Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Trump Goes Long on Nork--May Come Up Short

Kim and Trump are EXACTLY The Same Size!

The Omnivore is, as you know, constant reader, no fan of Trump--but, as we are where we are, The Omnivore wants to give him his due: he's going to try to do something with North Korea--and also Iran--and in some ways these are very different--but in one way they are identical: They are VERY hard problems to solve--and the stakes could be measured in 10's of thousands of lives--or even, potentially, millions.

So while The Omnivore watches with trepidation as seems to get in over his head almost immediately--and makes moves The Omnivore think are nothing shy of dunderheaded--The Omnivore also has to credit him: (a) Nothing has blown up yet and (b) Trump is aiming, at least, in the right direction in a lot of ways. In other words: The Omnivore would not want this job and, hey, respect to Trump for taking it seriously.

So let's look at how Trump's scattershot approach is actively undermining his hopes. There are five major players not including the US:

  1. North Korea: Has reasonably advanced nuclear capacity. Could theoretically hit the American mainland. Sees its nukes as a guarantee of survival and playing on the world stage.
  2. Iran: Maybe 1 year from a bomb. Has advanced missile technology. Wants a nuclear shield from which to conduct its (bad) international policy.
  3. China: A major and adversarial trading partner of the US. Has plans to replace us as the dominant position by 2025. Has strong ties to North Korea (is 90% of their trades).
  4. Russia: Adversarial opponent of the US. Has ties to North Korea and, more strongly to Iran. Is very interested in Syria--which Iran is actively helping in.
  5. Europe: Relies on America for much of its military defense. Has been rankled by Trump's America First policy which has involved potentially hitting them 'accidentally' with tariffs (which were aimed primarily at China) and hitting them 'accidentally-on-purpose' with secondary sanctions (aimed at Iran).
The Nork Problem
North Korea is, in a way, simpler than Iran. While they are an evil state they are not involved in what we normally think of as "International Terror" (they are, of course--heavily--just not directed at us or in our hemisphere). If we can guarantee their prosperity and safety, they would not, theoretically, need nukes.

The problem with this is that they are also a severe prison state--Kim rules with an iron fist and his people are deeply traumatized and incredibly racist (they are taught to believe they are "the cleanest people" with the South Koreans as a close second. Kim knows that IBM, for example, can't set up a plant in North Korea and have American MBAs overseeing North Korean workers. 

He knows that if he gives up his nukes and accepts the carrot of international investment he will soon be told to open his country. This is what is called the Kadaffy-Model--and it ended with Kadaffy, having given up his WMD, being hunted and killed.

Kim does not want to be hunted and killed and there is no way that the US can guarantee the security of an atrocity engine. There is very little chance for American industries to invest--and if we could, we should not.

The Carrot: Economic investment that Kim probably cannot take much advantage of.
The Stick: Veeeery tough sanctions (which Russia and China would need to help with).

The Iran Problem

Iran is a harder problem in one dimension: They already are committed to international terror which does target America (IED's in Afghanistan came in two flavors: poorly made home grown ones--and deadly Iranian ones which killed our guys). Iran has just "won an election" in Iraq and their guy there, Sadar, may be willing to work with America--but we have just ordered them to give that up.

Furthermore: plans to attack Iran, while not the absolute disaster that attacking North Korea is, are almost as bad. Their nuclear sites are buried deep in mountains under the holy city of Quom. They cannot be bombed conventionally. We have, at least in theory, tunneling nukes--but we would need to violate our no-first-use rule. A ground invasion would find us facing a first-world (or, at least, very high second) on their home ground. It would be much worse than Iraq.

Iran's entire posture and philosophy of governance is based on having these external proxies which make trouble in the area. They don't need to mess with America unless they're over there--but they totally mess with American allies. In other words: they need to give up their entire ... governance in return for becoming ... something else. It's not clear what a non-aggressive Iran looks like--we haven't seen it in ages.

The Carrot: International Investment they can take advantage of (they are not nearly as bad or closed as North Korea).
The Stick: Super Sanctions the US is threatening.

The China Complication

China is the largest complicating factor in this dance. Firstly, China is planning on continuing to rip off our Intellectual Property and exert economic dominance over Asia Pacific (APAC). Since Trump pulled out of the TPP, he has disarmed his major weapon against that--without a fight.

Then Trump went after the "trade deficit." His plan has been to impose tariffs--but (a) that's easier said than done (and he has, at various junctures, backed off those). Secondly, China holds the keys to North Korea--Trump wants their help.

So rehabilitating ZTE--which was sanctioned for illegally trading with North Korea--is a perfect example of Trump's bind. He wants China's help--so he takes off sanctions on a Chinese company making spy-phones and trading with North Korea in an attempt to put pressure on North Korea.

China also knows that as soon as Trump doesn't "need his help" anymore he's going to start imposing sanctions or tariffs or whatever against their IP theft. As such: they don't want this to wrap up any too soon, do they?

China's Win: Draw out Trump's difficulty with North Korea as much as possible without it going over the edge.

China's Loss: If Trump de-nukes North Korea without leaving South Korea they have a security situation (one that they perceive) of a huge American military presence on their landmass (South Korea).

The Russian Complication

Russia isn't a trading partner of the US like China is--they're a geo-political adversary. Putin wants freedom to do his stuff (invade, spread influence, etc.) and wants to see the NATO alliance weakened or even broken up.

Russia has several cards to play here. First, they appear to have given nuclear secrets to North Korea--possibly enabling a hydrogen bomb (if so, that is a city-buster, even at low yield). They can trade with North Korea--or even provide them with raw material. They can't invest and can probably not send food-aid--but they want to make things tough for us.

Russia is also allies with Iran. They buy oil from them and they supply state of the art Russian war planes and so on.

Russia's Win: Support Iran as an ally. Weaken America or even drive a wedge with NATO.

Russia's Lose: If Iran followed Pompeo's 12pt plan they would leave Syria. Russia doesn't want that. They could probably live with it--but they don't want it. Iran "folding" would be a loss for Putin.

The European Complication

The Europeans don't want a nuclear Iran, North Korea, or to see Russia or China fully ascendant. Thus, they are "on our side." However, what they thought was that they had a good deal for Iran--that was also quite profitable--and America was prepared to [ do something ] on North Korea, which is a total mess.

When Trump pulled out of the Iran deal, they were, it is fair to say, fairly pissed. They now are back where we all started with sanctions on Iran--sanctions they don't want--and Iran deciding whether to enrich--or play along with Europe to keep the trade open.

Europe understands that if all their companies stop doing business with Iran, Iran will have no reason not to go for a bomb--and will have help from both China and Russia--powerful allies. So if we make them choose us or Iran--and they choose us, the outcome is, potentially, a rapidly nuclearizing Iran and, erm, explosive unrest in the region. This is a rock and a hard-place and Trump doesn't make it easy to like him.

How Trump Bullocked This

As The Omnivore said up top, this is a Gordian Knot of a problem with no good solution. As such, The Omnivore is stuck rooting for Trump to win--while watching as individual moves seem to dramatically increase the difficulty of doing so. How so?

  1. Pulling out of the Iran Deal: Do it after the freakin' summit, guys. By doing it ahead of the North Korea scandal, Trump now has a 2-front war to fight. He also has both nations watching the outcome in the other. If the sanction-push fails on Iran, then North Korea may believe that "maximal pressure" on them is a paper tiger. If it succeeds, they may conclude that Iran would be in a better position if it had nukes.
  2. Overplaying The Hand: Trump got carried away with the meeting. We don't really have a proposal for what Kim will do or get for doing it. Kim knows he can't open his regime--he'd be killed by the mob--he knows he can cajole Trump with empty promises (no more testing, no more production)--and if Trump can sell it on Fox News, he gets to keep everything.
  3. Not Doing The Homework: The way these summits are supposed to go, all the specifics are hammered out ahead of time and then the leaders get together and sign the thing. Trump clearly isn't doing that. His ideal end-state isn't clear. His understanding of what Kim wants seems to be lacking.
The Problem With CVID

Bolton has been talking about CVID as the standard for Nork and Iran. That's Complete Verifiable Irreversible Dismantlement (of the nukes). This equates to, among other things, any-time / any-where inspections. If you think countries like Iran or North Korea--who depend on police states to keep them going--are going to allow UN inspectors to run rampant across the country, think again: this is the kind of thing we can only impose if we defeat them.

So whatever the "summit" or the "sanctions" get to--it isn't a this-for-that negotiation, it's the equivalent of a military total defeat. Does Trump understand this? It sure doesn't look like it.

So What Would You Do, Smart Guy?

As The Omnivore noted above, Trump is in a really bad spot. The summit isn't so much a "bad idea" as it is a high-wire act. If Trump proves up to it, he could come out of there with something good. Trump's decision to go aggressively after Iran could pay off: if Iran folds under pressure? Great! But Trump is also risking a massive downside by playing fast and loose. What would The Omnivore do differently?
  1. Not leave the TPP. This is tossing your gun and picking up a knife before a gun-fight. Staying in the TPP would give him needed leverage with China.
  2. Wait to Pull Out of the Iran Deal. Give the Iran deal another six months to work on North Korea. Then, if you must, pull out.
  3. Determine Alternatives to CVID. CVID is a dream-state--but The Omnivore does not think it's realistic. What IS a valid win condition? Trump doesn't need to tip his hand on this--but he needs to know what it is. Does he? The Omnivore doubts it.
  4. The Omnivore would not both be imposing tariffs and sanctions (potentially) on Europe. This seems like a combination designed to damage relationships.

In November of 2016, Trump won the hardest job in the world. Now he has to do it. The Omnivore's assessment is that Trump is more motivated by what will sell to his domestic base (i.e. China promises to buy a bunch of American stuff in the future--but won't--and gets to keep stealing IP--which his base doesn't understand) than dealing with the complex realities (our trade deficit with China exists because it benefits large swaths of America). In the realm of politics in general, he can probably get away with this. In the nuclear arena, though, a lot more care is called for.

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