Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, August 14, 2017

Nazis in Charlottesville

Photo: Incisive

It’s beyond crazy and wild, terrible and horrific, to see the protests, violence, and torch-bearing Nazis in Charlottesville. I spent two years as a grad student at the University of Virginia, or UVA, and loved my time there and in and around Charlottesville. For those who are unaware, it’s a beautiful part of America: UVA is a national treasure, for architectural and historical and scholastic reasons, and the natural scenery of the bucolic surrounding area, which includes Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Mountains, is breathtaking. It’s so strange to have such a majestic, tranquil area roiled by unrest and murder. Not so long ago I never would have dreamed that Charlottesville would be the center of a major news event, but it is. In fact, the city is a major front in the battle between 21st century America and white nationalists and Nazis. Yes, Nazis.

Trump's Statements

If you scan mainstream news sources and social media, there’s been a justifiable outcry across the political spectrum, against President Trump’s initial statement, one that reeked of bizarre moral equivalency, that blamed “all sides” for Saturday’s violence. By not naming and shaming the Charlottesville Nazis, Trump, in effect, let them off the hook. And they know it. Chatter from Nazis, most notably from The Daily Stormer, showed their pleasure that Trump failed to condemn them, their rhetoric, or their actions. They firmly believe the president of the US has their back, which is by itself astounding and disturbing. But it also means that this Nazi problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Given the political climate (the polarization, Trump in charge, Breitbarters in the White House, etc.), it’s hard not to see them as emboldened, even ascendant, right now.

On Monday, Trump gave a more forceful statement, albeit a scripted, Teleprompter-read one. Keep in mind, though, that it took two days and a second try for Trump to name and denounce "KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups." For a guy who's ultra-quick to call out "losers," "haters," and "bad hombres" and "fake news," his fumfering spoke volumes. Many wondered if Trump was sincere.

Apparently not. On Tuesday, Trump held a disastrous press conference, one that was supposed to focus on his infrastructure plans, but instead was consumed by last weekend's events in Virginia. There, in an off-the-cuff exchange with reporters, he reverted back to his "all sides" sentiment. He did call out the murderer, the Nazi who crashed his car into a crowd, but he also placed blame on the "alt-left," calling them violent, and said that there were some good people who attended the white nationalist rally, and that they "peacefully" marched on Friday night. Evidence shows otherwise, as the marchers shouted "Jews won't replace us," and "Blood and Soil," among other white supremacist slogans. In the aftermath of the Tuesday's press conference, Richard Spencer and David Duke tweeted their plaudits for Trump's performance, which they viewed as a full-throated defense of their movement.

What's going on here? What explains Trump's behavior? Why defend a violent hate movement, one, mind you, that despises members of his own family?

Four Explanations

1. Trump is a racist or has racist inclinations.

I don't throw around the R word lightly, so it's difficult to write that anyone, let alone the American president, could well be a racist. But this is where we're at. The possibility that Trump's a racist or racist inclinations can't be ruled out anymore; it's not just leftist hyper-babble. And we can't simply pin the blame for Trump's various repugnant statements and policies on Stephen Bannon, his Darth Vader-like Chief Strategist. Not when Trump, of his own unprompted volition, publicly and vigorously defended white nationalists. And please note Trump's history. Well before he was a political figure and had to make political calculations about his words and actions, Trump had a checkered past with various identity groups. He (along with his dad and Trump Management) was sued in the 1970s for housing discrimination, played a part in spreading false statements and riling up New Yorkers in the Central Park Five case, and aroused suspicions of bigotry during his Apprentice days. And of course, what helped Trump rise to political prominence, even before his formal participation in US politics, was his "Birther" antics, a xenophobic and racially-tinged campaign against former President Barack Obama. 

2. He far underestimates the goals and intentions of the American white supremacist movement.

It's certainly plausible that he's been fooled by the 21st century uniform of the white nationalists that no longer embraces the white hood. That's been replaced by khakis and white polo shirt. And Richard Spencer, an infamous white nationalist, typically dresses in fancy suits. Perhaps Trump sees the more open, transparent racists as less threatening. Maybe. Relatedly, and more importantly, behind closed doors Trump has reportedly voiced that argument that these folks are simply trying to protect their "heritage." That's revealing. It shows that Trump likely sees at least a chunk of the white supremacists as just another civic action group seeking to assert their interests and voice their grievances. If so, then, in Trump's worldview the white supremacists are no different than union workers, the NRA, the pharmaceutical lobby, and so on.

3. He sees himself in the Nazis

No, I'm not necessarily referring to whether Trump is a racist. Rather, it would not surprise me if viewed the white nationalists as similar political actors existing in a somewhat similar situation: that they are both insurgents or outsiders, attacked, demonized, and misunderstood by the "mainstream media" and the left, willing to say the politically incorrect "hard truths" that nobody dares to say, and desirous of shaking up the political establishment. I think he has a personal affinity for the white nationalists, and feels a sense of kinship with them.

4. Self-preservation politics

Politics are playing a role here, I have no doubt. They are very likely pushing and pulling him in dark directions. I suspect that he believes the rubes (“I love the poorly educated!”) and racists are the support base he simply cannot lose. And at an approval rating about 35%, Trump knows his margin for success, now and in the future, is tenuous at best. Trump seeks to keep the kooks on his side and inspired, in part because of his desire to reciprocate their loyalty, according to those who know him, but also because they're vital cogs in his machine—pledging support, donating money, buying hats, attending rallies, intimidating the press and political opponents, and causing mischief and proselytizing online, where they're members of his army of Internet trolls.

Should Trump fail to keep these groups firmly in his camp and highly motivated, he runs the risk of not just losing the presidency in 2020, but he very well could lose the GOP nomination in 2020—and that’s says nothing about the fate of the impending Congressional elections in 2018. It’s clear that Trump has made a strategic decision to solidify his far right flank by playing up various cultural wedge issues, gambling that satisfied, galvanized racist numbskulls can help to keep him in office. Embedded in this is another gamble: that he won't alienate his overall base of white voters and that they will accept his hug of Nazis, either approving of it or looking away. Certainly, this strategy is ruinous for the country, but, then again, Trump is not a country-first patriot; he’s a me-first plutocrat whose prime directive is to enrich himself and his family.

Reports on the state of the White House reveal a cornered, threatened, and paranoid Trump. For starters, the Russiagate investigations, the constant turnover and infighting within Team Trump, Trump's reckless and incendiary tweets, and the lack of much substantive policy progress are taking a significant toll. It's creating the impression of a White House that's chaotic, incompetent, and mendacious. For instance, most Americans don't think Trump is trustworthy or approve of the job he's doing as president. Most troubling for Trump, even approval from white working class voters without a college degree, his much-hyped base, is trending downward.

Moreover, the GOP vultures are circling Washington, believing that Trump is politically vulnerable. There are already rumblings that his Veep, Mike Pence, is planning contingency operations to run for the presidency in 2020. Conservative power broker Bill Kristol is floating the idea of putting together a “Committee to Not Reelect the President,” sort of an anti-CREEP coalition, for those who recall the Nixon days. There are also, already, a number of prominent Republicans who seem primed to run for the GOP nomination in 2020, such as Ben Sasse, Jeff Flake, and John Kasich: Sasse and Flake have recently released books—a typical first-step for US politicians seriously considering a run at the White House—and Kasich has made sure to keep his name in the news. The avid cable news watcher that he is, Trump is abundantly aware of all these developments.

And then there are the Democrats. Undoubtedly, the Democrats have their issues: they lack clear leaders, they leaders they do have are largely aged and uninspiring, and they lack a clear message and policy alternative to Trump. Yet they are able to get under Trump's skin. His Twitter rants against various Democrats, like Richard Blumenthal and Chuck Schumer, and the Democratic Party make that point clear. And Congressional Democrats are united in their fierce resistance to all things Trump, which makes his life difficult. Without Democratic support, he can't get any legislation passed, has to make excuses and scapegoat others, including members of his own party, for his lightweight governing record, and is forced to rely on executive orders, which, all combined, make him appear weak and feckless.

Making Sense of It All

What does all this mean? The four explanations, individually and/or collectively, leads us to an uncomfortable but inescapable conclusion: Trump has an incentive to turn a blind eye, if not cozy up, to these groups. And Tuesday's defense of the Nazis is just the latest in a string of overtures to them. Indeed, he’s thrown many winks and nods to them since he began his political career more than two years ago. During the campaign, Trump refused to immediately and sharply disavow support from infamous former KKK leader and white nationalist David Duke, repeatedly posted retweets from known white nationalists, and he and his children tweeted the notorious Pepe the Frog memes. His policy proposals and initiatives include “The Wall,” banning transgender folks from the military, the infamous “Muslim Ban” executive order, and a government direction to focus solely on Islamic terrorism, thereby mostly ignoring the more numerous terror acts of white nationalists, among other things. Trump has elevated bogus and extremist “news outlets” like InfoWars and Breitbart. And to top it off, several of his key staff—like Sebastian Gorka, Stephen Miller, and Stephen Bannon—have a history of espousing bigoted, xenophobic views. In all, this has been a bonanza for Nazi types in the US.

If you add it all up, it seems rather dire. Frankly, it feels as if the US is rotting from the inside. A day ago my nine-year-old daughter, after seeing pictures of the Nazi flag on television, said to me: "Dad, I thought the Nazis were defeated in World War II? And why are they here in the United States?" Clearly, we have a massive problem, one that's (1) complex, in that there are multiple causes and contributors to white nationalism and supremacy, (2) growing, considering that the ranks of "alt-right" are swelling and the movement is already planning more "marches" and rallies," and (3) lacks a quick or easy solution. Most troublesome, a part of the problem stems from the highest office in the US. Trump has publicly and tacitly endorsed white supremacy, elevated this ideology and its adherents to mainstream status, and demonized and marginalized those individuals and groups who want to challenge the narrative and actions of white racists. At bottom, we have a sitting US president who's abdicated his moral authority, and that's only one of a host of major foreign and domestic problems that he's either created or worsened since taking office seven months ago.

On a positive note, many good Americans, on the right and left, are activated and mobilized, in various ways, against far, far right extremism, Nazis and others of their ilk, and their abettors in the White House. Much, much more needs to be done, obviously. But don’t despair. Instead, remain vigilant, speak out, put pressure on your Congresspersons to repudiate and investigate extremism and hate groups. Please, let’s make America kind and decent again.  

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Nuclear Brinksmanship: North Korea and the US

                                                                Photo credit: CNN

Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman offer their thoughts on the latest news on North Korea's nuclear program. 

Yohanes Sulaiman: The North Korean nuclear issue has been sliced and diced beyond recognition -- even by us, in the past couple of years. And the core issue remains: how much is the US and its allies willing to pay for getting an outcome they want.

While there have been discussions that a "limited strike" is on the table, frankly, I don't see any "limited strike" as possible. For the North Korean regime, any "provocation" must get a reply, especially a strike by the United States, for one simple reason: This is a very insecure regime that has to ratchet its provocations all way up to eleven. And any attack that goes without response, would make the North Korean people and, more importantly, its political elite question whether the Dear Leader has gone soft or has joined the rank of mortals, and thus presenting an opportunity for an uprising.

In essence, there is only two major options: wait and do nothing or go for war.

1. Wait

Some specialists argue that the regime is vulnerable due to its weak economy, growing discontent, etc. But as we can see from many examples all over the world, such as in Venezuela, where you have a two-bit very unpopular autocrat ruling a country that is wrecked daily with protests from the opposition, any determined autocrat, as long as he or she can maintain the loyalty of political elite, can survive indefinitely.

And North Korea is a special basket case, where you have a population that is totally subservient (they don't even riot during the great famine period!) and a cowed political elite. Moreover, you have China next door, who, while it loathes the regime, hates the possibility of the US presence in the Yalu River even more. Thus, regardless of North Korean provocations, Beijing will keep the supply lines open. And Kim Jong Un also knows that.

2. War

This will be messy for sure. Can't sugarcoat this. Thousands or even millions may die, with sky-high damage, and, depending on the outcome, that would also destroy the reputation of both China and the United States in the region, because the Korean and Japanese population would blame both China and the US. Kim Jong Un's regime is gambling that this will be the brake that forces both China and the US to stay in option one. Why is he confident? See all the appeasement from the US to North Korea since Bill Clinton era and how China keeps supporting the regime even today even after North Korea essentially gave China the finger.

The third option is the Trump option. Trump is so bombastic and unpredictable that he may actually convince China that war is inevitable and that China really needs to do something about Kim Jong Un. At this point, though, China's ineffective policy to North Korea would come home to roost simply because China does not have any Korean policy per se, except keeping the North Korean regime afloat. I doubt Beijing actually considers the possibility of North Korea going rogue, considering the close relationship between Kim Jong Il and Beijing. And even if China wants to do any regime change in North Korea, the possibility has probably already closed when North Korean agents managed to murder Kim Jong Un's brother in Malaysia, preempting this kind of scenario. So, there is very little possibility that China can impose regime change without bringing the entire country down, and Kim Jong Un knows it. And Beijing also knows it.

Brad Nelson: As I see it, the developments over the last day have revealed three new things. (1) US intelligence has recently estimated North Korea could have as many as 60 nukes, which is about three times the typical estimates that I've heard about North Korea nuclear capabilities. Most estimates have placed the country’s nuclear arsenal at around 15-20 nukes. (2) North Korea has the ability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and therefore weaponize a ballistic missile. Nuclear weapons experts have believed that North Korea would probably perfect this technology, but that it was several years away from doing so. (3) Arguably, the rhetoric from the sitting US president ("fire and fury"), which has escalated tension (North Korea possibly targeting Guam), is another new wrinkle in this intractable situation. 

First, it's certainly possible that Trump's off-the-cuff remarks yesterday, while intended to signal strength and resolve, could be interpreted By Kim as deeply ominous and threatening—that Trump is seriously thinking about a 1st strike against the regime. And if that's the case, Kim, thinking he has nothing to lose, might lash out militarily against American interests in the region (South Korea, Guam, etc.). And second, if Trump really intend to deliver a nuclear 1st strike threat, that goes against decades of US foreign policy, which has embraced the notion of second-strike deterrent or extended deterrent threats as sufficient to protect and preserve US national security interests. Is Trump moving US nuclear policy in a more aggressive direction?   

So what to do? Well, as you know, there've been many different proposals bandied about by policymakers, scholars, and analysts over the years. Recent pieces by Mark Bowden and Jeffrey A. Bader do a good job of highlighting these options, which include regime change, targeted strikes against North Korea's arsenal, delegating the issue to China, putting significant pressure on China to strangle Pyongyang, resuming the six-party talks, doing nothing/acceptance (that North Korea is indeed a nuclear power), containment/deterrence, and direct high-level bilateral negotiations with North Korea’s leadership.

Of these, I'm in favor of a combination of containment/deterrence and negotiations. The other options either likely won't work and/or entail significant costs in blood and treasure (for the US, South Korea, and North Korea). Roughly speaking, my two-track plan involves very senior-level talks up to and possibly including Kim and Trump on freezing then rolling back North Korea's nuclear program over time in exchange for various economic concessions and security guarantees; at the same time, the US would also up its missile defense in the region and on American homeland, strengthen its ties to states throughout Asia via more military exercises and arms transfers, and actively clamp down on North Korea's economy and military. Based on how North Korea responds to all of this, the US could then decide whether to ease up on containment in favor of talks, or prioritize containment over talks. 

Historically for the US, this has been the most successful path to moderating disputes and tensions. The US used this dual-track approach vis-a-vis the Soviets during the cold war, and the Bush and Obama administrations did likewise against Iran. Eventually, both Iran and the Soviets came out of the cold, after they realized they couldn't compete against the US and its allies and needed to play nice with the rest of the world. The downside is that this two-track approach doesn't lend itself to a quick, overnight resolution and it requires patience by American leaders--something that's on short supply at the moment, it seems. Of course, nobody likes the idea of Kim possessing nuclear-tipped ICBMs that can hit dozens of nations, including, it now seems, the heartland of the US. But patience can work in the end. Kim is rational, North Korea is isolated and poor, and China despises Kim and his antics. Plus, I see an added benefit here: if the US sincerely reaches out to Pyongyang, which is what Beijing wants, I suspect that China, seeing its interests taken into account by Washington, will be willing to do more than it has on the North Korea problem.

YS: Again, I don't think that negotiation will work simply because it cannot give both sides what they want: North Korea, at least under Kim Jong Un, simply wants nukes for self-preservation. Kim and his cronies might negotiate, but at the end of the day, they will present the fait accompli: They have nukes, deal with it. And that is unacceptable for everyone else. For Pyongyang, giving up nukes at this stage would risk a massive backlash domestically, because it would (1) signal that the Kim Jong Un's regime is as vulnerable to outside pressure, and (2) defeat the entire raison d'etre of its existence. Other states, such as Iran, can backtrack on their military nuclear programs because they've never tied their legitimacy to them, but not North Korea, which has placed itself in a corner.

What I think we have to deal with in the future is: how to deal with a nuclear North Korea, the possibility of further proliferation, and a massive rearmament in South Korea and Japan. Maybe I am too pessimistic here, but I just don't see Kim being willing or able to negotiate a freeze or roll back of his country’s nukes.