By Kumar David –
Odds of nuclear war are not negligible
The world’s media and scores of analysts churn out volumes each day about the war option; is there anything we in this corner of the world can intelligently add? Yes, we prioritise in a different way because we do not have the same axes to grind or propaganda ends to serve as governments in Washington, Beijing, Tokyo or Fox News, CNN, New York Times and the Guardian. There are things I can confidently commit to paper without fear of dispute even in partisan circles. But there is another angle, the most significant in this essay, about the Republican Party, which I will deal with at the end.
President Trump has painted himself into a corner. He has to end North Korea’s (NK) nuclear and missile programme or suffer humiliating loss of face. DJT is an idiosyncratic crack-pot capable of going off in bizarre directions and wandering into crevices no sane American president would dare venture into. A pre-emptive strike to finish off NK’s military capabilities and kill the regime’s leaders is an option very much on his table; political commentators and psychoanalysts think so. In spite of this, NK will persist and Trump can’t change that. That’s the corner he has painted himself into.
No amount of threat or intimidation will compel NK to abandon nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile development and production. This is certain; not even a Chinese embargo including oil will change that. No amount of economic sanctions will panic Pyongyang. This decision it made after Saddam and Gadhafi. It decided against a Teheran style option because abandoning the bomb would expose it to invasion and regime change. Iran is too big to destroy; an offensive would unleash Armageddon in the Middle East, but NK is an isolated regime and without an umbrella it could be demolished. Also noteworthy is that despite misery and hardship the populace seems to buy the regime’s line on this score. It seems that the people are anti-American in so far as military matters are concerned. Nuclear bombs and launch vehicles may not be at an industrial production stage but the starving nation in not cutting military spending.
NK will not, certainly will not, initiate war against South Korea or the US. Kim John Un is crafty, he cares little for the well-being of his people and though as loud mouthed and bellicose as DJT he will not commit suicide. My case is that the weapons programme is because the regime wants to survive; it is a deterrent to thwart an American offensive. Kim is right to judge that America is not willing to exchange one or two of its great cities for the complete obliteration of NK. What good would it do to wipe out say a million Koreans with “fire and fury” in exchange for tens of thousands of Americans? I reckon this is a trade-off America, despite its enormous global superiority in missile interception technology, is unwilling to risk. I refer, of course, to rational Americans and the country’s cautious military. And furthermore, there are 30,000 US troops in South Korea who will be incinerated in the event of war.
This assumes NK can respond effectively to a US first strike. The consensus is that the device tested on 3 September is thermonuclear (hydrogen bomb) and that the ICBM recently fired can reach the continental US. This makes a pre-emptive US strike dicey, not impossible. But what about the 30,000 in the South within short-range missile reach; what about tens of thousands in Guam?
Most people, I would count myself among them, are sanguine. It just can’t happen; a globe destroying nuclear holocaust won’t, can’t, happen. Even crazy Kim Un John won’t explode nuclear devices in the stratosphere and perpetrate nuclear winter, and so on goes the comforting thought. Yes, this reassurance is reasonable, but let me use this essay to play devil’s advocate and push the more chilling alternative at you.
The sanguine version follows three lines of thinking enumerated below. I dismiss (a) and (b). I have already granted (c). In respect of (a) there is a more complex thesis that I have mulled over; I will hold it back for the end.
- Should Trump go all the way like a crack-pot and press the nuclear button, Congress will find a way to stop him, or his generals will (unconstitutionally) disobey.
- NK does not have a sufficiently large arsenal and its delivery systems and its hardware can be put out of action before anything gets airborne.
- Kin John Un will never initiate hostilities with the US therefore, given (a), war won’t happen.
I need to say a few words about (b). Estimates vary but NK probably already has a nuclear arsenal of about 10 to 20 bombs compared, for scale, with Israel’s 100 to 200, A credible threat would need 50 launch-ready nuclear tipped missiles so that a few could penetrate a missile shield. On November 29, NK launched the Hwasong-15 (14?) which reached a height of 4,500 km and flew 1,000 km into the Pacific. Hence its potential range is calculated at13,000 km (8000 miles) and able to reach the White House and interrupt DJT’s pre-ablution early morning tweeting.
Much about NK missile technology is unknown. Has it solved re-entry problems? What progress towards multiple warhead re-entry technology? If the November 29 missile carried a light load, range with a warhead will be shorter. From satellite images it seems NK is able to fuel missiles horizontally shortening the gap between when they are visible and can be launched. Pyongyang will pair nuclear and missile capabilities in 2018; if it were to fire a nuclear-tipped projectile and detonate it over the Pacific that would signal the window for pre-emptive “fire and fury” has passed. The US will have to reconcile itself to the inevitable; one more card-carrying member of the global nuclear club.
Can Trump be stopped?
Here is the most crucial point; since NK will not stop, can DJT be stopped? I have come to a more complex view of the Republican Party. Conventional wisdom had it that it was the party of big capital, rightists and conservatives; the base was discounted as dumb American frogs in the well. I am of the view that this simplification is invalid. The GOP actually consists of two constituencies, the ‘swamp’ of course, and the base that we have called ‘Trumps base’ in recent years. The latter is an authentic social force; the Alt-Right is an independent entity. It became Trump’s base accidentally and he cashed in. Neo-pop or Alt-Right America is at this moment the leading force in the GOP fold, the leadership in Congress is overawed by a President cum Alt-Right alliance.
This base did not shine independently and was taken for granted by the Republican leadership all these decades. Liberals and the left despised it in an error of judgement that failed to understand its social rootedness. Even without Trump this authentic social force will be a factor in US politics. With or without Trump, with or without Bannon, it is a social force in its own right that I don’t like, but that’s beside the point.
The interesting thing is why did it lie dormant for so long and wake up now? Because the decline in American global economic influence and the setback to its military overreach shook it. ‘Make America Great Again’ resonated with those who took ‘America is the Greatest’ for granted all these decades, but are now disoriented. If the Republicans do badly in November 2018 DJT’s days may be numbered; low level Republicans won’t be able to save him. He may be removed or allowed to be a lame duck with no re-nomination prospects, but the movement itself will persist because of its social rootedness.
Let me sum up how all this squares with the war option. Not only Donald Trump but the base too inhabits a parallel universe in which ethereal visions materialise. For the first time in 41 years, a congressional hearing examined the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which gives presidents red-button authority. There was discussion of a presidential order which may not be legal, proportionate, or necessary and what to do about it. Complicating all this is the possibility of a mistake, invoking a response launch from NK. The Alt-Right base is gung-ho about all this. NK’s programmes cannot be called off, so the possibility of war hinges entirely on how unhinged Trump and the Alt-Right are.
To sum up, social and class forces in the GOP have revealed themselves to be more complex than the sanguine view prevalent up to now. This will have short-term effects on war decisions and more generally long-lasting social and international consequences.