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As the Saturday morning quarterbacks seek to portray the coalition missile strikes in ways that support their own agendas it seems necessary to attempt to provide a multi-dimensional view on the strikes. These dimensions include:
· The military implications of the strike
· The diplomatic messages
· The domestic political reaction
In response to the Syrian attack on its own people using chlorine gas a coalition of British, French and American naval and air forces launched missile attacks against 3 chemical production and storage facilities. The objective of the attack was two fold:
1. Seriously degrade/reduce Syria’s chemical weapons capability
2. Deter Syria from future chemical weapon usage
Reports indicate that the missiles hit and severely damaged their targets. The ability and methodology used for the attacks indicate the ability to synchronize target engagement between multiple platforms and national assets. The US attacks came from naval forces in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean ocean. Air assets launched missiles while over Saudi Arabia and the Mediterranean. While launching the missiles each element of the attacking force took air defense, naval and cyber efforts to protect the force. Reportedly all missiles hit their targets while the Syrian missile defense efforts were an abysmal failure. The Syrians reportedly launched over 40 air defense missiles and none of them successfully engaged a target. (The Russian disinformation campaign reported that there were 103 missiles and 71 shot down.)
Militarily the mission was accomplished. However, some pundits are seeking to use this description of the reaction was to be expected as no matter what President Trump and our allies do there will be detractors who are looking for opportunities to speak against the President.
The diplomatic messages of this strike go far beyond the Syrian government. The clear pronouncement that the intent was not to target Syrian President Assad tells Kim Jung Un of North Korea that the US can accomplish its military objectives without necessarily threatening the regime leadership. (This is not to say that decapitation isn’t an option.) With the upcoming denuclearization discussions between President Trump and Kim Jun Un it is clear that Kim not necessarily feel personally threatened.
The preparations for the North Korea / United ‘States historic meeting are ongoing using multiple different avenues for the preparation of the meeting. Reportedly CIA Director/Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo is leading the back channel preparatory talks. The summit will follow a meeting between Pompeo and his North Korean counterpart.
Israel is touting the strikes as a message for Hezbollah and Hamas.
Russia is certainly evaluating President Trump’s resolve to not condone chemical weapon usage. The same is true for Iran as the May Iran nuclear agreement review approaches. John Bolton’s appointment as the National Security Advisor also tends to show an increased hardline by the administration on the major issues facing the United States. Certainly potential adversaries are viewing this whole set of events as a new entity.
The continuing fight against ISIS may have had an unintentional consequence. The net winner of ISIS’s destruction is clearly President Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies. The anti- Assad forces were not capable of filling the vacuum created by the damage to ISIS. The continuing conflict in the region is extremely complex given all of the players. This has been a subject of previous articles and one that we will return to in the future.
True to form the hard left politicians like Nancy Pelosi are condemning the attacks as uncivilized. This condemnation is to be expected. The other side of the aisle has been supportive the attacks. However, there seems to be a universal return to the discussion of the war fighting powers of the President. This is a continual power struggle between the executive and the legislature. This debate is probably more posturing than reality but may continue for several weeks and then return to its traditionally dormant status.
The attack against Syria may be the opening gambit in several future conflicts–Russia‘s desire to increase its posture in the Middle-East, Iran’s goal of forming a Caliphate across the region and its conflict with the Gulf Cooperative Council, and Israel’s continual struggle for survival. These are all issues we will be watching closely.
North Korea has recently announced a willingness to:
- Meet in a summit of the Koreas
- Defer its nuclear and missile testing while seeking some form of negotiated agreement
- Stated a willingness to de-nuclearization in exchange for some form of non-aggression effort from the US.
The recently concluded Winter Olympics provided a scene changer and face saving opportunity for the North Koreans. Behind the screen of the Olympics the North Koreans could say that the atmosphere of détente offered by the South and the world conclave showed a different face of a world willing to talk to the Koreans. It might be that the continuing tightening embargoes and financial and trade isolation of the North was finally being felt. Those who oppose President Trump’s saber rattli9ng will be quick to jump on this position. They will also quickly seek a loosening of the military build-up and potentially the offer of lifting of trade restrictions to show good faith. To say that this is what the North Koreans are seeking would be an under-statement.
The North Koreans played a similar game with Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama with the desired results. The North Koreans have demonstrated a much longer view of history than past US administrations. The North’s bellicosity is reduced, promises made, military preparedness reduced and from Clinton energy and trade concessions made in exchange for what? Words? What concessions in reality were made? NONE!
A program of international inspections to verify the dismantling of certain production facilities—nuclear and missile technologies—is what is required for there to be a meaningful change in the situation on the Korean peninsula. Will the North Koreans agree to such terms? Will the South Koreans have the backbone to hang tough in demanding such terms in the face of numerous promises and possibly even the renewal of family visits? That would be tough for the South Koreans to do.
In short while the North Korean words sound good, we are a long way from a meaningful resolution to this almost 75 year old growing problem. This will require continued vigilance and as Ronald Reagan said: “Trust but verify.”
President Trump’s tweets and what seem to be off the cuff remarks are providing a perfect smoke screen for the media that want to focus on what they think is outlandish rather than do good journalism and find out what is happening behind the smoke screen.
Behind the smoke screen and the bluster and the magician act that the President is using to focus attention there seems to be a lot going on. Hate for Trump, which the President thrives on, is allowing strategic activity that would remind one of the Kissinger days when the bureaucracy was busing doing busy work while real strategic moves and ground work were occurring behind the scenes.
National Security Adviser Lieutenant General H R McMaster
If one follows the National Security Adviser LTG H R McMaster there is not much to see until this last week. During the annual Munich Security Conference he seems to have emerged and has laid down several markers:
- Used the incontrovertible truth that Russia sought to sow instability in the US elect ion process as a background to say that it was impossible for the US to work with Russia on cyber issues.
- Called for action against Iran while scolding those states that traded with Iran for giving the terrorist sponsor a blank check
- Called for action against Syria for using chemical weapons again
In addition he orchestrated the current Olympics lowering of the volume with North Korea. One can readily see the North Koreans using the very fragile détente with South Korea coming out of the Olympics as an excuse for a “delay” in missile testing.
One can be sure that both LTG McMaster and Secretary of Defense Mattis, who has also adopted a low profile, are very aware of the trategic weapons growth by the Russians and Chinese and are laying long term plans to address the potential imbalances.
As the remarks in Munich indicate relations with Russia and the current sanctions will not improve until Russia makes a positive move in the Ukraine or elsewhere. In the meantime the nuclear modernization announced by the President will go on unabated. Is the ground work being laid for a new round of arms control negotiations in 2019?
If the naval armada that has gathered in the South China Sea as a deterrent to North Korea starts migrating towards the Persian / Arabian Gulf one can anticipate the screws being applied against Iran. Obviously Secretary of State Tillison and LTG McMaster’s trips to Turkey and discussions with the Saudis and Israelis have laid the groundwork for such actions. These discussions also have further provided the venue for a consensus on how to deal with the continuing Syrian debacle.
In the first year of the Trump Administration while working behind the Trump smokescreen Trump’s National Security Strategy (NSS), was put together by McMaster’s team. It champions a realpolitik worldview that puts American national interests first and sees the world as a competitive stage. “The United States will respond to the growing political, economic, and military competitions we face around the world,” the NSS states.
Additionally, it has a focus on “revisionist powers” China and Russia and “rogue regimes” North Korea and Iran as acting in ways that are against American interests. “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence. At the same time, the dictatorships of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran are determined to destabilize regions, threaten Americans and our allies, and brutalize their own people.”
The strategy development in which the entire national security apparatus –State, Defense, and Intelligence Agencies etc.—participated took a year. The media has given little attention to this strategy complaining that it is lacking in detail. One is now starting to see the details based upon that the interests and objectives that were clearly defined and agreed to across the government. In their most likely timeline now is the time for the deliberate but well thought out execution behind the smoke screen provided by the President.
It will be fascinating to see the media reaction as they see behind the smoke. Or will they given their Trump hatred?
Recently I have read in multiple publications the exact same article—verbatim. I guess some must think that because it is printed in so many publications that it must be true. Well, maybe. The articles say that the US is considering what is called a bloody nose attack against North Korea. What is a bloody nose attack you ask?
A bloody nose attack is said to be an effort to destroy the next missile that Kim Jun Un launches. The idea is to intercept the missile early in the launch phase. The goal is to show the North Koreans that the US is serious about its demands of limits on North Korean missiles and nuclear weapons. Many argue that such an attack is fraught with dangers,
- How will the North Koreans respond? Will they perceive this action for what it is a limited attack? If they do not perceive this or do not wish to perceive it those that are against the attack fear that they will respond massively against South Korea.
- What if the attempt fails? The prestige of the US will be greatly reduced, the pundits argue, and that of the North Koreans enhanced.
- What if the attack succeeds? The North Koreans will have been embarrassed and because of the loss of face will either retaliate or be more willing to negotiate since it had been shown that their missiles could be intercepted.
I should also note that several congressmen have reported that F-35s with heat seeking missiles could destroy any missile in the launch phase. Most of such reports do not link this to the time it takes the North to prepare a missile for launch or the ability of US intelligence to “see” the preparations and thus put the F-35s on station. (I have been amazed that this information was leaked, but maybe it is part of my fourth option below.
The media is reporting that the National Security Advisor supports the attack while the Secretaries of State and Defense oppose it. One almost never reads anything about the positions the LTG McMaster has supported. Such deliberations are usually one thing that remain secret in a leaky administration. This leads me to my fourth option.
The fourth option is a psychological warfare against the North designed to ratchet up the pressure. One could argue that the saber rattling and now the threats of a bloody nose attack are designed to force the North Koreans to seek alternative ways to lower the pressure. If one buys this strategy he could say: “Look it is succeeding.” The North Koreans have in fact held talks with the South Koreans that have reduced the pressure some. Possibly, in response to this, President Trump has stated his willingness to negotiate with the North Koreans.
Only time will tell how this will play out but the saber rattling psychological pressure may have worked. If it worked the next question is why previous administrations did not try such an approach? The answer probably has something to do with hutzpah and the willingness to go as far as necessary. We will see.