A few days ago I posted a nervous blog on the eve of the Western strike on Syria, our latest move to discourage the general use of chemical weapons. It looks like I wasn’t the only one anxious. Reports are that Mattis at Defence pushed back hard against
Chumley the Evil Walrus John Bolton, who was advocating, true to form, for much bigger strikes, and it may be that Trump, keen as always to avoid ruffling Russian feathers, was predisposed to go with his General. In any case, it looks like the interval between Assad’s misdeeds and our response a couple of days later may have been used in part to organize things with the Russians, such that nobody did anything stupid. Our strike was precise and limited; the Russians in theatre didn’t so much as twitch; Assad lost a couple of facilities, which may or may not have been cleared out in anticipation of the attack; everybody huffed and puffed, but nobody’s house was blown down. Good. I saw a Congressman on one of the cable opinion shows last week – his name escapes me – complaining about the apparent Kabuki Theatre, how the Russians seemed to have been warned, how the Syrians might thus have been tipped off as well, and how transparently phoney the whole thing seemed, and it’s true, the affair was almost wholly symbolic and militarily irrelevant; but that’s fine by me. This was about wider deterrence, not meaningful impact on the outcome in Syria. Yes, as so many have argued, it won’t be much benefit to Assad’s victims that the tyrant has to switch from chemicals back to barrel bombs and other atrocities, and odds are the strike has done no good at all, not on any front. Still it might, it just might, change the calculus of some other tyrant, in some other conflict now ongoing or yet to come, and in the messy, ugly, half-a-loaf-is-better-than-none business of international relations (which often offers you a lone moldy slice instead of the prescribed half loaf), this sort of vague and unsatisfying outcome is routinely the best anyone can do.
Also, the attack was pulled off, apparently, without civilian casualties. So thank you, General Mattis.
Thus we stumble past one bear-trap with both feet still attached, and lurch toward another. Kim Jong Un, c’mon down!
When Donald announced he was entering into talks with North Korea, I was inclined to doubt it’d ever really happen – wrong again! It’s hard to know what to hope for. The principled view is that a success here for Trump is something we should all desire most fervently, so yes, let’s hope for it, though the thought of Mr. MAGA crowing about a diplomatic victory makes me heave. However, getting into a room with Kim has its risks, and while talking seems preferable if the only alternative is war, we shouldn’t get sucked into such binary thinking. Doing nothing is also an alternative, as I’ve argued in this space before.
Since “nothing” seems not to be on the menu, what’s going to happen? What can come of diplomacy as practised by Trump and his mixed crew of screw-ups and war hawks? Just for fun, let’s game out a few scenarios – oh c’mon, it’s a hoot! Don’t give me that “I’d rather not think about it” crap! Geopolitics is a gas!
OK, so here’s the scene: two nut-bars, one cunning, the other idiotic, one in possession of a few nuclear weapons, the other in command of an arsenal so vast it could end almost all multi-cellular life, one with a messiah complex, the other with daddy issues, one a cruel absolute dictator, the other a cruel dictator wannabe, both narcissists, both desperate for prestige and validation, pull up chairs on opposite sides of a table. The guy with the small arsenal absolutely will not under any circumstances agree to disarm, but he doesn’t want you to know that for sure (though if you’ve any wit at all, you know). The guy with the massive arsenal demands total disarmament, and says he’ll settle for nothing less, though that may not actually be his position – actually, he doesn’t really know what he’s negotiating about, or what his purported objective even looks like.
I think there are a few obvious possibilities, which I present here in order of probability:
1. They collude in a PR scam.
Both realize a meaningful deal is impossible, but neither really cares. All Kim wants is the standing and prestige he gains from meeting with a US President, and all Trump wants is to be able to claim victory. Trivial concessions are made on each side, and both go home, claiming success, while Trump convinces Kim to pretend to stop further weapons development in return for a promise of future sanctions relief. Kim will stop pretending eventually, when no relief comes, but who cares, that’ll be after the mid-terms. Twenty years from now, nothing has changed, except Kim has more bombs.
2. Trump trades everything for magic beans.
Kim will have noticed that the master negotiator is easily manipulated, and awfully stupid. All he has to do is suck up, maybe offer to throw Donald a military parade when it’s all over, and he can get Trump to agree to withdraw US forces from the peninsula and ease sanctions in return for something that sounds pleasant, like an agreement in principle to negotiate towards a possible framework for further talks somewhere down the road, combined with a time-limited moratorium on further North Korean testing. Based on recent tweets, Trump might equate this with actual denuclearization, and leave happy. Meanwhile, now that the Americans are gone, the eventual reunification of the peninsula by force or subterfuge is planned in a bunker beneath Pyongyang.
3. Bolton and Pompeo set the agenda and everybody dies.
Keen to use a breakdown in diplomacy as an excuse for war, Bolton and Pompeo convince Trump that toughness will work, and Trump blusters until Kim flips him the bird and returns to Pyongyang to announce a vigorous new program of nuclear testing and weapons manufacture. War ensues. Bolton and Pompeo throw a party.
4. As above, but not on purpose.
5. Kim plays the long game #1.
Planning to cleave America away from its Japanese and South Korean allies, Kim comes on all conciliatory and reasonable, and makes a few concessions, while Trump, goaded on by Bolton and Pompeo, keeps demanding more until talks break down and all the world blames the United States. Trump threatens war, but for various reasons to do with resistance from the Defence Department, the Joint Chiefs, and maybe Congress, doesn’t carry through. As Donald continues to froth and make empty threats, America’s Asian partners grow disgusted and pursue a separate deal (note that Kim is already laying the groundwork for an independent bargain with the South), one of the terms of which is the expulsion of American forces from South Korea. Kim gives up some weapons, but not all, and more talks between North and South are promised, while meanwhile, now that the Americans are gone, the eventual reunification of the peninsula by force or subterfuge is planned in a bunker beneath Pyongyang.
6. Kim plays the long game #2.
Knowing that Donald is easily gulled and desperate for a win, Kim makes him an offer: North Korea gives up all nuclear weapons and submits to inspections, but America must agree to leave the peninsula, and ease sanctions over time. Everybody’s happy, except Kim plans to cheat, and meanwhile, now that the Americans are gone, the eventual reunification of the peninsula by force or subterfuge is planned in a bunker beneath Pyongyang.
7. They actually strike a deal.
For some reason, Kim is happy to give up his weapons in return for a non-aggression pact and an end to sanctions, but no American withdrawl.
8. The two nut-bars get into a room together, lose their marbles in a screaming match, and actually strangle each other to death.
A guy can dream, can’t he?
I bet you can think of more!
Note that almost all of these outcomes are shitty, but some are shittier than others. What can I tell you? Eat your moldy slice and be happy.