Trump’s Decisions, Processes, and Personality Make Armed Conflict More Likely
But first an update:
Not too many days ago, I took Trump to task for failing to visit US troops in combat zones. Most presidents would have made several such trips at this point in their presidency. But, finally, it is done. Trump last week visited troops in Afghanistan, helped serve a meal, talked with small groups of soldiers, and made no blatantly political or inappropriate speeches. I still think he should be impeached immediately, but let’s give credit where it’s deu. By all accounts, it was a solid visit and a good gesture. Better late than never. Now on to today’s discussion.
Clouds on the Horizon
There is a lot of pontificating these days that warfare has changed dramatically. It’s no longer an environment of kinetic energy and explosive power, we hear. Now the threats are artificial intelligence, electronic combat, etc. Well, true enough, to a point. The reality is that these new threats are in addition to, not in place of, traditional means of conflict. Prepare for both or expect to lose. It really is that depressingly simple.
I have mentioned before that there is likely deadly conflict ahead as a result of Trump’s presidency. Real bullets may fly. Real people may die. The conflict may be limited in scope, but these things have a way of getting out of hand. Once started, I would not bet on a simple or peaceful outcome.
This risk seems more likely today that it was almost a year ago, when we first had this conversation. Trump projects chaos, carelessness, distrust of alliances, and a complete absence of understanding history or geopolitics. For some of our adversaries, this is too tempting to pass up. The profile is one of weakness on our side, rare opportunity on the other side.
Three Conflicts in Waiting
The Korean Peninsula
Trump tried to manipulate the North Koreans, with no preparation or plan. As a result, expectations all around have been dashed and frustrations are high. North Korea is making increasingly bellicose noises toward the South and toward us. Add to the mix an ongoing strategic argument between South Korea and Japan. This is a dialogue which Washington would have moderated in a saner era, but not now.
Oh, and we just recently insisted South Korea pay FIVE TIMES what they contribute to the cost of US forces there. Want to bet there is a rational basis for that number? Good luck. There is no way any South Korean leader could even entertain such a change. Chalk up damage to yet another US alliance. Congratulations China and Russia. Bottom line: the risk of a provocation by North Korea is ever higher.
Taiwan and Asian Territorial Waters
There has long been a militant element in Chinese military and civil leadership that wants to force Taiwan’s reunification. Add to that the ongoing US/China trade war, which is hurting both sides. Finally, pay attention to what is going on in Hong Kong. I give Trump credit for signing the pro-Hong Kong legislation in recent days but recognize this drove the Chinese nuts.
Recall that we pulled out of the Pan Asian trade agreement and have been on the sidelines ever since. China has filled the void and is now the dominant voice in the region on a host of issues. For some Chinese leaders, this emboldens them. For some, it provides something worth risk to secure.
Finally, China has made bold claims and is trying to create facts on the water by claiming absurd territorial water boundaries. The neighbors are most unsure we would show up when it counted. The Chinese are flexing a lot of naval muscle.
All that could lead to a military conflict in or around the Taiwan Straits or in other close in waters. China is unlikely to really want to go to war on a large scale over Taiwan. But now they are betting we are even less willing to do so. I expect they will take the risk and call our bluff sooner rather than later. The risk of doing so over larger areas of territorial waters disputes is even higher.
The least likely, of the three, but no less real. Realizing that there already is a shooting war ongoing – we are just not in it at the moment. Putin has often said that “Ukraine is not a real country.” It used to be Russia’s. It has important agriculture and borders four NATO countries. Putin could be encouraged by Trump’s subservience to him and US domestic problems. He could decide to make a grab for what he has not already taken from Ukraine. If I were in the Baltic states, I would be worried, too. Trump has made us unimaginably unreliable to NATO and in the border region.
I hope I am wrong on all three of these risk areas. But I think not. And we have not yet discussed other dangers unnecessarily made more volatile. These include the Middle East, the Far East, and Latin America. We will save those for another day.
In the meantime, watch the lead three areas and keep your fingers crossed.
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