Friday 29 September, 2017 Update: US Reduces Embassy Staff in Cuba


The United States is withdrawing all non-essential personnel and dependents from its embassy in Havana. The move comes in response to mysterious attacks that have left diplomats and other embassy staff  members ill. Since fall of 2016 over twenty embassy staff members have reported health problems that range from nausea and vertigo through to mild brain trauma. Washington suspects that sonic attacks are the cause behind these health problems. Two Canadian citizens were also affected by these attacks. A joint investigation involving the FBI, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Cuban authorities has been underway for some time, but has yet to uncover the guilty party. The US has let it be known that it does not believe Cuba is responsible for the attacks, instead believing it is the work of a third party. The US is appreciative of Cuba’s cooperation, but holds the Castro government ultimately responsible for the safety of American diplomats in Cuba.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez on Tuesday to discuss the situation. The meeting was the highest level of diplomatic contact between the United States and Cuba since the inauguration of President Trump in January. The State Department said the discussion was ‘firm and frank’ and Tillerson ‘conveyed the gravity of the situation and underscored the Cuban authorities obligations to protect Embassy staff.’ Both countries appear cognizant of the negative effect this matter could have on US-Cuban relations. Relations between the two nations are in a delicate spot right now. President Trump’s Cuba policy thus far has been centered around drawing back on the appeasement and reopening of relations undertaken by his predecessor. Even before Trump’s inauguration his view on the US-Cuba rapprochement was dim. As long as these mysterious attacks on US diplomats continue, it causes more damage to relations and diminishes the chances for a lasting peace between the two former Cold War rivals.

Sunday 10 September, 2017 Update: Merkel Offers To Help With North Korea


German Chancellor Angela Merkel has offered her nation’s participation in future negotiations with North Korea on its nuclear program. She took her comments a step farther by suggesting that the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran would make an excellent model for negotiations. Merkel’s intervention come at a point when she is in the midst of a reelection campaign. Even though she is widely expected to win, campaign season is traditionally a time for incumbent leaders to take the opportunity to float ideas by their constituents, as well as their neighbors and allies to see how they might play in Stuttgart or Brussels.

President Trump’s handling of the North Korea crisis has unsettled some of Washington’s European allies. For a continent that became used to the less proactive foreign policy approach of Trump’s predecessor this is understandable. During the Obama years, US policy towards states like Iran, and North Korea were centered around multi-party negotiations, and the threat of economic sanctions. A stringent effort was made to avoid discussing potential military options if the terms of any future agreement was violated. Trump’s approach is different in many respects, most notably when it comes to discussing military options. He has made it clear that the United States will retaliate should North Korea launch a missile against US territory. Trump has also made it apparent that the military option is not off the table when it comes to ending North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Talk like this is horrifying to many Europeans, especially diplomats and leaders unaccustomed to such forward non-diplospeak on sensitive matters.

However, remarks by the leader of a US ally that champion the Iran nuclear deal as a success are equally as distressing to many Americans. Contrary to what the media spins on the subject of the Iran deal, the majority of Americans remain against it. Even if this were not the case, the North Korean situation has few parallels to Iran’s. Pyongyang already has nuclear weapons, and an ability to use them against targets located on US territory. The North has also directly threatened to use these weapons against the US should economic or political pressure damage its economy and nuclear program.

Merkel fails to recognize that future negotiations with North Korea will be destined to fail. Not because of what could be perceived as aggressive posturing by the United States, but because North Korea does not want them to succeed. Pyongyang’s main goal right now is to buy the time needed for its nuclear scientists, and ballistic missile engineers to produce a hydrogen device, and a missile that it can be fitted to respectively. Kim Jong Un is interested in nothing less.

Angela Merkel and Germany do not have a dog in this fight. For that matter, neither does Europe. North Korea is not levying threats on Western Europe, and likely will not be doing so in the near future. It is threatening the US on a daily basis and given the direction that the crisis is moving in, negotiations involving Germany or other European nations are not a viable avenue to explore at the moment.

North Korea is Running Out of Time


Contrary to the dispassionate tone of the media coverage it receives, the North Korean nuclear crisis remains firmly in escalation mode. If there was any doubt about that, Monday’s missile test should be enough to put it to rest once and for all. North Korea’s leadership is either unwilling to accept that the rules of its chess match with the United States have changed, or is unable to recognize it. Kim Jong Un continues to play the game as if Barack Obama is still his opponent. North Korea’s strategic moves and actions in 2017 appear to be geared towards Obama instead of Donald Trump. Because President Trump is not behaving, or reacting in the manner that his predecessor had, it’s left Kim stymied. Rather than explore a new approach, he’s opted instead to double down on senselessness and instigate a new round of brinkmanship.

North Korea’s latest missile test is especially provocative. The missile’s flight path took it directly over northern Japan, not very far from Misawa Air Base, a USAF installation. The missile broke into three pieces during flight and then impacted roughly 700 miles east of Japan in the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Tokyo has responded by labeling the test as reckless and unprecedented. North Korea’s action will undoubtedly strengthen Japan’s resolve and determination to stand firmly with the United States. If Kim Jong Un was hoping this missile test would result in a softening of the US, Japan, and South Korea’s position, he has misjudged the situation.

Kim’s miscalculations, and fallacies are the propellant that is escalating this crisis into dangerous territory. He is running short on opportunities to reverse the course he has put North Korea on. Heavy economic sanctions are being piled on the frail North Korean economy as Washington’s patience is wearing thin. Russia and China are reluctant to throw Pyongyang a lifeline as long as it continues to flaunt its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities in the face of the United States and her allies in the region.

The Case For Military Action Against North Korea Part One


Two days after the 2016 US Presidential Election, then-President-elect Donald Trump traveled to Washington DC for a meeting with then-President Barack Obama. During their discussion Obama warned Trump that North Korea could wind up being the most urgent foreign policy/national security issue facing his administration early on. Obama’s assessment was on target, and in line with Trump’s own position. The incoming president firmly grasped the reality that North Korea’s accelerating nuclear and ballistic missile programs are the greatest threat facing the United States in contemporary times. The current-president has also recognized, correctly, that 23 years of inconsistent US policy on North Korea’s WMD programs has failed miserably. He was determined to create an effective, and decisive doctrine to succeed the widely maligned era of strategic patience.

President Trump’s predecessors had achieved little success with their own respective North Korean policies. Bill Clinton’s administration was the first to contend with Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions in 1994 as it became apparent that the North was actively working producing a nuclear device. Fear of a regional war breaking out as a result of US military action against North Korea motivated Clinton to adopt a policy of accommodation over confrontation. The Agreed Framework that came about in October 1994 was intended to replace the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, capable of producing weapons-grade material, with light water reactor powerplants which could not be used to produce that type of material. Implementing the agreement faced problems from the start, however, facets of the agreement functioned well until 2002 when the US obtained evidence of a North Korean uranium enrichment program underway. Agreed Framework collapsed the following year. Practically speaking, Clinton’s diplomatic approach did freeze plutonium production in North Korea from 1994 to 2002. Yet it did not prevent the North Koreans from starting a uranium enrichment program. Essentially, Bill Clinton kicked the North Korea can down the road for his successors to deal with.  He was out of office by the time of the Framework’s collapse, and from that point forward it was the problem of President George W. Bush.

To his credit, Bush recognized the North Korean regime’s evil nature, and its intentions early on in his presidency. He branded North Korea as a founding member of the Axis of Evil in his 2002 State of the Union address, grouping Kim Jong Il’s nation in with the likes of Iran, and Iraq. Unfortunately, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan consumed the lion’s share of the Bush administration’s foreign policy focus. A cohesive North Korean non-proliferation diplomatic effort supported by the credible threat of military action to ensure Pyongyang’s compliance never came to light. Instead, the six-party talks came about, and while there was some progress made, it was all negated by events taking place in the real world. In October, 2006 North Korea successfully detonated its first nuclear device. Twelve years of diplomatic efforts to ensure that the North did not obtain nuclear weapons had evaporated in the blink of an eye. Other pressing issues soon appeared on the Bush administration’s plate from 2006 until January 2009 and no major progress was made with regard to North Korea. As Barack Obama was sworn into office it became clear that Bush had followed his predecessor’s example and kicked the can to the incoming chief executive.

Under Obama’s watch North Korea grew bolder and more conspicuous with its rhetoric and weapons testing. In spite of this, it was clear from the beginning of his tenure that Obama was committed to preventing a regional war from erupting at all costs. He relied on sanctions and diplomacy as the primary instruments to combat North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. The shaky ground which the Pyongyang regime seemed to be on gave Obama added incentive to pursue a policy of strategic patience. Six party talks went nowhere, North Korea’s tone and actions became more bellicose, and nothing substantial changed from 2009 through to December 2011. The death of Kim Jong Il that month and his son Kim Jong Un’s succession added fuel to an already combustible relationship between the North and the US.

Jong Un brought a new realm to the decades long game between Washington and Pyongyang. As a young, relatively unproven leader of a regime contending with internal and external enemies, he used the deteriorating situation with the United States to his advantage internally and abroad. Missile firings and nuclear tests became a regular occurrence. Brinkmanship became a regular instrument of Jong Un’s foreign policy. He took the West’s terminal fear of a major war in Asia breaking out and used it to keep the US and its allies at bay while still flexing his muscles obnoxiously in their faces.

In retrospect, it should have been discernible that Jong Un’s threats and boasting were nothing less than a diversion. He was banking everything on holding the United States at bay until his weapons designers could produce an ICBM capable of reaching US cities. With a handful of these missiles, the playing field would be evened out and Washington would have to regard North Korea as an equal. After the results of its latest missile test, the Pyongyang regime is now closer to achieving its goal than anyone previously thought possible.

The Trump administration’s options for dealing with North Korea are little different from those that had been available to its predecessors. It can choose to accept North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile strength as the new status quo in east Asia, start a renewed diplomatic offensive to curb or eliminate North Korea’s WMD programs, advocate and actively work towards a regime change, or use military force to neutralize the threat now posed by Pyongyang. Each course of action contains its own exclusive pros and cons but in the case of military action they are even more pronounced.

Acceptance of the transformed alignment fundamentally translates to ‘do nothing.’ Accept it as the new status quo in east Asia and move forward secure in the assumption that US missile defense, and its nuclear arsenal’s overwhelming superiority will guarantee deterrence. It places the US in the same box Japan and South Korea are currently in, facing the threat of North Korea’s nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. Unlike Japan or South Korea, however, the US has the capability to respond massively to any North Korean attack. Diplomatic efforts to curb North Korea can continue, and on the surface nothing substantial would change. However, Pyongyang will certainly view the situation in a different light and brand reluctance by the United States to challenge its new capabilities as a colossal victory. North Korea would be emboldened on other fronts, from the expansion of its nuclear capabilities, to other regional security matters. Internationally, US acceptance of a nuclear and ICBM armed North Korea could invigorate the ambitions and plans of other nation-states seeking a similar status. Iran immediately comes to mind, but there are certainly others.

Extensive diplomacy is the preferred method of many statesmen around the world for dealing with the North Korean matter The trouble is that over twenty years of diplomatic efforts, interim deals, and negotiations have not prevented Pyongyang from obtaining nuclear weapons, or long range ballistic missiles. Doubling down on a failed approach is pointless. The menacing prospects of escalation and potentially full-blown war hung over every negotiating session and the North used it to its advantage whenever possible. There was never a sincere effort on North Korea’s part to resolve the concerns of the international community. Feigning a desire to negotiate sincerely with the US, Japan, and South Korea served to buy the time necessary for the North’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programs to grow.

A regime change in Pyongyang, brought about by internal collapse has long been a pie-in-the-sky scenario for a peaceful end to the North’s WMD programs. Many analysts and observers concluded the regime was living on borrowed time after Kim Jong Il’s death and the transition of power would only hasten the regime’s demise. It did not happen this way, unfortunately. Kim Jong Un managed to consolidate his grip on power. Despite the continued economic woes and other issues facing his government, that will likely not change at any point soon. There will be no North Korean collapse and subsequent regime change anytime soon. This could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. A collapse could be chaotic and the presence of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles practically guarantees a response from the outside, making a bad situation even worse.

The final option available is military action. This course of action is wrought with peril, but strangely enough, it is the most effective one available. Since this post as turned out to be much longer than I anticipated, I’m going to divide it into two parts. Part Two will cover the military option, and the argument as to why unilateral military action on the part of the US is the best available course of action for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.



Preventive Action and Weapons of Mass Destruction Part II

Barack Obama

More than once in the past thirty-five years, preventive action has been implemented, or at least contemplated by a nation-state. There are also a handful of times when it should have been used and wasn’t for whatever the circumstances at the time. For Part II and III of this piece, four crises involving weapons of mass destruction and preventive action to varying degrees will be examined. The first is Operation Opera, a surprise Israeli airstrike against an Iraqi nuclear reactor that was carried out in 1981. The second case study is President Obama’s 2012 declaration of a ‘Red Line’ in Syria. The third presentation will be the Iranian nuclear crisis and the reluctance of the US and Israel to use force to neutralize Iran’s nuclear program while it was in its early stages. The final crisis to be looked at will be the current North Korean nuclear crisis and the effects that preventive action could have had in the past, as well as its place at the present time.

Operation Opera

In 1976, Iraq purchased a nuclear reactor from France. The French, and Iraqis maintained that the purpose of the reactor was peaceful and it was unable to produce weapons-grade material. Israel was not so certain of Iraq’s intentions. A nuclear weapon in the hands of Saddam Hussein was a nightmare scenario for the Israelis to contend with. The conclusion was reached in Tel Aviv that preventive action would likely be needed to ensure the reactor, named Osirak by its French manufacturers, was never brought online. Long before Osirak was up and running, diplomatic efforts aimed at halting the reactor program were initiated with France, and the United States. Simultaneously, clandestine actions were launched with the intention of fatally wounding Iraq’s nuclear program. And while all of this was going on in the late 70s, Israel’s vaunted air force was preparing to launch an attack on the reactor should it be necessary.

In November of 1980, Prime Minister Begin was informed by his country’s intelligence services that Osirak would be fueled and operational by June, 1981. A cabinet meeting was held and Begin’s ministers voted 10-6 in favor of authorizing the attack.

On 7 June, 1981, Operation Opera was launched. Israeli F-16A Falcons, escorted by a smaller number of F-15As bombed Osirak. The attack inflicted serious damage on the reactor and nearby support buildings. 10 Iraqis, and 1 French technician were killed in the attack, and Israel later paid compensation to the family of the French citizen.

The attack was achieved its objective of seriously delaying Iraq’s nuclear program. At the time Israeli and Western intelligence estimated the strike had delayed Iraq’s nuclear ambitions by a decade. If the raid had not been launched, it is probable that Iraq would’ve been armed with nuclear weapons by 1991. How this may have affected Operation Desert Storm is open to speculation, but it likely would not have been favorable to the US-led coalition and Israel.

Israel faced intense political condemnation for the operation, but it weathered that storm. Iraq did not retaliate. It was too involved in its war with Iran to spare the men or material to focus on Israel. There was even a degree of cooperation between Iran and Israel in regards to Osirak, which will be discussed in detail at some point in the future.

Operation Opera was a picture-perfect case of successful preventive action. The danger of a nuclear-armed Iraq was removed from the table. The action also served as a message to other Arab powers considering their own nuclear programs. Israel would turn to preventive action again if it felt its own existence were threatened.

Obama’s Red Line

Promising to launch preventive action if a situation warrants, and then doing exactly the opposite is a guaranteed way to lose credibility in a New York minute. Especially if the man making the empty promise is the president of the United States.

To the surprise and dismay of many, that’s exactly what happened to Barack Obama in 2013. The previous year, in the midst of his reelection campaign, the civil war in Syria was intensifying. Inevitably, it also became an issue on the campaign trail. In July, 2012 there were reports that the Assad regime was moving its stockpile. In a press conference following month, Obama declared that the movement or use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would be a red line. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” Obama said at a press conference. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

Obama had thrown down of the gauntlet. He placed Assad on notice in clearly expressed terms. Any movement, or use of chemical weapons would result in a US-led military response. Almost one year later in August of 2013, Assad crossed the red line and used chemical weapons against rebel forces near Damascus. The attack killed upwards of 1,400 civilians. It was expected that the US would shortly begin military operations to destroy Syria’s remaining chemical weapons before they could be used again. The world held its breath and waited for US missiles and bombs to rain down on Assad. But Obama failed to follow through on his threat with preventive action. He chose diplomacy instead. Subsequently, a US-Russian agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal came into being.

His reasoning for the change of heart was calculated. He knew that any US military action against Assad would bring US-Iran negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program to a dead stop. In the grand scheme of Washington politics and the legacy of a president, ending Iran’s nuclear program trumped Syria. The fact that he was leaving American prestige in the dirt along with the red line rhetoric mattered little to Obama.

In the short term, American prestige did not suffer too much. The agreement made strides in reducing Syrian chemical weapon program. Assad’s regime appeared to be complying in earnest and there was no further use of chemical weapons in the conflict. Obama hailed it as a major victory in the battle to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction. Diplomacy had prevailed where preventive action could have had an adverse effect on the conflict and led it down a path the world wasn’t ready for.

The introduction of Russian forces into Syria in 2015 left egg on the face of Obama and called into question exactly how solid the agreement really was. Rumors abounded of Assad’s forces squirreling away some batches of sarin for use in the future. Obama ignored the rumors and consequences of Russian troops on the ground in Syria for as long as he could. However, the US was swiftly losing influence in all things Syria. His attempts to reassure the world otherwise failed to turn the tide of international opinion. The consensus was that Obama’s red line was an abject failure that served to encourage and assist crisis in Syria. The world order that was sustained by US deterrence had vanished.

The use of sarin gas by Syrian government forces in April of 2017 was the final nail in the coffin for Obama’s red line. Assad, as suspected, kept some chemical agents in reserve for use at a time and place of his choosing. Preventive action in ’12 or ’13 might have halted his chemical program or degraded it enough, or the potential damage US military action would have visited upon his regime could have given him pause. The Syrian president gambled and won. His regime is strengthening with every passing day and Obama’s red line is atop the dust bin of history.

Note: Part III will be posted between 8 and 10 June, 2017