North Korea calls its shot

"Ready? Four Hwasong-12s landing 30km from Guam."
“Ready? Four Hwasong-12s landing 30km from Guam.”


In response to Donald Trumps incredibly vague threat to rain “fire and fury” down on North Korea, the North Korean government replied with an incredibly specific threat of its own. And they say they’ll be ready to follow through by the middle of August.

That’s next week folks.

As The Atlantic reported this afternoon, North Korea is:

seriously examining the plan for an enveloping strike at Guam through simultaneous fire of four Hwasong-12 intermediate-range strategic ballistic rockets in order to interdict the enemy forces on major military bases on Guam and to signal a crucial warning to the U.S.

Not only that, but the statement released by the Korean Central News Agency, precisely lays not just the type and number of missiles but the rockets’ flight path and time (20 minutes) from launch to reaching the targeted end point, waters 30 to 40 kilometers (18-25 miles) off the coast of the U.S. territory of Guam.

The commander of North Korea’s strategic rocket forces called Trump’s initial threat a “load of nonsense” and dismissed him the way one might the half-in-the-bag blowhard at the other end of the bar, saying: “Sound dialogue is not possible with such a guy bereft of reason and only absolute force can work on him.”

Not to be outdone, Trump responded himself just a short while ago, cranking the level of bellicosity to 11:

Frankly, the people who were questioning that statement, was it too tough? Maybe it wasn’t tough enough.

Look, the problem isn’t that “fire and fury” is too vague a threat. The problem is that Trump simply has no credibility. His words are not believable and therefore his threats likely carry no weight with North Korea or anyone else for that matter. Not even the American public believes what they hear coming out of the White House. So why should our adversaries?

Trump routinely lards his rhetoric with threats, violence, and aggression. Such language was part and parcel of his stump speeches as a candidate, reared its head in his inaugural address, and comes out when he talks to or about his political opponents and adversaries.

And he routinely fails to follow through on the threats he makes. He threatens to force Mexico to fund his border wall, but Congress is scrounging for the money. He threatened to withdraw from NAFTA but hasn’t. He threatened a trade war with China but was talked out of it. He threatened Germany over what he believes to be unfair terms of trade. He threatened to lock Hillary Clinton up and sue James Comey. Neither seems to be sweating over it.

Bringing the conversation back to North Korea, even Trump’s own national security team were quick to distance official United States policy toward the North from the president’s own words. The only person in the administration who seems to be on the same page as Trump is Seb Gorka. That should tell you something.

Bottom line: No one (Gorka excepted) likely believes Donald Trump’s words are any more than empty chest-thumping bluster. But North Korea, that’s a different matter, and the specificity of its most recent threat is troubling for that very reason.

You don’t make a threat that specific, that easy to prove empty, unless you really think you can pull it off. And if they can, that means North Korea has the ability to launch and precision guide nuclear capable missiles.

And if they believe that Trump is full of hot air, as nearly any rational observer would (and the North Korean leadership is eminently rational), then they have every reason to escalate and follow through on their own threats to demonstrate just how ready they are to confront the United States.

Trump is playing a dangerous game, and he doesn’t even know the rules.

Yes, this is terrorism

FBI investigators at the scene of a mosque bombing in Minnesota.
FBI investigators at the scene of a mosque bombing in Minnesota.


If a bomb goes off at a mosque in Minnesota and the headlines don’t call it terrorism, is it still terrorism?


And yet acts of terrorism in the United States get little attention from the media unless they’ve been perpetrated by or can be attributed to Muslim attackers. That finding by a group of researchers at Georgia State University made headlines around the world when it was released earlier this summer.

This is consistent with research (I wrote a little about it here) that one of my students and I presented at a conference a year ago¹ in which we found that American public opinion on the importance of terrorism as a problem responds not to actual terrorist incidents, but to media coverage of those events.

If, as the Georgia State researchers found, the media over reports acts of terrorism attributed to Muslim perpetrators, and under reports other cases, then this would explain why our project sees spikes in concern about terrorism after events like the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando but not the Emanuel AME massacre in Charleston.

My intuition, and the impetus for a new project that I will begin working on this fall, is that incidents like what happened in Minnesota early Saturday, as worshippers were gathering for their morning prayers, are rarely if ever even referred to as terrorism in the first place, despite meeting an unbiased conceptual/analytical definition of such acts.

If that’s the case, then that could account for both the Georgia State findings as well as the observed impact of media coverage on the perception of the extent to which terrorism is thought to be a serious problem by the American public.

Regardless, the bottom line remains the same: A bomb thrown through the window of a place of worship is an act of terrorism, even if the targets, but not the perpetrators, are Muslims.

¹The paper is being revised this summer for submission for possible publication, but you can email me at ptrumbor AT oakland DOT edu and I will send you a copy of the initial (rough) draft version.

Mercenaries for Afghanistan?

Erik Prince, future Viceroy of Afghanistan?
Blackwater’s Erik Prince, future Viceroy of Afghanistan?


The Trump administration is bandying about the idea of hiring a mercenary army to conquer and pacify Afghanistan on behalf of the United States.

Sounds like a cockamamie idea, but no, the drafters of the plan and the White House officials (Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner) shopping it around are absolutely serious. As Sean McFate, himself a former mercenary (more politely referred to as a private military contractor) writes at The Atlantic:

Not surprisingly, the private-military industry is behind this proposal. Erik D. Prince, a founder of the private military company Blackwater Worldwide, and Stephen A. Feinberg, a billionaire financier who owns the giant military contractor DynCorp International, each see a role for themselves in this future. Their proposal was offered at the request of Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, and Jared Kushner, his senior adviser and son-in-law, according to people briefed on the conversations.

Prince, the brother of Trump cabinet member Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, apparently envisions himself in the role of Viceroy of Afghanistan, concentrating power in his own hands while cutting those meddlesome bureaucrats and politicians back in Washington out of the picture.

As Prince acknowledged in an interview with NPR, the proposal is modeled on the British East India Company, whose private army made possible the imperial conquest of India and then for centuries controlled and exploited it on behalf of the crown. Except, as McFate points out, when the British government had to bail the company out of financial ruin in 1770 and then take over for it entirely in 1874.

As McFate points out, there are obvious pitfalls in turning to mercenaries to solve your military problems. The key one, of course, is that their loyalty is for sale to the highest bidder. So what happens when your rivals offer them a better contract?

This would be little more than garden-variety crazy for this administration except that it comes at a time when President Trump is reportedly angry and frustrated about the what he sees as the failure of his advisers to craft a strategy for “winning” in Afghanistan. As NBC News reported a few days ago, the president’s ire spilled out in classically Trumpian style:

Over nearly two hours in the situation room … Trump complained about NATO allies, inquired about the United States getting a piece of Afghan’s mineral wealth and repeatedly said the top U.S. general there should be fired. He also startled the room with a story that seemed to compare their advice to that of a paid consultant who cost a tony New York restaurateur profits by offering bad advice.

Given this backdrop, it’s no wonder some in the president’s inner circle, and perhaps Trump himself, might be keen to outsource the Afghan war and subsequent occupation.

Outsourcing is, of course, old hat to a business guy like Trump. And using mercenaries instead of American troops would also allow the president to indulge in one of his favorite business practices: stiffing the contractors.

Madam President’s foreign policy: US-Russia relations


This is the first of what will be several posts over the next week or two speculating on what might have been different for US foreign policy and international affairs had Hillary Clinton won the presidency. This first piece focuses on US-Russia relations. 

After 188 days of the Trump presidency and counting, we have a pretty good idea of what his foreign policy is like. Simply put, it ain’t pretty

But what would foreign policy have looked like with Hillary Clinton in the White House? At least one analyst suggests it might not have been all that different. Let me suggest otherwise.

It is also true, however, that some developments would have unfolded more or less in the same way that they have under President Trump. Any American president has only limited influence on the ebb and flow of global relations, and so some problems which we might be tempted to lay at Trump’s feet likely would have happened anyway, regardless of who is in the White House. I’m looking at you, North Korea.

With that disclaimer in place, here we go:

Given the unfolding revelations of the extent of Russian efforts to tip the 2016 election to Donald Trump, US-Russia relations are at their lowest point since the Cold War. Russian Ambassador Sergy Kislyak, who was accused of coordinating secret contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence operatives, announced his retirement and immediate return to Moscow. The Clinton Administration had privately warned the Kremlin that Kislyak and other Russian diplomats would be formally expelled if Kislyak did not voluntarily step down.

Clinton has also warned that the United States will not hesitate to retaliate should Moscow attempt to undermine the 2018 midterm elections.

The Justice Department has announced the creation of a special task force targeting suspected Russian money laundering operations involving real estate transactions in New York and south Florida. The task force is headed up by New York US Attorney Preet Bharra.

Sanctions against Russia put in place by the Obama Administration immediately after the election remain in place, and President Clinton has vowed to impose even tougher sanctions, though she faces opposition from the Republican-controlled Congress which accuses her of targeting Russia and the former Trump campaign to distract attention from new congressional investigations into the Clinton Foundation’s ties to foreign interests and her handling of classified information as Secretary of State.

The Putin government has responded by expelling 30 US diplomats, closing the offices of American news agencies, expelling US journalists, and intensifying a crackdown on civil society, pro-democracy, and human rights organizations which the Kremlin accuse of serving as agents of Western provocation. It has also openly increased its support for and assistance to pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Large-scale Russian military exercises in Belarus have been scheduled for September and, given Moscow’s tendency to “train exactly as they intend to fight,” are widely understood to be a dry run for military action against NATO.

The Kremlin has also ended all cooperation with and coordination between Russian military forces supporting the Assad regime in Syria and US forces supporting anti-Assad groups fighting ISIS, warning the United States that it would not be responsible for any “mishaps” that could occur between US and Russian forces operating in the Syrian battlespace.

At the NATO summit in May, President Clinton reiterated America’s commitment to the alliance and the principle of collective security expressed in Article 5 of the NATO Charter. She was responding both to criticism that the Obama Administration had been insufficiently forceful in standing for the defense of Europe, and seeking to calm fears raised in Europe by a presidential campaign in which NATO often served as Donald Trump’s punching bag.

In a tough speech at the dedication of the 9/11 and Article 5 Memorials at NATO headquarters, Clinton warned Putin against engaging in “dangerous military adventurism” in the Baltic States or Central Europe, proclaiming: “There will be no more Crimeas on my watch.”

Clinton also announced what she called “Cyber Article 5,” declaring that the principle of collective security must extend to the cyber arena. She called on NATO to expand the capabilities and scope of responsibilities of NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence, stating that cyber intrusion or interference in the electoral systems or democratic process in any NATO member must be met with combined cyber countermeasures from the rest of the alliance.

At the G-20 summit meeting earlier this month in Hamburg, Clinton joined 18 other heads of state, dubbed the G-19 by the news media, in issuing a joint declaration denouncing interference in the domestic politics of any democratic state. Russian President Putin conspicuously declined to attach his name to the statement.

To summarize, under President Clinton relations between the United States and Russia are at their lowest point in decades. Putin’s longstanding hatred of Clinton, coupled with her administration’s forceful response to Russian efforts to elect Donald Trump, have set in motion a 21st century Cold War.

¹The hyperlink will take you to a special issue of Foreign Affairs with links to a series of articles by highly regarded foreign policy analysts and scholars. The title of the project, “Present at the Destruction,” gives you some advance idea of what you’ll read there.