Tag Archives: Houthi

Of Trump, Vipers, and Foreign Policy

Of Trump, Vipers & Foreign Policy

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb. 22, 2017

 

“Chaos,” “dismay,” “radically inept,” are just a few of the headlines analyzing President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, and in truth, disorder would seem to be the strategy of the day. Picking up the morning newspaper or tuning on the national news sometimes feels akin to opening up a basket filled with spitting cobras and Gabon Vipers.

 

But the bombast emerging for the White House hasn’t always matched what the Trump administration does in the real world. The threat to dump the “one-China” policy and blockade Beijing’s bases in the South China Sea has been dialed back. The pledge to overturn the Iran nuclear agreement has been shelved. And NATO’s “obsolesce” has morphed into a pledge of support. Common sense setting in as a New York Times headline suggests: “Foreign Policy Loses Its Sharp Edge as Trump Adjusts to Office”?

 

Don’t bet on it.

 

First, this is an administration that thrives on turmoil, always an easier place to rule from than order. What it says and does one day may be, or may not be, what it says or does another. And because there are a number of foreign policy crises that have stepped up to the plate, we should all find out fairly soon whether the berserkers or the rationalists are running things.

 

The most dangerous of these is Iran, which the White House says is “playing with fire” and has been “put on notice” for launching a Khorramshahr medium-range ballistic missile. The missile traveled 630 miles and exploded in what looks like a failed attempt to test a re-entry vehicle. Exactly what “notice” means has yet to be explained, but Trump has already applied sanctions for what it describes as a violation of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Program of Action—UN Security Council Resolution 2231—in which Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear energy program.

 

A 2010 UN resolution did, indeed, state, that Iran “shall not undertake activity related to ballistic missiles.” But that resolution was replaced by UNSCR 2231, which only “calls upon Iran not to test missiles,” wording that “falls short of an outright prohibition on missile testing,” according to former UN weapon’s inspector Scott Ritter.

 

The Iranians say their ballistic missile program is defensive, and given the state of their obsolete air force, that is likely true.

 

The Trump administration also charges that Iran is a “state sponsor of terror,” an accusation that bears little resemblance to reality. Iran is currently fighting the Islamic State and al-Qaida in Syria, Iraq, and through its allies, the Houthi, in Yemen. It has also aided the fight against al-Qaida in Afghanistan. As Ritter points out, “Iran is more ally than foe,” especially compared to Saudi Arabia, “whose citizens constituted the majority of the 9/11 attackers and which is responsible for underwriting and the financial support of Islamic extremists around the world, including Islamic State and al-Qaida.”

 

In an interview last year, leading White House strategist Steve Bannon predicted, “We’re clearly going into, I think, a major shooting war in the Middle East again.” Since the U.S. has pretty much devastated its former foes in the region—Iraq, Syria and Libya—he could only be referring to Iran. The administration’s initial actions vis-à-vis Teheran are, indeed, worrisome. U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis recently considered boarding an Iranian ship in international waters to search it for weapons destined for the Houthi in Yemen. Such an action would be a clear violation of international law and might have ended in a shoot out.

 

The Houthi practice a variation of Shiism, the dominant Islamic school in Iran. They do get some money and weapons from Teheran, but even U.S. intelligence says that the group is not under Teheran’s command.

 

The White House also condemned a Houthi attack on a Saudi warship—initially Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer called it an “American” ship—even though the Saudi’s and their Persian Gulf allies are bombing the Houthi and the Saudi Navy—along with the U.S. Navy—is blockading the country. According to the UN, more than 16,000 people have died in the three-year war, 10,000 of them civilians.

 

Apparently the Trump administration is considering sending American soldiers into Yemen, which would put the U.S troops in the middle of a war involving the Saudis and their allies, the Houthi, Iran, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and various south Yemen separatist groups.

 

Putting U.S. ground forces into Yemen is a “dangerous idea,” according to Jon Finer, chief of staff for former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. But a U.S. war with Iran would be as catastrophic for the Middle East as the invasion of Iraq. It would also be unwinnable unless the U.S. resorted to nuclear weapons, and probably not even then. For all its flaws, Iran’s democracy is light years ahead of most other U.S. allies in the region and Iranians would strongly rally behind the government in the advent of a conflict.

 

The other foreign policy crisis is the recent missile launch by North Korea, although so far the Trump administration has let the rightwing Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe carry the ball on the issue. Meeting with Trump in Florida, Abe called the Feb. 12 launch “absolutely intolerable.” Two days earlier Trump had defined halting North Korean missile launches as a “very, very high priority.”

 

The tensions with North Korea nuclear weapons and missile program are long running, and this particular launch was hardly threatening. The missile was a mid-range weapon and only traveled 310 miles before breaking up. The North Koreans have yet to launch a long-range ICBM, although they continue to threaten that one is in the works.

 

According to a number of Washington sources, Barak Obama told Trump that North Korea posed the greatest threat to U.S. military forces, though how he reached that conclusion is puzzling. It is estimated North Korea has around one dozen nuclear weapons with the explosive power of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, about 20 kilotons. The average U.S. warhead packs an explosive force of from 100 to 475 kilotons, with some ranging up to 1.2 megatons. It has more than 4,000 nuclear weapons.

 

While the North Koreans share the Trump administration’s love of hyperbole, the country has never demonstrated a suicidal streak. A conventional attack by the U.S., South Korea and possibly Japan would be a logistical nightmare and might touch off a nuclear war, inflicting enormous damage on other countries in the region. Any attack would probably draw in China.

 

What the North Koreans want is to talk to someone, a tactic that the Obama administration never tried. Nor did it consider trying to look at the world from Pyongyang’s point of view. “North Korea has taken note of what happened in Iraq and Libya after they renounced nuclear weapons,” says Norman Dombey, an expert on nuclear weapons and a professor of theoretical physics at Sussex University. “The U.S. took action against both, and both countries’ leaders were killed amid violence and chaos.”

 

The North Koreans know they have enemies—the U.S. and South Korea hold annual war games centered on a military intervention in their country—and not many friends. Beijing tolerates Pyongyang largely because it worries about what would happen if the North Korean government fell. Not only would it be swamped with refugees, it would have a U.S. ally on its border.

 

Obama’s approach to North Korea was to isolate it, using sanctions to paralyze to the country. It has not worked, though it has inflicted terrible hardships on the North Korean people. What might work is a plan that goes back to 2000 in the closing months of the Clinton administration.

 

That plan proposed a non-aggression pact between the U.S., Japan, South Korea and North Korea, and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. North Korea would have been recognized as a nuclear weapons state, but agree to forgo any further tests and announce all missile launches in advance. In return, the sanctions would be removed and North Korea would receive economic aid. The plan died when the Clinton administration got distracted by the Middle East.

 

Since then the U.S. has insisted that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons, but that is not going to happen—see Iraq and Libya. In any case, the demand is the height of hypocrisy. When the U.S. signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it agreed to Article VI that calls for “negotiations in good faith” to end “the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”

 

All eight nuclear powers—the U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain, India, Pakistan and Israel—have not only not discussed eliminating their weapons, all are in the process of modernizing them. The NPT was never meant to enforce nuclear apartheid, but in practice that is what has happened.

 

A non-aggression pact is essential. Article VI also calls for “general and complete disarmament,” reflecting a fear by smaller nations that countries like the U.S. have such powerful conventional forces that they don’t need nukes to get their way. Many countries—China in particular—were stunned by how quickly and efficiently the U.S. destroyed Iraq’s military.

 

During the presidential campaign, Trump said he would “have no problem” speaking with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un. That pledge has not been repeated, however, and there is ominous talk in Washington about a “preemptive strike” on North Korea, which would likely set most of north Asia aflame.

 

There are a number of other dangerous flashpoints out there besides Iran and North Korea.

 

*The Syrian civil war continues to rage and Trump is talking about sending in U.S. ground forces, though exactly who they would fight is not clear. Patrick Cockburn of the Independent once called Syria a three-dimensional chess game with nine players and no rules. Is that a place Americans want to send troops into?

 

*The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan—now America’s longest running war—is asking for more troops.

 

*The war in the Eastern Ukraine smolders on, and with NATO pushing closer and closer to the Russian border, there is always the possibility of misjudgment. The same goes for Asia, where Bannon predicted “for certain” the U.S. “is going to go to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years.”

 

How much of the White House tweets are provocation and grandiose rhetoric is not clear. The President and the people around him are lens lice who constantly romance the spotlight. They have, however, succeeded in alarming a lot of people. As the old saying goes, “Boys throw rocks at frogs in fun. The frogs dodge them in earnest.”

 

Except in the real world, “fun” can quickly translate into disaster, and some of the frogs are perfectly capable of tossing a few of their own rocks.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dispatches 2015 News Awards

Dispatches Awards for 2015

Dispatches From the Edge

Jan. 3, 2016

 

Each year Dispatches From The Edge gives awards to individuals, companies, and governments that make following the news a daily adventure. Here are the awards for 2015

 

The First Amendment Award to U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter for issuing a new Law Of War manual that defines reporters as “unprivileged belligerents” who will lose their “privileged” status by “the relaying of information” which “could constitute taking a direct part in hostilities.” Translation? If you report you are in the same class as members of al-Qaeda.

 

A Pentagon spokesperson said that the military “supports and respects the vital work that journalists perform.” Just so long as they keep what the see, hear, and discover to themselves? Professor of constitutional law Heidi Kitrosser called the language “alarming.”

 

Runner up is the U.S. Military College at West Point for hiring Assistant Professor of Law William C. Bradford, who argues that the military should target “legal scholars” who are critical of the “war on terrorism.” Such critics are “treasonous”, he says. Bradford proposes going after “law school facilities, scholars’ home offices and media outlets where they give interviews.” Bradford also favors attacking “Islamic holy sites,” even if that means “great destruction, innumerable enemy casualties, and civilian collateral damage.”

 

The Little Bo Peep Award for losing track of things goes to the U.S. Defense Department for being unable to account for $35 billion in construction aid to Afghanistan, which is about $14 billion more than the country’s GDP. The U.S. has spent $107.5 billion on reconstruction in Afghanistan, more than the Marshall Plan. Most of it went to private contractors.

 

The Pentagon response to the report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan on the missing funds was to declare that all such information was now classified, because it might provide “sensitive information for those that threaten our forces and Afghan forces.” It has since partially backed off that declaration.

 

While it is only pocket change compared to Afghanistan, the Pentagon also could not account for more than $500 million in military aid to Yemen. The U.S. is currently aiding Saudi Arabia and a number of other Gulf monarchies that are bombing Houthi rebels battling the Yemeni government. Much of that aid was supposed to go for fighting Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), against which the U.S. is also waging a drone war. The most effective foes of AQAP are the Shiite Houthis. So we are supporting the Saudis and their allies against the Houthis, while fighting Al-Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

 

If the reader is confused, Dispatches suggests taking a strong painkiller and lying down.

 

The George Orwell Award For Language goes to the intelligence gathering organizations of the “Five Eyes” surveillance alliance—the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—who changed the words “mass surveillance” to “bulk collection.” The linguistic gymnastics allows the Five to claim that they are not violating Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In the 2000 decision of Amann v. Switzerland, the Court found that it was illegal to store information on an individual’s private life.

 

As investigative journalist Glen Greenwald points out, the name switch is similar to replacing the world “torture” with “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The first is illegal, the second vague enough for interrogators to claim they are not violating the International Convention Against Torture.

 

A runner up is the U.S. Defense Department, which changed the scary title of “Air Sea Battle” to describe the U.S.’s current military doctrine vis-à-vis China, to “Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons.” The Air Sea Battle doctrine calls for bottling up China’s navy, launching missile attacks to destroy command centers, and landing troops on the Chinese mainland. It includes scenarios for the use of nuclear weapons. “Global Commons,” on the other hand, sounds like a picnic on the lawn.

 

The Lassie Come Home Award to the U.S. Marine Corps for creating a 160-pound robot dog that will “enhance the Marine Corps war-fighting capabilities,” according to Captain James Pineiro. Pineiro heads up the Corp’s Warfighting Laboratory at Quantico, Virginia. “We see it as a great potential for the future dismounted infantry.”

 

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is also designing an autonomous fighting robot. Can the Terminator be far off?

 

The Golden Lemon Award goes to Lockheed Martin, the biggest arms manufacturer in the world, which has managed to produce two stunningly expensive weapons systems that don’t work.

 

The F-35 Lighting II is the single most expensive weapons system in U.S. history: $1.5 trillion. It is supposed to replace all other fighter-bomber aircraft in the American arsenal, including the F-15, F-16 and F-18, and will begin deployment in 2016.

 

Slight problem.

 

In dogfights with the three decade-old F-16, the F-35 routinely lost. Because it is heavy and underpowered, it is extremely difficult to turn the plane during air-to-air combat. It has a fancy 25-MM Gatling gun that gets off 3,000 rounds a minute—but the plane can only carry 180 rounds. As one Air Force official put it, “Hope you don’t miss.” Oh, and the software for the gun won’t be out until 2019.

 

And that’s not the only glitch.

 

The F-35 has stealth technology, but its Identification Friend or Foe system is so bad that pilots are required to get a visual confirmation of their target. Not a good idea when the other guys have long-range air-to-air missiles. The $600,000 high-tech helmet the pilot uses to see everything around him often doesn’t work very well, and there isn’t enough room in the cockpit to turn your head. If the helmet goes out, there is no backup landing systems, so maybe you had better eject? Bad idea. The fatality rate for small pilots (those under 139 pounds) at low speeds is 98 percent, not good odds. Larger pilots do better but the changes of a broken neck are still distressingly high.

But it is not just Lockheed Martin’s airplanes that don’t work, neither do its ships.

 

The company’s new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), The Milwaukee, broke down during its recent East Coast tour and had to be towed to Virginia Beach. The LCSs are designed to fight in shallow waters, but a recent Pentagon analysis says the ships would “not be survivable in a hostile combat situation.” The LCSs have been plagued with engine problems and spend more than 50 percent of their time in port being repaired. The program costs $37 billion.

 

And Lockheed Martin, along with Northrop Grumman and Boeing, just got a $58.2 billion contract to build the next generation Long Range Strike Bomber. Sigh.

 

The Great Moments In Democracy Award goes to Jyrki Katainen, Finnish vice-president of the European Commission, the executive arm of the 28-nation European Union. When Greece’s anti-austerity Syriza Party was elected, he commented, “We don’t change policies depending on elections.” So, why is it that people have elections?

 

A close runner up in this category is German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble, who denounced Athens’ government for not cracking down on Greeks who can’t pay their taxes. The biggest tax dodger in Greece? That would be the huge German construction company, Hochtief, which has not paid the Value Added Tax for 20 years, nor made its required contributions to social security. Estimates are that the company owes Greece one billion Euros.

 

 

The Ty-D-Bol Cleanup Award to the U.S. State Department for finally agreeing to clean up plutonium contamination, the residue from three hydrogen bombs that fell near the Andalusia town of Palomares in Southern Spain in 1966. The bombs were released when a B-52 collided with an air tanker. While the bombs did not explode—Palomares and a significant section of southern Spain would not exist if they had—they broke open, spreading seven pounds highly toxic plutonium 239 over the area. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years.

 

While there was an initial cleanup, Francisco Franco’s fascist government covered up the incident and played down the dangers of plutonium. But recent studies indicate that there is still contamination, and some of the radioactive materials are degrading into americium, a producer of dangerous gamma radiation.

 

When Spain re-raised the issue in 2011, the U.S. stonewalled Madrid. So why is Washington coming to an agreement now? Quid pro quo: the U.S. wants to base some of its navy at Rota in Southern Spain, and the Marines are setting up a permanent base at Moron de la Frontera.

 

As for nukes, the U.S. is deploying its new B61-12 guided nuclear bomb in Europe. At $11 billion it is the most expensive nuke in the U.S. arsenal. The U.S. will base the B61-12 in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Turkey, a violation of Articles I and II of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Those two articles ban transferring nukes from a nuclear weapon state to a non-nuclear weapon state.

 

Dispatches assumes they will also bring lots of mops and buckets.

 

Buyer Beware Award to the purchasing arm of the U.S. Defense Department that sent dozens of MD-530 attack helicopters to Afghanistan to build up the Afghan Air Force. Except the McDonnell Douglass-made choppers can’t operate above 8,000 feet, which means they can’t clear many of the mountains that ring Kabul. The Afghan capital is at 6,000 feet. It also doesn’t have the range to reach Taliban-controlled areas and, according to the pilots, its guns jam all the time. The Pentagon also paid more than $400 million to give Afghanistan 16 transport plane that were in such bad condition they couldn’t fly. The planes ended up being sold as scrap for $32,000.

 

The Pogo Possum “We Have Met The Enemy and He Is Us” Award goes to Defense Intelligence Agency for warning Congress that “Chinese and Russian military leaders…were developing capabilities to deny [the] U.S. use of space in the event of a conflict”. Indeed, U.S. military satellites were jammed 261 times in 2015—by the United States. Asked how many times China and Russia had jammed U.S. signals, Gen. John Hyten, head of the Air Force Space Command replied, “I don’t really know. My guess is zero.”

 

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