LET’S TALK ABOUT NUCLEAR WAR / the new Trump™ false narrative
Or why we’re supposed to be concerned over nuclear bombs instead of Trump’s legitimacy and domestic policy
Mike Pence: “Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan.”
The recent talk of nuclear threat vis-a-vis N. Korea and Russia (here, here, here, and here; and on Medium here and here) has an important political effect: it pushes into the background many of the long-standing concerns over Trump’s legitimacy, his general mental abilities, his scorched earth domestic agenda, and his in general highly disappointing political performance. There seems to be a broad buy-in to Trump’s fake war footing.
Is Trump deliberately raising fears of war simply to save his failing presidency?
Fear of war causes domestic politics to take a back seat. We are suddenly beset with the image of a dangerous world where one slip or false move can lead to Armageddon. That is the world that the US more than any other country has created. It is fitting that an American president is using those conditions to increase his political fortunes.
First: it is noteworthy that for the first time since the end of the Cold War there is significant concern over nuclear war (see §1). This is one more first for Trump. We never had a perfect world but there was borderline general stability when Obama left office. Now the waters have been stirred and the result is a general sense of anxiety. (The anxiety over a possible nuclear winter may be misplaced, but the anxiety over a desperate president using every trick in the book is not.)
This anxiety is a predictable response to some calculated moves by the Trump administration. But you may ask, Can Trump flirt with war so casually? What if something should go wrong? Yes he can. And something might go wrong, but probably not in a very big way. The threat of serious warfare has been ruled out in advance. If it hadn’t, Trump and the NSC wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing.
In other words, there is no more chance of nuclear war breaking out between the US and either Russia or N. Korea in the near future than there was in the recent past. Let me correct that statement, in absolute terms the chance of war has increased by, say, 5% — just a guess. But that increase of a notional 5% is an increase on a baseline 0.0001% chance. That means nuclear war is not going to happen and the world can still trash Trump. He is gambling for increased legitimacy, but the dice are definitely loaded.
Trump and associates have engineered geopolitical events to the point of eliciting sabre rattling among adversaries. The missile strikes in Syria, MOAB!, the dispatch of warships toward N. Korea, the bigger than usual war games in S. Korea — all are displays of force that predictably have elicited alarm from the relevant states. As intended.
“As intended” because the true aim is to create a new global discussion. The old global discussion was: Trump-Kremlin and Trump’s growing construct of mistakes. Now it’s about managing a potentially nuclear situation — and so, the reasoning would seem to be, maybe we should support him. Nuclear war is a very big political platform.
The US tactical actions noted above are a direct assertion through physical means that the US is the only remaining super power. (It spends nearly one trillion dollars on the military (and intelligence) for one reason: to assert its will on others.) Recent US military actions have elicited a sharp verbal response. But war is far from imminent. For two reasons: 1) there has been no direct attack on Russia or N. Korea, nor is there likely to be, and 2) absurdly disproportionate American military strength guarantees that in any conflict America would win. That’s the benefit of a near trillion dollar per annum investment — something the Kremlin and Pyongyang are very aware of. There is absolutely nothing either country can do about this new Pentagon hustle. Recent US military actions are for show, and all players are aware of that. They are a display of superior strength, and displays of superior strength always impress — abroad and at home.
N. Korea’s response has been primarily rhetorical. A close aid to Kim has proclaimed, “If the United States wages reckless provocation against us, our revolutionary power will instantly counter with annihilating strikes, and we will respond to full-out war with full-out war and to nuclear war with our style of nuclear strike warfare.”
This is similar to Iran’s rhetoric after its launch of an ICBM in response to Trump’s anti-Iran remarks in January and to being placed on the travel ban list.
Notice that N. Korea’s statement is defensive. It is warning against a first strike by the US. The NK official is particularly concerned with an injudicious provocation from the US. And that is the one wild card here: will the US — the navy in particular — engage in some form of low-level provocation in order to elicit a response from N. Korea? Indeed that could be a stratagem contemplated by the NSC and the DOD: the creation of a pretext to crush the Pyongyang regime. This scenario has already been thought through (outsourced as a military problem to some military support service like Titan). The result however would be regional chaos. China may come to N. Korea’s aid. NK missiles may penetrate S. Korea’s defenses. Civilian casualties could number well over 100,000. Without a major act of aggression from N. Korea, any attempt to take out Pyongyang’s command center would come at too high a price. Instead, the conventional approach of deterrence through a display of clearly insurmountable force is a more cost-effective approach. In other words, real wars can go wrong in so many ways.
The NK rhetoric of course is to show a complete lack of intimidation in the face of America’s display of power.
There is nothing exceptional about N. Korea’s recent acts. It is behaving somewhat predictably — testing nuclear weapons (its proposed fifth in ten years) and launching missiles — not desirable, but also not a radical departure from past behavior.
What is new is the US has professed the abandonment of a “strategy of patience.” (Pence) That sounds very much like a threat. It is consistent with the threat made against Iran in January — “Iran is playing with fire — they don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me!” (Trump tweet)
N. Korea has stated (above) that any attack it may make in the future will be a response to a US attack. That statement functions much like a promise. If there is provocation from the US the most likely victim of a NK attack would be South Korea with Pyongyang claiming that the US is ultimately responsible. Is Trump or the NSC willing to take that risk? No. At most, the US will police the region with war ships fully stocked with Tomahawk missiles. It is the tactic of visible threat.
But fundamentally these threats are nothing more than threats. There is little the US can overtly do to N. Korea — apart from sanctions. Covertly, it can cyber attack and that may be the real frontier here and the true leading edge of battle.
We are being asked to believe that there is a situation in NK. But the situation has not changed at all. The rhetoric has been sharpened and forces have been mobilized, tactically motivated for reasons above.
But materially there’s nothing new here.
However, in US politics a new frontier has opened up. Trump and co. are using the world stage and the charade of a war footing to fortify Trump’s political standing at home and abroad — but especially at home. The (unpopular, possibly illegitimate, and libellously querulous) president is aiming for a major reset. This show casts him as a decisive commander in chief with the fate of the world in his hands. And the unfortunate thing is that is nearly true. There are however enough rational voices in government to temper Trump. No one is going to let him unilaterally start a disastrous war.
Trump’s missile strike in Syria in early April was launched on foot of claims (very plausible but at the same time unverified) of a chemical attack on civilians. That defines clear and predictable parameters. The Kremlin, supporting Assad, can live with that. The NSC predicted correctly that the strikes would be viewed purely as a punitive and preventive measure — despite various post-mortem rhetorical feints by the Kremlin.
That brings us to the second “nuclear threat” that has been discussed recently. Stephen Cohen, a respected academic, on Democracy Now said, “I think this is the most dangerous moment in American-Russian relations, at least since the Cuban missile crisis. And arguably, it’s more dangerous, because it’s more complex.”
That’s quite a claim. True, Russia and Iran have issued a joint statement to the effect that the US has crossed a red line and any future US attack will result in retaliation. But such statements must be made, whether they are true or not. Words are weapons. And what potential form that retaliation might take is an open question. It may be a massive and brutal attack on US supported rebels, which are in a sense a US regional interest. The Russia-Iran joint statement is a deliberately vague threat and from the point of view of strategy an absolutely essential one. Simply put, it is a cheap deterrent, and it is as much for domestic US consumption as for military strategists.
Without going into any detail, the Syria strike is nothing like the Cuban Missile Crisis —which is officially called a “Crisis” with a capital C. However, Trump’s strike almost certainly will not be known as the Syrian Tomahawk Strike Crisis. That should be obvious.
But why is Cohen so alarmist? It should be noted that he is also a major voice of skepticism on the matter of Russia’s interference in the US election. He has claimed, “I could find not one piece of factual evidence [that Russia hacked the 016 election] . . . . The only evidence ever presented was a study hired by the Clintons . . . .” (Interviewed on Fox News, March 30)
That’s an astonishing statement of denial. After the conclusion by USIC (sixteen US intelligence agencies) that Russia not only interfered in the election but did so to favor trump, to say what Cohen said on Fox News is equivalent to falsehood. He is almost blindly challenging the findings of professional investigators whose combined budget is close to 100 billion dollars with apparently his own personal intelligence service. He may teach at Princeton, but in this case Cohen exhibits the intelligence of a barnacle.
Incidentally, he blames the media (ie, the “fake media”) for pushing Trump to launch the strikes on Syria in order to show that he is not beholden to the Kremlin.
If you fit Cohen’s positions together, they form a neat pro-Trump package. 1) There is nothing to the idea that the Kremlin wanted Trump in power and 2) Trump has to escape these charges by bombing Syria and 3) because of the missile strikes Washington and Moscow are approaching nuclear war. And then the conclusion 4) we should forget Kremlingate and let Trump govern.
This is a case of fear mongering taking the place of real politics. It spins a narrative of issues pressing on the world greater than minor day-to-day domestic concerns. Our leader is busy defending the free world from bad guys. Domestic politics are small potatoes.
Government regulations? Nuclear threats trump those.
Health care? Stopping nuclear threats is the best health insurance.
Russian interference in the election? Why argue about that when WW III must be stopped?
Dead end job working in a Kentucky coal mine? Be thankful Trump is stopping North Korea from incinerating you.
Such is the reasoning behind the great show of force from Trump and the chorus of witting or unwitting pro-Trump alarmists. And the administration is happy to see these long-buried fears resurrected and to hear murmurings of nuclear fear. Nothing helps salvage a #failingpresidency like the threat of nuclear war.
Addendum: Trump’s attempt at a reset through militarism has already reaped a significant reward. One-time harsh critic of Trump, Sen. Lindsay Graham, is now thoroughly enamored of the man:
“I am like the happiest dude in America right now,” a beaming Graham said on “Fox & Friends.” “We have got a president and a national security team that I’ve been dreaming of for eight years.” (Politico)
Now that’s something to be alarmed about.