Blogs: The Skeptics

America Needs to Rethink Who It Sells Arms To

The Skeptics

Ask anyone who served onboard U.S. naval vessels in the Persian Gulf in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and they’ll probably tell you that there wasn’t that much that frightened them. Truth be told, the countries in the region were no match for Uncle Sam. On April 18, 1988, for example, Operation Praying Mantis pitted nearly all of the ships in Iran’s navy—three of them, plus some speed boats—against a handful of American combatants, and aircraft from the carrier Enterprise. It wasn’t much of a fight. By the end of the day, two Iranian vessels were sunk, and a third was disabled.

But Iran’s Harpoon anti-ship missiles were no laughing matter. Before it was sent to Davy Jones’ Locker, the 265-ton gunboat Joshan managed to launch one of these ship-killers at the cruiser USS Wainwright. Thankfully, it missed. And how, you might ask, did the Iranians get such a state-of-the-art weapon? Uncle Sam sold the missiles, along with F-14s capable of carrying them, to the Shah. In 1979, these gems fell into the hands of the revolutionaries who overthrew the Shah—and who hated America in large measure because of our support for him.

During my brief foray in the region onboard USS Ticonderoga, in the fall of 1990, we practiced firefighting in gas masks in case Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the U.S. fleet.  Saddam created the chemical weapons with American help when he was fighting the Iranians in the 1980s.

In 1989, U.S. troops moved against Panama’s Manuel Noriega, with Noriega’s troops wielding American-made weapons.

U.S. troops in Somalia in 1993 had to contend with an environment rife with sophisticated equipment, including surface-to-air missiles, towed guns, tanks, and armored personnel carriers, sold to the dictator Mohammed Siyad Barre. When warring factions toppled Barre in 1991, they turned these weapons on each other—dragging the country into a vicious civil war, from which it has yet to recover.

And in 2014, fighters from the Islamic State retrieved the weapons sold to the post-Saddam Iraqi army, including Humvees and tanks, as well as a vast volume of small arms and ammunition. In just one month, June 2014, ISIS captured “vehicles, weapons and ammunition sufficient to arm and equip more than three Iraqi conventional army divisions,” or up to 50,000 soldiers, according to a UN Security Council study (quoted here). With these weapons in hand, ISIS fighters swept across vast swathes of territory, terrorizing Iraqis, Syrians, Kurds, Yazidis and countless others unfortunate enough to be caught in their path.

As Gene Healy quipped at the time:

We've spent $25 billion . . . building up the Iraqi security forces, only to get an updated version of the old gibe about the South Vietnamese Army: “want to buy some ISF rifles? Never been fired and only dropped once!”

In other words, this isn’t a new problem.

A just-released Cato paper by my colleagues Trevor Thrall and Caroline Dorminey suggests that we revisit foreign arms sales. Per the Arms Export Control Act (AECA), all such sales are supposed to be subject to vigorous review and risk assessment. However, the fact that the United States sells to many countries—including obviously fragile, tyrannical, and dangerous ones—suggests “that the risk assessment process is rigged not to find risk.”

Thrall and Dorminey set out to fix that. Applying an elegant but simple risk assessment based on five key metrics—stability (from the Fragile States Index); Freedom House’s Freedom in the World rankings; the State Department’s Political Terror Scale; the Global Terrorism Index; and the UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset—they find that “there are a large number of risky customers in the world, and the United States sells weapons to most of them.” Libya, Iraq, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan “scored as high risk on all five measures,” yet “purchased an average of $1.8 billion in U.S. weapons since 9/11.” Thrall and Dorminey conclude, “the policy of the United States is to sell weapons to just about any nation that can afford them without much concern for the consequences.”

They suggest a different approach. “The United States,” they write, “should reorient its arms sales policy to ensure that sales provide strategic benefits and to avoid producing negative unintended consequences.” At a minimum, “the arms sales process should . . . be revised in order to ensure that all sales receive more thorough scrutiny than has been the case to date.”

Seems reasonable to me.

Christopher Preble is vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute and the author of The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free.

Image: Reuters


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What Does America Gain by Arming Ukraine?

The Skeptics

On March 1, the State Department authorized the sale of 210 Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, applauded the sale because she said it shows the United States is “serious about protecting the interests of our nation,” and will help Kiev “push back against growing Russian aggression.” It is more likely, however, that this sale will accomplish the opposite.

The official press release from the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) in regards to the sale claimed that the weapons “will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by improving the security of Ukraine.” Yet it is no small distinction to point out that Ukraine is not an ally of the United States, and we must question why improving their security is worth degrading our relations with a nuclear-armed Russia.

A military alliance is a commitment to another party that we will sacrifice American sons and daughters for their benefit. To make such a significant sacrifice, there must be a vital national interest at stake for America. As important, entering into an alliance requires that the other side be willing to sacrifice for our security, and that the ties result in a benefit to the United States. None of those factors exist in this case. The benefit is all to Kiev—and America absorbs risk without the potential for reward.

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Not only will the sale of lethal arms not materially help Ukraine, but also it will likely increase Russian and separatist opposition, worsening the situation. A change in the methodology of how the government engages internationally is needed.

Whether in Ukraine or another international engagement, if an honest analysis reveals that the United States has merely a secondary or tertiary interest—rather than a core national interest—yet commits itself to expending valuable political or military capital, the chances are high that such engagement would end up costing more than would be gained. Why should Washington spend money and risk the lives of our troops for a mission that would leave the country at a net loss?

In the current standoff in the Ukraine, Washington would certainly prefer to see a peaceful resolution to the violence. For Moscow and Kiev, however, the matter is existential, meaning each is willing to expend considerable capital and take significant risks to resolve the conflict in their favor.

The 210 anti-tank missiles the State Department authorized is enough to equip four or five mechanized or infantry battalions for a short period of time. These missiles could provide a momentary tactical advantage, but strategically, the quantity is insufficient to tilt the balance of power with Russia and its allied forces.

In the latter stages of the Cold War, I was an officer in the 2nd Squadron, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment (2-2 ACR), a heavily armored unit composed of large numbers of tanks and armored infantry carriers. In 1991, 2-2 ACR was sent to Iraq to fight Saddam Hussein’s armored divisions, which had invaded Kuwait. At the Battle of 73 Easting, my squadron (a battalion-sized armored unit), fought against a brigade of an Iraqi armored division.

During that battle, three cavalry troops of 2nd ACR—approximately the size of one mechanized battalion—fired 125 tank rounds and eighty anti-tank missiles. In the span of less than six hours, one battalion-sized unit fired the equivalent of 38 percent of the entire missile sale to Ukraine.

Thus, no matter how it is billed in Washington, this sale will not “push back” against Russian aggression, nor is it in the “interests of our nation.” But while sending these missiles isn’t enough to tip the military balance in Ukraine, it is more than enough to convince Russia to increase its involvement.

Those missiles represent a clear increase in the risk to Russia and their proxy forces within eastern Ukraine because it signals that Washington may be willing to provide even greater lethal support to their opponent. It is therefore likely Moscow will take stronger action to counter the threat to discourage even greater American engagement.

This support could take the form of Putin sending more armor, anti-armor missiles of his own, more unofficial Russian troops, greater intelligence support for allied forces, or some other response that brings more violence and destruction to the Donbas region—the people we’re ostensibly trying to help.

It is reasonable and appropriate for the United States to promote the good of others abroad and to champion our values as an exemplar, a shining city on a hill. But we should only use, or threaten to use, military power when American security, economic prosperity, or our way of life are directly threatened.

Washington’s intention with the missile sale may be to increase the pain felt by Putin to drive him to a negotiated settlement, but the actual result will almost certainly be a further militarization of the situation and an increase in the potential for an expansion of the conflict. Far from improving American security, this sale will undermine it. Far from protecting Ukrainians, sending these missiles will place them at increasing risk.

Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after twenty-one years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

Image: Pfc. Ian Padro, an Orlando, Fla. native and indirect fire infantryman with the 5th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, uses the Javelin Basic Skills Trainer during a training event in Swietoszow, Poland on Jan. 11, 2018 in support of Atlantic Resolve. The Javelin is a man-portable, anti-tank missile designed to defeat tanks up to a range of 2500m. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Hubert D. Delany III / 22nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)​. Flickr / The U.S. Army

Trump May Be Rude, but That Doesn't Make Him a Tyrant

The Skeptics

Donald Trump’s critics, both here and abroad, increasingly compare his treatment of journalistic critics with that of Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or even Joseph Stalin. Writing in the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman contends that “it is the similarities in the Trump and Erdogan approaches to the media and the courts that should be most chilling for Americans.” A Der Spiegel editorial likewise asserts that “Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan demand reverence rather than truthfulness, and both are mounting dangerous attacks on the free press.”

Those inflammatory takes are mild, though, compared to the allegations that Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake made during a January 17, 2018, floor speech. Flake accused the Trump White House of conducting “an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally protected free press.” He added: “‘The enemy of the people’ was what the president of the United States called the free press in 2017. [I]t is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies.” An October 2017 editorial by CNN’s editor-at-large Chris Cillizza also embraced the rationale that by labeling his journalistic opponents the enemy of the people, Trump had “issued a direct threat to the free and independent media.”

Such over-the-top rhetoric borders on hysteria. Trump certainly has a thin skin when it comes to criticism and has made ugly, sometimes personally insulting, comments toward his critics in the press. But there is a vast difference between denigrating the media and displaying abrasive, even boorish, behavior and trampling a free press. Comparing Trump’s actions to those of a genocidal psychopath like Stalin is especially preposterous and disgusting. Even equating the president’s behavior toward the media with Erdogan’s mounting repression is inappropriate.

Even before the abortive July 2016 coup attempt (which may well have been a false-flag operation to justify already planned additional repressive measures), Erdogan’s actions posed a clear and present danger to freedom of the press in Turkey. His government routinely harassed and imprisoned journalists and other critics. In the week leading up to the country’s crucial national elections in November 2015, authorities seized television stations operated by opponents of the regime. The government then transferred ownership to Erdogan allies, who spent the final days before the election inundating the airwaves with “news” stories and editorials praising the president and his political party.

Erdogan’s treatment of the press has become even worse since the July 2016 incident. In October of that year, he closed fifteen opposition media outlets. Human Rights Watch issued a December 2016 report documenting the horrific decline in press freedoms. By that time, “140 media outlets and 29 publishing houses had been shut down via emergency decree, leaving more than 2,500 media workers and journalists unemployed.” Such measures, along with harsh, arbitrary censorship edicts, have made a mockery of freedom of the press. Worst of all, the Erdogan government has imprisoned more than 200 journalists, the highest total of any country in the world, and has issued arrest warrants for more than 100 others.

It is an insult to the victims of such genuine oppression to equate Trump’s anti-media verbal temper tantrums with Erdogan’s behavior. Indeed, previous U.S. administrations have engaged in far worse treatment of the media than any offense Trump has committed. The comprehensive censorship regime that prevailed during World War I effectively silenced journalistic critics of Woodrow Wilson’s crusade to make the world safe for democracy. Those who refused to be silenced joined the ranks of several hundred political prisoners who languished in jail until Wilson’s successor, Warren Harding, finally freed them.

Some of the wartime measures, especially the infamous Espionage Act of 1917, still hang like a Sword of Damocles over a free press in the United States. Indeed, Richard Nixon’s administration sought to use its alleged authority under the Espionage Act to prevent the New York Times and the Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers. More recently, the Obama administration investigated and harassed Fox News journalist James Rosen under that statute for utilizing leaks of classified information in his reporting. Prominent opinion leaders periodically have sent aloft trial balloons to prosecute journalists who publicize leaks, as well as their sources, under the Espionage Act. At one time, Senator Tom Cotton certainly appeared to embrace that view.

Those are the measures and attempted power plays that pose a real menace to freedom of the press. Erdogan has perfected such techniques and, exploiting the pretext of protecting national security, presides over a system that has eradicated meaningful debate. If Trump ever attempts to adopt similar tactics, both the media and the public need to mount a fierce, uncompromising resistance. But being the victim of nasty criticism and name-calling from the White House does not come close to constituting such a threat environment. Indeed, when it comes to vitriol, Trump’s media critics have hardly been intimidated. They are quite competitive with the president in delivering insults and inflammatory accusations. And that is the way it will be in a country with a free press.

No one ever said that politeness and decorum was required on either side of the press-government relationship. Anti-Trump journalists need to stop acting like delicate snowflakes who need to be protected from a rude president. As their colleagues in Turkey and far too many other countries can testify, the situation could be far, far worse.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the author of ten books, including The Captive Press: Foreign Policy Crises and the First Amendment (1995).

Image: Reuters


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Why Is Trump Turning His Back on Christians in Iran?

The Skeptics

President Donald Trump presented himself as a defender of Christians. However, his administration recently rejected asylum applications from more than a hundred Iranian Christians. They desperately need sanctuary: the Islamic Republic is among the world’s worst religious persecutors. Does the president dislike foreigners more than he likes Christians?

The Iranians, including other non-Muslims and residents of other nations, have been stuck in Vienna for more than a year hoping to resettle in America. They applied under the Lautenberg Amendment, which originally was passed to protect Soviet Jews. Over the years roughly thirty-three thousand Iranian religious minorities have entered the United States under its protection. Almost 1,300 were admitted under the program last year. Approval of applicants, who are interviewed before traveling to Vienna, where U.S. officials screen them, was standard. According to Foreign Policy’s Dan de Luce: “Apart from Assyrian and Armenian Christians in Iran, members of the Jewish, Mandaean, Zoroastrian, and Bahai communities have also received refugee status and resettled in the United States under the law.”

But not this time. The Department of Homeland Security just told them no. The law requires the government to justify any denial “to the maximum extent possible,” but DHS offered no explanation. The State Department reported the obvious: program changes had resulted in “a greater number of denials in the Vienna refugee program,” like 100 percent. The question remains why.

Those rejected hope to find homes elsewhere, but after Washington’s decision Austrian police raided the waiting Iranians. They could be deported back to Iran, leaving them subject to the not-so-tender mercies of the reigning Islamist regime. Another 4,500 have registered for the program, but now seem destined to languish in Iran.

Ann Buwalda of Jubilee Campaign complained: “The U.S. has broken its promise to Iranian religious minorities.” The refugees had “traveled to Vienna at the invitation of the United States, with the understanding that they would soon be reunited with their American families.” They gave up their homes and incomes, and face persecution if they return to Iran.

The decision is inexplicable given administration policy toward Iran. Hans Van de Weerd of the International Rescue Committee highlighted the administration’s hypocrisy: “It criticizes the Iranian regime, encouraged the protests, but refuses to provide safety to those who flee and are not safe from the Iranian government.” One congressman told de Luce: “This sudden change in policy—from almost a hundred percent acceptance rate to nearly complete rejection—makes no sense, even on security grounds.”

Until now, at least, the Trump administration claimed religious liberty as a priority. In fact, the president designated January 16 as Religious Freedom Day and called America a “champion for religious freedom around the world.” Last October when visiting the Middle East Vice President Mike Pence declared that “Christianity is under unprecedented assault in those ancient lands where it first grew,” adding: “we can now see a future in many areas without a Christian faith. But tonight, I came to tell you: Help is on the way.”

Even more important has been the administration’s campaign against, even fixation with, Iran. The president has taken the lead, at times acting against the advice of his own officials. He is seeking to overturn the nuclear deal, create a Middle Eastern coalition against Tehran, and promote discontent within the Islamic Republic. President Trump even made human rights in Iran an issue, in contrast his approach to most other abusive nations, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Tehran deserves to be targeted for its systematic violation of human rights. The Islamic Republic, under control of Islamist authoritarians, is particularly hostile to religious minorities, who range from Christians and Jews to more traditional faiths including Baha’is, Zoroastrians, Mandaeans and Yarsanis. The country ranks number ten on Open Doors’ World Watch List. In some nations the problem arises from a hostile population. In Shia-majority Iran the blame overwhelmingly falls on a repressive leadership, increasingly out of step from much of the population.

At greatest risk are converts, who technically face the death penalty, though it has yet to be applied. However, attacks on religious minorities are widespread. For instance, the latest UN Human Rights Council report on Iran noted that “members of religious and ethnic minorities continued to endure abuses and discrimination and face persecution, including arrest and imprisonment, expulsion from educational institutions, denial of economic opportunities, deprivation of the rights to work, closure of businesses, and the destruction of religious sites, such as cemeteries and prayer centers.”

The Council’s Secretary-General declared Baha’is to be the country’s “most severely persecuted religious minority.” Last October the council declared that “persecution of members of the Baha’i community remained unabated.” They were variously imprisoned and denied economic and educational opportunities. However, they were not alone. The leader of the Assyrian Pentecostal Church and at least eleven converts “were reportedly convicted of ‘acting against national security and received heavy prison sentences’.”

These assessments are backed and amplified by others. For instance, the United Kingdom’s Christians in Parliament All-Party Parliamentary Group published a report on persecution. Tehran refused to allow members to visit after the election of President Hassan Rouhani. Nevertheless, the caucus moved ahead, noting that “Christians continue to be arbitrarily arrested and interrogated because of their faith-related activities. They continue to be treated harshly, with some facing severe physical and psychological torture during periods of detention.”

Iran’s judiciary, which makes no pretense of independence and objectivity, treats innocent “Christian activities (such as meeting in private homes for prayer meeting and bible studies, or being in contact with Christians outside of Iran) as political activities that threaten the national security of Iran.” Believers are imprisoned, churches are closed, congregations are pressured to end Persian language services, property is seized, and Christians face educational and employment discrimination. These violations of basic liberties have continued despite the election of Rouhani, who as a candidate declared that “All ethnicities, all religions, even religious minorities, must feel justice.” Alas, they do not.

The 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative reported that the Tehran “government regularly discriminates against its citizens based upon religion and belief.” Law is supposed to be based on Islam. The prohibition on apostasy is “a severe threat to religious freedom.” At least people of the book, most notably Christians and Jews, theoretically enjoy some legal standing. In contrast, Baha’is “are without any kind of protection.”

Amnesty International reported that “freedom of religion and belief was systematically violated, in law and practice,” in Iran. Victims were many. “Widespread and systematic attacks continued to be carried out against the Baha’i minority,” including “arbitrary arrests, lengthy imprisonment, torture and other ill-treatment, forcible closure of Baha’i-owned businesses, confiscation of Baha’i properties, bans on employment in the public sector and denial of access to universities.” Other unrecognized minorities, such as the Yarsani, “also faced systematic discrimination.” Moreover, “the right to change or renounce religious beliefs continued to be violated.” Sunni Muslims faced discrimination. And atheists “remained at risk of arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and other ill-treatment and the death penalty for ‘apostasy’.”

In January Human Rights Watch offered a similar assessment of discrimination and ill-treatment. The Tehran regime’s record for religious liberty is “dismal.” Yet “there were new signs of discrimination against religious minorities.” Also, last month human-rights experts associated with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights “called on Iran to ensure a fair and transparent final hearing” for three Christians charged with evangelizing and holding home services. They were charged with violating national security.

Last fall Kamil Alboshoka of Track Persia noted that “Persecution in Iran against religious and ethnic minorities has been heavily practiced since the advent of the current regime in 1979. [A] [l]arge number of minorities has been executed, detained or tortured because of legitimate demands.” Moreover, Tehran used capital punishment “to silence political opponents, religious and ethnic minorities.” In addition, “minorities in Iran suffer from marginalization, oppression, and lack of equal civil rights because the Iranian law does not protect and support minorities.”

Christian and Sunnis alike “have been banned from traveling outside Iran or have been displaced and forced to live outside their cities due to their religious activities.” At the same time, “Large number of Iranians from minorities have faced detention due to converting to different faiths.” Accused apostates face “severe charges such as threats to national security.” Alas, human-rights activists warn of “worsening marginalization and racist abuse inflicted by the regime during a brutal political crackdown on dissents who are angry at lack of basic civil liberties and cultural, political and social rights.”

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom rates Iran as a Country of Particular Concern. The panel’s report last year reported that “the government of Iran engaged in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused.” The Commission noted that “severe violations targeting religious minorities . . . continued unabated.”

Sufis and “dissenting Shi’a Muslims also faced harassment, arrest, and imprisonment.” More than six hundred Christians have been arrested since 2010, and “there were numerous incidents of Iranian authorities raiding church services, threatening church members, and arresting and imprisoning worshipers and church leaders, particularly Evangelical Christian converts.” The regime “continued to propagate anti-Semitism and target members of the Jewish community on the basis of real or perceived ‘ties to Israel’.” Further, “the government continues to use its religions laws to silence reformers—including human-rights activists, journalists, and women’s rights advocates—for exercising their internationally protected rights to freedom of expression and religion or belief.” The number of those imprisoned increased after Rouhani’s election.

The State Department’s own religious liberty report came to similar conclusions. A number were executed for alleged “enmity against God” and “insulting the prophet.” Shias who failed to support the regime faced “intimidation and arrest.” The “government continued to harass, interrogate, and arrest Bahai’s, Christians, Sunni Muslims, and other religious minorities and regulated Christian religious practices closely to enforce the prohibition on proselytizing.” The regime denied building permits for religious facilities, restricted and confiscated religious materials, and denied educational opportunities for, discouraged employment of, and restricted or closed businesses of religious minorities. Finally, “the government continued to use anti-Semitic and anti-Bahai rhetoric in official statements, as well as promote Holocaust denial.”

Alas, the attacks continue. Last fall Islamist parliamentarians pressed for legislation to allow Iranians to only vote for their coreligionists. That would effectively bar minorities from office. The effort was retaliation for the triumph of a over a conservative Shiite in a city council race in Yazd. The Zoroastrian was reelected with three times the vote of his opponent and subsequently suspended. Apparently, the least bit of freedom embarrasses Islamists who obviously lack the public support that they routinely claim to possess.

Surely this record establishes that religious minorities have good reason to fear for their liberty and safety. And those who came to Vienna relied on years of promises and processes made by the U.S. government. Noted Miriam Jordon of the New York Times: “They sold their homes and possessions, quit their jobs, and left their country—they thought for good.” They expected to be in Vienna for a short time, but now, “more than a year later, some 100 of them remain stranded in Vienna, their savings drained, their lives in limbo and the promise of America dead.” One of the would-be refugees, H. Avakian, whose brother already lives in Los Angeles, complained that “it’s unexplainable.” To return is to risk being charged as an enemy of the state. “We are afraid they will give us a sentence,” he said.

There is no justification for rejecting the helpless and vulnerable. Religious minorities fleeing Iran will not be terrorists. Rather, they are about the most pro-American people around. Nor are the numbers involved significant: The United States easily can accommodate one hundred, one thousand or ten thousand religious minorities fleeing persecution. The spectacle of the administration saying no to people seeking to escape from a regime targeted by the administration is nothing short of a moral and political scandal. Argued The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison: “It would be typical of Iran hawks to feign concern for the Iranian people while doing nothing to help any of them, but even for the hard-liners in the Trump administration this is ridiculous.”

Consistency might not be expected from President Trump. But from Vice President Pence? What does he think about the administration’s willingness to sacrifice those who have given up everything to come to America? It is time for the vice president, at least, and other Americans of good will to take a stand for the persecuted.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

Image: Reuters


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The F-22 Is Getting a New Job: Sniper

Peace in Our Time on the Korean Peninsula?

The Skeptics

South Korean officials declared that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is prepared to negotiate with the United States over denuclearizing the peninsula and normalizing relations. President Donald Trump declared his policy is working.

The first is good news, if true. But even if true, it is merely the first step to achieving a stable peace in Northeast Asia.

The second probably is not true. Any talks are likely to be conducted on North Korea’s rather than America’s terms. Almost certainly Pyongyang will still possess its current arsenal of twenty or more nuclear weapons when this year comes to a close. And the next year as well.

The South Koreans who met with Kim and his officials suggest that peace is in the air. The DPRK wants dialogue and is prepared to denuclearize. Just a few steps further and the lion will lie down with the lamb, ending more than seventy years of intra-Korean conflict.

However, so far, Kim Jong-un has not spoken. It is obvious what visiting South Koreans wanted to hear. Kim may have told them what they wanted to hear. But what will he say to the world, and especially the United States? Just after Seoul’s announcement the Workers’ Party of Korea official newspaper justified Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons. “The peace and security of the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia and the world have been secured thanks to our strengthening of nuclear deterrence,” declared the Rodung Sinmun. Maybe that just indicates that Pyongyang intends to strike a hard bargain. But even that is an important corrective to optimistic assessments of DPRK policy. We won’t really know the North’s position until North Korea’s Supreme Leader responds.

Moreover, there’s nothing particularly new in Pyongyang’s presumed offer. In the past North Korea has engaged the United States in a dialogue over denuclearization. But that did not mean the North was willing to abandon its weapons—or at least to do so in return for what Washington was willing to give. The reason there have been no recent talks, whatever back channel communication might have occurred, is because the Trump administration insisted that the North agree to the main contested issue beforehand: denuclearization.

Indicating a theoretical willingness to disarm is not the same. When I visited Pyongyang last year North Korean officials told me they were willing to consider yielding up their weapons if the United States, China, Russia and other nuclear states did likewise. Under these conditions the willingness to denuclearize is theoretical only.

Now the DPRK apparently says it wants sufficient security guarantees. What would they be? Pyongyang might, and seems likely to, demand far more than what Washington is willing to give. In the past the North demanded that America end the alliance with the Republic of Korea and withdraw U.S. troops from the region. Perhaps there will be other conditions as well.

This would not be simple duplicity, though North Korea obviously is capable of such. And using negotiations to divide Washington and Seoul and gain time to continue missile and nuclear development are time-honored DPRK strategies.

Nevertheless, what rational dictator on Washington’s naughty list would trust the Trump administration and its successors? Presidents Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton took out or forced out nearby regimes not to America’s liking. President George W. Bush ventured further afield, forcing regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq, targeting the DPRK as a member of the “Axis of Evil,” and announcing that he “loathed” the North’s ruler, Kim Jong-il.

President Barack Obama engineered the ouster of Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi after the latter negotiated away his nuclear weapons and missiles. The Obama administration also spent several years unsuccessfully attempting to oust Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. President Donald Trump has repudiated the agreement reached between his predecessor and Iran, dismissed the diplomatic efforts of his secretary of state, and threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on the North. Only nuclear weapons seem capable of deterring this type of aggression from a future U.S. president. Kim is unlikely to accept expressions of good will and paper guarantees as sufficient to abandon the weapons that his nation has worked so hard to develop.

Finally, Pyongyang long desired talks with America, but without preconditions. The North Koreans reportedly told their ROK counterparts that they simply “wanted to be treated like a serious dialogue partner.” It appears that Pyongyang has simply repackaged a long-standing objective—being treated with respect by the globe’s superpower.

Will the Trump administration agree? Discussions between the United States, the Republic of Korea, and Japan impend, and an anonymous Trump administration official insisted that Washington’s policy “will not change until we see credible moves toward denuclearization.” He also dismissed entering into talks encumbered by “non-starter conditions” by the DPRK as in the past. However, the North is a good enough negotiator not to abandon its leverage without receiving anything in return. And it can simply move its conditions one step back, from agreeing to negotiate to agreeing to disarm.

Even if the administration is dissatisfied it will find it difficult to reject talks with the North for failing to meet Washington’s conditions. The ROK will put strong pressure on the United States to respond to what is being presented as a possible breakthrough. And if the administration does sit down with the North, America will have given Pyongyang what the latter long desired, bilateral negotiations without promising to yield its nuclear weapons. Indeed, the South Korean report indicated that Kim wanted to discuss bilateral relations as well as nuclear weapons. No doubt, North Korean officials would push to lead with the former which, after all, affects the “hostile policy” which they argue has made nuclear weapons necessary. At relatively minor cost—appearing reasonable and peaceable—Kim Jong-un then would fulfill his diplomatic objective, despite Washington’s past year of rejection.

In short, it is not at all clear that much of anything has been changed. President Trump’s fulminations and threats may have forced Kim Jong-un to be more creative, but they have not likely forced the latter to capitulate.

Nevertheless, despite such caveats, the prospect of negotiations offers a way out of today’s crisis. The Trump administration is threatening to start the Second Korean War and legislators like Sen. Lindsey Graham are egging on the president, arguing that such a conflict would be a good deal in the long-term. In fact, almost any alternative is better than preventive war. And creating an ongoing dialogue between Pyongyang and both Seoul and the United States would make resort to military action much more difficult.

After having helped keep the peace for sixty-five years, it would be foolish beyond measure for the administration to risk triggering another massive conflict on the peninsula, especially one which could lead to a nuclear exchange. Kim is unlikely to tolerate U.S. attacks aimed at destroying the regime’s most important weapons and perhaps the regime itself without responding. And America’s conventional preponderance would encourage Pyongyang to “use it or lose it,” which could mean attacks by missiles topped with biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. Japan, as well as South Korea, would be at great risk, and the harm could extend into China and Russia. Many Americans, civilians living in the south and military personnel sent to defeat and conquer the North, would die as well.

The DPRK long has been the land of second-best options. But Washington should use the prospect of talks to develop a plausible alternative to war or a nuclear North Korea. The United States should work with South Korea and Japan to develop a common denuclearization offer for the DPRK and then seek China’s backing for the plan. This offer should include America’s willingness to reduce and remove its military presence. Additionally, America should be willing to turn over to its allies defense responsibility for South Korea and the region to the ROK. It is not in America’s interest to remain permanently entangled in the conflicts of other nations or to turn the Pentagon into a welfare agency. Equally important, friendly states should not be allowed to become permanent welfare dependents.

Denuclearization should remain Washington’s long-term objective. In the meantime, the United States also should pursue other advantageous (and possibly short-term) goals, such as freezing North Korean missile and nuclear development and reducing the conventional military threat against the South. And as in the past, policymakers should consider creative options if such efforts reach a dead end. Among those creative options should be the possibility of shifting nuclear deterrence from the United States to South Korea, which would reduce risks to America while sharing the North Korean nightmare with China.

Pyongyang’s apparent offer to talk is a gambit in a larger strategy for dealing with America. As such, it is an opportunity, not a breakthrough. The move offers the possibility of gain for both sides. Washington should pursue the apparent opportunity to sit down with North Korea and search for a peaceful exit from the dangerous cul-de-sac into which administration policy has driven.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and coauthor of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.

Image: Reuters


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