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?

Continue reading “Deterrence Calculations in North Korea”

On the Timing, Legality, Strategy, and Effect of the Strike on Syria

Yesterday, the US launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against Syria, striking an air base that President Trump alleged played a direct role in the gruesome nerve gas attack of Tuesday. The attack prompted the usual questions: Why now? Is it legal? What effect will the strike have on Syria? On the US’s role in the Syrian civil war?

Why now? If we take President Trump at his word, the horrific nature of the effects of nerve gas, likely coupled with the video evidence of children gasping for their last breaths, altered his assessment of the wisdom of leaving the Assad regime in place or allowing it to conduct chemical weapons attacks unpunished. That the strike occurred two days after the chemical attack and (for now) seems to be limited to a single air base claimed to be involved in some way (whether that means there is a chemical weapons facility there or simply that the planes that dropped the chemical agents launched from there is as of yet unknown. The New York Times has a nice feature on the targets) supports the logic that this represents a specific response to a specific event.

Past presidents have spoken of seeing all the horrors and miseries of the world and realizing that they actually had the power and tools to do something about them (not necessarily to solve them, however). Seeing starving Somali children on (what was then the relatively new) CNN was, in most accounts, motivated President George H. W. Bush to intervene in Somalia. Watching the video of the attack is undeniably horrifying and it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that Trump, who almost certainly has never seen or even thought about such things before, was shocked to his core and felt he had to act.

But, could the attack be a diversion? It’s no secret that things haven’t been going well for the Trump administration lately, and it’s also no secret that military actions tend to produce an immediate upsurge of public support–the so-called “rally-around-the-flag effect”–for the president. It’s not impossible, but I see it as unlikely. Presidents often face bad timing when they seek to use military force. Recall President Clinton’s air strikes against Iraq in Operation Desert Fox on the eve of his impeachment trial. It’s hard to imagine the Joint Chiefs, the theater commanders, the Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Adviser all going along with a military strike that has no perceived value or is motivated solely by domestic political concerns. That’s not to say that the use of force won’t benefit Trump in the court of public opinion; I’m just skeptical that it’s the primary motivation.

Was it legal? Does the president of the United States have the right to attack another sovereign state with which the US is not at war and that does not pose an immediate, direct threat to the US or US citizens? Article I, Sec. 8 gives Congress the power “to declare war” but it does not declare what that power encompasses? Put simply, are all uses of force “war” in a legal sense that require congressional authorization? If not, can the president use force whenever and wherever he sees fit? (NOTE: as I’m not really a scholar of international law, I’ll leave the question of whether the attack was legal under IL to others. If you’re interested, you can find good analyses here (in favor) and here, here and here (against).

Continue reading “On the Timing, Legality, Strategy, and Effect of the Strike on Syria”

The Canary Sings!

Steve Bannon has been removed from the NSC Principals Committee. As the New York Times is reporting, “A new order issued by Mr. Trump, dated Tuesday and made public on Wednesday, removes Mr. Bannon from the principals committee, restores the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and intelligence director and also adds the energy secretary, C.I.A. director and United Nations ambassador.”

This is a huge victory for Secretary Mattis and General McMaster who have been pushing against the Trump administration to depoliticize the foreign policy decision making processes, appoint their own deputies, and otherwise resist the seemingly unstrategic decisions of the administration. As I blogged in the inaugural post of Security Dilemmas, whether Mattis and McMaster stayed in the government would be a huge sign as to whether “[Mattis] (the post was written before McMaster replaced Flynn as NSA) is able to implement the policies he prefers and is not being forced to move too far from those positions. If, however, Mattis resigns abruptly or early on in the first administration, that could very well be a sign that President Trump may be demanding implementation of his policies in the Pentagon, and perhaps across the whole government.”

Now it seems not only that they’re staying, but that they’re winning. They haven’t won every one of these battles, but they’ve won the most important ones. Removing Bannon from the NSC Principals Committee is a clear sign that Trump listens to and trusts Mattis and McMaster, that Bannon does not control the president’s every move, and that sane, rational decision makers who have a clear sense of the importance of the traditional role of the US are in control. It’s a good day for American foreign policy, American national interest, and global peace and security.

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.

Continue reading “Heck of a Secret Plan, Trumpy!”

Why the Pathological Lying by President Trump Matters

After several waves of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers across the country, an arrest has been made. But the accused comes as a surprise to most: a Jewish dual-citizen of the US and Israel. But perhaps not to President Trump who, several weeks ago, made the claim that the threats could be being made by a “false flag” operation. There’s no evidence yet that the suspect–a teenager–is either guilty or operating on behalf of anyone in an effort to discredit the Trump administration. But, given the president’s tenuous grasp of nuance and complexity, it’s entirely possible that he had received an intelligence briefing suggesting the identity of the culprit, and jumped to the potentially erroneous conclusion that a Jew making bomb threats against JCCs must be a false flag operation by Democrats against his administration.

Trump’s beliefs aside, this is why it matters that the president lies constantly and without apparent self-consciousness or remorse. If Trump had indeed been told by US intelligence agencies that the suspect was a Jewish Israeli-American citizen, his constant lying meant that few would believe his seemingly outrageous claim that the threats were a false flag operation (never mind whether the president should be casually commenting on on-going criminal/terrorism investigations or his possible misinterpretation of the political nature of the threats). As James Fallows noted, now seemingly presciently, earlier this week, a president needs the public to believe what he says because:

Something has happened to every new president, and something will happen to Donald Trump. It is inevitable. And when that something occurs, it is also inevitable that his administration will need to say, Trust us on this. That’s in the nature of foreign emergencies. It can take a long time to figure out the truth. Even when the truth is known, some of it remains too sensitive to reveal. (Who exactly were the Bay of Pigs invaders hoping to find as allies inside Castro’s Cuba? What exactly was aboard the U.S. surveillance plane that was forced down onto Chinese territory?) So without having all the facts on the table and in public view, an administration inevitably relies on a cushion of domestic and international trust that it is telling some version of the truth, that it is doing its best to weigh evidence and be straight about the results.

The inevitability of this moment, when a new president says Trust me, is why so many veteran officials have warned about Donald Trump’s habit of incessantly telling instantly disprovable lies. Some of the lies don’t really matter: “biggest inaugural crowd ever,” when photos showed it was comparatively small. Some of them obviously would matter, if they were true: millions of illegal voters, wiretapped by Obama. But of course they’re not true, and everyone except Trump and his coterie can look at the evidence and know that. Thus the problem: If an administration will lie about facts where the contradictory evidence is in plain sight, how can we possibly believe them on anything else?

Representative Adam Schiff made the same point a few days earlier:

“If six months from now the president should say that Iran is cheating on the nuclear agreement, if he’s making that up, it’s a real problem,” Schiff said. “If he’s not making [it] up and it’s true, it’s an even bigger problem because the question is: Would people believe him? Would the American people believe him? Would people around the world believe him? And that has real-world consequences.”

Did the president know about the identity of the suspected bomb threat maker? It’s too early to tell. But even if he did, it was perfectly reasonable for people to dismiss the president’s accusation. And it will be perfectly reasonable for us to dismiss anything and everything he says so long as he continues to demonstrate a reckless disregard of truths that are patently obvious.

 

The “Intellectual” Foundations of a Trumpian Foreign Policy, Part I

There’s been a lot of confusion over what, exactly, President Trump’s foreign policy is or will be. He’s talked tough about trade and alliances, suggested that the US should play a more restrained role in the world, and requested a massive military build-up. But there seems to be little rhyme or reason behind these pieces, as if each were separate from the other and not bound together by what foreign policy analysts would describe as a “grand strategy.” Why would China help the US deal with the problem of North Korean proliferation if the US is threatening to undo the One China policy? Why should the US increase the size of the navy if America will be asking allies to do more of the work and playing a reduced role in the world? How does the president understand the source of conflict and state behavior in the world? What are the factors that most contribute to global peace? These are the questions at the theoretical and policy level that must be answered–or at least engaged–in order to craft a coherent foreign policy.

Understanding the logic behind Trump’s foreign policy requires a look behind the curtain, because the president himself is so devoid of thought, at the people shaping Trump’s policies from the wings. One such person is Michael Anton, currently serving as Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Communications on the National Security Council. Anton has been referred to as the primary intellectual behind Trump’s foreign policy, with Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, referring to Anton as “America’s leading authoritarian intellectual” and comparing Anton to Carl Schmitt. Anton is perhaps best known as the person behind the pseudonymously-penned “The Flight 93 Election” in which he argued that conservatives needed to rally behind Trump regardless of policy differences or face destruction as a viable party.

Anton has recently published a piece (written before he joined the administration) in which he gives, perhaps, the clearest explanation of how he–and perhaps by extension, the Trump administration (or at least the political side of his administration)–thinks about the world. In the new policy journal American Affairs, being hailed as the intellectual defense of Trumpism, Anton has an article entitled “America and The Liberal Order” in which lays out his understanding of the role the US should play in the world. It is a bold piece, long on pronouncements but short on international relations theory or serious scholarship (there seems to be a trend of national security “experts” in the Trump White House who have little actual experience in either academia or policy work: See Gorka, Sebastian). So…what’s his argument? In this post, I will examine and dismantle his argument. In a subsequent post, I will present my rebuttal.

Continue reading “The “Intellectual” Foundations of a Trumpian Foreign Policy, Part I”

Shirking the Responsibilities of Leadership

In the aftermath of the SEAL raid into Yemen, which has prompted the father of the dead soldier to refuse to meet with President Trump, multiple investigations into the planning and execution of the raid, and the unsightly blaming of his generals for what is ultimately his decision, Donald Trump may have found a way to avoid taking responsibility for future military operations. The Daily Beast is reporting that Trump is considering taking himself out of the decision loop for military raids by allowing Secretary of Defense Mattis and other relevant military officials to authorize the raids on their own without presidential approval. As the Beast notes, “in declared war zones, U.S. commanders have the authority to make such calls, but outside such war zones, in ungoverned or unstable places like Somalia, Libya, or Yemen, it can take permissions all the way up to the Oval Office to launch a drone strike or a special-operations team.”

It’s not inherently a bad idea to loosen the reins on approving military operations, and it’s a complicated calculation about which kind of operations should and which should not require presidential approval.

Continue reading “Shirking the Responsibilities of Leadership”