North Korea 2.

Suddenly, by August 2017, North Korea had successfully tested several Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and it seemed likely that it had miniaturized an atomic warhead to mount on such a missile.  Alarm bells started ringing much more loudly.  Unlike defenses against short- and medium-range missiles, the defense against ICBMs is non-existent.  All that exists is deterrence—the certainty that North Korea would be wiped off the map if North Korea attacked the United States with a nuclear weapon.

Several questions, great and small, arise from the North Korean ICBM tests.  First, how did the North Koreans suddenly develop an ICBM missile and miniaturize a war head?  One theory is that a bankrupt and bent missile engine factory in Ukraine sold a sample to the North Koreans.  How the North Koreans got a rocket engine as big as a house from the Ukraine to North Korea without anyone noticing is an interesting question.[1]  If the Russkies were helping, then it could go overland by rail (or maybe even by cargo plane) to Vladivostok, and then by sea.  Or it could go to the port of Sebastopol on the Black Sea and then by sea to North Korea.  Giving North Korea the technology to put an atomic weapon on an American city would be considerably more of a hostile act than just meddling in an American presidential election.

If the Russkies were not helping, then does that mean that a few greedy managers in a Ukrainian rocket engine factory free-lanced this without anyone in the government of Ukraine noticing?  In any case, the engine would have had to go out through the port of Odessa.  How do you move a rocket engine as big as a house across Ukraine?  In the end, it seems that, if the bent factory in Ukraine helped, then it would be by loading the plans on a flash-drive and selling that to the North Koreans through some intermediary.  North Korean machine-tools could do the rest.

Second, what do the North Koreans want?  That’s a little murky.  One authority argues that “what North Korea wants is for us to stop threatening them and to talk with them.”   What forms do these threats take?  North Korea attacked South Korea in 1950.  Since the end of that war the United States has conducted military exercises with the South Korean military forces.  Hard not to see these as a) defensive, and b) just a demonstration of our commitment to an ally.  OK, but the U.S. attacked Afghanistan, then never left; the U.S. attacked Iraq on a specious pretext in 2003; and the U.S. attacked Libya, then walked away while the place burned.  Still, none of these places bordered on/were backed by China.  An American attack on North Korea is a fantasy.  Then, North Korea has rejected following the Chinese path to economic transformation.  If South Korea could go from being a backwater to an important industrial nation then so could North Korea.  Why hasn’t North Korea changed course?

Third, is there an alternative to war?  Everyone hopes so.  An American pre-emptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities doesn’t seem any more likely to succeed than would an attack on Iran’s facilities.  Then the North Koreans would respond.  Seoul, the capital city of South Korea, is in easy range of the massed artillery batteries of North Korea.  Then, the US would invade North Korea?  What might be the response of China?  Do American voters want another large war?

We are being driven by reality toward another version of President Obama’s Iran deal.  So be it.  For now.  Eventually, the United States may “meet with Don Barzini, Philip Tataglia, all the heads of the Five Families.”

 

[1] See: “The Peacemaker” (dir. Mimi Leder, 1997).

North Korea 1.

Back in the 19th Century, a dynamic Europe challenged the major Asian nations.  Japan and China took different paths forward.  China clung to tradition and soon fell under foreign domination.  Japan copied the West in some things in order to be able to preserve its core culture in other things, and thrived.[1]  One thing the Japanese copied was imperialism.  They took over the neighboring Korean peninsula, long a tributary kingdom of China.  At the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to divide Korea into temporary occupation zones pending the eventual unification of a single, independent Korean nation.

Almost immediately, the Cold War began.  The two great powers began to turn their occupation zones into rival states.  In June 1950, North Korea—armed and probably poked in the backside by the Russkies—invaded South Korea.  The Americans poured in troops, then kicked the behinds of the North Koreans.  Chased them all the way to the Yalu River (the border with China), while the American commander (Douglas MacArthur) talked about using nuclear weapons and carrying the war to newly-Communist China.  The Chi-Coms, in their turn, poured in troops.  Three years of gory war followed.[2]  The war ended in a truce in 1953.  Two new states emerged, North Korea and South Korea.

There are two things to say about North Korea since 1953.[3]  First, the country has become a hereditary monarchy with a dynasty of murderous tyrants at the helm.  Kim Jong Chee, Kim Jong Il and his blue-eyed boy, Kim Jong Un have ruled the country since 1950.[4]  Kim Jong Un took over in 2011.  Since then, he’s murdered a lot of government officials.  He’s also had his uncle and his half-brother killed.  He is sometimes described as “paranoid and unpredictable.”  Psychological diagnoses done from afar aren’t much use.  Still, he’s got some bolts loose.

Second, almost from the end of the war, North Korea sought nuclear weapons of its own.  This went nowhere for a long time: North Korea is mountainous, resource-poor, and Communist.  The search really began to gather steam in the 1990s.[5]  Then Kim Jong Il launched a huge effort to develop nuclear weapons.

Almost immediately, the North Koreans got caught.  In 1994 North Korea agreed to halt progress on its nuclear program in return for aid.  Then in 2003, North Korea announced it had a nuclear weapon.  The US, Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea all conferred with North Korea.  It was agreed that North Korea would halt its nuclear program in return for more aid.  Then, beginning in late 2015, North Korea began ahead testing bombs and the missiles to deliver them.  So the track record on negotiating with North Korea isn’t good.

Still, as late as March 2017, it seemed that North Korea remained three years away from posing a serious danger to other countries, most especially the distant United States.[6]  The Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations all practiced a policy of “strategic patience.”  They hoped that a combination of economic sanctions, pressure on China, and computer hacking of the North Korean missile and atomic programs would keep the problem in check.  South Korea and Japan were within of North Korea’s medium range missiles.  So were the American military forces stationed in those countries.  However, ground-based and ship-based missile interceptor systems had a high rate of accuracy in tests.[7]

[1] See “The Last Samurai” (dir. Edward Zwick, 2003).

[2] See “Pork Chop Hill” (dir. Lewis Milestone, 1959).  Milestone also directed “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930).  The messages of the movies differ in ways that reveal the change of public mindset across thirty years.

[3] “The growing threat from North Korea,” The Week, 31 March 2017, p. 11.

[4] That first one was just a joke, OK, a joke!

[5] Was this a response to the very evident failure of the model of the centrally-planned economy?  Both Russia and China soon abandoned the model.  Turmoil followed in both countries.

[6] “Shielding the homeland,” The Week, 19 May 2017, p. 11.

[7] One hundred percent test success for the Air Force’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and eight-five percent success for the Navy’s Aegis system.

Memoirs of the Addams Administration 32.

Americans are deeply divided on the subject of abortion.  A clear majority (57 percent) support a right to abortion in all or almost all circumstances.  A large minority (40 percent) oppose a right to abortion in all or almost all cases.[1]  Among women, 38 percent believe that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, while 59 percent believe that it should be legal in all or most cases.  That’s a gap of 21 percent.  Among men, 55 percent think that it should be legal in all or most cases, while 42 percent think that it should be illegal in all or most situations.  That’s a gap of 13 percent.  On the other hand, 38 percent of women oppose abortion in all or most situations, while 42 percent of men oppose abortion.  Some 59 percent of women support a right to abortion, while 55 percent of men support a right to abortion.  So, pro-choice women are right to view men as the weaker vessel on this issue.

White Protestant evangelical Christians make up the most convinced group of abortion opponents.  Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of this group opposes abortion under all or almost all circumstances, while one-third favors a right to abortion in all or most circumstances.[2]  Then 76 percent of evangelicals are white, with another 11 percent being Hispanics.  Evangelicals are not rich: 86 percent have a family income under $100,000 a year and 57  percent have a family income under $57,000 a year.  They are less educated: 43 percent have a high school education or less; 35 percent have some college, but not a degree.  They are older, with about three-quarters born before 1985, with the biggest single group (35 percent) being Boomers.   The vast majority of them (79 percent) say that religion is very important in their lives.  However, evangelicals are evenly divided over the basis for judging right and wrong: 50 percent believe that there are clear standards and 48 percent believe that it depends on the situation.

In terms of political parties, 56 percent of evangelicals are Republican or lean in that direction, but 24 percent of them are Democrats on lean that way, and 16 percent identify as independents.[3]  Here’s the kicker: 55 percent of Evangelical Protestants are women, while 45 percent are men.[4]

However, possibly significant differences exist within both camps.  One quarter of Americans (25 percent) believe that abortion should be legal in all cases, while one-sixth (16 percent believe that it should be illegal in all cases.  OK, that settles that.  However, that leaves 32 percent who believe that abortion should be legal in most (but not all) cases and 24 percent who believe that it should be illegal in most (but not all) cases.

So, where is the middle ground?  Probably restricting abortion to the 20 week mark would be broadly acceptable.  If a woman is pregnant, but can’t decide, so be it.

Who will seize that middle ground?  Well, there are a big chunk of opponents of un-restricted abortion who are Democrats or potential Democratic voters.[5]  Is it worth a majority?

What’s wrong with a compromise?  First, it’s a rejection of a long-standing principle.  Second, it’s a rejection of a long-standing reality.  The War on Abortion will not work any better than/differently from the War on Drugs.  Or alcohol.  Or guns.  We already tried.

[1] http://www.pewforum.org/fact-sheet/public-opinion-on-abortion/

[2] In comparison, 53 percent of Catholics say it should be legal in all or most situations, and 44 percent say it should be illegal; while among black Protestants, 55 percent say that it should be legal and 41 percent say it should be illegal.

[3] The non-Republican evangelicals split 13 percent “liberal” and 24 percent “moderate.”

[4] http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-tradition/evangelical-protestant/  So this is not only a war by men on women.

[5] Natalie Andrews, “Abortion Splits Democrats,” WSJ, 14 August 2017.

Memoirs of the Addams Administration 31.

After the latest (but perhaps not last) attempt to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (ACA), some Republicans have fallen back.  Lamar Alexander suggested that a bipartisan effort to “stabilize and strengthen” the ACA.[1]  Will President Trump accommodate himself to this inconvenient truth?  The president could scuttle the ACA’s healthcare market places by refusing to authorize the payment of the subsidies that enable “Cost Sharing Reductions” in premiums.  Under the Obama administration a federal judge held that payment of the subsidies without a Congressional appropriation is illegal.  The case awaits final resolution in the Supreme Court, but the Trump administration has continued to make the payments in the meantime.  Halting the payments would lead to an estimated 19 percent jump in premiums nation-wide.  Does Donald Trump want to shove millions of Americans off medical insurance?

Six months into his administration, President Trump has begun to encounter resistance from fellow Republicans.[2]  They are eager to embrace a strong line against Russia, they can’t do anything to bring a resolution to the “collusion” story, and they’re angry about his verbal assault on Attorney General Jeff Sessions (so recently one of their own).  If Republicans break from the president, he will have little choice but to abandon a legislative agenda in far of issuing a blizzard of executive orders and vetoing Republican legislation out of spite.  Those will be contested in the courts.  On the other hand, if Republicans break from the president, they will have little chance of advancing their own legislative agenda unless they can unite with Democrats to over-ride a presidential veto.  Of course, cooler heads may prevail.

Playing to his base, the president announced that transgender troops would be barred from further service in the military, and the Justice Department launched an investigation of affirmative action admissions policies by universities.[3]  There may be legitimate reasons for limiting transgender troops in the military.  It isn’t clear that the president knows any of them.  Rather, he seems to have been over-responding to pressure from Christian conservative Republicans.  In any event, the Pentagon said that a tweet is not the same thing as a formal order, that there is a formal review of transgender service people under way; and that all troops will continue to be treated with respect.  In terms of affirmative action, there is a sense in some quarters that it has been turned into a system of “set asides” for African-Americans and, to some extent, for Hispanic-Americans.  Given the over-supply of colleges, it doesn’t have much effect.

Under these adverse conditions, a steadier hand in the White House became vital.  President Trump’s churning of his White House staff reached a new stage.[4]   Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Press Secretary Sean Spicer left, while Anthony Scaramucci became director of communications.  Then Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly took over as chief of staff.  Next thing you know, Scaramucci got booted out of the White House.  Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general often portrayed in the media as a Drill Instructor screaming orders up the noses of staffers, tried to impose some order.  (No such option appears available to the Congressional Republicans.)  One key task for Kelly will be dealing with leaks from the sieve-like White House.  It will fall to the Justice Department to stanch the leaks from the Trump Resistance within the federal bureaucracy.  Editorials and columnists generally agreed that a far more challenging task lay in the need to wrangle an undisciplined president.

[1] “Health care: What happens now?” The Week, 11 August 2017, p. 6.

[2] “The GOP: Rebelling against Trump,” The Week, 11 August 2017, p. 16.

[3] “Justice Department to target affirmative action,” The Week, 11 August 2017, p. 6.

[4] “Embattled Trump turns to Kelly,” The Week, 11 August 2017, p. 4.

Memoirs of the Addams Administration 30.

“The great thing about hitting yourself in the head with a hammer is that it feels so good when you stop.”  Recently, almost two-thirds (64 percent) of Americans desired the preservation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as it currently exists or with reforms of “problem areas.”[1]   Are there “problem areas”?  Yes.  Here are a couple of examples.  First, there are many people who are caught in a tight spot by earning too much to qualify for subsidies, but too little to be able to afford health insurance.  Second, only a few insurance companies had any experience at providing/pricing health insurance to poor people.  The Obama administration lured many other health insurers into participating in the healthcare market places by promising that all sorts of healthy rubes would pay premiums without needing much care.  Then, the Obama administration failed to enforce the “mandate.”  Many people did not even bother to get health insurance.[2]  The lack of young, healthy fools ready to be gouged for the benefit of older, wealthier people lies at the root of the instability in healthcare market places.  Third, the survival of the system depends upon continuing subsidies from appropriations passed by Congress.  The Republicans have declined to pass such appropriations and a federal court has held that spending without an appropriation is unconstitutional.  This case has not yet been heard by the Supreme Court.  When the Court does hear the case, it seems likely to support the initial decision.

Then, there are all the bad-press issues.  President Barack Obama said that “If you like your insurance, you can keep it” (or words to that effect).  Then the government cancelled a lot of insurance policies as “garbage policies” when the policy-holders really liked those policies.  The “roll-out” of the healthcare.gov web-site was a humiliating mess.  The Supreme Court held that the extension of Medicaid could not be forced on states that didn’t wish to participate by the threat to withhold other Medicaid funding.[3]  Naturally, these colossal screw-ups colored the perception of the ACA for a time.  Now, however, with the ACA an established—if imperfect—reality,[4] Republicans might do well to concentrate on remediation.

Such remediation might consist of getting rid of the ACA mandate on what must be covered; getting rid of the “mandate” that everyone must be covered; allowing/encouraging a few experienced companies to provide insurance for previously uninsured Americans[5]; expanding the range of those people eligible for subsidies; appropriating the moneys needed to make the system work; and not trying to coerce states that don’t want to expand Medicaid.

This will not be easy for Republican law-makers to do.  It abandons ideas of personal responsibility, to which many Republican voters are committed.  It expands spending, when we are already neck-deep in red-ink.  On the other hand, it will not be easy for Democrat law-makers to do.  It abandons the idea of “equal access” to health care and it abandons another federal suppression of state autonomy.

Then we can argue about how to close the budget deficit.  Anthoer difficult task.

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 11 August 2017, p. 17.

[2] About 15 million people did get health insurance solely out of fear of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).  These 15 million resent having to buy something they don’t need and constitute the core of those people who would “lose” this insurance under various Republican plans.

[3] This class-based program of medical insurance covers many Trump voters as well as the voters whom the Trump voters despise for other reasons.

[4] Like Social Security, Medicare, and the Espionage Act of 1918.

[5] Yes, I understand that this will create a two-tier medical care system.  “What are you, fresh offa da boat?  Expect that the streets are paved with gold?  ‘Merica is hard place to live.  Still, is better than the Old Country. “  NB: Imagined monologue, not a quote from the text.

Russia 31 July 2017.

Russia’s reclaiming of Crimea and its support for breakaway groups in eastern Ukraine led to American-led economic sanctions.  Putin’s sudden increased support for the Assad regime in Syria helped turn the tide in the civil war against American proxies.  Putin’s intervention in the American presidential election to the disadvantage of Hilary Clinton, led, first, to the expulsion of a number of Russian “diplomats” and, now, to the passage of further sanctions.

Vladimir Putin wanted Donald Trump elected president of the United States.  This is the gist of much of the explanation of the Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election.  Trump had said many positive things about Putin, especially in comparison to President Barack Obama.  As President, Donald Trump would take a softer line toward Putin’s effort to get Russia back on its feet.  In particular, Putin hoped for an easing of the sanctions imposed after the Crimean and Ukrainian initiatives.[1]  “That bet has now backfired spectacularly.”  A huge majority in Congress supported the new sanctions.  Putin responded by ordering 755 American “diplomats” out of Russia.

That order has been portrayed as a dramatic further step in a downward spiral of Russo-American relations.  However, there is a certain dissonance between the American and Russian discourse on these developments.  Putin’s public announcement of the reductions “was free of bombast,” said one White House official.  Putin’s order on staff reductions doesn’t take effect until 1 September 2017.  So, there’s time to talk.  Then the staff reductions could be accomplished in a number of ways.  David Sanger calculates that there are 1,279 people employed at the American embassy in Moscow and three consulates.  Cutting 755 people from 1,279 would leave 524 people.  Of the 1,279 current total staff, 934 are “locally employed” people (i.e. Russians in non-sensitive areas).  That would leave 345 “diplomats” in place along with 119 over-weight, chain-smoking cleaning ladies.  Then there are all sorts of other American government employees from non-diplomatic agencies.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former American intelligence official and now director of intelligence and defense projects at the Belfer Center of the Kennedy School of Government, took a dispassionate approach.  He told Sanger that “We’ve been in a new Cold War for some time now.”  In his view, on the American side, “emotions took over the [Russo-American] relationship” late in the Obama administration.  First “fear,” and now “anger” drive American policy toward Russia.  “The Russians would have preferred not to head down this path, but Putin didn’t feel he had a choice but to respond in the classic tit-for-tat manner.”

In contrast, the American discourse emphasizes grave dangers.  Angela Stent argues that “One of Putin’s greatest goals is to assure Russia is treated as if it was still the Soviet Union, a nuclear power that has to be respected and feared.”  Dan Coats, the former Republican senator and current Director of National Intelligence (DNI), says that Russia is “trying to undermine Western democracy.”  James Clapper, predecessor to Coats as DNI, warned of “the very aggressive modernization program they’re embarked on with their strategic nuclear capability.”

Putin is wicked, but he doesn’t seem stupid.  He seems to hate Hilary Clinton, but he couldn’t have her killed.  So, he settled for trying to harm her chances of becoming president.  He could hardly have supposed that Russian intervention in the American election would not be discovered.  So, he was willing to suffer the consequences.  Where do we want the Russo-American relationship to go from here?

[1] For one recent example, see David Sanger, “Putin’s Hopes for Relief Under a Trump Presidency Backfire Spectacularly,” NYT, 31 July 2017.

Memoirs of the Addams Administration 29.

Unable to leave well enough alone, the Republican Senate leaders made yet another attempt to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act.[1]  Without having any commonly-agreed plan, they managed to get a formal debate started.  First, the Senate voted down a broad plan to repeal and replace.  Then it voted down a plan to repeal and give Congress two year to replace it with something else.  Then it voted down a “skinny repeal” that just got rid of the mandate.[2]  Despite its flaws, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) helps—as well as vexes—many lower income Americans of both parties.  Opinion polls since the election have tended to show broad support for preservation of universal health insurance.  With a narrow 52-48 majority in the Senate, the Republican leadership cannot force through any legislation that would alienate more than two Republican senators.  Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine) come from states that may have a substantial number of people who want to vote Republican, but who also live in marginal economic circumstances.  Their opposition alone isn’t enough to block “repeal and replace”: Vice President Pence can cast the tie breaker.  However, one more Republican dissident—like John McCain—and the measure loses.  In either case, Murkowski and Collins get covered for the next election for having done the right thing.  So, the question becomes: how to fix the problems with the ACA, rather than trying to roll it back?

Donald Trump campaigned against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), calling it “the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere.”  Once elected, he insisted on a renegotiation of the agreement.  This immediately became engulfed in the hysteria following Trump’s surprise election.  It also drew heat from Trump’s highly public spat with the president of Mexico.  Nevertheless, Mexico and Canada agreed to engage in a re-negotiation of NAFTA.  The negotiations are scheduled to begin on 16 August 2017.  Now the government has released a statement of its objectives for the negotiations.  Contrary to the worst fears of the immediate post-election Trump hysterics, the American objectives are solidly “mainstream ideas for furthering trade liberalization.”[3]  Generally speaking, NAFTA trade benefits the American economy even though it is often seen as the source of job-loss.  Reality proved more compelling than rhetoric.  Perhaps Trump and the Senate leadership should let Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (who oversees the NAFTA negotiations) run health-care reform?

Six months into his first term, President Trump began a major churning of his staff.  Sean Spicer had the reputation for being a decent guy.  Then he took the job as White House Press Secretary.  Six months of humiliating Hell followed.  Then, President Trump concluded that his image problems sprang from poor representation.  He hired Anthony Scaramucci as communications director.[4]  Spicer promptly resigned.[5]  Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Trump’s direct connection to mainstream Republicans, then got the heave.

Donald Trump governing as a non-party mediator still has—theoretical—potential.

[1] “Senate Republicans grapple with Obamacare repeal,” The Week, 4 August 2017, p. 7.

[2] The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that ending the mandate would leave 15 million more people without insurance.  This can be taken as an official measure of the number of people who buy insurance under duress.  It can be added to whatever number just don’t buy it regardless of the mandate to get a total number of people who are opposed to the mandate.  On the other hand, it can be subtracted from the numbers of those estimated by the CBO to be left without insurance issued on other versions of “repeal and replace.”

[3] “Issue of the week: A softer U.S. line on NAFTA,” The Week, 4 August 2017, p. 42.

[4] Scaramucci deleted Twitter posts in favor of gun control, action on climate change,, legal abortions, and ending use of the death penalty.  “Noted,” The Week, 4 August 2017, p. 18.

[5] “White House: Spicer’s out, “The Mooch” is in,” The Week, 4 August 2017, p. 18.