Post #106: Deadlock: North Korea’s Nuclear Test and US Policy

North Korea continues to rattle the cages of both friend and foe.  Despite near-universal condemnation of its fourth nuclear test and a deplorable human rights record, Kim Jong-un defiantly disregards the major powers and the United Nations.  The timing of the test on January 6 may strike some as odd: It came following some positive news about North Korea from the UN—such as a first-ever invitation from North Korea to the UN and European Union human rights representatives to visit—and another round of family reunions between the two Koreas in October.  In fact, just before the test a senior UN official noted that despite North Korean objections to an upcoming General Assembly vote to condemn human rights violations in the North, it had not, unlike in 2014, threatened to carry out another nuclear weapon test (

Why, then, would Kim Jong-un be willing to endure further international isolation, more sanctions, and a ratcheting up of tensions with the United States, South Korea, Japan, and China simply to test another nuke?  Many years of study of North Korea have led me to four fundamental insights about the forces that drive its leadership and may help answer that question:

  1. Militant nationalism, a fierce determination to maintain independence, practice self-reliance to the extent possible, and reject external interference in its decision making.
  2. Mistrust of the outside world, which consists of implacable enemies and faithless friends.
  3. Insecurity, born of a pervasive sense of threats inside and outside the country.
  4. A need for international attention to its interests and respect for regime legitimacy.

If these insights are accurate, what are the policy implications?

First, continued nuclear testing by North Korea is its way of demonstrating independence of action.  Nuclear weapons are the DPRK’s “insurance policy,” the Times’s David Sanger writes ( – its last best hope for regime survival and legitimacy, and the most dramatic way to insist that the North’s interests should not be neglected.  As Aidan Foster-Carter puts it: “Just as in Jerusalem – which gets away with this, unlike North Korea – the view from the Pyongyang bunker is that, in a dangerous world, nuclear weapons are the only sure guarantee of security and survival” (   All one has to do is, through North Korean blinkers, see what has happened in Iraq, Iran, and Libya, where dictators did not have a nuclear deterrent.  Two of them were invaded, and two had to surrender their nuclear-weapon capability.  The official North Korean statement that it “was forced to develop its nuclear arsenal because of the US’s hostile policy against North Korea” may seem incredulous to Americans, but it is quite logical to North Korean leaders.

Second, the longstanding US approach to North Korea’s nuclear weapons is way off the mark.  The Obama administration’s strategy of “strategic patience,” which is not very different from the US strategy under George W. Bush, shows little attention to North Korean motivations. The US insistence that no change in policy is conceivable unless and until North Korea agrees to denuclearize ensures continuing tension, the danger of a disastrous miscalculation, and more and better North Korean nuclear weapons.  The immediate focus of US policy should be on trust building, not on the nuclear issue.

Increasing the severity of punishment, with threats of more to come, is representative of a failed policy.  When the White House press secretary acknowledged recently that the US goal of defanging North Korea had not been reached but that “we have succeeded in making North Korea more isolated ever before,” he was actually acknowledging the failure.  The task is, or should be, not to further isolate North Korea but rather to bring it out of its isolation, starting by accepting the legitimacy of its security concerns.  The more isolated the regime is and the more it is driven into a corner, the more likely it is that it will resort to provocations and shows of strength.

A third conclusion is that demanding that China step up and use its relationship with North Korea as leverage to get it to agree to denuclearize is a fool’s errand.  Secretary of State John Kerry has chided his Chinese counterpart to abandon “business as usual” with the North and join in enacting sanctions on shipping, banking, and oil (  Over many years, Chinese leaders have made plain that North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing endanger China’s as well as Korean peninsula security.  They have shown their displeasure by resuming trilateral Japan-South Korea-China security dialogue after 3 years, and by condemning North Korea’s latest nuclear test in statements from Beijing and in a UN Security Council press statement (

But with all that, the Chinese are not about to dump Kim Jong-un.  Political distancing, yes, but no serious (i.e., destabilizing) economic sanctions such as the US is now demanding. While in Beijing in late January, Kerry threatened that the US, with South Korea’s possible approval (a reversal of position), would go ahead with installing a theater missile defense system (THAAD) that the Chinese have long regarded as actually aimed at neutralizing their own missiles rather than only North Korea’s.  Rest assured that all such a threat will accomplish is to harden Chinese views of US strategy in Asia, lately strained further by heightened US patrolling in the South China Sea, and lessen their commitment to imposing sanctions on the North.

The DPRK’s possession of an increasingly sophisticated nuclear program that aims at miniaturizing bombs is no small matter.  As Sigfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Stanford University professor, and a regular visitor to the North, points out, the North Koreans “may have enough bomb fuel for 18 bombs, with a capacity to make 6 to 7 more annually. That, combined with the increased sophistication they surely achieved with this test, paints a troublesome picture” (  Sanctions, threats, and “half-hearted diplomacy,” Hecker observes, have failed to change the nuclear picture.

Advocates of using force, threats, and pressure to deal with North Korea have nothing to show for their efforts other than more North Korean nukes.  Serious engagement with North Korea remains the only realistic policy option for the United States and its allies. To be effective, however (i.e., meaningful to the other side), engagement must be undertaken strategically—as a calculated use of incentives with expectation of mutual rewards, namely in security and peace. And it should be undertaken in a spirit of mutual respect and with due regard for sensitivity in language and action.

Here are three elements of an engagement package (also see Walter C. Clemens Jr., “How to Deal With Kim Jong Un,” Global Asia, vol. 10, No. 4 [Winter, 2015], pp. 68-78):

First is revival of the Six-Party Talks without preconditions and with faithfulness to previous six-party and North-South Korea joint declarations—in particular, the principle contained in the Six-Party Joint Statement of September 2005: “commitment for commitment, action for action.”  At a new round of talks, the US and its partners should present a package that, in return for verifiable steps to neutralize North Korea’s nuclear arsenal (since elimination of its nuclear weapons seems increasingly remote), provides the North with security assurances, a proposal for ending the Korean War, a nonaggression pact with big-power guarantees (with China on board), and meaningful economic assistance from both NGOs and governments.  Such a major departure from “strategic patience” would be in line with Kim Jong-il’s message to President George W. Bush in November 2002: “If the United States recognizes our sovereignty and assures nonaggression, it is our view that we should be able to find a way to resolve the nuclear issue in compliance with the demands of a new century. . . .If the United States makes a bold decision, we will respond accordingly.”

Second is creation of a Northeast Asia Security Dialogue Mechanism. We might recall that such a group was anticipated in the final statements of the Six-Party Talks, and that South Korea’s President Park has proposed a similar peace initiative.  In the absence of honest brokers for disputes in Northeast Asia, the NEASDM can function as a “circuit breaker,” able to interrupt patterns of escalating confrontation when tensions in the region increase—as they are now. But the NEASDM would not focus exclusively on North Korean denuclearization.  It would be open to a wide range of issues related to security in the broadest sense, such as environmental, labor, poverty, and public health problems; a code of conduct to govern territorial and boundary disputes; military budget transparency, weapons transfers, and deployments; measures to combat terrorism and piracy; creation of a nuclear-weapon free zone (NWFZ) in all or part of Northeast Asia; and ways to support confidence building and trust in the dialogue process itself.  Normalization of relations among all six countries should be a priority; full recognition of the DPRK by the United States and Japan costs nothing but is an important incentive for meaningful North Korean participation.

Third is significant new humanitarian assistance to North Korea.  The US and South Korean emphasis on sanctions punishes the wrong people.  Kim Jong-un’s complete disregard for human rights, vigorously condemned in a UN commission of inquiry report in 2014, is before the General Assembly and will be debated in the Security Council despite China’s disapproval.  (The vote to debate was 9-4 with two abstentions.)  But neither human rights deprivations nor nuclear testing should affect humanitarian aid to North Korea—food, medicine, medical equipment, technical training—which at least helps some portion of its population and sends the message that the international community cares about the North Korean people.  Humanitarian assistance to the DPRK is pitifully little—under $50 million in 2014, and declining every year.

The same kind of steady, patient, and creative diplomacy that led to the nuclear deal with Iran is still possible in the North Korea case.  As the Under Secretary-General of the UN, Jeffrey Feltman, said, Iran shows that “diplomacy can work to address non-proliferation challenges.  There is strong international consensus on the need to work for peace, stability and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.  To achieve this goal, dialogue is the way forward” (












Post #105: Time for a Reset in US-Saudi Relations


The growing rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran is reportedly causing great consternation in US policymaking circles (  Once again, US officials are called upon to decide whether to support an ally that isn’t behaving in accord with US interests, significantly modify the relationship, or abandon it.  The Obama administration, like all its predecessors going as far back as the 1930s, values Saudi oil, notwithstanding the current oil surplus.  But these days it also wants Saudi participation in talks with Iran on Syria’s political future and continuation of the longstanding intelligence agency ties in Syria that involve a division of labor (CIA training, Saudi money and weapons) in the fight against ISIS (

Unfortunately, the Saudis are showing (surprise, surprise!) that they have their own interests, which include confronting Iran, intervening in Yemen’s civil war (using criminally disproportionate force), and avoiding too deep a military commitment in Syria.

People with a long involvement in US Middle East policy naturally deplore the evolving gulf between the US and Saudi Arabia but insist that the Saudis are too valuable an ally to desert.  Dennis Ross, a longtime US State Department negotiator in the Middle East, writes: “Distancing from Saudi Arabia will raise further questions with America’s traditional partners in the Middle East and might mislead the Iranians into thinking the US will never hold them to account on the nuclear deal or their regional behavior” (  For analysts like Ross, Iran remains the primary US foe in the region.  So long as such thinking holds, support—especially with multibillion-dollar arms packages—for “traditional partners” such as Saudi Arabia and Israel will remain firm no matter how often, and how significantly, those countries’ leaders thumb their noses at Washington.

Therein lies the conundrum that so often seems to afflict US policymaking, in the Middle East and elsewhere.  How long must a so-called ally be tolerated and coddled, with mountains of arms, when its actions contradict US policy and violate international norms?  The Saudi royal family runs an authoritarian political system that nurtures radical Islamism, suppresses political criticism, and systematically violates human rights.  Its mass executions that most recently included a leading Shiite cleric and 46 other prisoners are symptomatic of a brutal, insecure leadership that cares little about bridging Sunni-Shiite differences in the region or successfully implementing Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and even less about humane values.

Is this a partnership worth preserving?  And what does it say about US priorities and purposes in the Middle East if the answer is yes?

So long as the Saudi tail is wagging the American dog in the Middle East, ordinary people there will remain convinced that oil and repression-driven stability are the only things that matter to US leaders.  The Saudis have every right to choose their enemies, but by the same token the US has every right to stop soothing and currying favor with a country that is unreliable and unworthy of support.  It’s the same argument for ditching Pakistan, another US partner that Washington consistently rewards with arms despite Pakistan’s awful record on human rights, democratic rule, and fighting terrorism.  (See Post #97, Arming Dictators.)  And it’s the same for ending the reflexive support of Israel, whose actions in the Occupied Territories and treatment of Palestinians are clear violations of international law and humane ethics.

So far the US response has been a tepid criticism of the cleric’s execution, a diplomatic urging of “restraint” by Saudi Arabia and Iran, and a needless reminder to the House of Saud that finding a way to end the Syrian civil war has top priority. The Obama administration might have handled this latest Saudi-Iranian test of strength differently, however.

First, it should have demanded that the cleric’s life, not to mention the lives of the other 46 people, be spared.  That would have avoided the sacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the consequent strengthening of the hardliners in Iran.  If the US demand was not met, it could then take additional steps, such as reducing imports of oil from Saudi Arabia, stopping logistical support of its air operations in Yemen (which should never have occurred in the first place), and cutting military aid to the Saudis.  The Saudis might then have come to their senses and realized that their security problems would only be intensified by rupturing relations with Iran and dramatizing the sectarian divide between Shiites and Sunnis.

Of course, in the “real world” of foreign policy, the US is not prepared and may never be prepared to take such a strong and principled course of action.  Access to oil, support of Israel, and reliance on the authoritarian Middle East monarchies have been staples of US policy for many decades.  Yet wouldn’t it be worth considering that the violence and deprivations of human rights in the Middle East might be alleviated by US adherence to a different set of priorities: social justice, environmental protection (with a focus on water), accountable and transparent governance, and demilitarization through substantial reductions of armaments and arms transfers?

Post #104 –Engaging and Apologizing: Two Exercises, Different Results

The art and wisdom of engaging and apologizing to adversaries was on display in recent days in two very different settings, one in East Asia and the other in the Persian Gulf. Comparing the two—the South Korea-Japan joint statements on comfort women and Iran’s seizure and release of ten US sailors whose boats entered Iranian territorial waters—I find some useful lessons for diplomacy.

The first lesson is that engagement before apologizing stands a much better chance of being effective than apologizing without engagement. The US-Iran case represents the first approach, the South Korea-Japan statements the second. The nuclear deal between Tehran and the US and other parties clearly facilitated the quick release of the US sailors—John McCain’s utterly foolish denial notwithstanding. That deal cemented positive relations between Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, promoted trust as both sides fulfilled their commitments under the deal, and isolated hardliners opposed to the deal in the US and Iran.

Contrariwise, Seoul and Tokyo were at a dead end in relations until they struck a deal that they hoped would finally put to rest the awful history of abuse of Korean women by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. While South Korea was busy courting China, its president flatly rejected a summit meeting with Japan’s prime minister. The long-running dispute over a Japanese apology (see Post #85) kept simmering, with some Japanese rightists even calling the comfort women “prostitutes” and Prime Minister Abe Shinzo hinting that prior official expressions of regret would be overturned.

Against this negative background, the agreement reached last month, in the form of separate statements by the two countries’ foreign ministers, was less binding than it first appeared. Japan did apologize forthrightly, citing “a grave affront to the honor and dignity of large numbers of women,” accepting governmental responsibility, and citing Prime Minister Abe’s “most sincere apologies and remorse” ( Korea promised not to raise the comfort women issue at the UN or anywhere else, and Japan agreed to pay about $1 billion to a Korean government-established foundation. Korea also promised it would “seek to resolve” the matter of a statue of a young woman in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul that has been the scene of weekly protests for the last 15 years by supporters of the comfort women. Nevertheless, the joint statements did not appease strident nationalists in Seoul, who consider the agreement one-sided and treasonous, or in Tokyo, where any concession arising out of World War II is treated as a dishonor to the nation and its armed forces. Consequently, a number of observers don’t see the comfort women issue, including the manner of Japan’s payment to end it, as a final settlement.

The second lesson is that domestic politics rules when leaders consider apologizing. Abe ignored right-wing opposition to the deal, but Korea’s President Park Geun-hye failed to consult the comfort women, who constitute an influential lobby. The organizations that protest on their behalf has a longstanding demand for a settlement that includes Japan’s acknowledgment of full legal (not just political) responsibility for the rapes and abuse of the Korean women. Since the joint statements, this group has sold the Korean public on its position and on the righteousness of continued protests in front of the Japanese embassy.

Iran’s release of the US sailors, on the other hand, was carried out after a minimal apology from their commander, not from the US government itself. That was possible because both countries’ leaderships did their due political diligence, ensuring that extremists (from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz) had no opportunity to garner support for punitive action. The quick settlement is dramatically different from the US-China imbroglio in 2001 following an aerial collision between a Chinese jet and a US spy plane that resulted in the death of the Chinese pilot and the forced landing of the US aircraft on Hainan Island. In that incident, China demanded and received an official apology—US expressions of “very sorry”—before releasing the twenty-four US crew members. By contrast, the Pentagon admitted that the two riverine patrol boats had violated Iran’s territory and that mechanical failure was not the reason.

The bottom line to these stories is that engagement of an adversary, once set in motion, may yield unexpected benefits. Call it a positive domino effect. Apologies are more likely to satisfy hostile publics and legislators if preceded by serious engagement efforts, as with the Iran nuclear deal. But the politics has to be done right, lest enemies of engagement have time to subvert agreements. dismiss apologies, and keep up calls for sanctions—or worse.



Post #103: Terrorism, American Style

As the popularity of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and other race-baiting antidemocratic politicians attest, a significant portion of the American public is hostile to Washington, whether with respect to expansion of civil liberties and human rights, taxation, immigration policy, or diplomacy.  This part of the public wants a strong, no-nonsense leader who will take them out of the cultural and political wilderness, and restore to them (mainly meaning to white male America) the respect and power it once supposedly had (and supposedly deserves).  A subset of this public consists of gun lovers (again, predominately white males) who live by conspiracy theories, a distorted notion of the Constitution and the Bible, and a craving for violent action against authority.  They are our terrorists.

We in America thus must deal with the unfortunate fact that domestic terrorism is becoming a serious national security threat, greatly helped by the provocative rhetoric of the leading Republican presidential candidates.  Since 9/11, “non-Islamic extremists” actually account for more lives lost than “Islamic extremists,” by 48 to 45 (  Yet, this predominantly white, male, Christian terrorism invariably escapes being labeled as such.  Instead, the mass media uses more polite language, such as “militia men” and “armed activists”—words that probably would not be applied if the terrorists were American Indians, African Americans, Jews, or of course Muslims (  As Janell Ross writes in that article, “The descriptions of events in Oregon appear to reflect the usual shape of our collective assumptions about the relationship between race and guilt—or religion and violent extremism—in the United States.”

Which brings me to the current situation in rural Oregon’s Malheur National Forest Refuge.  A small group of self-styled “militia” seems to think that an armed occupation is the only alternative when complaints against government are not satisfactorily addressed.  But that is nonsense: peaceful protest, passive resistance, elections, petitions, and recalls are all available.  A year or so ago, when the Occupy movement was in thrall, peaceful sit-ins were the norm, not armed invasion, seizure of buildings, and declarations of self-rule. The current Oregon situation in fact was preceded by a peaceful protest against federal regulation of ranch land, only to have the “militia” preempt it to serve its own needs.  Its leaders never bothered to ask the Hammond family, on whose behalf the extremists says they are acting, if it wanted their support.  The extremists’ action is reminiscent of various US interventions abroad that have occurred without a request for it by local authorities.

The so-called militia in Oregon is armed and dangerous.  These people have been spoiling for a fight and, while preaching peaceful intentions, seem to welcome doing battle with government officials.  Its leaders speak the language of millenarian groups: referring to loyalty to a higher power, professing to act on behalf of “the people,” vowing violence only if provoked.  This is the familiar language of terror groups which, while to some degree reflecting a larger public anger, exploit it to further its own ambitions.  The Oregon group would like nothing better than to be joined by more far-right antigovernment outfits as a means of self-justification.  It’s a microcosm of the ISIS end-of-days perspective.

Local and federal law enforcement will need to confront these people at some point, hopefully with Waco in mind and therefore without violence.  There are plenty of options, including cutting off the group’s water, power, and telephone to isolate it.  A negotiated solution also seems possible, one that trades the group’s willingness to end its occupation in return for no prosecution.  The federal authorities also might consider reducing the sentences of the two Hammond family members who have been returned to jail.  Their five-year sentences do seem excessive, even for arsonists.  A sentence reduction would calm public resentment in that county and take the ground out from under the terrorists.

Post #102 – Endless War, Undeclared and Undebated

The death of six US soldiers in Afghanistan on December 21 at the hands of a Taliban suicide bomber brings to twenty-one the number of US combat deaths there in 2015.  Once again we must confront the question of national purpose in waging war without debate or declaration.  Like all other battlefield deaths in the Middle East, the Obama administration rationalizes these latest as being part of “training, advising, and assisting,” not combat.  But those are merely code words for direct interventions that the US Congress has not authorized since 2002, in clear violation of restrictions the War Powers Resolution of 1973 places on presidential power.

There will be plenty more casualties in the Middle East for years to come, and not just because of the seemingly permanent US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The main arena in the politics of war lies on the home front, as two recent news items make clear.  One relates Pentagon plans, not yet formally approved, to create a worldwide string of “hubs” as staging areas for Special Operations forces to strike quickly against terrorists.  The second article notes the unwillingness of most members of Congress to introduce and debate a bill authorizing the Obama administration’s use of force in the Middle East and beyond.  The conclusion to draw from this information is painfully obvious: there is no end in sight to the US at war, both because the Pentagon has found the perfect enemy and because no one in Congress is willing to stand up to it.

The Pentagon’s plan is to have a forward presence that, in the words of defense secretary Ashton Carter, “will enable unilateral crisis response, counterterror operations, or strikes on high-value targets” ( Not long ago the Pentagon’s mantra was “places, not bases,” so as to avoid all the political problems, as well as the monetary costs, associated with a permanent military presence on foreign soil.   Now “places” evidently have been modified to “hubs” and “spokes,” Pentagon-speak for small-scale leased bases of the sort already in place all over Africa (see Post #25, A Haircut in Yemen).  Northern Iraq and southern Europe are being considered as additional hub sites.

Not everyone is reportedly on board with the Pentagon’s plan.  The State Department correctly sees it as a power grab that may actually harm US foreign policy.  The plan works at cross purposes with diplomacy, substituting the deployment and use of force for potential opportunities to engage governments and rival groups.  More US military facilities, no matter their size, invite criticism in the host countries, may become targets of terror groups, and feed the hostile propaganda of militants.  In our terrorism era, however, State has no chance to win this battle.

The last time anyone in Congress got serious about its war powers was in May of this year, when Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) introduced legislation to authorize military force against the Islamic State, a step he believed would force debate on what an authorization for war should actually entail.  “There is no doubt that our current offensive amounts to war,” said Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “Congress should take action both to authorize its prosecution and to set limits on that authorization so it may not be used by any future administration in a manner contrary to our intent.” Schiff’s proposed Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) would have limited military action against ISIS to three years; prohibited the use of US ground troops; and immediately terminated both the 2001 and 2002 Congressional authorizations tied to the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq War, removing two pillars of presidential authority claimed by President Obama as sufficient to go after ISIS.  Neither Schiff’s resolution nor a similar one proposed in June by Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ( ever got to the floor of Congress.

Now, however, there is a twist from the previous story: the executive branch wants a new authorization, and it is Congress that is balking about even discussing it.  Democrats fear being seen as weak on terrorism if they try to constrain the president while ISIS is around, and Republicans fear giving him control over what they regard as a weak-kneed strategy (  The president is thus left free to do as he pleases in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, totally ignoring the War Powers Resolution and, as a lame duck, ignoring Congress too.

We, and our members of Congress, need to refresh our memories about what the War Powers Resolution says about the circumstances under which the president must consult with Congress and obtain an authorizing resolution to sustain a military operation beyond 60 days.  Here are the relevant sections of the act:

SEC. 3. The President in every possible instance shall consult with Congress before introducing United States Armed Forces into hostilities or into situation where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, and after every such introduction shall consult regularly with the Congress until United States Armed Forces are no longer engaged in hostilities or have been removed from such situations.

SEC. 4. (a) In the absence of a declaration of war, in any case in which United States Armed Forces are introduced–

(1) into hostilities or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances;

(2) into the territory, airspace or waters of a foreign nation, while equipped for combat, except for deployments which relate solely to supply, replacement, repair, or training of such forces; or

(3) in numbers which substantially enlarge United States Armed Forces equipped for combat already located in a foreign nation . . .

Is there any doubt that President Obama has violated the WPR by introducing and reintroducing US forces into “hostilities,” not only in Afghanistan and Iraq but also in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Pakistan?  Below are some bare-bones figures on US military casualties in the two main conflicts.  I have added estimates of civilian deaths in four of them, as a reminder of who bears the brunt of military operations by all sides and which country’s arms are mainly responsible.

  • In Iraq, over 4500 US military deaths (as of end of 2014), including 256 since Obama took office in January 2009. Civilian deaths since 2003 are estimated by at between 150,000 and 169,000.
  • In Afghanistan, about 2400 US military deaths since 2001, including over 1700 since Obama took office (according to Civilian deaths (as of January 2015) are estimated at 26,000.
  • In Syria, the United Nations estimates over 220,000 civilian deaths since 2010.

Back in February I wrote on “The President and War” (Post #67) at a time when it looked like an AUMF might finally be considered in the Congress.  I offered some generalizations about war powers that I think remain relevant:

  • Congress may sometimes be asked to authorize a war, but presidents make The academic notion of shared powers is something of a myth. Only in rare instances—I think, for instance, of the Boland Amendment that prohibited intelligence agencies from supporting the overthrow of the Nicaraguan government in the 1980s, and the six-month limit that Congress placed on President Reagan’s troop commitment in Lebanon in 1983—will Congress come together to attempt to tie the President’s hands in a war situation.  But those attempts mattered little.  The Boland Amendment failed to prevent President Reagan’s National Security Council from secretly funneling money to the Nicaraguan contras.  And Reagan pulled US troops from Lebanon after the disastrous attack on their barracks in Beirut.
  • Deference to the President on national security is the tradition, often couched in terms of not “hamstringing” him. Even the President’s most hostile critics will bend to his leadership when national security is believed (or said) to be at stake.
  • Republicans are more likely than Democrats to support presidential war making. Today, some of them—for example Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL)—are saying the President should have the authority to use “all means necessary” to defeat ISIS.  In other words, they want to go beyond what Obama is asking under the authorization resolution.  That’s the same mistake Congress made in 1964, in the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, when it gave Lyndon Johnson a virtual blank check in Southeast Asia (“to take all necessary steps . . . to promote international peace and security”).
  • Presidents have many options when it comes to the use of force abroad—options that Congress can do little about. Look at what Obama has already done without Congress: bombing in Syria and Iraq, drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, air strikes against ISIS, and Special Operations raids against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
  • The WPR has never been effective. No president has ever regarded it as a legitimate exercise of Congressional authority in war.  No president has been forced to abide by its key provision: 60 days in which to get Congressional approval of a troop deployment or have to withdraw the troops.  Only a few presidents (including Obama) have even acknowledged the Resolution when planning military action abroad.  All presidents have insisted that as commander-in-chief they have all the constitutional authority they need to make war.
  • Thus, when Congress votes to authorize military action abroad, what it is really doing is legitimizing what the President has already decided to do—and would do even in the absence of Congressional authorization.

So the only difference between then and now is that Congress won’t bother to vote, or even debate, presidential war powers. Senator Kaine is apparently going to try again with his resolution, but even if his or Representative Schiff’s proposal were to pass, the president would not be prohibited from employing the many forms of military intervention he is now using: “advisers,” CIA operatives, and special forces; arms transfers to friendly forces; drone strikes; air strikes by non-US air forces; training of other militaries; and support for the ground forces of third countries or groups.  Congress will thus be bypassed once again. I predict that only a few members of Congress will speak out against the potential human and monetary costs associated with the Pentagon’s latest basing plan.  A safer prediction is that most members of Congress, not to mention most of the presidential candidates, will push for increased use of force abroad.

Thus will endless undeclared, undebated war remain a central feature of the next presidency. You can bet on it.


(A somewhat shorter version of this blog has been published at Lobelog, and by Foreign Policy in Focus,


Post #101: The Paris Climate-Change Agreement: Hold the Champagne


Ban Ki-moon called it “a monumental success for the planet and its people.”  Secretary of State Kerry said it was “a tremendous victory for all of our citizens—not for any one country or bloc, but a victory for all of the planet, and for future generations.”  And President Obama said it was “a turning point for the world.”  Certainly, the Paris accord gives us something to celebrate—a serious undertaking by virtually every country, rich or poor, to commit to reducing carbon emissions such that our warming planet does not rise another 2 degrees Celsius, and if possible no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.  The hope is that the combination of global commitments, technological advances, and business investments will literally turn the tide on climate change.

But of course the devil is in the details, and in the each country’s politics.  The Paris agreement raises the usual questions about government pledges: Will countries fulfill their commitments, and what if they don’t?  More specifically, can and will governments, especially those of highly industrialized countries, take steps to stop and reverse reliance on coal and other fossil fuels?  Will they scratch existing energy and economic growth plans in favor of plans based on renewable energy sources?  Will business investments follow suit?  What will happen to the economies of oil and gas producing countries, to the Big Oil companies and their multibillion-dollar exploration projects, and to the airline and automobile industries (among many others)?

If politics tells us anything, it is that self-interest, not high-minded rhetoric, will carry the day. In the US, Republican climate deniers and their corporate-controlled allies in Congress will be going all-out to prevent funding of the Paris agreement.  They will be joined by critics who say they believe in climate change but don’t like the details of the agreement: the absence of a common way to measure national commitments on carbon emissions; the obligation of developed countries to help fund developing-country carbon-reducing programs; and the fact that the Paris deal doesn’t really take effect until 2020.

You thought the battle over the Iran nuclear deal was a tough slog for Obama?  (Remember that plenty of Democrats didn’t like the details of that deal either.)  Wait ‘til you see this one over climate-change policy.  Now we know just how crucial is the 2016 election, because plenty of climate deniers who are running for election or reelection can make the difference between sense and nonsense when the votes are counted on the environment.

Domestic politics will be no less determining everywhere else.  Fossil fuel-based energy ministries and lobbies are not going to give up without a fight, whether in China, Russia, or Saudi Arabia.  Auto industrialists in Germany and Sweden may not readily accept switching assembly lines to hybrids and battery-powered vehicles. Nuclear power advocates in Japan, France, China, and South Korea will demand top priority for their “clean, cheap” electricity.  If all these naysayers have their way, we won’t have a ghost of a chance to fulfill the wonderful objectives of the Paris agreement.

In sum, I think Justin Gillis, writing in the New York Times, said it best: “The deal, in short, begins to move the countries of the world in a shared direction that is potentially compatible with maintaining a livable planet over the long term” (  The operative words are begins to move and potentially compatible.  You and I won’t be around to actually witness whether or not Paris accomplishes its goals, though if Bill McKibben is correct, we’re already twenty years too late ( .  All we can do now is try to spur truly bold action—with our votes and direct action—as well as make personal efforts to reduce our carbon footprint.

Speaking of votes (and election contributions), my friend Dr. Larry Kirsch has put together a short list of upcoming US Senate races that give Democrats an opportunity to ride the crest of the Paris agreement and take the fight to climate-change deniers.  Here’s his list:

Alaska: Lisa Murkowski, chair of the Senate Energy Committee and therefore in a strong position to put the kibosh on good climate policy, versus Mark Begich, who may be the Democratic challenger and is outspoken about climate change.

Wisconsin: Ron Johnson, climate denier, versus Russ Feingold, who is excellent on climate.

Pennsylvania: Pat Toomey, a climate skeptic and strong advocate for carbon production, versus Katie McGinty (who has a strong environmental record) but is opposed for the Democratic nomination by Joe Sestak.

Illinois: Mark  Kirk, climate denier (as of Jan. 2015), versus Tammy Duckworth or Andrea Zopp.

Missouri: Roy Blunt, consistent opponent of sound climate policy, versus Jason Kander, who is very strong on climate issues and an exciting candidate.



Post #100: China in Paris

Xi Jinping is a lucky man: He got to spend a few days in Paris, at the UN Conference on Climate Change, while his fellow Beijingers suffered under some of the worst air pollution in that city’s history.  Xi’s speech in Paris may have lacked the rhetorical flourishes of Barack Obama, but Xi certainly showed he knows how to say the right things.  He emphasized the importance of acting decisively on climate change, reaching a strong but fair (“win-win”) agreement, transferring technologies to developing countries, and ensuring that the Paris agreement would be a beginning and not an end.  But equally, Xi insisted that any accord should “permit every government to respond as best fits with its national conditions.”  He lauded China’s approach to global warming, including energy conservation and renewable sources such as wind power; but he underscored that China would meet its international obligations under the banner of “national independent contributions,” meaning no legally binding treaty.

Xi thus covers both ends of the climate change debate.  He sides with the developed countries in supporting global governance (meaning rules, not mandates), stressing the urgency of adapting to climate change, and working with Washington to place macro limits on carbon emissions.  Stressing independence of action, avoiding specific targets, and limiting commitments to any international agreement puts China on the side of developing countries.  The Chinese position is clever politics, but really comes down to climate-change marketing: words that appeal to everyone but guarantee nothing.  Ask the folks in Beijing for an opinion, if you can get them to tear off their gas masks and speak frankly.  They might respond with Ronald Reagan’s famous words: Trust, but verify.

The bottom line is that China, like most other highly industrialized countries, is going to move at its own pace on climate change, at a time when many scientists believe that if we are to avoid a two-degree Celsius rise in global temperature, about two-thirds of the earth’s carbon must be left in the ground.  Politics, not the planet, will determine climate-change policy. We see this in China’s coal use, now revealed to be greater than ever—“burning up to 17 percent more coal a year than the government previously disclosed” ( The promise in Xi’s agreement with Obama last fall that the two biggest polluters would work in tandem to attack global warming is heralded by even the most battle-hardened environmentalist (such as Mark Hertsgaard in The Nation:  But that promise seemed shaky even then, since China’s part of the agreement will not need to be fulfilled until 2030, and of course Obama will shortly be out of office, with positive steps such as tougher emissions standards for coal-fired power plants and vetoing of the Keystone XL pipeline subject to reversal by his successor.  Now, there is more reason for pessimism.

One such reason is that China, like the United States, fails to address the two most widely endorsed measures to deal with climate change: a carbon tax and an end to government subsidies to fossil fuel producers.  China’s subsidies to the coal industry are among the world’s largest (  Evidently, the Xi Jinping administration, which has pledged along with many other governments to end subsidies, can no more resist the state-run coal industry than can Washington resist the oil and gas lobbies.  Total fossil fuel subsidies worldwide have gone down of late, but they are still huge: at least $462 billion, by some accounts much larger (  In consequence China’s northeast must endure blinding and health-damaging air pollution, merely one sign of how easily promises are not kept.  (As a friend of mine says, “promises made are a debt unpaid.”)

China’s ambiguous commitments on global warming may be related to Xi Jinping’s expanding net of repression, a subject I touched upon most recently in Post #98.  The scientists and bureaucrats who are helping shape China’s environmental policies certainly deserve applause for taking policy making out of the dark ages, when only capitalist countries were said to have pollution.  But they operate in a closed system, unexposed to people who represent the public interest.  Limiting China’s response to climate change is  politically feasible because of the ongoing roundup and muzzling of lawyers, human-rights activists, liberal professors, and ordinary citizens who protest social conditions–and because of a legal system that supports the party-state’s actions.  For example, a Danish newspaper (Globalt, July 30) reports that in July 2015 alone, over 130 human-rights lawyers were detained in twenty Chinese provinces; 23 of them were arrested.  Amnesty International lists 232 activists and lawyers detained in China during a one-month period last summer (  Tom Phillips has written in The Guardian (December 3) about an official clampdown this year on academic critics—detaining some on corruption charges, preventing others from publishing.  Corrupt behavior there may be, but the political intent of the campaign is clearly to silence those who question absolute communist party rule.  The crime is called “improper discussion of Central [party-state] policies” (妄议中央).  See Wendy Zhou at

I have no idea how many of these human-rights victims are environmental critics, but I’m willing to bet there are quite a few.  They recognize that air and water pollution and incessant carbon emissions from industry and cars cannot be brought under control without fundamental legal, political, and cultural changes—changes that would directly challenge the party-state system.  Applying the rule of law, eliminating conflicts of interest, and curbing official corruption, for example, are crucial to China’s environmental security. Where are the protectors of the environment going to come from if they are under surveillance, forbidden to publish, or in jail?

Critical appraisals of foreign affairs from a global-citizen perspective.


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