On this month’s form, 2018 will be an interesting year. So far it has brought rich rewards to us world affairs aficionados. The overall global tempo is accelerating, affrettando, like de Falla’s Danza Ritual del Fuego. What would have been considered bizarre if not outright insane but a few years ago is now commonplace.
Take North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Day address to the nation. He warned the U.S. not to test him while he was striking a softer tone with South Korea: “The entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons, a nuclear button is always on my desk. This is reality, not a threat.” The following day (January 2), President Donald Trump responded by asking “someone from his depleted and food starved regime, please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” That was true enough, but (quite apart from Trump’s infantile tone or unsubtle Freudian connotations) young Kim should be pleased that POTUS now takes him seriously enough to respond promptly and personally.
The denizens of Seoul did not think it funny that Trump was tweeting about nuclear exchange with North Korea as if it were a PlayStation game. They know they’d pay the price, probably some 300,000 dead civilians on Day One, on our own experts’ reckoning, and growing to 1.5 million dead overall if the U.S. actually nuked Pyongyang. South Korean officials are now worried that the U.S. may be actively preparing for military action against North Korea. They are aware that even a limited, “preventive attack”—which is advocated by some hawks in the Trump administration—could trigger off a massive response from the North and ignite a new war on the Korean Peninsula.
If Korea resembles a game of chess, Syria has become a veritable three-dimensional theater. Two nominal American allies, Turkey and Syria’s Kurds, started the New Year by fighting against each other. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that the U.S. would train and equip a “multiethnic group of fighters who are defending their home territory” inside Syria—read the Kurds—while at the same time accepting “Turkey’s legitimate security concerns.” For its part the Pentagon announced on January 15 that it would train the Kurds as a border force along the Turkish border and denied that it was doing any such thing two days later.
It is patently impossible to have it both ways. President Erdogan and most Turks (including many of those who dislike “the Sultan”) are furious with the U.S. for supporting the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as well as the largely fictitious Kurd-Arab military force it dominates, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). For many years Turkey has been fighting its own Kurds belonging to the PKK, a listed terrorist group, and the current lull in the southeast is at best tentative. Ankara claims that the PYD is a mere PKK offshoot, and that its presence along the country’s southern border is destabilizing and utterly unacceptable.
Washington has tried to appease the Turks by announcing that it has no links with an encircled PYD force in the enclave of Afrin, in northwestern Syria, which has been under heavy attack by Turkish forces and their local allies. The Americans have not stopped the Turks, causing cracks to develop in their relationship with their hitherto reliable Kurds further east. The U.S. appears determined to maintain the PYD partnership, and announced that some two thousand American “military advisors” would stay in place to assist them for at least the coming two years. Let it be added that there is no UN approval for the U.S. mission, no Congressional resolution approving it, and—needless to say—no invitation from the government in Damascus; but today’s Washington is beyond such trifles.
The neocon hawks at the FP and elsewhere, who still want to bring Bashar down and eventually go to war against Iran, have a plan, though. They would like to encourage the PYD to distance itself from the PKK, and to encourage its alliance with “what remains of the mainstream, moderate Syrian Arab opposition that Turkey still supports.” At the same time they want to reassure Turkey that the U.S. will actively oppose any Kurdish secessionism in Syria, and any future attempts by the YPG to collaborate with the PKK inside Turkey:
In return, the United States must credibly reassure its Syrian Kurdish friends that Washington will work with Turkey to forestall Turkish incursions or other military operations into the existing PYD-controlled enclaves in eastern Syria. The continued small U.S. military presence in those enclaves will make that commitment more credible. In the longer term, it may even be possible to forge a positive, informal coalition among these currently hostile regional parties, one that would consolidate pro-American and anti-Iranian, anti-Assad influence beyond Syria’s northeast corner.
This is laughable. It is exactly the sort of laptop policy-modeling that has brought endless disasters to America, and to everyone and everything she has touched, for the past three decades. In reality Erdogan will not trust any PYD promises, because he knows that the Kurds are hell-bent on expanding and strengthening their autonomous region known as Rojava. In addition, the Turkish leader is too seasoned a player to imagine that Washington has the will or wherewithal to control the Kurds. Lat but not least, he knows that there is no “mainstream, moderate Syrian Arab opposition” among his clients. He has long given up on bringing down the government in Damascus, and in any event prefers Assad in power for ever to a Kurdish autonomous entity, of whatever size, on his southeastern border. In extremis he’ll revive his old links with the Islamic State, however moribund it now seems, rather than tolerate “Rojava.”
The U.S. is now in a classic lose-lose situation, of either terminally alienating the Turks or leaving our Kurdish allies in the lurch. On current form, Messrs. Tillerson, Mattis and McMaster should be expected to do both. After all, Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy, which Defense Secretary James Mattis presented on January 19, called for aggressive measures to counter both Russia and China. It also instructs the military to refocus on Cold War-style competition with the two Eurasian giants, away from terrorist threats and “rogue nations.” The new defense strategy openly treats them as the Pentagon’s “principal priorities.”
The unclassified 11-page summary indicates a major victory for foreign-policy hawks and for the military-industrial complex. It marks the final defeat of candidate Donald Trump’s intention, repeatedly stated in the summer of 2016, to abandon the bipartisan quest for global primacy, to reexamine the purpose and utility of NATO, and to improve relations with Russia. The doctrine reintroduces all key hubristic objectives of the George W. Bush era. The U.S. must remain “the preeminent military power in the world,” the global balance of power must remain in America’s favor, and the Department of Defense should maintain and advance “an international order that is most conducive to our security and prosperity.” This massively hubristic set of objectives is to be financed by a massive increase in military spending—which already exceeds that of the next eight countries combined.
In the end someone is bound to repeat Madeleine Albright’s famous question to Colin Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Powell wrote in his memoirs that he “almost had an aneurysm”: the military was not a toy to be used because we had it sitting around. But in a convoluted way Albright was right: if there is no real threat, there is no need for massive defense spending. Since the threat has been duly created and named to justify further massive outlays, the countries thus targeted will adjust their policies and strategies accordingly—and to justify the original assessment. The new Pentagon doctrine goes much further than that. It includes “developing options to counter competitors’ coercive strategies, predicated on the threatened use of nuclear or strategic non-nuclear attacks.” This means that the U.S. should be prepared to use nuclear weapons even in response to the perceived danger of conventional or cyberattack. The new doctrine has moved the focus from preventing a nuclear war to winning one.
Yes, 2018 will be a very interesting year.