Daniel Larison

Trump Continues His Dangerous North Korea Rhetoric

The efforts of Trump’s Cabinet officials to do damage control after his “fire and fury” rhetoric were wasted:

“Frankly, the people who were questioning that statement — was it too tough? Maybe it wasn’t tough enough,” Trump said. “They’ve been doing this to our country for a long time, for many years, and it’s about time that somebody stuck up for the people of this country and for the people of other countries. So, if anything, maybe that statement wasn’t tough enough.”

Since Trump is preoccupied with the appearance of strength and “toughness,” it is not surprising that this is how he judges his own statements. It doesn’t register with him that many people were “questioning” his previous threat because it was wildly irresponsible and reckless, but only because it was “too tough.” So he made another threat that “things will happen to them like they never thought possible.” Of course, the more that Trump makes public threats, the more he boxes himself in and blocks himself off from being able to accept a diplomatic compromise. Given Trump’s disdain for diplomacy, that may be on purpose, or it may simply be another example of his ineptitude, but with each new episode of posturing he makes a negotiated solution less likely.

Perhaps the most dangerous part of Trump’s latest statement is his assumption that “it’s about time that somebody stuck up for the people of this country and for the people of other countries,” as if North Korea has been running roughshod over all of us until now. He doesn’t see that he has taken a dangerous situation and made it even more so, but imagines that he is “sticking up” for everyone against a bully by issuing alarming threats that do nothing but worry most Americans and our allies.

Update: Trump compounded his errors earlier this morning:

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North Korea and the Nuclear Deal

Jeffrey Lewis states something obvious that many people in the U.S. don’t want to admit:

There are really two assessments in the Post’s report. One, dated July 28, is that the intelligence community — not just the Defense Intelligence Agency, contrary to what you may have heard — “assesses North Korea has produced nuclear weapons for ballistic missile delivery, to include delivery by ICBM-class missiles.” The other assessment, published earlier in July, stated that North Korea had 60 nuclear weapons — higher than the estimates usually given in the press. Put them together, though, and its pretty clear that the window for denuclearizing North Korea, by diplomacy or by force, has closed [bold mine-DL].

These judgments are front-page news, but only because we’ve been living in collective denial.

In response to the recent U.N. Security Council vote, North Korea’s government stated that it would not negotiate over its nuclear or missile programs. The assumption that seems to be behind Trump administration policy is that they can be cajoled into doing this, and furthermore that they can be pressured into making concessions on these issues before talks begin. The administration is laboring under the delusion that it is still possible to persuade North Korea to give up on things that its government considers essential to its security. If anything, the heightened tensions and increased pressure in recent months have just confirmed their leadership in the belief that they need their nuclear weapons and missiles more than ever. Needless to say, talking about raining down “fire and fury” on them isn’t going to make them more likely to compromise on this point.

One of the more common hawkish refrains about North Korea is that “diplomacy has been tried and it failed,” but this ignores that North Korea acquired nuclear weapons in response to some of the same pressure tactics that hawks wanted to use in lieu of the nuclear deal with Iran. There was a diplomatic agreement in place that had succeeded in limiting North Korea’s nuclear program, but the Bush administration wasn’t satisfied with it. They blew up the agreement, and North Korea withdrew from the NPT and tested its first nuclear weapon soon thereafter. North Korea is a cautionary tale about what happens when hard-liners in Washington prefer to scrap an imperfect but working nonproliferation agreement in favor of pursuing the fantasy of forcing the other side’s total capitulation. It is why we should appreciate the successful nuclear deal with Iran, and it is why much-derided diplomatic engagement with North Korea is the best way to reduce tensions and manage the new reality bequeathed to us by short-sighted hard-liners over a decade ago.

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North Korea and the Trump Administration’s Foreign Policy Dysfunction

Tillerson’s attempts to reassure Americans following Trump’s incendiary rhetoric on North Korea do not seem very reassuring:

“I think Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days,” Mr. Tillerson said as his plane stopped to refuel in Guam, the very island that North Korea threatened to target. He added, “Nothing I have seen and nothing I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.”

It is understandable that Tillerson wants to back away from the alarming rhetoric that the president used earlier this week, but this points to the key problem with the rhetoric and reminds us of the slapdash, dysfunctional way that this administration conducts its foreign policy. If Americans should “have no concerns about this particular rhetoric,” neither should North Korea, and so Trump’s threat was meaningless bluster that should never have been uttered in public. The U.S. shouldn’t make threats that it isn’t prepared to carry out, but threatening to attack North Korea is a deranged thing to do in any case, so there is no excuse for what Trump did. The trouble here isn’t just that Trump made an irresponsible and dangerous threat that he would have to be out of his mind to follow through on, but he still doesn’t grasp why he shouldn’t have done it:

For his part, Mr. Trump seemed pleased with the uproar caused by his remarks, and was in good spirits on Wednesday.

Unfortunately, Tillerson’s reassurances con’t carry as much weight when we know that the president didn’t coordinate this statement with anyone else, and none of his national security officials expected him to say anything like this. We have seen how Tillerson and Trump repeatedly contradict one another on various issues, so it is never clear when we should take Tillerson’s statements as a reliable guide to what U.S. policy is at any given moment.

When foreign governments already doubt Tillerson speaks for the president, it hardly helps when he has to minimize or dismiss the content of what the president says because the president’s statements are so irresponsible and inflammatory. Tillerson reinterpreted Trump’s obvious threat of attack to mean that “the president just wanted to be clear to the North Korean regime on the U.S. unquestionable ability to defend itself . . . and its allies,” but in order to believe that you have to ignore everything Trump said, and that is what Tillerson is asking us to do.

This is part of a worrisome pattern with how U.S. foreign policy is run now: administration officials aren’t kept in the loop, the president doesn’t consult with them ahead of time, and he throws rhetorical bombs that then force them to clean up the mess that he creates. Maybe it will be a random insult directed at an ally, maybe it will be a reckless threat against an adversary, or maybe it will be an unnecessary intervention in a foreign crisis. None of these is desirable, but the bigger problem is that Trump is making it all up on his own off the cuff without any advance warning to the rest of the government or preparation for the likely consequences. That would be bad enough if Trump actually knew something about any of the things he is talking about, but his impulsiveness is matched only by his remarkable lack of understanding of the foreign policy issues in question.

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The U.S. Is Deeply Complicit in the Wrecking of Yemen

Jonah Shepp does a fine job summarizing the destruction caused by the war on Yemen and U.S. complicity in that destruction:

Both of these crises are entirely man-made. The famine in Yemen is not a consequence of drought or crop failure — indeed, in recent decades Yemen has shifted most of its agricultural land to growing the stimulant drug qat and other cash crops, and imports almost 90 percent of its food. Rather, the famine is the intentional result of a two-year blockade imposed on the country by Saudi Arabia, with the help of its allies, including the U.S., in a deliberate effort to starve the rebel-held areas into submission. The ruthless siege tactics of the Saudi-led coalition are also directly to blame for the cholera outbreak. Saudi Arabia has targeted civilian areas with its bombs, destroying vital infrastructure like hospitals and water systems [bold mine-DL]. Dr. Homer Venters, director of programs at Physicians for Human Rights, says we are witnessing the “weaponization of disease” in Yemen, as well as in Syria.

I recommend reading the entire article. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with virtually everything he mentions, but it is very well done. It is always good when the war and humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen get more coverage, but unfortunately Shepp’s article is notable for being one of the very few pieces of commentary on the war in recent months. It also stands out for being one of the very few pieces that holds the Saudi-led coalition and their Western backers responsible for causing most of the damage to the country.

As Shepp goes on to explain, one reason that the U.S. can get away with enabling these disasters is that there continues to be remarkably little coverage of the war and its effects. Because of that, there is little awareness of the U.S. role and hardly any pressure on the government to change its policy. The Saudis and their allies have sought to make it very difficult for foreign journalists and human rights activists to enter the country, but even without their interference the level of outside interest in the conflict remains quite low despite the severity of the humanitarian crises that it has created.

Shepp says that the “U.S. cannot sidestep its own complicity in this carnage,” but that doesn’t stop our government from trying to do just that. One of the more infuriating tactics of U.S. officials from both the Obama and Trump administrations has been to pretend that the U.S. isn’t party to the conflict, doesn’t have much influence over the Saudi-led coalition, and supposedly favors a diplomatic solution to the conflict. Just the other day, PRI published a report that quoted the current U.S. ambassador as saying that “we don’t have leverage” with Riyadh. This is pathetic excuse-making at its worst. It dresses up the choice of not using the leverage Washington definitely has as if our government had none at all to use.

One recurring theme over the last two and a half years of U.S. support for the atrocious war on Yemen is that most of the U.S. officials can’t or won’t defend U.S. policy or the coalition war effort, and so they keep hiding behind a made-up version of events that they can present to audiences back home. Thus our current ambassador incredibly claims that “the conflict in Yemen is not a conflict between Saudis and Yemenis.” I’m sure that would come as news to the Yemenis that come under regular aerial attack from Saudi-led coalition planes and the millions of people being starved by the Saudi-led blockade. Minimizing even Saudi involvement in their own intervention is what our officials are reduced to doing, perhaps because the alternative of acknowledging their culpability and ours for destroying Yemen is too embarrassing for them.

The wrecking and starvation of Yemen are the result of more than two years of deliberate coalition policy with the full backing of our government. It is probably the only Obama-era policy that Trump has no intention of undoing. That reminds us that this policy is the product of reflexive, bipartisan support for bad client governments in that part of the world. Because Washington continues to indulge those clients, our government has made the U.S. partly responsible for creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis that threatens the lives of millions of innocents.

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Trump’s Dangerous ‘Fire and Fury’ Rhetoric

Trump made a very serious threat earlier today:

“North Korea best not make any more threats to the U.S.,” the president said. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening beyond a normal state,” he continued, referring apparently to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Incendiary rhetoric is the last thing that the U.S. needs in its dealings with North Korea. Making a threat like this is irresponsible in several ways. It is intentionally provocative, and that will make it more difficult to reduce tensions. It is needlessly alarming to allies and gives them reason to fear that the U.S. might act recklessly at their expense. It seems to commit the U.S. to taking drastic actions in response to North Korean rhetoric, which puts the U.S. in the absurd position of either backing up the president’s mindless bluster or climbing down publicly. Despite repeatedly criticizing Obama’s “red line” in Syria, Trump has drawn a much bigger, more consequential line and dared North Korea to cross it. Knowing the North Korean leadership’s track record, it is almost certain that they will call what we have to hope is nothing more than Trump’s bluff.

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The Enormous Folly of Arming Ukraine

Casey Michel responds to Michael Brendan Dougherty’s case against arming Ukraine. This is the core of his argument, and it is remarkably unpersuasive:

Just like the current sanctions regime, which signals a Western unity in the face of Russian revanchism, the delivery of anti-tank weaponry to Kiev would signal America’s commitment to the post-Cold War European order and its international norms, which Moscow continues to threaten.

In other words, there is no compelling military reason to do this, and no U.S. security interests are advanced by it, but it sends a “signal.” That is not a good enough reason to provide weapons to one side in an ongoing conflict. As the Post reported last week, sending the Ukrainian government anti-tank missiles doesn’t make much sense:

But it remains unclear what, if anything, the delivery of an unknown number of Javelins could do to alter a battle that has mostly been relegated to artillery bombardment and nighttime skirmishes in no man’s land.

“This idea doesn’t flow from a policy or strategy” and may point to a political decision rather than military necessity, said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Ukrainian conflict and a senior fellow at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank.

The only reason to provide these weapons is if the U.S. wants to encourage Ukraine’s government to go on the offensive. Leonid Bershidsky explained this last week:

Two years after both sides have largely kept to existing demarcation lines (minor encroachments aside), it is militarily unnecessary to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons unless the U.S. wants to encourage it to try to reclaim the “people’s republics.” [bold mine-DL] That would be a mistake. Though Russia doesn’t have enough resources to take over and hold Ukraine while still staying on the lookout for other military threats, it has plenty of money, firepower and determination to defend the separatist statelets. Giving them up would mean the end of Putin’s aura of invincibility, leaving him vulnerable at home and overseas.

Charles Kupchan made a similar point about this yesterday:

But the result would likely be the opposite — an escalation in the conflict that would lead to further losses of Ukraine’s territory and compromise its political stability. Russia enjoys insurmountable military superiority over Ukraine. The United States should not encourage Ukraine to engage in an escalatory confrontation with Russia. Washington knows full well that Ukraine cannot prevail.

While supporters of arming Ukraine want to send a “signal” of commitment to European order by “raising the cost” for Russia (i.e., killing Russians), the effect would be to cause more instability and violence mostly at Ukraine’s expense. If this is what constitutes “help” for Ukraine, Ukraine is better off without it. On top of that, our major European allies are opposed to this option, because they fear the escalation of the conflict that would likely follow from it. It is more than a little ridiculous for the U.S. to take actions in defense of “European order” that most Europeans oppose. Far from demonstrating “Western unity,” sending arms to Ukraine would highlight sharp disagreements within the alliance about how to respond to the conflict. Indeed, what unity there is on Ukraine could be jeopardized if the U.S. went ahead over the objections of our allies. Kupchan comments on this as well:

Europeans are already on edge due to Congress’s recent sanctions legislation, which imposes measures not coordinated with the European Union and that have the potential to cause undue harm to European companies. If Washington decides to head off on its own and send lethal weapons to Ukraine, solidarity on Ukraine may well come to end.

There is also potential danger for the U.S. and its allies in doing this:

Russia’s response to scattering Javelins among Ukrainian ground forces should factor into the decision, Kofman said.

“The Russians have a very clear policy of reciprocity, as we saw in the recent diplomatic purge. They see this as a premise of the U.S. wanting to kill Russians,” Kofman said.

“The answer to this won’t come in Ukraine.”

If the U.S. sends weapons with the intent of “raising the cost” for Russia in Ukraine (i.e., killing their soldiers and proxies), Russia could do the same thing to endanger U.S. forces in Syria, Afghanistan, or elsewhere. If the U.S. is going to risk that sort of reaction, there has to be a much more compelling reason than sending a “signal.” There isn’t one, and that’s why arming Ukraine would be an act of stupendous folly.

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Georgia Shouldn’t (and Won’t) Be a NATO Member

Will Ruger noticed that Pence repeated the pledge to bring Georgia into NATO during his visit there last week:

Pence stated, “President Trump and the United States stand firmly behind the 2008 NATO Bucharest statement which made it clear that Georgia will, someday, become a member.”

Since this week marks the ninth anniversary of the August 2008 war, it is worth remembering that the commitment made at the Bucharest summit earlier that year significantly added to the tensions between Russia and Georgia. If it had been up to George W. Bush, Georgia and Ukraine would have both received Membership Action Plans, but even the promise of future membership was dangerously provocative. Promising that Georgia would one day become a member of the alliance alarmed Moscow and gave false encouragement to the Georgian government.

Combined with other expressions of U.S. support for Georgia during the Bush years, this commitment by the alliance led then-President Saakashvili to believe that the U.S. and other Western powers would come to Georgia’s aid in the event of a conflict. He recklessly escalated the low-level conflict in South Ossetia and triggered a war with Russia by shelling Tskhinvali, where Russian troops were stationed in a supposed “peacekeeping” role. That attack provided Russia with the pretext to invade. The rhetorical support for Georgia proved to be meaningless, and the war drove home how big of a liability Georgia would be as an ally.

As a result of the war, Russia recognized the independence of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, thus making their reintegration into Georgia much less likely than it was before the war. If Georgia’s NATO aspirations were fanciful before the 2008 war, they became preposterous after it. Reviving talk of Georgia’s future NATO membership today is irresponsible and dangerous. It is also cruel to keep giving Georgia more false encouragement that it will be able to join the alliance at some point. It isn’t going to happen, and it does no one any good to keep pretending otherwise.

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The Post Gives the Saudi Ambassador a Free Pass

This interview with Prince Khaled bin Salman, the new Saudi ambassador to the U.S., is a frustrating example of how little scrutiny and criticism the Saudis tend to face in Western media. The ambassador is naturally going to recite his government’s talking points, and no one expects anything else, so it is up to the interviewer to press him on the subjects where he dissembles or misleads the audience. On the whole, that never happens, and the Post‘s readership isn’t much more informed than they were at the beginning.

For instance, when the ambassador refers repeatedly to Iranian “expansionism” in the region, it would have been fair for the interviewer to ask for examples of said expansionism or to point out that it is his government that is waging a war against one of its neighbors in a transparent bid to install a puppet ruler. Khaled bin Salman criticizes Iran’s support for terrorism, but he doesn’t face any questions about the role that the Saudi-led war on Yemen has had in strengthening Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or the collaboration between AQAP forces and the coalition during the war.

The war on Yemen is addressed briefly, but it is discussed in a way that allows the ambassador to recite the Saudi propaganda version of the war without challenge. The ambassador asserts that the Houthis must “become part of Yemen, not part of Iran.” Instead of pushing back on this obvious bit of nonsense by observing that Iran’s role in the conflict has been negligible or that the Houthis aren’t actually Iranian proxies, the interviewer just moves on to the next question. The coalition blockade led by the Saudis and the enormous humanitarian catastrophe that the ambassador’s government has helped to create go entirely unmentioned. The words famine and cholera are nowhere to be found in the excerpts, and the indiscriminate bombing campaign likewise doesn’t rate a question.

That kid-gloves approach may have been a condition of being granted the interview, or maybe it wasn’t, but either way the ambassador wasn’t forced to answer for his government’s outrageous policies. The result is that the Saudi ambassador is given a prominent platform to spread misinformation without any real accountability, and that makes it that much easier for his government to get away with their appalling treatment of Yemen.

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The Exceptionally Weak Case for Kurdistan

Shlomo Ben-Ami urges the Trump administration to back Kurdish independence. His reasoning seems especially weak here:

As the experience in Yugoslavia showed, when ethnic or religious cleavages explode, the most effective path to peace may well be separation. And a Kurdish state has a real chance of thriving: an independent Kurdistan could manage to combine natural-resource wealth with a tradition of stable and pragmatic governance, thereby creating a sustainable democracy. This would amount to a win for pro-Western forces in the Middle East.

Applying “the experience in Yugoslavia” to other parts of the world is wrongheaded in a few ways. For one thing, the “experience in Yugoslavia” shows that the government that is losing control of territory will violently oppose secessionist movements. It may eventually lose, but not before hundreds of thousands of people have died and many more have been forced to flee. For another, ethnic and religious cleavages don’t simply “explode.” They are usually ignited on purpose by demagogues that want to exploit those cleavages to their advantage. Ben-Ami thinks the U.S. should help set off the explosion in this case. That is typical of Western advocates of partition-as-panacea, but it is irresponsible and dangerous.

Ben-Ami asserts that “Iraq is effectively an Iranian trusteeship, not a US ally.” That is an exaggeration, but if it were true that would make the case for an independent Kurdistan even weaker. If Iraq were little more than an “Iranian trusteeship,” do you suppose Iran would accept having a large part of its territory to be turned into a new state? No, they would back the Iraqi government in its efforts to retain that territory. Since Ben-Ami frames the creation of Kurdistan as an explicitly anti-Iranian maneuver, that suggests that Iranian hostility to the new state would be even more likely.

Backing the creation of a new state at the expense of another will inevitably produce more violence and upheaval, and when that conflict is defined primarily in ethnic or religious terms that violence will take the form of massacres and driving people from their homes. What Ben-Ami fails to mention is that the “path to peace” brought about through separation typically involves a great deal of bloodletting and forcible expulsion of populations. Even when this “works” as intended, it usually creates dysfunctional statelets that are held hostage by corrupt and abusive leaders.

The KRG is already notoriously corrupt and its leaders semi-authoritarian at best, so the idea that it would become a “sustainable democracy” is little more than wishful thinking. Regardless, U.S. policy in Iraq over the last fourteen years should prove that the U.S. has neither the competence nor the necessary political influence to secure an independent Kurdistan without causing a new destabilizing conflict. The U.S. shouldn’t be in the business of helping to carve up existing states, and in general partition is a terrible “solution” that should be attempted only as an absolute last resort.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Is expanding the U.S. military presence in Syria legal? Sharmine Narwani explains that the U.S. is violating international law by continuing to have a military presence inside Syria.

The UAE: a client and a headache. The Washington Post reports on the UAE’s regional ambitions and the strains these have placed on the relationship with the U.S.

The persistence of falsehoods about the nuclear deal. Paul Pillar counters the misleading and dishonest arguments against the nuclear deal with Iran.

Sanctions as feckless disapproval. Paul Pillar criticizes the new sanctions bill that targets Russia, Iran, and North Korea.

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