I had intended to say it was time to mothball the irony that had become inherent in these notes, but then the president's idea of a grand triumphal military march through Washington hit the headlines. He had apparently been wowed by the Bastille Day fete in Paris last July. Even Republican members of Congress have been critical, however. John Kennedy of Louisiana pointed out that such a display usually indicates insecurity rather than confidence, a reminder of Trump's disputes over whose button is bigger. Kim Jong-un regularly mounts military extravaganzas, to general derision worldwide. In any case, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was reported to be looking into the feasibility of his boss's show, though the brass may not be eager to remind the public that a parade usually celebrates a victory. Costs are another key problem — reportedly as high as $50 million — but the Pentagon is also reluctant to add to the burden of active-duty troops just to stroke the presidential ego.
The announcement of this fake-news sideshow came on the heels of a quiet bulletin having to do with the survival of life as we know it: the Pentagon's Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The most salient point: it involves adding to the U.S. arsenal small, "usable" nuclear weapons. These purportedly would allow more flexibility than the huge Armageddon-class items that are appropriate for mutually assured destruction. An insider critic was cited everywhere recently for his quip that the small weapons offered Trump "a gateway drug to nuclear war." Pardon the irony.
The current desire for advantage, rather than anything mutual, is clear. Though he has paid lip service to deterrence, Trump's enthusiasm for the bigger and more potent has often been expressed —"Let it be an arms race!" This has alarmed the nonproliferation professionals, still wedded to the nuclear orthodoxy that "won" the Cold War. The NPR widens the parameters of respectable nuclear-weapons strategy, and the new provocations considered by some to be existential threats are many and varied, including cyber crimes. No doubt, a repeat of 9/11 would clear the bar. But what if a small American city (Omaha, Honolulu?) were made uninhabitable by radiation? Would such an attack, though horrifying, be a threat to the existence of the nation?
One might ask why we need to change the deterrence strategy that has served the country so well. Secretary of Defense Mattis, among others, seems to think the world "is more dangerous now," and this is a key point. He knows that Pakistan, for instance, has small nuclear weapons, though this is seldom discussed publicly. We therefore have to become more safe — impossible, at least psychologically, with the same old weapons. However, there has been little open discussion even of what constitutes offensive and defensive weapons. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry is of the opinion that our current land-based ICBMs themselves could accidently trigger a nuclear war. They are inherently destabilizing, as "they can be used in a decapitating first strike," according to Andy Weber, former assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological programs.
The new "usable" low-yield nukes are necessary to "counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable 'gap' in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities." Note the fine distinction: there is no gap; in fact, we are way ahead of our adversaries. But never mind; even the thought that one might exist has to be thwarted. And note the word "regional." Today's Middle East is that place, the locus of America's generational wars (a.k.a. failures), starting with the destruction of Iraq in 2003, and including Syria. A headline from the February 16 Washington Post adds some appropriate shame: "War-weary Iraq asked its allies for $88 billion. They pledged $4 billion." This was later increased to $30 billion.
Andy Weber, not a mere doomsayer, offers another and "more generous" consideration. Perhaps the NPR is intended to produce bargaining chips for a new round of negotiations. The Republican hero Ronald Reagan built up the U.S. nuclear arsenal before trading some of it away in the 1987 INF treaty. Mattis, an acknowledged intellectual who conferred with a raft of experts before endorsing the NPR, could be preparing a similar surprise for the critics. It would be pleasant to hope so.
To accompany the NPR comes a refighting of the Vietnam War through counterinsurgency (COIN) in the Greater Middle East. This time we will not just kill people and break their stuff. The image of that last helicopter rescuing from the U.S. embassy roof the remnants of our military failure in Southeast Asia is seared into the brains of all Americans who saw it on the news in 1975. Now it's on to Afghanistan, where we have already failed to win a do-over. However, only losers would leave the field, so we push on. Having spent so much and lost so many, we can't stop now. But repeating "The Surge worked!" didn't make it so, nor did obliterating safe havens or winning hearts and minds through more COIN. A new definition of winning is needed, so "maintaining" (not losing) will have to suffice. We very much want to monitor the moves of Pakistan, Iran, Russia, Turkey and even China — though the cover story is always "terrorism."
There are several Middle East battles for the United States not to lose, the hottest ones being in Syria, where Turkey, Israel and Iran are all engaged in a tight space — along with Russia. The region is in Vladimir Putin's backyard, let's remember, and he is on speaking terms with all the parties. Whether he could arrange negotiations between Iran and Israel is doubtful at the moment, but it is clear that the Trump team cannot. To them, it is holy writ that Assad must go, and he has lately been consolidating power. For Russia, the situation in Syria is somewhat analogous to the U.S. monopoly of the "peace process." No European country could take charge, since Israel was only willing to speak to the Americans. It has not turned out well, as Alain Gresh discusses in our interview (p. 158).
The range of articles in this quarter is wide, from a comparison of the so-called deep states in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to the bravery of teachers in occupied Mosul trying to get around the rules imposed by the Islamic State. The biographical sketch of Abdullah Azzam will be of particular interest, spanning as it does his involvement in the Palestinian struggle, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the creation of al-Qaeda. Added to these are pieces on the fate of the Kurds, the reasons for Mubarak's fall, the need for religious realpolitik, Israel's self-inflicted wounds, Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, the psychology of Iran 's supreme leader and our latest Capitol Hill proceedings. And, by the way, according to our publisher's data, this educational goldmine is now delivered to over 11,000 paid institutional subscribers worldwide.