Here’s why ‘Sharpiegate’ matters

The Abqaiq oil facility burns Saturday night. (Credit: Reuters)

Because when this administration claims it has evidence that Iran was responsible for a devastating attack on a Saudi oil production facility over the weekend, the world, and the American public, is right to be skeptical.

President Trump, enabled by craven and opportunistic aides and advisors, lies the way the rest of us breathe. As my friend and colleague Steve Saideman writes at his blog:

[W]e know that the Trump Administration has no credibility–it has lied about a great many things, so even if they come out with some evidence of either Iranian complicity (and Iran is almost certainly at least complicit) or Iran guilt, it will be easy for folks to dismiss these claims.

Let’s be honest. Can a president who would take a Sharpie to alter a weather forecast map in a childishly obvious attempt to cover for an inconsequential mistake, and then mobilize his Commerce Secretary to threaten to fire some of the nation’s top weather officials unless they also lied to support the president’s lie, be trusted to tell the truth on a matter of real consequence?

Even now, while the Trump administration claims photographic evidence proves the attacks came from Iranian territory, the Saudi government has so far declined to back that conclusion, according to Beirut-based reporter Dion Nissenbaum of the Wall Street Journal:

This all has real consequences, because Trump has again turned to Twitter threatening American military retaliation, raising the specter of triggering what virtually all observers realize would be an absolutely catastrophic war.

Of course this is not the first time that Trump has made a threat like this against Iran, as I’ve commented on here and here. Threats that this president, who seemingly believes tough talk is as good as tough action, has in every case failed to follow through on. I put it this way back in the good old days of “fire and fury”:

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.

Couple all of this with Trump’s penchant for lying and his administrations overall lack of credibility when it comes to the threats it so easily tosses off, and the danger is clear.

The key to successful application of coercive diplomacy – in short using threats of force to either deter an opponent from action, or to compel him to act – relies on more than the capability to inflict an unacceptable level of punishment if your opponent fails to comply. It also requires credibility. The opponent must believe that you will follow through on the threats you’ve made. Without that belief, coercion fails.

And then you’re stuck.

Fail to follow through and you create an impression of weakness, the perception that you are either unable or unwilling to deliver on your threats, a blowhard whose blustering can be safely ignored in the future. Or use the force you’ve threatened and risk dragging yourself into a military conflict no one wanted and which could easily spiral out of control.

The perception of weakness has dire consequences in international politics, which is why most responsible foreign policymakers are very cautious when it comes to the threats they make. Sadly, responsible policymakers are in short supply in this White House.

We’re going to have to wait to find out what the fallout from this particular episode is going to be. I’m not optimistic.

At least someone was listening

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Sometimes when I do a radio segment, like the one on the Trump administration’s Iran policy this morning on the local drive-time news/talk station, I wonder what the audience is thinking about my comments.

Now I know, at least in one instance.

Below is the text of the email I received about an hour after my segment was over. I am reprinting it in its entirety (minus the emoji). My motivation comes from a comment by a former student who listened to the segment from the Republic of Georgia where he now lives and works, who suggested that maybe my blunt assessment might get some of the station’s conservative listeners to rethink their position.

images-9Fat chance.

The email is not particularly scathing, nor is it in any way offensive. But it is a window into the way that I suspect a lot of Trump supporters view his policies, how they see the world, and what they believe motivates his critics. (For the record, I support neither socialism in America nor the establishment of a one-world order communistic government.)

Anyway, here’s how this listener reacted:

I heard you on the radio this morning sir. I just want to say you couldn’t of been more wrong except for one thing. President Trump decided not to retaliate. You agreed with that, and so did I. But probably for different reasons. The Democrats set him up and tried to get him to strike, Which would appear reckless under the conditions. You said the president backed himself into a corner. I don’t think so. So far what he is doing is right on the money. You said it was wrong to get rid of the deal that Obama and John Kerry made. I disagree. Our Intel told us that they never stoped producing enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. Our Intel told us that they were still supplying money and weapons to terrorist groups around the world. Till this day Kerry and Obama continue to work against the United States committing tyranny with regards to Iran. It would be best for the world if that regime was dismantled and replaced with a democracy. My guess is you want socialism for America or a one world order communistic type system for the United States. We the people are not going to let that happen. We are going to hold the deep state accountable for all the crimes they have committed. MAGA TRUMP 2020

Here’s a quick recap of the points I made that this listener took issue with:

  • The Iran nuclear agreement that the US walked out on in May 2018 was actually working and Iran was abiding by its restrictions.
  • The best course forward would be for the US to return to that agreement rather than continuing to pursue a policy of saber-rattling and sanctions that has failed to deliver for the last 40 years.
  • The additional sanctions against Iran announced yesterday by the White House will have no meaningful impact on Iranian policy.
  • Trump was right to cancel the military strike that he had previously ordered.
  • But, by taking such an aggressive line with Iran, Trump has backed himself into a corner.
  • If another US drone is shot down, which is entirely possible, Trump, given his tough talk, will find it very difficult if not impossible to avoid retaliatory military action.
  • This kind of escalation runs very real risks of getting out of hand, dragging both countries and the region down a path that no-one whose name isn’t John Bolton wants to tread.

If you’re hanging around a radio or a livestream tomorrow morning, you can catch me talking about Iran again on Detroit’s public radio station, WDET 101.9FM. I’ll be a guest on the Detroit Today show with Stephen Henderson. The show starts at 9 am with rebroadcast at 7 pm.

A deadly burden we expect others to bear

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Memorial Day is behind us, the day when we honor those members of our armed forces who made the supreme sacrifice for their country. It is right that we do so.

But as I was reminded last Sunday, those we honor on Memorial Day were asked to do more for us than I think we are willing to acknowledge. When they agree to put on the uniform, we implicitly ask those men and women to be willing to die for the rest of us. That’s the easy one.

We also ask them to be willing to kill on our behalf. That truth is harder.

It is a truth that the great American writer Mark Twain knew all to well, and in his 1906 short story, “The War Prayer,” starkly laid at the feet of a country swept up by war-fueled patriotic fervor. Take a few minutes and let Twain’s words sink in:

As a society, this is a moral burden we today seem all too eager to deny, to cavalierly place on others’ shoulders with a glib “Thank you for your service.” But this is a hard, crucial thing we have a duty to acknowledge, especially those of us who never served, or those who, like some present and past presidents, did all they could to actively avoid service.

This is the reality that veteran journalist James Fallows wrote about in the pages of The Atlantic, describing a “chickenhawk nation” in which we treat our military

both too reverently and too cavalierly, as if regarding its members as heroes makes up for committing them to unending, unwinnable missions and denying them anything like the political mindshare we give to other major public undertakings, from medical care to public education to environmental rules.

These things we ask others to do, for us and in our names, are especially important for all of us to remember as we hear, once again, war drums sounding from Washington. This time the target may be Iran. A few months ago it was Venezuela. Before that North Korea. Before that Syria. Before that Iraq. You get the picture.

The patriotic holidays that have come to define our summers, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, are opportunities for us to reflect on the burdens we ask others to shoulder on our behalf. And maybe, just maybe, to accept some responsibility for them ourselves.

Kind of right, but for the wrong reasons

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In his belated State of the Union address last week, President Trump had this to say about North Korea:

As part of a bold new diplomacy, we continue our historic push for peace on the Korean Peninsula. Our hostages have come home, nuclear testing has stopped, and there has not been a missile launch in 15 months. If I had not been elected President of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea with potentially millions of people killed. Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one.

I think Trump has the kernel of a valid point here. The situation on the Korean Peninsula was much more dangerous before he came into office than it is today. The situation is more stable, and thus a lot safer, now. The president is just wrong about why.

Trump ascribes this new stability to his self-professed superior deal-making skills and his “we fell in love” relationship with North Korea’s brutal dictator Kim Jong Un. Let me suggest a far more plausible explanation.

The Korean Peninsula is more stable today not because of Trump’s brilliance, but because North Korea has perfected its nuclear capability and clearly demonstrated its ability to deliver a warhead on American soil. In November 2017, following the “fire and fury” summer of escalating threats and counter-threats, North Korea successfully launched the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile with an estimated range of more than 8,000 miles, enough to hit any target in the continental United States.

They haven’t tested a missile since. Because. They. Don’t. Have. To.

Having proven that it can put a nuke on a mainland American target, North Korea no longer needs to test its missiles or the weapons themselves. The lull that Trump is taking credit for has nothing to do with him, and everything to do with the maturity of North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs.

In 1979, in an essay prepared for a joint CIA/Department of Defense conference, political scientist Kenneth Waltz argued that the gradual spread of nuclear weapons was, contrary to the fears of public and policymakers alike, a force for increased stability in the international system, and would therefore produce a safer, not more dangerous, world. (You can read Waltz’s further elaboration on this idea here.)

Waltz argued that nuclear weapons, because their effects are so catastrophic, make states more cautious and less willing to take risks that could lead to an escalation and nuclear exchange. Under these conditions miscalculation, historically a significant contributor to the outbreak of war, becomes less likely because getting it wrong has such dire consequences.

In short, once nukes are introduced into the equation, no one can play fast and loose with the kinds of aggressive actions that risk provoking a nuclear holocaust.

Apply these ideas to the relationship today between the United States and North Korea and you can understand why the Korean Peninsula is more stable, and thus safer, than it was in 2016. Until last year, the nuclear equation was one sided.

The United States could bluster and threaten a preemptive strike against North Korean targets secure in the knowledge that any retaliation by the North would fall on South Korea or maybe Japan. Yes, hundreds of thousands of civilians would die, but those wouldn’t be American cities burning. Seoul or Tokyo aren’t Seattle or San Francisco. That might be the kind of loss an American president could be willing to accept.

That option is now off the table. And that’s the reason why North Korea will never denuclearize, as President Trump’s own intelligence chiefs have testified, contradicting their boss.

North Korea now possesses a nuclear deterrent sufficient to force the United States into a more cautious, less risky, posture toward the Kim regime, just as the American nuclear monopoly induced the same kind of caution on part of the North Koreans.

The Korean Peninsula is safer and more stable today because North Korea achieved nuclear maturity on Donald Trump’s watch. That’s a good thing, but hardly the story the president wants to tell.