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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Saturday Soother – August 10, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Milky Way from the summit of Mt. Katahdin, ME – 2019 photo by aryeh95

Wrongo wants to provide some background to how Hong Kong (HK) went from being a UK colony to being a part of China. If you watch the news, you know that Hong Long’s anti-extradition protests are now in their third month. They are ostensibly directed at the HK administration, but they’re also aimed at the Chinese government in Beijing.

And the conflict appears to be escalating.

The Hong Kong — Mainland conflict partly reflects a huge gap in national identity. Frank Chung in a piece in Ejinsight, says it can be explained in part by how the nationality of most people in Hong Kong was changed in 1997 from British to Chinese: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“From China’s standpoint, Hong Kong had always been Chinese soil. Through 150 years of British rule, its people remained Chinese, regardless of British law. This fitted nicely with Britain’s policy, which was to see to it that the millions of Chinese “British citizens” in Hong Kong could not move to the United Kingdom. Nationality and immigration laws were changed.

Britain created a new category of citizens, called British Dependent Territory Citizens, in the 1980s. This transformed United Kingdom citizens into Hong Kong citizens. When Hong Kong was no longer a British dependent territory, yet another new category was created, British National (Overseas). The holder has no right to live in Britain and the citizenship cannot be passed on to the next generation.

China, too, changed its nationality law to deal with Hong Kong. The Standing Committee of its National People’s Congress in 1996 – the year before the handover – issued “Explanations” of how China’s Nationality Law would be applied in Hong Kong. That is to say, the law would mean different things in different parts of the country, a highly unusual legal situation.

The “Explanations” introduce a concept missing in the nationality law itself, that of “Chinese descent.” Thus, any Hong Kong resident of Chinese descent who was born in Hong Kong or China is a Chinese national, regardless of whether he possesses Canadian, Australian, British or other nationality. That means people who were foreign nationals were transformed into Chinese nationals in 1997.”

This was how China and the UK cooperated to facilitate the transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Both wanted the people as well as the territory to be transferred wholesale. The millions of people in Hong Kong were considered nothing but chattel in the transfer.

And so it goes today.

China has all the leverage in the current test of wills. Their concern is not to let the HK demonstrations “infect” any cities on the mainland. And with the growth of the Chinese economy, HK’s leverage is steadily decreasing, as other Chinese cities surpass it economically, and trade directly with the rest of the world, a function that HK used to perform.

Two ways of looking at the current situation: One, HK’s not as important, and there’s little it can do to deflect Beijing’s control. Two, if Beijing doesn’t crack down, it will be seen as a weakness, rather than the wisdom of a mature nation.

Either way, the big advantage of authoritarian regimes is that they have fewer constraints. China historically has walked a line between centralized authority and provincial power. Centralized power will always win.

On to the weekend, it’s time for our Saturday Soother! With all the mass shootings news, and Trump trying to keep in the forefront of the same news cycle, our heads are spinning. We need to kick back and forget everything but how to kill crabgrass, and an AR-15 won’t help with that.

Start by brewing up a mug of Kenya Handege coffee ($19/12 oz.) from Austin TX-based Greater Goods Roasters. They say it is very sweet, tart, and rich. Now settle back near a large window and listen to Mary Gauthier perform her 2005 composition “Mercy Now” at the 2010 Americana Music Festival in Nashville, TN:

Given what El Paso and Dayton are going through, Gauthier’s poignant and direct message should resonate with all of us. Wrongo knows that you rarely click through and listen to the music, but today, it is really worth your while to listen.

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

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Monday Wake Up Call – July 22, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Grinnell Glacier Overlook, Glacier NP, Montana – 2019 photo by e_met

Americans don’t like geopolitics. Columns about the world situation have been Wrongo’s least-viewed since the start of The Wrongologist blog in 2010. Today may be time for Americans to wake up, and think about our evolving and dangerous situation with Iran.

You know the basics: The US pulled out of the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2018. We reinstituted sanctions, the most important of which came into effect in November 2018, covering sales of oil and petrochemical products from Iran.

Since then, Iran has found it difficult to sell its oil, since the payments would be cleared through a vehicle called SWIFT, which is the payments backstop of the international trading system. SWIFT provides a network that enables more than 11,000 financial institutions worldwide to send and receive information about financial transactions in a secure, standardized and reliable environment.

No one wants to buy oil, and settle the deal through SWIFT because the US will become aware of the deal, and penalize the bank(s) or companies that worked with Iran. Another payment system is emerging, INSTEX, which will circumvent US sanctions, but it may be too little, too late, given the precipitous impact sanctions have had on Iran’s oil sales.

Things have now heated up. First with the seizure of an Iranian-flagged oil tanker by the UK in Gibraltar two weeks ago. It was ostensibly on its way to deliver oil to Syria, and the US asked the UK to seize the ship. What followed was tit-for-tat: On Friday, Iran seized a UK flag oil tanker in the Straits of Hormuz.

The US media is calling Iran seizure an unprovoked “attack” on a British flagged ship. Britain justifies its Gibraltar action as just keeping the sanction regime in place.

Here’s where things become dangerous. The neocons in Washington and in the media are seeking immediate and tough action, portraying Iran as an imminent threat to free trade, and to the West’s oil supply. Trump regrettably, is ignorant of Iran and Middle East history, and may not have the ability to avoid employing military force.

There is a dangerous delusion within the Trump /Bolton/Pompeo National Security team: They believe we are so militarily dominant that Iran will not dare fight us.

That is a strategically dangerous place to land. Our best option is to resolve the current tanker seizures with diplomacy. The UK and Iran could agree to resolve the situation and release the respective ships. All other options involve shooting and possibly, a military escalation involving others, including China and Russia.

If key Iranian infrastructure is targeted, nobody really thinks Iran will sit passively, and let us attack critical targets.

Iran has a robust, if not totally modern, military that could engage in counter strikes on US/UK targets in the Middle East. That would certainly involve our naval assets in the Persian Gulf. Now, suppose US aircraft are downed inside Iran (Iran has Russia’s S-300 antiaircraft system, but not the newer S-400). Trump would come under intense pressure to escalate. Any US pilots that survived being shot down, would give Tehran a big bargaining chip. Would Trump bargain, or would he continue to fight?

Iran would be damaged, but it would survive. The religious leadership’s hold on Iran would be strengthened. Trump’s political fortunes could take a hit from that portion of his base that is against foreign entanglements, as well as the other 60% of America.

The DC neocons are certain we can bomb Iran into submission. That is a fantasy, just as it was in Vietnam and Iraq.

All indications are that the Iranians aren’t going to cave. They’ve proven for decades to be very pragmatic. They may choose to talk. If Trump is smart, he’ll take a sit-down with the Iranians before things get out of control, and before the DC neocons and their Israeli friends push things beyond a point of no return.

He might get a deal that looks suspiciously like the Obama Nuclear Deal. Then, he can come back and claim he got the best deal ever, a deal only The Donald could get!

If he sticks to his “I have to win, I have to be seen as beating the other guy” as his game plan, we are in for a long, dangerous summer.

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Monday Wake Up Call – Trump Credibility Edition, June 17, 2019

The Daily (no) Escape:

Did Donald Trump lose all credibility last week? First, more of the “Russia, if you are listening…” in which he solicited election help from foreign governments, before backing down a little bit.

Next, hours after an attack on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, Trump said he knew who did it:

“Iran did do it and you know they did it,”
Donald Trump on “Fox & Friends”, June 14th.

This was before experts had much evidence, let alone time for analysis. Next, US Central Command released a video which they said showed:

“Iran’s Revolutionary Guard removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the oil tankers targeted near the Strait of Hormuz, suggesting the Islamic Republic sought to remove evidence of its involvement from the scene.”

The video is of such poor quality that it’s impossible to tell what’s really going on, where the boat came from, or who’s on board. Trump and Pompeo want us to believe that Iran cruised over to a heavily surveilled tanker in broad daylight to remove a limpet mine, placed several feet above the water line.

Also, it’s hard to believe that military photography technology has again failed just when we needed it. We’re back to blurry Brownie box camera pictures. When Russian artillery was photographed in Ukraine, we saw blurry indistinct B&W photos. When Russia aircraft were photographed in Syria, we saw razor sharp color images. Why can’t the US Navy buy a few iPhones to use in videoing the “Iranians”?

Finally, it’s interesting that America’s Enemy du Jour always does exactly what we want them to do, and just when we want them to do it!

The captain of the Japanese tanker said he was hit from the air, not by a mine. A photo of the Japanese tanker shows two holes well above the waterline. Iran might have done this, or it might have been a false flag operation.

We should remember that in the past 20 years, the US has attacked nations based on similar information to this. There are groups other than Iran that would benefit from the US stepping up its anti-Iran campaign, moving from an economic war to a military one.

But let’s widen out to strategy: While Trump and Pompeo were itching for a fight with Iran, China’s President Xi was completing a three-day visit to Moscow. He hailed China’s strategic ties with Russia. At the same time, Chinese and Russian military commanders met to discuss deepening their strategic partnership.

Then, both Putin and Xi met with Iran’s President Rouhani and expressed their full support for Iran despite the smoking tankers, or the US evidence that Iran was behind the attack. And China afforded its highest diplomatic status to Iran.

A strategically-minded US president would have turned the situation with tankers burning in the Persian Gulf to an advantage. It could have been an opportune time to engage China and Russia in a diplomatic coalition to deal with threats to commerce and free navigation in the Gulf.

Both China and Russia understand the potential impact of a Persian Gulf conflict to their economies. They probably would have listened. Our European allies are waiting for real proof of what happened to those tankers before expressing an opinion, given the state of America’s credibility. Only the UK currently supports Trump.

Another opportunity missed, thus advantage to Iran, while limiting US options.

Trump’s (and Bolton’s) policies of piling on more strategic risk without any gain is driving our allies away, and pushing our peers/competitors closer together.

Trump is increasing our risk of conflict, and the ramifications are global.

The main issue is credibility. We can no longer trust our government. When you can lie without consequence, then there is no value to discussing policy. If Trump wants a war, he’ll have one.

We need to wake up the American voters, who are the only people who can change this.

Their record to date, however, isn’t promising. Hopefully, the world won’t be in tatters before the November 2020 election.

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Another Take on Memorial Day

The Daily Escape:

Dunn’s River Falls, near Ocho Rios, Jamaica – 2019 photo by Ashleigh Reutzel

There were many excellent Memorial Day columns posted over the weekend, and Wrongo wants to draw your attention to Andrew Bacevich, who wrote about visiting Marseilles, Illinois, which curiously, has our only monument honoring those who died in our wars in the Middle East: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Marseilles retains one modest claim to fame. It’s the site of the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial, dedicated in June 2004….The memorial, created and supported by a conglomeration of civic-minded Illinois bikers, many of them Vietnam veterans, is the only one in the nation that commemorates those who have died during the course of the various campaigns…that have involved U.S. forces in various quarters of the Greater Middle East over the past several decades.

That tells you quite a bit about how Americans value the American sacrifice in these wars. More from Bacevich: (more emphasis by Wrongo)

Any American wanting to pay personal tribute to those who fought and died for our country in World War II or Korea or Vietnam knows where to go — to the Mall in Washington D.C….Nowhere else in this vast nation of ours has anyone invested in…the effort to remember more than a generation’s worth of less-than-triumphant American war making. Marseilles has a lock on the franchise.

We’ve been at war in the Middle East since Desert Storm. It’s hard to believe that a “Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial” isn’t on the National Mall. But, the Vietnam vets had to fight to have their monument built, over resistance from Washington.

Bacevich is originally from a nearby Illinois town, and sadly, his son is among the Middle East dead listed on the monument: (emphasis by Wrongo)

…I find myself uneasy with any reference to American soldiers having died for freedom in the Greater Middle East. Our pronounced penchant for using that term in connection with virtually any American military action strikes me as a dodge. It serves as an excuse for not thinking too deeply about the commitments, policies, and decisions that led to all those names being etched in stone, with more to come next month and probably for many years thereafter.

He closes with this:

Just as there are all-but-mandatory venues in Iowa and New Hampshire where candidates are expected to appear, why not make Marseilles, Illinois, one as well. Let all of the candidates competing to oust Donald Trump from the White House…schedule at least one campaign stop at the Middle East Conflicts Wall, press entourage suitably in tow.

One of the catch phrases of our cheap American patriotism is: “Thank you for your service,” which many (well-meaning) people say when they meet an active duty or veteran military person. As a former Army officer, Wrongo has always tempered his appreciation on hearing that with the idea that the unspoken part of that phrase is: “better you than me.”

We are reverent, but disengaged from our military. We love the troops, but we’d rather not think about them, is our norm. That wasn’t always the case. WWII and Korea were in the forefront of people’s minds while the fighting was underway. Americans were drafted into the military as late as Vietnam, and Nixon learned how difficult it was to keep Vietnam off the minds of the people.

Since we ended the draft in 1973, America hasn’t won a war. Now, less than one percent of the nation is in uniform. What is more alarming, military service has increasingly become a family affair. Coupled with troop-basing in the West and Southeast, we are quickly evolving into a Praetorian military culture, precisely as American culture fragments. Hero worship of our military has created a separate caste of military professionals. Unchecked, this will ultimately fracture our society.

Even well-meaning people don’t want to know what our policies have created, both at home and abroad. The cost of our wars is ruinous, partly because the human dimension is nearly absent from the discussion.

War is bankrupting us during a time of relative peace. We have no discernible threat comparable to our certain costs. And our media doesn’t always help us see the threats clearly.

These wars are all post-Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) wars. There have been no victory parades since the first Gulf War.

And all of these wars contribute to our fractured politics. We continue to use debt to cover the costs of our ever-expanding military, at the sacrifice of domestic needs like infrastructure, education and healthcare. We gotta wake up.

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Trump and Bolton Screw Up Geopolitics

The Daily Escape:

Sunrise, Reflection Canyon, Escalante arm of Lake Powell, UT – 2019 photo by Aaryeh95

(Reminding readers that this is the last column until Sunday when cartoons will be back on the menu. We are attending our second college graduation of the spring.)

The Week reports that President Trump is having second thoughts about sending troops to Venezuela. He complained to aides and advisers that:

“he was misled about how easy it would be to replace the socialist strongman, President Nicolás Maduro, with opposition leader Juan Guaidó, The Washington Post reports. ‘The president’s dissatisfaction has crystallized around National Security Adviser John Bolton and what Trump has groused is an interventionist stance at odds with his view that the United States should stay out of foreign quagmires.’”

“He was misled about how easy it would be to replace the socialist strongman”! Who could’ve seen that coming? Just about everyone but Trump, and the neocons around Trump. The Neocons are batting 1.000, again proving themselves to be miserable failures at geopolitics. They continue to mess up geopolitical foreplay on the way to their real goal: Regime change and war.

By listening to Bolton and Pompeo, Trump has placed Venezuela more directly in the hands of Russia. It seems that Trump’s 90-minute phone call last Friday with Vladimir Putin was meant to talk Trump out of regime change in Venezuela. A secondary benefit for Putin may turn out to be that Trump handed Moscow a permanent Atlantic military presence in South America.

What’s the upshot? It looks like Maduro was pushed into Putin’s arms. Maybe Trump and Putin can cut a deal to sort this out without a crisis.

It looks possible that Maduro got an offer from a smarter, stronger player in the geopolitical game: Vladimir Putin. Republicans are bound to be disappointed. Blowing up Maduro’s regime was high on the Bolton and Republicans’s list.

Of course, regime change is always on their list. They want regime change in North Korea. In Syria. In Venezuela. And in Iran. It would be the perfect distraction from all the talk about Mueller and impeachment. They think war is a great campaign issue for 2020.

Now, Bolton and Pompeo have shifted their focus to Iran.

On Sunday, the National Security Council announced that we were sending another carrier strike group and a bomber task force to the Persian Gulf in response to “troubling and escalatory” warnings from Iran. Bolton discussed the intelligence, saying that Iran appeared to be gearing up for war.

Help me. We all know that Russia is also more friendly with Tehran than we are. And Putin has already achieved near-total victory in Ukraine and Syria, and possibly has already bagged Venezuela. We were never going to be buddies with Iran, but will Tehran now move completely into Russia’s orbit?

To date, it looks like the worst thing Donald Trump has done is to hire John Bolton as his National Security Advisor. Of course, Bolton’s track record as a war-monger preceded him, so what’s happening now was predictable. The Neocons, including Bolton, want a war with Iran, to remake the Middle East.

Their project to remake the ME saw America destroy Iraq and Afghanistan. It fueled American regime change aspirations in Syria. It brought about the destruction of Libya. It’s also underway in Yemen.

What the Neocons are doing helps a new alliance to form. Its key members are China and Russia, but Iran is a part of it as well. The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (B&R) is meant to create routes to Europe and a Chinese-led trade zone. It is meant to bypass sending ships through the straits of Malacca (which the US can shut down any time to strangle China’s trade). It looks like the land parts of the B&R will move goods more quickly to Europe, but not as cheaply, as sea transport.

So the question is: Can Bolton talk Trump into war with Iran? Will Trump lead us into a fatal miscalculation? Trump is walking a tightrope without a net.

Even without a war, the US’s continued abuse of its privileged position in the world payments system to sanction countries like Iran and Venezuela implies that China and Russia will develop an alternative payments system. It’s inevitable.

It’s only a matter of time before international payment alternatives become viable enough that major countries will simply ignore US sanctions.

The US looks to be the big loser in the geopolitical game of chicken that Trump is playing.

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Dems Should Talk Foreign Policy

The Daily Escape:

Lumen Museum of Mountain Photography, Italy – 2018 photo by Marco Zanta. The glass-enclosed extension is a restaurant.

Every Democratic candidate for the 2020 nomination is discussing domestic policy: Medicare for All, Free College, and all of the other jump shifts in policy, but what about global politics?

Biden isn’t unique among candidates in saying the 2020 election is about a return to the way things were before Trump, the Economist reports:

“’This too shall pass,’ Joe Biden told America’s allies at the Munich Security Conference in February. ‘We will be back.’ The applause he received reflects a longing to return to a world order that existed before President Donald Trump started swinging his wrecking ball.”

It is problematic to rely on the ideas of a Clinton operative, but the Economist quotes Jake Sullivan, a 2016 Hillary advisor who says that the thrust of the Democrats’ foreign policy approach is simple: reverse much of what Trump has done. Sullivan talks of a “back to basics” approach: Value alliances, stress diplomacy:

“Compared with domestic policy….there is less focus on new ideas.”

All of the Democratic candidates would rejoin the Paris climate agreement. They would rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, possibly with new pre-conditions for lifting sanctions. All would reassure NATO allies of their full commitment to the alliance.

Most Dems agree with Trump’s more confrontational approach to China. However, they would ask America’s allies to work with us on the outcomes.

Biden has a long foreign policy track record. He proposed cutting Iraq into three states for the Sunni, Shia and Kurds. He wanted to arm the Ukrainians against Russia. He opposed the surge in Afghanistan, and the intervention in Libya.

The other candidates have said less, and have no distinctive foreign policy positions.

It would be great if we actually talked about foreign policy in the 2020 primaries. Let’s take a step back and remember 1991. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the world’s other nuclear-armed superpower, we became the sole superpower. Until then, our strategy had been to contain the Soviet Union, but afterwards, lacking a global competitor, neither Party put forth a coherent global strategy.

We blundered into the Middle East with the Gulf War in 1991. After 9/11, we attacked Afghanistan and Iraq. We then hatched the war on terror, and subsequently expanded our globalized military across the world. And when the ledger finally closes on our expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the cost will approach $4 trillion.

Had we spent that amount on domestic priorities, we could have shored up Social Security and Medicare for a generation. We could have paid for the repair of our crumbling infrastructure. Instead, we’ve emerged from our Middle East blunder with two global competitors, China and Russia, along with a huge fiscal deficit. Neither had to happen.

America has failed to see the connections between our global strategy and domestic strategy. Providing incentives to our multinational corporations that enabled them to make goods abroad has marooned large swaths of our domestic workers.

A reasonable question to discuss is whether we can continue supporting globalization while building good jobs in the heartland of America.

And there should be a real debate regarding Trump’s foreign policy. He has sided more closely with Israel. He’s walked out of the Iran nuclear deal. He’s threatened Venezuela with possible “military options” that are being seriously discussed at the Pentagon.

Over the weekend, the Israelis told Bolton and Pompeo that the Iranians are preparing to attack the approximately 5000 US military personnel in Iraq. That may or may not be true, but it led to Pompeo visiting Baghdad.

Do American voters want another war in the Middle East? Trump is daring Iran to fully withdraw from the Nuclear Deal. Who will become the fall guy if there is an Iranian closing of the Straits of Hormuz? Trump, or Iran?

Trade talks with China seem stalled. North Korea’s recent missile tests press Trump’s bet on a deal with NK. Surely Kim is carefully watching Trump’s moves in the Middle East.

Then there is Russia. The Dems overreached with Russiagate, but the Russians are working with Syria to eliminate one of the last places in Syria (Idlib) where terrorists still hold sway. Neither Israel nor Bolton seem to want a stable Syria. Will they try to force Trump to obstruct this important operation?

Debate by Democrats may focus on military spending, with some wanting to cut it, and the mainstreamers being more cautious. A new policy towards the Middle East, and Israel in particular, should be discussed.

Regardless, Trump will surely attack Dems as “soft” on national defense.

But Democrats should thoughtfully challenge the Right-wing assumption that America must have a military-first strategy, rather than a diplomacy-first strategy.

We’re stretched thin trying to have a military presence everywhere in the world. It’s worth a real debate.

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Iran: Trump Is All Gambit, No Plan

The Daily Escape:

The Mitten Buttes, Monument Valley, UT – photo by Nathan Fitzgerald

Here we go, a new gambit on Iran. The Trump administration moved on Monday to isolate Tehran economically and undercut its power across the Middle East by not extending the waivers of sanctions against countries purchasing Iranian oil.

Secretary of State Pompeo announced that the waivers which allowed eight countries to import Iranian crude oil without being subject to US sanctions will expire on May 2nd. The eight countries included are China, India, Turkey, South Korea, Japan, Greece, Italy and Taiwan. From the NYT:

“Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in announcing that current sanctions waivers…would expire on May 2, clearing the way for American economic penalties against all companies or financial institutions that continue to take part in transactions linked to buying Iranian oil.”

This decision to stop Iran’s biggest customers (China, who buys half of Iran’s oil exports) along with Japan, South Korea, India and Turkey, is a strike at Tehran’s lifeline. They export one million barrels of oil daily, and it accounts for 40% of their GDP.

Immediately, there were repercussions. Bloomberg reported that Iran threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz, a choke point in the Persian Gulf, while the Washington Examiner reported that the US has positioned a second aircraft carrier in the region.

What Trump seems intent upon is regime change. He campaigned against further wars in the Middle East, but now is catering to Saudi Arabia and Israel, both of whom, along with National Security Advisor John Bolton, are intent upon toppling the Iranian regime.

Trump’s Iran obsession makes us look terrible. Taking pages from the Iraq War playbook, Trump and Pompeo paint a picture of a rogue, outlaw, terrorist regime bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and whose “malign activities” are the cause of all the chaos in the Middle East.

This is straight from the neocon playbook: The one they’ve used before. They are building a case for war. America wants Iran out of Syria. We condemn their support for Hezbollah. We say that Iran supports the Houthis in Yemen, against our great friends, the Saudis.

This latest move is called the doctrine of “Maximum Pressure”. The goal is to cut Iran’s oil exports to zero. Will this gambit force the capitulation, or collapse, of the regime? That seems difficult to believe, but Trump and Bolton may have teed up a war.

Think about this: America is now decreeing to the rest of the world that only we decide which countries get to trade with whom. We’re telling China, the second largest economy in the world, that it lacks the sovereign authority to buy oil from Iran if it so desires.

Which do you think China will do? Both Iran and China appear to hold a better hand than the US. We can’t invade Iran and win. We can’t force China to do anything they refuse to do.

The rest of the world will have trouble understanding what Trump thinks the US can gain from this gambit, because there is no plan behind it. If Iran closes the Straits of Hormuz, will we bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran?

If China, Turkey, India and Japan continue to purchase Iranian oil, will we freeze their dollar-denominated assets in the US? If this leads to the creation of a non-dollar global payments system, what happens to the dollar as the global reserve currency? Has anyone in the Trump administration thought about that?

Once, the US used its reserve currency status and clout (largely) for good. Now, it’s just more bullying by Trump. In the end, the Trump administration may achieve a new level of worldwide cooperation against a common enemy: the USA.

Aren’t Americans sick of this neocon warmongering? Americans don’t want to be drawn into yet another ME action. It isn’t an accident that Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton, declared unequivocally in November 2002:

“We are confident that Saddam Hussein has hidden weapons of mass destruction and production facilities in Iraq…”

Is now the chief strategist behind Trump’s drive towards war, with Secretary of State Pompeo, happily riding shotgun.

It doesn’t matter that US intelligence, along with Israeli intelligence and the International Atomic Energy Agency confirm that Iran is complying with the Iran Nuclear Agreement. Or, that the US invasion of Iraq is the principle cause of Middle East chaos today.

Trump officials will cherry-pick information, package it, and amplify it, exactly as the Bush administration did in the lead-up to the Iraq war.

The real question is whether American voters will fall for this again.

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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?

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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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