Two Minutes to Midnight

Par Robert Presser le 23 avril 2017

Since 1947, The Chicago-based Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has maintained a Doomsday Clock indicating how close they feel the world is to a global nuclear war.  Now the clock is set to two and a half minutes to midnight, to which it has been creeping closer over the past 26 years since a recent low of 17 minutes, recorded following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.  I think that the clock does not reflect the current danger represented by the twin threats of the Syrian civil war and persistent belligerence from North Korea.  There are more dangerous factors involved than at any other time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the atomic scientists need to get together and tick the clock 30 seconds closer than their most recent setting of January 26th, 2017.

In short, Trump is not Kennedy, Putin is not Khrushchev, the Chinese are in the mix, and Syria and North Korea represent two hot zones whereas Cuba was not a war zone in 1963.  Trump is the first American president to have no previous government experience and no military service.  Unlike Kennedy who had served in the Pacific in WWII and consistently questioned the advice if his military following the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, Trump has allowed military commanders greater latitude in short order than any modern president.  The willingness to use the MOAB (Massive Ordinance Air Blast) 11-ton bomb on ISIL forces hiding in underground caves in Afghanistan represents the first time this weapon has been used in conflict, but, more tellingly, the military already had this weapon in theatre, it did not have to be brought in specially.  The forward deployment of weaponry of this destructive force represents an important escalation in conventional warfare and a more “hands-off” approach to tactical permissions on the battlefield as compared to the Obama administration.  Trump did not indicate if he had authorized use of the MOAB, which means that the weapon was used within the confines of more generous terms of engagement afforded to field commanders by the White House and a commitment to use whatever conventional force is necessary to defeat ISIL.  Trump’s public comments indicate that he regards the US military with awe and his cabinet is filled with former generals as Defence Secretary, National Security Advisor and Secretary of Homeland Security.  The danger is that Trump will not hesitate to escalate the situation whether it be in Syria, Afghanistan or on the Korean peninsula and unlike Kennedy’s Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, Rex Tillerson does not have the deep diplomatic experience to counterweigh the military views expressed in the Oval Office.  There are too few military-skeptics around to provide a balanced policy option view.

Singular gestures, like the MOAB or the launching of 59 cruise missiles against the Syrian airbase responsible for the gas attack on the civilian population cannot be considered in isolation.  Each one is a message, to ISIL and the Assad/Putin alliance that the US will be more assertive in these regions - but there is no understanding of a Trump doctrine behind them.  Adversaries will ask what’s next, and there is no ideological or pattern framework within which to arrive at a conclusion.  There lies the danger – in 1962, Kennedy was the steady hand who controlled his military while Khrushchev pushed a Soviet resupply flotilla towards Cuba, stopped at the last minute when confronted with the US naval blockade and subsequently sent Kennedy two private letters with conflicting and confusing messages.   The situation in Syria is not a cold-war scenario where troops are being positioned on either side of the NATO and Warsaw Pact divide.  Syria is a hot zone where Assad is a Russian proxy, armed and supported by the toxic mix of an experienced tactician like Vladimir Putin and the Islamic fundamentalist regime of Iran versus opposition forces backed by the US, Turkey, and Kurdish militia.  There has been no other conflict since the 1973 Yom Kippur War where the superpowers have been so intertwined in the Middle East.  At that time, Nixon and Brezhnev chose to impose an end to the war as Israeli forces were at the Suez Canal, and  crossed it.  There is no agreement on how to end the hot war in Syria, and no vision of what a reconstituted Syrian state could, or should look like.  The conflict will simply continue, escalate with increased US involvement and the risks of miscalculation and misinterpretation between superpowers will multiply.

As frightening as the situation in Syria has become, North Korea is much, much worse.  An emerging nuclear power, personality-driven communist state that is defying its principal sponsor, China, this is the closest the world has been to a nuclear event since the last Indo-Pakistani conflict of 1999, commonly known as the Kargil Crisis.  Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s impetuous and impulsive leader, wants an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the US and a nuclear warhead to arm it, and is determined to pursue their parallel development despite sanctions and stern warnings from the international community and more importantly their protector, China.  For Kim to back down would represent shame and defeat – to allow North Korea to successfully complete their development projects creates an existential threat to South Korea, Japan, the US, and any other democratic nation within missile range.  The imminent threat is greater than that posed by Iran and there is no middle ground – either North Korea backs down or a new nuclear world order is created that permanently hikes the threat level of Armageddon.

At least Trump understands that he must engage effectively with China to deal with North Korea, and that will involve some Realpolitik and trade-offs with China to get them to act in the interests of peace and international stability.  There is still the danger of unpredictability due to the deployment of the USS Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group 1 to the South China Sea.  The US Navy’s presence may provoke an escalation from North Korea in response, and China does not want to see a US carrier group on extended patrol in an area where they just built up and militarized artificial islands to take control of the sea.  If China and the US fail to agree on a path forward to deal with North Korea, the US may act alone and provoke a conflict with North Korea and draw a Chinese military response as well.  The prospect of a military clash with China over a Korean crisis hardly gets any discussion because it would be considered too sensationalist for the mainstream media.  The US has never had to take on China and Russia simultaneously in hot wars around the globe, but if Syrian disintegration continues and China fails to de-escalate the Korean Peninsula then this becomes a real possibility.

One hundred years ago this month the Canadians took Vimy Ridge in France and the US entered World War I after the Germans torpedoed and sunk the Lusitania ocean liner as it sailed towards England.  These two events changed the course of the war and in turn, the aftermath of the Great War laid the path for century that followed.  I own two WWI military wristwatches, together with their shrapnel guards that were used in the trenches during battle.  I often wondered what the young men who wore them experienced a century ago.  They tick slowly and loudly, I imagine them on a wrist holding a rifle waiting to go over the top of a trench, the sound throbbing in the soldier’s ear, synced with a heartbeat as he waits for the overhead bombardment to end and the order to rise out of the trenches is given.  This is both a tragic and romantic vision of war from a bygone era that will not be repeated in any way in modern warfare.  We are figuratively two minutes away from a potential tragedy unlike any other in history from which there will be no mementos or valiant memories to share with future generations.


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