Trump’s Illusion of Victory

October 9, 2017–Victory in Vietnam was an illusion but think–how bad will it be if a national leader feels he must exhibit a “victory” in order to show who is in charge. The last few days I’ve been pondering the wrongheadedness of President Trump’s calling out his secretary of state for attempting a diplomatic solution to the North Korea business, and labeling Rex Tillerson as short on “toughness,” as if the nation’s top diplomat is supposed to be an advocate for war. Back in Vietnam days, Dean Rusk was a supporter of force. In fact, Rusk’s falling off the wagon in early 1968 and giving Lyndon Johnson advice to halt the bombing of North Vietnam except in the panhandle area was a key passage in LBJ’s reluctant choice to give up his pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination to do precisely what Rusk had advised. In general Rusk’s posture had already led to needless delay and obstacles in starting talks about the war.

The situation today is the reverse. While a formal state of war continues with North Korea (because no “peace treaty” ever followed the 1953 ceasefire that terminated hostilities) there is no active conflict. There is no excuse for Kim Jong Un’s posturing, but neither is there for Donald Trump’s bluster. I’ve written here before of Trump’s rhetoric painting himself into a corner the only escape from which is to use force, and this week’s events look like Trump is pushing nearer the precipice. And all this only makes sense if the guy thinks he’s in a contest to show who has bigger hands.

If Trump blasts North Korea the “victory” will prove just as elusive as that alleged in Vietnam. Many South Koreans may be killed as an immediate consequence of the North’s instant response of artillery attacks. Millions of Koreans and American residents of Korea will perish from the radiation and fallout of the nuclear weapons needed to assure the destruction of the North Korean nuclear forces. Americans on Guam may die from a North Korean retaliation. There is a danger of nuclear winter (think of tripling climate change effects in just one or two years). Millions of Japanese will be threatened by surviving North Korean nuclear forces. Any surviving North Korean citizens will become blood enemies of the United States, and you can be assured will strike us the moment they obtain the means to do so–no matter who may lead America then or what their policies may be. The United States will be branded as an aggressor nation. The U.S. Congress will have relinquished its constitutional war power in an unmistakable way. And this is all about Donald Trump’s hands? This victory would be an illusion.

Donald the Menace

September 20, 2017–Forget Dennis. For one thing, he’s an innocent. The Donald is not. Trump’s got nuclear missiles and aircraft carriers and Special Forces to back him up. The only real question is whether Mr. Trump is as full of hate as his rhetoric, or whether all the sound and fury signifies nothing. I predicted in this space a week ago that, with the United Nations General Assembly coming up, we’d hear again from Kim Jong-un. Sure enough, two days later the North Koreans held another missile test. Then, at the UN yesterday, President Trump was fire and brimstone, hurling thunderbolts of biblical language that no doubt stunned the world’s assembled diplomats. Donald Trump says he will wipe North Korea off the face of the globe, that “Rocket Man” Jong is on a “suicide mission.”

Remember all those pundits who assiduously predicted that, once become president, the rigors of the office would temper Donald Trump? Wishful thinking. How about the line that “grown ups” like Reince Priebus would hold Trump to a standard of behavior? Laughable. And the felicitous impact of the John Kelly-James Mattis-H. L. McMaster crowd? Nil. Kelly may have injected a modicum of discipline into the president’s office schedule, but he’s had little discernible effect on the president’s spewing of invective and the consequent careening of American foreign policy. The State Department is adrift, stupidly paring way back the roster of diplomats it sends to the General Assembly each year, people who could have tried to take some of the edge off Trump’s harshness. The Pentagon is upstaged, with General Mattis asserting the U.S. has force options other that all-out attack, only to be outbid by Trump’s seven no-trump threats.

Very serious dereliction of duty is underway at the White House. Intellectually disingenuous–McMaster crafted a contrived argument to accuse the Vietnam-era Joint Chiefs of Staff of not giving their honest opinion to Lyndon Johnson (they did)–on the NSC staff himself General McMaster is guilty of precisely the same currying of presidential favor. Anyone who thinks McMaster a grown up trying to rein back the president should think again. It is dereliction of duty for the general not to tell the president that unleashing war on North Korea will be a disaster for the United States. The general is an enabler.

Here Trump wants to cross the war threshold not to counter aggression but simply because North Korea tests weapons and its leader–like Trump–indulges in fervid and hostile language. I am pleased to see that columnist Fred Kaplan has picked up my “launch-upon-test” criticism as an illustration of the thoughtless so-called “policy” involved here, but the truth is that U.S. government is rolling over and playing dead on the constitutional war powers issue–Trump is in effect arguing that he can launch offensive nuclear war on his presidential authority without reference to Congress, which possesses all war powers under Article I of the United States Constitution. Our elected representatives don’t seem to be grown ups–and certainly aren’t playing them on TV. The country continues full steam ahead into uncharted waters. Take care!

Painting the Corner on North Korea

September 4, 2017–Not long ago I wrote about Donald J. Trump painting himself into a corner on North Korea, into a place where he cannot exit without unleashing the dogs of war. Kim Jong Un’s nuclear test has led our president into issuing yet more dark threats. I’m not going to take up your time this Labor Day with some extended commentary on this idiocy, but I will make a few points:

First, you have to suspect our top people have forgotten–or chosen to ignore–longstanding practice in the military and intelligence business. In engineering development it used to be that our missiles were not considered “ready” until each system had performed to perfection twenty times. Even our intel people, hedging against threats, waited until an adversary missile system had toted up ten successes before considering it had reached “Initial Operating Capability.” Up to now there appear to have been five long-range missile shots from North Korea, three of them partial failures.

Put aside the question of whether Pyongyang is progressing faster, slower, or as expected by U.S. intelligence–something no one will know until the secret estimates are made public, the concrete evidence does not indicate a current global threat from North Korea. The North Korean claims to a hydrogen bomb have the feel of a deception, with a staged photo op and a missile nosecone cowling in the picture to suggest successful weaponization, but a yield the scientists will shortly tell us was only in the moderate kiloton range.

Second, as I’ve written here before, there is no international law or other standard that justifies use of force against a nation for simple weapons development. Indeed, in the 1960s the Soviet Union considered pre-emption against the People’s Republic of China for its nuclear weapons program, and the jury is still out on real (but ambiguous) evidence the Soviets and/or U.S. each considered enlisted the other in the same enterprise. In the U.S. in the early 1950s there were also those who counseled a pre-emptive attack against the developing Soviet atomic capability. Fortunately wiser heads prevailed in every one of those cases.

The military minds that surround President Trump have been counted on to restrain his cruder impulses, but like H. R. McMaster, have often aligned with him instead. Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy used to talk about the “effectiveness trap”–the idea that your options are to stay with the president no matter how irrational he may be, in hopes of accomplishing the kind of restraint necessary here, or resigning in protest to sandbag a president with political concerns. Those considerations stopped many Vietnam war-era officials from doing the right thing. The effectiveness trap is functioning again right here. The supposedly wiser heads have done nothing to prevent Mr. Trump from painting over the actual corner on which he’s been standing.

McMaster’s Un-Appropriate Dereliction

August 11, 2017–As the world staggers toward an entirely unnecessary nuclear abyss I have to question–again–the alleged competence of General H. R. McMaster, currently serving as national security adviser to President Donald J. Trump. Pictures of General McMaster sitting alongside President Trump as the latter hurled threats at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, further exacerbating tensions brought on by nothing more than words plus weapons testing, are supremely distressing. The function of a national security adviser is to keep a president’s foreign policy system operating efficiently and to furnish the president insightful advice on the policies themselves.

General McMaster has accomplished neither. When he attempted to jettison some of the overblown ideologues who had been brought on to the National Security Council (NSC) staff by his predecessor, McMaster was blocked by White House political potentates. His efforts to tone down presidential rhetoric were similarly derailed. When Mr. Trump attended a NATO summit and neglected to affirm a fundamental United States security alliance, McMaster tried to represent his boss as having said what he did not, in fact, say. At an international conference in Hamburg, Germany, where Trump continued to mouth patent falsities, McMaster proclaimed the president’s remarks “appropriate.”

H. R. McMaster achieved an undeserved intellectual reputation I argued, based on his book Dereliction of Duty.  There he described the strategic level of United States leadership during the Vietnam war. McMaster criticized the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) for giving President Lyndon B. Johnson false impressions of the practicality of U.S. strategies, and accused them of dereliction of duty for not providing the nation’s top leader with their real views. Years ago–as long ago as 2009–I showed in my book  Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War  that the McMaster charges were unfounded, that the JCS had in fact repeatedly offered the president a standard, set view, of what the strategy should be. That the JCS had wrong ideas of what might work does not make them guilty of dereliction. In any case, in principle, one should hope that senior advisers do guide–or nudge, if they have to– presidents toward good policies.

From that standpoint it appears that General McMaster very quickly gave up on nudging his president, and soon after that became an enabler for presidential crankiness. At that point I wrote a reflection observing that McMaster, following his remark quoted above, had learned “Appropriate Dereliction.”

Generals are trained in deterrence and in the tenets of credibility. H. R. McMaster certainly knows enough to see that Trump, with his “fire and fury” rhetoric, is painting himself into so tight a corner that he may have to use force simply to preserve his credibility. It was incumbent on McMaster to steer his president away from that fateful, stupid, place. Instead McMaster sat at Trump’s side as an authenticator, while Mr. Trump thundered away. Today General McMaster is no longer just guilty of Appropriate Dereliction, he has moved up to Un-Appropriate Dereliction as well.

Mr. Clapper Goes to Pyongyang

November 10, 2014–If there is a senior U.S. official in need of some good PR–other than President Barack Obama, of course– that person would be General James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). So, unlike when Clapper denied under Senate questioning that hundreds of millions of citizens are being spied upon by the NSA, last week when the opportunity arose for a good photo op Clapper was right on the case. Even better, the occasion was a quintessential feel-good moment–when American citizens are being released from hard labor in a hostile land and Clapper can be seen to be rescuing them.

Kenneth Bae, held by the North Koreans for two years, has been in declining health, in and out of hospitals. The Koreans alleged he’d planned a “religious coup d’état”–a novel way to characterize Christian evangelical proselytizing. Matthew Todd Miller reportedly sought to defect. He entered North Korea this past spring, destroyed his visa, and reportedly sought asylum. The North Koreans prosecuted him instead–and sentenced Miller to hard labor for “unruly behavior.”  Pyongyang’s release of the two Americans comes on top of another liberation last month. It’s an odd sort of charm offensive the Koreans are up to, but they have done it before. Lately the state of that nation–and even the status of its dictator, Kim Jong-un–have been uncertain, and Kim may need all the help he can get.

North Korea is an enigmatic nation. Its leaders have received basketball stars as potentates, politicians as government emissaries, and senior diplomats as the equivalent of heads of state. The seizure of foreign nationals as bargaining chips, and the presentation of visits from foreign officials as tokens of international esteem, seem to have become standard devices in Pyongyang’s tool box–as have missile tests and preparations for nuclear explosions.

But don’t ask the CIA! North Korea has been a “denied area” in the agency’s jargon, a place into which it is impossible to insert spies, recruit enemy agents, or obtain much information at all. At the moment the spooks have not even decided whether Mr. Kim is still alive, much less the status of his power in Pyongyang, or whether North Korea has a weaponized nuclear warhead for its latest-generation missiles.

The Obama White House portrayed General Clapper as having gone to listen to what the North Koreans would like to say to us. He is a senior enough official to satisfy Pyongyang that Washington is serious about dealing with them, and he can be depended upon to relay North Korea’s messages to Washington. If Clapper’s quick visit last weekend encouraged Kim Jong-un out of hiding, the CIA may even get an intelligence windfall out of this operation.

On the other hand, Fearful Leader Clapper can be expected to retail North Korean developments in the most alarming light possible. Back in mid-October, at a conference held at the University of Texas, Clapper was virtually taking a victory lap on the war on terror–underlining observations in this space previously about the extent to which the real terrorism threat has receded. But that means the DNI and CIA need a new threat to help fill their rice bowls. which can help shield U.S. intelligence budgets from the chopping block during the months ahead. And the photo-0p rescuing Americans from a despotic regime shows General Clapper in an active, positive role. I, for one, would be more comfortable with a DNI who was less political.