Trump's Learning Curve: Syria, North Korea, lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis

web_photo_ Trump_07042017

FILE PHOTO: US President Donald Trump delivers a statement about missile strikes on a Syrian airfield, at his Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida, US, April 6, 2017.

When Donald Trump ran for the presidency, way back in 2016, the world – or at least the world as he had seen and imagined it – was so much simpler than it has become now. This must not seem entirely fair to him. But to his credit, he seems at least conscious of the need to take these lessons on board. Maybe.

Back on the never-ending adrenal rush of his campaign, to listen to Donald Trump was to hear about those nefarious Chinese who were systematically manipulating their currency to under-price their exports, and then raping the American economy by selling Americans products whose costs simply could not be matched by American workers in their rusty, rattletrap, rundown factories in the US industrial heartland.

Then there were those equally appalling Mexicans who were deliberately shipping their drug dealers northwards, and then dumping rapists, murderers and an unending flood of migrants across the border. Adding insult upon injury, their under-priced products were also being manufactured under the actual cost of making things in the American heartland. And all of this was because of dumb politicians and their dreadful trade deals that Mexican goods were pouring Northwards.

And, as for America’s traditional allies in Western Europe and East Asia? Well, those connivers were sucking the blood and treasure out of the US as it was spending itself into penury to defend those ungrateful wretches. And those countries simply couldn’t be bothered to ante up the monies needed to protect themselves from international terrorism. Nato was obsolete and the South Koreans and Japanese might well be better off with their own nukes.

Then, of course, there was poor misunderstood Russia. Those folks simply wanted their rightful place in the sun again. The Trump campaign was almost an invitation to sing along with Donald, Vladimir, and Aretha Franklin in “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” (unless there were still more awkward sub rosa connections between the Trump world and the Kremlin that have begun to worm their way out of the ground). But in a righteous partnership, the US and Russia together would then be positioned to rid the world of those most heinous crimes of non-state Islamist terrorism – pre-eminently from IS/ISIS/Daesh – in the Middle East and beyond.

Well, that was then; this is now. When Trump took office, his mantra was that he and his team would be disrupters and destroyers of those old, outdated, liberal world order pieties, left over from the super-attenuated post-World War II universe, and that shop-worn, flaccid policy elite that had been messing up for decades. Instead, such people would be replaced by a strong, mercantilist, single-minded policy mean machine team that would focus like a laser beam on the needs of “America First”. Anything else would be cleaned out in a New York minute, the moment Trump had taken power in the name of the people.

Initially, under the guidance of angry ideologues such as Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Michael Flynn, it seemed that that was indeed how the new Trump administration would shape up. In a unique presidency where the president himself was barely acquainted with most of the main policy issues confronting a country and its government and the backgrounds and implications of such issues, let alone their respective historical circumstances, ideologues who played to Trump’s prejudices and reinforced his off-the-cuff opinions as fuelled by Fox News and websites like Infowars could easily hold sway and throttle adult discourse.

But, the power dynamic in the White House seems to have changed. Once Michael Flynn was ousted and Bannon was publicly upbraided, there has come a gradual ascendency of more mainstream folks. With career military Generals such as HR McMaster as National Security Adviser, James Mattis as Secretary of Defence, and John Kelly as Secretary of Homeland Security, along with ex-Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn as Trump’s senior economic adviser and Trump’s son-in-law and daughter, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, now ensconced in the White House as well, the outlines of a philosophical/ideological turn could start to be discerned. Maybe. Nato is suddenly no longer obsolete and the Ex-Im Bank is no longer on the chopping block, among other dizzying flips. But there was more to come.

Other circumstances from the real world beyond the Trump bubble have begun to make their impact felt as well. At the beginning of April, when Donald Trump began meeting foreign leaders in the US, he had showered Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with the kind of love and affection unseen during Obama’s tenure in office, and King Abdullah II of Jordan received much the same appreciative embrace. But it was Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Mar-a-Lago, the self-styled “Winter White House”, that set the ball rolling on some still more serious revisions, volte-faces or dizzying flip-flops for Donald Trump.

Instead of his expected (even promised, ad nauseam) berating of President Xi over China’s currency and trade policies at their summit meeting, Trump ended up getting a short – very short – but sharp course in geopolitical realities. During the leaders’ meeting, Trump had viscerally reacted to appalling broadcast video footage of the aftermath of a nerve gas attack in Syria by the al-Assad regime. In response, he had ordered 59 Tomahawk cruise missile strikes against the Syrian air force base from whence the nerve gas attack had reportedly been launched. Trump repeatedly told the world this decision had come about while Xi and he shared pieces of “beautiful chocolate cake”.

This attack, regardless of justifiability or larger effects, represented a major shift in the Trumpian worldview. This was especially so, given that he had repeatedly warned his predecessor about intervening in the Syrian civil conflict, other than to engage in the fight against IS. As recently as two weeks ago there still appeared to be some seriously mixed messages in public from Trump administration officials about the viability of the al-Assad regime in any future settlement in that unhappy land. Nonetheless, while the cruise missile attacks did not destroy the air base, the message seems to have been clear enough: no use of chemical warfare.

The deployment of those cruise missiles was prompted by Trump’s obvious horror at the use of nerve gas agents in violation of international law. But, by the same token, the cruise missile strike has pushed forward the question of what the Trump administration is prepared to do next time – if this first round of missiles fails to deter al-Assad from similar horrors. And, of course, it has also helped edge the US and Russia closer to the possibility of a mutually hostile action, by accident or design, if Russian personnel or equipment are affected on the ground. And this would happen without either tilting the balance in Syria away from Assad’s forces or affecting IS’s capabilities either. In fact, the Russians initially shut down the mutual warning connection designed to avoid such conflict between US and Russian forces as a signal of their disapproval of Trump’s attack on the Russian ally/satrapy/satellite that is Syria.

Still, early polling showed significant support nationally in America for Trump’s move against Syrian use of nerve agents. International support by America’s traditional European allies was similarly in evidence. This was either in recognition of Trump’s tentative embrace of the human rights/humanitarian aspect of international affairs (something he had been loath to accept previously), or because the US populace historically has rallied around any president who shows a willingness to use force – in limited circumstances – or both.

But Trump’s cram course of an international relations tutorial at the hand of Xi Jinping was not yet concluded. While ready for his administration, Trump had continued his mantra about Chinese unfair currency and trade practices; but by the time he had come out of his meetings with Xi, his entire rhetorical stance had mellowed noticably. No, China is not a devious currency manipulator of a nation (This is a position broadly supported by most mainstream economists in the US. In fact, the consensus argument now runs more towards a Chinese effort to talk up its currency). And, yes, the two nations would be setting out a mechanism to identify and discuss trade disputes and key issues, rather than engage in mutual chest beating or similar big hairy primate behaviours.

And, oh yes, one other issue rose to the top of the pile during Xi’s visit. This, of course, was North Korea’s ongoing effort to develop and test an inter-continental ballistic missile and a nuclear warhead that could be deployed on the top of it, suitable for striking South Korea, Japan – and parts of the US. In the recent past, North Korea had tested increasingly sophisticated missiles with longer ranges, as well as nuclear device tests that had continued to rise up the scale in size of blast and, presumably, in the miniaturisation needed to be placed on top of those missiles. North Korea has also had a successful test of a submarine-based missile. (Nuclear strategists argue that submarine-based missiles represent the most potent form of missile because they are virtually undetectable under water until they rise to launch depth. Accordingly, they represent both first strike and counterforce potential capabilities, given their flexibility.)

The West, Japan and South Korea (and putatively Russia and even China) have been eager to box in North Korea’s nuclear capabilities – first trying to seek North Korean agreement to tamp down its nuclear reactor developments generally (and thereby limit its initial moves towards weaponisation) by dangling alternative fuel supplies in front of it, and then, second, trying to convince the country to enter into binding agreements against such weaponisation and missile development. But it has been hard going with North Korea.

(As a footnote to the tangled history between North Korea and the US, back in the 1990s, this author became involved in this effort to build a relationship between the dynastic communist regime and the US. While working on educational, cultural, media and related exchanges between the nations of Northeast Asia and America, one task, predicated on the belief that the fuel deliveries to North Korea would be part of a much larger opening to the country by the US, this meant the US Government needed to prepare reading matter suitable for distribution to North Koreans from a soon-to-be-opened US Liaison Office in Pyongyang.

A special project in this effort was to prepare translations of a whole swathe of materials on current issues in economics and American economic and social history. However, it was quickly determined that the North Korean version of the peninsula’s common language did not even have a way of writing an entire glossary of phrases, ideas and concepts that were in common use just 50 kilometres to the south of the Demilitarised Zone – the DMZ – the dividing line across the peninsula since the armistice ended the Korean War’s active hostilities.

As a result, a special linguists’ committee was convened to divine how to articulate all these unknown ideas, and how to write them coherently and meaningfully in the common Hangul script – but for North Korean readers when they had never been part of the lexicon there. Eventually, the materials were translated, printed and shipped to a warehouse in Seoul to await being trucked across the DMZ. But, since that tantalising possibility of a US Liaison Office never happened once North Korea walked away from the fuels agreement, those painfully rendered materials are probably still in their bug-proof, shrink-wrapped pallets, 20 years on, but ready for use the moment the law of the commons, supply and demand, comparative advantage, and opportunity cost, along with venture capital and arbitrage, need to be explained to students in Pyongyang’s universities.)

Anyway, just a few days ago, Donald Trump explained that his time with the Chinese president had given him real insights into North Korea (along with other issues, presumably), and that he had learned that, given Korea’s history, restraining Pyongyang’s missiles, nuclear tests and pretty much everything else was not simply a matter of China’s tightening the noose on it financially. As a result, the Trumpian rhetoric towards China seems to have moved significantly towards the more standard American foreign policy elite’s consensus views, even as his responses towards North Korea’s actions appear to have become ever more vigorous.

However, even as he seems to have accepted the notion that China cannot simply snap its metaphorical fingers and make Kim Jong-un roll over and play dead, Trump ordered a US naval task force, replete with a powerful aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, to sail towards a position in international waters, but within striking distance of North Korea. Trump has continued to say that, ultimately, if needed, America would go it alone to make sure North Korea does not succeed in preparing nuclear weapons that can be fitted atop an ICBM suitable for threatening American population centres – let alone South Korean or Japanese ones. Strategic patience is no longer the watch-phrase. As if to amplify this message even further, Vice President Pence was in South Korea on Monday to give one of those fervent, photogenic messages of support to an ally that politicians love to offer, especially if he gets to speak it right up at the DMZ.

Meanwhile, over the weekend, North Korea held a massive military parade lasting hours and hours. It had vast numbers of personnel who performed some of those patented precision marching and banner-waving exercises, as well as offering a dizzying display of missiles on mobile platforms – all designed to scare the living daylights out of the rest of the globe. Coinciding with this effort to impress, there was a scheduled test firing of one of its missiles. Unfortunately for Kim and his claque, the rocket exploded virtually on take-off, rendering the intended “shock and awe” message rather less impressive than was intended.

Interestingly, since this rather public embarrassment for Pyongyang, there have been some veiled comments from US officials that could just possibly be interpreted as meaning that someone carried out a little cyber hocus-pocus, as in a plot hinge point of one of those science-fiction-esque action films beloved by teenagers, on North Korea’s launch process. Perhaps it was similar to a Russian cyber attack on the Democratic National Committee, or the reported use of Stuxnet malware on Iranian nuclear facilities a while back that were designed to ensure their centrifuges spun themselves into oblivion, rather than generate radioactive uranium for weapons. No one knows for sure about this, but the rumour has presumably been put about for America’s antagonists to mull over, whenever they plan further missile and nuclear tests.

Meanwhile, and smart money is on this, the Trump administration authorised the use of a massive MOAB bomb against an underground command and tunnel network in southern Afghanistan against presumed Taliban insurgents – and to send a special kind of valentine to Pyongyang as well. This particular bomb was so massive it had to be delivered from a special platform in a transport aircraft, rather than a tactical bomber or fighter-bomber. The target was reportedly in a largely unpopulated area, save for the Taliban fighters, and it reportedly did its work there, albeit at an equally massive cost. But, and this is crucial, it may have also been a message to North Korea. And such a message would be that, together with cruise missiles and other weapons, there is always the possibility of using truly massive conventional explosive devices to knock out nuclear or missile facilities north of the 38th parallel, if nothing else deters “The Young Leader”. No one is seriously thinking of using tactical nukes in the event of such a strike.

Some observers, contemplating this intricate dance, are beginning to note that there are some rather uncomfortable similarities with a certain international crisis back in 1962, the “Cuban Missile Crisis”, that is. In brief, the Soviet Union’s then-leader, Nikita Khrushchev, was desperate to leverage some tactical – and perhaps even strategic – advantage over the US globally through the emplacement of missiles 150 kilometres from American soil. Khrushchev’s plan arose from a desire to build on a belief that President Kennedy could be leaned on, following his disastrous support for the Bay of Pigs invasion attempt, to overthrow the new Castro regime in Cuba.

In addition, adding further weight to that judgement, there was Kennedy’s poor showing at the Vienna leaders summit, and his relatively quiescent response to the Soviet’s building of the Berlin Wall. The Soviet response to all this was to ship nuclear-tipped missiles to Cuba so as to be able to aim them at major American cities with just a few minutes before they hit targets. Such installations would protect the island client state and simultaneously gain a bargaining chip to prise out US missiles already based in Italy and Turkey that were aimed at sites inside the USSR.

While there are numerous differences between the North Korean circumstances and Cuba, there are also some interesting and unnerving similarities. Most important, perhaps, are that there is a new, untested American leader; there is a second nation eager, even desperate, to balance the scales of nuclear power against the US somehow, and the fact that one small miscalculation could have massive consequences.

As David Sanger and William Broad noted on Monday, 17 April, in the New York Times,

“What is playing out, said Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who tracks this potentially deadly interplay, is ‘the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion’. But the slow-motion part appears to be speeding up, as President Trump and his aides have made it clear that the United States will no longer tolerate the incremental advances that have moved Mr. Kim so close to his goals.

“Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson has said repeatedly that “our policy of strategic patience has ended,” hardening the American position as Mr. Kim makes steady progress toward two primary goals: shrinking a nuclear weapon to a size that can fit atop a long-range missile, and developing a hydrogen bomb, with up to a thousand times the power of the Hiroshima-style weapons he has built so far.

“While all historical analogies are necessarily imprecise – for starters, President John F. Kennedy dealt with the Soviets and Fidel Castro in a perilous 13 days in 1962, while the roots of the Korean crisis go back a quarter-century – one parallel shines through. When national ambitions, personal ego and deadly weapons are all in the mix, the opportunities for miscalculation are many.

“So far, Mr. Trump has played his hand – militarily, at least – as cautiously as his predecessors: A series of Situation Room meetings has come to the predictable conclusion that while the United States can be more aggressive, it should stop just short of confronting the North so frontally that it risks rekindling the Korean War, nearly 64 years after it came to an uneasy armistice.

“Still, the current standoff has grown only more volatile. It pits a new president’s vow never to allow North Korea to put American cities at risk – ‘It won’t happen!’ he said on Twitter on Jan. 2 – against a young, insecure North Korean leader who sees that capability as his only guarantee of survival.

“Mr. Trump is clearly new to this kind of dynamic, as he implicitly acknowledged when he volunteered that Xi Jinping, China’s president, had given him what amounted to a compressed seminar in Chinese-North Korean relations. He emerged surprised that Beijing did not have the kind of absolute control over its impoverished neighbour that he insisted it did last year.

“ ‘After listening for 10 minutes, I realised it’s not so easy,’ he said. ‘It’s not what you would think.’

“Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, gave voice to the difficult balancing act on North Korea on Sunday. General McMaster, himself a military historian, said on ABC’s ‘This Week’ that while the president had not ruled out any option, it was time for the United States ‘to take action, short of armed conflict, so we can avoid the worst’ in dealing with ‘this unpredictable regime’. Translation: Pre-emptive strikes are off the table, at least for now.”

One can only hope that the classic studies of the Cuban Missile Crisis (and just maybe the way World War I rolled forward with its miscalculations and those unstoppable railroad time tables that prevented the German General Staff from even considering a pause in their mobilisation of troops) are now being read very carefully in order to avoid a possible calamity. In the midst of the deliberations in the White House, back during those October days in 1962, President Kennedy had been insistent his cautionary instructions to the commanders of the US Navy vessels on station around Cuba were understood precisely so that no one might set off a shooting war by virtue of an accidental misreading of their orders. We must hope Donald Trump, despite his by now well-earned reputation for volatility and his love of strategic ambiguity, even strategic chaos, is now being just as careful – and that in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un’s own subordinates are being just as cautious, despite their own relentless, belligerent rhetoric.