Friday, April 7, 2017

Foreign crises looming in North Korea and in Syria. *AND* Trump's team responds with limited military strike

This post began with the question of whether the Trump team is ready to handle these geopolitical and military crises.   And before this got posted, we had seen the answer, in terms of Syria.   Here is the way I wrote this, as it was developing.
It's a vital question, whether the Trump team is ready.  Of some 500+ major positions in the administration that require Senate confirmation, only 21 have been filled.  Deputy Secretary and many Assistant Secretary positions are still empty at both the Defense and State Departments.

I've been amazed that none of the world's bad actors has taken this chaotic transition period as an opportunity to test this inexperienced, inadequately staffed administration.   This may be that time, now.

On the verge of Trump's first big meeting with the Chinese leader this week, North Korea's Kim Jong-un has just launched another ballistic missile into the sea between Korea and Japan -- along with provocative statements about their now having nuclear bomb capability.

Trump has responded with a little tough talk about 'time to get tough with North Korea'.   And Tillerson responded to a question about it with:  "The time for talk is over."   Trump is trying to put the pressure on China to rein them in;  but he also said, "If China doesn't act, we will.   That's all I can tell you.  We will act."

Half way around the world, Syria's President Bashar Assad is assumed to be the one who decided to use poison gas on his own people, including children, two days ago.   This is a particularly horrible gas that causes terrible suffering and death.   The pictures were agonizing to look at.

Apparently it got to Trump emotionally as nothing like it has done before, and he indicated that it had changed his thinking about Assad and the Syrian crisis.   Before, he had focused on ISIS and went along with Russia at least as far as agreeing to leave Assad in power to stabilize the country.

However, after this gas attack, Trump said:  "I like to think of myself as a very flexible person. . . .  If the world changes, I go the same way. . . . What happened yesterday is unacceptable to me. . . .  When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal . . . that crosses a line."

Trump is in a difficult spot here.   If he attacks Assad's forces in Syria, he will in essence be attacking Putin, who is supporting and defending Assad in this war.  In fact, Assad's remaining in power is largely due to his close relations with Putin and support from Russia.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U. N. Ambassador Nikki Haley both issued strong denunciations of the attack and Moscow's role in the conflict.

Suddenly, Donald Trump is learning that the world is a very complex place -- and that he is, or should be, the key figure world-wide in how the world responds to these two threatening crises.

Will he turn to his experienced military advisers?   His National Security Adviser, his Secretary of Defense, his Director of National Security, and his Secretary of Homeland Security are all military generals or admirals -- as is, of course, his Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.   Or will he turn to his slightly tarnished Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon, who has no foreign policy experience?

Let's hope it's the former, although I'd rather they weren't all military people.   His Secretary of State is from the business world, although he has experience on the global stage as CEO of a multi-national corporation with experience dealing with many foreign governments.

Trump will need a lot of help.   When asked by a reporter whether he would target the Iranian and Hezbollah forces who are fighting alongside Assad against both Syrian rebels and the Islamic State, he was not equipped to answer the question.  It was obvious, although he said some words that were tangentially related to that part of the world.

Back to the original point about a possible pivot by Trump to considering the human factor in his foreign policy decisions,  Let's remember that he is  characteristically influenced by the last person that he has talked to.  In this instance, he had just had a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II, who is emerging as a moderating influence in Middle East politics.   Jordan has taken in more refugees from Syria than any other country.   And then Trump saw these pictures.   That was the context of his remarks.

If he next has a meeting with war hawks -- or if he talks to Putin -- who knows what his next position might be?


PS:   Thursday evening, we learned that the U.S. had launched a round of about 60 Tomahawk missiles at the Syrian air base from which we think the sarin gas attack came.   Excellent discussion by Rachel Maddow and her guests, including military experts, concluded, based on preliminary evidence, that this was most likely a single attack meant to send a signal to Assad and to Russia that we will no longer stand by for such inhumane actions.   It does not appear to be the beginning of a major, ongoing military campaign.   Much will depend on Russia's response and whether they will pull back from their support of Assad, or whether it could lead to a diplomatic solution.  Reporters don't know at this point whether Trump warned Russia, whether any Russian ground troops might have been killed.

As far as the decision-making process was concerned, I am greatly reassured in that it seems that the adults were in charge, meaning our military leaders who presented President Trump with options and helped him understand this complex situation.  In other words, this seems to have been a good decision -- a limited, but forceful reaction to the humanitarian crisis in the midst of this ongoing genocidal war against his own people by the Syrian president and his military.  At this point it seems to have been a strong message sent, not a rash war-starting blunder.

Some of Rachel's experts emphasized that Russia's air force is nothing compared with ours.   It assuaged my fear that this might provoke a retaliation from them, but the experts don't think Russia can afford to  get into a fight with us.

Just as I was wrapping this up around midnight, I got an urgent email from claiming that Trump had ordered bombing in Syria that would be killing innocent civilians.   They urge me to sign a petition to congress "saying NO to bombing the people of Syria."  From my information -- using liberal sites like Rachel Maddow and HuffingtonPost -- I think this is way overblown and a knee-jerk reaction.   These were carefully targeted attacks on a single air base and planes on the ground, using Tomahawk missiles that home in on intended targets.

It's one thing to oppose any military involvement in the Syrian civil war.  It's another to fire off an ill-informed accusation that's not borne out by facts, at least as we know them now.   To me, it reduces the credibility -- and the influence -- of to make false charges.

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