Playing dangerous games
Donald Trump’s swaggering brinksmanship is a reminder of the fragility of the global order, argues Paul Demarty
Above all else, the recent contretemps between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has sharply illustrated the distinction between the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency and the three short months (so far) of Donald Trump’s.
Obama is remembered by the left, deservedly, for his failure to live up to his ‘prophet of peace’ billing. Guantanamo Bay is still open. The US is still, one way or another, entangled in Iraq and Afghanistan, and plenty of other places to boot. His administration saw fit to play games in the South China Sea, and in Russia’s ‘near abroad’ (especially through the promotion of a second ‘colour revolution’ in Ukraine, which led to secessions, annexations and a tense stand-off that continues to this day between ethnic-Russian and Ukrainian far-right nationalists).
By recent American standards, however, Obama was highly cautious. Sanctions were preferred to war; and endless low-intensity warfare, conducted by means of unmanned aerial vehicles and localised bombing, to boots on the ground. Diplomatic bullying and browbeating achieved much of what the more hare-brained among the neo-conservatives assumed could only be coaxed out of America’s enemies in the track-marks of a tank division. Cuba began to come in from the cold; a deal was reached with Iran.
This was all unforgivable from the point of view of Obama’s domestic enemies, for whom he was always too soft - or even perhaps playing for the other side. Similar accusations have been levelled at Trump, of course, in relation to his on-off admiration for Vladimir Putin. Soft, however, he definitely is not. A few short months into his tenure, he has already brought forth shocked and almost titillated headlines about the possibility of the first nuclear exchange since World War II. As rumours gathered that the North Korean regime was to mark its annual Day of the Sun public holiday with a ballistic missile test, the rhetoric from the White House got more and more belligerent. An “armada” was despatched, the Carl Vinson strike group; a hellish rain of Tomahawk missiles promised. If the Kim regime continued with its provocations, Trump promised in the preferred euphemism of the mob boss, it would be “taken care of”.
The test, of course, was a write-off. At this point, we really have to wonder how it came to pass that this rocket blew up on the ground. Despite the usual bellicose verbiage from the regime’s upper layers - “If the US comes with reckless military manoeuvres then we will confront it with the DPRK’s pre-emptive strike,” vice foreign minister Han Song Ryol told the Associated Press on April 14 - the North Koreans are in no position to fight a war against the United States, if the latter really had a mind to launch one, although it could make the experience unpleasant for America’s allies south of the 38th parallel. This way, the regime has managed to avoid a suicidal war without climbing down. After all, accidents happen ...
Mother of all
It is in this context, also, that we ought to place the first military usage of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, or ‘mother or all bombs’, at roughly the same time, over a cave complex in Nangarhar, eastern Afghanistan, against Islamic State fighters (they do get around ... ).
The MOAB is the largest-yield non-nuclear bomb in America’s arsenal (the Russians have since built a larger thermobaric device, though it has not yet been used in anger). It is a wide-radius weapon that delivers death and mayhem to persons and civilian infrastructure in the canonical ‘shock and awe’ fashion (where once there was a neighbourhood, there is now a hole in the ground, strewn with charred remains), and a successor to the similar daisy-cutter bombs used in the second Gulf War. The Nangarhar device was detonated slightly above the ground, driving chemical fire through the caves like a car engine piston. The death toll was put at 92 after an investigation by the Afghan government; those killed seem to be overwhelmingly what George W Bush would call ‘enemy combatants’, although at least two civilians were fried to a crisp too.
There can be little doubt that the dropping of the MOAB had as one purpose an experimental character. In order to see it in action, a soft target was needed; IS fighters, far from their shrinking caliphate’s borders, fit the bill nicely, in that nobody much will lament their passing, and also in that they are unlikely to be entrenched in concrete bunkers. From that perspective, this is already an operational success - even the most favourable natural terrain, such as these caves that have hosted Islamist insurgents since they were backed by the CIA against the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan government and the Soviet Union in the 1980s, offers no defence against 10 metric tonnes of state-of-the-art fiery death.
Of course, there are other purposes at work, which did not escape former US puppet president Hamid Karzai, who now has a lot of time on his hands and a belated anger at his former sponsors. He condemned “the inhuman and most brutal misuse of our country as testing ground for new and dangerous weapons”. Karzai knows well enough what is going on, and primarily that it has nothing whatsoever to do with Afghanistan. This is a warning shot against people the US is not already in a war with, except an endless war of words - Iran and North Korea. It is a threat, moreover, not of ‘surgical strikes’ against nuclear facilities, but of terroristic carpet bombing.
A level further down in all this, we meet Trump’s real target: the state that acts as North Korea’s increasingly frustrated sponsor in world affairs, China.
Though relations have gone up and down in the 66 years since the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army drove the Americans and their allies back, the increasingly eccentric North Korean regime has become ever more reliant on its Stalino-capitalist north-western neighbour. China has dragged its feet over the implementation of UN sanctions, finally ceasing imports of North Korean coal only this February, after the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam (thought by some to be more sympathetic to Beijing than Kim Jong-Un and perhaps a useful replacement for him). Trump’s belligerence has send the Chinese government scrambling to avert a dangerous confrontation on its borders.
This is not the only matter on which Trump has put China on the back foot. After an endless diet of chauvinist accusations on the campaign trail, in particular on the point that the Chinese had kept the value of the renminbi at an artificially low level (probably true, at least during the most acute phase of the Chinese economic downturn in 2015), the notorious White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, is happy to claim victory: Beijing had not “been manipulating their currency since [Trump]’s been in office - that’s a fact,” he told a press conference on April 17.
In this, as in many things, the policy of the Trump White House is oddly familiar, but sharply different in presentation. It has always been the policy, during American capital’s period of hegemony, to foist upon potential competitors ‘harder’ money, while maintaining absolute liberty of action for the Federal Reserve (whatever the gold-bug cranks of Congress think about the matter), and otherwise meddle in the fiscal regimes of other countries in a manner flatly inconsistent with domestic economic policy. The difference is that Reagan and Bush senior sold that bill of goods 30 years ago to Japan in apparent good faith, as part of a coherent (if false) economic doctrine, whereas Trump is explicitly an advocate of raw American power and prestige, and his aggression on the matter of China’s financial regime is based entirely on its disadvantage to America.
In economics, so in war. Trump is hardly responsible for all the world’s instability: we remarked on Obama’s relative restraint, but, just as the absence of war does not mean peace, the absence of direct, shock-and-awe US military intervention does not mean the absence of war. In particular, Obama’s reliance on indirect support for US proxies via Saudi Arabia has massively increased the instability of the Middle East and many other regions, when it is plain that the Saudis provide practical assistance to the same crackpot jihadi lunatics we are told by the great and the good of the American establishment are ‘the enemy’.
Trump contrasts markedly in style; he sends not (only) drones, but Hercules transport planes with MOABs in the back; he sends an aircraft carrier to the Korean peninsula, with a salvo of violent threats. For him, no display of power is too vulgar; he promised the American people not four more years of managing global barbarism, but macho swagger - US imperialism as a big swinging dick. The result is immediately ‘the same’: more chaos, more state failure; but presentation matters. The risk of a much more serious conflagration is hardly insignificant, in these dangerous times; Trump’s threats, bluster and ordnance demonstrations will work in cowing the likes of Kim Jong-Un - until they don’t.