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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”)

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”)