About time

No American, outside of the defense/foreign policy establishment, gives a quantum of a damn about the situation in Syria. So why are we still there? Because of the Kurds? With all due respect to the brave Kurdish fighters, it’s hard to imagine anything more unconnected from vital American interests than their plight. It’s time to go home. As I wrote last December:

It’s really very hard to understand what the US strategy was in Syria. Was there even a specific strategic goal? What was the desired end-state of this campaign?

Personally I suspect most Americans’ reaction to this news has been: Wait, we had troops in Syria? Yeah, the public was never consulted about this, at all. I am not the only person who finds it bizarre that an ostensibly democratic nation can be engaged in a major foreign military campaign for years on end without a scintilla of public approval, or even knowledge, let alone a formal declaration of war. Did you know the US has at least a dozen military bases in Syria? What is going to happen to those?

Of course, that post was in response to a previous promise to withdraw the 2,000 US troops then in Syria. Fast forward to today, and roughly 1,000 troops are still there. The withdrawal must continue.

Here’s the official White House statement released on Sunday:

Today, President Donald J. Trump spoke with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey by telephone. Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria. The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial “Caliphate,” will no longer be in the immediate area.

The United States Government has pressed France, Germany, and other European nations, from which many captured ISIS fighters came, to take them back, but they did not want them and refused. The United States will not hold them for what could be many years and great cost to the United States taxpayer. Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years in the wake of the defeat of the territorial “Caliphate” by the United States.

Luttwak attack

For your amusement and edification, a link dump of interviews with, and an essay by, the great strategist Edward Luttwak, aka the Machiavelli of Maryland.

First, an interview with Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun in four parts: part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.

The interview addresses the emerging US-China Cold War and the role Japan will/can play in it. Excerpt:

Maybe China is trying to make allies and friends through One Belt One Road Initiative?

Good luck to them. Good luck to them because that will not help them with Malaysia — Malaysia has caused them a bit of a problem — nor with Indonesia, nor with the Philippines, nor with Japan.

The only country which the Chinese can get is Korea — South Korea. The South Koreans do not like being independent. They were under Chinese rule, then they were under Japanese rule, then they were under American rule, and they don’t like to be independent. They just don’t.

Not everybody likes to be independent. They are too divided themselves. They are more comfortable having somebody else. So, the South Koreans are willing to go under the Chinese rule.

The only reason they don’t do it is because of North Korea. North Korea is the protector of Korean independence, not South Korea.

If the South Koreans were interested in being an independent power, they would not be quarreling with Japan, given the fact that their security depends on Japan 100%. The Americans could do nothing in Korea without Japanese cooperation. So, the fact that they are anti-Japanese means that they are not interested in real foreign policy, they are not interested in being independent, and so they can afford to shout about comfort women and this and that because they are not serious. They are not serious about it.

One of our problems in Korea is that we don’t like North Korean nuclear weapons, but North Korean nuclear weapons guarantee the independence of North Korea and therefore guarantee that Chinese influence cannot extend over the Korean Peninsula. Because if it were up to South Korea, it would [allow Chinese influence].

You know, the South Koreans are not interested in resisting Chinese domination because they are not interested in being independent. The Vietnamese are determined to be independent of China and they are quite confident that they can defeat any Chinese action against them. The South Koreans are not confident, but also they are not interested in defending. They are really not interested in being independent. Otherwise, they wouldn’t behave the way they do.

Right. That might not be not good news for the United States and Japan. The common perception is that, in order to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue, we need some kind of trilateral cooperation including South Korea.

Listen, South Korea faces immediate military dangers from North Korea. For example, their rockets — there are cheap rockets aimed at the Seoul area. Today, there are anti-rocket systems that are not expensive and work very well. South Korea doesn’t buy them. Today, you can buy anti-rocket interceptors.

Like Iron Dome?

Like Iron Dome. You can go and buy it, okay? You can go to Lawson’s and you buy it.

Why don’t they buy it? Because they are not really interested in self-defense.

When they have money, they do something like build a helicopter carrier and call it “Dokdo.” Do they need a helicopter carrier against North Korea? No.

So, in other words, their actions are not the actions of people who either want to defend themselves or to be independent. They don’t.

They just want to transition profitably from being protected by the United States to being protected by China. That is the only thing that they are interested in.

Not everybody wants to be independent. In that sense, the North Koreans are. Because of the politics of the Kim family, they want to be independent.

But South Korea does nothing.

Luttwak’s intriguing conclusion: a divided Korean peninsula with North Korea in possession of nukes may be the best possible scenario for the US.

Next, a review of the book Japan in the American Century in the London Review of Books:

With [Prime Minister Shinzo Abe] that means much more than phrase-making, as Pyle explains in detail: his Japan now accepts real responsibilities, e.g. to repel any attempt by China to act on its fanciful claim to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea instead of begging the Americans to do so, e.g. preserving a dialogue with Putin in order to give him a reason for limiting Russia’s support for China (at one point Obama called Abe to try to persuade him to cancel an upcoming meeting, but he didn’t budge). It was not just a question of asserting personal leadership. To change long-settled habits of passivity, Abe established a National Security Council that is not just a gathering place for representatives of the foreign, defence and intelligence bureaucracies, as in most other countries, but an actual policy-making body operated by its own staff, the National Security Secretariat. It has been remarkably effective from the start, formulating Japan’s first post-1945 national security strategy and leading successful negotiations with the Chinese.

Finally, a lengthy interview on China and the logic of strategy in War on the Rocks. Excerpt:

Brad: So you’re the National Security Advisor to the new president, we see what China has done over the time that Xi has been in power, what should the U.S. policy toward China be?

Edward: Well it has to be engagement, but of a new kind. It’s an engagement in which United States simply becomes extremely positive on everything positive, and extremely harsh on anything negative. The famous, or perhaps not-so-famous Micron case in Taiwan, where a Fujian regional authority invests money to build a copy of a Micron plant, a shadow plant. And then they go and hire, offer triple salaries to any Micron employee who comes over to them carrying a laptop or server, or memory stick or whatever it is with Micron information. They get caught by doing all …

That should have led to a drastic response while at the same time trying to be positive when anything can be positive. In other words, one has to have a duality.

Brad: What would a drastic response look like?

Edward: Well a drastic response is very simple. To this day, the People’s Republic of China, with its many accomplishments, cannot produce an integrated circuit that is even remotely competitive. No Chinese intellectual property, integrated circuit or chip … as you know super computers, laptops, phones, all of what we call electronics, anything you’re going to build artificial intelligence on, does rest on integrated circuits or microprocessors or chips or whatever you call them. Those things, in order to be competitive, not just commercially but functional, for things like don’t generate so much heat that they melt down your battery kind of thing, those things, the Chinese are not able to do without using foreign intellectual capital and they can’t manufacture them. They have to be manufactured by Taiwan Semiconductor Corporation or the other people who can work on what’s called 7 nm, which is seven nanometers, which is seven billionths of a meter, right? They can’t do it.

The coming scramble for Greenland

Now that the status of Greenland is a live political issue, I wonder if China will make its own play to acquire the world’s largest island before the US does:

It’s not just America who acknowledges the strategic importance of Greenland, either. Look no further than China, which has repeatedly attempted to gain infrastructure on the island.

In 2016, a Chinese company attempted to buy a former U.S. military base in Greenland, and the government in Denmark stepped in, vetoing the deal. At the time, Danish officials were quoted anonymously in the press, saying they had resisted the deal as a favor to its longtime American ally.

Then in 2018, a Chinese government-owned firm was announced as a likely winner for a contract to build a new airport. The 3.6 billion Danish krone (U.S. $560 million) contract would have given China major economic power over the local government, and decision makers in both Washington and Copenhagen worried it could lead to the U.S. being pushed out of Thule – or give Beijing a ready-made airport that could accommodate Chinese military planes in case of a conflict.

Eventually Copenhagen and Nuuk reached an agreement, with generous financial support from Denmark’s coffers, to pick a different contractor. But it is likely that China will continue to push for entry into Greenland, underlining its strategic importance once again.

I can only guess that the US put considerable pressure on the Danes to squash these Chinese attempts at gaining a foothold in Greenland.

More from Reuters:

The Arctic region sits at a geopolitical intersection of renewed rivalry between world powers China, Russia and the United States, and – with its melting ice cap – is a major symbol of the growing impact of climate change.

Russia has been raising its profile in the Arctic, creating or reopening six military bases shut after the Cold War ended in 1990, modernizing its Northern Fleet, including 21 new vessels and two nuclear submarines, and staging frequent naval exercises in the Arctic.

Russia also hopes that as the polar ice cap retreats, a shipping lane north of Russia will develop as an alternative route for goods from Asia to Europe.

The Trump administration last year began re-establishing the U.S. Second Fleet, responsible for the northern Atlantic, to counter a more assertive Russia. […]

China has also shown interest in Greenland after Beijing laid out its ambitions to form a “Polar Silk Road” by developing shipping lanes opened up by global warming and encouraging enterprises to build infrastructure in the Arctic.

Greenland, which plans to open a representative office in Beijing later this year to boost trade ties, has courted Chinese investors and construction firms to help expand three airports to allow direct flights from Europe and North America.

Greenland, which is three times the size of Texas, has vast mineral reserves including uranium and rare earths, as well as 50 billion barrels of still-untapped offshore oil and gas reserves, according to the article.

Boeing disaster and American decline

The twin tragedies involving Boeing’s flagship new 737 Max jets highlight the increasingly obvious corruption and incompetence pervading US industry and government. From Asia Times:

By now the whole world knows what pilots and aerospace engineers have known all along: Boeing stuck big modern engines on a 1950s airframe design, which made the 737 Max inherently unstable, with a tendency to go nose up and stall. It used a software kluge to compensate but didn’t retrain pilots in the new aircraft in order to speed sales. […]

The 737 Max scandal is a disaster for the United States, and it couldn’t have happened at a more delicate moment. China’s aircraft manufacturer COMAC already has nearly 1,000 orders for its C919 twin-engine passenger jet, designed to compete with the 737 Max as well as the Airbus 320. Not only has the prestige of American industry been tarnished, but the credibility of its air safety regulators, the Federal Aviation Authority and the National Transportation Safety Board, is compromised.

China was the first major nation to ground the new Boeing jets, followed by pretty much everyone else (except for Canada). Notably, the world was not impressed by the FAA’s assurances that the plane is safe to fly. The curious result is that China is emerging as a global leader in aviation safety.

The main reason that America’s military position has deteriorated relative to strategic competitors is corruption, pure and simple. The incestuous alliance of the defense industry duopoly (Boeing and Lockheed-Martin) and the Pentagon brass has saddled the military with backward-looking strategies and enormous costs.

The Pentagon’s budget was boosted by a horrendous $82 billion this fiscal year.

But America’s biggest problem is the erosion of its industrial capability. It appears that Boeing cut corners and eschewed a long-needed redesign of its most profitable product because the additional capital expenditures and longer lead times would not have been viewed benevolently by the stock market.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

US to shrink aircraft carrier fleet from 11 to 10

Might as well. China’s deployment of carrier-killer missiles effectively turns our aircraft carriers into floating, $4 billion targets:

The Pentagon reportedly plans to send one of its Nimitz-class aircraft carriers into early retirement, shrinking the carrier fleet to save billions of dollars.

The US military is set to scrap plans for a midlife overhaul of one of its carriers, The Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported Tuesday. That carrier is the USS Harry S. Truman, which was scheduled to have its nuclear reactor core refueled in 2024, Breaking Defense’s Sydney Freedberg reported Wednesday.

The Truman, which entered service in 1998, was designed to serve for half a century, as is the case with all the Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. In 2024, the ship was to sail to the shipyard in Newport News, Virginia, for a refueling and complex overhaul, or RCOH, to be completed in 2028, Breaking Defense reported.

The cancelation of the midlife overhaul and retirement of the aircraft carrier — reportedly part of the 2020-24 budget plan — would see the US carrier fleet shrink in size, to 10 from 11.

One nation under Kim

Kim Jong-un smoking

The US and South Korea have confirmed reports that they plan to end large-scale war games to ease tensions with North Korea, which views these exercises as preparations for an invasion. I commented yesterday:

This could also be seen as a step in the direction of reducing the US troop commitment in South Korea, which currently numbers 28,500 soldiers, and perhaps eventually a total withdrawal.

My comment may not have been far off the mark. From a blog post by Dongseo University’s Professor BR Myers, dated March 2018:

Hence also the confident hope of many that under the right sort of pressure, Washington will reduce USFK [Ed: United States Forces Korea] from bodyguard to chaperone: a force just high-tech and well-armed enough to reassure foreign investors, reward the US military-industrial complex, and discourage the North from doing anything crazy, but too small and averse to military exercises to frighten the neighbors. (Which may well be what is foreseen for the very first stage of a confederation, as a transition to US troop pullout.)

The rest of the post is interesting for its analysis of the astonishingly anti-American, pro-North-Korean orientation of South Korea’s current government, led by president Moon Jae-in:

It is therefore misleading of the New York Times to say that the Moon Jae-in administration is “hungry for a diplomatic rapprochement” with Pyongyang. There is no bad blood or grudge between the two parties that must now be laboriously reconciled. Besides, they have the exact same short term goal of bringing off a North-South summit that is PR-effective enough to get a) the international community to relax sanctions, and b) the South Korean public to sign off on confederation. Their longer term goals are different. The North wants unification under its own flag, while South Korean progressives want the two states to coalesce over decades of mutually beneficial economic cooperation.

Here’s more on that topic by North Korea expert Joshua Stanton (dated April 2018):

LAST DECEMBER, I PUBLISHED A SURPRISINGLY CONTROVERSIAL HYPOTHESIS that Korean War II would not be a conventional war, but is a hybrid war to alternately cajole and coerce South Korea into gradual submission to the North’s hegemony, aggressive implementation of a series of joint statements, and eventual digestion into a one-country, two-systems confederation. I argued that this plan would only work if a sufficiently submissive government in Seoul yielded to Pyongyang while going only so far and so fast as possible to avoid a domestic backlash among a population that was, at least until recently, deeply distrustful of Pyongyang. Rather than involving anything as implausible and dramatic as a North Korean occupation, this hegemony would be enforced by South Korean institutions, such as state media, the National Intelligence Service, and the riot police—with occasional assistance from the muscle of hard-left street thugs, like those who are blocking the THAAD sites now and preventing them from becoming fully operational. I argued that the historical conduct of both Pyongyang and Korea’s left also suggested that this plan was not only plausible, but no great secret. This is why I find the controversy to be surprising. […]

Again, I’m not oblivious to how conspiratorial it all must seem. But then, on what evidence do skeptics of this view believe that those who staff the top ranks of the Moon administration — men who are veterans of groups like Minbyun, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, and Chondaehyop, with deep ideological and financial links to Pyongyang and a lengthy pedigree of violent anti-Americanism — have moderated their views? At some point, status quo bias must yield to what’s right before our eyes.

To reiterate what I said before, the US needs to reassess its relationship with South Korea in the cold light of these facts. If the Moon administration wants to pursue a phased unification with North Korea, then, well, that is the sovereign decision of South Korea. But in that case, the US should not have any part in defending South Korea from its friendly nuclear-armed neighbor to the north.

Korean unification

Unified Korea

NBC is reporting that the US is preparing to end the annual large-scale joint military exercises held with South Korea, as part of a bid to placate North Korea. This could also be seen as a step in the direction of reducing the US troop commitment in South Korea, which currently numbers 28,500 soldiers, and perhaps eventually a total withdrawal.

North Korea, of course, would love to see the US depart the peninsula, and according to BR Myers, a professor of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan, that is in fact the goal of its nuclear program:

More concretely, North Korea wants to force Washington into a grand bargain linking denuclearization to the withdrawal of US troops. South Korea would then be pressured into a North-South confederation, which is a concept the South Korean left has flirted with for years, and which the North has always seen as a transition to unification under its own control.

The concept of unification under North Korea’s control is not as crazy as it sounds. In a fascinating speech from December 2017, Professor Myers explains South Korea’s vulnerability to a Northern-led unification drive:

The Moon administration cannot be called pro-North yet. […]

His government nonetheless appears more hostile to anti-North, pro-American elements than any other administration has been. The intelligence service is already a shadow of its former self, and the ostensible anti-corruption campaign turns out in practice to be a seemingly endless purge of veterans of conservative administrations. The word chŏkpye or “accumulated evil” is being used freely to mean any conservative, i.e. anti-North, pro-American, security-minded element. [Note: There is broader agreement between left and right on economic issues in South Korea than in the US, for which reason conservatism is considered largely a matter of animosity to the North Korean regime and strong support for the alliance with America.]

Most interestingly, Moon Jae-in’s right hand man, the number two in the Blue House, is none other than Im Jong-seok, a former protest leader who was in contact with the Kim Il Sung regime in 1989, and who spent much of his time in the National Assembly pushing causes of which the North approves. It’s due to Im, for example, that royalties must now be paid to North Korea for South Korean media use of its propaganda films and images.

Moon is pushing the idea of a “low-level confederation” between the South and the North, which Kim understands to be a path toward unification of the peninsula – under Pyongyang’s auspices:

Kim Il Sung told his Bulgarian counterpart Zhivkov that if the South agreed to confederation, “it’s done for.” That was 1973. He went on to try killing two presidents in succession, so obviously the South’s economic boom did not lessen his determination to unify the peninsula. You may say, “Yes, but in those days the South Koreans didn’t have a liberal democracy worth defending.” But from Kim Young-hwan, who traveled to Pyongyang in 1991, we know that the Great Leader was upbeat about the prospect of a takeover by the end of the century.

His grandson can hardly be less ambitious now that he has nuclear weapons, his ally has become a superpower, Washington is in chaos, and South Korea has its most pacifist administration ever. The young man also knows that people here do not identify strongly with their state. No public holiday celebrates it, neither the flag nor the coat of arms nor the anthem conveys republican or non-ethnic values, no statues of presidents stand in major cities. Few people can even tell you the year in which the state was founded. When the average man sees the flag, he feels fraternity with Koreans around the world.

North Koreans have been positive characters in South Korean films for about 20 years now. Popular this year have been buddy thrillers [Ed: like Steel Rain] that show North and South Koreans teaming up against a common enemy. Although all actors are of course South Koreans, the A-list heart-throbs play the North Koreans, which tells you a lot about how this republic sees itself in relation to the other one.

Even more extraordinary: North Korean defectors are increasingly common as villains. A new film has North and South Koreans cooperating to catch a serial killer who has fled to the South.

While nationalism is not strong enough to make people welcome a North Korean takeover, all Kim needs is for it to weaken their resistance to one. He can’t have failed to notice the general indifference to the Cheonan sinking and the attack on Yeonpyeong, both of which acts of [Ed: North Korean] aggression the local left blamed on Lee Myung Bak [Ed: the South Korean president at the time]. The only people who got really angry at the North then were already too old to fight.

Apparently, I spoke too soon when I speculated that Kim Jong-un may try to reinvent himself as an economic reformer in the mold of Deng Xiaoping:

Pyongyang watching has become quite an industry, and American presidents have kicked the can down the road for a quarter century in no small part because of expert assessments that proved to be very wrong. The North just wants an aid package, the Sunshine Policy will calm it down; black markets will weaken it; Kim Jong Un will be a reformer; ideology no longer matters there; and on and on. This may be the most protracted and catastrophic failure of intelligence in American history.

How hard would it be for the North to pacify the South in a unification scenario? Perhaps not very, according to Myers:

I read, for example, that Kim Jong Un must know he couldn’t hold on to power here, because South Koreans are such fearless protesters. Despite the ease with which the hated Japanese took the entire peninsula, and the unique longevity and stability of the North itself, some Americans seem to think Koreans are freedom fighters by nature. I shouldn’t have to point out that since 1945 the protests here have all been either anti-conservative, anti-Japanese, anti-American, pacifist or explicitly pro-North. In 1961, students marched through Hyehwadong in Seoul shouting “Long live Kim Il Sung.” All demonstrations here were cheered on by the Rodong Sinmun. Granted, there have been anti-Pyongyang rallies, but until 1988 they were organized by the government, and since then they have been the province of the geriatric right. Why should the North feel intimidated by this history?

Much is also made of how wired South Koreans are. Well, so what? The part of East Germany that caused Honecker the most problems was the one where TV bunny ears could not pick up West German broadcasts, where people read books and had a sense of community. Adorno said modern man is drugged with light and sound, and that’s much truer today; just look at the gormless faces on the subway. The narcotic and socially atomizing power of the internet is far greater than television’s ever was. As if that weren’t enough, it has the benefit of helping to spy on people — indeed, it gets them to spy on themselves. […]

Entire generations of South Koreans have grown up hearing good things about Kim Il Sung. To hear him glorified would not be as big or sudden a change as it would be to hear Syngman Rhee glorified. If you think I’m exaggerating, read some South Korean school textbooks.

In summary:

Pyongyang’s unification drive is not a will to wage war with the US. The nuclear program was conceived to compel the peaceful withdrawal of American troops. Encouraged by the long decline of conservatism and of hostility to the North, by public indifference to the twin attacks of 2010, and by Moon Jae-in’s pledges to realize a confederation, Pyongyang believes that a break-up of the alliance would resign the South to its ethnic destiny. It follows that America’s most urgent task is to call publicly on Seoul to disabuse the North of its hopes. This would have to entail formal renunciation of the concept of confederation, the South’s support for which now conveys to Pyongyang a prioritization of nationalism over constitutional, liberal democratic principles. As a sovereign state, the South has every right not to accede to any such requests from its ally. But in such an event, the US government owes it to the American people to take the next logical step — and I don’t mean a strike on North Korea.

Myers doesn’t spell it out, but the next logical step would, of course, be for the US to cut South Korea loose and let it face the North on its own. The piece should be read in full by anyone remotely interested in Korean politics, but Myers provides the TLDR version in an interview with Slate.

And here’s a great article, dated last October, in the South China Morning Post detailing the growing willingness of many in South Korea to countenance the idea of some sort of unification with the North:

Since April [2018], when Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held their first inter Korean summit, the Herculean challenge of North Korean denuclearisation has dominated the world’s attention. But on the Korean peninsula, the spotlight has shone with equal intensity on the steps being taken to complete a potentially even more monumental task: reunifying North and South.

In a Gallup Korea opinion poll last month, 84 per cent of South Koreans said they supported unification, the highest proportion since 2004, with most favouring a gradual process over the next 10 years.

“We expect debate about plans for unification to kick off in earnest in the second half of next year,” said Han Sung, a spokesman for the left-leaning civic group People’s Congress for Peace Federation. […]

With inter-Korean relations at their warmest in years, a growing chorus within South Korean politics, academia and civil society has steered discussion towards various models of political integration with the North – ranging from a federation to a union of states – that would mark the first practical steps toward unification.

A North Korean defector warns that a federation would be a Trojan horse for a Northern takeover of the South:

It is no secret that North Korea, which claims sovereignty over the whole peninsula, originally conceived of a federation as a way to subjugate the South without the bloodshed of war. Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking North Korean official to ever defect to the South, detailed in his 2001 book Sunshine Siding with Darkness Cannot Beat Darkness how Kim Il-sung believed federation would allow the North, united under “one ideology”, to dominate and propagandise the politically divided South.

The US, as well as South Korea, will certainly have some hard choices to make about their alliance in the years ahead. A US withdrawal would be extremely dangerous, as it would invite North Korean aggression. On the other hand, for the US to maintain a massive military commitment to a country that is increasingly aligned with our nuclear-armed adversary, is pretty insane. Something has to give, sooner rather than later.