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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Saturday Soother – February 9, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Coyote in Litchfield County CT – February 2019 photo by Sharon Shea

For more than 30 years, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) has been one of the cornerstones of the international security system. But, on February 1st, Trump announced that the US would suspend its obligations under the INF Treaty. Shortly thereafter, Russia’s President Putin announced that Russia will also officially suspend its treaty obligations.

Trump swings another wrecking ball! Defense One reported that Trump said that the US:

“Will move forward with developing…its own military response options and will work with NATO members and other allies to deny Russia any military advantage from its unlawful conduct.”

This means that Trump will start the development, production and deployment of formerly INF-banned weapons.

Until the treaty took effect in 1988, the US had hundreds of nuclear-tipped ground-launched cruise missiles, or GCLMs all over Europe. Today, all cruise missiles are either air or sea-launched. New GCLMs are likely to be returning soon. Contenders include converting the sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missile, and the air-launched Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, or JASSM.

Walking away from the INF Treaty opens the door to both sides building land-based nuclear capable missiles with a range beyond 300 miles.

There are two things to think about: Cost, and Strategic necessity. Kingston Reif, a policy director at the Arms Control Association, said the cost of the new missile systems would be much higher than the $6 billion or so it cost in the 1980s.

On the subject of necessity, he says:

“The United States can already…threaten the same Russian targets that new ground-launched missiles prohibited by INF Treaty would….In addition, no European nation has agreed to host such a missile, which could take years to develop. And even if one in Eastern Europe did, such a deployment would be a significant source of division within the alliance—one Russia would be eager to try and exploit—be hugely provocative, and put missiles in a place where they would be especially vulnerable to Russian preemption…”

The downside to the US withdrawing from the treaty is that we currently have no strategy to prevent Russia from building and fielding even more and new intermediate-range missiles.

Since Russia already announced it will now build these new missiles, our NATO allies in Europe have decisions to make. They will have to pursue options to defend themselves, to mitigate the damage done by the collapse of the treaty.

We’re entering a new Cold War with Russia.

Some believe that the INF treaty is obsolete, because many nations are developing effective missiles and launching capabilities that will be outside the limitations of the INF. Since we all will continue to develop these technologies, maybe the best we can hope for is to negotiate new treaties that address this increasing lethality down the road.

OTOH, Trump and his neocons are doing everything they can to encircle Russia with missile bases while claiming the moral high ground. We should expect them to utilize Poland, the Baltic states, and possibly Ukraine (if they can get away with it), as forward missile bases.

They figure that since geography favors them, why negotiate if you can win? Russia already called our bluff. For this strategy to work, the US must threaten Russia from Europe while simultaneously putting Europe under our new missile thumb. It might work, but there are many moving parts.

Republicans of course supported Trump, cheering about the breakup of a treaty signed by Ronald Reagan. When Wrongo grew up, the threat of nuclear annihilation was real. We drilled for it in school. He then ran a nuclear missile unit in Europe at the height of the Cold War. These were formative experiences that implied very dangerous consequences.

And think about our domestic politics: If someone were to run in 2020 as anti-Cold War II, they would have to say we need to work with the Russians to find a peaceful way out of this mess. Trump will then run to their right, saying Russia must be stopped.

Scared yet? A presidency based on disruption will do that to you.

Time for your Saturday Soother. Try to unplug from all the data that are streaming into your life for a few minutes. Start by brewing up a strong cuppa Hula Daddy Kona Coffee ($45.95/half pound) from the Big Island of Hawaii. You can see their plantation here.

Now settle back and listen to Abba’s “The Winner Takes It All” performed as a guitar instrumental by Gabriella Quevedo:

For those who may have forgotten the lyric, it includes this:

The winner takes all

It’s the thrill of one more kill

The last one to fall

Will never sacrifice their will

Think there will be winners in the new Cold War?

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Intelligence Chiefs Contradict Trump

The Daily Escape:

Edworthy Falls, Elbow Pass, Kananaskis, Alberta, CN – 2018 photo by sluis0717

Just when Wrongo was beginning to think we would make it to 2020 alive and in one piece, testimony by the US Intelligence Chiefs had quite a bit to say about how the world could still blow up. This from Booman: (Brackets by Wrongo)

“In a written report and [subsequent] congressional testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, the senior members of the United States intelligence community had some interesting things to say. The most important arguments they made directly contradicted their boss, the president.”

They said that North Korea is unlikely to give up their nuclear program, and that Iran is not currently pursuing their nuclear program. Trump is holding a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in late February. Last week, Trump said that the two sides are making progress in efforts to fully denuclearize the Korean peninsula.

The Intelligence Chiefs assess that Russia will continue to interfere in our politics and our elections. They think that ISIS is far from defeated. They reiterated what a report released to Congress last week by the Pentagon said, that climate change is a national security threat.

Now, the intelligence community doesn’t always get it right, but Trump is on the opposite side of each of these assertions. More from Booman:

“We’re supposed to have a chief executive and commander in chief who is a customer for this kind of intelligence. Our president is supposed to be the primary customer for these types of assessments.  But that’s not the situation we have in this country right now. At the moment, our president has taken public positions contrary to every one of the assessments…and he’s simply not interested in contrary evidence. He is certainly not interested in being contradicted.”

It’s a huge problem when Trump, who makes the final decisions on what we’re doing geopolitically, is fact-free when it comes to threats to our security. Fortunately, the Intelligence Chiefs seem willing to provide honest threat assessments, and testify about them before Congress.

But, there are people within the administration who support whatever Trump wants. Some are even willing to slant the information they provide to the press and to Congress if it supports the president’s stated position. Trump’s position has been that disruption is at the heart of his geopolitics.

In just the past few weeks, we’ve gotten quite a few things wrong. (h/t Arms Control Wonk)

  • On December 6th, the United Nations General Assembly rejected a US resolution to condemn the Islamic militant group Hamas for violence against Israel. The embarrassing vote, which required a two-thirds majority, was 87 in favor to 58 opposed, with 32 abstentions.
  • On December 12th, Secretary of State Pompeo blasted Iran at the UN Security Council and received no support from US allies for walking away from the nuclear deal. In fact, US allies Britain, France and Germany praised Iran for holding up its end of the bargain.
  • On December 21st, the US barely rounded up more votes than Russia on a Russian resolution at the UN calling for the preservation of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The vote was 46 against to 43 in favor, with 78 abstentions.
  • On January 10th, Pompeo, speaking in Cairo, declared, “Let me be clear, America will not retreat until the terror fight is over.” The next day, the front-page headline in the New York Times was “U.S. Begins Syria Withdrawal, Amid Uncertainty Over Strategy.”
  • On January 14th, en route to Saudi Arabia, Pompeo declared he was “confident” and “optimistic” that he was nearing a deal with Turkey on a mutually agreeable exit plan from Syria. Later, Trump tweeted that he would “devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds.”

On January 22nd Pompeo spoke to the assembled billionaires at Davos:

“Is this pattern of disruption a force for good or not? I’d argue this disruption is a positive development.”

Most of us would say that’s crazy talk.

The Intelligence Chiefs have done everything except sound an air raid siren about this administration’s foreign policy bungling. There’s no indication that the Senate Republicans have mustered the gumption to act on their alarm.

And now, John Bolton tells everybody that Trump wants to send 5,000 troops to Columbia as part of its failing Venezuela strategy.

In another ominous sign, Pompeo added Elliott Abrams, a neocon who was an actor in the Iran-Contra mess, as a Trump administration special envoy overseeing policy toward Venezuela. Maybe you remember that Abrams was pardoned for his Iran-Contra role.

Just two more neocons, completely lacking in principle, but flush with Trump’s authority to disrupt another part of the world.

Read the report, and then think about how it squares with Trump’s policy.

You’ll agree that this will all end perfectly.

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Trump Wants Out of Syria

The Daily Escape:

Interior of Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain via Archpics

Wrongo is glad that Trump has ordered (what appears to be a precipitous) withdrawal of US troops from Syria. His Republican allies are in an uproar over the decision, comparing it to Obama’s leaving Iraq in 2011.

They are saying that we should be trading our withdrawal for something.  Wrongo isn’t convinced that keeping troops in Syria is somehow necessary for regional stability, or that we need to get something from Iran, or that we need to keep Russia from getting a win.

The WSJ says that what led to announcing a withdrawal was a call last week between Trump and Turkish President Erdogan. Erdogan opposes the US partnership with Kurdish forces in Syria, since he views them as a terrorist force intent on destabilizing Turkey. On several occasions in the past few weeks, Erdogan has threatened to launch an assault on the Syrian Kurds. The US has consistently relied on the Kurdish forces as the most effective fighting force in Syria against ISIS. From the WSJ:

On the call, Mr. Trump told Mr. Erdogan that he no longer wanted to spend money and time in Syria and preferred instead to focus his energy on domestic issues, said an official briefed on the call. Mr. Erdogan assured Mr. Trump that Turkey would continue the fight against Islamic State—and against the Kurds, the official said.

But there was more: Trump’s decision came hours after the State Department approved Turkey’s purchase of $3.5 billion in US Patriot missile-defense systems. Some analysts see the proposed sale as an enticement for Ankara to back off its previously announced plans to purchase a Russian S-400 air-defense system. So, US withdrawal from Syria looks like a kickback to Erdogan for buying $3.5 Billion in Patriot missiles instead of the Russian S400 missile.

The downside is that we are once again abandoning the Kurds to their fate. The Rojava Kurds live in Syrian lands that are contiguous with Turkey, and Erdogan’s plan is to occupy their territory. The Kurds will survive Turkish efforts to roll over them militarily only if they embrace the Syrian government.

Assad’s aim is to control all Syrian territory. He wants the Kurds to be an integral part of Syria, probably more integral than many Syrian Kurds would want.

There may be other side deals with Russia and possibly with Syria. We’ll learn all of them in good time.

Some of this is good news. We needed to make some sense of our occupation of Syria. We needed to do something to improve our relations with Turkey, and it was insane to try to occupy a third of Syria, which risked a possible world war.

From day one, America’s strategic error has been treating Syria as a subordinate part of our global Iran policy. Looking at Damascus through the prism of Tehran never allowed us to examine the risks and opportunities in Syria as they actually were. We never really developed a strategy for what we wanted in Syria, and that is why the Iranians and Russians (and ultimately the Turks) have ended up holding all the cards.

Those three knew what they wanted, and were willing to spend the resources necessary to achieve their goals, while sometimes having to compromise with each other. None of those things can be said for the US’s involvement in Syria. Our sole policy aim was the same old bipartisan consensus we’ve tried since the end of WWII: Get rid of the BAD DUDE in country X because he’s BAAD!

And let’s not worry about what trying to remove him does to the regional balance of power, or to innocent civilians, or to our own culpability in BAD DUDE’s badness. Rinse, Lather, repeat.

Obviously, bringing troops home from Syria is part of Trump’s plan for reelection in 2020. Maybe, Afghanistan will be next. We should expect to see him move left on many key issues over the next year.

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Monday Wake Up Call – October 22, 2018, Treaty Withdrawal Edition

The Daily Escape:

Autumn near Walpole, NH – October 2018 photo by knale

Happy Monday. Over the weekend, Trump announced that the US will be exiting the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which Reagan and Gorbachev signed in 1987. The INF banned all US and Soviet land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The weapons ban resulted in the destruction of 2,692 missiles. Washington demolished 846, and Moscow 1,846.

From the NYT:

But the pact has also constrained the United States from deploying new weapons to respond to China’s efforts to cement a dominant position in the Western Pacific and to keep American naval forces at bay. Because China was not a signatory to the treaty, it has faced no limits on developing intermediate-range nuclear missiles, which can travel thousands of miles.

While the treaty was seen as effective, it’s hard to argue that the US is somehow obligated to remain in the INF treaty since we know that Russia has been pushing the edge of envelope for the last few years.

But, Russia’s behavior is just part of Trump’s calculation: His administration would like to develop a larger and more diverse portfolio of nuclear capabilities. It also has concerns about China, which isn’t subject to any arms control agreement, and they specifically rejected joining the INF.

As a result, Beijing has deployed a large number of intermediate and short-range conventional ballistic missiles, pointing them at US allies, including Taiwan.

Washington has focused on ballistic-missile defenses, but it seems that the Trump administration would prefer to respond with next-generation intermediate and short-range weapons. The US has done preliminary work on a new intermediate-range nuclear missile, and if deployed, it would also violate the INF.

It’s also far from clear where such new land-based weapons might be deployed. None of our European allies appear willing to accept them.

And there isn’t enthusiasm for US land-based missiles among our Asian allies. Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, India, and Vietnam all are unlikely to host new US intermediate range missiles. That would leave Guam, which sits 2,400 miles from Beijing and 1,800 miles from Shanghai, not a decisive strategic counter-move.

The only argument for Guam is that those missiles would reach targets in China much faster than weapons sent via Guam-based bombers, but they would still be slower than sea-based cruise missiles.

Walking away from weapons treaties has had adverse diplomatic and strategic consequences in the past. When the GW Bush administration announced its withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001, the Kremlin responded by withdrawing from the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and its prohibition on land-based missiles carrying multiple warheads.

The Kremlin is now moving forward with deployments of new “heavy” land-based missiles that can carry ten or more warheads. Their purpose is to defeat US missile defenses. Likewise, the demise of the INF Treaty would only reinforce the current nuclear competition.

Is Trump doing a smart thing?

The INF Treaty was less about hobbling the US than it was about hobbling Russia. The treaty only covered land- and air-based systems. So the US and NATO held a strategic advantage with its navies.

The only advantage Russia had, and still maintains, is its large land mass that can hide huge numbers of mobile launchers. By withdrawing from the treaty, the US actually plays right into Moscow’s hands. Mobile launchers are notoriously difficult to track down. We can’t do it in North Korea, and we couldn’t do it in Iraq.

Trump thinks he’s playing hardball, but Wrongo thinks his business acumen has been sadly overplayed. Exiting the INF isn’t so good for the Americans. Republicans used to think that fewer international entanglements would allow the US to keep its defense budgets low.

The Trump-Bolton idea turns this on its head. In fact, when it comes to American military security, Trump’s idea relies on magical thinking. It’s not just that his plan isn’t good for national security, it’s also that the Trump administration aims to make the US a military powerhouse while cutting taxes.

Bolton’s aim seems to be to create the conditions that could lead to war, an extraordinarily dangerous game, considering the flakiness of his boss.

Wake up America! Here’s another reason why turning out to vote in November, and then voting to turn out as many of these Republican chicken hawks in DC as we can, is of ultimate importance.

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Saudi Story About Khashoggi Killing Doesn’t Hold Up

The Daily Escape:

Fall in New England – photo by Karen Randall

Saudi Arabia’s denials have been weakened with new reporting by US media. We may never know exactly why it happened, but bringing a bone saw to an “interrogation” greatly increases the likelihood of something going wrong.

An interesting aspect of the botched assassination of Jamal Khashoggi is the insight it gives us into political issues in America’s relations with Saudi Arabia. As blog reader Fred says, “We’re awash in rogue killers”, so, here is the current state of play. Investigative reporting by the NYT finds that Suspects in Khashoggi case had ties to Saudi Crown Prince: (parenthesis by Wrongo)

One of the suspects identified by Turkey in the disappearance of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi was a frequent companion of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS)— seen disembarking from airplanes with him in Paris and Madrid and photographed standing guard during his visits this year to Houston, Boston and the United Nations.

Despite MBS denying knowing anything about what happened to Khashoggi, the NYT’s work shows that the rogue assassins theory doesn’t hold water. On Monday Trump floated the idea that a “rogue killer” was responsible for the deed in Istanbul:

President Donald Trump on Monday repeatedly highlighted the Saudi King’s denial of involvement in the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, at one point offering up an alternative theory that “rogue killers,” rather than agents of the Saudi regime, were involved.

From Moon of Alabama:

MBS unwittingly did a huge favor to Turkey’s president Erdogan when he sent a crew to abduct or kill Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Erdogan is in a historic geopolitical conflict with Saudi Arabia over supremacy in the Middle East.

Apparently, the Turks had the Saudi consulate bugged. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the Turks know what happened within the consulate, and are using that evidence to squeeze the Saudis.

Despite the trial balloon via Trump, Erdogan leaked pictures of 15 men who had come from Saudi Arabia, and were in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul shortly before Khashoggi visited to get his divorce papers.

Later that day, they flew back on the same two private Saudi jets that had brought them to Istanbul.

At least 8 of the 15 men have been identified as Saudi royal military. At least three are bodyguards of the Saudi clown prince MBS. Obviously MBS himself gave the order for the operation. One of the 15 is Dr. Salah Muhammed Al-Tubaigy, the head of forensic evidence at the Saudi General Security Department. Reports are that he dismembered Khashoggi’s body.

The Saudi government has made no serious attempt to explain why these people, including MBS’s personal body guards, flew to Istanbul and were in the consulate when Khashoggi entered it, and left hours later. The WSJ reports in their coverage of Pompeo’s Saudi meetings:

Complicating investigators’ search inside the Saudi consulate: fresh coats of paint, Erdogan says.

Pompeo has now visited the King and MBS in Saudi Arabia. He’s visited Erdogan and his team in Turkey, and is now on his way back to the US.

The message from Pompeo and Trump is: “Let’s not convict Saudi Arabia until all the facts are in”.

Pompeo has tried to negotiate a deal between Turkey and Saudi Arabia that will limit the damage the killing does to the House of Saud, and MBS. But the Saudis stonewalled Pompeo, while Erdogan has certainly played the grisly audio tape for him.

MBS will try to ride out the storm. He can pressure Trump by holding back oil exports, or stopping the pretend purchases of new arms. Forget the moral high ground, show me the money!

Trump desperately wants to get MBS off the hook, but domestic and international pressure may be too great, particularly as Erdogan continues the drip by drip release of sensational evidence.

Trump will have to do something more than sending Pompeo for what amounts to photo opportunities.

We have no Saudi Arabian ambassador. The White House’s connection to the Saudi rulers largely runs through MBS and Jared Kushner. But that connection is temporarily useless. That explains why Pompeo had to visit.

Only the King can remove MBS, but the King is 82 years old, and not in good health. MBS might well be ruthless enough that the King suddenly dies.

Trump has to decide what to do, and act quickly.

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Monday Wake Up Call – Russia Edition

The Daily Escape:

Swan Lake, by Tchaikovsky, performed on September 26, 2018 at the Alexandrinsky Theater, St.Petersburg – iPhone photo by Wrongo. Russians didn’t like the original ending of the ballet, where Sigfried and Odette die, so in their preferred performance, Sigfried and Odette live happily ever after.

A few random thoughts about the US and Russia: We often forget that all countries have their own history, all of which is ongoing in parallel to our own:

  • America’s colonial history was underway while Russian history was being written. For example, Wrongo’s home town was founded in 1709 on the banks of the Housatonic River. By 1720, the town was a rough collection of small farms, churches and commercial buildings, connected by dirt roads to other towns in Connecticut and New York, but it depended upon the Housatonic for connection to the sea, to the old world, and to the rest of the new world colonies.
  • In 1703, Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg on its current site. He built the city with conscripted peasants, starting by reclaiming the marshlands on both sides of the Neva River. Tens of thousands of serfs died while building the city. The Neva was important, because it was Russia’s only ocean port, their connection to the rest of the world. The land around St. Petersburg was ultimately raised by nearly 10’. It became the capital of Russia in 1712.
  • We all know that President Lincoln freed about 4 million slaves in the US in 1863. In 1861, Tsar Alexander II freed 23 million Russian serfs, who also were slaves.
  • Alexander had to pay compensation to the nobles who had lost their supply of free Russian labor. In 1867, he raised the necessary funds by selling Alaska to the US for $14 million.

Now, a few observations about Russia today.

Below is a photo of the Obukhov State Plant in St. Petersburg. It makes surface-to-air (SAM) missile systems, including the world-famous Russian S-300 and S-400 air defense systems that are employed around the world including in Syria and India. The S400 system will soon be in the hands of our somewhat belligerent ally, Turkey. Wrongo was told that it is currently subject to the US sanctions regime, although he couldn’t immediately find it on the US Treasury’s sanctions list. Here is Wrongo’s iPhone photo of the missile plant:

Why does the US place sanctions on a state-owned arms manufacturer in Russia? Russia is #2 to the US in global arms sales, and we can be sure that if Russia sanctioned Honeywell or Northrup, we would be screaming that they had no right to interfere in our commercial relations with other countries.

Next, everyone knows that the legendary Hermitage, formerly the Winter Palace, has an amazing art collection. The collection was started by Catherine the Great in 1764, when she purchased 255 paintings from the city of Berlin. Today, the Hermitage houses over a million works of art. It is a truly remarkable museum to visit.

So imagine Wrongo’s surprise when he noticed many paintings had been marked with an inventory control number, painted on the visible canvas! Inventory control numbers routinely appear on the back of paintings, but to see numbers, painted in red, on the canvas itself? Here is an example of what Wrongo saw:

Is this desecration of an art work by an overzealous Bolshevik accountant? Did the powers that be eventually discover the error of their ways? Most likely yes, because only relatively few paintings from the 15 and 16th century were marked, but all seemed to be in the same script. Wrongo asked several people if the red numbers interfered with their enjoyment of the painting, and none said it did, but it sure did piss off Wrongo.

Perhaps it’s simply a different way of looking at things. Like how each country views the Syrian president: is he a tyrant, or the savior of his people?

So wrapping up, based upon Wrongo’s observations, we have many similarities with the Russian people, and a few similarities with their government.

Of course, each country has an easy-to-criticize bureaucracy. Ours wouldn’t paint numbers on oil paintings, but it will happily perform other desecrations without being asked.

Geopolitically, we have voluntarily placed ourselves in a competition with the Russian state. We have been directly competing since the 1940’s, and it hasn’t delivered either side a more secure homeland, or world.

Instead, it has positioned us on opposite sides in many third world countries. It has made our defense contractors very rich, while causing the deaths of many young people in America’s military.

Wake Up! It’s way past time for both countries to re-think this competition.

 

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Japan Re-thinks Role of Its Military

The Daily Escape:

Unusual cloud formations, pre-dawn at Mt. Fuji, Japan – photo by Takashi Yasui

Wrongo lived in Japan while working for the big multinational bank, back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth. During his three-year stay, he learned enough Japanese to navigate in business meetings, and bars. When he was there, it had only been 30 years since the end of WWII, and the nuclear-ravaged parts of Japan still had scars, some of which intentionally remain visible today.

One impact of losing the war was that Japan got a new constitution, helpfully provided by us, the conquerors. Enacted in 1947, it made the Emperor a constitutional monarch, where before the war, the Emperor was an absolute ruler. Japan’s constitution is known to some as the “Peace Constitution“. It is best known for Article 9, by which Japan renounced its right to wage war.

No amendment has been made to it since its adoption, but that could be about to change.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced that his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is seeking to revise the constitution in the very near future, including changing Article 9. In May, Abe announced that he wanted to add Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to Article 9. The Nikki Asian Review quoted Abe: (brackets by Wrongo)

Over the past year, discussion of [constitutional] revisions has grown much livelier and more specific….The document currently includes absolutely no provision for our self-defense….We must put an end to debate over [the JSDF’s] constitutionality…

This is on top of evolutionary changes to the use of the JSDF over the past two years. Revised laws authorized military action that previously would have been unconstitutional, including actions in response to “an infringement that does not amount to an armed attack”, or actions outside of Japan, such as minesweeping in the Straits of Hormuz, near Iran.

The key point is that the new changes lower the threshold for the use of force outside Japan.

Robert Farley writes in The Diplomat: (brackets by Wrongo)

Nevertheless, even these [recent] changes allow Japan to act more assertively as a coalition partner in its region. This means acting in either a direct or supportive role for allies or coalition partners threatened by China (or some other international actor). The reasons for such a shift lay in both the increasing power of China, and in uncertainty about the United States.

The world’s power balance is changing. It is totally unclear if the US can be counted as a reliable partner in mutual defense for Europe, or in Asia. Our allies fear that moves towards isolation by the current or any future administration, could leave Japan swinging in the wind.

Add to this the looming threat from North Korea. Japan’s total reliance on the US to blunt that threat, means that Japan feels it must look at a more assertive ability to use military force. Japan has recently purchased the Ageis Ashore system from Lockheed Martin to help partially protect it against North Korea.

Another consideration is Japan’s rapidly shrinking population. The birthrate in Japan is just over 1.3. It needs to be 2.1 to maintain its current population. The Japanese skew quite old, but Japan also refuses to allow immigration. Estimates are that its population will drop from 130 million today to 80 million by 2050.

Japan is likely to become very insecure about the declining population and the increasing regional threats. And that insecurity will be reflected in their next-generation military strategies.

In fact, today’s JSDF is sort of legal fiction. It is said to be an extension of the national police force. But the JSDF has several hundred tanks, 26 destroyers and 19 submarines. Since they already have a military, it doesn’t seem like changing the constitution to allow them to have and use its military should really matter.

OTOH, there is a residual fear of a militarized Japan in Asia and in the West. Some think that Japan, like Germany, is among the countries that shouldn’t be taking on expanded military roles. This is why the US has large, permanent bases in both countries.

Wrongo thinks that this is a superficial reading of today’s issues. Obviously Japan hasn’t fully apologized for its actions in WWII, or earlier, and both the Koreans and Chinese work to ensure that we never forget.

In the real world, Japan is an amazingly under-defended country. It has traditionally relied on the US to fund its defense, and make most of the hard choices about its defense.

Well, now that we’re no longer totally reliable, they really have no plan at all.

We shouldn’t have a particular problem if Japan or Germany decide they want to avail themselves of the full range of diplomatic and yes, the military options available to sovereign nation-states.

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Trump’s Tariffs Unite China and Russia

The Daily Escape:

Detail of the Peacock Gate, the City Palace, Jaipur India – photo by Miya.m – CC BY-SA 3.0

Do you know about the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF)? The EEF was started by Russia in 2015, as part of Moscow’s push to revitalize its ties with Asia after its relations with the West began to sour. The US doesn’t attend, although CA governor Jerry Brown attended in 2017.

Now, it attracts heads of state from around the East Asian region. President Xi of China attended this year for the first time. It was the third time that Xi and Putin have met in 2018, and the outcome of the EEF meetings could have significant implications for the US.

The Diplomat reported that according to Li Hui, China’s ambassador to Russia:

At present, China-Russia relations are at their best in history…the two heads of state attending significant events held by each other are important manifestations of the high-level bilateral relations.

So, why now? What’s behind China’s and Russia’s fast-developing relationship? It seems to be the US tariff war. The Asia Times says:

Xi defines the partnership as the best mechanism to ‘jointly neutralize the external risks and challenges’. For Putin, ‘our relations are crucial, not only for our countries, but for the world as well.’

At the EEF, Putin and Xi agreed to keep increasing bilateral trade payable in yuan and rubles, bypassing the US dollar. Putin also swiped at Trump’s tariff policies:

The world and global economy are coming up against new forms of protectionism today with different kinds of barriers which are increasing….basic principles of trade — competition and mutual economic benefit — are depreciated and unfortunately undermined, they’re becoming hostages of ideological and fleeting political situations, in that we see a serious challenge for all of the global economy, especially for the dynamically-growing Asia-Pacific and its leadership…

Reuters reported that Xi also appeared keen to foster closer relations with Russia:

Together with our Russian colleagues, we will increase fruitful co-operation in international affairs and intensify co-ordination…to oppose the policy of unilateral actions and trade protectionism…

Their relationship will continue to improve, since the Trump administration plans to continue ratcheting up its trade war. Trump recently threatened placing tariffs on all Chinese exports to the US.

And, on the same day as Xi arrived for the EEF, Russia kicked off its Vostok 2018 military exercises, with China taking part for the first time.

All of this is largely a giant signal to the US, since Russia can’t come close to replacing the US as a major trade partner for China. Sino-Russian trade is less than $100 billion per year, while trade between the US and China was more than $630 billion last year.

China’s strategy is to start by reducing its dependence on US agricultural imports. One example is soybeans. Econbrowser reports:

The Chinese plan is — in addition to relying on Brazil and Argentina — to switch to other sources, like palm mill, rapeseed, sunflower seed, and other countries, such as Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, for soybeans. Obviously, the development of other countries’ ability to grow soybeans will take time. But that was also true for Brazil.

More broadly, attending the EEF gave Xi another platform from which to attack the US trade war, and pledge to defend rules-based trade. Our partners, the presidents of South Korea and Japan, also are watching closely. South Korea is looking to build a rail connection across Siberia, which requires help from China and Russia. The South China Post reported on Japan’s Prime Minister Abe, who attended the conference, and agreed to a summit with Russia:

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed Monday on further details of joint economic activities on disputed islands off Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido

They also confirmed their close cooperation toward the denuclearization of North Korea ahead of the third summit between North and South Korea, scheduled for September 18.

The message is that the nations of Asia no longer see us as a reliable partner, and are walking toward forging new alliances with both China and Russia.

Our walking away from the Trans Pacific Partnership, which included all Asian countries except China in a free trade zone, seems to have been a geopolitical error. Trump’s tariff war seems to be another.

The US is alienated from Russia over US election interference, cyber warfare, Ukraine, Crimea and Syria. We have responded with sanctions, and truculence.

The US is alienated from China over trade, and the Trump administration’s perception that China isn’t helping our negotiations with North Korea.

We are at risk of being sidelined in Asia, and our allies are watching.

What’s this administration’s plan to succeed on all of these fronts in Asia?

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September 11, 2018

The Daily Escape:

Has it been 17 years already?

A quote from Edward R. Murrow: “No one can terrorize a whole nation, unless we are all his accomplices”, describes where America is today.

As we remember the 17th anniversary of the al-Qaeda attack on the US, we should realize that most of the geo-political problems we face today can trace their root causes to the attacks on 9/11.

And 17 years later, it appears that we have become the accomplices of terror. We can’t let the Muslim world alone. We’ve continued to keep troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. We’ve beefed up our presence in Africa. The enemy has morphed from al-Qaeda only, to ISIS and al-Qaeda, with branches all across the world.

Just yesterday, Wrongo wrote about our current misadventures in Syria, where we have several thousand troops who were not invited in by the Syrian government. We said that US Syrian policy seems to be teetering on conflict with the other regional powers, Iran and Russia, because we are insisting that Iran exit Syria.

We continue to spend blood and treasure in the Middle East because of 9/11. We were meddling in the ME before 2001, and those efforts helped make bin Laden’s point that the US was responsible both for the suffering the US was causing directly through its sanctions, and the suffering we caused indirectly, by keeping Middle Eastern dictators in power.

To that, bin Laden added a decisive idea: Attack the US to end its power over the Middle East.

Seventeen years later, we are stuck in a Middle East quagmire. We cannot win militarily, but we never lose decisively. On this 17th anniversary, let’s address a few questions to our political and military leaders:

  • Isn’t it improbable that the US military has been unable to extricate itself from Iraq and Afghanistan, its two major wars of this century?
  • Was it improbable that Washington’s post-9/11 policies in the Middle East helped lead to the establishment of the Islamic State’s “Caliphate” in parts of Iraq and Syria and to a movement of almost unparalleled extremism that has successfully “franchised” itself from Libya to Mali, from Nigeria to Afghanistan?

If, on September 12, 2001, you had predicted where we are today, no one would have thought you were credible.

Since 9/11 our presidents have all tried hard to act tough on terror, as have our Senators and Congresspersons. They have all said that our young soldiers are available to go wherever the next Islamist problem arises. So, in the past 17 years, we’ve spent over a trillion dollars to protect the homeland, and while to some degree, we are undoubtedly safer, we haven’t defeated the Islamists.

The current crop of Republicans in the White House are trying more of the same: To convince us that the challenges we face in the world are simple, that we must be realists, aggressively going after what we want. They say it all comes down to “good vs evil.”

Sadly, we really live in an extremely complex world, and ignorance of its complexity is dangerous. Remember in 2006, there were reports that George W. Bush was unaware of the difference between Shia and Sunni as late as two months before the Iraq invasion. Combine that with the ongoing support for the neo-con’s Exceptionalist ideology, and we’ve all paid, and continue to pay, a huge price for their simplistic worldview.

The reality is that when tough talk is divorced from knowledge, you do dumb things, like start wars that diminish our standing in the world, that cost us terribly in lives and money, and that produce zero in the way of political results.

Trump seems ready to place a bet that his tough guy stance on Syria will cause Iran and Russia to back down. Those of us who pay taxes and send our kids off to war, should make it very clear that the American presidency is no place for bullies.

And rather than signifying weakness, traits like thoughtfulness and collaboration are exactly what we want from the Leader of the Free World.

Anyone can say “lock and load, we’re gonna fight!

We need to re-learn how not to fight, and how to exist in an ambiguous world without withdrawing, or being ineffectual. Since 9/11, when things get tough, our politicians strut around with chins out. They prefer form over substance and in the end, they’re just praying that it all works out, but it hasn’t.

Remember the 9/11 heroes and its victims.

But let’s stop listening to those who pander to our fears, and vote them out of office.

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Monday Wake Up Call – September 10, 2018

The Daily Escape:

Cordillera Huayhuash, Peruvian Andes – photo by mh-travelphotos. The area has very few people, and is a popular trekking destination. It includes six peaks above 6,000 meters.

Whenever Wrongo writes about Syria, the Wrongologist Blog records its fewest reads. Maybe people think that what’s happening in Syria just doesn’t mean much to America. Maybe people think that we’ve already given up on our original goals, and we’re already letting the Russians run the place.

Both of those thoughts would be er, wrong.

The WaPo reported about our new plan: (emphasis by Wrongo)

President Trump, who just five months ago said he wanted “to get out” of Syria and bring U.S. troops home soon, has agreed to a new strategy that indefinitely extends the military effort there and launches a major diplomatic push to achieve American objectives, according to senior State Department officials.

Although the military campaign against the Islamic State has been nearly completed, the administration has redefined its goals to include the exit of all Iranian military and proxy forces from Syria, and establishment of a stable, nonthreatening government acceptable to all Syrians and the international community.

You remember al-Qaeda, the guys who took down the NY World Trade Center? (We’ll remember that tomorrow). Well, the first step in the new US “diplomatic push” is to prevent an imminent Syrian army operation against al-Qaeda aligned groups in Syria’s Idlib province:

While the US agrees that those forces must be wiped out, it rejects “the idea that we have to go in there…to clean out the terrorists, most of the people fighting….they’re not terrorists, but people fighting a civil war against a brutal dictator,” as well as millions of civilians, said US special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey. Instead, the US has called for a cooperative approach with other outside actors.

He went on to say that:

The US will not tolerate an attack. Period.

Jeffrey had just visited Turkey to consult with Turkish president Erdogan about the upcoming Idlib attack by Syria, Russia and Iran. The result of the meeting was a plan that Erdogan presented at the Tehran summit that Erdogan attended with President Putin of Russia and President Rohani of Iran.

The parties didn’t agree to the US/Turkish plan, and the attacks on Idlib have already begun.

Jeffery said that the Trump administration’s plan for Syria involves more than the defeat of ISIS. It also was focused on reducing Iranian influence, and preventing Assad from controlling all of Syria’s geography. Jeffery said that Trump supports the strategy, contrary to Trump’s previous statements about withdrawing US troops after defeating ISIS:

…we’re no longer pulling out by the end of the year….That means we are not in a hurry…

America needs to wake up. Those who voted for Trump did so in part because he wasn’t the warmonger that Hillary was. At some point, they’ll have to admit that Trump’s new Syria policy puts us in direct conflict with Russia and Iran on the ground in Syria. That isn’t something that could be implemented without Trump’s agreement, and with less than 60 days to the mid-terms, is this just a political calculation?

It’s difficult to know if Trump truly cares about what happens with Assad, but we know that he has a burning desire to confront Iran. And his new Syria policy is all about Iran. And he’s already tweeted warnings to Assad and Putin to leave Idlib alone.

Does anyone reading this believe that he’s thinking geopolitically? And since Putin, Rohani, and Assad have already defied Trump’s tweeted warnings, Americans should be thinking that there’s liable to be a strike at least against Iran, in the next few weeks.

You know that all the neocons around him, like Bolton and Pompeo, will goad him on. And after that, it could be game on.

Perhaps Trump is bluffing. We have no realistic means to prevent the operations against Idlib by Russia, Iran and Syria. The US military understands that an attack on Syrian and Russian forces would likely escalate into a direct conflict between nuclear powers.

We can’t assume that the “resistance” inside the White House either agrees with the US military, or is capable of averting such a risk.

Wrongo’s solution? Not one more drop of American blood should be wasted in either Iraq or Syria.

Withdraw completely from Syria. Hand over our in-country bases to the Syrians. Encourage and assist the Kurdish insurgents and the Syrian Defense Forces to reintegrate into Syria. Pass the intelligence we have on the jihadis we have assisted over the years to Damascus.

Then we have to hope that Trump moves on to focus completely on more important issues, like Colin Kaepernick’s shoes.

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