John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. In 2012-13, he was also an Open Society Fellow looking at the transformations that have taken place in Eastern Europe since 1989.
He is the author of several books and numerous articles. His latest book is Aftershock: A Journey into Eastern Europe’s Broken Dreams. He is also the author of the recent dystopian novel, Splinterlands. He has also produced ten plays, including four one-man shows, and published a novel. He is a senior associate at the Asia Institute in Seoul and has been both a Writing Fellow at Provisions Library in Washington, DC and a PanTech fellow in Korean Studies at Stanford University. He is a former associate editor of World Policy Journal. He has worked as an international affairs representative in Eastern Europe and East Asia for the American Friends Service Committee. He has also worked for the AFSC on such issues as the global economy, gun control, women and workplace, and domestic politics. He has served as a consultant for Foreign Policy in Focus, the Institute for Policy Studies, and the Friends Committee on National Legislation, among other organizations.
He has studied in England and Russia, lived in Poland and Japan, and traveled widely throughout Europe and Asia.
He has taught a graduate level course on international conflict at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul in July 2001 and delivered lectures at a variety of academic institutions including New York University, Hofstra, Union College, Cornell University, and Sofia University (Tokyo). He’s been widely interviewed in print and on radio.
He is a recipient of the Herbert W. Scoville fellowship and has been a writer in residence at Blue Mountain Center and the Wurlitzer Foundation.
John Feffer is available to give lectures and class presentations on topics including U.S. foreign policy, the Korean peninsula, and the politics of food. For more information, please email him at: johnfeffer [at] gmail.com
By globalists, he first of all meant rival Hillary Clinton, who represented the face of American internationalism as a jet-setting secretary of state and an it-takes-a village multiculturalist. But he was also including in this catchall category all free traders, diplomats, UN officials, and individuals who didn’t put America First (or put Trump First).
His perorations, which sampled the paranoid utterances of shock jock Alex Jones, had a tinge of conspiracy to them, as if a group of the world’s most powerful people actually got together in one place to plot the trajectory of the world.
Well, actually, that does happen.
It’s called the World Economic Forum, and it takes place every year in Davos, Switzerland. Mostly the participants party rather than plot, but they are nevertheless an exclusive bunch of people.
And this year, Donald Trump was there, along with his entourage of seven Cabinet members. Given his populist positions, you’d think that the president would go in swinging, and all the world’s globalists would be primed to get in their retaliatory licks.
But that’s not how it went last week. Instead, with only a few sour notes sounded on both sides, Daniel went into the lion’s den and emerged without a scratch. After all, like Daniel, Trump remained true to his god, and that’s why the lions of Davos purred at his feet.
Trump’s god, of course, is money — and he prayed to that god at Davos as fervently as he did during the State of the Union speech this week.
Forget Jesus Christ and the national anthem. Trump worships at only one altar, and he has lots of fellow believers.
Trump’s Message to the World
The idea that Donald Trump is, was, or ever would be a populist has been laughable from the very start. He has always acted like a grasping member of the nouveau riche.
True, he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but he’s been trying to cram the whole silverware set in his maw ever since (along with one or both of his feet). He likes flash and conspicuous wealth, and he has always delighted in stiffing his underlings (in more ways than one).
Populism was a ladder Trump used to ascend to the presidency and which he immediately kicked away once he achieved his perch. He has surrounded himself with wealthy advisors, developed an economic plan slanted to the 1 percent, and blurred the distinction between public policy and his own private riches with all the panache of a Russian oligarch.
Before, when he inveighed against globalists, he simply had in mind all the political and economic gatekeepers who kept him out of their clubs because they considered him a vulgar upstart. But there’s nothing like concentrated political power to change the minds of those gatekeepers. Trump’s tale of riches to presidential rants could be a comedy of manners by novelist Henry James if it weren’t unfolding like a dystopian tale of sound and fury told by an idiot.
Of course, were Trump a sympathetic protagonist, his speech at Davos would be the triumphant culmination of the drama. He didn’t have to do much at the World Economic Forum. Like a kid in a third-grade play, he wowed the audience just by showing up, reading his lines, and not throwing a tantrum. Consider the reaction of one of his critics, foreign-policy columnist Fareed Zakaria, in The Washington Post:
On Friday at the World Economic Forum, Trump gave a good speech that was forthright, intelligent, and conciliatory, embracing the world rather than condemning it. The address was extremely well received here at the World Economic Forum by both American business leaders and even non-American attendees, who are overwhelmingly skeptical of Trump overall.
Admittedly, Zakaria was establishing a rather low bar for success: that Trump simply act like a “normal president” rather than the petulant infant that he’s been channeling for much of the last year.
But there is a much more obvious reason why Trump and the global elites at Davos got along so well. Trump spoke and acted like the rich, greedy man that he is. As such, he fit right in at the World Economic Forum, which operates on the principle that everyone in the world is rich and greedy (or aspires to be).
Zakaria and others were reassured that Trump acted like a ordinary, ruthless Republican out of central casting rather than a madman out to destroy the world. Subtract the boilerplate blather about lifting up the poor and middle class and you can get the essence of Trump’s speech in these three points:
That’s it in a nutshell: reduce taxes for the wealthy, slash regulations that protect people and the environment, and drill, baby, drill — themes he reiterated in his State of the Union address on Tuesday.
Yes, some of the caustic Trump leaked out during his Davos performance, most notably when he lashed out at the “nasty,” “mean,” and “fake” news media. Otherwise, Trump was in charm mode, and he received a fawning reception.
“On behalf of the business leaders here in this room let me particularly congratulate you for the historic tax reform,” the head of the World Economic Forum Karl Schwab said in his introduction. “U.S. tax reform makes it more economic to do business in the United States,” Jeffrey Rosen, deputy chairman of the financial advisory firm Lazard, said. “Deregulation makes it easier.” Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein told CNBC, “I’ve really liked what he’s done for the economy, and I think he’s gone out of his way to be very, very supportive of the system.”
Well, of course! He’s been very, very supportive of the system — the ridiculously tilted global economy — because the system has been very, very good to him.
The Davos speech — and accompanying Davos response — didn’t just sweep the business community off its feet. Back from Switzerland, Trump critic Bob Corker (R-TN) confessed on the eve of the State of the Union address to having second thoughts (once again) about the president. “The one takeaway was how big a deal the tax reform package was — it was unbelievable to me,” Corker said. “It really caused the audience there, the people there, to be far warmer to the president, because of this package. It was just an amazing thing.”
Actually, Bob, the one takeaway that was unbelievable in the tax reform package was the additional million dollars you personally will make in tax savings from one provision alone on income from real estate investment trusts. So, please, spare us the gushing. For all your pretentions to being a deficit hawk and a skeptical Republican, you’re as fervent a believer in Trump’s religion of greed as the next plutocrat.
Well, there are some exceptions….
Of course the World Economic Forum is not just a gathering of billionaires. In recent years, artists and NGO leaders have diversified the audience. And some of the world’s elected leaders have a genuinely internationalist perspective.
So, for instance, Trump came in for some withering criticism at Davos from environmentalists and the leaders of “shithole” countries.
But the person who’s emerged as perhaps the leading anti-Trump figure in the world — because he is challenging not just Trump but Trumpism — has been George Soros. The Hungarian billionaire has certainly made his fortune in ways as questionable as Trump (most famously, betting against the British sterling and reaping a windfall as the UK economy tanked). But in other ways, Soros has been a traitor to his class.
“Elitist hypocrite George Soros makes a fool of himself in Davos,” screamed the Fox News headline after Soros lambasted Facebook, Google, and Trump at the World Economic Forum. In the article, Fox News show host Steve Hilton tears into Soros:
Like the rest of the Trump-hating elite, he can’t control his snooty impulses and can’t accept the real, tangible improvements that the Trump presidency is already making in the real lives of working Americans, who have suffered decades of economic insecurity as a direct result of the elitist policies that Soros personally supports.
So, what did Soros actually say?
Aside from comparing Facebook to a controlled substance, the financier philanthropist focused on the threat posed to the world by Trump. “I consider the Trump administration a danger to the world,” Soros said. “Open societies are in crisis, and various forms of dictatorships and mafia states, exemplified by Putin’s Russia, are on the rise. In the United States, President Trump would like to establish a mafia state but he can’t, because the Constitution, other institutions, and a vibrant civil society won’t allow it.”
Soros also criticized the Trump administration for setting a collision course with North Korea that would lead to nuclear war, and for attempting to accelerate, with his energy policies, humanity’s demise through climate change — precisely the policies of “exterminism” that I criticized in last week’s column.
As importantly, he clearly disavowed the “elitist policies” on the economy that indeed had a devastating effect on working people. In his call for a radical reinvention of the EU, Soros noted that the regional body “used to enjoy the enthusiastic support of the people of my generation, but that changed after the financial crisis of 2008. The EU lost its way because it was governed by outdated treaties and a mistaken belief in austerity policies.”
Of course, you might dismiss what Soros has to say (and what I have to say, particularly since I’ve received funding from his foundation). But it’s critically important at this juncture for members of the super-wealthy to turn against one of their own.
After all, Trump the calm globalist is just as dangerous, if not more so, than Trump the raging populist.
Perhaps some U.S. diplomats have referred to the country as “shithole” — because the food’s rather bland and the nightlife rather staid — but the important thing is that the United States has never treated Norway as a “shithole.”
Between the word and the deed lies a world of difference.
Donald Trump outraged everyone outside his ever-more concentrated base with his recent comment that the United States should stop accepting immigrants from “shithole” countries in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean and instead bring people in from places like Norway.
Foreign governments from Botswana and Haiti to El Salvador and even Norway denounced the president. Rupert Colville, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called the president “racist.” Even a handful of Republican lawmakers put some distance between themselves and the insulter-in-chief.
But all of this outrage is outrageously beside the point. Trump was only putting into words an underlying principle of U.S. foreign policy. For decades, the United States has treated countries like “shitholes” even if policymakers haven’t called them such, at least not in public.
Trump is a racist and the names he blurts out are offensive, no question about it. But it’s the sticks and stones of U.S. foreign policy that are really going to hurt you. So, why is everyone more upset about Donald Trump’s frank utterances — saying what many of his equally racist Washington colleagues are thinking — than the far more brutal excesses of U.S. foreign policy?
Insult, Then Injury
All armies train their soldiers to dehumanize the enemy. If you think of your enemy as a person, it’s very difficult to shoot him or her between the eyes.
The same holds true for countries. If you think of a country as a civilized place, it’s very difficult to bomb it back to the Stone Age.
The United States, in its more than a century of imperial ambitions, has long been subjecting other countries to the “shithole” treatment. At the outset of empire, the United States branded the Philippines as a place beyond the pale — filled with, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy Teddy Roosevelt put it, “savages, barbarians, a wild and ignorant people.” Such rhetorical dehumanization made it easier for U.S. troops to kill 20,000 Filipino fighters and preside over a three-year war that left more than 200,000 Filipino civilians dead.
The northern parts of Korea and Vietnam received similar “shithole” treatment in the Cold War era. The Koreans and Vietnamese suffered from the same dehumanizing epithets as the Filipinos several generations before. Worse were the saturation bombings that they endured. This was the era of destroying the village to save it. If a place is a “shithole” to begin with, this kind of logic makes perfect sense.
For geopolitical reasons, Vietnam is back in the good graces of the United States: After all, it serves as a wedge against China.
North Korea is another matter. It is the “scourge of our planet” ruled over by a “depraved regime,” Trump said at the UN last year. Trump’s epithets aren’t part of a campaign to bring North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the International Criminal Court. Trump cares little about human rights, and after all, he either “has a very good relationship” with Kim, according to The Wall Street Journal, or “he’d have a good relationship (according to Trump). Honestly, who cares about the verb tense? It’s the adjective “good” that counts most: These two guys are cut from the same cloth.
So, forget about human rights. Trump has reduced North Korea to rhetorical rubble as a strategy to prepare the American public for a future military action against the country — an option that Trump continues to cultivate despite the recent inter-Korean warming. Thus does insult precede injury.
But the United States isn’t just in the business of identifying “shitholes.” It’s also in the business of making them.
Sow the Wind, Reap the Shitstorm
After September 11, the United States adopted a more muscular foreign policy that produced one “shithole” country after another.
The Bush administration invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. The Obama administration led from behind in a regime-change effort in Libya. First Obama and then Trump waded into the quagmire of Syria. U.S. Special Forces are involved throughout most of what was once called the Third World (and now, according to Trump, should be renamed the “Shit World”).
In Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States played the pivotal role in turning brutally run countries into certifiable “shitholes.” With Libya and Syria, Washington has helped accelerate the virtual collapse of the countries. Forget nation-building and post-conflict reconstruction: The United States over the last couple decades has been much better at breaking things than putting them back together.
Trump didn’t single out Afghanistan as a “shithole” in his recent comments. He didn’t have to. His policy toward the country conveys very clear what his evaluation is.
“The gloves are off,” the Pentagon has rejoiced. Between last August and December, Washington conducted almost as many air strikes in the country as 2015 and 2016 combined. The U.S. military now attacks the Taliban anywhere and everywhere — which helped ensure more civilian deaths last year than at any other point in the 16-year war — and not just in defense of Afghan forces (which was the Obama-era policy).
Which brings us back to Trump and his woeful perspective on immigration. Afghanistan continues to be the world’s second leading source of refugees (just behind Syria). Libya and Iraq have been hemorrhaging their populations. Other sending countries — El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Haiti, Congo — can point to the United States as a key player in contributing to the violence, economic chaos, and social unrest that have uprooted a substantial portion of the population — whether it’s been U.S. support for murderous dictatorships, misguided U.S. economic programs, or the U.S. market for narcotics.
In other words, so many of the people trying to get into Europe and the United States these days are escaping the conditions that Washington helped to create.
Hey, President Trump, you want to know why those folks, and not Norwegians, are clamoring to get into this country? Ask all those generals that are sitting around your table. However profane they might be in private — just consider the military origin of the acronyms “snafu” and “fubar” — these military professionals would never violate protocol by referring to other countries in a derogatory fashion. This isn’t the 19th century. But they have blood on their hands nonetheless.
Flipping the Script
Trump made his comments about immigration shortly after meeting with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg. Trump was suitably impressed with the country. No doubt he wished he could run a predominantly white country made wealthy by oil.
Although the United States currently enjoys a booming stock market and low unemployment, Trump knows quite well the economic distress in much of the country. Those are the areas that put him over the top in the Electoral College. Those are the areas he loves to visit as president to remind him of those boisterous campaign rallies where everyone, and not just 30 percent of the audience, loved him. Those are also the areas that are going to continue to suffer as a result of his feed-the-rich economic policies.
Those are the areas that, dare I say it, Trump considers “shitholes.”
I’m not putting words in his mouth. “I want to make the country great again,” he told the press back in May 2015. “This country is a hellhole. We are going down fast.”
As I said, first come the insults, then comes the injury. Trump has, in a sense, invaded the United States and unleashed his special brand of fire and fury on the homeland. Now he’s methodically turning this country into a shithole for 99 percent of its residents. He’s been busy all year destroying the United States in order to “save” it.
Trump was prophetic. We are indeed going down fast. And the Norwegians are not coming to the rescue.
It was 2009, and hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had convincingly won the presidency with roughly 63 percent to reformer Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s approximately 34 percent. Adopting their campaign’s green color, Mousavi’s supporters thronged the streets in protest.
These Green Movement adherents were mostly middle class and concentrated in the major cities. Ahmadinejad, by contrast, attracted the support of the more religious, the less well-off and the rural—a sizable constituency that the Green Movement routinely underestimated.
Now it’s their turn to take to the streets: these members of the Iranian working class who live in the boonies, who have not benefited from the economic changes of the reformists. This is a group that analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj calls the “forgotten men and women” of modern Iran.
The current demonstrations are leaderless, and the demands are all over the map. In general, however, today’s protesters seem more concerned with economic issues than political ones, though the two are inextricably linked. For instance, unlike in 2009, the most recent demonstrations have nothing to do with election fraud. After all, the last presidential election went off without a hitch, and some of the same people who protested in 2009 returned to the streets in May 2017 to celebrate the reelection of reformer Hassan Rouhani.
On the economic side, meanwhile, the reformers around Rouhani promised a big boost as a result of the nuclear deal with the United States, the European Union and other countries. And, indeed, the economy has grown, mostly as a result of an uptick in oil exports. The growth rate in 2016 was 6.4 percent—a remarkable turnabout from the nearly 2 percent contraction in 2015. That certainly helped Rouhani win reelection in May last year.
But this wealth has not trickled down fast enough. Unemployment has been rising from around 10 percent in 2015 to over 12 percent today. The youth unemployment rate, meanwhile, hovers around 30 percent, which mirrors the conditions in a number of Middle Eastern countries on the eve of the Arab Spring. Moreover, large price increases in staples like eggs and gas have hit the poorer segments of society hard, and the population is bracing for more of the same in 2018.
Iranian society is sharply divided between haves and have-nots, its rate of economic inequality comparable to that of the Philippines. The current unrest reflects the thwarted economic ambitions of a falling working class, not the thwarted political ambitions of a rising middle class.
Iranians are also protesting corruption, which has long been a central feature of economic and political life in the country. There have been the predictable scandals associated with fraud in the oil industry. The earthquake in November toppled many houses built by the state, revealing corruption in the construction industry. The underground economy encouraged by the sanctions regime has also generated a pervasive culture of bribery. And many Iranians view the high salaries that go to some government employees as a form of corruption as well.
Initially, it seems, the protests originated not with reformists, like the Green Movement, but with hardliners hoping to focus anger on Rouhani. The protests broke out, for instance, in religious centers Qom and Mashhad. Writes Ahmad Sadri, “The right-wing powerful duo of the city of Mashhad, Ebrahim Raisi (the embittered rival of Rouhani in the recent elections) and his famously simple-minded father-in-law, Ahmad Alamolhoda, struck the first match by staging a small anti-Rouhani demonstration, blaming the high price of consumer goods on the Rouhani government.”
The conservatives opened a Pandora’s box of resentments. Protesters in other cities have subsequently denounced the Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard. They’ve even sung the praises of the deposed shah and called for the return of his son.
This is a protest of profound disillusionment.
The Rouhani government banked on a big dividend coming from the 2015 nuclear deal.
It needed this infusion of capital from outside because, in reality, Rouhani has rather narrow room for maneuver on economic issues. The religious establishment holds all the trump cards when it comes to governance. A large state-owned sector and extensive public services absorb a large chunk of the government budget. Wages and salaries take up around 40 percent of the budget—and social security a little over 30 percent. In a “semi-state sector” bolstered by an opaque privatization process, conservative institutions like the Revolutionary Guards hold considerable sway and are often resistant to any reform.
Rouhani needed leverage from outside the system because he controlled so few levers within the system. The nuclear deal was supposed to reduce sanctions, expand Iranian exports and attract a new wave of foreign investment. Some sanctions have been lifted (but not all). Some exports have spiked (mostly oil). But the foreign investment has been slow to materialize.
True, some European firms, such as the French energy firm Total, have dipped their toes into the Iranian market. And Boeing secured a major civilian airplane deal.
But opposition to economic engagement with Iran was strong in Washington, even during the Obama administration. In the wake of their defeat on the nuclear deal, hardliners in Congress were eager to apply new sanctions against Iran and reduce what little investment was flowing toward the country. Granted, it’s not easy to navigate the business environment inside Iran. But the United States didn’t make it any easier.
The Trump administration hasn’t been shy about voicing its opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. Even before the latest protests broke out, the administration was also exploring ways of killing the Boeing aircraft deal, as well as the Total investment. Suffice it to say, Trump is not interested in any kind of engagement with the Iranian government.
As soon as the protests broke out in Iran in December, Trump gleefully took to Twitter to support the people in the streets and castigate the Rouhani government. “The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime,” Trump tweeted. “All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their ‘pockets.’ The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The U.S. is watching!”
For Trump, the protests vindicate his argument that the government in Tehran is illegitimate. That the protests have resulted at least in part from U.S. policies to squeeze Iran is immaterial to Trump and his supporters in Congress.
This has been their strategy all along. “The policy of the United States should be regime change in Iran,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has said. “I don’t see how anyone can say America can be safe as long as you have in power a theocratic despotism.” Sanctions are not designed to extract a “better deal” from Tehran or even to dissuade it from engaging in “bad behavior” in the region. That’s a canard to make the United States appear to be playing by the rules of respecting sovereignty.
The punditocracy, meanwhile, has largely come out in support of the protests, with people on both sides of the nuclear deal laying down their differences to side with the street. Here’s Daniel Shapiro and Mark Dubowitz in Politico:
We are long-time friends who have disagreed vehemently on the wisdom of President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran; Dan is Obama’s former ambassador to Israel, and Mark is one of that agreement’s most persistent critics. But we agree with equal passion that Americans, regardless of party or position on the nuclear deal, should be supporting the aspirations of Iranians to be free from their brutal and corrupt rulers.
But what are Shapiro and Dubowitz supporting exactly? By all means, the Iranian government should permit freedom of assembly. It should not respond to the protests with violence. And who cannot sympathize with people who are fed up with unemployment and corruption and want to exercise their right of self-determination?
But these protests are not the Green Movement. The current demonstrators don’t have a single, coherent program. They don’t appear to have rallied behind anything to replace the current government. They are, like the groundswell of support for Donald Trump, a movement defined by opposition to the status quo. It’s not immediately clear what alternative system such protesters would support, but it’s just as likely to be something religiously populist along the lines of Ahmadinejad as anything resembling secular liberalism.
Barack Obama received criticism from the Left and the Right for not throwing U.S. support behind the Green Movement. The stakes were clearer then—a hardline president with dubious legitimacy on one side versus a mass movement with leaders and a program. Today, the stakes are considerably muddier. But Trump, who cares so little about Iranians that he’s blocked them from entering the United States regardless of their affiliations, is interested only in the larger game: scoring points against Obama and the Iranian leadership and scoring points for Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Come January 13, when Trump has another opportunity to cancel U.S. participation in the nuclear agreement, he will likely do so in the name of the Iranian people, the very ones who have taken to the streets because Trump and others like him are determined to make sure that the agreement ultimately doesn’t provide any real economic benefits to the Iranian people. His supporters on the Right are already giving him the ammunition to gun down the deal in this way.
What Goes Around
Trump immediately identified the protesters as his kind of people—angry at political elites, upset that economic “reforms” have not benefited them, disgusted with the corruption of the system. Trump knows a “throw the bums out” kind of movement when he sees one.
The groundswell of anger in Iran matches the rage felt by people all over the world at the greed and cluelessness of their leaders. So far, manipulative so-called populists have managed to translate this anger into electoral success—in Hungary, Russia, the Philippines and the United States. The most likely political actor to take advantage of this anger in Iran would walk and talk like Ahmadinejad and embrace positions that are more anti-American, anti-Saudi and anti-Israel than those of the current government.
Trump should be careful when he supports a movement in Iran like that, and not just because it probably wouldn’t produce a more U.S.-friendly regime. Trump is already facing something similar. After all, the president is now undeniably a member of the political elite. He’s the one implementing economic reforms that don’t benefit the vast majority. He’s the one making gobs of money off of the system. And, as in Iran, he’s the one backed by powerful religious fanatics.
In short, Trump is now the bum that a growing movement wants to throw out of the White House. When the time comes, will Mark Dubowitz and his conservative brethren similarly defend American citizens who aspire “to be free from their brutal and corrupt rulers”.
He has dropped the mother of all bombs in Afghanistan, and he’s considering the mother of all wars in the Middle East. He is abetting Saudi Arabia’s devastating war in Yemen. Many evangelicals are welcoming his announcement of U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel as a sign that the end of days is nigh. The conflict with Iran is about to heat up early next year when Trump, in the absence of any congressional action, will decide whether to fulfill his promise to tear up the nuclear agreement that the Obama administration worked so hard to negotiate and the peace movement backed with crucial support.
But no war has acquired quite the same apparent inevitability as the conflict with North Korea. Here in Washington, pundits and policymakers are talking about a “three-month window” within which the Trump administration can stop North Korea from acquiring the capability to strike U.S. cities with nuclear weapons.
That estimate allegedly comes from the CIA, though the messenger is the ever-unreliable John Bolton, the former flame-thrower of a U.S. ambassador to the UN. Bolton has used that estimate to make the case for a preemptive attack on North Korea, a plan that Trump has also reportedly taken very seriously.
North Korea, too, has announced that war is “an established fact.” After the most recent U.S.-South Korean military exercises in the region, a spokesperson from the Foreign Ministry in Pyongyang said, “The remaining question now is: when will the war break out?”
This aura of inevitability should put prevention of conflict with North Korea at the top of the urgent to-do list of all international institutions, engaged diplomats, and concerned citizens.
A warning about the costs of war may not convince people who want Kim Jong Un and his regime out regardless of consequences (and nearly half of Republicans already support a preemptive strike). But a preliminary estimate of the human, economic, and environmental costs of a war should make enough people think twice, lobby hard against military actions by all sides, and support legislative efforts to prevent Trump from launching a preemptive strike without congressional approval.
Such an estimate of the various impacts can also serve as a basis for three movements — anti-war, economic justice, and environmental — to come together in opposition to what would set back our causes, and the world at large, for generations to come.
It’s not the first time the United States has been on the verge of making an extraordinary mistake. Can the costs of the last war help us avoid the next one?
Doomed to Repeat?
If Americans had known how much the Iraq War was going to cost, perhaps they wouldn’t have gone along with the Bush administration’s march to war. Perhaps Congress would have put up more of a fight.
Invasion boosters predicted that the war would be a “cakewalk.” It wasn’t. About 25,000 Iraqi civilians died as a result of the initial invasion and about 2,000 coalition forces died up through 2005. But that was just the beginning. By 2013, another 100,000 Iraq civilians had died because of ongoing violence, according to the conservative estimates of the Iraq Body Count, along with another 2,800 coalition forces (mostly American).
Then there were the economic costs. Before it blundered into Iraq, the Bush administration projected that the war would only cost around $50 billion. That was wishful thinking. The real accounting only came later.
My colleagues at the Institute for Policy Studies estimated in 2005 that the bill for the Iraq war would ultimately come in at $700 billion. In their 2008 book The Three Trillion Dollar War, Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes provided an even higher estimate, which they later revised further upwards toward $5 trillion.
The body counts and the more accurate economic estimates had a profound impact on how Americans viewed the Iraq War. Public support for the war was around 70 percent at the time of the 2003 invasion. In 2002, the congressional resolution authorizing military force against Iraq passed the House 296 to 133 and the Senate 77-23.
By 2008, however, American voters were supporting Barack Obama’s candidacy in part because of his opposition to the invasion. Many of these people who supported the war — a majority of the Senate, former neoconservative Francis Fukuyama — were saying that if they knew in 2003 what they subsequently learned about the war, they would have taken a different position.
In 2016, not a few people supported Donald Trump for his purported skepticism about recent U.S. military campaigns. As a Republican presidential candidate, Trump declared the Iraq War a mistake and even pretended that he’d never supported the invasion. It was part of his effort to distance himself from hawks within his own party and the “globalists” in the Democratic Party. Some libertarians even supported Trump as the “anti-war” candidate.
Trump is now shaping up to be quite the opposite. He is escalating U.S. involvement in Syria, surging in Afghanistan, and expanding the use of drones in the “war on terror.”
But the looming conflict with North Korea is of an entirely different order of magnitude. The anticipated costs are so high that outside of Donald Trump himself, the most resolute of his hawkish followers, and a few overseas supporters like Japan’s Shinzo Abe, war remains an unpopular option. And yet, both North Korea and the United States are on a collision course, propelled by the logic of escalation and subject to the errors of miscalculation.
By making sure that the probable costs of a war with North Korea are well known, however, it is still possible to persuade the U.S. government to step back from the brink.
The Human Costs
A nuclear exchange between the United States and North Korea would go off the charts in terms of lives lost, economies wrecked, and the environment destroyed.
In his apocalyptic scenario in The Washington Post, arms control specialist Jeffrey Lewis imagines that, after widespread conventional U.S. bombing of the country, North Korea launches a dozen nuclear weapons at the United States. Despite some errant targeting and a half-effective missile defense system, the attack still manages to kill a million people in New York alone and another 300,000 around Washington, DC. Lewis concludes:
The Pentagon would make almost no effort to tally the enormous numbers of civilians killed in North Korea by the massive conventional air campaign. But in the end, officials concluded, nearly 2 million Americans, South Koreans, and Japanese had died in the completely avoidable nuclear war of 2019.
If North Korea uses nuclear weapons closer to home, the death toll would be much higher: over two million dead in Seoul and Tokyo alone, according to a detailed estimate at 38North.
The human costs of a conflict with North Korea would be staggering even if nuclear weapons never enter the picture and the U.S. homeland never comes under attack. Back in 1994, when Bill Clinton was contemplating a preemptive strike on North Korea, the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea told the president that the result would probably be a million dead in and around the Korean peninsula.
Today, the Pentagon estimates that 20,000 people would die each day of such a conventional conflict. That’s based on the fact that 25 million people live in and around Seoul, which is within distance of North Korea’s long-range artillery pieces, 1,000 of which are located just north of the Demilitarized Zone.
The casualties would not just be Korean. There are also about 38,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, plus another 100,000 other Americans living in the country. So, a war just confined to the Korean peninsula would be the equivalent of putting at risk the number of Americans living in a city the size of Syracuse or Waco.
And this Pentagon estimate is cautious. The more common forecast is more than 100,000 dead in the first 48 hours. Even this latter number doesn’t factor in the use of chemical warheads, in which case the casualties would quickly rise into the millions (despite some overheated speculation, there is no evidence that North Korea has yet developed biological weapons).
In any such war scenario, North Korean civilians would also die in large numbers, just as huge numbers of Iraqi and Afghan civilians died during those conflicts. In a letter solicited by Reps. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Ruben Gallego (D-A), the Joint Chiefs of Staff made clear that a ground invasion would be necessary to locate and destroy all nuclear facilities. That would increase the number of both U.S. and North Korean casualties.
Bottom line: Even a war limited to conventional weapons and to the Korean peninsula would result in, at minimum, tens of thousands dead and more likely casualties closer to a million.
It’s somewhat more difficult to estimate the economic costs of any conflict on the Korean peninsula. Again, any war involving nuclear weapons would cause incalculable economic damage. So, let’s use the more conservative estimate associated with a conventional war that’s restricted to Korea alone.
Any estimates must take into account the economically advanced nature of South Korean society. According to GDP projections for 2017, South Korea is the 12th largest economy in the world, just behind Russia. Moreover, Northeast Asia is the most economically dynamic region of the world. A war on the Korean peninsula would devastate the economies of China, Japan, and Taiwan as well. The global economy would take a significant hit.
Writes Anthony Fensom in The National Interest:
A 50 percent fall in South Korea’s GDP could knock a percentage point off global GDP, while there would also be substantial disruptions to trade flows.
South Korea is heavily integrated into regional and global manufacturing supply chains, which would be severely disrupted by any major conflict. Capital Economics sees Vietnam as the worst affected, since it sources around 20 percent of its intermediate goods from South Korea, but China sources over 10 percent, while a number of other Asian neighbors would be affected.
Also consider the additional costs of the refugee flow. Germany alone spent over $20 billion for refugee resettlement in 2016. The outflow from North Korea, a country somewhat more populous than Syria was in 2011, could be likewise in the millions if a civil war erupts, a famine ensues, or the state collapses. China is already building refugee camps on its border with North Korea — just in case. Both China and South Korea have had difficulty accommodating the defector outflow as it is — and that’s only around 30,000 in the South and something similar in China.
Now let’s look at the specific costs to the United States. The cost of military operations in Iraq — Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn — was $815 billion from 2003 though 2015, which includes military operations, reconstruction, training, foreign aid, and veterans’ health benefits.
In terms of military operations, the United States is up against, on paper, a North Korean army three times what Saddam Hussein fielded in 2003. Again, on paper, North Korea has more sophisticated weaponry as well. The soldiers, however, are malnourished, there’s a shortage of fuel for the bombers and tanks, and many systems lack spare parts. Pyongyang has pursued a nuclear deterrent in part because it is now at such a disadvantage in terms of conventional weapons compared to South Korea (not to mention U.S. forces in the Pacific). It’s therefore possible that an initial assault might yield the same results as the first salvo in the Iraq War.
But however brutal the Kim Jong Un regime is, the population would not likely welcome American soldiers with open arms. An insurgency comparable to what took place after the Iraq War would likely arise, which would end up costing the United States even further loss of life and money.
But even in the absence of an insurgency, the costs of the military operation will be dwarfed by the costs of reconstruction. Reconstruction costs for South Korea, a major industrialized country, would be much higher than in Iraq or certainly Afghanistan. The United States spent about $60 billion initially for post-war reconstruction in Iraq (much of it wasted through corruption), and the bill for liberating the country from the Islamic State runs closer to $150 billion.
Add to that the monumental costs of rehabilitating North Korea, which under the best circumstances would cost at least $1 trillion (the estimated costs of reunification) but which would balloon up to $3 trillion in the aftermath of a devastating war. Ordinarily, South Korea would be expected to cover these costs, but not if that country too had been devastated by war.
Spending on the military campaign and on post-conflict reconstruction would push U.S. federal debt into the stratosphere. The opportunity costs — the funds that could have been spent on infrastructure, education, health care — would be enormous as well. The war would likely put America into receivership.
Bottom line: Even a limited war with North Korea would directly cost the United States more than $1 trillion in terms of military operations and reconstruction, and considerably more indirectly because of setbacks to the global economy.
(Photo: Seongju Rescind Thaad / Facebook)
In terms of environmental impact, a nuclear war would be catastrophic. Even a relatively limited nuclear exchange could trigger a significant drop in global temperatures — because of debris and soot thrown into the air that blocks the sun — which would throw global food production into crisis.
If the United States tries to take out North Korea’s nuclear weapons and facilities, particularly those buried beneath the ground, it will be sorely tempted to use nuclear weapons first. “The ability to take out the North Korean nuclear program is limited, with conventional weapons,” explains retired U.S. Air Force General Sam Gardiner. Instead, the Trump administration would turn to “hard-target-kill” weapons fired from nuclear submarines near the Korean peninsula.
Even if North Korea is unable to retaliate, these preemptive strikes carry their own risks of mass casualties. The release of radiation — or lethal agents, in the case of strikes on chemical weapons repositories — could kill millions and render large tracts of land uninhabitable depending on a number of factors (yield, depth of explosion, weather conditions), according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Even a conventional war fought exclusively on the Korean peninsula would have devastating environmental consequences. A conventional aerial attack on North Korea, followed by retaliatory strikes against South Korea, would end up contaminating large tracts of territory around energy and chemical complexes and destroy fragile ecosystems (such as the bio-diverse Demilitarized Zone). The use of depleted uranium weapons by the United States, as it did in 2003, would cause more widespread environmental and health damage.
Bottom line: Any war on the Korean peninsula would have a devastating impact on the environment, but efforts to take out North Korea’s nuclear complex would be potentially catastrophic.
There would be other costs of war associated with an attack on North Korea. Given the opposition to war of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the United States would strain its alliance with that country to the breaking point. The Trump administration would deal a blow to international law as well as international institutions such as the United Nations. It would encourage other countries to push diplomacy aside and pursue military “solutions” in their regions of the world.
Even before the Trump administration took office, the costs of war worldwide were unacceptably high. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, the world spends over $13 trillion a year on conflict, which works out to about 13 percent of global GDP.
If the United States goes to war with North Korea, it will throw all of those calculations out the window. There has never been a war between nuclear powers. There hasn’t been an all-out war in such an economically prosperous region for decades. The human, economic, and environmental costs will be staggering.
This war isn’t inevitable.
The North Korean leadership knows that, because it faces overwhelming force, any conflict is literally suicidal. The Pentagon also recognizes that, because the risk of casualties to U.S. troops and U.S. allies is so high, a war is not in the U.S. national interest. Secretary of Defense James Mattis acknowledges that a war with North Korea would be no cakewalk and, indeed, would be “catastrophic.”
Even the Trump administration’s own strategic review of the North Korean problem didn’t include military intervention or regime change as recommendations alongside maximum pressure and diplomatic engagement. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has recently said that Washington is open to talks with Pyongyang “without preconditions,” an important shift in negotiating tactics.
Perhaps during this holiday season, Donald Trump will be visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Future. The ghost from the past will remind him once again of the avoidable tragedies of the Iraq War. The ghost from the future will show him the ruined landscape of the Korean peninsula, the vast cemeteries of the dead, the devastated U.S. economy, and the compromised global environment.
As for the ghost of Christmas Present, the ghost who carries an empty and rusted scabbard and who represents peace on earth, we are that ghost. It is incumbent on the peace, economic justice, and environmental movements to make ourselves heard, to remind the U.S. president and his hawkish supporters of the costs of any future conflict, to press for diplomatic solutions, and to throw sand in the gears of the war machine.
We tried and failed to prevent the Iraq War. We still have a chance to prevent a second Korean War.
This material was published by TomDispatch
It will have been replaced by an explosion of media coverage about some other nightmarish set of presidential tweets or comments. After all, it’s a pattern. I’m referring to President Trump’s recent retweeting of three videos of purported Islamic mayhem. They came from the Twitter feed of Jayda Fransen, the deputy leader of a British ultranationalist group, Britain First, that had previously sparked its own terror incident, the stabbing to death of Labor parliamentarian Jo Cox by a man shouting “Britain First!” In 2016, Fransen herself was convicted of “religiously aggravated harassment” for abusing a Muslim woman in a hijab in front of her children. One of those videos of hers supposedly showed a “Muslim immigrant” in Holland beating up a boy on crutches. (The incident actually happened, but the attacker was neither a Muslim nor an immigrant.)
When criticized by British Prime Minister Theresa May for using the fraudulent materials of such an extremist group, our commander-in-tweet lashed out (initially tweeting the wrong Theresa May) and wouldn’t back down or even remove the videos from his Twitter feed. Fransen, who instantly gained 22,000 new Twitter followers for her fringe positions in England, thanked him fervently. (“God bless you Trump! God bless America!”) Meanwhile social media lit up with Islamophobic sentiments both in the U.S. and Great Britain.
Such events are regularly reported as uncontrollable presidential interruptions of other important events on the Trump agenda — that week, the Republican tax “reform” bill — which only frustrate his chief of staff, flummox his advisers, and generally distract the administration from everything that truly matters. Don’t believe it for a minute. There’s method, however intuitive, in Trump’s madness, in those endless tweetish controversies, in his regular immersion in conspiracies (think: birtherism), implosions that plunge the president and his 43.6 million Twitter followers into a deep, dark world alive with horror and terror, whether of the Muslim or even the football variety.
As TomDispatch regular John Feffer, author of the new book Aftershock: A Journey into Eastern Europe’s Broken Dreams, points out today, the “wild conspiracy theories” that go with this sort of politics have lifted not just Trump, but a whole raft of right-wing authoritarian types to power across Eastern Europe in recent years. This sort of thinking, especially with an Islamophobic edge, has helped drive Trump and a whole set of Trump-like Eastern European leaders to unimagined heights of success and has helped them remain there, too. So don’t expect the president’s outbursts, his Islamophobic tweets, or any of the rest of it to end soon. It rallies the base. It works and he knows it.
As Feffer explains today, those Eastern Europeans learned all of this long before Donald Trump hit the political stage. So what they’ve done and how they’ve lasted is worth taking a moment to contemplate as you consider Donald Trump’s future (and ours). Think of their examples as warnings not to sell him and the method in that madness of his short.
Top image: DonkeyHotey @flickr