Saturday, April 22, 2017

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea

Sorry - could NOT resist...
Well, it didn't take the Trump administration long to wade about neck deep into the geopolitical quagmire that is Korea. The North Korean leadership is such a perfect manifestation of a comic book villain - and always in character - that there's really no kind of common diplomatic ground on which to base a bilateral negotiation. A big part of the problem is that all North Korean press releases are targeted on their own internal audience, and therefore have no basis in reality. Think of some bizarre combination of Sean Spicer and Baghdad Bob. And now, of course there's also the chaos in the South Korean government resulting from the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. It's an especially fraught time on the Korean Peninsula, and that makes Trump's blundering belligerence particularly dangerous.

But what are the real-world options that America and the West actually HAVE in North Korea? When you consider that Kim Jong-un is a third-generation dynastic leader whose primary goal is to retain power and control of the population at any cost, you realize that nothing will change until the regime changes, but conditions are so brutal and there are so many different factions empowered by the military that if the regime did collapse (or were to be removed by external force) the waves of refugees flowing into South Korea, China and Russia would, along with the helpless North Koreans still trapped in a collapsing state without a functioning economy would represent one of the greatest human tragedies of the last century.

Once you are realistic about Kim's goals and intentions, you understand why he would consider a strategic nuclear deterrent so important. It is the thing that innoculates his regime against attack, virtually no matter what provocative actions he chooses to take. And once he has road-mobile solid fuel ICBMs with enough range to reach the US, that deterrent becomes impossible to ignore. North Korea's previous conventional deterrent was to hold Seoul at risk with thousands of artillery tubes just across the border, but while that has been effective, Americans, to be quite frank, are less concerned about a million Korean casualties than they are about one American casualty. Kim's generals always understood that they might have to actually execute on that threat, so they made a perfectly rational decision to move to a nuclear capability. They can now hold Seoul - along with other targets in South Korea and even Japan - at risk with short range nuclear missiles as well as the massed artillery already in place.

Any strike on North Korea runs a very high risk of turning into a horrific regional conflagration, with several cities wiped out and millions of Korean (and possibly Japanese and Chinese) refugees desperate for aid and shelter. It seems perfectly clear that no amount of classic American tough-guy posturing is going to convince the North Korean leadership to do anything but keep pushing the development of their strategic deterrent. They'd literally be crazy to do anything else.

At the end of any thoughtful analysis, the only possible answer is negotiation. If the west can offer North Korea enough benefits - and a credible promise not to attack - perhaps Kim can be convinced to give up his nukes. If he can't, a strategy of containment and a policy to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea is the only viable approach. And while the American military leadership will empahsize that this policy of containment would mean missile defense and a powerful military presence in South Korea, in reality - behind the bluster - it would mean accepting another member of the nuclear club and just trying really hard to prevent further proliferation.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Big Dogs Bite with Big Teeth

A lot of my American and liberal friends are absolutely frantic about Donald Trump and the risk to global peace he represents as president of the United States. In the aftermath of the missile strike on the Syrian airfield, it seems to many of them that he is leading us directly down a path that leads to superpower confrontation, war and nuclear Armageddon. And maybe he is! But I think I need to offer a few thoughts about that path, and what kinds of considerations are being tossed around in capitals from Moscow to Beijing to Brussels.

One of the first things to consider is that nobody really wants to go to war. Stop worrying about Tom Friedman and Bill Kristol. They have no control over the military apparatus, and even Trump will have to make a case for war and accept a scenario acceptable to the likes of Mattis and McMaster, and they are far from suicidal.

But it's actually much more than that. One of the common talking points we lefties always point out is the wildly disproportionate military spending of the United States. We always rush to point out that the US spends more on its military than the next ten nations combined.  It's not even close, and I think we all agree this is an unequivocal waste of money. But it is real, and if you start talking about war, then the calculation changes. How many nations would really want to face that? The simple fact is that the US can rain hell and destruction on any nation that wants to step up to the plate. It's true we've struggled with counter-insurgency and trans-national terrorist groups, but give us a nation's infrastructure and there's simply no better force on earth when it comes to wrecking stuff.

No nation - not Russia, not China, not even the Generals in North Korea - want to face the full wrath of a US in full 'blow 'em to hell' mode. After the F-22s knock out your fighters and the Wild Weasels and cruise missiles wreck your anti-air assets, you get US jets overhead 24x7 just hunting targets, wrecking infrastructure, killing leadership. Anything you put on or under the ocean will be wreckage on the bottom in less than a week, and anything you try to protect will be detected and destroyed because war is nothing less than a gigantic tantrum and the biggest guns always win.

It's also very important to understand why there have been precisely ZERO major power conflicts since 1945. The answer is those pesky nukes. Nobody - not the US, not Russia, not China, not Europe/NATO - wants to risk anything that might lead to out-of-control escalation. The risk of nuclear conflict isn't driven by starting wars - it's driven by ending them. In a major power conflict today, any side that came to recognize that they were losing would be likely to try to avoid such an existential outcome by using tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield and trying desperately to limit the extent of the exchange. But nobody wants to find out if that might be possible without killing a billion people and turning dozens of major metropolitan areas into radioactive wastelands.

(I often gaze up at the stars at night and wonder how many planets are out there that had intelligent, even brilliant populations and now are smoldering ash because their clever denizens figured out how to split the atom.)

In the end, it's most likely that even a blustering ignorant buffoon like Trump can't change the overall global geopolitical calculation. Make no mistake, he'll do some stupid things and people will die as a result, but no other national leader is going to let Trump goad him into national suicide.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Better Killing Through Chemistry

Roaches check in...But they don't check out
Once again, the use of chemical weapons by a Middle Eastern despot has threatened to drive the world into a larger conflict. The red lines drawn around this type of weapon are a hundred years old, and have become a significant part of the conventional wisdom around the laws and ethics of warfare. But why is this, and should it actually be this way? In the case of Syria, for example, the Assad regime has murdered hundreds of thousands of Syrians using traditional weapons - high explosives, barrel bombs, artillery, rifles, torture, execution, famine and disease. So when he suddenly (and inexplicably, but that's another discussion for another day) kills a hundred residents of a Syrian village with four bombs containing Sarin, it's kind of hard to understand the sputtering rage and white-knuckled outrage it generated in the West.

But this is one of the arguments that sounds logical when you hear it, but kind of falls apart the more you think about it. Chemical weapons like Sarin and VX are essentially insecticides scaled up to kill humans instead of bugs. Why do we use insecticides? Because when we have a flea infestation, for example, it makes a lot more sense to use poison on them than it does to burn down the house. Even if there are risks and downsides to poisoning the fleas, the net outcome is a house still standing with no fleas in it.

Now think about a dictator like Bashar al-Assad or Saddam Hussein or Omar al-Bashir or any one of a dozen others. They have the infrastructure - pharmaceutical and insecticide production - to produce chemical weapons cheaply and in volume. They have dissident and/or insurgent populations within their borders. Usually, when they are faced with revolt or civil war they have to destroy a huge amount of their own infrastructure to eliminate the rebels. If they could just spray the towns and villages with human insecticide, wait 48 hours and march in and clean up the mess, these pesky revolutions would be easy to deal with.

Well, why don't they do that? Because ever since the end of World War One the world has had an ironclad convention against their use. Nations still stockpiled them - in the face of an existential defeat, one more bad decision isn't going to be a game changer. But it was clearly understood that to use them (without at least tacit agreement from the appropriate superpowers) was to risk significant punitive attacks from nations not even otherwise a party to the conflict. The idea was global deterrence, and it has worked pretty well. Of course, Saddam Hussein used Sarin gas regularly in the Iran-Iraq war and against Halabja in the al-Anfal campaign, but the US was allied with Saddam's Iraq in that war, and agreed to look the other way.

Now we may begin to see a breakdown in this generally agreed-upon convention. If it begins to be safe, even normalized for dictators to use chemical weapons against their own people in order to retain power, then we won't be seeing 100 dead here or a thousand dead there. We'll be seeing the wholesale slaughter of entire communities because it is faster, cheaper and more efficient than going in and fighting to take those communities back from the rebels. When we argue against an ironclad guaranteed imposition of a high asset cost for any leader who uses poison gas, we are merely helping create a world where the use of poison gas is commonplace.

And I promise you, dear reader, that is not a world you're going to want your kids to live in...