China knows the game

(NYTimes cartoon)
(NYTimes cartoon)

 

While President Trump’s bombastic and alliterative threats against North Korea appear to be credibility-free bloviating, and North Korea’s are specific enough to be worrying even if doubt remains about their capability, there’s one player in this escalating exchange of warnings who seems to really understand how its done.

That would be China.

The marker was laid down in an editorial published yesterday in China’s state-run newspaper the Global Times:

[I]f North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil first and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral. If the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.

I will admit answering with decided skepticism when others have asked me whether I think China would enter a new Korean War on the side of Pyongyang. But as in so much of international affairs, context and circumstance matter.

As much as China might want to shake up the East Asian regional order to tilt the balance away from the United States and more in its favor, when it comes to the Korean Peninsula, China is a decidedly status quo power.

As national security analyst John Schindler reminds us in his latest column at the Observer:

Beijing regards Pyongyang as a troublesome client whose antics cause annoyances and worse. However, for Beijing, the continuing existence of North Korea—as long as they don’t cause an atomic holocaust in Northeast Asia—is better than all the other options. A bumptious client state across the Yalu river beats having a united Republic of Korea, a close U.S. ally, on China’s border.

Hence the very clear warning issued to both Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un.

Kim is on notice that if he starts something he’s on his own. China will not have his back.  And Trump is on notice that China will go to war, just like it did in 1950, to ensure the survival of its client if the US makes the first move unprovoked.

The threats are in. I know which one I believe.

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?

Yes.

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.