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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

The US/Russian Confrontation in Syria

The Daily Escape:

Going to the Sun Road, Glacier National Park, 2016 – photo by Wrongo

They told Wrongo that if he voted for Hillary, we’d be at war in Syria. He voted for Hillary, and sure enough, looks like we could get into a war with Syria! Particularly after this:

A U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet from Carrier Air Wing 8 on board the USS George Bush shot down a Syrian Air Force Su-22 ground attack aircraft near Raqqa, Syria after the aircraft struck ground troops in Ja-Din, south of Tabqah, near Raqqa.

According to most sources it is the first time a U.S. combat aircraft has shot down a manned enemy aircraft in aerial combat in nine years.

The pro-Assad regime Syrian Su-22 that was downed had attacked Syrian Democratic Forces aligned with the U.S. led coalition and inflicted casualties on the friendly forces as they were driving south of Tabqah before it was intercepted.

Russia was displeased. They announced that they could possibly shoot down any US air craft operating in western Syria:

In the combat mission zones of the Russian aviation in the air space of Syria, all kinds of airborne vehicles, including aircraft and UAVs of the international coalition detected to the west of the Euphrates River will be tracked by the Russian SAM systems as air targets.

Treating US and allied planes as “targets” does not mean the Russians will shoot at them. What they’re saying is that they will track the planes as they would track any target, they will send their own planes to observe the targets, and possibly escort the targets out of the area.

This gets tricky: what happens if the “target” refuses to be escorted away? Do the Russians then shoot at the target? They haven’t said. But until they do start shooting, we’re not in a hot war. We’ve just moved a step closer to one possibly occurring soon.

And this would be the most dangerous confrontation between the US and Russia since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Wrongo remembers the Cuban Missile Crisis very well. He was in college. We sat around thinking that DC (where we lived) would be taken out by nuclear missiles launched by the Russkies.

This is one outcome of Trump’s outsourcing full control of military action on the ground to the generals.

One miscalculation, and Trump’s generals are making new foreign policy. Clemenceau was correct when he said that “war is too important to be left to the generals”. Who we decide to fight is one of our most important national decisions. From the American Conservative:

There has never been a Congressional vote authorizing US military operations in Syria against anyone, and there has been scant debate over any of the goals that the US claims to be pursuing there. The US launches attacks inside Syria with no legal authority from the UN or Congress, and it strains credulity that any of these operations have anything to do with individual or collective self-defense.

The US says we are in Syria to fight ISIS and evict them from Raqqa. But we have also been arming the Syrian opposition for at least three years. And we have been a party to the Syrian civil war for at least a year before that. But the underlying assumption, that it is in our interest to be fighting in Syria, has not been seriously questioned by most members of Congress.

Americans are so accustomed to fighting wars on foreign soil that we barely notice that the policy has never really been debated or put to a vote. If this Syrian confrontation leads us into a larger conflict with Russia, will it finally be time to notice what’s happening?  

Shooting down a Syrian jet shows the dangers that come from conducting a foreign policy unmoored from both the national interest and representative government.

It was shot down because it was threatening rebels opposed to the Syrian government, and the US supports those rebels, apparently up to and including destroying Syrian regime forces that attack them. We say we are there to fight ISIS. That has sufficient support by the people and the Congress. If we are also fighting to oust Assad, we are doing something that requires a full debate.

Without that debate, when we shoot down a Syrian plane inside its own country, we have committed an act of war against another state.

A bit of music. Here is Paramore with “Hard Times”:

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

Takeaway Lyric:

All that I want Is to wake up fine
Tell me that I’m alright
That I ain’t gonna die
All that I want
Is a hole in the ground
You can tell me when it’s alright
For me to come out

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Light Reading

The Daily Escape:

Amsterdam – photo by Wrongo

Quote: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” – Winston Churchill

This quote somehow seems appropriate, after the “I’ve got a secret” game that the Orange Overlord just played with the Russians.

Anyway, here are a few links that you may have missed as the press ganged up on the Pantload:

Bees are still struggling to avoid colony collapse worldwide. US beekeepers can tolerate up to 15% losses of colonies over winter, but we lost 28.1% of colonies over the 2015-16 winter.

New data shows that golfers of all abilities think they hit the ball farther than they do. They also think their clubs are the best.

The US made a deal with ISIS fighters that they would let the fighters go if they would leave the Tabqah Dam untouched. ISIS kept its side of the deal, and didn’t blow up the dam. As soon as they departed, the US attacked them in open country. It is doubtful that ISIS will make that kind of deal again.

Congress is considering changing the National Flood Insurance Program, which has a $25 billion debt that its director says cannot be repaid. But, members of Congress disagree over how much homeowners should be forced to pay for flood insurance if the program is to become solvent.

Several big-name hedge funds trimmed their holdings in financial companies in the first quarter. Could they know something you don’t?

Bonus photo from Amsterdam:

The Hash, Marijuana and Hemp Museum – Photo by Wrongo

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Russia’s Growing Influence With North Korea

The Daily Escape:

Lanterns lit last week for Buddha’s Birthday, Samgwangsa Temple, Busan, South Korea – photo by Jason Teale

Yesterday, Wrongo mentioned that Russia might prove helpful to Donald Trump in his efforts to deal with a nuclear-capable North Korea (NK). Today, Stratfor has a column about Russia’s relationship with NK. Rather than quote extensively from a long article, Wrongo has condensed from it, particularly about the history of Russia/North Korean relations.

History gives perspective: The Soviet Union and the US were the actors that split North and South Korea at the end of WWII. In the 1950s, both Koreas became a proxy battleground, pitting the communist North against the US-aligned South. After China and North Korea agreed to an Armistice with the UN and South Korea in 1953, the Soviets helped to build up the military and security forces in NK, ensuring its stability. Some Soviet-era military equipment is still in use today.

The Soviets were a key NK economic partner throughout the Cold War. They accounted for nearly half of NK’s foreign trade in the 1970s and 1980s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, trade dropped off. China now accounts for 90% of NK’s imports, but about a third of that is Russian-sourced.

Putin saw the strategic value of good relations with NK, including how Russia could manipulate its influence in the region to pressure NK, or to put pressure the US and South Korea. Russia has criticized NK’s nuclear weapons tests and ballistic missile programs, and participated in the six-party nuclear disarmament talks along with China, the US, Japan and North Korea and South Korea.

In 2014, Russia joined in levying sanctions against NK, halting supplies of ships, helicopters and minerals in response to its continued nuclear tests. But, neither China nor Russia has cut their economic or military ties with NK. And both governments have opposed expanded sanctions or regime change.

Russia and NK have improved ties since the breakdown in Russia’s relations with the West over Crimea and Ukraine. In 2014, Moscow officially settled NK’s Soviet-era debt of $11 billion, forgiving most of it. NK granted Russian business executives long-term multiple-entry visas for the first time. In addition, Russia has provided millions of dollars’ worth of food aid to NK in recent years, including nearly half of the country’s grain imports.

One way that the two countries have expanded their cooperation is through the employment of temporary NK workers in Russia. Nearly 50,000 North Koreans were granted Russian work permits in 2015. In April, Russia’s parliament passed a bill allowing NK workers to travel visa-free to Vladivostok. Russia estimates that North Korea receives $170 million in remittances from its workers in Russia.

No doubt, Russia sees its relationship with NK as small potatoes. But Russia is not small potatoes for NK. While it will not replace China as NK’s primary partner, Russia has the capacity to play spoiler to the US plans to control NK’s nuclear ambitions. Today, Russia has its hands full with Syria, Crimea and Ukraine. But, its influence on the North Koreans can give it leverage, in the event that America’s Orange Negotiator needs help making a deal on the Korean peninsula.

Putin could add weight to China’s effort to lean on NK, forcing NK to come to the table. In return, His Orangeness might be persuaded to go easy on Putin’s goals in Ukraine or Syria, in addition to whatever he will owe China, if the pressure succeeded.

Russia can’t solve our problem with NK, but it might be able to move the dial enough either to play the spoiler, or to be an ally in any American efforts to defuse the Korean problem.

Here is a martial song from North Korea: “Leader, Just Give Us Your Order!” Don’t you just wonder what that order will be?

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

Warning! Don’t scroll through the comments, it weakens the mind. A recent one says:

“Comrade Kim Jong Un, just give us the order to wipe out all imperialists and to reunificate Korea!”

Reunificate!

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Monday Wake Up Call – May 1, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Interior of the Oculus, NYC – photo by Timothy A. Clary

On Saturday, Wrongo scoffed at David Brooks, who said that Donald Trump’s foreign policy moves:

…have been, if anything, kind of normal…

Another part of US foreign policy that is FAR from normal is our effort to square the circle between our NATO ally Turkey, and our Kurdish allies in Syria and Iraq, who are fighting with us to eliminate ISIS as a force in Syria.

Last Tuesday, Turkey triggered a crisis when it launched airstrikes on US-backed YPG Kurdish fighters. The YPG is a Syrian sister organization of the Kurdish PKK Party in Turkey. Turkey believes the YPG and the PKK are terrorist groups whose goal is to destabilize Turkey.

Within Syria, US Special Forces are embedded with the YPG and are coordinating YPG’s moves against ISIS around Raqqa. The Turkish airstrikes killed at least 18 people, destroying the group’s headquarters. The airstrikes triggered heavy artillery and mortar exchanges between Turkish troops and Kurdish forces along the border, raising concerns that Turkey might send its forces into Syria, something the US opposes.

The YPG wants to divert forces from the attack on Raqqa to protect against further Turkish adventures, something the US doesn’t want. Now we learn that the US has placed some of its very limited military resources in Syria between the Turks and the Kurds in an effort to calm the hostilities. From the WSJ:

American forces have started patrolling the Turkey-Syria border to prevent further clashes between Turkish troops and Kurdish fighters, which could undermine the fight against Islamic State, U.S. officials said Friday.

This is the second time we had to break up the fight between the Turks and the Kurds in Syria. We made a similar move last month in Manbij, a northern Syrian town at the epicenter of a fight between Kurdish forces, Syrian government troops and Turkish-backed militants.

We have become our own UN-style peacekeeping force between Turkey and our Kurdish allies in the midst of our very real effort to take Raqqa from ISIS.

So, where are we going with Turkey, the Kurds and Syria? In the ME, the Kurds are one of the few groups the US can trust to perform militarily. They have fought alongside our troops in this region for years. In the past, we have sold them out in favor of Iraqi and Turkish geopolitical desires more than once.

OTOH, Turkey is a NATO ally, one who is the enemy of our Kurdish allies. We have several Airbases in Turkey which help with the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. If the Turks asked us to leave, our military effectiveness in the ME would be seriously weakened.

More than 25 million Kurds live in the region straddling the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. They are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the ME, but they do not have a permanent nation-state. The Kurds can see that a state could be created from the NE portion of Syria, and the region they already control in Iraq, if the Turks, along with Syria and its allies would allow it to happen.

Where does the US stand on this? Would we back the Turkish aspiration to control a Syrian buffer area between the Kurds to the East in Syria and in Iraq, and the Kurds in the West in Syria?

Would Russia, Syria, and Iran allow Turkey to succeed at that? What would happen if Russia and Iran moved against Turkey, if the Turks established a foothold in Northern Syria? Would the US come to Turkey’s defense?

Turkish President Erdogan is visiting Trump in DC in mid-May. Last Friday, Mr. Erdogan said he would personally urge Mr. Trump to stop working with the YPG, but Trump plans to directly arm them. What will the US response be to Erdogan, who looks more like a dictator controlling our only Islamic NATO ally?

Time for Trump and the State Department to wake up and solve the complex issues in Syria. Who knew being president would be so hard? This is not a time for shooting from the hip, or for deal-making, but for establishing principles for the end game in Syria with our most difficult NATO partner.

To help Trump and Tillerson wake up, here is the progressive rock band Yes, Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductees. The ceremony was broadcast Saturday night on HBO. The band’s co-founder, Jon Anderson, reunited for a performance of “Roundabout” from 1971. He’s here with bassist Geddy Lee, guitarist Steve Howe, keyboardist Rick Wakeman, guitarist Trevor Rabin and drummer Alan White:

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

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Monday Wake Up Call – April 10, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Wildflowers in the Temblor Range, CA. April 2017 photo by Robyn Beck

We still have little hard evidence proving that Syria gassed its own people. Much like Iraq in 2003, we have made a military move that feels great emotionally, but that isn’t built on a solid foundation of fact. That the Syrian government deliberately used chemical weapons to bomb its civilians became absolute truth in US media in less than 24 hours.

And once that tidal wave of American war frenzy starts rolling, questioning the casus belli is not permitted. Wanting conclusive evidence before commencing military action will get you vilified, denounced as a sympathizer with America’s enemies.

When Trump launched the tomahawks, most in the mainstream media suddenly fawned all over him. Margret Sullivan in the WaPo quoted several, starting with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria:

I think Donald Trump became president of the United States last night…

And the NYT’s headline:

 On Syria attack, Trump’s heart came first

Sullivan noted that the NYT’s piece failed to even mention that Trump is keeping refugees from the Syrian war, even children, out of the US. Victims of chemical weapons were “beautiful babies” to Trump at his news conference, while the children trying to flee such violence require “extreme vetting” and face an indefinite refugee ban. And this from the WSJ’s Bret Stephens, previously a Trump critic:

 President Trump has done the right thing and I salute him for it…Now destroy the Assad regime for good.

Perhaps the worst was MSNBC’s Brian Williams, who used the word “beautiful” three times when discussing the tomahawk missile launches. He quoted a Leonard Cohen lyric (from First We Take Manhattan): I am guided by the beauty of our weapons — without apparent irony:

We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two US Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean…I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’…They are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is for them what is a brief flight over to this airfield…

Williams might have focused on: What did they hit? What are the strategic consequences?

Many of these same media pukes were continuously expressing doubts about Trump’s judgment since before his election. But, when he orders the use of force, his judgment needs to be questioned by them more than ever. One reason that the US so easily resorts to the use of force abroad is that the very people that should be the first to question the rationale for a presidential military decision are instead among the first to cheer it and celebrate it.

We see groupthink most of the time when the American news media watches an administration step up to the brink of war. This was true in the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003, the start of our longest military disaster.

Journalists and pundits need to keep virtues like skepticism, facts on the ground, and context fixed firmly in their minds. They should not be like Brian Williams, focused on spectacular images in the night sky, without contemplating their deadly effect.

For example, how can the media NOT ask how Trump, a man with little outward empathy, can change in a minute, suddenly becoming a caring individual about beautiful Syrian babies? Or, how in a period of 24 hours, Trump managed to flip-flop 180 degrees on a position about Syria that he’s held for years?

Why is the media leading the cheers on Syria, but keeping silent about Yemen?

Why are there never pictures of “beautiful”dead babies after our drone strikes go awry?

Time for the main stream media to wake up and do their jobs in an old school way. To help them wake up, here is Brian Williams’s favorite lyricist, Leonard Cohen, with “First We Take Manhattan”:

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

Takeaway Lyric:

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

I’m guided by a signal in the heavens
I’m guided by this birthmark on my skin
I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

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Trump’s Syrian Mistake

The Daily Escape

(Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque, photographed before the war, in 2009)

Joshua Landis edits a blog called “Syria Comment”, and his last post was about Trump’s strategy for taking Raqqa from ISIS. He thinks allying with Turkey at the expense of the Kurds is a mistake.

Wrongo’s March 13 post discussed Trump’s Syrian strategy:

We are watching a continuation of the policy that predates the Trump presidency, the balkanization of Syria by alternative means…Trump’s “A Team” of generals seem to have fallen back on the old plan.

Landis thinks that Trump is planning to give the Turks free hand in taking Raqqa and most likely all of the Euphrates Valley. Turkey has proposed taking Raqqa from the north at Tel Abyad. The map below points out the geography:

Tel Abyad is the large black dot near the top of the map. This approach would drive through the middle of the Kurdish region (the purple shaded area above), cutting it in two. This splitting of the Kurdish territory is the main reason Turkey has offered to take Raqqa. From Landis:

Turkey hopes to establish its Arab proxies in a new “Euphrates state” in eastern Syria. This would partition Syria into three states: a western Assad-ruled state; an eastern Turkish and Sunni Arab rebel-ruled state, and a northern Kurdish state.

If the US allows Turkey to do this, it will lose the Kurds as allies in the attack on Raqqa, or in any other part of ISIS territory. Turkey says it is the only way that they can participate, because Assad’s army has already taken territory east of Aleppo, which has cut off Turkey’s access to Raqqa via al-Bab. Landis asks:

Why are the Kurds willing to take Raqqa even though they do not have territorial interests in and around Raqqa? They are investing in their relationship with the US. They assume that it will serve them well over the long run when it comes to their political aspirations.

A major issue with following Turkey’s plan is that they have dangerous Islamic fundamentalist allies. Turkey’s Arab rebel allies include Ahrar al-Sham, (similar to the Taliban, and adamantly opposed to the US). If the Turkey/Ahrar coalition rules the Euphrates post-ISIS, it will become a haven for Salafists and al-Qaida’s coalition.

For the past five years, Turkey has teamed with al-Qaida’s forces in Syria. It allowed them to mass inside Turkey in 2013. Turkey has no problem with them being part of its Arab force, since their strategy is to use the Salafists as proxies in thwarting Kurdish regional ambitions. More from Landis:

These…are the reasons that American generals do not want to work with Turkey. They don’t trust it, both because it wants to attack our Kurdish allies and because it is soft on al-Qaida-like rebel groups.

Our generals don’t fully trust this NATO partner to act in America’s interest!

What’s more, there is a likelihood that Iran, Russia, Syria, and Iraq would move against a Turkey-led Sunni land grab. They will not allow a Sunni rebel enclave in the middle of their spheres of influence. Landis: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

The US would [then] be expected to side with Turkey and the Sunni rebels in a long and escalating war against the Shiites. I think this is a swamp waiting to suck the US into its malodorous depths.

For more than 15 years, we have been engaged in a war in the Middle East. Now, the Pentagon is planning to send another 1, 000 troops to Syria in the coming weeks. This is indeed an endless war.

Let’s get ISIS, but we shouldn’t be teaming solely with the Turks in the effort to destroy ISIS. The great Orange negotiator should stand up to the Turks on this.

Now for some Syrian music. Here is Refugees of Rap with their song, “Haram” (“Forbidden” in Arabic):

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

Sample Lyrics (translated):

Came out of the house
I smelled gunpowder
Voices from the minarets

Say go back to your houses
Shells on the neighborhoods come down like rain
I felt more scared, I felt a sense of danger
I completed my way and approaching death to me more and more
Average people say Allahu Akbar
I saw the neighborhood; neighborhood was red in color
The smell of blood and body parts in front of me scatter
I ran to help my friend was injured
Hospitals in dire need of blood donation and mosques shouting
Walls in the streets become white in color

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Trump’s ISIS Strategy

The Daily Escape:

(We are back from 75° weather and as this is written, we are about to see 12″-18″ of snow.)

The NYT had an editorial on Monday that said Donald Trump was a man without a plan on ISIS:

On the campaign trail, no foreign policy issue seized Donald Trump more than the fight against the Islamic State. Once president, he signed an executive order giving his generals 30 days to produce a plan to defeat the terrorist group, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis gave him options on Feb. 27.

The Times says Trump has no plan. But Pat Lang at Sic Semper Tyrannis says the plan has already been executed:

James Mattis, in his generalissimo mode of action has, IMO, been given the imperial wave of dismissal and sent forth to destroy IS. “Make it so!”

According to Lang, the signs are clear:

  1. There is greater coordination and “de-confliction” between the US and Russia in air operations against ISIS. Lang points out that the rebel group “hayat tahrir al-sham” has now been designated as a terrorist organization by the US government. This makes them legitimate targets under the AUMF.
  2. The insertion of a Marine artillery battery to provide fire support for operations to retake Raqqa.
  3. Several hundred soldiers from the 75th Ranger Regiment have been positioned in and around Manbij to referee among the Turks, Assad’s Syrian Arab Army, (SAA), et al, to keep unwanted actors out of the coming battle to take Raqqa.

More from Lang:

I estimate these signs to…indicate that Trump and his generalissimo have decided to roll the iron dice and commit whatever force is necessary to destroy IS in both Syria and Iraq.

Wrongo agrees with Lang that the war to eliminate ISIS is on. We know a bit about the effort to take Mosul in Iraq, but have heard nothing about Syria. Trump said quite plainly that he had no intention of giving any advance notice of his military intentions. That seems prudent and logical to Wrongo.

But, basic contradictions persist:

  • Who will fight house by house to re-take Raqqa? Not Americans, or the Kurds. If Mosul is any indication, Sunnis will die to the last true believer if Jihadi families can’t be bussed out.
  • Who will be the occupiers of Eastern Syria? The SAA has a legitimate right to be in Raqqa. Will Israel and the Gulf Monarchies sit idly by while Iran and Syria complete the Shia Crescent?

Many questions. If the 21st century has shown us anything, it is that neoliberal supranational rule brings only inequality and chaos. If there is ever going to be peace, if the flow of refugees is to be ended, national governments must be rebuilt, and their borders secured.

Only then can supranational alliances work to address the world’s problems.

Assad has called us Syrian invaders. Unlike the Russians, Iranians, and Hezbollah, we were not invited by Syria to attend the “slay a few jihadis” party, nor are the Turks. While the YPG/SDF certainly seem agreeable to our being there, it doesn’t make our entry legal under international law. The AUMF probably provides the cover of our national law to be in Syria, but international law does not.

We seem to have traded John McCain’s beloved Free Syrian Army unicorns for the much more effective YPG/SDF, who will now act as our “Assad must go” surrogates. If that’s Trump’s plan, then we are cooked. Trump shouldn’t be allowed to let that policy stand. He stated before he became POTUS that he thought that any form of larger commitment of combat forces into Syria would be a mistake.

But here we are watching a continuation of the policy that predates the Trump presidency, the balkanization of Syria by alternative means.

Trump’s “A Team” of generals seem to have fallen back on the old plan. Can you smell the mission creep? We shouldn’t be staying in Syria once the ISIS fighters in Raqqa are reduced to corpses on the desert sand.

A musical interlude to take you away from geopolitics. Here is “Jessica”, the classic Allman Brothers tune, re-imagined by Kevin Burke, legendary Celtic violinist and veteran rocker John Brennan, from their album The Pound Ridge Sessions. The title comes from where the album was recorded, Pound Ridge, NY.

They substitute violins for guitars, and it is a nice version. Here is “Jessica”:

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

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North Korea Poses a Problem for Trump, Bigly

The Daily Escape:

(Key West flower by Denise M. Riggs)

CNN reported that on Monday, North Korea (NK) fired four ballistic missiles into the Japan Sea. CNN was told by a US official that a fifth missile failed to launch. More from CNN:

Later on Monday, two US officials told CNN that US intelligence is closely monitoring the underground nuclear test site via satellite amid signs the regime could be preparing for another underground test…A US official also said that Washington is continuing to see activity including missile engine tests at another North Korean launch site, that signal potential additional launches — which the US widely expects.

This creates a strategic problem for the Trump administration. Trump has already signaled his preference to respond aggressively to NK’s missile program. In a Twitter post after Kim Jong-un issued a warning on New Year’s Day, Trump tweeted “It won’t happen!

Obama used a different approach:

Three years ago, President Barack Obama ordered Pentagon officials to step up their cyber and electronic strikes against North Korea’s missile program in hopes of sabotaging test launches in their opening seconds.

Soon a large number of the North’s military rockets began to explode, veer off course, disintegrate in midair and plunge into the sea. Advocates of such efforts say they believe that targeted attacks have given American antimissile defenses a new edge and delayed by several years the day when North Korea will be able to threaten American cities with nuclear weapons launched atop intercontinental ballistic missiles.

But other experts have grown increasingly skeptical of the new approach…Over the past eight months, they note, the North has managed to successfully launch three medium-range rockets. And…North [Korea] is in “the final stage in preparations” for the inaugural test of its intercontinental missiles — perhaps a bluff, perhaps not.

The US lacks the ability to fully counter the NK nuclear and missile programs. The NYT’s reporting indicates that the NK danger was great enough that as Obama left office, he warned Trump it was likely to be the most urgent problem he [Trump] would confront.

As a presidential candidate, Trump said “we’re obsolete in cyber”. Now, one of the immediate questions he faces is whether to accelerate, or scale back existing cyber efforts. The US is also looking at ways to freeze the Kim family’s assets, some of which are held in Chinese banks. The Chinese have opposed the US deployment of the US high-altitude missile defense system known as THAAD in South Korea; but the Trump team may also deploy THADD systems in Japan.

A Trump administration official told the NYT that they are looking at pre-emptive military strike options, although the challenge is huge, given the country’s mountainous terrain, deep tunnels and bunkers. This is complicated. NK missiles are fired from multiple launch sites and are moved about on mobile launchers in an elaborate shell game meant to deceive adversaries.

Putting American tactical nukes back in South Korea (they were withdrawn 25 years ago) is also under consideration, even though that could accelerate a regional nuclear arms race.

Trump could re-open negotiations with NK to again freeze its nuclear and missile programs, but that would leave the current threat in place. He could prepare for direct missile strikes on the launch sites, but there is little chance of hitting all targets. He could press the Chinese to cut off trade and support for NK, but Beijing has always stopped short of steps that could lead to the regime’s collapse. The NYT said:

In two meetings of Mr. Trump’s national security deputies in the Situation Room, the most recent on Tuesday, all those options were discussed, along with the possibility of reintroducing nuclear weapons to South Korea as a dramatic warning. Administration officials say those issues will soon go to Mr. Trump and his top national security aides.

Dealing with NK requires a steady hand, and an ability to sort through complex relationships. Rash decisions will not work, while well thought-out tactics might.

Sadly, Trump has not convinced us that he has the temperament to deal with a complex situation like NK presents.

Here is the Moranbong Band, an all-female North Korean group whose members were personally selected by Kim Jong-un. Here they are performing “My Country Is The Best!”:

Everyone thinks their country is the best.

This has a decidedly Euro pop flavor. One wag said all that is missing is Robert Palmer standing in the foreground singing “Addicted to Love”. Check out the woman playing lead guitar at 2:34.

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

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Trump’s Defense Budget

(The Wrongologist is heading to Florida today. The next column will be Sunday’s Cartoons)

The Daily Escape:

(Water Buffalo at night – Zimanga Private Game Reserve, South Africa)

Wrongo did not watch Donald Trump’s latest reality show. Many are giving him some credit, saying that “it’s the most presidential he’s ever been”. What a low bar.

We should ignore the tone, and focus on the content. Today let’s discuss Trump’s aspirations regarding defense spending, cuts in non-defense discretionary spending and Trump’s tax reduction plans. In his speech, Trump repeated his commitment to increasing defense spending by $54 billion.

The Budget Control Act caps military spending at $549 billion for 2018. Trump’s proposed increase would bring military spending to $603 billion. He indicated that would mean getting rid of the Sequester spending cap agreement. But, he didn’t address how the spending caps would be overturned (it requires 60 Senate votes). And there was also nothing said about the rest of the budget, including the subject of what programs will be cut to fund the defense increase.

The problem is math. Trump’s plans require solving simultaneous equations: It may be impossible to cut discretionary spending by enough to fund the defense increase. It will be difficult to give a big personal and corporate tax cut while spending $1 Trillion on infrastructure. As Bryce Covert at Bloomberg said:

To increase defense spending, cut taxes, spend money on infrastructure and the border, protect entitlements, and balance the budget, almost everything else must go.

Neither Trump nor Congressional Republicans had a better idea about how to accomplish that after the speech than they had before it.

Trump in particular, has no idea. In a Fox interview on Tuesday, Trump argued that his increase in defense spending could be covered not by severe spending cuts elsewhere, but by an increase in economic growth. He said:

I think the money is going to come from a revved up economy…

He promised on TV to grow GDP by 3% or more each year, not something that is all that easy to do. The economic concept behind his thinking is the Laffer curve, which says that an optimal level of taxation will assure high economic growth. It’s a discredited theory.

If Trump and Congress can’t get Sequestration eliminated and they still want to spend the $54 billion, non-defense spending would be 25% below what it used to be, bringing spending on these programs to the lowest level ever recorded. The historical low point of Discretionary non-defense spending was 3.09% of GDP in 1962; Trump’s proposal could bring it below 3%.

Military spending increases are never justified to Americans by what the money will be used for. Instead, we hear vague arguments about how we need to be “stronger”, or laundry lists of the various kinds of new hardware we need to buy, without any focus on the strategic rationale for the new hardware. For example, how do new aircraft carriers help defeat ISIS?

More military spending has an opportunity cost: If we spend on defense, that’s money we can’t spend on education, healthcare, or rudimentary things, like the State Department.

It can’t be enough to say that larger numbers will make us safer.

We need a geopolitical rationale for why additional defense spending is necessary. Trump hasn’t offered that argument. He and the GOP say that President Obama “neglected” the military, but in truth, Obama left our military stronger than it was under Reagan: If we look at total military spending by China, Russia and the US in 2015, the US accounted for 68% of that total, while Russia accounted for 8% and China for 24%

Under Reagan the totals were: US, 62%, Russia, 36% and China 2%. So we are up from 62% to 68% under the Kenyan Muslim.

We should be thinking about cutting defense spending, not increasing it.

Take a break and listen to guitar hero Joe Bonamassa playing “Further on Up the Road” live in 2009 at Royal Albert Hall with his hero, Eric Clapton:

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

 

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February 17, 2017

The Daily Escape:

(National Library of Ireland)

The NATO Defense Ministers are meeting this week, and a big issue is the financial support provided by the member nations. The US spends more of its GDP on NATO than any other member, 3.6%, or $664 billion in 2016. NATO countries have committed to spending 2% of their GDP on the military, but the only countries currently meeting that target are Britain, Poland, Estonia and Greece. At a preliminary meeting, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the ministers would “stress the importance of fair burden-sharing and higher defence spending,”

New US Defense Secretary, Gen. Jim Mattis, warned that continued American support for NATO could depend on other NATO countries meeting their spending commitments:

Americans cannot care more for your children’s future security than you do…I owe it to you to give you clarity on the political reality in the US and to state the fair demand from my country’s people in concrete terms…If your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to this alliance, each of your capitals needs to show support for our common defense…

Europe is reluctant to pay for its own defense. The GDP of the EU approximates that of the US, but its military budget is less than half of ours. Trump is correct to question why Europe doesn’t pay its fair share. Of course, he isn’t the first US president to make that point.

This issue is well known, but a Win/Gallup survey provides a disturbing portrait of the will of people in Europe to defend themselves. The survey shows that 61% of people polled across 64 countries would be willing to fight for their country. However, there are significant differences in willingness to fight by region. It is highest in the Middle East (83%), but, it is lowest in Western Europe (25%).

Win/Gallup surveyed a total of 62,398 persons globally, and developed a representative sample of around 1000 men and women in each country. This is somewhat old data, the field work was conducted during September 2014 – December 2014.

In Europe, the highest number willing to fight was Finland at 74%. The Netherlands was at 15%, Germany was at 18%, Belgium, 19%, Italy, 20%, UK, 27%, France, 29%.  Except for Turkey at 73%, Greece at 54%, and Sweden at 55%, a clear minority of people in the NATO countries said they would be willing to fight for their country.

Only 44% of Americans surveyed said that they would fight for our country.

We should remember that like us, most European armies have professional militaries, and that is probably reflected in the survey results. Neutral Finland still has a draft, and trained reserve of about 900 000. They also have an 830 mile border with Russia.

It is also possible that there was confusion, with some respondents thinking about fighting an offensive war, while some could have been thinking of a defensive war. Another difference could be due to whether the respondents think an offensive or defensive war is more likely for their country.

Europeans have become used to having the US foot much of the NATO bill. The bigger question is raised by the Gallup survey: What would they do if we had a real fight?

BTW, would most Americans fight for America? Survey says “no”.

 

With the Trump administration’s moves to deport Mexicans, let’s remember a plane crash in Los Gatos Canyon in January 1948 that resulted in 32 dead. The news reported it as four Americans and 28 migrant workers whose names were not recorded. They were simply called “deportees” in news reports, because they were being deported back to Mexico. Woody Guthrie wrote “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” to remember them. Here is Judy Collins with “Deportee”:

On Labor Day, 2013, a monument was unveiled listing the names of the 28 who perished in the crash. After 65 years, the names of the 28 were finally known.

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

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