Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Art of the Deal?

“Jaw jaw jaw,” Winston Churchill once commented, “is better than war war war.” (Quote works better if, like Winston, you rhyme “jaw” and “war”) And that is certainly true in the case of North Korea and the United States. But sooner or later one hopes the jawing leads somewhere. Donald Trump and Kim Jung Un talking in Singapore is better than trash-tweeting or preparing for combat. But there are reasons why our hopes that the Trump-Kim Jung Un meeting in Singapore next month will result in a real, positive change on the Korean Peninsula may be dashed. There are reasons to be skeptical that the high profile, very public meeting will not go as well as the Trump administration hopes.

1) North Korea’s motives. The Trump administration and many American commentators are certain that the increasingly punitive economic sanctions initiated by the Obama administration and tightened by Trump have caused so much pain to the North Korean regime that it has decided that giving significant ground on its nuclear weapons program will hurt less than the status quo.

That plausible explanation looks a little different if one assumes that North Korea is no longer developing a nuclear capability but already has an arsenal of several nuclear warheads and both medium and intercontinental range missiles to deliver them. Perhaps the North Korean regime now feels confident enough in its status as a self-proclaimed nuclear power that it can try to trade largely meaningless concessions for real economic gains. The skeptic would point to the promised public destruction of a major nuclear test site as a case in point. From the North Korean perspective, why not stage a major media event with lots of explosions and excitement to get rid of a facility that is no longer needed and may be in danger of collapsing on itself anyway, and package it as a big concession?

2) What is the bottom line? Typically when two nations bargain, each has prepared a maximum position and a “real” position – the minimum it will actually agree to. The maximum position may or may not be announced before negotiations begin; it is usually a major mistake to reveal your “real” position. But perhaps the United States has done just that. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on CBS Sunday Morning, What President Trump wants is to see the North Korean regime get rid of its nuclear weapons program is completely and in totality and in exchange for that, we are prepared to ensure that the North Korean people get the opportunity that they so richly deserve.Add an insistence on inspection and verification, and that is probably very close to the United States’ maximum position, the starting point in the negotiations. BUT later on Fox’s Sunday morning talk show, he saidmake no mistake about it: America's interest here is preventing the risk that North Korea will launch a nuclear weapon into L.A. or Denver or to the very place we are sitting here this morning,...That’s a much more modest goal that doesn't require complete disarmament but only abandoning long range missiles.

Based on what Secretary Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton have said, the U.S. will initially offer promises that we won’t seek regime change and will encourage private investment in the North’s infrastructure.

Whatever Kim Jung Un expects to get out of the meeting with President Trump, it has to be a lot more than that. If a primary motive behind the North Korean nuclear program has always been to assure the survival of the regime by deterring an attack, it is hard to see why the Koreans would agree to abandon their program, especially in light of the U.S. pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal (among other international agreements) and National Security adviser John Bolton’s reference last month to “the Libyan model.” Libya, like Iraq, dropped its nuclear program and then saw regime change. That’s Pyongyang’s nightmare, not an enticing offer. The core of North Korea’s juche ideology is self-reliant Marxist-Leninist-Kim Jung Un Thought, not American corporate capitalism. The Capitalist and The Militarist are bogeymen North Korean parents use to scare their kids into behaving.

The North Koreans have not said anything publicly about what they might want, either as bargaining ploy or “really.” We do know that in the past North Korea has sought formal recognition as a nuclear weapons state, significant increases in international aid in the form of food and oil, a treaty ending the Korean war, and withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea. We also know that North Korea has agreed in the past to “denuclearize” the Korean Peninsula but what that term means in Pyongyang is not necessarily the same thing Washington and Seoul think it means. And certainly North Korea would love to see the U.S. end military cooperation with South Korea, which would greatly increase North Korea’s leverage in any talks about reunification.

By the way, while we are constantly reminded that North Korea is “opaque” and “mysterious” and it is ever so hard to know what they are really up to, the United States must appear opaque and mysterious to Pyongyang. Top government officials like Bolton and Pompeo say one thing one day and walk it back the next, or even in the same interview. The White House responds to questions about officials’ statements by reiterating that President Trump is the best negotiator. If most American analysts find Trump unpredictable and prone to surprising reversals of position, imagine the difficult life of a North Korean “American” expert tasked with figuring out the American positions.

3) The bargaining about bargaining has already begun and it appears the United States is on the defensive. Negotiations are pretty obvious: people sitting at a table making formal proposals and counterproposals. Bargaining is a much broader concept. Bargaining begins long before formal negotiations, when the parties haggle over the terms and conditions of the negotiations (such as where and when, the shape of the table, who attends, etc.) and begin to signal what their positions might be.

Preliminary bargaining can also be a test of strength. “Strength” in bargaining is a measure of how much someone needs a deal. Any competent bargainer will do what President Trump has done: say that if the negotiation doesn’t go well, he will just get up and leave. Since threatening to pick up and go home is “Bargaining 101,” no one automatically believes it. When North Korea’s unexpectedly objected to the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises and flatly rejected the notion the notion that they would have to completely dismantle their nuclear program just to get access to private American contractors, it seemingly rattled official Washington and cast a deep pall on the rosy propsects of the summit and the White House is busily back pedaling on the more extreme statements by Bolton and Pompeo. All the chatter about the summit not happening and how damaging that would be to the President after he has placed so much emphasis on how wonderful the meeting with Kim Jung Un will be would seem to indicate to the North Koreans that the United States really wants – perhaps even needs – the summit. There is little evidence to suggest that Kim will be chagrined or lose face if the summit doesn’t happen.

The resulting impression that the U.S. needs the summit more than North Korea clearly puts the North in a superior position. That probably means the United States will have to make more concessions than North Korea to reach an agreement.

4) Going it alone can be lonely. Beginning in 2003, the United States dealt with North Korea in a series of “Six Party” talks that included the U.S., North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia. That avoided giving North Korea the one on one meeting with the U.S. that Pyongyang had demanded for years, bringing North Korea’s supporters, China and Russia, to the table to put pressure on Pyongyang, and making sure the U.S. and its allies, Japan and South Korea, were on the same page. Those talks failed to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, either because the negotiators were inept or because North Korea was so intent on developing the weapons that nothing would deter them.

But the alternative may not be any effective at bridging the chasm of hostility between the U.S. and North Korea. But it has already led the United States to reverse a long held policy of refusing a direct meeting with the North and it threatens to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea and Japan, both of whom could find their interests ignored at the summit.

4) Scaling Mt. Everest solo. Every expedition to the Himalayas relies on teams of Sherpas to carry the heavy baggage, set up base camps, and guide the climbers along the path. Most international negotiations are equally reliant on sherpas (the term of art for the diplomats involved in preparing meetings.) Most international meetings of heads of state or foreign ministers are well prepared ahead of time and usually the actual meetings are the venue for settling the most crucial and sensitive issues. And the principals in those meetings are typically very well briefed by their sherpa team and know quite well what is on the other side’s mind and what are the available options for reaching an agreement. If the meeting is between allies rather than adversaries, or a large international conference, the sherpas may have already drafted the final communique before the meetings begin and, aside from some editorial tweaks to the final document, the meeting itself is a largely symbolic photo op.

It is safe to assume that North Korean sherpas have been busily prepping for the Singapore summit and have provided Kim Jung Un and his closest advisers with their best estimate of the American positions and expectations, based on both intelligence sources and their personal experience with their American counterparts. But on the U.S. side the sherpa camp is pretty empty. Their is no United States Ambassador to South Korea so no one to cogently channel the expertise of the staff into preparation for the summit; the senior State Department officials with the most experience on Korean issues have left the Department; the National Security Council lacks members with substantive knowledge or experience in Korean affairs; and it is well known that Mr. Trump is not inclined to read complicated or extensive briefing papers. It is possible to summit Mt. Everest alone, even without oxygen bottles, but only the most extraordinarily experienced and fit climbers will try it.

5) Out on a limb.

I think the summit will take place because I think the United States has a lot to lose if it doesn’t and North Korea has nothing to lose if it does.

I think there will be a final agreement from the talks, with ringing platitudes about avoiding provocations and settling differences peacefully and peaceful reunification. There will not be a document outlining concrete, verifiable steps that both sides will take or any specific terms of Agreement.

I think both sides will claim a great propaganda victory and within the year we’ll be back into the exchange of colorful, inventive, threats and insults.

Monday, March 26, 2018

It’s T for tariffs, cuz they’re taxes, too

As the Trump administration unveils tariffs on China for various offenses and on steel and aluminum producers (except for the six or seven most important exporters to the U.S.) amid both cheers and worries about trade wars, it seems like a good time to review some of the basics of the global trade system that has been developed since World War II.


Old School.

In 1776, while there was some little disturbance going on in the colonies, Scots moral philosopher and economist Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, establishing the theoretical (and moral) foundations of capitalism. Smith argued that markets, not government direction, led to the most efficient and most moral outcomes both within a nation and in trade between nations. His classic example is the very proficient maker of pins and the equally skilled maker of hats. The pin man could make one or more hats to meet his needs and the hat man could make his own pins, but it is far more efficient and cheaper for the pin man to make a lot of pins and sell his extras to the hat man and others pining for pins and for the hat man to crank out those chapeaus and sell them to the pin man and other folks with cold heads. Result is more pins and more hats get produced and consumers get cheaper but higher quality products. For Adam Smith, it didn’t matter if the pin guy and the hat guy lived in the same country or not. If the pin guy can ship his pins across country or overseas and still sell them more cheaply than other producers, then everyone is better off, except the local pin maker who can’t compete with the foreign pin maker. Adam would advise him to up his game or find a different trade. Alternatively, the local pin maker could appeal to his government to tax those foreign imported pins to make his home grown pins a better deal.

By the middle of the 19th Century, the major European countries had adopted Smith’s ideas to some extent for their national economies. But they were very protective of trade with their colonies. They were also very inclined to listen to their own business people and tax foreign goods to protect home grown products.

The high (or maybe low) water mark for the use of tariffs as a strategy for protecting domestic industries was reached in 1930 when the U.S. Congress enacted the Smoot-Hawley bill that tried to counter the effects of the Great Depression by dramatically reducing imports from other countries. When the major European economies enacted similar stiff tariffs on American goods, everyone ended up worse off. 1) The tariffs reduced foreign demand which meant manufacturers had excess production and no market so they cut wages or laid off workers, which made already weak economies even weaker. 2) The tariffs led to higher prices on goods that countries had to import because they did not produce them themselves and that also made weak economies weaker. The Smoot-Hawley tariffs did not cause the global Great Depression but they made it much worse than it would have been.

New School

The creation of a capitalist global market based on free trade was a critical component of the Breton Woods agreements that led to the creation of the institutions and organizations that promote cooperation and mange conflict in the modern world. The first step was the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) which sponsored a series of international conferences aimed at voluntary agreements on reducing or eliminating tariffs. While GATT conferences were generally successful at reducing tariffs across much of the world, it became clear that some countries were coming up with clever tactics for achieving the goal of making foreign imports more expensive without formally imposing tariffs.

Is It …?

There are three major tactics that some countries* have adopted to boost their exports or reduce their imports: dumping, subsidies, and Non-Tariff Barriers (NTBs). They all share two properties: they are not a direct measure, like a tariff that shows up on an invoice or price tag, and they are all ambiguous.

*No country believes that it is pulling a fast one with sneaky ways to discriminate against foreigners, but every country is sure that everybody else is doing it.

Dumping is the practice of selling something abroad for less than it costs in the home market. This can help an exporter out compete local producers. But determining when a product is cheaper abroad than at home is not as simple as comparing price tags. Figuring out the exchange rate between currencies is part of the puzzle, the presence or absence of different kinds of sales taxes comes into play, and often the exported product is somewhat different than the domestic version.

Subsidies can be direct, such as tax breaks or low interest loans; or indirect, such as benefits for workers, or help in arranging business deals. Many governments have an industrial policy under which some industries, particularly those that are likely to do much more business abroad than at home, are selected as potential winners and backed by direct and indirect government action. But governments subsidize all kinds of business in myriad ways and teasing out those cases where government subsidies are directly intended to tip the balance of trade can be maddening. For over two decades AIRBUS and Boeing, premier rivals in the international aircraft industry, battled over who was being unfairly subsidized. AIRBUS is owned by a consortium of European countries who provide tax breaks and incentives and worker training, which Boeing saw as unfair subsidies. Boeing gets tax breaks from several states, government insured loans for its defense businesses, and assistance from the U.S. State Department’s consular service abroad, all of which struck AIRBUS as a higher level of subsidy than it was getting. After repeated battles at the World Trade Organization that ended inconclusively, the two giants decided it was more cost effective to just call it a draw and stop investing so much in legal wrangling.

NTBs are anything a country does that seems to discriminate against foreign imports … at least in the eyes of the foreign business. But a reasonable requirement that applies to both foreign and domestic goods and reflects different health and safety laws or local customs isn’t a barrier to trade … is it? Japan, like the United States and everyone else, has a law requiring product labels to include where they came from. In the U.S. the label can be small and inconspicuous, like the little sticker on your banana or the tag on the back of your blouse. In Japan, especially for agricultural products, the country of origin label must be large and prominent. OK, but that very trivial fact has led to U.S. claims that it’s an NTB. Rice grown in California’s central valley and exported to Japan is genetically identical to rice plants grown in Japan. Nonetheless many Japanese say they can taste the difference. (I used this example in class one semester when there were three exchange students from Japan sitting the back row and they all nodded, “YES”) In part because Japanese rice growers are subsidized so heavily by the government to keep prices high, rice from California sells for less per kilo than Japanese grown rice. When the rice shop puts a large and prominent “grown in USA” sign on a bin of lower priced rice, it is effectively advertising that this cheap stuff is inferior. Part of the local culture, or a non-tariff barrier to trade?
European rules for determining that a soy bean is not a Genetically Modified Organism (and Europeans are far more skeptical of GMOs than Americans) are a lot more stringent that U.S. rules: You have to not only prove that the bean wasn’t grown from GMO seed, but that it could not have been pollinated by a GMO plant, or mixed with GMO beans during harvest or processing. European farms tend to be much smaller and less efficient than the large agribusiness operations in the Midwest that have made soy beans one of the big three American crops and are a major export commodity. Are the rules about GMOs, which in practice apply almost exclusively to American imports, reasonable health regulation or an underhanded way to keep U.S. farmers from flooding Europe with cheap soy beans?

WTO?

When it was clear that GATT and pledges to reduce tariffs had gone about as far as it could, the major economic powers, led by the U.S., developed the World Trade Organization. Through a series of major international conferences, the members of the WTO have adopted an elaborate set of rules governing barriers to trade, levels of subsidies, and anti-dumping provisions, as well protections for intellectual property rights. Equally important, the WTO has a dispute resolution mechanism. Members of the WTO are obliged to submit disputes to arbitration by an impartial panel of experts. Once the process is complete, members are obliged to live with the findings.

A major weakness of the WTO system, that it shares with most other international organizations, is that enforcement of decisions and judgments is left to national self help. If you win your case against another country, you are entitled to institute tariffs or other measures proportionate to the damage you have suffered. Most of the time that is quite enough and the losing side will change their policies. And sometimes it is not and the winner is left with little more than a moral victory.

USA Today

The United States has been the global leader in developing international organizations, rules and procedures to create a more orderly and cooperative world. The announcement of unilateral tariffs on steel and aluminum and later tariffs on Chinese exports marks another sharp break with some seventy years of progress away from international anarchy.

Contrary to the impression one might have gotten from White House pronouncements, it is not the case that nothing had been or was being done to counter violations of international trading rules, particularly in the case of China. When China joined the WTO in 2001 it was with some very specific stipulations about changes in economic and trade policies that must be made. Since then China has been the target of a number of complaints to the WTO and has lost most of those cases. I think it is fair to say that China still plays fast and loose with many of the rules and is less than scrupulous regarding other peoples’ intellectual property, but their behavior has markedly improved. In fact the United States is not alone in objecting to Chinese behavior in the global steel market and piracy of intellectual property. Even as the President announced the steel and aluminum tariffs the United States Trade Representative was meeting with his European Union counterparts to continue to develop a coordinated approach to convincing China to clean up its act.

The international system is much more organized and and international cooperation is much greater than it has ever been. Conflict gets our attention and can have immediate consequences. Cooperation leading to slow, incremental change is easy to overlook and its results can be taken for granted.
The greatest danger in disrupting the existing imperfect world order is that the result will be far worse. Aas Joni Mitchell sang, “don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till its gone”


Wednesday, February 7, 2018

No Nukes Is Good Nukes

In the midst of the squabbling over the memo or memos form the House Intelligence Committee that do, or do not, have anything to do with the House or Senate or Special Counsel’s Russia probe, and the slow motion debate over who has to concede what just to keep the government open past the end of this week, and the stock market gyrations, the start of the Winter Olympics promises a refreshing change of pace. Surely, exciting winter sports, shoe horned in between long commercial breaks, with feel good stories of U.S. and other athletes (including the Nigerian women’s bobsled team) [https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/31/africa/nigeria-bobsled-team-winter-olympics/index.html] will lighten our mood and let us think about something other than politics.

Or not. The fact that the Games are being held in South Korea, in a small city roughly 100 miles from North Korea, pushes the political dimension front and center. The United States and South Korea have suspended military exercises for the course of the Winter Olympics, North and South Korea are fielding a unified Olympic contingent, North Korea has not tested missiles or nuclear devices and both sides seems to have a declared a moratorium on inflammatory rhetoric. A two week lull is better than nothing, but it will be over all too soon.

In fact a reminder that the fundamental issues involving North Korea have not gone away came when the White House announced that it was not going to nominate Victor Cha as ambassador to South Korea. To most of us who have busy lives and live outside the Washington Beltway and the small community of “foreign policy professionals” (aka “The Blob”) that factoid does not even rise to the level of trivia. But to some observers it suggests there is a serious debate in the White House and the national security establishment over how to respond to North Korea. Victor Cha is widely regarded as the man who, literally, wrote the book on North Korea. The son of Korean immigrants, he was a rising star in academic circles when George W. Bush appointed him to the National Security Council and made him his top adviser on Korea. His current position: an endowed Chair at Georgetown Universty and work with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, reflects his status as a classic foreign policy intellectual who moves easily between government service and high powered academic positions.

While this must have been a disappointment for Professor Cha after undergoing an extensive background check, does it really matter to the rest of us? I think the answer is yes, because his appointment was apparently derailed by his open skepticism about the so-called “bloody nose” proposal, which we’ll discuss a little later.

How you react to renewed attention to the conflict between Pyongyang and Washington depends on how you answer some key questions.

What Kind Of Regime is North Korea?

This is the single most important question, because how you answer it has a direct impact on everything else.

The issue is not whether the Kim government is a totalitarian regime with a crumbling economy and large military establishment that commands the lion’s share of very scarce resources. The issue is whether the regime is rational. By “rational” I mean the ability to make decisions based on a calculation of costs and benefits. A rational regime may be ruled by individuals who have some startling quirks and strikingly odd views of the world, but they are collectively able to appreciate the consequences of various actions for the goals they are pursuing. An irrational regime is one that is either pursing goals that are impossible to attain or is focused on a single goal that it will pursue at any cost.

A rational regime can be an adversary, pursuing goals that that are inimical to one’s own interests or even survival, but can potentially be bargained with, especially if one can understand the assumptions and values that drive it. An irrational regime is an implacable enemy with whom one cannot bargain (because there is nothing you can offer as a reward or threaten as a punishment that will change their behavior.) Irrational regimes must ultimately be destroyed before they can destroy you.
Both North Korea and the United States have to answer this question. If each decides that the other, despite rhetoric and cross-cultural problems of communication and interpretation, is rational, we can expect some kind of negotiation that will, at a minimum reduce tensions and the immediate threat of conflict. If either decides that the other is an implacable, irrational enemy the chances for a violent confrontation increase enormously.

Why Does North Korea Have a Nuclear Missile Program?

Two reasons most often cited by scholars and analysts who think North Korea has a rational basis for its weapons program are: 1) it is one – perhaps the only – area in which the Kim dynasty has been successful; and 2) it is a guarantee of survival for a country surrounded by powerful enemies.

For those who think Pyongyang is ultimately irrational, neither the supposedly rational reasons for the program make sense. 1) How is it reasonable or rational to starve its own people, risking an almost unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe, for the vanity and political interests of the Kim family? 2) North Korea’s self image of a workers’ paradise under siege from imperialist enemies is so far from the truth that no reasonable person could believe it.

Why Have past Efforts to Deal With North Korea Failed?

One answer is that past U.S. administrations were lousy negotiators and made bad deals and then tried to rely on international sanctions to coerce North Korea but failed to get China and Russia to cooperate in carrying them out. A second answer is that the United States and South Korea have been inconsistent in their approach to the North, sometimes favoring engagement and hopes for peaceful reunification, at other times taking a harder line and implying that Korea could be reunified only when the Kim regime was out of the way and not always living up to the bargains they ah made. A third answer is that North Korea has changed its policy over time in response to internal and external events. The fourth answer is that North Korea has never bargained in good faith. Most likely the truth lies in some combination of two or more of these views.

What Should be the U.S. Goal?

This depends on how you assess the current state of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. Do you accept Pyongyang’s claim that it is now a nuclear weapons state? There are no official rules for entry into the nuclear states club, but the world grudgingly conceded that India and Pakistan were members once they had successfully detonated a nuclear device and had some means of delivering a warhead beyond their own borders. North Korea claimed to have successfully conducted an underground test of a thermonuclear (hydrogen bomb) device in 2017 and U.S. intelligence estimates that the North has produced about 60 nuclear devices. North Korea has successfully tested both medium range and intercontinental missiles but has not demonstrated that it can produce a device small enough to be mounted on a missile and delivered outside the country.

If you decide that North Korea is not yet a “nuclear weapons state” then the goal for the U.S. and the rest of the world remains stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

If you decide that North Korea has gone so far down the path to nuclear weapons that it is too late to put the evil genie back in the bottle, then the goal becomes management. One major fear among people who have tried to think about nuclear weapons is the so-called “Nth Nation Problem.” The 8 countries that are currently counted as nuclear weapons states have so far behaved rationally and have avoided a catastrophic accident. But if nuclear weapons continue to proliferate, there will be a country, maybe the 9th, maybe the 10th. maybe … but somewhere in the series there is an unknown “nth” country that will not behave rationally or will blunder into an accidental nuclear exchange. So the after a state acquires a nuclear capability the goal has to shift to 1) trying to make sure it is not backed into a corner where it feels there is no other option but use of its weapons; and 2) trying to make sure it has a really good system for avoiding accidents.

So far no country has accepted North Korea’s claim of nuclear weapons status. It would mean a significant change in the power dynamics in East Asia and would almost certainly force the rest of the world to make some major concessions to Pyongyang.

Is There An Alternative to Negotiations?

Apparently there are some people in the White House and National Securioty Council and perhaps Pentagon who think there is. While no one knows for sure why Victor Cha’s appointment as ambassador to South Korea was so abruptly yanked so late in the process, it is widely believed to be related to his appearance at a panel discussion last December with other foreign policy heavyweights where the topic of a “Bloody Nose” strike was raised and Cha, like all the other panelists, labeled it a very bad idea.

(Since I think the “bloody nose” proposal is an incredibly stupid and reckless idea, it is hard to be completely balanced in outlining the pros and cons.)

The “bloody nose” logic goes something like this.

Negotiations have failed in the past and will fail in the future, because the North Korean regime has proven time and time again that it cannot be trusted to live up to any agreement it makes. Imposing sanctions through the UN or unilaterally has not worked because even if they were perfectly enforced, sanctions are not punishing enough to make North Korea give up. More punishment is needed.

The most important military installations in North Korea, both nuclear and non-nuclear, are deeply buried and widely dispersed. The success of a massive strike aimed at destroying all the nuclear sites or destroying the centers of regime power could not be guaranteed and faced with the threat of destruction, the Kim regime would almost certainly retaliate with whatever capability it had left. Even worse than the damage done to South Korea in a retaliatory attack would be the consequences of a collapse of the government in North Korea which would mean millions of starving people crossing the border into China and South Korea.

But a limited U.S. strike, using B-2 stealth bombers and cruise missiles with precisely targeted “bunker busting” bombs will demonstrate our ability to take out any target we want, without doing so much damage that the North panics and thinks it is about to be totally destroyed. (Like the playground tough guy who says, “I could really beat you up, but I’ll just give you a bloody nose.”)

Advocates of this strategy also argue that North Korea either can’t or won’t retaliate. There is no evidence that at the moment the North can mount a nuclear warhead on a missile and send it to South Korea or Japan, let alone Guam or Hawai’i. The North does have medium range missiles that can fairly reliably deliver conventional explosives but, it is argued, they are mostly useful as a threat and if North Korea tried to launch them, some combination of air strikes and anti-missile defenses would neutralize them. The North does have hundreds of artillery pieces just north of the Demilitarized Zone, and some of them could hit the suburbs of Seoul, but not cause the hundreds of thousands of causalities that some people fear. And if North Korea did open fire, that would enable South Korean and American artillery and air power to destroy the guns since we’d then know exactly where they are. In short, the argument goes, if North Korea tried to retaliate they will render themselves defenseless.  There are lots of reasons to have a parade but it is hard to imagine that Thursday's big military parade in Pyongyang is not intended, at least in part, to give "bloody nose" advocates second thoughts.

Critics of the idea point out that there are a whole series of very iffy “if’s” in the plans and the project requires very rational behavior from a regime that “Bloody Nose” proponents tend to label as crazily irrational. If the planners are wrong and North Korea does retaliate there could be hundreds of thousands civilian casualties in South Korea and Japan. An unprovoked attack on North Korea would also, I think, cause great harm to perceptions of the United States in South Korea and Japan and would greatly complicate our relationship with our two most important allies in Asia.

So It’s More Talk, Talk, Talk?

I think so, without, hopefully any inflammatory tweets. It seems to me that the on-again, off-again Six Party (U.S., China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and North Korea) talks offer the best chance of finding a mix of rewards and punishments to convince North Korea to freeze its nuclear and missile programs. The only other viable alternative, I think, is at some point to choke down the unpleasant fact of a nuclear North Korea and change the essential nature of the issue from stopping proliferation to managing nuclear weapons.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Broad Look at the Inernational System

One of the points President Obama made in his note to President Trump is: "It's up to us, through action and example, to sustain the international order that's expanded steadily since the Cold War."

Just within the last few days international news has included a seemingly endless brutal civil war in Syria; an equally brutal war in Yemen that has morphed from civil strife to a devastating proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran; the slow motion crisis on the Korean peninsula; tensions and conflict in the South China Sea; the resurgence of anti-democratic, hyper-nationalist movements in Europe; a humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, among other problematic situations. It’s easy to ask skeptically, “What ‘international order’ are we talking about?”

I think we need to clear away some conceptual underbrush before we can talk about what Obama meant by “the international order” and why it is up to us to do something to sustain it.

1) The international system is anarchic;
2) Cooperation is often hard to see and is boring;
3) Conflict takes care of itself; cooperation requires care and feeding;
4) The role of institutions and norms

Anarchy.

In its original sense, “anarchy” means a situation in which there is no overarching authority. The connotations of violence and chaos arose from one strain of anarchist thought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

An underlying principle of international relations since the inception of nation-states is that there is no authority above the nation-state. That does not mean that international relations is a war of all against all or that cooperation and peace are impossible. But it does make it more difficult.

Cooperation is often hard to see and is boring.

Cooperation can be hard to see because it is not news and not an immediate threat. “News” is, by definition, something out of the ordinary, and often something that seems threatening. Wars and violence stand out against a background of overwhelmingly peaceful and cooperative relations within and between countries. Today’s headlines are not dominated by stories about French-German relations because there is nothing going on between the two couturiers, but because the host of daily interactions of the governments and citizens of the two countries are cooperative and routine.

Cooperation is also hard to see because it is boring. Successful cooperation leads to solving problems and avoiding bad outcomes. The International Civil Aviation Organization is an international body, headquartered in Montreal that regulates international air travel by getting states to negotiate and agree to rules and standards. One of its achievements is making English the language that all pilots and all air controllers must use.

Super trivia that has absolutely nothing to do with your life? Except that if there were no agreed upon global standard, a pilot would have to know the language of every country she was flying over to talk to the air controllers and the language of the country she was flying to in order to land successfully. And there would be some tragic accidents, which would make the news.

Conflict Takes Care of Itself; Cooperation Requires Care and Feeding.

Think of two individuals who really dislike each other and clash consistently. Neither has to wake up in the morning and worry about keeping the feud going; they can be sure the other will do something aggravating and obnoxious. On the other hand, a friendship does require some attention ot the relationship. Someone has to make an effort to keep in touch, to respond to the other person’s feelings and needs, to make sure to avoid “out of sight, out of mind.”

Two of the most important aspects of conflict and cooperation are the order in which costs and benefits occur and scarce, biased information.

Conflict is a lot like a bad habit – the benefits come now, costs come later. The pleasure of that large banana split is immediate; the bad news that you've gained weight comes tomorrow. There are benefits to national leaders from conflict; the most notable is the “rally round the flag” phenomenon. Most of the costs of a conflict unfold over months or years. Cooperation, on the other hand, often entails giving up some immediate good thing or paying for something now in exchange for being better off later on.

In international politics information is scarce and biased toward the short term. Many governments can get quite good information about what is happening within their own borders but it is much harder to find out what is really happening elsewhere in the world, especially in less developed areas. And even when you do have good information, it tends to be most accurate and reliable about the immediate past and near future. It is far easier to be pretty sure about what will happen tomorrow or next week or even next year than to look ten years in the future. (And most world leaders do not expect to be in office and responsible ten years from now.)

The Impact of Institutions.

An institution, an established body of procedures and rules, can affect the costs and benefits for states. For one thing, they can reduce the costs of cooperation by taking advantage of economies of scale and by burden sharing. For example, the successful global campaign to eradicate smallpox did not require each country to come up with its own plans, drugs and medical personnel. The World Helath Organization marshaled the expertise to develop vaccination programs, the field workers to carry them out and the money to pay for them. A more poignant example is the onset of World War I, when many of the leaders involved in the headlong rush to mobilize and attack believed that the war could be avoided if only the national leaders could meet and talk face to face. But in the absence of an institution like the UN where meetings can be arranged almost immediately, setting up an international summit would take weeks, if not months, and in the meantime the armies were racing toward their bloody embrace.

Institutions can significantly lessen the problems with information. First, they can generate information that no single country can get on its own. In the 1980’s some countries had pretty good information on temperature changes over time within their borders; most did not. And most countries neither knew nor cared about changes in Arctic. But the World Meteorological Organization provided a forum for the cooperative exchange of climate information and support for scientists trying to measure climate in less developed countries. This created information about the planet as a whole and provided the first solid evidence of climate change. Evermore institutions can introduce what economists refer to as “the shadow of the future” providing information about what is likely to happen. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize) has been instrumental in convincing [most] governments that they need to cooperate now to avoid more serious problems in the future.

Norms.

Anarchists supposedly believe that there are no laws, only suggestions. But most states do accept the existence and relevance of international law, and international relations scholars have increasingly emphasized the emergence of norms that guide state behavior. For example, it is almost universally agreed that it is no longer legitimate to acquire territory by conquest. In the last 70 years the UN General Assembly has been a major source of declarations and conventions that attempt to establish guidelines for how states treat their own citizens, as well as deal with each other. Even countries who actual policies make a mockery of declarations on the status of women, for example, file reports with the UN and proclaim their progressive societies. As the French philosopher said, “hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.” And it can be shown that international norms do, over time and incrementally, influence countries’ national policies.


Institutions and Norms: The International Order in the Early 21st Century.

Generals, it is asserted, are always prepared to fight the last war. Peacemakers, it seems, are always prepared to prevent the last war. The League of Nations, for example, was clearly designed to prevent World War I.

In 1942, before the Battle of Midway checked the Japanese advance in the Pacific, or the British defeated the Germans in North Africa and long before the Soviets defeated the Germans at Stalingrad, the United States began planning for the post war world and much of that planning reflected an attempt to avoid the problems that led to World War II. But as the planning became multi-national, including Britain, France and The Soviet Union in the discussions, the focus widened from the immediate causes of the war to a large scale restructuring of international relations. While much of the inspiration remained the trauma of World War II, the architects deliberately built flexibility into the proposed institutions and left many of the details to be resolved by future negotiations.

The result was the modern international order: a set of institutions and norms that could grow and evolve even in the face of completely unforeseen circumstances to create the fundamentally cooperative background of the world we live in today and offer our best chance to avoid a cataclysmic future. I will try to describe the major features of the system without going into too much detail and without trying to assess their strengths and weaknesses.

The political dimension.

The United Nations Security Council was designed to prevent the emergence of an aggressive dictator or the escalation of a small conflict into a major confrontation because the major powers (the five permanent members) would coordinate their responses. While it seemed fine to empower the Council to impose its will on other countries, the Big Five gave themselves the veto to make sure it would not happen to them. The General Assembly was designed as a “talk shop” that gave every state a chance to express an opinion.

Since the necessity of major power agreement was an underlying assumption of the United Nations Carter, one might well have expected the eruption of the Cold War to have meant the rapid demise of the UN. While it dramatically reduced the Security Council’s ability to manage any conflict one of the five permanent members felt it had a stake in, it was not completely helpless nor did it become totally irrelevant.

The General Assembly played a key, and unexpected role, in integrating new states into the international system when the British and French colonial empires collapsed far sooner and more rapidly than anyone had imagined. Equally important, the Assembly became the vehicle for developing norms for international behavior. Sometimes those sweeping declarations have had little effect beyond forcing some states to indulge in hypocritical claims of virtue; other times they have led to far reaching results, such as the creation of the Law of the Sea.

Beyond the UN, regional organizations, most notably the European Union, developed as major centers for resolving conflict and promoting cooperation.

An Unexpected Challenge.

The architects and managers of the institutions that have come to define the international system did not, could not, have foreseen the Cold War and the evaporation of the assumption that the winners of World War II would stick together. Nonetheless there was enough flexibility and ambiguity in the key institutions to allow adaptation to a changed environment. And even at the most fraught moments, a significant amount of cooperation continued. Since the end of the Cold War it has become increasingly apparent that the history of the first decades of the 21st Century will revolve around the rise of China. In the long sweep of history, more often than not when a new power emerged on the world stage it was resisted by the established powers and the struggle between a rising power looking for its place in the sun and an established power clinging to its dominance resulted in a major war.*

The question is whether China’s drive to become a truly global power can be accommodated within the current system. The answer will depend, I think, on the adaptability of institutions and prudent leadership from today’s dominant powers.

The economic dimension.

The global ravages of the Great Depression were understood to be exacerbated, if not caused, the collapse of the post World War I economic system. Faced with domestic economic problems, the major nations engaged in so-called “Beggar-thy-neighbor” tactics like tariffs on imports and currency manipulation in a futile attempt to heal their own economy by drastically restricting what they bought from other countries and simultaneously expanding what they sold to them. When one country does that, it can get a big advantage; when everyone does it everyone ends up far worse off.

In addition to the challenges of creating a fair and efficient global market and and preventing countries from playing games with their currencies, Europe was in ruins at the end of the war and it was not clear where the money to rebuild would come from.

Three major institutions were created to deal with these issues.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) would standardize the values of currencies and make them stable and predictable. This would both prevent currency manipulation and would expand the supply of money in the world economy to support more trade.

The International Bank For Reconstruction and Development (renamed the World Bank and reinvented as a global lending institution to promote development in the Global South) was meant to provide the capital needed to rebuild Europe.

And the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which morphed into the far broader World Trade Organization(WTO), initially focused on reducing national tariffs to promote global trade and then moved on to tackle trade disputes that involved sneakier ways of manipulating markets than formal tariffs.

The overall goal was to create a global market economy. The current globalized economy is larger, freer, and more integrated than even the wildest dream of seventy years ago.

Technical cooperation.

Stating the late 19th Century, states began experimenting with technical or managerial solutions to what had been seen as political problems. The first such organization is as good an example as any (but do remember that cooperation can be quite boring.) As barge traffic along the Rhine river from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea in the Netherlands grew rapidly in the 19th Century, problems began to mount. The Rhine goes through Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, France, and the Netherlands and a barge would have to stop at each sovereign border, unload its cargo to be inspected and pay taxes, and then reload the cargo. Each country had its own rules of navigation and system of lights and buoys to mark the channel; if the boatmen got confused or forgot the national rules, there would be accidents. At night the barges would tie up and the boatmen would go into town for a bite to eat and a taste of the local brew. From time to time there were heated political discussions between the Rhine boatmen and the locals and they’d end up in jail. That would necessitate the intervention of diplomats and foreign ministries to rescue their citizens from the foreigners or the toils of some alien court system. Not likely to result in a war, but a lot of inefficiency and hassle. The solution became The Rhine River Commission that 1) collected all the appropriate taxes at the point of origin so there was no need to stop at each border; 2) created a standardized system of marking the channel and rules of the road; 3) created a special court for trying boatmen who were foreign nationals.

There are now 15 “specialized agencies” within the UN system and dozens outside it, who try to foster international cooperation by governments on common issues, usually problems that transcend national borders and ideologies. Global climate change is not a Chinese hoax; it was initially diagnosed by experts meeting under the auspices of the World Meteorological Organization. Smallpox was eliminated from the world by the World Health Organization (and they almost eliminated polio before a combination of internal violence and the notion that vaccinations were a foreign plot to control Muslim births in Kano province, Nigeria stymied attempts to complete the program.)

The examples could go on and on. If we realize that in addition to the specialized agencies there are a host of programs within the UN that focus on everything from agriculture to zoos, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that there are no aspects of daily life in rich, poor and middle income countries that are not the focus of some international cooperation.


Importance of Leadership

The system of international organizations, cooperative agencies, and norms has been, I would argue, quite successful in reducing conflict between nations and improving the lives of every day people, as well as identifying threats to our well being that must be addressed. But this system, like all cooperative interactions, is not self-sustaining.

It took a concerted effort led by the United States to initiate the development of the post-war order, it has required continued leadership and involvement to maintain and expand it. The United States is not the only significant supporter of the global order, but given its economic, diplomatic, and military resources it has been the most important.

There are a few hundred men and women in the United Sates who constitute a foreign policy establishment. Some are career State or Defense Department officials, others serve in government when “their” party holds the White House and in think tanks and universities when the other party holds sway, some are scholars at major research institutions. There are significant differences on individual policies and theories of how the world works and partisan interests, but there is a general consensus on the utility of the current system and belief that it should be enhanced. The general consensus on the status quo among these folks,their dominance of the major areas of discussion of international affairs, and their ability to absorb new members have led some observes to give them the tongue in cheek nickname The Blob.

The current administration is the first since World War II to consciously try to avoid The Blob. Many senior management positions in State and Defense have not been filled because many of the Republican members of The Blob were publicly anti-Trump. The President’s view that almost any arrangement agreed to in the past is a bad deal and his view of the world as a series of one time transactions instead of a web of ongoing relationships threaten to dramatically alter the United States role.

The course of the next few years may hinge on the answer to two questions.

1) Can The Blob fight back? One small sign that the answer is “yes, at times” is the recent Senate action to restore some $11 billion that the Trump budget would cut from the State Department and to put some restrictions on the ability of Rex Tillerson to make some controversial administrative changes. But can The Blobs prevail often enough in crucial situations to preserve the U.S. ability to provide leadership?

2) Can someone else take on the job of caring for cooperation? After President Trump announced the U.S. was leaving the Paris climate change agreement European leaders, especially Angela Merkel of Germany, talked seriously about assuming a leadership role. Certainly in some areas other states can, and have in the past, played leading roles in maintaining the system. But no other country has the global reach, economic impact, or reservoir of expertise to maintain the consistent level of involvement that the United States has traditionally provided. And no other country can engage with China on so many dimensions, both contentious and cooperative, to manage the transition from a world in which the United States is the sole super power to one in which China and the United States are more equally dominant.

None of this is meant to suggest that the international system is a Utopian order. There are major problems undermining the effectiveness of central institutions like the United Nations as a setting for managing conflict or promoting cooperation. The IMF, WTO and World Bank have been unable to solve some of the most serious problems of the globalized capitalist economy. But it is better than the alternative. If the United States takes its eye off the ball and focuses on selfish sort term results, we are in greater danger of getting the alternative.



*This pattern was first described by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides and is referred to (by The Blob) as the Thucydides Trap.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Horror of Syria


Syria has suffered through six years civil war in which civilians have often been deliberately targeted by all sides. There are no signs the ferocity of the war is fading. Millions of people have braved the dangers of migration to Europe, millions more are huddled in crowded, underfunded refugee camps in Turkey or Jordan, millions are trapped in Syria.

It Takes Two To Tango, But ...

We talk about the civil war in Syria and that often conjures up a two sided conflict, like the U.S. Civil War. Not only were there two clear sides but the rest of the world by and large left us alone to battle it out.

But it can be very misleading to call the agonizing conflict in Syria a civil war.

Not Just a Syrian Conflict. Almost as soon as the popular uprising against the Assad regime was met by military repression, the conflict begin to transcend the Syrian borders. As the regime's military moved against the various centers of popular resistance, local militias were mobilized and began to coordinate with each other. From the perspective of Iran and Saudi Arabia, Syria is best understood as another skirmish in the region-wide conflict between Shi'a and Sunni Islam [I tried to clarify this in an earlier blog http://ir-comments.blogspot.com/2014/01/syria-has-become-regional-battleground.html ] Later Russia intervened on behalf of the Assad regime as a way of regaining a foothold in the Middle East and reasserting itself as a force to be reckoned with in the region.

The United States began a fruitless search for a moderate group that at least paid lip service to some version of secular democracy AND could unify the increasingly contentious and squabbling armed groups. Rightly or wrongly, the concern that weapons and supplies not fall into the hands of groups who saw America as the enemy dominated Obama's approach to Syria and led him to refuse significant support to any of the Syrian opposition parties.

The Mirage of “Moderation” When Hafez al Assad led a successful military coup in 1969 that brought authoritarian stability to a chaotic Syrian political scene, the intellectual basis and political vocabulary of opposition to the status quo was secular nationalism. The new regime set about creating a new Syria by following the example of a large number of other Third World countries: government directed and dominated economy, emphasis on education in general and education for a Syrian national identity in place of regional and religious identities in particular, and a strong state that could supplant local land owners and other traditional leaders. Some trappings of democracy were present – an initial emphasis on the rule of law, a relatively vibrant and free press, even tolerance for political parties as long as they did not directly threaten the regime. But after major progress in the 70's and 80's the economy stalled, the regime stagnated, the young idealists who had flocked to government service were either replaced by self-serving careerists or became one themselves, and bribery and corruption become endemic. And, most relevant to today, the intellectual basis and political vocabulary of opposition became political Islam, in particular the version that looks backward to an imagined Golden Age and rejects modernity. A much smaller opposition movement existed in the emerging urban middle class that drew upon European and American conceptions of democracy.

The initial demonstrations against the Assad regime in Damascus and elsewhere in the spring of 2011 were organized and led by the urban middle class opposition but when the regime responded with draconian force, it was armed groups in the smaller cities and villages that came to the fore. And they reflected the dominant Islamist perspective. The armed opposition involved multiple local groups and militias, with more or less rigid ideological positions.

The arrival of Russian equipment and personnel tipped the balance on the battlefield. The regime had been steadily losing ground to the various opposition armed forces; now, with the ability to attack from the air at any time and anywhere, more and more areas were retaken and the opposition groups were increasingly pushed out of urban areas into the countryside.

A War to the Death?

A major factor that distinguishes Syria from other countries where a civil war has raged is the stakes. The most common issue in a civil war is the attempt of one region to break away from an existing country. But in Syria the conflict has come to be defined as a struggle over the identity and survival of the combatants.

Damascus is some 15,000 years old; Aleppo, the other major city in Syria, is a relatively young 5,000 years old. For most of its history Damascus has been a center of intellectual, cultural and commercial activity in the entire Mediterranean region. Damascus and Aleppo experienced the greatest changes during the Assad years, developing a modern economy, a well-educated middle class, and a reputation for producing first-rate medical personnel and engineers. They are also home to the largest state run enterprises and government bureaus, providing career opportunities to upwardly mobile young Syrians.

But the majority of Syrians live in smaller cities, towns and villages where change has been slower and traditional religious and social values predominate. The ideology of most armed opponents of the regime reflects this rural perspective and are antithetical to the perspectives of most city dwellers.

The wanton destruction of monuments in Palmyra, the suffering of the citizens of Mosul and Raqqa, the harshly repressive rule imposed on the portions of Aleppo under opposition control are clear evidence to the regime's supporters that their lives, both symbolically and physically, are at stake in this struggle. And from the perspective of much of the opposition, it is not so much Bashir al Assad, evil as he is, that is at stake. It is a Godless, Westernized, immoral and corrupt urban society that cries out for correction.

Defeat for the regime seems to threaten massive bloodshed and endless suffering; defeat for the opponents entails the sacrifice of religion to secularism and the dismantling of the moral and social order. That, I think, helps explain not only the difficulty of some compromise, but also the ferocity and brutality of the fighting on both sides. While for most Syrians the great desire is to be left alone and spared any involvement in the war, for the people making decisions and carrying weapons on both sides, it is seen as Good versus Evil.

What About ISIS?

A major complication for all sides emerged when Al Qaeda in Iraq morphed into the Islamic State. Taking advantage of the fact that government forces had given up trying to control a large part of eastern Syria, the group seized control of a significant amount of territory, including the city of Raqqa, and in 2014 declared a caliphate. ISIS, unlike the other major armed groups in Syria, is not primarily seeking regime change in Damascus. It has sought to expand and consolidate its territory in Syria and Iraq and has been as willing to fight other Islamist groups as well as Syrian or Iraqi government forces, since it sees itself as the only authentically Islamic group in the world.

The rapid territorial expansion of ISIS, its gruesomely barbaric videos of beheadings, mass executions and torture, its incredibly harsh and brutal treatment of people in towns and villages that it controlled and its active promotion of terrorist attacks in Europe gave the U.S. and the world a new and frightening enemy, one that the United States would and could oppose militarily. The initial involvement was in Iraq where the U.S
resumed training and equipping the Iraqi army and also working with the Kurdish army and local militias. Within the past year U.S. special forces have been operating in Syria against ISIS positions.

The Trump administration does not seem to have a policy or plan for dealing with Syria but it does appear to have a plan for dealing with ISIS and it differs only in degree from Obama's. The United States will use almost any measure short of direct involvement by major military forces to support the war against ISIS. And it has been a successful war. The fight for Mosul, which is continuing as I write this, has been a vicious house to house, street to street battle but ISIS fighters are slowly being eliminated from the city. That is their last base in Iraq. In Syria, a combination of Iranian and Russian backed militias and Turkish and Kurdish forces supported by the U.S. have begun the battle to retake Raqqa, the capital of the ISIS caliphate and the last remnant of ISIS territory. Very quietly the Trump administration has increased the U.S. presence in the battle for Raqqa and it is possible to see the day when the battle against ISIS shifts from conventional military conflict to more traditional counter-terrorism.

Syria's Future

It is difficult to see anything but profound tragedy in Syria's future. As hard as I try, I just can't imagine any scenario in which there is a negotiated settlement. There might have been some hope when the Russians first intervened. Then the government was losing territory, the Russians seem to make it clear that Bashir al Assad's future was negotiable, and the U.S. and Russia might be able to put together a cease fire leading to a negotiated transition to a new, more inclusive regime. But the fractious rebel forces and the United States could not agree on which rebel groups would actually be represented in any negotiations, and neither the United States nor Russia could get the multiple fighting units to actually honor a cease fire.

Now the Syrian government has no incentive to negotiate; they are winning on the ground. It seems most likely that the government will be able to neutralize, if not totally annihilate the armed opposition. Civilians trapped between the lines will continue to be killed in attacks that do not discriminate between fighters and bystanders. The regime will use poison gas or any other weapon it deems militarily useful; there is nothing the U.S. or the rest of the world can do about it.

And when the killing finally stops, as much a half of all Syrians will be living in refugee camps outside the country, much of the country will be in ruins. It may take generations for Syria to recover.




Friday, April 21, 2017

Fireworks Fun or Fizzle?

In the last few weeks there have been three high profile uses of military force that the President and White House have touted as demonstrating Mr. Trump's decisiveness, resolve, and willingness to use force if necessary.

Big Bang or Little Whimper

The physical damage done by $84 million worth of cruise missiles launched against a Syrian air field was minimal and quickly repaired by the Syrians. If statements by administration spokespeople were meant to be taken literally (we are frequently reminded not to take the President's statements literally; the same may apply to other officials) this was a one time, limited strike and we are assured it does not mean a deeper involvement in the civil war. It also means it cannot be a deterrent to future atrocities since there is no threat of future attacks.

The narrative the White House has constructed around the attack and the way the President himself described it as a reaction to particularly heart wrenching TV images makes it clear that this event was not guided by a long range strategy or clear sense of purpose. For many observers it reinforces the negative image of President Trump as impulsive and undisciplined. But it may also be reassuring to note that he asked for alternatives and the final decision was made in a quite normal group setting after some deliberation.

There is a remarkably similar use of Tomahawk missiles in recent history: Bill Clinton launched Tomahawks to destroy suspected Al Qaeada installations in Sudan and Afghanistan after the bombing of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam (to some derisive sneering about how wimpy the response was by some of the same people who are most eager to cast Trump's strike as a bold show of strength and resolve.)

So What Could He Have Done?

The debate over what the U.S. could and/or should do in Syria has been going on for almost as long as the brutal civil war. You don't need access to the top secret planning documents the President saw when he ordered the missile strike to know what the alternatives were and why they were rejected.

No Fly: The Syrian air force, equipped with modern Russian jets, Russian trainers, and sophisticated air defenses has played a major role in the regime's advances on the battlefield in the last year. One option would be to deny the regime this advantage by establishing a “no fly zone” in which U.S. or NATO aircraft would destroy air defenses and shoot down any Syrian planes that entered. The model would be Iraq, from 1992-2003. But 1) Syria's air defenses are far more sophisticated and effective than Iraq's and there is a high risk that U.S. war planes would be shot down; 2) Russian planes are operating in Syria, some from an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean, some from a base in Iran; there would be a high risk of a confutation between American and Russian planes; and 3) creation and enforcer of a no-fly zone would entail a long term, open-ended commitment.

Sanctuary camps. The other alternative would be to create safe zone refugee camps inside Syria where civilians could be sheltered and cared for without having to fear becoming targets of either the government or the opposition. This wold allow an effective response to the terrible humanitarian crisis in Syria and stem the flow of Syrians into Turkey and Europe. But 1) this would require a massive construction effort in the middle of a war zone; and 2) a robust protective force to fend off attacks on the camps. In short, the deployment of tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of troops who would meet stiff resistance from both the regime and those fighting against it.

Sometimes politics (and life) offers a choice between doing something that makes you feel good and something that is effective. I think the Trump administration was faced with a choice between doing something ineffective that made you feel good and doing nothing.

Be Careful What You Wish For

The Russian government was openly rooting for a Trump Presidency in hopes he would carry through on his promise to repair relations between Washington and Moscow. Campaigner Donald Trump promised to heal any beaches between Washington and Moscow, looked forward to a Russian-American joint effort to destroy ISIS, and portrayed Putin as an admirably strong leader with whom the U.S. could make some really good business arrangements.

After a feeble attempt to spin Assad's use of sarin gas as all Obama's fault, the administration quickly focused on Russia as the culprit. It was Russia's incompetence (or willing collusion) that left Assad with chemical weapons after the 2013 U.S.-Russian agreement to disarm him, the Russians knew the Syrians were carrying out the gas attack and did nothing to stop it, the Russians were undermining any hopes for a peaceful settlement in Syria.

While it is unclear how much of the rhetoric reflects a genuine belief in Russian culpability and how much it is meant to counter the drip, drip, drip of revelations of close relations between Trump campaign figures and Russian intelligence agents, the effect has been to cast a deep chill over the relationship.

Nothing in this episode suggests that the United States has a policy on the Syrian situation. Is President Obama's insistence that Bashir al Assad has to be removed from power still the Untied States' position?Some (UN Ambassador Nikki Haley) seem to say yes; others (Secretary of State Rex Tillerson) seem to say no. The only consistent message is that defeating ISIS is the first (and only?) priority.

MOAB


Candidate Trump promised to “bomb the sh-t” out of ISIS. Clearly the MOAB was a big explosion, even by the standards of a generation accustomed to really cool Hollywood graphics. And the little boy or girl that lurks deep inside many of us likes big explosions.

But is it really “full of sound and fury and signifying nothing?” For starters, before the White House began to promote the big boom as a demonstration of the President's strength and determination, Mr. Trump himself made it clear that he did not personally authorize the weapon's use. The Trump administrator has shifted from the Obama White House's insistence on tight management of the military in the Middle East to permit local commanders to make tactical decisions. Thus the President authorized the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to use whatever weapons he felt were called for.

Attacking Taliban or ISIS or any other fighters from the air is not a new tactic; it's been a feature of America's longest war since the beginning. Killing 96 bad guys and doing unspecified damage to a cave network is not a decisive blow and hardly rates even a footnote in the history of the war.

The Missing Armada

On April 12 the President, discussing the U.S. response to North Korea's nuclear program, missile tests and bellicose rhetoric on Fox News, said “We are sending an armada. Very powerful. We have submarines. Very powerful. Far more powerful than the aircraft carrier. That, I can tell you.” Subsequent briefings by administration officials clearly and consistently portrayed the super carrier USS Vinson and three supporting warships steaming full speed ahead from Singapore north to the seas off the Korean peninsula to send a clear and forceful message to Kim Jung Un.

Except that they weren't. The “armada” in fact sailed south for a week to participate in training exercises with the Australians. That mission was cut short and the Vinson and support ships did turn around and head for Korea. It's pretty hard to hide a big ship like the Vinson from foreign intelligence services, especially when it is on course for previously announced exercises. Even if North Korea was as much in the dark about the ships' location as the White House, they could be quite certain that they were not anywhere near the Korean coast.

Many of us can have a chuckle at the White House's expense, maybe Saturday Night Live will spoof Sean Spicer's contorted explanation of why the President's April 12th statement wasn't really false, and the episode will probably be quickly replaced by some new amusing or appalling event.

It is easy to imagine what candidate Trump would have thought if this had happened to the Obama administration… #RealDonaldTrump Our stupid leaders lost an armada!!?? Sad Disgraceful

But from the perspective of foreign governments watching the United States and trying to figure out President Trump and his administration, this may be a very important episode:

  • like the Syrian missile strike it looks like an ad hoc response to an immediate situation in which the United States does not have a long term policy;
  • it calls into question the ability of the U.S. government carry out even a simple military operation
  • it undermines the President's credibility, since once again you shouldn't have interpreted his remarks literally

If you were sitting in Pyongyang, this episode would hardly send a chill down your spine and make you think you'd better behave or else. If you were sitting in Seoul or Tokyo, this episode would not give you a warm fuzzy feeling that United States could be relied on to have your back. This may be the most serious and lasting consequence of all.