Is There Rhyme or Reason in Trump’s Approach to Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea?

History News Network

In November 2016, Donald Trump swept to the White House making some bewilderingly simplistic promises, which meant keeping out of foreign wars, and concentrating on dismantling America’s internal power structures to recreate them in his own vision. Three months after taking office, he has ordered two big military attacks on Syria and Afghanistan, both within a week. And he is warning of retaliation against North Korea’s maverick leadership.

The start of the Trump administration has been chaotic. He is having to fight hard to implement his plans, especially health care and immigration. He has found that his dehumanizing anti-Hispanic and anti-Muslim rhetoric since his presidential campaign began in June 2015 will be problematic, and slow, to turn into reality.

Hence, Trump has turned his domestic frustration abroad at a dangerously early stage. It took President George W. Bush seven months, and the traumatic events of 9/11, to go on the warpath. Trump has not completed his first hundred days yet.

Donald Trump’s foremost targets are the Muslim world and North Korea. Like al-Qaida during the Bush administration (2001–2009) Trump singles out ISIS, an umbrella for many dispersed violent groups of Sunni fundamentalists, for the ills emanating from the Muslim world, and threatening civilization. He is also consumed by North Korea and its advancing nuclear weapons program. China, North Korea’s ally, has come under fierce criticism from Trump for not restraining the Pyongyang regime, and for manipulating its own currency to steal American jobs.

The Trump administration saw President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his Russian patrons as useful tools in fighting ISIS. The decision to hit the Shayrat airbase with cruise missiles three days after a chemical attack was reported in the rebel-held town of Khan Shaykhun was a policy reversal by Trump.

One noteworthy aspect of the American attack on Shayrat was that while other Syrian facilities were hit at the airbase, the runways which Russia had expanded in 2015, and which Russian warplanes currently use, were spared. Within hours, bombers were flying new missions against anti-Assad forces. The attack on the Syrian airbase also helped Trump counter domestic criticisms of close ties with Putin and the Kremlin lobby, though it was not enough to stop new revelations.

To say that mutual accusations of recent days between the White House and the Kremlin amount to a phony war would be an exaggeration. For domestic political reasons, some tension with America’s foremost nuclear adversary serves a useful purpose, and the Trump administration is learning about political expediency. Nonetheless, Trump’s personal esteem for Vladimir Putin is obvious, and his language about the Russian leader and government is restrained.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent visit to Moscow was full of warnings on both sides, but they were civil to each other. And Tillerson had a two-hour meeting with Putin. The relationship between Washington and Moscow may not be what President Trump would have instinctively wanted. But to say that it is at the lowest point is way over the top. US-Soviet relations were near a catastrophically low point all along from the early 1950s to the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s.

The change in Trump’s approach to China is also intriguing. He had predicted a “very difficult” meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping (April 6-7). Yet, after their state dinner and talks, Trump announced that they had made “tremendous progress,” and that they were going to have a “great relationship.” Trump made no mention of China the currency manipulator, causing a massive trade surplus in Beijing’s favor. On North Korea, Trump said that President Xi had explained the situation, and that he was confident that China would do something.

Trump’s manner of telling the Chinese President over chocolate cake that cruise missiles were on their way to hit Syria was strange and amusing. If the idea was to deliver a shock to his guest over sweet dish, it seemed not to have worked. China gave its verdict soon after Xi had returned home, with the state news agency, Xinhua, calling it “the act of a weakened politician who needed to flex his muscles.” The Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, phoned his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, offering to coordinate with the Kremlin to “cool” the escalating row. Trump had managed to push China and Russia closer.

The United States, meanwhile, sent warships to the region. Not to be left behind, North Korea showed off new missiles in a huge military parade in Pyongyang to celebrate the 105th anniversary of its founding leader Kim Il-sung. As American warships were sailing in the region, North Korea test-fired another missile. It failed, but there may well be more to follow.

As President Trump deals with Syria and North Korea, the stakes are high because of Russian and Chinese involvement. Afghanistan has no such risks. Nearly ten thousand US troops are already deployed in the country, and the Kabul government is totally dependent on American military protection and economic assistance.

Like the cruise attack on Syria, Trump’s decision to drop a 22000 pound GBU-43 bomb (called the Mother of All Bombs) on a network of caves in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan filled him with excitement. It also generated considerable enthusiasm among journalists and analysts in the media.

The instant flurry of excitement aside, the bombing deserves a critical examination of facts which are often ignored. The underground caves were built for, and by, the Mujahideen forces, who received massive support from the administration of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s – the decade in which the United States fought a proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Those fractious Mujahideen groups disintegrated, and new recruits were attracted, giving rise to the Taliban. They, in turn, found common cause with al-Qaida in opposing the United States. Following the assassination of Osama bin Laden, elements of al-Qaida morphed into ISIS. The collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, and Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, meant that more fighters were free to join ISIS.

President Trump called the bombing of the cave complex in Afghanistan “another success,” which made him “very proud” of American military. His administration first claimed that 36 ISIS militants had been killed in the attack. Afghan officials later said that more than 90 people had died.

Contrary to Arab countries, ISIS has found it difficult to establish a firm foothold in Afghanistan, where Afghan nationalism comes in direct conflict with pan-Arab Islamism. Consequently, ISIS-Khorasan (Afghanistan’s old name) is a small group compared to the Taliban – estimated to be no more than a few hundred. ISIS fighters include some disgruntled former Taliban, some new recruits, even fewer Arabs.

It prompted the Economist newspaper to say that although President Trump relishes headlines about his success, the significance of bombing in Afghanistan should not be “overstated as a military game-changer.” In 2001, the predecessor of the GBU-43 bomb (BLU-83) was used against the Taliban in the Tora Bora cave network. But the Taliban survived, have since thrived, and would make it very difficult for the present Afghan government to survive without American protection.

Since the early days of the Cold War in the 1950s, we have witnessed plenty of theatrics from rival leaders with narcissistic tendencies. History tells us about Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il-sung. But theatrics can go wrong, and can lead to disastrous unintended consequences.

We have entered a new era of dangerous theatrics in international politics. Donald Trump and Kim Il-sung are the two leading actors. Let us hope that the rest of the cast will exercise a restraining influence.

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South Africa, the Dalai Lama and China’s Muscular Diplomacy

The question of human rights is never disconnected from politics. The latest controversy over the Dalai Lama’s visa application to visit South Africa has brought the subject to the fore again. The exiled Tibetan leader has been invited to attend the former Archbishop of Cape Town and fellow Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday celebrations. He is scheduled to deliver a lecture there in the coming week. The title is “Peace and compassion as catalyst for change.” But the South African government’s reluctance to grant him a visa has generated a heated debate in the press in South Africa and abroad, including India, his home in exile since 1959. There are accusations that Pretoria is going to deny the Dalai Lama permission in order to please China.

Almost every country proclaims its commitment to human rights, but the conduct of international diplomacy is very different in practice. Freedom and human rights are sacrosanct as long as they do not test relations with friendly governments and do not come too close to home. If the Dalai Lama’s visit fails to materialize, as seems likely, this will be the second time in two years that the South African authorities have denied a visa to one of the world’s most revered figures.

In 2009, Pretoria refused him entry to attend a Nobel laureates’ conference. The reason given was that the Dalai Lama’s presence would “detract attention from the 2010 football World Cup.” Then, Desmond Tutu, a central figure in the struggle against White minority rule before the end of apartheid in 1994, denounced it as “disgraceful,” accusing the government of “shamelessly succumbing to Chinese pressure.” That event was cancelled. As on the previous occasion, Pretoria denies acting under Chinese pressure now.

That relations with China play no part in the South African government’s policy toward the Dalai Lama is difficult to believe. Pretoria’s dithering over his visa application came as South Africa’s deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, embarked on a mission to Beijing to attract Chinese investment. China’s clout has been important for South Africa’s entry into the club of emerging economies, Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC). South Africa’s “economic miracle” in less than two decades is, in large part, due to Chinese investment. The South African deputy president’s host in Beijing was Vice President Xi Jinping, tipped to be China’s next leader.

The Dalai Lama last visited South Africa in 1996. Nelson Mandela was president and post-apartheid South Africa, though struggling, was at its zenith. It would be fair to note that subsequent presidents, Thabo Mbeki and Alfred Zuma, are no Mandela, who is now too old and frail to be active in public life. From the heights of idealism and adulation for Mandela and his country, South Africa has entered the arena of twenty-first century geopolitics and alliances based on immediate self-interest. In the first six months of 2011, South African exports to China amounted to nearly 40 billion rands; imports from China were a little more than that. The South African economy is booming. Like other emerging countries, South Africa plays an increasingly important role in the geopolitics of the African continent and beyond. Not even Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama can be allowed to get in the way.

It is necessary to cast our eyes beyond the current topic of concern and remember other examples of how geopolitical considerations undermine the principle of decency and rationale underpinning justice and morality. In October 2009, Barack Obama canceled a meeting with the Dalai Lama in Washington, as the Chinese official campaign against him took on a particularly aggressive tone. Obama thus became the first American president not to welcome the Dalai Lama in the White House since 1990. Stung by widespread criticism and amid worsening relations with Beijing over a multibillion dollar weapons deal between the United States and Taiwan, the U.S. president did meet the Dalai Lama in 2010.

In 2008, Gordon Brown, then British prime minister, chose not to meet the Tibetan spiritual leader at his official residence, 10 Downing Street, for fear of offending the Chinese leadership. Instead, Brown had a brief meeting with him at the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, also refused to see him, as did the Estonian prime minister and speaker of parliament this year.

The South African government’s failure not to even respond to the Dalai Lama’s visa application is extraordinary. It is offensive to him and offensive to Desmond Tutu, who invited him. It is another episode in a long sequence of timid submissions by world leaders in the face of China’s muscular diplomacy and the West’s decline. That we should witness the absence of real leadership that will stand by what is right is a tragedy.

 

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Obama’s policy on China and Iran

Deepak Tripathi

Recent disturbances in Iran and China have drawn attention to not only the fragility of their socio-political systems but also to contradictions in how the United States and other Western powers react to such events. America’s response  to demonstrations in Iran after the presidential election of June 12, 2009 has grown from one of caution to aggression and confrontation. On the contrary, its reaction over the outbreak of violence between Uighurs and Han Chinese in the far-flung region of Xinjiang in south-east China three weeks later has been one of timidity and silence.

Elections in Iran are not perfect, but China is worse for its citizens, its minorities in particular. The most contentious aspect of elections in Iran is the process of approval of candidates by the Guardian Council, a body dominated by the conservative clergy. That process having been completed, campaigning in the run up to polling had been remarkable. The US-style television debates were notable for their sharp exchanges between candidates. All that changed after the authorities in Tehran announced the victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the conservative incumbent, over his main rival, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, perceived as a relatively liberal figure in Iranian politics. The margin was overwhelming – 63 percent for Ahmadinejad to 33 percent for his nearest rival, Mousavi.

While the Organization of Islamic Conference, Russia, China and India, among others, congratulated Ahmadinejad on his re-election, allegations of fraud were raised almost immediately in the United States, Britain and other European countries. President Obama appeared reluctant in the beginning to join in the chorus of protests from America’s right. He even said that he did not want to be seen as interfering in another country’s affairs.

America’s political right and Israel lobby, represented by Republicans and Democrats alike, saw an opportunity. The Republican right, in particular, is keen to portray Obama as weak just as it had done during the Clinton presidency. Obama’s statement about ‘unclenched fist and extended hand of friendship’, aimed precisely at countries like Iran, had triggered alarm bells among hawks on both sides. Senator John McCain, defeated by Obama a few months before, thundered on NBC’s Today show, demanding that “Obama declare this a corrupt, fraud, sham of an election. The Iranian people have been deprived of their rights.” After that intervention, voices against Iran became progressively shrill.

There are people close to the administration that believe Ahmadinejad actually won the election. The huge margin alone would make it difficult to fix the result in a country where the levels of education and political awareness are high. Time magazine on its website carried an article dated June 16, 2009; the headline was ‘Don’t Assume Ahmadinejad Really Lost’. The story, written by the magazine’s intelligence columnist and former CIA field officer Robert Baer, made the point that demonstrations against the election result were held in north Tehran and in public places like Azadi Square, where the educated and wealthy live. These middle class liberals are among supporters of Mousavi, who say the election was stolen from him. Baer pointed out, however, that protests in poor slums and rural areas of Iran were almost absent. It is in these areas that support for Ahmadinejad is concentrated. But such reports are inconvenient for anti-Iran hawks in Washington.

On July 5, Vice President Joe Biden sounded a strident note. In a long exchange on the ABC’s television show, This Week, Biden’s remarks were interpreted as showing the green-light to Israel’s war-mongering Netanyahu government to do what it wants in relation to Iran. Asked whether the Obama administration would stand in the way in case Netanyahu decided that Iran posed a threat and wanted to take out the nuclear program, Biden replied: “We cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can or cannot do.” The most one-sided logic if there was one. Clearly, the principle of sovereignty applies to Israel, but not to Iran. Barely 48 hours had passed when Obama was forced to deny there was any green-light from Washington to Israel to bomb Iran.

The Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was not going to be left behind in this game of aggressive posturing. On July 15, she warned Tehran that Washington’s offer of ‘engagement’ was not indefinite. Iran must respond now to overtures from Obama, or it could face more isolation. How can a US politician known for her closeness to the Israel lobby, and who spoke of ‘obliterating Iran’ during her failed presidential campaign in 2008, be trusted to want peace with Israel’s main adversary in the Middle East? And how can condemnations of ‘election fraud’ in Iran have any real effect from a country where, as many Iranians remember, Al Gore lost the presidency in the most bizarre circumstances to George W Bush in the November 2000 election?

The events in Xinjiang highlight a deep festering crisis in a forgotten corner of China, where some of the most brutal tactics of suppression have been used by Beijing against the ethnic Uighurs, the Turkic Muslim community. Just like Tibet, large numbers of Han Chinese have been moved to the region, reducing the Uighur population to less than half. Xinjiang has seen several rebellions in the past. The toll in the latest violence is high – almost 200 dead, more than 1700 injured and hundreds detained and tortured in one of the most remote parts of the world. The number of Uighurs leaving Xinjiang is in the thousands.  

Despite all this, the response of the Obama administration, in particular of his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, continues to be minimalist and weak. The White House spokesman called for ‘restraint’ by both sides – an odd attempt to strike a balance between China’s rulers, whose treatment of dissidents and ethnic minorities has long been brutish and nasty, and a minority at the receiving end of the full force of the Chinese state. This contrast between Washington’s attitudes to Iran and China underlines the vulnerability of the United States today. According to the US Census Bureau, bilateral trade between China and America in 2008 was in excess of $300 billion. America owes China the largest public and private debt of around $2 trillion. And China is still useful as a counter to Russia. In an era of war-weariness and economic vulnerability, the Obama administration continues to show prudence without principle on the one hand and diplomacy without knowledge on the other.

The above article was published by CounterPunch on July 20, 2009.

The tragedy of Tibet

On John Kelly, ‘Gordon Brown agrees to meet Dalai Lama in May’, Prospect First Drafts, March 20, 2008

Deepak Tripathi  

When a powerful nation is rattled, its leaders usually resort to brute force and intemperate language. This is what we see in the recent conduct of the Chinese authorities in Tibet. Terms of abuse like ‘the Dalai clique’ and unproven accusations that the Dalai Lama has orchestrated the recent riots in Tibet illustrate this. Few people outside China find such allegations credible.

Repression and rebellion are frequent companions. Violence cannot be condoned, but equally a repressed people can take only so much. The Dalai Lama’s sadness and frustration were all too obvious when he described the Chinese crackdown in Tibet as a ‘cultural genocide’. Restrictions on the teaching of Tibetan, freedom to practice religion and way of life over half a century are a deliberate campaign against Tibetan culture. Despite all this, Tibetans have shown extraordinary resilience over the last 50 years.

The world had abandoned Tibet years ago. What makes the tragedy even greater now is that, in the post-9/11 world, the state can do no wrong in dealing with citizens who oppose its repressive policies. The Chinese government depicts the Tibetan protestors, many of them Buddhist monks, as a small politically-motivated group of criminals. Yet China admits that the disturbances have spread to neighbouring provinces of Tibet. President George W Bush says that politics has no part to play in the Olympic Games in Beijing this summer. His words must be music to the ears of Chinese leaders.

Nonetheless, recent events are a reminder that, for all its economic success, there is a festering crisis in China. Almost twenty years ago, a systemic crisis led to upheaval in what was the Soviet Union. The character of the Chinese crisis may not be wholly economic. But the boom has created a dangerous gap between rich and poor.

Economic development gives discontented people means to communicate – mobile phones, internet cafes and, to some extent, freer word of mouth through travellers. Communication in restrictive societies leads to the very political debate which their rulers do not welcome.