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THE NORTH KOREAN CONUNDRUM

In face of the conventional wisdom, it’s time for some clear thinking and straight talk about the North Korean conundrum.

Top American officials, allied governments and parlor strategists assert that the aim of US policy should be the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula

That;s clearly unrealistic. It won’t happen.

Kim Jung-un is simply not going to give up his nuclear weapons and delivery systems that he’s worked so hard to develop. Maybe his program, can be constrained somewhat, through negotiations, but not eliminated.

It’s hard to conceive of a military option that wouldn’t result in the decimation of Seoul, many of its 25 million citizens, and a significant number of the nearly 30,000 US troops in country.

With an estimated 15,000 artillery pieces and rocket launchers just north of the DMZ, most in improvised bunkers, the capitol of South Korea stands as a hostage against the possibility of an American military strike against the North.

Unquestionably, China holds the key to the outcome. Perhaps that was behind President Trump’s overheated rhetoric, trying to persuade Beijing that he might be reckless enough to trigger some sort of military strike that could escalate into nuclear war.

It’s true that China fears that the collapse of the Kim regime could result in the flood of millions of North Koreans into China.

And some analysts contend Beijing also fears that the collapse and reunification under South Korea would put American troops on its border. But if the threat of a North Korean invasion of the South was thus eliminated, there would be no need for US troops in Korea.

However, there is a critically important, but largely overlooked, pressure on Chinese decision-makers.  And that is genuine concern that if the North tontines to brandish its nuclear capability, South Korea and Japan will be strongly tempted to develop nuclear weapons of their own–for defensive purposes.

This would be especially true in the face of the North flaunting its ability to hit the heartland of the US.  Would Trump risk Chicago or New York to save Seoul or Tokyo? Also a South Korean nuclear capability to destroy Pyongyang would deter the North’s threat to decimate Seoul with conventional artillery.

Now the emergence of South Korean and Japanese nuclear forces would represent a regional shift in the balance of power that Beijing would want to avoid at all costs.

China is in a position to exert a chokehold on the economy of North Korea. For example by shutting off the supply of oil and gasoline on which the North direly depends.

Might it use such power to force Kim into some kind of deal with which the US and its allies could live? Or to achieve regime change under some general with whom China could live?

In either case, if North Korea survives, some effort must be made to prevent it from selling nuclear weapons or technology to rogue states or terrorist organizations.

Recall that Pyongyang tried to help Syria become nuclear capable by starting to build a nuclear power plant from which weapons grade uranium could be extracted. The Israeli air force destroyed that facility.

There would have be some sort of tough international inspection regime to ensure Pyongyang abides by its undertakings–including US and Chinese representatives.

 

 

 

 

 

TRUMP FLIPS POLICY ON SYRIA

Nearly four years ago President Obama was poised to fire cruise missiles into Syria because the regime of Bashar Assad had crossed his so-called “red line” and continued to launch poison gas weapons against his citizens.

Saudi Arabia had pressured the United States to ensure the strike would be more than a “pinprick.” The French government had dispatched a warship to waters off Syria to back up the US naval task force preparing for the cruise missile barrage.

But at the eleventh hour, Russia suddenly intervened. Vladimir Putin announced that Syria was prepared to have all of its 1,000 metric tons of nerve, VX and mustard gas weapons destroyed. Until that moment Assad had insisted he had no such weapons. But after the Russian intercession, he changed his tune and agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, vowing not to manufacture, store or use poison gas.

Obama was not anxious to take offensive action that might conceivably draw the United States into the Syrian civil war, and thus accepted the Russian-Syrian initiative.

In effect, although Assad was on the cusp of losing the war, that initiative saved him and assured that he could continue to bloody those who opposed his regime, assaulting them with barrel bombs and other conventional weapons.

It was not long until Russia inserted combat aircraft into Syria which, alongside iranian forces and Hezbollah troops from Lebanon, helped to tilt the war in Assad’s favor.

That was the scenario faced by President Donald Trump, who had suggested in his presidential campaign that he was determined to destroy ISIS, but could live with Assad. But graphic scenes of children and babies being gassed by nerve agents changed his mind and his policy.

A traumatized Trump said the specter of babies being gassed crossed many of his  red lines and, having asked his national security team for options, decided to fire 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against the Syrian air base from which the nerve gas had been  launched.

The surprisingly decisive action, from a President who had been viewed as leaning toward “America First” isolationism, was cheered by US allies in Europe and the Middle East. Leaders of both parties on the Hill also joined the bandwagon, although some said he should have sought Congressional authorization.

Putin and Assad insisted vociferously that this was a frame-up and that Syria had not gassed its citizens. But US intelligence said it had intercepted conversations of Syrian air force personnel discussing the upcoming nerve gas operation.

Were the Russians complicit? Surely the air base where the nerve gas was stored would have kept the weapons in secure, off-limits bunkers, with sentries and signs to keep people away.

There is no way that such weapons would have been removed from such a bunker and loaded onto an aircraft without the Russian contingent on the base being aware.

Will Trump follow up that raid by establishing a no-fly safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border?  He dangled that possibility during his campaign. Hillary Clinton had, in fact, unsuccessfully urged such a move on Obnma some years ago.

Stay tuned.


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-This blog was also run by the World Policy Institute.

JIHADI REVENGE: a novel

Battle-hardened jihadi fighters from Hamas made plans for a daring attack on a supposedly impregnable US nuclear power plant. Outraged that while the US was loudly insisting on an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, Washington was surreptitiously  shipping tons of bombs and rockets to Israel to continue the onslaught, Hamas, which had never before operated outside of its home base, was determined to show the US that it actually had a devastating reach.

Arabella, a beautiful young blonde FBI rookie, who had proven herself in her last mission against terrorists, and Aaron, a tough and very savvy Israeli Mossad operative, teamed up to investigate and help confront the threat.

They were operating on fragmentary intelligence from a Palestinian turncoat, from Mossad field agents, and from the CIA.

In carrying out their mission, the pair had first to deal with dangerous gunmen from a Mexican drug cartel, hired to sneak the Hamas terrorists into the US.

But with 100 nuclear power plants, which one would be targeted? Hamas felt it had a huge advantage with a secret collaborator working on the security force on one nuclear reactor. But, again, which one?

While US nuclear reactors are not soft targets–far from it–neither are they impregnable. This novel makes the point that with a handful of fixes, the safety of nuclear power plants could be significantly bolstered.

With the American public understandably concerned about the threat of determined terrorists, this novel is unusually timely.

POST-ELECTION REFORMS

Washington–In the aftermath of a nightmarish Presidential election, in which both candidates were disliked and distrusted by a majority of American voters,  it’s time to consider fundamental changes in our political system.

Some changes would be relatively easy to win bipartisan support. Others not so much. But a serious debate is called for to avoid a repetition of the political trauma just experienced.

For example, who would dispute the need for the next Congress to pass a law requiring each aspirant for the Presidency to immediately make public, on announcing his candidacy, both his tax returns and his complete health  records for the previous ten years?

The public has an absolute right to know if the candidate is in tip-top physical and psychological shape and has paid his fair share of taxes, like any ordinary citizen.

Donald Trump, who promised to “drain the swamp”in Washington and “make America great again,” campaigned as an agent of change.

But again and again, he took outlandish positions that would have instantly doomed a normal candidate. Such as deriding  the sacrifices of Senator John McCain, by saying that he preferred those who had not been captured. Or disrespesting a Moslem Gold Star Mother who’s son died a hero’s death in Iraq.

He charged that a large number of Mexican migrants were either rapists or drug smugglers. He vowed to deport 11 million illegal aliens in two years. His grossly misleading assertions, made on prime time television, stood largely without timely challenge as his candidacy built momentum.

Where were the truth-tellers  who would dispute his mischaracterization of Mexican aliens?  Who made an effort to point out that the undocumented aliens represent an important five percent of the country’s workforce, pay taxes, lead blameless, constructive lives, and that it would require the creation of a sort of Gestapo to locate and forcibly deport them overnight?

Hillary Clinton often skirted the truth as well, though not as often and nat as egregiously.  Her use of a private email server was set up for convenience, so should wouldn’t have to carry more than one cellphone?  And it was approved by an unnamed State Department official?  Come on!

Or that she never allowed information that was “marked classified” to be carried on her emails? Every morning she received a top secret briefing from the CIA and knew exactly what was classified, without any markings on a piece of paper.

So would it be possible for the major TV networks to hire a team of fact-checkers who could quickly provide the public with factual correctives?  Perhaps the nightly news shows could devote a 5-minute segment to such factual and impartial perspective.

And major newspapers and wire services should also have such fact-checkers who could provide those writing breaking news with timely insert material that would put wild assertions to the test.

If those reforms were put into effect, without doubt it would markedly improve politicians’ discourse.

The FBI represents another cause for concern. Certainly it should not make public in the last days of an election unassessed assertions that were bound to impact the process. And undisciplined FBI agents should not be allowed to leak half-baked information to the press in the run-up to the vote.

Another unprecedented challenge should deal with the malign efforts of foreign intelligence services hacking the computers of US political operatives and leaking embarrassing stories, through WikiLeaks, to journalists.

Reporters will of course try to check the facts to ensure they were not part of a campaign of misinformation. But do they also have a responsibility to make clear to their readers that actual or suspected origin of the political dirt?  And its objectives?  Wouldn’t that be part of balanced reporting?

It’s a truism that he who doesn’t learn from his mistakes is bound to repeat them. So, instead, doesn’t it make sense to forthrightly address and correct them?

 

 

DOUBLE AGENT STALLION

Double Agent Stallion is my seventh novel. It is based, in part, on a true story. It focuses on a scheme by Russian intelligence to coerce an American college student into spying for Moscow. The story line:

A Russian master spy, nicknamed the Fisherman, dispatches a sultry young redhead to an American college campus to ensnare a promising student into a compromising position where he’d be forced to spy for Moscow. Early on, he becomes suspicious and goes to the FBI, which persuades him to become a double agent. Many years later, after he’s “proven” himself to his handlers with carefully vetted intelligence, he provides some clever technical misinformation designed to sabotage one of their major weapons programs.

Meanwhile, the redhead falls madly in love with her target, confesses, and they marry and have two children. The FBI, to protect its high value asset against retribution, stages the family’s “death” in a flaming car accident. When inevitably the Russians realize they’ve been snookered, and suspect that the American agent may not really be dead at all, the Fisherman sends a pair of experienced killers to check out the car accident and hunt him down, if he’s in hiding. He and his family are in the witness protection program, with new identities and appearances., but the determined killers manage to track them down anyway. A gunfight ensues.

IRAN NUCLEAR DEADLINE

As the targeted deadline for achieving a nuclear weapons program deal with Iran draws near, Ayatollah Ali Khomenei has just overplayed his hand in what could turn out to be a historic misjudgment.

Presumably believing that President Barack Obama wants and needs a deal more than Tehran does, Khomenei laid down a series of outrageous demands, which he described as “major red lines.” Perhaps he figured that by doing so he would signal to the US and its allies that Iran’s negotiators have their hands tied by the Supreme Leader.

But if a final deal fails to be compleied and the world believes that fault lies with Iran, then the crushing economic sanctions may not only be continued, but perhaps even strengthened.

Recall Obama’s warning to Congressional skeptics that if a deal falls through, there are essentially only two alternatives–either heavy bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities, and consequently war,or watching as Iran hastily rushes to complete an arsenal of nuclear weapons, destabilizing the region.

But there exists a middle course, whether short term or long, to significantly tighten the economic screws on Iran. It was the pressure of sanctions, after all, that forced Iran into negotiations in the first place.

Regardless of whether the June 30 deadline is observed or extended, if a detailed agreement is negotiated and then rejected by the US Senate, some of those–such as Russia and China–who see advantage in ending the sanctions, would feel free to do so. The blame would then fall at the feet of the Americans.

But Khomenei’s eleventh hour demands raise the prospect that Iran would be blamed for failure to reach an accord. Among them:

First, all US and UN sanctions must be immediately lifted when an agreement is signed, rather than gradually lifted as Iran implements a series of agreed upon steps. This would allow Iran to pocket tens of billions of dollars of immediate economic relief.

There could be no freeze on nuclear research and development. Thus Tehran could continue to plough ahead on more effective, speedier uranium enrichment centrifuges.

International inspection of Iran’s military facilities would be forbidden, making it impossible to verify Iran’s compliance. It is believed that certain military facilities, such as Parchin, have been devoted to developing nuclear missile nose cones.

Additionally, there could be no long term restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment. Highly enriched uranium, of course, is not required for nuclear power plants, but rather for nuclear warheads.

The driving hope of the Obama Administration has been that if a cork could be kept in the bottle of Iran’s nuclear weapons program for ten years, maybe Iran would lose its appetite for such weapons as it enjoyed the fruits of unhindered international commerce. But that assumes that Iran’s strategic goal of becoming the hegemon of the Middle East and a world power will somehow disappear over the next decade.

And that would constitute quite a gamble.

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This piece also ran in the World Policy Journal blog.

OBAMA’S WORLDVIEW

The tentative nuclear framework agreement with Iran is the acid test of President Obsma’s worldvirw that the best way to deal with global adversaries is with rigorous diplomacy, rather than military threats. Before long historians will be in a position to assess the wisdom or fallacy of his judgment.

During Obama’s first campaign for office, Hillary Rodham Clinton described him as “dangerously naive” for asserting that the way to deal with an enemy such as Iran is with “aggressive personal diplomacy.” At the start of his presidency, he offered to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

That is Obama’s core philosophy. He believed that in the past the US was too inclined to turn to military power to address problems in the world, as in iraq and Afghanistan. He was convinced he had a better way: persistent diplomatic engagement.

In six years in office, however, he has faced one rebuff or misstep after another. Perhaps until now. But the proof of whether the framework with Iran will be effectively spelled out in finite detail and, more importantly, signed and then faithfully observed, remains to be seen. It is a colossal gamble on the President’s part. In all likelihood it will become the touchstone of his historic legacy, one way or the other.

Obama is fond of quoting former President Jack Kennedy: “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”

In his first speech abroad, delivered in Prague,he made clear his foremost concern was nuclear proliferation, even going so far as to advocate a world without nuclear weapons. That helps explain why the negotiation with Iran has been pretty much his foreign policy fixation in office.

And yet, ironically, if Tehran’s frightened neighbors regard the ultimate deal as making Iran a nuclear threshold state, one that could turn a screw and become nuclear capable, the chances are that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and perhaps one of the Gulf states will seek nuclear weapons for themselves. And the fractious Middle East could become even more perilous than it is today.

Early on in his presidency, Obama said he wanted to shift the emphasis from the Middle East to the Pacific. But events have conspired otherwise.

Following the so-called Arab Spring, which only blossomed positively in Tunesia, came Egypt’s putsch against the Moslem Brotherhood, the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the revolution of the minority Houtis, supported by Iran, in Yemen, with the attendant decision by Saudi Arabja and perhaps Egu[t tp use military force to contest them. The ancient blood feud between the Sunnis and Shiites appears to be rekindling.

Now it’s true that Obama was confronted by two ongoing wars when be came to power–costly and controversial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then there arose a secular rebellion in Syria, where Obama rebuffed the entreaties of his top officials to help arm and train the rebels, and Libya, where hr reluctantly agreed with European allies to help oust Mammmar Khadafi, by “leading from behind,” only to subsequently back away and allow a failed state to emerge.

And don’t overlook the effort to “reset” relations with Russia. Whether Vladimir Putin regarded the new American president as a creampuff, who would do nothing significant if he annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine, remains a matter of conjecture. But obviously Putin did not feel constrained by Obama who offered an open hand, rather than a mailed fist.

No question that Obama’s rose colored worldview is in question. But not yet decided.

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William Beecher is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington correspondent for The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He’s a former Asskitant Secretary of Defense and is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland.

This blog was picked up by the World Policy Institute.