It’s decision time at the White House. We’re six months into the Trump administration, and several foreign policy issues have to be resolved. What happens in the next few weeks will likely determine the course Trump will take for the next four years – which is why we’re seeing more reports about the intense internal wrangling going on behind the scenes.
First and foremost is Afghanistan, with two White House factions battling it out in full public view: on one side we have newly-appointed National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, who wants a renewed long-term commitment to occupying that country and is angling for thousands more troops to be sent in. On the other side of the barricades is Steve Bannon, the Trumpian ideologue hated by the liberal media, who, as the Daily Caller puts it, “has pushed for the ‘America First,’ populist, noninterventionist foreign policy that Trump espoused during the campaign.”
At a policy meeting held last month, Bannon argued for a major pullback. McMaster made the case for yet another “surge.” Dissatisfied with those options, the President sent everyone back to the drawing board.
The good news is that Trump is reportedly highly skeptical of our continued presence in Afghanistan. The bad news is that he is also wary of presiding over a Taliban takeover of the country. Yet it may be that the non-interventionists have the advantage. As the Weekly Standard relates:
“Encouraging [Trump’s] skepticism are the America Firsters in the administration, led by [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions and Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, who is firmly fixed on the idea of Afghanistan as graveyard of empires. It may be owing to his conversations with Bannon that the president has cited to his war cabinet the unhappy experiences of the British at the Khyber Pass and even quoted Alexander the Great (‘Afghanistan is easy to march into, but hard to march out of’).
“Bannon vehemently opposes what he calls McMaster’s ‘Big Army plan,’ and his argument to the president is at least partly a political calculation: Does Trump want to explain to voters why he’s committing $50 billion to build schools in Afghanistan (on top of a 16-year military expenditure that is already nearing $1 trillion) before starting the infrastructure projects he’s promised to Michigan and Ohio?”
Another meeting, chaired by Vice President Pence, was held at the beginning of August, and three principals were tasked to come up with “creative” options for Trump to consider: McMaster, CIA chief Mike Pompeo, and Sessions. McMaster initially came up with a plan for inserting 50,000 more troops into Afghanistan, but scaled it back after realizing Trump would never go for it. Both Bannon and Pompeo want to lighten the US footprint, with the former coming up with a problematic scheme to “privatize” the military campaign, and the latter wanting to basically farm it out to the CIA and Special Operations units. As for Sessions, he’s the most radical of the anti-interventionists, according to the Weekly Standard, which reports:
“Sessions, stalwart of the America First camp, has long been ‘the biggest skeptic in the room’ when the subject of a continued presence in Afghanistan arises in meetings of Trump’s war cabinet, according to one participant in those meetings. Said another White House official, who is sympathetic to Sessions’ position, ‘The A.G. asks the same question: Is this what we were elected to do? And the answer to the question is no.’”
While you never can tell with the Trump administration, the outlook for us non-interventionists is surprisingly good: my guess is that the President will go with the light-footprint approach and the administration will continue to resist congressional calls to ramp up the US presence. In time, the light footprint will be so light as to be practically nonexistent.
Another upcoming decision on the foreign policy front is Ukraine – yes, the War Party is still pushing for arming the Kiev regime with offensive weapons. The proposal, coming from the Pentagon and the State Department, differs very little from the plan rejected by President Obama and disdained by Trump during the campaign. But as we all know, the War Party never rests, and they’re at it again – although they may have hit a rather large speed bump on the road to a conflict with Russia on the European front.
It turns out that the engines powering those North Korean “ICBMs” – you know, the ones that aren’t really ICBMs – came out of a factory in Ukraine. The factory is located in Dnipro, Urkraine’s fourth largest city, in the central part of the country: the city has been under the control of the Kiev government and is relatively untouched by the Donbass-centered rebellion. Investigators were shocked by the advanced technology utilized by Pyongyang in recent missile launches and concluded that it couldn’t have been achieved without outside help in the past two years. According to expert Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies:
“It’s likely that these engines came from Ukraine – probably illicitly. The big question is how many they have and whether the Ukrainians are helping them now. I’m very worried.”
The factory, known as Yuzhmash, which is state-owned, denies any role in the technology transfer. However, the Times reports that “American investigators do not believe that denial.” The Ukrainian government has responded with its usual bombast: top national security honcho Oleksandr Turchynov said that “This information is not based on any grounds, provocative by its content, and most likely provoked by Russian secret services to cover their own crimes.”
Listening to the Ukrainians is like watching CNN or an episode of the Rachel Maddow show: it’s always Russia, Russia, Russia. They attribute everything that goes wrong in their corrupt ramshackle country to the machinations of Vladimir Putin, but this time it doesn’t look like that explanation is going to suffice. Chances are that their hopes of getting arms and “foreign aid” from Uncle Sam are going up in the smoke let out by those North Korean missiles.
Speaking of North Korea, that’s another front where there have been some hopeful developments. The Chinese have finally cracked down on Pyongyang, signing on to the UN sanctions, and letting Kim Jong Un know that if the North Koreans launch a first strike Beijing will not have their back. The result: the North Korean despot backed down from his threat to target Guam. Not that the threat was credible to begin with – at this point the range of Pyongyang’s missiles, not to mention their accuracy, is quite limited – but what’s significant is that this rhetorical retreat is unprecedented for the North Koreans.
Yet this lull in the storm is only temporary: Kim Jong Un’s Ukrainian allies have changed the equation. Now that North Korea has the technical means and expertise to upgrade the range and sophistication of their missile development program, it is only a matter of time before Pyongyang perfects a missile capable of hitting US cities, on the West Coast and perhaps beyond. As Elleman says in his report:
“It is not too late for the US and its allies, along with China and perhaps Russia, to negotiate an agreement that bans future missile testing, and effectively prevents North Korea from perfecting its capacity to terrorize America with nuclear weapons. But the window of opportunity will soon close, so diplomatic action must be taken immediately.”
When the window of opportunity closes, sometime after 2018, the US government will have a fateful decision to make: policymakers will have to decide whether we can tolerate North Korea in possession of such a capability. If so, then we’ll be in a situation of mutual assured destruction, with North Korea getting the worst of it by far: any North Korean attack on the US will surely result in the obliteration of Kim Jong Un and all his works.
The alternative to this stalemate is a preemptive attack by the United States, which will mean the destruction of Seoul, a city of several million, the decimation of the peninsula, huge losses to the 30,000 US troops stationed there, and most likely considerable damage to Japanese cities. In short, it would mean a disaster on a scale not seen since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Faced with this prospect, negotiations are the only possible road to take. Kim Jong Un is no doubt well aware of the fate that befell Moammar Gaddafi, who gave up his nuclear program in exchange for assurances that he’d be left alone – only to wind up being attacked by the Western alliance and sodomized with a sword. “We came, we saw, he died,” crowed Hillary Clinton at the time – a boast that the warlords of Pyongyang heard loud and clear.
The issues surrounding the Korean crisis are rooted in the unresolved outcome of the Korean war, which to this day has never resulted in a peace treaty. This is a frozen conflict, one that can only be thawed by the Korean people themselves. As long as US troops occupy half the peninsula, the North is going to maintain both its political legitimacy and its military prowess as a communist Sparta, armed to the teeth and ready to fight. What is needed, as a first step, is the denuclearization of the peninsula, and ultimately negotiations between the North and the South leading to reunification – ending in the withdrawal of US troops.
It’s long past time to end the Korean war.
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NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.