Democrats and Republicans have always criticized the policies of each other. That’s the way weakness and strength gets to public discussion. Still, basic strategic coherency was maintained for decades. At least it was during my childhood and young adult years. Change was gradual and carefully considered.
The aiming of ICBMs at nuclear targets seemed sensible at first. If you attack us, we’ll destroy your military. But everyone should leave civilians alone.
Then that informal arrangement turned out to be a formula for certain war. Each side had a lot of incentive to attack the other side first, preventing a counter-attack. So the Dwight Eisenhower administration changed targets to population centers. If either side attacked and destroyed the other, the entire country of the attacker would be annihilated.
The administration of John F. Kennedy formalized the strategy into the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction.
The public in those days was exposed to a lot of letters: In those early years, the time of Mutually Assured Destruction (we later used the acronym and called it MAD), we were taught some of the components in school. I remember the DEW line. The Distant Early Warning system was a network of radar sites set up to the north to detect any incoming missiles before they got to us by way of the arctic.
The Kennedy administration discovered that mistakes could be made. A single miscalculation could be the beginning of the very quick end of humanity. So Kennedy began nuclear limitation talks. Nixon expanded the effort. So did every administration through to Obama.
One tragic characteristic of recent Republican administrations has been the unthinking rejection of pretty much everything connected with previous Democratic administrations.
President Bush, George W., had been warned by outgoing President Bill Clinton that the most immediate national threat was that posed by a little-known terrorist leader based in Afghanistan. The warning was repeated by Clinton’s national Security Advisor Sandy Berger and others. Osama bin Laden was a clear and present danger. He had been responsible for other attacks. He had narrowly escaped Clinton efforts to capture of kill. He would almost certainly attack again.
But conservatives, in and out of the new Bush administration, were in no mood. President Clinton was mocked by Republicans who thought his focus on terrorism was obsessive.
In an article published almost exactly two months before the 9/11 attacks, David Keane, head of the Conservative Union, attacked anti-terrorism activities by the Clinton administration. Conservatives regarded everything from financial tracking to cutting off funds to terrorists, to efforts within the United States to find and stop terrorism before it happens, pretty much the way today’s conservatives regard gun safety. Anti-terrorism efforts were a subterfuge for unjustified infringements.
President Clinton had more than tripled funding for fighting terrorism. He had multiplied the number of intelligence agents assigned to stopping terrorism to 357 percent of what had been.
Keanes praised Republicans for opposing anti-terrorist programs. These useless activities should be major campaign issues.
The new Bush administration was sympathetic to these conservative views. Anti-terrorist programs were slashed. Teams were disbanded. Agents were reassigned to anti-pornography projects. CIA warnings were laughed at.
Then 9/11 happened and conservatives rushed to credit themselves for new anti-terrorism campaigns of torture and invasion of an extraneous dictatorship. Democrats were now branded as soft on terrorism.
It was not the only departure from the Clinton administration.
President Clinton had taken advantage of the transition of the death of North Korea’s Kim Sung Il. Kim’s son, Kim Jong Il, was struggling to consolidate power. Clinton worked with South Korea, Japan, Germany, and Russia to put together an agreement. North Korea agreed to abandon nuclear weapons. In return, other countries would help construct nuclear plants in a way that would make conversion into weapons virtually impossible.
But Republicans took Congress in 1994 and ended that agreement. When President Bush verbally attacked North Korea as part of the Axis of Evil, North Korea exiled the remaining nuclear inspectors and declared their end of the agreement as dead as the American side. Their nuclear program was resumed.
I was reminded yet again of Bush rejectionism as I reviewed the latest couple of foreign policy speeches by President Trump. It seems forever ago that my President promised Fire and Fury to the Kim regime of North Korea.
Presidential neutrality toward Nazi and KKK sympathizers was an unanticipated distraction. Destruction of American principles was more than a shiny object.
North Korea resumed nuclear weapons development after President Bush took office. The program accelerated after 9/11 as President Bush accelerated his rhetoric. Later, President Obama launched a cyber campaign that, for a time, crippled the program of North Korea.
Kim, like his father before him, has tried to exaggerate his own destructive power. Tough talk routinely amplifies into self-caricature. Each Kim outburst seems like a headline in The Onion.
North Korea’s actual nuclear power has not matched the over-the-top rhetoric. Successive US administrations have treated the bombast as a helpless substitute for actual nuclear capability. Still, the Kim regime has maintained a deadly capability toward South Korea and nearby targets. As the cyber-strategy winds down, North Korea is becoming more widely dangerous.
The DEW line, the Distant Early Warning system of my youth has no equivalent around today’s Korea. They have no way of knowing of an incoming attack. This has an additional perverse effect. They have no way of knowing they are not under attack. At the moment their poor substitute is a paranoid knowledge of enemy military exercises and the words other countries choose to use.
That is why President Trump’s words were provocative. It was as if he had just read a Marvel comic book. My President promised terrible destruction if Kim did not stop using tough words.
Not if Kim continued developing weapons.
Not if Kim conducted more missile tests.
If Kim talked in mean ways, his entire country would face nuclear holocaust. We would make the whole region glow in the dark.
North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.
But he had forgotten that other word, the third word that had excited him the night before: Power. So he tried again.
And as I said they will be met with fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.
He followed the example of past administrations and rejected past efforts to contain Kim’s actual threats.
Look at Clinton. He folded on the negotiations. He was weak and ineffective. You look what happened with Bush. You look what happened with Obama. Obama! He didn’t want to talk about it. But I talk. It’s about time. Somebody has to do it.
My President focused on containing Dear Leader’s tough talk. North Korea continued making threats, so President Trump lost interest.
Then came Venezuela:
We have many options for Venezuela and by the way, I’m not going to rule out a military option.
This had the predictable effect of solidifying the position of Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro. Maduro must have been delighted, and the bellicose talk had the fortunate effect of making Donald Trump sound threatening. Then he lost interest again and moved on.
And now, now, there is Afghanistan.
It’s hard to know what to make of my President’s new policy in Afghanistan. At a crucial meeting, there seems to have been three options that were discussed.
One was to get out, and get out soon. We have been there nearly 16 years. We went in to get Osama bin Laden. President Obama pretty much got that done when bin Laden found a resting place beneath the Atlantic. Or the Pacific. Or somewhere deep and wet. Some who will vote in the next presidential election were not yet born when we went into that country.
Another option was to stay, and stay indefinitely, with an increase in the number of our troops who will remain in the line of fire.
A third option, and unusual option, was seriously considered. A Trump backer, a former owner of a mercenary force charged with war crimes in Iraq, would be paid tens of billions of dollars. Our military would leave Iraq. This guy would send in hired soldiers and rake in billions in profits. My President would sublet the war.
Accounts of the planning session are consistent. President Trump was forced away from the immediate-withdraw option. Then he was forced away from the pay-many-billions-to-his-friend option.
Military people presented an irresistible argument. They made him an offer he could not refuse. They told him he would be a laughingstock if the US walked away after 16 years. And he would look even more foolish if his mega billion dollar pal took over with his private army. Either way, Donald Trump would be subject to nationwide ridicule. On the other hand, if he would just commit the United States to stay indefinitely, everyone would know him as the decisive leader he is.
From the Washington Post:
Trump’s private deliberations – detailed in interviews with more than a dozen senior administration officials and outside allies – revealed a president unattached to any particular foreign-policy doctrine, but willing to be persuaded as long as he could be seen as a strong and decisive leader.
As decisions were made, photographs were taken:
In a wood-paneled room, Trump sat at a table scowling as 13 advisers stood behind him, each of them stone-faced and staring into the camera. The flags of the five military branches filled the background. To Trump, this was the image of strength.
My loved one, a veteran of the US Navy, is more of a military expert than I can hope to be. You could fit all I know of military strategy into a mosquito and still have room for a conservative’s heart. But I would bet my shoes that what motivates my President is not an objective that should run the most powerful military force on earth.
There is a personal consistency, a pattern of behavior that permeates pronouncements and actions. He is a delicate soul. He avoids baseball games where he might be booed. He cancels appearances where people might ridicule him. Now the pattern goes to policy. He loves those who praise him: Hello, Vladimir. He hates those who criticize him.
In the Korean peninsula, in South America, in Afghanistan, my President determines American military strategy on the basis of pride. He is persuaded toward policies that he thinks will make him look tough, regardless of whether they will work. He is forced to change direction when he hears the whispered warnings that the public will think he is weak. He rejects policies he had once supported as soon as he is told people will laugh.
Let the word go forth from this time and place: America’s military strategy is now based on whether my President’s feelings might be hurt.
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