Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

07 September 2017

Avoiding War in North Korea



[For brief comment on the possibility of President Trump actually becoming a leader, click here. For a comparison of Cohn’s with Tillerson’s response to Trump coddling bigotry, click here. For a recent essay on how and why our Civil War continues today, click here. For the usual catalogue of popular recent posts, click on the appropriate link below:]

Catalogue of Popular Recent Posts

[For the consequences of the years of top-level ignorance and incompetence we face, click here. For President Trump’s six-month report card, click here. For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For other popular recent posts, click on the links below:]
By now, two things are crystal clear. First, Kim Jong-un is not going to give up his nuclear arsenal or its future expansion out of the goodness of his heart. He will give it up only if or when it is substantially destroyed by military action. Short of that, he might give it up under massive economic/political pressure that amounts to an existential non-military threat. Only China, which accounts for over 90% of North Korea’s trade, has the power to make such a threat, let alone credibly.

Second, the only leverage that the United States has over North Korea is military. Kim has utterly blown off our alleged “economic” leverage, to the point of repeatedly refusing even to talk with us. President Trump’s recent reductio ad absurdum—an empty threat to halt all trade between the world’s first and second economies in order to cut off Kim and his tiny nation—has not gotten Kim’s attention. Likely Kim senses its absurdity: a threat to cut off your own head to scratch your ear more easily.

Our military leverage is a different matter. We have the military power to end Kim’s regime—even to wipe North Korea off the face of the Earth. But annihilating North Korea in a surprise nuclear attack would be inconsistent with our national values and most of our national history.

We could probably terminate Kim and his regime in a limited and precisely targeted nuclear surprise attack. I argued in a recent post that such an attack is not fundamentally inconsistent with our values or our history. In fact, it seems consistent with our above-average national risk aversion, which has underlain our trigger-happy involvement in several unnecessary wars and coups since we got involved too late in the worst war in human history. Trump’s unpredictable presidency adds a random hazard that, in my view, makes such military action more, not less, probable.

But there are risks. The primary risks are to South Korea, our wholly innocent ally. The South suffered massively in the Korean War and does not want to repeat the experience, even in miniature. Hence its apparent policy of self-evidently useless “engagement.” In the best case, that engagement will likely lead to nuclearization not only of the entire Korean Peninsula, but of all of East Asia and perhaps beyond. Not coincidentally, it could lead to subjecting the United States and much of Asia to the threat of nuclear blackmail by one of the most dangerous and least predictable tyrants in human history. Compared to Kim, Stalin was a paragon of reason, self-restraint, and trustworthiness.

There are also other risks to us—to our troops and military “assets” in the region, and to our standing, since World War II, as a mostly peaceful guarantor of stability. Another war on the Korean Peninsula would certainly “roll the dice” of military conflict, whose outcome is always hazardous and uncertain. But it would also “roll the dice” of diplomacy and power politics.

The United States has not been entirely innocent in the past three centuries of Western colonial torture of Asia. Our gunboats “opened up” Japan toward the turn of the twentieth century, and our growing military and economic power supplemented those of the Brits and other European powers in carving up China into colonial domains like a big piece of smoked ham.

But we never kept colonies of our own. We gave the Philippines its freedom less than five decades after winning it from Spain. Our big, permanent military bases in Asia appeared only after we had helped save the day in the most terrible war in human history. Whether through racism, self-regard, innate conservatism, or an advanced sensibility derived from our own long-ago status as a restive colony of England, we Americans never had much appetite for colonization.

So the reason why the United States has great power and influence in Asia is not just our military strength, our formidable Seventh Fleet, or our world-destroying nuclear arsenal. They all help to project power, of course. But what really matters is our pre-war and post-war record. Except for two terrible proxy wars with China (in Korea and Vietnam), we have kept the peace and preserved the balance of power without big wars or massive human suffering. Our “hegemony,” if you want to call it that, has largely brought Asia the thing that China covets most: stability.

That in itself is an extraordinary achievement. The rise of Imperial Japan and its terrible role in World War II showed what modern, Western weapons could do in crowded Asia. If that awful lesson were not enough for Asian leaders, the two regionally devastating proxy wars ought to have been instructive. Our war in Vietnam was the only one in our history that the United States unambiguously and ignominiously lost. On the way to that loss we devastated large parts of Southeast Asia—not just Vietnam, but Laos and Cambodia, too—with poisonous chemicals, land mines, and incessant, terrible bombing, leaving still-unexploded ordnance to maim innocent farmers and children to this day. Those tragedies will redound to our everlasting shame.

The other proxy war, in Korea, absolutely devastated an entire peninsula. But out of the ashes, which our own hubris, paranoia and weapons helped make, arose something extraordinary. There was a side-by-side test of freedom versus tyranny, capitalism versus an extreme form of Stalinism. The former won decisively, creating an extraordinary small nation with global economic and technical impact and global exemplary power.

Even the war we lost, in Vietnam, has produced a peaceful, productive buffer state between China and the West. Although we lost the war, our economic system (or something like it, as in present-day China) has produced a peaceful economic miracle.

It is those things—peace, stability and economic development—that all of Asia wants, not our hegemony or domination. Nor does it want China’s domination.

Whether we or China brings the goods shouldn’t much matter. At the present moment, we Americans have a slightly better track record. It looks as if China started both proxy wars (or encouraged its proxies to start them), while we only responded to southward-moving invasions of divided states. Today, China is adding to the distrust and unease in its region by making baseless claims to the entire South China Sea and taking unilateral action to secure those claims militarily.

In contrast, Americans have no ownership designs in Asia, whether on land or sea. We just want the seas to be open, in accordance with international agreements. We just want free trade, as does China.

There has been much talk lately about the so-called “Thucydides Trap”—the supposed inevitability of war between a declining hegemonic power like the United States and a rising regional power like China. But we twenty-first-century humans are not ancient Greeks in tiny city-states. Far less are we baboons, dogs or apes, whose communication skills are so limited that they must fight to establish social dominance. We have choices, which we can make rationally, collectively and across racial and tribal lines.

We did so in standing down the Cold War with Russia (in its Soviet guise) that, in October 1962, came within minutes of extinguishing our species. For 72 postwar years, our deals and understandings have avoided wars between major powers fighting each other on their own territories. Our deals created an international trading environment that, in a mere three generations, brought billions out of poverty and changed China from sliced colonial ham to the world’s second economic and industrial power, so far without major extra-regional wars.

Deals do work, and they are far better than war, even a limited war on the Korean Peninsula. Therefore the stunning thing—the absolutely astounding thing—is that the US and China are not now engaged in serious bilateral talks to make a deal that could avoid the war now brewing there.

In my essay describing the significant and rapidly rising risk of an American pre-emptive but limited nuclear strike on North Korea, I implied (and secretly assumed) that such talks were going on. But they’re not.

In one of the best pieces of historical/analytical journalism I have ever read anywhere, an unknown (to me) New York Times journalist named Jane Perlez explains why. In essence, China and America are afraid of each other. They are wary of each other in general. They fear each other’s influence and power in Asia and each other’s plans to increase it. They even fear disclosing military or diplomatic secrets inadvertently in talks with each other. So out of irrational distrust and paranoia, of the kind that nearly extinguished our species in 1962, they appear hell bent on making an ancient Greek’s 2,400 year-old analysis become twenty-first century prophecy.

What nonsense! China, apparently, fears that if Kim falters or falls, the South Koreans and Americans will rush in and bring hostile powers right up to China’s very border. South Koreans apparently feel that Kim, if given the chance or if America’s protection falters, will rush in and occupy the South, extinguishing one of Asia’s most admirable economic tigers and extending the world’s most pathological tyranny.

Isn’t it far more likely that any renewed conventional war on the Peninsula would be just as bloody and horrible, and end in just as frustrating a stalemate, as the first? Wouldn’t any nuclear war most likely begin with a surprise pre-emptive attack by the US, which would have many unintended consequences, kill lots of wholly innocent people, irradiate lots of valuable land, and have the sole benefits of terminating Kim and discouraging nuclear proliferation by petty tyrants for a long time to come?

Isn’t it likely that, with these alternatives in mind, we Americans and the Chinese could work out a deal to keep existing boundaries in place, to destroy and change as little as possible, while getting rid of Kim, his sycophants and his nukes? Is such an outcome really beyond the capability of the world’s two greatest powers, if they cooperate fully?

Jane Perlez’ story reveals that we tried talking with China some years ago and just gave up. How could our leaders and diplomats be so negligent and lazy? How could China’s?

So Donald J. Trump, here’s your chance to showcase your “Art of the Deal.” Working with Democrats to put off a debt-ceiling and government-shutdown crisis for three months was easy. But if you can make a deal with China to avoid the necessity for an American pre-emptive nuclear strike on Kim and his nukes, if you can avoid war on the Korean Peninsula and get rid of Kim and his nuclear program, the world and your countrymen will forgive you everything. They’ll forgive your narcissism, your gigantic ego, your inconsistency, your constantly insulting everyone who is not you, your coddling of white supremacists, your casual racism, misogyny and homophobia, your inability to keep a coherent thought in your mind for more than two minutes, and your corrupting virtually everything you touch. They will sing your praises as long as our species survives.

All you have to do is talk with China, seriously and earnestly, without preconditions and with due recognition of each side’s (and our species’) real interests. All you have to do is stick with the talks, through thick and thin, until they bear fruit and refute Thucydides. Don’t you think you ought at least to try that, or to ask Rex Tillerson to do so, and give him full authority and unlimited resources?

There isn’t any better alternative. There’s the growing likelihood of an American limited pre-emptive nuclear strike to destroy Kim and his nukes. There’s the awful prospect of a replay of the Korean War with conventional weapons of much greater destructive power than in the original. There’s the even uglier prospect of one of the meanest tyrants in human history blackmailing the world, including both China and the US, for the foreseeable future. Isn’t the fourth option—real cooperation between the US and China to remove the tyrant and his nuclear threat—by far the most attractive?

China and America share one attractive trait. Neither has ever had a taste for global conquest. America might have made short work of it during the brief period when only it had nuclear weapons, but the thought never occurred. China might have succeeded when ruled by the expansionist Mongols, had the Black Plague not intervened. But that was most of a millennium ago, in a state ruled by foreigners, not the Han who have ruled China ever since.

The simple fact is that Han China and multiracial America share the goals of stability, prosperity and progress and can’t see much profit in conquest or war. Each would be a reluctant hegemon—the best kind. With two such great powers in the Age of Reason, Athens and Sparta need not be a model for all of human history.

Close cooperation between the two great powers, beginning in North Korea, could not just stave off another unnecessary war. It could begin a Golden Age for mankind. How about making that kind of a deal, Mr. President?

Did President Trump Just Become a Leader?

“I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” — Will Rogers

Sometimes giant oaks from little acorns grow.

The biggest unknown in all of American government today is whether the Senate’s continuing resolution yesterday is such an acorn. By that resolution, the Senate decided to raise the debt ceiling and keep the government open for another three months. It also approved the first tranche of Hurricane Harvey relief money.

The resolution is only temporary. The Senate will have to pass another in December, or it will have to come up with 60 votes—a filibuster-proof majority—to pass real legislation to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government.

But real legislation for these purposes is unlikely. Why? Because not only is Congress as a whole deeply divided. Republicans in the House are deeply divided.

Republicans’ so-called “Hastert Rule” requires a majority of the Republican majority to agree, even to bring a bill to the floor. But the crazy right-wing House groups, namely, the so-called “Tea Party” and “Freedom Caucus,” preclude a Republican majority from forming, at least on any measure that a majority of the Senate (let alone a filibuster-proof majority) can stomach. The abject failure of the nasty attempt to deprive 23 million Americans of health insurance proved that.

The crux of the matter is Will Rogers’ little quip quoted above. The Republican Party is no longer the organized phalanx of disciplined legislators that it once was. Instead, the Democrats are.

Republicans may hold a majority in both Houses, but in the Senate at least, Democrats can reliably deliver 48 votes for any piece of legislation that doesn’t sell out the nation to the venal or the rich. If they can peel off three Republicans, they can eke out a bare majority. That’s what they did recently in saving health insurance as we now know it, i.e., so-called “Obamacare.”

But stopping a legislative atrocity and actually passing legislation are two different things. The only way rational legislation can pass through the House is for Speaker Ryan to abandon the Hastert Rule and let a real majority of the whole House act—even if that majority includes the entire Democratic caucus.

Majority rule! What a concept! We haven’t seen it in this country since filibusters became routine and the Hastert Rule went into effect. But the ghosts of the ancient Greeks and Romans who invented popular democracy beckon us to restore it.

We’re not quite there yet. In order to get there, two things have to happen. First, Ryan has to follow the Senate and let the continuing resolution pass the House, with the support of Democrats.

Ryan doesn’t like the resolution because he thinks it favors the Democrats. Why? Because it requires yet another continuing resolution to pass in December, just before the calendar changes to 2018, the year of the midterm elections.

This gives the crazy Republican factions another chance to show their love for extortion, which has been their legislative modus operandi since at least 2013. They say, in effect, “do things our way, or we’ll shoot the government by shutting it down, and we’ll shoot our economy by refusing to raise the debt ceiling, thereby causing or threatening a default on our national debt.” Ryan, who has been complicit in this extortion for years, suddenly doesn’t like it because it makes his party looks bad.

The second thing that has to happen for majority rule to return to America is for the continuing resolution to be more than a singlet. Either the whole House must get fed up with extremist minority rule, or the President must do so and slide into leadership mode.

The latter may already have happened. President Trump may have gotten fed up with the Tea Party’s and Freedom Caucus’ extortion and the consequent failure of Congress to pass any major legislation at all during the eight months of his presidency so far.

Who knows? Maybe Kim Jong-un’s nuke brandishing reminded Trump what extortion looks like. And Trump, a classic bully himself, may have decided he doesn’t like being the butt of it.

If these speculations are valid, you’d better hold onto your hat. Donald J. Trump’s failure to be a “good” Republican ideologue—which today means an extreme right-wing extortionist—has so far been his weakness. But it can also be his strength. If he can lead the Democrats and the few moderate and non-crazy Republicans to work together, he can pass just about any legislation he wants, as long as it’s passingly progressive, and as long as his own party doesn’t mount a filibuster against him.

Why knows? An infrastructure bill may be next, providing good jobs that can’t be outsourced for all those Trump voters hurt by globalization. So might tax reform that does something for working folk and actually encourages investment. Even a tax bill that lowers capital-gains taxes and raises individual rates might be possible.

The Republican party once began as a progressive party, opposed to slavery and Confederate secession. It may have reached its height during the populist surge of Teddy Roosevelt, who championed progressive legislation, including our antitrust laws. Maybe President Trump can make the party relevant again by returning it to its roots.

If all this a progressive fantasy? Maybe. But two things suggest maybe not. Trump the bully does have a sentimental soft spot. He showed it for the gassed Syrian children whose dismal fate made him strike out at Assad. And his concern for undocumented immigrant children appeared to be genuine, even as he sunsetted DACA by executive order.

The second thing is Trump’s genuine rage at the so-called leaders of his own party—Darth McConnell and blue-eyed Ryan. So far they have produced nothing but abject failure for Trump and his party. The reason is simple and clear: their willingness to coddle the extremists in their own party while excluding and marginalizing Democrats.

President Trump doesn’t like to lose. As a bully himself, he doesn’t like to be extorted. So it’s entirely possible that, in order to “win,” he will start to lead and will do so in a progressive direction. After all, he was once a Democrat and can be one again. It’s a “Big Tent” party.

Consistency is not Trump’s thing. “Winning” is. The Dems have shown him how to win, and the feeling may become addictive. Let’s all hope so.

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