Category Archives: national security

Missiles and Messages: What is Trump trying to Convey?

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

If nothing else the events of last week, in particular President Trump’s decision to launch missiles at a Syrian airbase in response to Syria’s renewed use of poison gas on its own population sent a message to different leaders around the world. What that message is and how effective that it is depends on who heard it and how they interpreted it.

The actual type of strike was nothing new and it certainly was justified in relation to war crimes of the Assad regime. President Clinton used similar strikes as punitive measures against Iraq in the 1990s, President Bush used them against various targets outside of Iraq, and opting for a full invasion of that country. While President Obama tended to be more hesitant about the missile strikes he often used Special Forces and drones in many countries pursuant to the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Force pertaining to the War on Terror, he did use missile and air strikes in conjunction with NATO to help Libyan rebels overthrow the Ghaddafi regime.

That being said what is the message that the President was attempting to send, and how does it fit into a larger foreign policy and national security strategy? That is where my concerns lie in regard to this strike. As for me I would have loved to see a Tomahawk fly up Bashir Assad’s ass and blow him to the Hell of his choice, if Ghaddafi and Saddam deserved death, then Assad deserves it many times more. It’s probably a good thing that I’m not President because I think that those 60 Tomahawks would have been much more wisely employed by taking out Assad’s Presidential Palace and maybe taking out him in the process, but there would have been a much bigger blowback to that than striking the airfield, but I digress…

Going back to what I was saying, how does this fit into a broader foreign policy and national security strategy?

The timing of the strike, minutes after the final dinner between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping certainly sent a message to China and North Korea who it might have been the real audience. If the strike forces China to take stronger action to assist the United States in reducing the building North Korean nuclear threat, then it will have served a worthwhile purpose. A Chinese newspaper reported that this was the intent of the strike just yesterday.

But the effect depends on the rationality of the targeted audience. The Chinese are a rational actor, but the North Koreans may not be, so we have to wait and see. In the meantime the Administration dispatched the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group to Korea waters to coincide with a time of the year when the North Koreans typically become more active.

There is also the possibility that the message was also intended for Putin’s Russia, the Assad regime, and even Iran, but right now other than a few statements by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley there has not been any real follow up to the strike. Secretary of State Tillerson is going to Moscow this week so we may glean more from that meeting.

Of course there is the domestic political audience and based on how the Trump campaign and administration has dealt with truth there is the possibility that this is much more to do about Trump’s plunging poll ratings and as a distraction from the ballooning Russia-Trump election scandals.

Regardless of what message the missile strike was intended to convey, we still don’t know how it will play out and it could play out in any number of ways, good or bad, and it might even turn out to be an act of genius, I doubt the latter but it is a possibility.

That is why the Trump and his administration must determine what its policy will be, especially its diplomatic policy. The President must keep all options on the table, diplomatic, informational, military, and economic, but he must be very judicious in how he uses them. Believe me, I can disagree with and distrust the President all day long, but I don’t want him to screw this up. Too much is at stake.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Importance of not Letting Political Problems become Military Problems: The Example of George Marshall and Omar Bradley

George Marshall 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A short thought for this Sunday. General Omar Bradley said, “Wars can be prevented just as surely as they can be provoked, and we who fail to prevent them, must share the guilt for the dead.”

I wrote yesterday about my concerns with the leaders of the major world powers in relation to the crises in Syria and North Korea, in which the military option seems to be spoken of more often than any other. But ultimately these are political problems that will require much more than a military solution, for an ill-thought out through military action almost always results in worse problems. If these political problems in Syria and North Korea are not addressed as that, they will end by opening a Pandora’s Box of unintended consequences that will most likely be worse than we could imagine. If military action is necessary, it must be thought through and done in conjunction with a plan to not only win the war, but to win the peace as well. General George Marshall, whose guiding hand helped the Allies win the Second World War, and whose leadership as Secretary of State helped Europe recover from that war, paving the way to decades of peace and prosperity so correctly noted: “A political problem thought of in military terms eventually becomes a military problem.” It is kind of like Abraham Maslow’s “law of the instrument” in which he noted “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

So far the words coming out of the mouth of President Trump and his Secretary of State are all about the military option, and the President’s proposed cuts to the State Department and other agencies of “soft power” will ensure that when push comes to shove that the only tool he will have will be that of the military.

Until Tomorrow

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Nuclear Giants and Ethical Infants: Do Dodging the Hard Alternatives

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

General Omar Bradley once said: “Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war that we know about peace, more about killing that we know about living.”

As I hear President Trump rattling the saber in Asia and the Middle East, as I look at his incoherent and dangerous policy of “America First,” and his almost total disregard for the importance of diplomacy and soft power I began to think about the possibility of nuclear, chemical, or biological war. While the Sword of Damocles represented by the massive stocks of already existing nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, has hung over our heads for decades, the current era seems more dangerous.

We have seen the persistent use of chemical weapons, including Sarin nerve agent in Syria by the regime of Bashir Al Assad, and the growing advancement of nuclear weapons technology, combined with bellicose rhetoric threatening the use of such weapons coming from North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

The problem is with both of these situations is that there are no easy or even good answers. The branches and sequels to any military action, the possibilities of a limited military action escalating into a regional or even worldwide conflict are all too real. It is in times like these that one wishes for cool heads and steady leadership, especially among the great powers. But I fear that that might not be the case today. The saber rattling, and the quest for regional dominance by Russia in Eastern Europe, and China in Asia are unnerving their neighbors, and becoming more dangerous with every passing year. But even more important is the dangerous attitude of the Russians in backing the Assad regime and the Chinese not doing much to control North Korea that are very concerning, not to mention the Trump administration’s lack of any coherent foreign policy or military strategy.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963 President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were able to pull back from the brink of nuclear war. During the height of the Cold War President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev were able to begin the process of reducing nuclear weapons and the numbers of intermediate range nuclear missiles.

I don’t know if President Trump, President Putin, or Chinese President Xi Jinping are able to curb their own sense of nationalism, nor the actors using or threatening to use these terrible weapons. There are hard choices to be made, but all too often leaders throughout history have shown a decided inability to make them. As Barbara Tuchman noted:  “One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.” 

It feels as if we are sliding into an abyss, I just hope that one or all of these leaders acts with a measure of prudence and wisdom to keep us from sliding in to it.

The President’s decision to remove Steve Bannon from the NSC was a good start, and hopefully men like General McMasters and Secretary of Defense Mattis prove to be men like George C. Marshall, Omar Bradley, and Dwight Eisenhower, men who understand the precious nature of peace and the tragedy of war.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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War is the Unfolding of Miscalculations… Assad, Trump, Putin, and Syria 2017

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The die has been cast. Last week the Trump administration signaled that the regime of Bashir Al Assad was not a priority for American policy in the Middle East. The comment was perplexing as the Assad regime has worked with the Iranians, and Hezbollah, both enemies of the United States to crush a revolt against his regime that began during the Arab Spring. Assad’s methods included the use of Sarin nerve agent and relentless attacks on civilians and were condemned by much of the world. In 2013 President Obama attempted to gain political support for military action against the Assad regime but was rebuffed by congressional Republicans as well as anti-war Democrats. The Syrian rebels were joined by radical Sunni Muslims of various Al Qaeda affiliates and later joined by the so called Islamic State. The Syrian army was on the point of collapse when the Russians intervened in 2015.

From 2013 on President Trump constantly said that military action in Syria was against U.S. national interests, something that continued until last week. Then Assad, apparently emboldened by the Trump Administration’s statement that changing his regime was not a priority for the U.S. launched a aerial attack using chemical weapons against civilians. The images which were shown throughout the 24 hour cable news cycle evidently made an impression on the President. Within hours of suggesting that military action was possible it began.

From Mar-a-Largo where the President is hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping, the President said:

“Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the air base in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched… It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”

I agree that it is the vital interests of the United States to prevent and deter the use of chemical weapons, but why this and why now especially since it did not seem to be a priority less than a week ago?

Right now we know precious little about the action, except that it was sudden and done without any congressional consultation, and little consultation with allies. Will Congress do its duty and demand details before allowing the administration to commit us to another war that in no way is covered by the 2001 authorization for use of force that has been used for all the actions involving the war on terrorism conducted by the Bush and the Obama Administrations, or will Congress roll over and do nothing, thus allowing the executive branch to take the nation to war with no oversight?

The genie of war is now out of the bottle. We do not know what will happen next, the potential branches and sequels to this action are many, and few of them promise anything in the way of peace in Syria. There is now danger that the U.S. will become entangled in a complex war that has no good outcome.

The question, what will happen next is unknown. Can President Trump work with Russia’s President Putin, Turkey’s President Erdrogan, as well as well as other regional leaders to bring something resembling peace to the region? I hope that can happen but I wouldn’t bet on it as history shows that all too often that these things take on a life of their own.  As Barbara Tuchman noted: “War is the unfolding of miscalculations.”

I have a couple of articles that I will post soon about the dangerous nature of what we are witnessing. But for tonight I will pause and try to get some sleep.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Budget is a Moral Document

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just a short couple of thoughts to start the week concerning the budget proposal of President Trump. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said: “Dollars and guns are no substitutes for brains and will power,” and this budget is long on dollars and guns but well short of brains and power.

I’m not going to spend long on this today as the budget proposal itself is probably dead in the water having invoked the ire of both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. But apart from that the budget proposal shows the moral bankruptcy of this administration. The fact that when confronted by Tucker Carlson on Fox News about the effects that killing the Affordable Care Act would have on his supporters across the country, the President basically shrugged his gave a “so what” kind of answer.

Likewise, his budget proposal, which actually raises Federal spending takes the axe to America’s diplomacy and soft power, its concern for public health and disease prevention, its neglect of crumbling infrastructure, its concern for the preservation and advancement of education and culture, and its outright condemnation of the poor and the elderly in order to fund a military buildup without enunciating a clear national strategy in order to justify it.

When I read through the proposals in the budget I was convinced of its fundamental immorality and I thought of Eisenhower’s oft quoted remarks in his Chance for Peace Speech of 1953.

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

Obviously the costs have to be adjusted for inflation, but the truth is that an arms buildup in absence of a clearly defined threat, is nothing more than an immoral policy that promises only war and death poverty and ignorance, disease and suffering. I am going to go back to that speech later this week because it is important to place all of this in its moral and political context.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Committing Suicide out of Fear of Death: The Possibility of Preventive War on the Korean Peninsula

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Otto von Bismarck, the “Iron Chancellor” of Prussia and Germany once noted that “preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.” Sadly, most Americans, do not seem to understand this, nor the distinctions of what is and is not permissible and how preventive war is different from the concept of pre-emptive actions.

While in Korea this week Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, most likely acting on behest of President Trump spoke of the real possibility that the United States could embark on a preventive war against North Korea. Tillerson said: “Let me be very clear: The policy of strategic patience has ended,” and “We’re exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures. All options are on the table.” He also said “If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action, that option is on the table.” 

Now let me be clear, the military option is always on the table when dealing with North Korea, but that military option has always been focused on deterrence and the ability to deter, defend, and respond to any North Korean military action, not by the open threat of preventive war. The latter is something that could well push the paranoid regime of Kim Jung Un into actual military action, rather than the provocative actions they make in defiance of the United Nations most of the world. However, that threshold, which successive American administrations have not crossed since the Korean Armistice of 1954 has been crossed.

That being said the North Korean nuclear threat and ability to strike distant targets is growing and may reach a point that it could hit the United States. The question is, when, or if, the North Korean threat justifies either a pre-emptive military strike or launching a preventive war. In the run up to the invasion of Iraq the United States used the supposed threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and connections to Al Qaeda to justify a preventive war against Iraq to eliminate the threat and overthrow Saddam Hussein. That war has been shown to be both in violation of the standards of the Just War Theory and international law concerning preventive war.

Michael Walzer, the foremost expert on Just War Theory today wrote in his book Just and Unjust Wars:

Now, what acts are to count, what acts do count as threats sufficiently serious to justify war? It is not possible to put together a list, because state action, like human action generally, takes on significance from its context. But there are some negative points worth making. The boastful ranting to which political leaders are often prone isn’t in itself threatening; injury must be “offered” in some material sense as well. Nor does the kind of military preparation that is a feature of the classic arms race count as a threat, unless it violates some formally or tacitly agreed-upon limit. What the lawyers call “hostile acts short of war,” even if these involve violence, are not too quickly to be taken as signs of an intent to make war; they may represent an essay in restraint, an offer to quarrel within limits. Finally, provocations are not the same as threats. “Injury and provocation” are commonly linked by Scholastic writers as the two causes of just war. But the Schoolmen were too accepting of contemporary notions about the honor of states and, more importantly, of sovereigns. The moral significance of such ideas is dubious at best. Insults are not occasions for wars, any more than they are (these days) occasions for duels.

For the rest, military alliances, mobilizations, troop movements, border incursions, naval blockade~-all these, with or without verbal menace, sometimes count and sometimes do not count as sufficient indications of hostile intent. But it is, at least, these sorts of actions with which we are concerned. We move along the anticipation spectrum in search, as it were, of enemies: not possible or potential enemies, not merely present ill-wishers, but states and nations that are already, to use a phrase I shall use again with reference to the distinction of combatants and noncombatants, engaged in harming us (and who have already harmed us, by their threats, even if they have not yet inflicted any physical injury). And this search, though it carries us beyond preventive war, clearly brings us up short of Webster’s pre-emption. The line between legitimate and illegitimate first strikes is not going to be drawn at the point of imminent attack but at the point of sufficient threat. That phrase is necessarily vague. I mean it to cover three things: a manifest intent to injure, a degree of active preparation that makes that intent a positive danger, and a general situation in which waiting, or doing anything other than fighting, greatly magnifies the risk. The argument may be made more clear if I compare these criteria to Vattel’s. Instead of previous signs of rapacity and ambition, current and particular signs are required; instead of an “augmentation of power,” actual preparation for war; instead of the refusal of future securities, the intensification of present dangers. Preventive war looks to the past and future, Webster’s reflex action to the immediate moment, while the idea of being under a threat focuses on what we had best call simply the present. I cannot specify a time span; it is a span within which one can still make choices, and within which it is possible to feel straitened.

I know that is a lot to digest, but the fact of the matter it takes a lot to justify pre-emptive military strikes, or a preventive war, and that in doing so we have not simply to look to the present moment but to the past and the as yet unwritten future. President Dwight D. Eisenhower noted that “Preventive war was an invention of Hitler. I would not even listen to anyone seriously that came and talked about such a thing.” But now, it is being talked about, and as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, Kim Jong Un will raise the ante, and then question will be, then what?

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Survival as What?

justice-weeps

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

The events, including the executive orders and actions of President Trump on a number of subject over the past few days have given me cause for much concern. Likewise, seeing the comments of people that I know personally doing backflips to justify actions that had they been done by any other President leave me dumbfounded. I have Muslim friends, including friends who are Naval officers with distinguished careers of service to this country whose families now live in fear because of what has been unleashed. People I know are being threatened by people who don’t just want political power to enact tax cuts, repeal the ACA, or reduce regulations, but who want to crush and destroy their opposition. Some of the memes that I have seen on Facebook and Twitter are to be kind, little better than Julius Streicher and Joseph Goebbel’s Nazi murder inducing racist pornography of the Third Reich. If you have never been physically threatened by such people you have no idea, I have been threatened more times than I can count going back to 2010, well before the advent of President Trump.

In the television series Star Trek the Next Generation there is an episode called The Drumhead. In it there is a dialogue between Captain Picard and his Chief of Security, Lieutenant Worf. It sums up what I am feeling regarding the events of the last week.

Lieutenant Worf: “Sir, the Federation does have enemies. We must seek them out.”


Captain Jean-Luc Picard: “Oh, yes. That’s how it starts. But the road from legitimate suspicion to rampant paranoia is very much shorter than we think. Something is wrong here, Mister Worf. I don’t like what we have become.”

I do not like what we have become.

For me this is not about political party, though I did have a number of people suggest this. My political beliefs, while liberal and progressive are founded on the premise in the proposition of the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, which was reiterated by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, that “all men are created equal.”

Those who have read my writings for any length of time have heard me talk about that time after time, whether it be in the words of Jefferson, Madison, Virginia Baptist leader John Leland, and of course Lincoln himself. What the Trump administration is doing today is destroying that proposition before our eyes in the name of the false god of security, flamed by fear, suspicion, hatred, and ignorance. He promises a utopia where he will “make America great again,” but to quote Spencer Tracy’s character in the film Inherit the Wind: As long as the prerequisite for that shining paradise is ignorance, bigotry and hate, I say the hell with it.”

If followed to their logical end, it will be then end of the proposition that is the spiritual heart of the United States of America. It is the one proposition that set us apart, even when imperfectly done, that set us apart from every nation on earth. It is the one thing that most Americans ancestors came to this country to enjoy; the proposition that “we hold these truth to be self evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”  

Charles Morgan Jr. who I have written about before, wrote these haunting words after the bombing the the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham by members of the Ku Klux Klan in 1964:

“It is not by great acts but by small failures that freedom dies. . . . Justice and liberty die quietly, because men first learn to ignore injustice and then no longer recognize it.”

That my friends is happening today before our very eyes. Judge Learned Hand, perhaps the best qualified man ever to not serve on the Supreme Court wrote,

“Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. The spirit of Liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of Liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of Liberty is that which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.” 

During the climax of The Drumhead, Captain Picard tells his inquisitor, “With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censured, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably.”

The question is: Will we sell the very proposition that sets us apart from all other nations for the false god of security? of survival? If so, we have to answer the question: “survival as what?”

That is the question my friends that I leave you with to start this week. Survival as what?

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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