal-fired plants are scrapped is 58 years, half of them will soon be gone no matter what Trump does, and even he cannot make it economically attractive to build new ones. (Only 9 percent of American coal-fired plants were built in the past quarter-century.)

Coal is by far the most polluting of the fossil fuels, producing twice as much carbon dioxide as gas does for the same amount of energy, but that alone wasn’t enough to turn the energy industry against it. It’s the cost per per kilowatt-hour of electricity that matters, and coal has simply been overtaken by cheaper forms of energy.

Even in India, the most heavily coal-dependent of the big economies and a country with vast amounts of coal, solar energy prices are now on a par with coal. Sheer inertia means that India will go on expanding coal-fired generation for a few more years, but its National Electricity Plan projects no further increase in coal-based capacity after 2022. King Coal truly is dead.

You don’t need good intentions to do the right thing for climate safety any more; just common sense. From fuel efficiency in automobiles to replacing coal-fired plants with natural gas or solar arrays, saving money goes hand-in-hand with cutting emissions. The economy is not your enemy; it’s your ally. So Trump won’t do nearly as much harm as people feared.

President Obama promised last year to cut US greenhouse gas emissions by about 26 per cent from the 2005 level by 2025. About half of that 26 percent cut would have come in Trump’s first and maybe only term (2017-20), so say 13 percent. The US accounts for 16 percent of global emissions, so do the math: 13 percent of 16 percent equals about 2 percent of global emissions.

That’s what would be at stake over the next four years if Trump’s presidency stopped all the anticipated reductions in greenhouse emissions that Obama based his promise on – but it won’t. A lot of those emission cuts are going to happen anyway, because they just make economic sense. At a guess, around half of them.

So how much damage can Trump do to the global fight against climate change over the next four years? He can keep global emissions about one percent higher than they would have been if the United States had kept its promise to the Paris conference. And that’s all.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Coal…dead”)