Whenever a US president is doing badly in the polls, he has a easy way of distracting the media and giving his poll numbers a boost – bomb someone. So given recent events, it would be worth reviewing the options as regards who Trump might go to war with.
Firstly, it has to be said that Trump is in a mess of his own making. Clearly the Syrians only launched this chemical attack because they’d been led to believe that Trump was a Putin groupie and naturally assumed that they could get away with this. He’d sent out all sorts of signals that suggested that, e.g. dropping the Obama era requirement that Assad must step down. This mirrors events leading up too the first gulf war where Saddam, an ally of the US misinterpreted signals coming out of the Bush Snr white house and reached the conclusion that they’d be okay with him taking over Kuwait (of course they weren’t!).
And Trump himself has been under pressure, with federal investigations ongoing into the financing of his campaign and possible links to Putin. And while Trump spent most of the last eight years complaining about Obama’s travel costs, its been pointed out that the costs of travel and security he’s run up just jetting back and forth to Mar-a-lago is set to cost as much in his first year as Obama’s total travel and security bill cost over eight years.
Meanwhile, where was the UK in all of this? Normally when the US bombs someone the UK are part of the strike force, the PM and ministers are railing support from NATO and making speeches in front of Downing street about being shoulder to shoulder with the US. Instead, May, Boris & Fallon spend the last few days scurrying away from reporters like frightening Chihuahua’s and cancelling international travel plans. The reality of brexit is that what influence the UK had over either the US or the EU it has now lost. And given that the UK will be spending the next two decades negotiating trade deals it cannot afford to make enemies with anybody.
The UK is now about as relevant to geopolitics as Switzerland. Much as I warned would happen in the event of brexit, rather than Empire 2.0 what the brexiters have gotten is a downgrade of the UK to that of a 3rd rate power.
But I digress! Given recent events its possible that Trump might decide to intervene more aggressively in Syria or Iraq, taking on ISIS, Assad or both. In effect he’s simply adopting a more gung-ho version of Obama’s policy in the region. A policy he himself was critical of during the election campaign. So this represent a massive flip flop.
However, the reason why Obama was more measured in his dealing with events in Syria was because he did not want to provoke the Russians. The US could easily overwhelm the Russian and Syrian forces with a massive bombing campaign. But there would be risk of the Russians retaliating in another sphere, most likely the Baltic.
Also bombs do not solve the problems on the ground in Syria or Iraq. All a bomb does is eliminate the target you are firing at. The pilot has barely made it back to base and ISIS have re-occupied the position he just bombed. While the US has allies on the ground, at the end of the day, brave as they are, they aren’t professional armies, they lack in terms of equipment, numbers and training. They are struggling to do the job. The battle for Mosul, a city which ISIS took in a day, is likely to run for several months.
The only way to stop ISIS, or stop Assad’s barrel bomb attacks on civilians is to put troops on the ground. Either through an invasion or a UN backed peace keeping force. To say that this could get very messy very quickly is to put it mildly. Consider we are now 5,091 days since Bush declared mission accomplished in Iraq….so presumably the mission was to create a military quagmire that’s likely to last longer than the Vietnam war! Trump or NATO intervening like this would therefore mean the US getting involved in a very messy and long term mission with no obvious exit strategy. And again, that would certainly enrage the Russians. I don’t see Trump’s supporters being too keen on this (I won’t be too keen on it myself either!), indeed it would more or less guarantee him and the GOP losing the next election, likely to an anti-war left wing populist of some kind.
America’s favourite bogeyman, is another obvious target. Trump and the GOP were very clear during the campaign that they planned to tear up Obama’s peace plan, potentially leading to conflict with Iran. However to say this would be problematic is to put it mildly. The “blow back” would be fairly considerable.
The thing is that Iran and the US are essentially now allies in the fight against ISIS. Most of the forces fighting ISIS in Iraq are Shia’s, allied to Iran. The Iranians are also supplying logistical support to these forces and they have military advisers on the ground in Iraq. If America were to attack Iran, they’d be effectively declaring war on Iraq as well, so they can kiss goodbye to all of that Iraqi oil too. Their problems with regard to ISIS would magnify greatly. And as the Iranians have links to various terrorist groups (e.g. HAMAS, Hezbollah, etc.), the US would effectively be escalating the war on terror.
As a result of this obvious blow back the original Republican plan was to get the Israeli’s to do America’s dirty work for them. They would launch air strikes against Iran, with American support. However, Iran’s ally, Russia, has ruled out that possibility. They’ve recently provided the Iranians with their advanced S-300 missile system. This, in the words of some analysts, renders Iran “Israel proof”. And even if the Israelis were prepared to attack, they’d run the risk of Russian retaliation against them if they did. So America would have to undertake the attacks using its own forces and that would mean facing the aforementioned “blow back” and dealing with the possibility of Russian retaliation, either in the Middle East or in some other sphere, likely the Baltic.
More importantly, what would bombing Iranian targets achieve? Well not a lot. There would be two possible outcomes. A) The Iranians just rebuild the facilities. Or B) they invite the Russians into the country and they set up a missile base in Iran putting Israel and America’s allies in the region a few minutes flight time from nuclear attack. Neither sounds like a positive outcome.
Trump has been fairly hawkish with regard to North Korea. Surely here’s an enemy who he can take on and beat and not face much blow back? Certainly North Korea is a bit of a paper tiger. They like to talk big, people often point to their vast army of nearly 1 million personnel and 5,500 tanks. However as one CIA officer commented “there’s a world of a difference between an army with 5,000 tanks if half of them don’t work”…or the regime lacks the fuel reserves to drive them all any more than a few miles! The reality is that there army is equipment with outdated vintage cold war equipment, their troops half starved and poorly trained. Their airforce has only about 40 aircraft of 4th generation fighter standard, while the South Koreans have hundreds and the Americans have thousands. The reality is that even if the US stayed neutral, the South Korean military are quite capable of defeating North Korea all by themselves. With American support, the war becomes a foregone conclusion.
So why haven’t the South Koreans, or their US allies, done something about North Korea before? The CIA have an acronym which neatly describes the problem and North Korea’s defensive doctrine – CFC. Which stands for Crippled Fearsome Crazy. Crippled in that the country is destitute and any invader would face a massive reconstruction bill (even if they didn’t drop a single bomb, they’d be rebuilding the country from scratch). Fearsome in that they have WMD’s galore, hundreds of artillery pieces aimed at Seoul and nuclear weapons too. And while they don’t have a missile that can reach the US, they can certainly hit targets in Korea or Japan. And there’s nothing to stop them simply smuggling a bomb into San Francisco bay in a submarine or a cargo container. And Crazy in that the North Korea is a totalitarian anthill known for its wacky and insane government policy. We’re talking about a country whose official head of state has been dead for twenty years. And as they would have nothing to lose by using their arsenal, it can be assumed that they will do so if provoked.
North Korea’s advances stealth technology allows them to hide almost the entire country at night!
So if Trump wants to make waves with North Korea, he’ll need to find a way around CFC, or be prepared to bear the consequences of breaching it. And he’s likely to find the South Koreans unwilling to do so, not unless the North Koreans do something really stupid. Also one has to consider how North Korea’s allies, China and Russia (yep they keep on cropping up don’t they?) would react to this.
The Chinese and Russians would probably object to them being described as North Korea’s allies. In truth their attitude to North Korea is a bit like most people’s attitude to some crazy racist elderly relative who goes around screaming abuse at foreigners and ethnic minorities. Its not as if you stand their applauding him for this. But if someone decided to give the old git a bit of a kicking, you’d probably not be happy about that, even if you reckoned they deserved a bit of a slap.
The Chinese often claim they worry that if North Korea were attacked and the regime collapsed they’d face waves of refugees. In reality, that’s not really the issue. In truth they just don’t want to share a land border with a US ally. So if North Korea were attacked, its possible they (and possibly the Russians too) would retaliate in some way. Either economically, or militarily. The economic consequences of taking on China would hit America where it hurts and Trump voters would feel the brunt of it. So any president who provokes China best be prepared to lose the next election. In terms of military intervention, there is no way the South Koreans and the US could hold back China’s massive land army if they came streaming over the Yalu river.
So all in all, North Korea is a country best handled with kid gloves…. not least because Kim Jung-un’s kid gloves are probably made from real kids!
South China Sea
China has been engaged in a long term dispute over a series of Islands in the South China sea. Under international law any Island, even if its a rock that every second wave submerges, a 12 km ring around that is considered its claimant’s sovereign territory. And for 200 km’s around it, that’s your exclusive economic zone. So the Chinese have laid claim to various rocks and reefs in the South China Sea and thus tried to lay claim to vast areas of sea, some of which may harbour significant fossil fuel reserves. More recently they’ve begun to enlarge these reef’s and build ports, military bases and air strips on them.
Again this is a war America could potentially win. While the Chinese have a vast army, their navy is relatively small and could not stop an American invasion of these Islands. However, the Chinese could certainly give the Americans a bloody nose. Their submarines and long range “carrier killing” missiles could sink US carriers and surface ships, inflicting very high causalities on the Americans. Trump would thus need to explain to the American public why thousands had to die for a few patches of soggy sand that didn’t have enough land area to bury all of the war’s victims.
And who would America be fighting for? There are three countries disputing China’s claim – the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan. The Philippines under Manchurian candidate populist Duterte has recently been cosying up to the Chinese, so he’s unlikely to be happy or support American military intervention. Vietnam would unsurprisingly be against any intervention as they would guess they’d be unlikely to benefit from it. Taiwan would worry about Chinese military or economic retaliation if they got involved. So America could go to all this trouble to capture these Islands, only to have to hand them back to the Chinese after a few months. So difficult to see the positives in this one.
Estonia and the Baltic
As noted, almost anywhere Trump chooses to go to war he’ll find his BFF Putin as being either the likely enemy, or the ally of that enemy. And the danger is that the Russians might be tempted to retaliate in another sphere if America attacks them or their allies somewhere else. The most likely flash point is the Baltic states, notably the Northern corner of Estonia, which has a large Russian population.
Much how North Korea is a paper tiger, Russia’s military capability is often overestimated. Yes they have 15,000 tanks, but most of those are obsolete (Western tanks ran up cricket score kills against tanks of a similar vintage during the gulf war) and poorly maintained and won’t last more than a few seconds against NATO forces. In truth Russia has about 2,500 combat capable tanks, while the European NATO armies have 6,000 and America has about 3,000 more. The Russians have a large air force but again most of its aircraft are obsolete (e.g. Russian made aircraft performed very poorly against NATO aircraft in the past, e.g. during the Kosovo crisis). The reality is that they only have about 200 jets that are up to 4.5 generation standards, while NATO has over a thousand of this standard and the US has many times more (plus stealth aircraft and 5th generation fighter aircraft). While yes Russia has a large army, much of these troops are conscripts (read frightened teenagers) and veteran units who are a little too veteran (the Russians treat their army as a jobs-4-the-boy‘s program and have a lot of soldiers who are a little too old to be doing the job they are doing).
However, this is not to suggest that NATO will have everything their own way. The very spot the Russians are likely to attack, Estonia, happens to be a spot NATO would find difficult to defend. Its very likely that if the Russians launched a strong push here they could catch NATO with its pants down and take over a significant chunk of land before NATO could adequately respond. Now there would be nothing to stop NATO retaliating, e.g. by occupying the Kallingrad pocket or driving Russian separatists out of Eastern Ukraine or the Crimea. So its all too easy to see how a war could start here and then escalate into something more serious. While Trump doesn’t want Estonia to be the hill on which he and Putin die on, it could easily be the case.
The Russian are caught up in neo-fascist patriotic fervour. They are using to seeing their military parade every year in their nice shiny boots and think they are invincible. Go on the internet and you’ll find all sorts of crap from Russian bloggers about how brilliant their army is and how their equipment is the best, which is at odds with actual performance. In truth, they recently struggled to beat a handful of lightly armed Chechen rebels and had to subcontract that out to local mercenaries. They also struggled to beat Georgia, the world’s 110th largest army.
Tempted by the assumption that Trump is their ally (much as Assad recently was) you could see how Putin might gamble on a quick military victory to earn him some browning points at home. Only to then get drawn into a wider conflict. Putin would very quickly find himself in conflict with not just NATO but with the US military. American air force planes, including A-10 tankbusters are stationed just a few minutes flying time away from this flash point and US ground forces are active in the region too. If the Russians were to attack, under current NATO rules, commanders in the field do not need the permission of the white house to shoot back in self defence. And indeed given how critical it would be for NATO to hit the Russians with everything they had the minute they crossed the border, they couldn’t afford to wait for Washington to micromanage the situation.
In other words the only way for Trump to stop getting into a war with Putin in this scenario would be to order those forces in advance of an attack to stand down. But that would expose him as the Benedict Arnold many suspect him to be. He’d be removed from office very swiftly (and likely have himself a little “accident” while awaiting trial for treason) and president Pence would immediately reverse those orders. So its all to easy to see how events here could spiral out of control.
Closing on midnight
All in all, what’s likely to confront president Trump and his team is the world is very different from what past US president’s faced. What little political capital the US had post-cold war G. W. Bush blew it on his pointless war in Iraq. Obama spent the last eight years putting out fires….as well as hunting down Bin Laden. In almost every possible theatre, the US faces the risk of serious and long term blow back if it gets involved in any conflict. And America’s likely enemy, or the ally of its enemy, is likely to be Trump’s puppet-master buddy Putin.
But the question is, what happens when Trump is humiliated in one of these potential conflicts? Or what happens when Putin’s army is sent scurrying back to Moscow with their tail between their legs? One often hears the term “cooler heads prevail”. But the real danger is that’s unlikely to happen with either Trump or Putin. Cooler heads would have said that Putin shouldn’t get involved in events in Ukraine. Nor that Trump should have fired off missiles like he did the other day, without first pulling a few diplomatic levers first. And as both are vain, insecure men, its all to likely they would place their fragile ego above the lives of millions.
The one thing you can’t deploy on a battlefield is ego, yet that’s basically both Trump and Putin’s calling card. The fatal flaw of any defence doctrine involving nuclear weapons, is that it assumes the leadership of a nation holding this is sane and rational, yet we’ve a nasty habit of electing leaders who are the very opposite of this. So it is for good reason, the doomsday clock sits closer to midnight than it has since the darkest days of the cold war.