Thursday, May 24, 2018

Dodging a Bullet or Missing an Opportunity?

I don't know whether to be angry or relieved that Trump will not be meeting Kim Jong Un in Singapore.  On the one hand, this is incredibly amateurish:
  1. Respond to a visiting South Korean official who says KJU might be cooperative by announcing a summit.
  2. Do no homework, prep, or work on anything besides coins and other symbols.
  3. Set expectations at maximal NK surrender.  The experts kept saying complete denuclearization was not on the table for NK....
  4. Brag about maximal pressure that pushed NK into a corner.
  5. Leave the Iran deal which almost certainly had tougher verification than anything the North Koreans would agree to.
  6. National Security Adviser Bolton talks dreamily of the Libya model--meaning the US fucks over North Korea in future with regime change (not to mention all the regime change stuff in the Iran conversations).
  7. Issue a coin and use various statements that make it abundantly clear that Trump needs this meeting more than KJU.
  8. Cancel meeting after NK issues testy press releases, as it wants to make clear it is not submitting to maximal pressure.
On the other hand, I have been legitimately worried that either a cranky Trump, after a long flight to Singapore, would get supremely angry at Supreme Leader OR he would suck up to KJU and abandon South Korea and/or Japan.  I really didn't expect anything good to come out of the summit, so I guess I am not that disappointed.

The big question is: what next?  Is the path to war shorter and faster or can we dither and blamecast and push that down the road some more?  I just don't know.  All I do know is that South Korea (and almost certainly Japan) were surprised by this announcement, and this is bad alliance management.  Which, of course, is to be expected, but we can still be appalled.  Most of the South Koreans I met earlier in the month were cautiously optimistic, but I felt that was mostly due to wishful thinking.  Sorry, folks.  Trump don't play that. 

All I know is that if I were an ally of the US right now, I would be hedging as much as possible. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

When Identities and Interests Conflict or Shamelessness Is On The Rise?

Image result for trump saudi orbSaudis and Qataris hugging Islamophobic Trump?
Israelis hugging anti-semitic Trump folks?

Is this the end times depicted in Ghostbusters--cats and dogs playing together?  Or are we just hitting peak hypocrisy which, of course, has been best illustrated by the willingness of evangelicals to sell out all of their principles for the pursuit of power?

Values and interests have often conflicted, and, yes, Organized Hypocrisy has long been a thing.  But it does seem that there is now greater shamelessness than in the past and perhaps a greater divorce between what a group says it values and what it actually values.  This is clearly not just a Trump thing, but, again, the extreme nature of the Trump regime--that it is so supportive of white supremacists, xenophobes, misogynists, corruption, and on and on--makes it far clearer that folks are selling out their values for access and power.

So, what to do about this?  Call it out, of course.  The problem is that motivated bias means that people only pay attention to the hypocrisy of their adversaries and not themselves.  Minimize one's own hypocrisy?  Hmmmm, that might be hard, but I do think calling out one's own allies for violating values, such as Al Franken, is necessary if we want any values to be more than just convenient covers for the pursuit of interest/power.

But I am out of ideas, so any suggestions would be most welcome.  How should we (whoever the we is) deal with the shamelessness of people embracing those who hate them just for the convenience du jour?

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Taking the War Cap Seriously

A while back, I posted how we ought to think about American wars as like the salary caps in the NFL and NBA: that at some point, there is a limit of how much you can be doing (paying in the metaphor) at one time.  The basic idea is that the US can only fight so many wars at a time.  Remember when people thought Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were stupid for opening up multi-front wars?

It is not so much that fighting in multiple theaters opens up the US to attack from multiple directions but that the US does not have infinite numbers of soldiers, sailors, pilots, ships, planes and, yes, dollars, not to mention officials to run many wars at once.  Right now, the US is fighting wars of varying sizes in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan (the drone war is still a thing, right?), and some others that I am probably forgetting.  None of these are at the levels of the simultaneous campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq that quite nearly broke the US Army.  The costs of that particular situation, two wars at once, are still being felt today in terms of readiness (how many planes and ships are crashing these days?) and will be felt for the next seventy years in terms of costs for taking care of those served and were wounded.  The question is not whether the US spent a trillion dollars but how many trillions thus far and how many left to spend. 

Yet the Trump administration seems to be moving towards not just one more war but two.  The new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has issued a list of demands for Iran that kind of resemble the ultimatum given to Serbia before World War I--a list designed to be rejected (h/t to Ben Dennison).  We knew Pompeo to be a hawk on Iran, we knew Bolton to be one as well.  Given that the Iran deal is better than what we could possibly expect for a NK deal, their idea of "fixing the deal" seems incredibly insincere and actually a step towards war,  And, yes, this war would be harder than Iraq--a much bigger population, much greater spaces for the US military to cover, more support for the government the more the US tries to impose itself, and on and on.  Low hanging fruit this is not.  Yet, if the US had to have a new war, I would prefer a war with Iran than one with North Korea.

Yes, the diplomacy pre-summit is turning into a shitshow.  All of the traits of the Trump administration are in full display: a lack of seriousness and preparation, Trump being baited by tweets and by meetings that are as substantial as tweets, the influence of warmongers (NK is not the only ones who feel repugnance towards Bolton), and on and on.  Robert Kelly explained this all very well in a series of tweets and then another one--Moon, South Korea's President has been desperately seeking a way of out of war, which led to this moment of hope and then wildly inflated expectations over de-nuking, and now Trump feeling betrayed.  Which means war is back to being in play in a big way.

The US military is not ready for either an Iran war or a North Korea war.  Either one would disrupt the global economy with oil skyrocketing in price if there is another war involving the Persian Gulf and the destruction of one of the 11 or so biggest economies in the world and maybe the third if Japan gets hit hard if the latter war happens.  The American people are not ready either as either would produce more casualties than they have grown to expect.  A war with North Korea would kill more Americans in the first days than all of the troops lost in combat since Vietnam.  Oh, and the civilian casualties will be unlike anything the US has experienced since .... I have no idea.

Either of these words would explode the deficit even further than the misbegotten tax cut, and each one would wreak such damage as to make us forget that the US is already involved in a half dozen wars (or more).  So, not only are we already above the war cap, this government is contemplating adding one or two super-expensive yet unproductive stars to our team of wars (I am thinking of the Washington football team's free agents, but I will take nominations for other disasters).

All of this is awful and going to get even more so.  Good thing the GOP is getting what it wanted (more bad SCOTUS decisions) when it sold its soul and sold out the country.  All I know is that I wish we could fire the general manager, the coach, and the entire staff of this team.  Alas, it ain't gonna happen.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Thar She Goes!

This weekend, we headed to Ithaca one last time--to see College Spew become Graduate Spew, and now I am verklempt.   The four years flew by, and I have the same feeling today that I did when I dropped her off at the start of international student orientation (yeah, they treated her like a Canadian might be unfamiliar with American ways): pride but also much sadness as she is fully launched.  I doubt that she will spend much time back in Ottawa again, as most of our holiday get togethers will be elsewhere.  We had so much time together until four years ago, some occasionally since, and now?  Not so much.

She was always diligent, creative, sharp, funny, and opinionated.  Turns out she is gutsy too as she heads west, in search of a job.  When I headed west after college, I had four year
s of guaranteed funding ($12k per year, woot!) and I thought I knew what I was getting into.  She has no such guarantees, although she has many connections now thanks to her internships, her school's connections, a celebrity mensch mentor, and a few of my friends who ende
d up in the industry.  So, she is jumping in, and I have little doubt that she will succeed.  The only question is whether she can put up with the traffic and super-obnoxious drivers. 

We did have an excellent weekend, where we spent time with her, her friends (she has an amazing group of buddies, several of which she met at the aforementioned international student orientation), and the parents of her friends.  The event was rained on, but we managed.  Maybe it is good luck like the rain that hit our wedding in San Diego a few decades ago. 

All I know is that she is going to do great, that she will make a difference, and I am going to miss her terribly.  On the bright side, I got to hear my favorite song:

How did it get so dusty in my home office?

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Wagering on Trump Administration

I used to get the betting lines every 3 months or so from an online sports betting firm since I posted about such bets.  Not lately, so I guess I have to do the work myself.  Given that sports betting will soon be legal in the US besides in Nevada (thanks, SCOTUS), it might be time to figure out how to bet.

I have no idea what the over/under line will be of Trump adminitration officials who get jail time are, but since we are already at five having pled guilty, I have to guess that the over/underline has to be north of ten.  If one considers who is likely to get some Mueller attention or otherwise be prosecuted, the list probably includes:
  • Jared Kushner
  • Ivanka
  • Don Junior
  • Eric
  • Scott Pruitt
  • Ryan Zinke
  • Jeff Sessions (that might be the second most delightful possibility--a three way tie between him, Kushner and Ivanka)
  • Trump himself
  • all their minions that we will only know once they are indicted

So, yeah, easy to bet the over if it is set at 10, I'd still bet the over if set at 15.  20?  Hmmm.

On the bright side, Trump will be able to claim that he had the most corrupt administration in US history, and that's something.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Korean Epiphanies

Fun times in Korea, eh?  I was really struck during my two weeks there of a split in opinions--most of the folks I met were "cautiously optimistic" about the situation, that the Trump-Kim summit might lead to a significant improvement in regional tensions, while other folks were in the "ruthlessly pessimistic" camp.  And I was a member of the latter.  Why?  Because TeamRP just could not see anyway for North Korea to "denuke" in any meaningful way when the US had, ooops, done some regime change on Libya.

So, I get back to North America and notice that Bolton has been talking about the "Libya Option" seriously, which did ultimately send the desired signal (if Bolton does not want peace) to the North Koreans.  So, the North Koreans have said that they had no intention of trading their nukes for economic assistance.  That, along with the earlier announcement that that they were skipping a meeting since the US and ROK were not cancelling a key military exercise, reminded us that North Koreans have always been the most obnoxious trolls in International Relations (sorry, John and Stephen). 

So, folks are having an epiphany--negotiating with North Korea is hard, and they aren't giving up their nukes.  I had a bit of a different Korean epiphany thanks to some sharp outsiders (Canadians and Americans who took me out for drinks and bbq:
American troops have long been based in South Korea to do two things: deter the North Koreans and reassure the South Koreans.  Standard tripwire type stuff.  Now, things have flipped as smart South Koreans want the Americans to stay to deter an American attack on North Korea.  Yeah, that seems backwards, but the idea is that Trump would not attack North Korea with so many Americans in harm's way (is that wishful thinking rearing its ugly head again?).  That Trump would have a freer hand if the Americans were no longer down range of North Korean artillery....  
  Before I left for South Korea, I thought that the likely outcomes from a KJU-Trump summit would be in decreasing likelihood:
  1. A modest agreement, such as NK agrees not to test any more nukes (its test area is broken and other new nuclear powers tested six nukes, so a convenient time to give away this chip) and US promises to de-escalate a smidge.  Trump would come home, declaring he solved the Korean problem, and the pundits/press would buy it, but not much would have really changed.  Woot!
  2. NK agrees to give up its ICBM capability, Trump agrees to reduce or even eliminate US forces in South Korea, so NK gets not only recognition of being a nuclear power but decoupling of South Korea and Japan from US.  
  3. Trump and KJU yell at each other as each is upset that they don't have a common understanding of "denuclearization."  So, the road to war is a bit clearer, and John Bolton does a happy dance.
  1. No meeting as NK does not want to signal that it gave in to "massive pressure" from US.
  2. No meeting as Trump realizes he can't get the Nobel Prize. 
  3. A meeting with much reduced expectations--perhaps freezes of NK's weapons in exchange for US promising not to regime change (which is believed by none).
  4. War.
  5.  A meeting, then war.
So, yeah, not great.  Are things clearer now than two weeks ago?  Not sure.  I do think Team Relentless Pessimism is feeling pretty good about feeling pretty bad. Woot?

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Random Research Observations and that Whole Japan-Korea Thing

One of the enduring challenges for the United States and other countries seeking to build more institutions and stability in East Asia (pre-Trump, of course) is that South Korea and Japan don't get along.  Sure, we see news stories all time, like the South Koreans erecting Comfort Women statues near Japanese consulates and all that, but I could not help but note it being a recurring tangent in a number of interviews I had in South Korea over the past two weeks.

I was meeting with politicians, retired military officers (who all seem to be professors after retirement), experts and others for the big project, so I was not focused on asking about ROK-Japan relations, just like I didn't ask in Japan last year about the relationship.  But stuff comes up:
"The governing party wants to diversify its alliance relations so that it is not quite so dependent on the US, so they are seeking to improve relations with Russia, India, Indonesia ....."  Notice who is omitted.
"We are working to develop responses to threats, such as North Korea, China, Japan ...."
This was a pretty striking contrast as South Korea rarely came up in Japan.  It kind of reminds me of Texas Tech being ignored by Texas A&M, which was more focused on the rivalry with U of Texas (insert South Korea, Japan and China respectively).

I didn't go to a war museum in Japan unless one counts the Yasukuni Shrine, so it is hard to compare with the War Memorial in Seoul.  So, nope, I didn't see the Japanese version of this:

These two displays, very much in the central hall of the War Memorial, are of the Dokdo Islands (Korea's name) or Takeshima (Japan's name).  This site covers the issue fairly well.

Anyhow, the point du jour is that I got to see up close glimpses of Korean attitudes about Japan, and, well, they are not much of a foundation for any kind of deeper security relationship.  The stuff we hear about seems to be pretty real.  Which means my pessimism for East Asian security is multidimensional.