The New Guns of August

The renowned historian Barbara Tuchman wrote a masterful history that described the events of August 1914 that led inexorably to World War I. This contains many parallels with today’s growing confrontation with North Korea. In her telling, what stood out was how inadvertently it played out over a century ago. Each party had goals and imperatives but none of the adversaries seemed to understand or account for those of their opponents. Moreover, the key figures making decisions were none too bright. Does this strike any bells?

It is often said that we have no good options. Indeed, many argue that the safest alternative is simply to accept a de facto nuclear power in North Korea, even one with a proven ICBM capability. We have done so with other countries. But there is a distinguishing characteristic of the North Korean regime that represents an unprecedented threat. Our best analysts believe that Kim Jong-un has concluded that his most effective nuclear strategy is to strike first with all available weapons in the event that his regime is at existential risk. When combined with his proven paranoid impulses, this establishes a ticking time bomb for major conflict in the region.

Those recommending a diplomatic resolution permit their hopes to blind them to the lessons of history. Diplomacy has a key role in this but only after our adversary has truly accepted it as the best course, not as a convenient diversion as in the past. This does not mean that there is nothing left but military confrontation. That is a false dichotomy, although a kind of warfare that falls short of direct conflict by major military forces may be required.

I can conceive of a promising though dangerous alternative, but one that involves activities for which we have shown little aptitude to date. It is based upon the hypothesis that Kim Jong-un is not a lunatic as some portray and that his sole and overriding imperative is to maintain his position of power. In this view, his unrelenting march toward nuclear power status derives from the belief that failure to follow through on comparable intentions was what led to the end of Saddam’s regime in Iraq and Gaddafi’s in Libya.

First and foremost, we must establish explicit, non-negotiable demands and make them abundantly clear. There must be no tweets and no mixed messages from disparate administration factions. Forcing Kim Jong-un to completely relinquish his most treasured protection is a bridge too far. We should only seek precisely two results. All nuclear testing and all long-range missile testing must end. This can be easily monitored. It will freeze his program in place, since live testing is the only method of establishing an operational and reliable weapon. He could retain his conventional power as an adequate defense.

We must have something worthwhile to offer in return for this concession. This could be the acceptance of a compliant North Korea into the global community of nations. This means the removal of sanctions, normalized trade, membership in community organizations, and so on. But this should be done slowly and in stages so that there remain benefits to be attained for a long period of time. And a violation on their part should instantly remove and reverse all benefits. Since the United States will have by itself achieved this resolution, we would retain sole authority to identify such a violation.

This kind of clearly defined carrot and stick approach was not employed with either Saddam or Gaddafi and it isn’t being used with Assad in Syria. I think this is mainly due to our blind sense of self-righteousness, combined with a crippling lack of realpolitik.

To achieve compliance, I propose that we initiate a major covert effort that incrementally applies painful pressure while never threatening to bring down Kim Jong-un’s regime. The word covert is key. We mustn’t announce this policy nor boast of its successes, political ramifications notwithstanding. Instead we should constantly employ world forums to reiterate our goals for the region. Primarily economic in nature, this effort can and should involve the kind of forceful acts that ISIS successfully employs. The key is always having plausible deniability while leaving the North Koreans no doubt whatsoever that we are directing these efforts. When accused by the North Koreans or their supporters, Russia and China, we should blandly deny all and refuse to discuss the matter. Great care is essential so that no single act would be enough to goad them into violent reaction, but the pressure should be painful, unrelenting and constantly increasing.

This can include all of the methods of non-conventional warfare. There would be no limiting rules of engagement whatsoever except one. There can be no use of weapons of mass destruction. Whatever else would work and cause pain should be on the table. It must be carefully targeted at the regime itself, not the North Korean people at large, though we should not be squeamish about inevitable collateral damage. No warfare spares the innocent, though we certainly shouldn’t use them as pawns in our struggle. And make no mistake, this is a kind of war.

Economic measures will require cooperation by the international banking system. From past experience we cannot expect voluntary help. It must be coerced and we have the tools to do this if we are willing to risk offending some trading partners and enduring some costs ourselves. This effort must also be covert. If we meet resistance it should be made clear that there can be no economic neutrals in this conflict.

Any open counter-response must be immediately and overtly countered with something comparable and proportionate. This should appear to be automatic and preplanned so that our adversary would have no expectation that their acts would serve to reduce the pressure. For example, if they sink a South Korean vessel, as they have done before, we should promptly sink a comparable one of theirs. There would be no talk, no bluster, no warning, and also no escalation, just essentially a robotic counteraction.

A necessary correlative is that we should tone down our current provocative military posture in the region. There should be no more joint military exercises with the South Koreans, no further expansion of our THAAD systems, and definitely no deployment of naval forces to the region. There must never appear to be a connection between actions on the ground and our covert campaign of pressure.

We should expect a counter campaign of some sort from the North Koreans. They have a proven capability for non-conventional warfare, especially in the cyber realm. We won’t go undamaged. But our capability is far greater and more lethal, assuming we have the steel in our backbone to use it. Any counterattack should provoke an escalation of our campaign. Fortunately, in a sense, we can freely publicize their attacks so that public support for a strong response should be high. As a result, we may consider pulling back the curtain just a bit on our ongoing efforts.

We must never unilaterally offer to negotiate or even to talk with the North Koreans, but we should be willing to respond quickly and positively to any such offer on their part that involves no preconditions. However, offers like this from their interlocutors in China should be ignored. China is not our friend in this conflict and we shouldn’t vainly hope otherwise. Meanwhile, such talks that do arise should have absolutely no effect on our covert campaign until they bear concrete results that meet our goals. The rule is no concessions to achieve compliance.

So, that summarizes my idea. It involves significant risk, but I believe that so do all currently discussed alternatives. And, in my opinion, permitting the nuclear program in North Korea to fully ripen is virtually certain to lead to nuclear war. It would be simpler to kick the can down the road, hoping that events will overtake the need for action. If we do this, history won’t treat us well.

But let me expand upon what I said at the beginning. Doing this successfully requires calm precision, careful planning, ruthlessness and, above all, discipline. Not a single one of these requirements can be met under the erratic and incompetent Trump administration. Thus, this must wait for a more competent replacement. Whether we can afford this delay is an open question.

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Thoughts on the Syrian Conflict

Perhaps you have wondered why we don’t just clean up the mess in Syria once and for all? If we can’t handle this, what does that say about our real power and our military might? From a humanitarian viewpoint its civil war is a growing tragedy, and the nasty consequences are spilling over into neighboring states and even our distant European allies. While we have no vital interest in Syria, its conflict destabilizes the entire Middle East. The current situation is definitely against our national interest.

One answer is that we really haven’t been trying very hard to impose our will. Doing so would be costly in every sense of the word, and we have the very discouraging example of our Iraqi adventures in mind. The Trump administration is characteristically confused about what to do. We want to crush ISIS, which maintains its shrinking caliphate in Syria, and there is widespread sentiment among our sometimes compassionate people that evil dictators like Bashar al-Assad are intolerable. The more hard-hearted and skeptical among us think that all of this is really none of our business and that we have more pressing problems at home.

But regardless of these mixed feelings, there is a purely practical consideration. This has been neatly encapsulated in the following diagram by Anastasia Beltyukova of CNN.

This illustrates the current free-for-all mess that would confound the most thoughtful and informed who might seek a way to resolve it. Look at the number of participants. The size of the circles roughly indicates their relative activity and effectiveness. But this is a snapshot in time. Some participants, in particular Russia, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have significant capacity to increase their efforts, with unpredictable consequences. There are no clear-cut allies or even enemies, and the conflict has no boundaries in any conventional sense.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in this area, and I certainly have no prescription in mind for a happy conclusion. My gut instinct is that we should cut our losses and withdraw from direct participation. We can provide material and financial aid to allies who wish to continue productive efforts and we can also help ameliorate the consequences for displaced persons. But not even fighting ISIS in this morass is likely to be effective unless we are willing to fully unleash our power and unless we are willing to stomach the certain collateral damage.

Perhaps the worst aspect of this issue is that I see no achievable endgame that would satisfy our interests. If Assad goes, what then? And squashing ISIS in Syria will simply cause it to metastasize everywhere. This is already underway in Yemen, Libya, Indonesia, Afghanistan and Nigeria just to mention a few of the eighteen identified infections.

Our Fascist Friends?

A resolution entitled “Combating glorification of Nazism, Neo-Nazism and other practices that contribute to fueling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance,” was approved by the United Nations Human Rights Committee last week with 131 in favor, 3 against and 48 abstentions.

True, this passed overwhelmingly, but who the hell were the three Fascist sympathizers who voted against it?

Well, the U.S.A. was one of them! Ukraine and Palau were the other two.

The justification given by our U.N. Representative was that it would violate free speech! As a sometime-Libertarian, I am as strong a supporter of free speech as anyone, but this is a bridge too far even for me. The real reason is that we fear that the Russians will use this resolution against our ex-Nazi friends in Ukraine. That also explains Ukraine’s vote. Palau’s support remains a mystery.

Perhaps you think this characterization of our Ukrainian buddies is a gross canard? If so, you might want to read their condemnation by the Simon Wiesenthal Center here. Or if you feel this might be a biased source, check this Wikipedia article about Ukrainian collaborationism with the Nazis in WWII. Of course, not all Ukrainians are Nazi sympathizers, just as not all Muslims support radical Islam. But it just so happens that the regime we defend against Russian incursion is rife with fascist ideology.

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Try to imagine the furor if President Trump’s U.N. Representative had done this! It would be amusing if Republicans introduced this precise resolution in the lame duck Congress and defied Democrats to vote it down. If they didn’t, as they assuredly wouldn’t, Obama would be faced with a very embarrassing situation, wouldn’t he? The representatives of the American people, with likely overwhelming bipartisan support, would have rejected his U.N. position. If I were advising Republicans, I would recommend this as the ultimate political mischief.

U.S. and Iran, a Troubled Past

Most Americans believe that the Iranian leaders are just religious fanatics who hate us for no good reason. But they have some solid justifications for their dislike and suspicion, and we shouldn’t strike this pose of injured innocence. In fact, if our positions were reversed I think we would be even more antagonistic than they are.

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Let’s take just a few from a long and disreputable list. Back in 1953, the CIA ran Operation Ajax that orchestrated the overthrow and eventual death of Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh. This is comparable to a direct strike against our President. If you don’t want to go back so far, then during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988, we backed Saddam even though we were well aware of his use of chemical weapons that killed and maimed thousands of Iranians. Doesn’t that make our “holier than thou” attitude about WMDs look a trifle self-serving?

If neither of these seem sufficient to explain their attitude, we should consider the Vincennes incident. In 1988, the American guided missile cruiser, USS Vincennes, shot down an Iranian civilian airplane carrying 290 passengers and crew. All 290 died. The Iran Air Airbus A300 was in Iranian airspace on a regularly scheduled flight. We claimed that it was mistaken for an F14-A Tomcat fighter jet making aggressive moves toward our vessel. Anyone familiar with radar signatures would know that this is barely plausible. It is true that our cruiser made several attempts to contact the plane, however they failed because they used the wrong transmission frequency.

We never formally apologized, although we did make a monetary settlement through the International Court of Appeals. The captain of the Vincennes was subsequently given a medal and promoted. Be honest, how do you think we would react in their circumstances? Would we just forgive and forget? I think not. Their casualty total is quite comparable to our losses on 9/11 if you account for the difference in our respective populations.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, don’t forget our support for the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He was an autocrat imposed on Iran during WWII. A secular Muslim, the Shah had modern views that pleased us but his secret police, the SAVAK, conducted a reign of terror not unlike the Syrian dictators, Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar, whom we so strongly condemn.

There isn’t much we can do now to alter their view of us, but pretending that it has no justification is simply wrong and probably aggravates the situation.

Making the Nuclear Pact Work

Russian President Vladimir Putin often prevails because everyone is unsure that he will act prudently, the way we might in a similar situation. He is obviously a risk taker and some might even suspect he is unstable. Perhaps one of the few upsides to a President Trump would be that the world, and especially our enemies, might be hesitant to confront us for the same reasons.

This line of thought led me to a possible solution to our Iranian nuclear problem. As I have previously noted, we have a Plan B if either the nuclear deal falls through or Iran fails to meet its obligations. The problem is that we would be very hesitant to employ this plan as the risks of escalation are great and our current administration is congenitally timid. Our adversaries in Teheran fully understand this diffidence, and that greatly lessens the plan’s deterrence.

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But what if we subcontracted Plan B to a more believable implementer? No one doubts that Israel will do anything within its power to prevent Iran from having the nuclear capability to make good on its constant threats to annihilate them. Currently, however, Israel doesn’t have the necessary tools to do much about it, other than issuing vague threats involving its own nuclear arsenal. And if they followed through, the consequences would be far worse than our Plan B. So, what if we gave Israel the tools?

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This involves access to B2 stealth bombers, the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) devices, and some technical support for their use. One approach would be to station the strike force on Israeli soil if a safe location could be found. But a better solution would be to let the Israeli Air Force station its crews at the American base on Diego Garcia island in the Indian Ocean. The range and lift capacity of the B2 bomber are enormous, so almost anywhere in the world would work.

No doubt the world would convulse. Russia in particular would have a diplomatic fit though there is not much they can do to prevent this, short of war with the U.S. We have a perfect object lesson of this reality in Putin’s recent incursions in Ukraine, employing sympathetic resident insurgents. What could we or the other Western democracies do about it? The fact is, though no one was willing to admit it, Russia has an important vested interest in Ukraine. Similarly, we and Israel have an important vested interest in a nuclear-free Iran. Worrying about our fingerprints on an Israeli operation would be entirely comparable to Putin fretting about his obvious complicity in Ukraine. Both of us must do what is needed and the world understands that fact.

Once things settled down, nothing would happen except that Iran would be faced with an entirely new reality. Israel wouldn’t wait for the kind of proof needed in a court of law or even to convince a skeptical Security Council. If Iran restarted its covert development, or let slip evidence of its ongoing efforts, they would understand the real risk they face. Mossad is a formidable force that would lie behind the IAEA in enforcing the inspection provisions of the nuclear pact. This would now have real teeth and we could feel confident in signing it.

Any redistribution of force like this entails risk. However we have declared that allowing Iran to become a nuclear power is unthinkable. If we really mean that, this plan may be the only feasible enforcement mechanism. Unlike the nuclear pact, which is time-limited, this deterrence would remain indefinitely. We would be sending a message of real determination and, not incidentally, going a long way toward mending a fractured relationship with a good and valued ally.

I am sure that there are those who fear that Israel might recklessly employ this fearsome weapon in a spasmodic reflex of preemptive revenge. But there is absolutely nothing in Israel’s short, tumultuous history that supports this fear. Even an aggressive leader like Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu would understand that this is a last resort weapon and that consequences of its use would be severe. The difference between having Israel rather than us make the intervention choice is that their stake is immeasurably higher. We have laid down a firm red line of no nuclear weapons in the hands of the Iranian Mullahs and their Revolutionary Guard. If we mean what we say, then here is a way to prove it.

Playing the Semantics Game

This week’s House hearings on the Iran nuclear deal centered on two related issues, trust and the inspection regime. The three cabinet secretaries, Kerry (State), Moniz (Energy) and Lew (Treasury), continually emphasized that trust has no part in the agreement and that there is a robust inspection process to enforce its provisions.

A questioner brought up the putative concept of “anywhere, anytime inspection.” Moniz admitted using that phrase but said that what he meant it to mean is “managed access in the sense of a well-defined process with a well-defined end date.” That isn’t the first connotation of that fairly specific phrase that springs to mind, or at least not to mine anyway. Kerry interjected that never once in the four years of negotiations was “anywhere, anytime inspection” even mentioned by any party to the talks. He went on to say that no country would permit such intrusions into their sovereignty. Laying aside the issue that Kerry and Moniz need to get their story straight, there is some element of truth to Kerry’s claim.

The only other White House official to use that precise term is Ben Rhodes, Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor. He did so on two occasions during TV interviews. However several officials, including the President, did aver to “the most robust and intrusive inspections and transparency regime ever negotiated for any nuclear program in history.” And they certainly made no attempt either to walk back on Ben Rhodes’ characterization or to point out the intended meaning as described by Secretary Moniz.

Separate from these semantic hijinks, another questioner brought up an interesting ploy now open to Iran. “What if” he asked, “Iran accepted the deal, pocketed the $100B+ of frozen funds they will receive, waited a while, and then just told the inspectors to take a walk and resumed their march to the bomb?” It’s likely, but by no means certain, that robust sanctions would be reimposed. But wouldn’t this just be the status quo except for them having bamboozled us out of a ton of cash?

kerryfleecedKerry responded that this scenario is unlikely essentially because Iran would have seen the benefit of open commerce with the West and would be loath to give it up just to get the bomb. Maybe…and maybe not. What is the evidence to support this?

Iranian Nuclear Talks: Plan B

iran-nk-obama-cartoonI have no idea how the Iranian nuclear talks are going or whether an agreement will be reached. But essentially, they are irrelevant anyway. At best we can only delay Iran, and they seem very determined to join the nuclear club, for prestige purposes if for nothing else. However, we do have a Plan B in place, fully operational and awaiting only the call from the White House.

This plan involves a sudden set of aerial strikes against all known Iranian nuclear facilities. These would be followed by an indefinite series of repeat strikes as target assessment is performed and new information is obtained. There is more to it of course, such as preliminary air defense suppression strikes, but that is the essence. It is often reported that we are hampered in this by poor intelligence on the ground. This is almost certainly untrue but the real facts must be concealed for security and operational reasons.

Our current operational weapon system is capable of destroying all known nuclear research, development and storage facilities in Iran, probably with a single strike at each. It is called Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP). MOP can penetrate “at least” 200 feet of rock or reinforced concrete and carries a 5,300 pound high-intensity explosive. It destroys via initial blast and a shock wave that would collapse buried shafts, pathways and interior rooms. Its secondary effects are to make an entire underground structure unstable. No one inside the structure would survive.

Only the B2 Stealth Bomber has the lift capability and range to deploy this weapon. Each B2 can carry two of these monsters. Our current stockpile at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri is limited (about 20) but only because MOP is quite expensive. It can be easily replenished. Moreover, a much larger guided missile version is under contract, although the details are classified.

We probably wouldn’t find all of the important targets, and there is a technology race underway between building more impenetrable facilities and designing more devastating ordinance. But there is little doubt that we could deliver a crippling blow that would make a sustaining program extremely expensive for Iran. If this race continued long enough there would be no choice but to transition from conventional to low-yield nuclear weapons, and Iran would certainly know this. It is not a path that either Iran or we would follow lightly.

Make no mistake, Plan B means going to war. No country would accept the punishment and loss of life that Plan B will inflict without reacting savagely, and that would almost certainly quickly ratchet up into full conflict.

The question is, would we really execute Plan B? Much depends upon who is President when the time comes for a decision. In choosing our next President, it would be wise to think about how he or she might react to this question. There is no way to know for certain and I doubt that candidates could or would make this clear. Nevertheless, I think I could make an educated guess about many in the current field.

Personally, I don’t think the risks and costs of Plan B are worth its limited benefits, and I am persuaded that most Presidents would agree. It might have marginal value as a threat, but not much more. Those familiar with the movie “Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” know of a possible flaw. We haven’t as yet made clear to Iran what Plan B entails, so it is not much of a threat, is it?

As an aside, Israel doesn’t have the capability to execute the initial phases of Plan B, unless of course we supply the tools. Thus they would have to go immediately to the final phase, using their “secret” nuclear arsenal. Bluster aside, that just won’t happen.

Here’s what I think will actually occur. The nuclear talks are just a sideshow. Iran will get the bomb and a suitable delivery system. In time, Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia will follow suit. It is just too depressing to follow this chain of logic to its inevitable and tragic conclusion.