Deterrence Calculations in North Korea

As North Korea prepares for what many people believe will be its sixth nuclear test, and in the aftermath of recent ballistic missile tests, tensions between the US and North Korea are rising. US military officials have stated that the US is “assessing military options” while North Korea, in its typically hyperbolic manner, has threatened “nuclear thunderbolts” and to destroy US military bases in South Korea as well as the presidential palace in Seoul if the US uses force. President Trump has sent the carrier battle group led by the USS Carl Vinson to the region and warned that the US will act if China can’t or won’t use its leverage to restrain North Korea, while China in turn is urging both countries to walk back their rhetoric or risk seeing the situation spin out of control.

Both sides are attempting to deter the other. The US seeks to deter North Korea from testing a nuclear device and ballistic missiles; North Korea seeks to deter the US from using force to destroy its weapons capabilities or as punishment. Can either side succeed in deterring the other? Will North Korea conduct its test? Is the use of force by one side or the other likely?

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Heck of a Secret Plan, Trumpy!

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump bragged about his “secret plan” to defeat the Islamic State, and while he vowed to only unveil his plan if elected president, he did let slip at least one component of this plan: That he would “bomb the shit” out of ISIS. So far, just over two months into his presidency, it seems clear that, unsurprisingly to most, that his secret plan is little more than trying to bomb the shit out of ISIS and al Qaeda.

So what does a strategy of bombing the shit out of ISIS look like in practice? First, it starts by rolling back legal safeguards on “United States rules of engagement and other United States policy restrictions that exceed the requirements of international law regarding the use of force against ISIS.” Next, it ramps up the intensity of air sorties, including a huge increase in the number of air strikes in Yemen against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Then, it rolls back rules intended to limit accidentally killing civilians by applying war-zone targeting rules in Somalia.

It’s far too early to know if bombing the shit out of ISIS, al Qaeda, al-Shabaab, and other assorted groups is paying off. What we do know is that large numbers of civilians are being killed by US air strikes, likely including approximately 50 people in a Syrian mosque, more than 30 people sheltering in a Syrian school, and well over 100 people in Mosul. We also know that ISIS has adapted to the increased tempo of US airstrikes by herding civilians into buildings and then conducting military operations out of those buildings so as to attract a US airstrike, hoping that rising civilian casualties will pressure the US to pare back its air operations.

It’s also too early to say whether the change in sortie rate and the loosening of targeting rules is the cause of the recent civilian deaths. But, what can be said is that, so far, there seems to be little signs of a larger strategy for defeating ISIS, al Qaeda, et. al, other than by bombing the shit out of them.

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Update on Iran’s Missile Tests

Several people have, either in the comments on the original post or on Facebook, asked about the US’s response to the Iranian missile test on Sunday, January 29. On Friday, February 3, the Trump administration levied sanctions against 13 individuals and 12 companies associated with Iran’s missile program. This was followed by a war of words, with President Trump and National Security Adviser Flynn warning Iran about further tests and telling Iran that they had it easy under President Obama, while Iran called out Trump as an “inexperienced person.” The sanctions are rather limited, as they do not touch Iran’s $16 billion deal with Boeing and aren’t significantly more punishing that the sanctions regime already in place.

So, what did Iran likely learn from these events? Given that they conducted a series of missile tests on Saturday, February 4, the day after the imposition of the new sanctions, it’s likely that they learned–rightly or wrongly–that the Trump administration is lots of bluster but is ultimately nothing to fear. True, the most recent missile launches were conducted entirely within Iranian sovereign airspace, making them less problematic for the international community. But the test should still be seen as an act of defiance.

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Understanding Iran’s Missile Test

This past weekend, Iran conducted a ballistic missile test, prompting a strange response from the Trump administration. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn stated that “as of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice,”a meaningless platitude that conveys no information to Iran. Flynn and others, including the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, accused Iran of violating a UN Security Council resolution–passed in support of the US-Iran nuclear deal–that calls upon Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.” Iran argues that since it does not have a nuclear weapons program its missiles are not designed to deliver nuclear weapons and, therefore, its missile launches are legal.

Leaving aside the legal argument, there’s a more interesting question here. Given a president who has already threatened to respond to provocations with force (true, most people dismissed this threat as meaningless campaign braggadocio, but if we’ve learned anything from the first two weeks of Trump it’s that he seems determined to do the things he has threatened to do) and a new administration that is likely looking for an opportunity to demonstrate its toughness, why would Iran take such a provocative action?

To my eyes, Iran’s missile test looks like a probing action, designed exactly to extract a response of some kind from the Trump administration. The new president’s behavior and decision making process (if such a thing even exists) are so far outside of the bounds of normal US foreign policy norms that other actors likely literally have no idea of how the US will respond to their moves. Uncertainty of that sort is a very dangerous thing in international politics; when actors do not know what will and what won’t provoke military responses, what are or are not a state’s core national interest, or what a state will or will not go to war over, miscalculations become more likely and so-called “accidental” wars become possible.

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