“The best swordsman in the world doesn’t need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn’t prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do; and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot.” ~ Mark Twain (1835-1910)
We are living through the most dangerous times of my life — and my vivid recollections extend to the events of World War II, when I went with my father every Monday evening to our county seat for him to drill in the Home Guard, because he was too old to go to war as did the sons of many of my father’s slightly older friends and my older cousins. We listened to radio reports of the early disastrous events experienced by our troops and our allies and prayed for success in future battles. And for those who would not come home.
That was a time of pulling down the (blackened) shades for blackouts in the sultry evenings before air conditioning and volunteer civil air patrols to watch for air attack — everyone remembered Pearl Harbor and the costs of not being prepared. Food and fuel were rationed, and we made do with whatever we had and synthetic means for what we didn’t — e.g. synthetic rubber tires (that were always suffering punctures and blowouts) and artificial sweeteners that didn’t taste so sweet. Everyone had at least a Victory Garden and Mom’s canned goods to supplement whatever could be purchased with our limited money at the local grocery. No one threw anything away, we salvaged whatever we could from worn-out goods to be used to keep other essential goods working.
In those days, the “Greatest Generation” would have survived an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack that took down the limited electric grid of that time, because they were prepared to support themselves, locally in still a primarily agrarian society. The same attack today on our much more extensive, but unprotected, electric grid would be catastrophic to our population now nearing three times its size in the 1940s — especially since essentially everything needed by our population centers is provided by a just-in-time economy fueled by electricity.
Thus, the threats are much greater but mostly unrecognized. Moreover, our society is unprepared to deal with those that are recognized, at least by a few people who are trying to warn the rest. They are mostly ignored by the majority, including by leaders and institutions that should know better. Let’s just list a few items of concern.
China’s President Xi Jinping will meet on Thursday and Friday with President Donald Trump among the towering palms and crystal chandeliers at Mar-a-Lago. A number of important things surely will be on the agenda — e.g., economic realities and trade, China’s encroachment on allies in the South China Sea and its relationship with North Korea and how it might possibly throttle back the current Great Leader who apparently is preparing to conduct another provocative underground nuclear test.
President Trump’s attitude has been widely reported from an Oval Office interview to be that “China has great influence over North Korea. And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t. If they do, that will be very good for China, and if they don’t, it won’t be good for anyone.” And he added, “Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.” And he noted that it was “totally” possible for the U.S. to act unilaterally, but when pressed what that could mean, he responded, “I don’t have to say any more. Totally.”
Click here for Graham Allison’s discussion of why he thinks the United States and China are on a “collision course” for war. This concern should be taken very seriously as President Trump plans for this week’s Mar-a-Lago summit.
Allison is Director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a former Assistant Secretary of Defense, who has long been concerned about the largely unchecked proliferation of nuclear weapons that currently pose what I believe is an existential threat to all Americans. Click here for his 2005 book on Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, which was my introduction to his well-researched concerns that remain near the top of my list — and which I recommend for your consideration as well.
I may not agree with all of Allison’s prescriptions, but I do agree with his identification of existential threats that have not been well considered by our leaders for some time — and China’s importance to achieving any serious progress in addressing those concerns, particularly for those posed by North Korea in addition to China’s growing threats to U.S. interests in the region and even here at home.
Allison’s article is worth your reading in thinking about this week’s summit, along with rereading last week’s High Frontier message about considerations that should go along with Secretary of States Rex Tillerson’s recent pre-summit assertion that the U.S. policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea is over and that we are considering our military responses if North Korea continues its provocative behavior. A primary objective of this week’s summit is, or should be, to get China to restrain and reverse North Korea’s long-standing behavior. However, such an outcome would be a major break with the past, and the odds against it are very high.
Click here for my discussion last week that reflects views of an important Washington Times article by former CIA Director R. James Woolsey and Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, emphasizing that possible misjudgments might result from ignoring the threats articulated by North Korea’s current Great Leader, with most unwelcome consequences for the survival of the United States. Click here for their article, “The North Korean War Scare,” which reflects some of the same concerns in Graham Allison’s New York Times article, except that Allison is focused primarily on potential miscalculations and misjudgments in our future dealings with China — as the subject of this week’s Mar-a-Lago summit.
Allison notes the importance of avoiding a pattern of conflicts going awry, which he call the “Thucydides Trap” that he states has affected a major nation’s rise and disrupted the position of a dominant state 16 times over the past 500 years. In 12 of those 16 cases, the outcome was war. In the four cases that avoided violent conflict, that avoidance was possible only because of huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions on the part of challenger and challenged. In particular, he noted the example of U.S. and Soviet activities and policies during the Cold War.
These Allison concerns fit with mine, about not learning the lessons of our past dealings with North Korea (and Iran as discussed further below). For example, click here for my March 14, 2017 discussion of why our “Clueless Dealing with North Korea” illustrates Albert Einstein’s definition of “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Beyond outlining the 30-years of our failed efforts to block the efforts of three generations of North Korea’s leaders to achieve an ability to pose an existential threat to the United States, I recommended a defensive “quick fix” to that condition, whatever may result from the Mar-a-Lago summit in gaining China’s help to block North Korea’s path to additional nuclear weapons and better means to deliver them. My recommendation probably will not sit well with China, but it does serve the “America First” policy often advocated by President Trump.
I hasten to add that my recommended purely “defensive quick fix” to the North Korean threat will be opposed by China, which will argue against our deployment of effective ballistic missiles defense (BMD) systems in the region. As I pointed out last week, our Aegis BMD ships (and Japan’s) are already there, we just need to make sure they are properly configured to provide the needed defense and that their crews are trained and ready (authorized) to shoot down North Korean ballistic missiles, particularly those carrying satellites southward to overfly the United States from our mostly undefended south.
I could also write an article about our failure since the 1978-79 Islamic revolution in Iran to understand and develop effective counters to the growth of the threat now posed by the world’s widely recognized greatest sponsor of “Radical Islamic Terrorism,” to use President Trump’s descriptor. Click here for a discussion of Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander General Joseph Votel’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that Iran “poses the greatest long-term threat to stability for this part of the world.”
This reality is aided by the terrible 2015 deal with Iran (the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — JCPOA) that released some $150 billion of sanctions in exchange for an unverifiable agreement rammed through Congress. It was not treated as a treaty because it would not have passed, and a number of Republicans were complicit in permitting that shortsighted result. Click here for my October 20, 2015 lament “Such a Deal . . . and a Hall of Shame!”
Perhaps most notably, the JCPOA enables Iran to purchase from North Korea whatever nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities it does not develop on its own. Moreover, it legitimizes the pathway to a nuclear armed Iran — the only question is when that eventuality will occur.
And Iran is not sitting on its hands in the Middle East, beyond its by now well-known activities in Syria and elsewhere. Click here for an important April 1 Washington Post article discussing how Iran is arming militants in Bahrain, home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which is responsible for U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and parts of the Indian Ocean.
This well-known pattern of how Jihadi movements seeming to be benign at the start can turn sour in short order has again been illustrated in Bahrain: “Six years after the start of a peaceful Shiite protest movement against the country’s Sunni-led government, U.S. and European analysts now see an increasingly grave threat emerging on the margins of the uprising: heavily armed militant cells supplied and funded, officials say, by Iran.”
No one should be surprised. This evolution should be understood to be a “situation normal” threat for President Trump’s effort to defeat Radical Islamic Terrorism, as he has stated is his objective. And it applies in America as well as overseas!
Enter into this mix of instability in the Western Pacific and the Middle East, Russian interests exacerbated most recently by the feckless foreign policy of the Obama administration. Long ago the Soviet spies obtained initial U.S. nuclear weapon designs, and from the Soviet Union/Russia they went to their allies in China, North Korea and Iran — among others. As EMP Commissioners were informed by Russian Generals years ago, these designs included “super-EMP” weapons capable of posing the existential threat to the United States often discussed in my High Frontier messages.
Moreover, the Soviet EMP tests in the 1960s were more comprehensive and better instrumented than the U.S. tests of that period, as has been understood from U.S.-Russian data exchanges since the end of the Cold War. And, unlike U.S. EMP testing, the Soviets tested over civilian infrastructure (of 1960s vintage, of course) and documented those destructive effects.
Furthermore, President Obama essentially turned over the Middle East to Russian President Vladimir Putin in exchange for the vain hope of help in countering the Islamic State in Syria. Note: Russian leaders have long been allied with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, so the prospect of any near-term success is dubious to say the least. This strategic mistake also has strengthened the hand of Russia’s ally Iran, among other unhelpful consequences.
Putin regularly pushes out to see what the U.S. response will be. During the Obama administration, that response was tepid to say the least. Click here for my September 29, 2015 discussion of Russia’s involvement in the Middle East madness, as the JCAOP was entering force.
Now, on the eve of President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago summit with China’s President Xi Jinping (also President Putin’s ally), Putin is rattling the cage again. Click here for a Fox News report that a senior Russian spokesman stated that U.S.-Russian relations may be worse than during the Cold War.
On the other hand, while discounting concerns that Russia interfered with the November 8, 2016 U.S. election, he also observed that many Russians supported Trump’s presidency due to remarks he made during his campaign because his “ideas are more welcome in Russian public opinion.” And he noted that if the two presidents meet, exchange views and decide that they want to reestablish a dialogue, then “there will be a chance for our bilateral relations to get better.”
On the other hand, the same article noted that Russia’s naval chief claimed that submarine patrols were operating at levels not seen since Soviet operations during the Cold War. It’s hard to miss the fact that Russia has been building up all its strategic capabilities while ours have been atrophying.
Click here for a not unrelated recent Sputnik News article that begins with a Putin quote at an Artic Forum: “The U.S., our neighbors in the Arctic, develop their military activity, which in our view is a threat for us [Russia].” Putin claimed Russia’s activity in the Artic is internal, but U.S. activity in Alaska, particularly its ground-based BMD site, “is one of the most serious problems of the modern times in the security sphere. It’s not just a defense system, it’s a part of the nuclear potential brought to the periphery.”
This is a return to language I heard from the Soviet negotiators for five years in Geneva — and which was modified all too briefly at the end of the Cold War and replaced by an agreed cooperative interest in building together a “Joint Global Defense,” as proposed by then Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
Yeltsin in essence accepted President Reagan’s position, which I had defended in Geneva and subsequently continued to emphasize while serving as Director of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in my discussions with Russian scientists. I even brought Russian scientists to the United States to begin working toward that objective (with the approval of the White House and the State Department, of course). But in early 1993, President Clinton abandoned that progress, gutted the SDI program and returned “diplomacy” to the language and positions of the Cold War. So much for Reagan’s important “Peace through Strength” agenda.
Now, Putin is again emphasizing that Cold War Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine, which emphasizes the mutual vulnerability of our people as a virtue to be preserved. Reagan’s perspective, which I share, was that it would “be better to save lives than to avenge them.”
The Sputnik News article concludes with associated language, “Russia and the U.S. are nuclear powers. We have a special responsibility to the planet, to the international community for the international security. Of course, the sooner we establish cooperation in the military sphere, the better.”
Personally, I have no problem with Putin’s concluding language about “cooperation in the military sphere,” so long as we understand that cooperation includes truly effective BMD systems, developed and operated cooperatively, are in the interest of both our nations. We need again to work on a joint global defense, as we once agreed in 1992. And we have the technology and know how to deliver on that aspiration. Whatever, we should not forget Mark Twain’s warning:
“The best swordsman in the world doesn’t need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn’t prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do; and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot.”
And as one of my heroes, Sir Winston Churchill, once said—“Better talk, talk than war, war.”
So . . . here we are: As rogue states, North Korea and Iran are gaining a nuclear-armed ballistic missile capability.
Both are linked to Russia — North Korea more directly via links through its Cold War ally China, and that fact should be on President Trump’s mind if not on his active agenda at the Mar-a-Lago Summit.
Perhaps in the background but certainly not ignored should be concerns about North Korea’s ally, Iran, and the threat the Mullahs pose to America and American interests around the world via their support to Radical Islamic Terrorism.
And Vladimir Putin’s shadow is over the whole show, including the Mar-a-Lago summit.
I consider this to be the most dangerous period of my lifetime.
Whatever else is accomplished this week, President Trump should not forget his campaign promise in Philadelphia:
“We propose to rebuild the key tools of missile defense, starting with the Navy cruisers that are the foundation of our missile defense capabilities in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. As we expand our Navy toward the goal of 350 ships, we will also procure additional modern destroyers that are designed to handle the missile defense mission in the coming years.”
He is right to emphasize making Aegis BMD all it can be — especially to counter North Korea (and Iran, by the way). He also should reinstate Ronald Reagan’s “streamlined” SDI program and charge it with building the most cost-effective BMD systems as quickly as possible, beginning with a modern Brilliant Pebbles system within five years.
We made significant progress toward that end during the Cold War, thanks to President Ronald Reagan’s personal support and political courage—coupled with serious negotiations based on a demonstrated “Peace Through Strength” agenda. President Trump would do well to adopt the Reagan pattern.
What can you do?
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