Posts Tagged ‘Russia’

PIXI(E)LATED

On Wednesday, following his meeting in Singapore with Kim Jong-un, President Trump tweeted that there is “no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” Why am I not relieved?

Two words come to mind. Pixilatedmeans acting in a mentally unbalanced, unstable way. Pixelated—note the “e” replacing the first “i”—refers to the number of pixels on a digital device’s screen. The more pixels, the sharper the image. There’s a connection.

In Singapore, Trump elevated Kim to the world stage before attempts to negotiate a detailed agreement ridding North Korea of nuclear weapons. Standard diplomacy would have members of both leaders’ staffs first work out the fine print. Then the leaders would meet and sign an accord. Trump signed a vague preliminary 400 words that failed to reference verification. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commented that such a term is understood. Really?

What happens if, following Trump and Kim’s mini-love fest, terms are not agreed upon? Brotherly affection could turn to anger and a sense of betrayal. The risk of war, including the use of nuclear weapon, escalates—especially factoring in super-hawk national security advisor John R. Bolton. So, does the Singapore summit reflectpixilated—unstable—thinking? Only in part.

It also demonstratespixelatedthinking—the desire to make a visual splash in the media from standard to social. If a picture is worth a thousand words, endless videos of Trump and Kim smiling and shaking hands surely speak volumes. But volumes of what?

For Kim, Singapore provided legitimacy. No longer the dictator of the Hermit Kingdom, he created a new image of himself as a statesman. Forget North Korea’s prison camps, assassinations and mind control. Despite ruling a small nation of 25 million, Kim has his finger on a nuclear button and must be respected. Or feared. His people—indeed, the world—have seen him hobnob with the presidents of South Korea, China and the United States.

Moreover, Donald Trump stated how very much Kim loves his people—then tweeted that Kim’s “done some really bad things,” but so have other nations. So maybe Kim’s not all that bad. Trump also suggested fabulous real-estate opportunities lying ahead for North Korea. A Trump Resort Wonsan?

For Trump, the digital wave again made him the focus of world attention. He portrayed himself as an aggressive, rule-breaking negotiator. The artist of the deal. “Look at me,” he seemed to say. Or tweet. “I’ve done what no president before me has done. Rank me up there with George and Abe. And don’t forget, I’m the toughest kid on the block. Before Singapore, I kicked ass at the G-7 summit.”

Of course, the other six G-7 governments are America’s allies. Or were. Trump prefers adding Russia to a restored G-8. Since the G-7 won’t allow it, perhaps they’ll become the G-6 opposite a G-2 constituted of the United States and Russia headed by best buds Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Then a G-3 including North Korea.

The future defies prediction. I hope that the U.S. and North Korea reach a meaningful agreement. That the nuclear threat evaporates as the result of strict terms accepted by Kim. But we’ve just witnessed the confluence of pixilatedand pixelated. Down the road, pixi(e)latedcould prove at best meaningless. At worst, explosive.

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ALEPPO REVISITED

Two months ago, I wrote about the battle of Aleppo pitting Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, Iran and Russia against a hodgepodge of rebels, from secular to Islamist. Despite the horrific violence, I thought major U.S. involvement unwise: “Only the peoples of the Middle East can create lasting peace for themselves.” The battle’s over. I haven’t changed my mind.

The Syrian bloodbath didn’t occur because President Obama foolishly drew a red line in the blood-soaked sand then backed off when Assad used chemical weapons. (True, he did.) It started well before and increased in ferocity when Russia and Iran tilted the battlefield towards Assad.

Are Americans aghast at the slaughter and destruction in Aleppo? Yes, and rightly so. But using American military power to halt the ghastly actions of appalling political leaders sometimes runs deep risks.

Would Russia and Iran have withdrawn so we could roll over Syria’s military and depose Assad? I doubt it. If they did? We’d have won a short-term victory then been saddled with overseeing the formation of a new government.

Once again, American troops would have to protect a government lacking widespread support. We’d also have to build a trusted Syrian security force while American troops faced insurgency and terrorism from many quarters. We’d suffer casualties. And all with no guaranty of Syrian stability once—whenever that might be—we left.

Some Americans might say, “We have to project American power in the face of inhumanity. Freedom isn’t free.” They can afford that stance. I agree that freedom’s not free, but they don’t pay the price. Ours is a military of courageous volunteers. Many Americans encouraging the nation to throw its weight around have no skin in the game. Their children don’t serve. They never served.

Is America toothless? Hardly. Should we withdraw to Fortress America? No. The U.S. plays a special role in helping keep peace—where strategic considerations are most critical. An evolving geopolitical climate demands that we understand military power’s limits.

Reality is, we’ve never ruled the world. That’s why I was taken aback when the New York Times’ Roger Cohen wrote that the Pax Americana—the global peace guaranteed by the United States—is over (12-16-16). Pax Americana represents a semi-myth.

Yes, we kept the former Soviet Union from overrunning Western Europe. We prevented China from expanding in Asia, although China never sought to invade other countries; it seeks to co-opt them economically. We helped protect South Korea but at the cost of over 50,000 U.S. lives. North Korea eventually developed nuclear weapons. Vietnam proved a debacle with 58,000 American lives lost. Genocide ravaged Rwanda, Darfur and the Balkans on “our watch.” Our 2003 invasion of Iraq didn’t remake the Middle East in our image. It destabilized it. Witness Syria and Libya. (Yemen had been fractured earlier.)

We court disaster when our hubris exposes our troops to the physical and emotional hazards in lands whose cultures we don’t understand and whose people reject us. The folly grows when many of our most enthusiastic proponents of using force talk the talk but fail to walk the walk. American power takes many forms. Military force is one but not always the wisest choice. That’s a hard lesson to learn. We’re best off learning it.

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CRIMEA, OBAMA AND LIMITS

Russia’s penetration of Crimea leads some people to question the will or competence of President Obama. They believe he has presided over a radical diminution of American power. The critics may be right. Or not.

The Crimean situation is complicated. A majority Russian-speaking, Orthodox population feels far closer to Russia than to its western-oriented, Ukrainian-speaking, Catholic “countrymen.” Still, shouldn’t Obama rattle the American saber? Reflecting on the presidents in my lifetime and just before, I’m not convinced the critics make a case—certainly if they don’t provide a specific strategy. So here’s what came before Obama:

After Nine-Eleven, George W. Bush left the killing or capture of Osama bin Laden to Afghan warlords—and blew it. Then he moved American forces from Afghanistan to Iraq. We toppled Saddam Hussein but left Iraq in a bloody shambles at great cost to us. Bill Clinton waged a partial war on Islamist terrorism but couldn’t halt it. Nine-Eleven took place ten months after he left the White House. George H.W. Bush may have played it smartest. In 1991, U.S. forces kicked Saddam out of Kuwait in 100 hours—then left.

Ronald Reagan, the epitome of American Cold War macho, couldn’t control civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. In 1983, truck bombs killed 241 American servicemen in Beirut. Yes, the Soviet Union collapsed. For the most part, that was internal. Jimmy Carter, to whom some compare Obama, failed to keep the Shah on Iran’s throne. An attempt to rescue American hostages held by Iranian revolutionaries embarrassed our nation.

Gerald Ford warmed the seat in the Oval Office after Richard Nixon resigned. Nixon flexed American military muscle, continuing the Vietnam War until late March 1973. That represented four more years battling guerillas and an army from the Third World who toppled South Vietnam in 1975. Lyndon Johnson sent combat troops to Vietnam in 1964. It seems North Vietnamese naval forces twice attacked American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. Only the second incident never took place. The war cost 58,000 American lives and plunged our society into turmoil.

John F. Kennedy sent military advisors to South Vietnam. And while he forced Russia to withdraw missiles from Cuba, he had to pull American missiles from Turkey. Dwight Eisenhower kept Americans involved in South Vietnam after the French withdrew. He did get us out of Korea as promised, and South Korea eventually became a global success. North Korea continues as a brutal dictatorship.

Harry Truman sent U.S. troops to Korea to combat communist aggression as part of a U.N. “police action.” Over thirty thousand Americans were killed. When Franklin Roosevelt died before I was born, the Allied victory over Germany and Japan was foreordained. Those allies included the Soviet Union to which Roosevelt and Truman yielded Eastern Europe.

Where will history place Obama among these presidents? I don’t know. I can say that for all its differences, today’s world poses the same basic problems as the one into which I was born. American military power remains great but not without limits. By acknowledging this, Obama may be behind the times—or possibly ahead of them.

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RED LINES

It used to be called drawing a line in the sand. You can go this far someone would say, and no farther. Political negotiations for territory produced maps and lines in red to mark borders. This is mine. That is yours. Today, establishing a red line equates to warning other nations or groups not to undertake certain actions—or else. But such a statement produces difficult questions like: Or else what?

The revolution in Syria has taken 93,000 lives—a figure of the verified dead according to the United Nations. For the White House, lives were an issue in the Syrian civil war but not the issue. President Obama drew his own red line some time ago. If the Assad government used chemical weapons, then the U.S. would be forced to intervene. Claims of chemical weapon use surfaced. The White House determined the evidence insufficient and let the matter lie—at least publicly. Ultimately, proof came. So now?

We’ll provide the rebels with small arms and ammunition. Anti-tank weapons, too, I imagine. At least, that’s the public position. Britain and France also will provide light arms. The Saudis, fighting a proxy war against Iran, have supplied shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles

More difficult questions remain: Who will end up with all this materiel? Can the West buy the loyalty of any group we support with weaponry? And will the next step be the establishment of a no-fly zone to keep Assad’s air force grounded—a move that Mr. Obama currently rejects and the Russians oppose?

Having backed themselves into a corner, President Obama and his advisors are flying blind. Whatever strategy they settle upon may work. Or not. An old Yiddish proverb comes to mind: Man plans and God laughs. We’re talking, after all, about the Middle East.

Speaking of God, former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin suggested—and the satirical intent doesn’t go unnoticed—“Let Allah sort it out.” Fatalism plays a large role in the Muslim psyche. Inshallah one hears frequently. God willing. What does God will? Sunni and Shiite extremists believe God wills the destruction of the other. Many Americans, I suspect, will be glad to let sectarian forces savage each other. Of course, much innocent blood will be spilled in the process.

One of the perks of writing a blog is the freedom to tell the world how it should act. Regarding Syria, I’ll pass. But this I do know. Talking about red lines works only until one is crossed. Without a real consequence, the red line bleeds into the sand along with a government’s credibility.

It’s very possible that Mr. Obama’s strategy will mirror Mrs. Palin’s. We’ll do the minimum to protect some Syrian civilians while keeping Assad and Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces off balance. At the same time, we’ll attempt to minimize the buildup of too much power by Sunni rebels and the al-Qaeda Islamists who make up much of their effective fighting force. This may be the best we can do.

But we might also consider that publicly declaring a red line risks creating a straight line to disaster.

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Read the first three chapters of David’s novels SAN CAFÉ and SLICK! at davidperlstein.com. You’ll also find online ordering links for iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com. 

IRRELEVANCE

In Slick! Russia’s ambassador to the Persian-Gulf sultanate of Moq’tar points out to Bobby Gatling that while Moq’tar is 3,700 kilometers from Moscow it is 11,000 kilometers distant from Washington. The message: Russia, too, has legitimate geopolitical interests. But today, those interests seem to matter very little. And Russia’s demise as a world power offers a valuable lesson for the United States.

Russia has always been concerned with its “near abroad.” But the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991 left Russia in disarray. Since 1999 when Vladimir Putin became president following Boris Yeltsin’s resignation—a position Putin still holds with time out for one term as prime minister during which power was transferred to that office—Russia has sought to regain power and prestige. Plentiful oil money boosted its economy. Oligarchs and mafia chieftains made billions in the new private-enterprise environment. An upper class emerged with incredible wealth. But economies built on commodities suffer inherent weaknesses. And those with autocratic governments stifle many of their best and brightest along with possibilities for an economy and a society that are more diverse, inclusionary and sustainable.

As to Putin: Although he won a five-year presidential term last March and can run for another in 2017—which would make him Russia’s most powerful man for 23 years—Putin’ has been poutin’. It seems that the rest of the world, observing Russia’s political, military, economic and health problems along with a population shrunk to 143 million—less than half that of the U.S.—doesn’t take the Russian bear seriously.

About the only authority Russia now exercises on the world stage is its veto in the United Nations Security Council. It regularly blocks positions against Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and condemnations of the Assad government’s brutalization of the Syrian people. And why not? If the UN supports change in clerical Iran and dictatorial Syria, why not in authoritative Russia where dissidents are beaten and jailed, and journalists routinely killed?

Putin’s body language tells the story. He seeks to project the image of a man’s man symbolic of Russian might, walking with his arms held out from his sides like a muscle pumping schoolyard bully. Or think of the blowfish, which defends itself by inflating to three times its size. Photos show him riding horses shirtless, swimming with dolphins and firing weapons. Russia, he wants us to know, is still a player.

Not so, according to Ian Bremmer, president of The Eurasia Group and author of Every Nation for Itself. He points out that U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul openly sides with Russian dissidents. This angers Putin. But Washington doesn’t care. Yet the White House, Bremmer claims, would never let our ambassador to China speak that way. Russia, he asserts, has simply become irrelevant.

The lesson for us? The world changes. Power shifts. And we must adapt. I’m not suggesting that the U.S. is about to become irrelevant. But we have lost some power and influence, which we may never regain. We can accept our limitations and remain relevant. Or we can posture like Vladimir Putin and risk confrontations we may come to regret.

I’ll appear in the second half of CBS-5 TV’s “Mosaic” this Sunday morning (June 24) at 5 am. Talking about writing, of course. Easy to record for playback at a more convenient hour.

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Read the first 2-1/2 chapters of SLICK! at davidperlstein.com. Which, by the way, received a great review and coveted Star as “a book of remarkable merit” from Kirkus Reviews. To purchase a signed copy, email me at dhperl@yahoo.com. SLICK! also is now available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.