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Caligula Goes Covid: Nuclear Perils of Trump’s Last Days

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“The air tonight is as heavy as the sum of human sorrows.”-Albert Camus, Caligula

It is no longer just hyperbole. Still armed with nuclear weapons, a conspicuously deranged American president may be willing to do anything to cling to power. And if that willingness should appear futile, Donald J. Trump could conceivably prefer apocalypse to “surrender.”[1]

               Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosophers. “I believe because it is absurd.” In these presumptively final days of the Trump presidency, an impaired or irrational nuclear command decision remains possible. Though nothing can  be determined about the true mathematical probability of any such once unimaginable scenario,[2] there are increasingly compelling reasons for concern. One of these reasons is Mr. Trump’s bizarre eleventh-hour shakeup at the Department of Defense.

               Americans have let these urgent matters drift too long. Nonetheless, despite evident lateness of the hour, a summarizing query must finally be raised: Should this visibly impaired president still be allowed to decide when and where to launch American nuclear weapons? This is not a silly or trivial question.

               In the early days of the Nuclear Age, when strategic weapon-survivability was still uncertain, granting presidential authority for immediate firing command was necessary to ensure credible nuclear deterrence. Today, however, when there no longer exists any reasonable  basis to doubt America’s durable second-strike nuclear capability (sometimes also called an “assured destruction” or undiminished retaliatory capability), there remains no good argument for continuing to grant the  president (any president) such potentially problematic decisional authority.

               More general questions should now also be raised.

               In our expansively imperiled democracy, ought any American president be permitted to hold such precarious life or death power over the entire country?

                Inter alia, could such an allowance still be consistent with a Constitutional  “separation of powers?”

               Can anyone reasonably believe that such existential power could ever have been favored by America’s Founding Fathers?

               The correct answers are apparent, obvious and starkly uncomplicated.

               We can readily extrapolate from Articles I and II of the Constitution that the Founders had  profound concern about Presidential power long before the advent of nuclear weapons. This concern predates even any imagination of apocalyptic warfare possibilities.[3]  So what next?

               As a legal and strategic scholar, I have been personally concerned about such fearful issues for exactly fifty years, though in a generic rather than president-specific sense. On 14 March 1976, in response to my then-detailed query concerning  American nuclear weapons launch authority, I received a letter back from General (USA/ret.) Maxwell Taylor, a former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. The focus of this letter concerned assorted nuclear risks of US presidential irrationality. Most noteworthy, in this handwritten letter (attached hereto), was the riveting and timeless warning in General Taylor’s closing paragraph.

               Ideally, Taylor had wisely cautioned, presidential irrationality is a grave problem that should be dealt with very early on; that is, during the election process.

“….the best protection,” I was then informed about a prospectively irrational American president, “is not to elect one…” Of course, at this late juncture, we are already confronted with a strategic fait accompli, that is, the realistic prospect of a tangibly impaired American president. 

               So what do we do now?

               To begin, we must inquire, with a more narrow but still fact-centered focus: “What is current US governing policy on nuclear weapons launch authority?” This query is not only vital per se, especially perhaps after Trump was given anti-viral therapeutics that can produce clinically manic personality effects, but also because  of this president’s strangely willing subordination to his Russian counterpart.

               Why does Donald J. Trump always take such great pains to exonerate Vladimir Putin from the slightest hint of interference or wrongdoing?[4]

               Always?

               In principle, at least, there are extant and codified safeguards against presidential impairment. To be sure, pertinent protocols are already in place. Among other things, structural protections are expressly built into any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, including very substantial and reinforcing redundancies. But virtually all of these safeguards are designed to become operative only at the lower or sub-presidential  nuclear command levels.

                In essence, therefore, these safeguards do not apply to the Commander-in-Chief; to the elected President of the United States. Donald J. Trump, the current US president, is plainly instructing his senior cabinet secretaries to prepare for a second term. This is not a silly aberration. It is (as Caligula would likely have said in ancient Rome) a “portentous omen.”

                What relevant protocols do actually obtain? Arguably, there exist no permissible legal grounds to disobey a presidential order to use nuclear weapons. Certain senior figures in the designated military chain of command could sometime choose to invoke applicable “Nuremberg Obligations” (international law-based obligations to disobey), but any such last-minute effort to thwart a presidential nuclear command directive would almost certainly yield to more recognizable commands of US domestic and military law.[5]

               There is more. Given the vast levels of legal illiteracy in the United States, it is unlikely that a clear-thinking participant anywhere in this country’s nuclear chain of command would ever place sufficient personal confidence in the “soft” norms of international law. This is the case even though such norms are already “incorporated” unambiguously and convincingly into the laws of the United States.[6]

               Immediately, appropriate scenarios ought to be suitably postulated and critically examined. Should an outgoing President Donald J. Trump, operating within a dissembling chaos of  his own making, issue an impaired, intemperate, irrational or seemingly irrational nuclear command, the only way for the (Acting) Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the National Security Adviser and several possible others to effectively obstruct this potentially catastrophic order would be “illegal.”[7] Under the best of imaginable circumstances, such informal safeguards might sometime manage to work for a limited time, but for now, all time is plainly “limited time.”

               Accepting the unrealistic assumption of a “best case scenario” would represent a foolhardy final  approach to US nuclear security. This is most markedly the case at this perilous time of worldwide microbial assault, a time when the “pandemic variable” could quickly become paralyzing and determinative in its own right. What then?

                Already, the US is  navigating erratically in “uncharted waters.” While President John F. Kennedy did engage in personal nuclear brinkmanship with the Soviet Union back in October 1962, he had calculated his own odds of a consequent nuclear war as “between one out of three and even.” This curiously precise calculation, corroborated both by JFK biographer Theodore Sorensen and by my own private conversations with former JCS Chair Admiral Arleigh Burke (my professional colleague and week-long roommate at the Naval Academy’s Foreign Affairs Conference of 1977) suggests that President Kennedy had been (a) technically irrational in imposing his Cuban “quarantine;” or (b) wittingly acting out certain untested principles of “pretended irrationality.” And this was not during a bewildering time of “plague.”

               What has been learned?

               More precisely, what are this country’s present-day analytic “coordinates?”

               Currently, the most urgent threats of a mistaken, irrational or deranged US presidential order to use nuclear weapons flow not from any “bolt-from-the-blue” nuclear attack –  whether Russian, North Korean or American – but from some potentially uncontrollable process of escalation. Back in 1962, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev “blinked” early on in the “game,” thereby preventing any mutual and irrecoverable nuclear harms. Now, however, certain escalatory initiatives undertaken by US President Donald J. Trump could express uniquely unstable decision-making processes.

               Moreover, all of this could unravel in the blink of an eye, and at a moment of genuinely cascading presidential incoherence.

               What shall be done? Above all, at least to the residual extent possible, Trump’s key advisors on such matters (those yet to be fired) should be brought to understand the true problem. Prima facie, no one can adequately decipher  the risks of being locked into an escalatory dynamic from which there could be no choice, save outright capitulation or nuclear war. These would be unprecedented risks.

               None of these circumstances would resemble the civilian “crisis-settings” Trump previously encountered in his commercial deal-making life. Although this law-defiling president might sometime be well advised to seek “escalation dominance” in legitimate crisis situations, he would need to avoid placing the United States in such volatile circumstances in the first place.

               Therein lies the rub.

               Is this president morally and intellectually prepared for making such imperative but complicated judgments?

               At a minimum, the Acting Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Advisor and one or two others in appropriate nuclear command positions should prepare immediately to assure broadly collaborative judgments in extremis atomicum. Although it is reasonable to assume that some such preparations are already well underway, there is also good reason to expect that this outgoing president’snewest Defense Department appointments would act only in visceral obedience to Trump commands (even if the daunting matters at hand should appear prospectively existential) and that Trump’smultiple insecurities and personal derangements would obfuscate any needed decisional challenges.

               Language matters. In all such complex and multi-layered strategic matters, terminological distinctions will need to be made explicit. Whether applied to an adversarial decision-maker (national or sub-national) or to Donald J. Trump alone,  “irrational” has a specific meaning. It does not mean “crazy”[8] or “mad.”[9] 

               There is more. Looking ahead, fateful expressions of US presidential irrationality could take various and subtle forms. When made manifest, these traits could remain indecipherable or latent for a very long time, and include the following: a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate correctly or efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular strategic decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any still-operative structure of collective decision-making.[10]

               From the singularly critical standpoint of US nuclear weapons launch authority, legitimate reasons to worry about the rapidly dissembling Trump presidency need not hinge on any accurate expectations of “craziness” or “madness.” Rather, looking over the above list of problematic decisional traits, there is good cause not just for amorphous or undefined worry (that sort of worry would not represent rational or purposeful reaction), but for (1) readily visible non-partisan objectivity; and  (2) carefully developed analytic  prudence. On this last valued criterion of presidential decision-making, Donald J. Trump would need to bear carefully in mind certain  core conceptual distinctions between deliberate and inadvertent (unintentional) nuclear war. Also significant would be the differences between inadvertent nuclear war by accident and inadvertent nuclear war by miscalculation.[11]

               Whatever the particular nuclear-war scenarios for which any US president must make himself prepared, a verifiably common feature would be complexity. Back in March 1976, US General Maxwell Taylor advised me by letter (attached here) that the “best protection” against an irrational American president is “not to elect one.” Regarding the gravely incoherent presidency of Donald J. Trump, this optimal level of national protection is no longer available. All that we can do now is take vital 11th hour steps to best ensure a capable and stable US nuclear decisional posture.

                Realistically, in view of this president’s strangely refractory position on staying in power, it may already be too late.

               The needed stance would be one wherein a predictably nefarious and bewildered Donald J. Trump could still be held appropriately in check. Although any past juxtaposition of “derangement” with an American president would have seemed gratuitously disrespectful, and perhaps even outrageous, these are strikingly different times. Today, it is the willful disregard for a now plausible juxtaposition that would defy US citizen responsibility and defile the Republic.

               Perpetually.

               This is no longer mere hyperbole.

               At this grievous point in America’s Trump-created declension, anything seems possible.

               History deserves pride of place. Soon, any such disregard for plausible national harms could prove unconscionable. In the chaotic 1st century CE, long before political democracy could ever seem sustainable[12] and long before nuclear weapons, Roman Emperor Caligula revealed the overwhelmingly lethal costs of barbarous governance. Today, a democratically defeated American president, clinging wrongfully to political power and expressing this egregious dereliction during a period of “plague,” could produce even less bearable costs.  At that nation-destroying point, the “air would be as heavy as the sum of human sorrows.”

               History may not repeat itself, observed Mark Twain, “but it often rhymes.” Donald J. Trump may not be quite as decadent or depraved as Caligula,  but he may not be that far removed either. Credo quia absurdum, warned the ancient Romans. “I believe because it is absurd.”

               Donald J. Trump is not Caligula, but he is a sinister stain upon the integrity and survival of the United States.


[1] In this connection, reminds Sigmund Freud: “Fools, visionaries, sufferers from delusions, neurotics and lunatics have played great roles at all times in the history of mankind, and not merely when the accident of birth had bequeathed them sovereignty. Usually, they have wreaked havoc.”

[2] This is because (1) any statement of authentic probability must be based upon the determinable frequency of pertinent past events and because, in this case (2) there are no pertinent past events.

[3] One of this author’s earliest books was (Louis René Beres) Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (The University of Chicago Press, 1980). His twelfth and latest book dealing with such issues is Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016 (2nd ed. 2018). https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy

[4] In the words of now-retired US Air Force Lt Col. Alexander Vindman, a former member of the National Security Council, Trump has long been Putin’s “useful idiot.” https://news.yahoo.com/impeachment-witness-lt-col-alexander-153907783.html

[5] Under international law, which is generally part of US law, the question of whether or not a “state of war” exists between states can be ambiguous. Traditionally, it was held that a formal declaration of war was necessary before any true state of war could be said to exist. Hugo Grotius divided wars into declared wars, which were legal, and undeclared wars, which were not. (See Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace, Bk. III, Chs. III, IV, and XI.) By the start of the twentieth century, the position that war can obtain only after a conclusive declaration of war by one of the parties was codified by Hague Convention III. This treaty stipulated, inter alia, that hostilities must never commence without a “previous and explicit warning” in the form of a declaration of war or an ultimatum. (See Hague Convention III Relative to the Opening of Hostilities, 1907, 3 NRGT, 3 series, 437, article 1.) Currently, formal declarations of war could be tantamount to admissions of international criminality because of the express criminalization of aggression by authoritative international law. It could, therefore, represent a clear jurisprudential absurdity to tie any true state of war to prior declarations of belligerency. It follows, further, that a state of war may exist without any formal declarations, but only if there should exist an actual armed conflict between two or more states, and/or at least one of these affected states considers itself  “at war.”

[6] In the words of Mr. Justice Gray, delivering the judgment of the US Supreme Court in Paquete Habana (1900): “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained and administered by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction….” (175 U.S. 677(1900)) See also: Opinion in Tel-Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic (726 F. 2d 774 (1984)).The more specific incorporation of treaty law into US municipal law is expressly codified at Art. 6 of the US Constitution, the so-called “Supremacy Clause.”  For pertinent earlier decisions by Justice John Marshall, see: The Antelope, 23 U.S. (10 Wheat.) 66, 120 (1825); The Nereide, 13 U.S. (9 Cranch) 388, 423 (1815); Rose v. Himely, 8 U.S. (4 Cranch) 241, 277 (1808) and Murray v. The Schooner Charming Betsy, 6 U.S. (2 Cranch) 64, 118 (1804).

[7]  At the same time, what is apparently illegal under US law could be law-enforcing under international law, Here, too,  we must recall that criminal responsibility of leaders under international law is not limited to direct personal action nor is it limited by official position.  On the principle of command responsibility, or respondeat superior, see:  In re Yamashita,  327 U.S. 1 (1945);  The High Command Case (The Trial of Wilhelm von Leeb),  12 LAW REPORTS OF TRIALS OF WAR CRIMINALS 1 (United Nations War Crimes Commission Comp., 1949);  see Parks, COMMAND RESPONSIBILITY FOR WAR CRIMES,  62 MIL.L. REV. 1 (1973);  O’Brien, THE LAW OF WAR, COMMAND RESPONSIBILITY AND VIETNAM,  60 GEO. L.J.  605 (1972);   U S DEPT OF THE ARMY, ARMY SUBJECT SCHEDULE No. 27 – 1 (Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Hague Convention No. IV of 1907),  10 (1970).  The direct individual responsibility of leaders is also unambiguous in view of the London Agreement, which denies defendants the protection of the act of state defense.  See AGREEMENT FOR THE PROSECUTION AND PUNISHMENT OF THE MAJOR WAR CRIMINALS OF THE EUROPEAN AXIS,  Aug. 8, 1945,  59 Stat.  1544,  E.A.S.  No. 472,  82 U.N.T.S.  279,  art. 7.

[8] “Do you know what it means to find yourselves face to face with a madman,” inquires Luigi Pirandello in Act II of Henry IV, “with one who shakes the foundations of all you have built up in yourselves, your logic, the logic of all your constructions? Madmen, lucky folk, construct without logic, or rather, with a logic that flies like a feather.”

[9] In studies of world politics, rationality and irrationality have now taken on very specific meanings. More precisely, an actor (state or sub-state) is presumed determinedly rational to the extent that its leadership always values national survival more highly than any other conceivable preference or combination of conceivable preferences. Conversely, an irrational actor might not always display such a determinable preference ordering.

[10] More technically, this means assemblies of authoritative individuals who lack identical value systems, and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a single or unitary national decision maker).

[11] See, by Professor Beres, at The Hill: https://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/foreign-policy/344344-risks-of-accidental-nuclear-war-with-north-korea-must-be  See also, Louis René Beres:  https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2019/10/22/donald-trump-foreign-policy-incoherence-and-inadvertent-nuclear-war/

[12] Though Athens and other parts of Greece experimented with democratic institutions in the sixth fifth and fourth centuries BCE, these institutions soon gave way to imperial designs from Macedonia (Philip and Alexander) and later, from Rome.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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Was Trump better for the world than Biden, after all?

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Joe Biden and the State Department just approved a major deal with the Saudis for 500mln in choppers maintanance. Effectively, the US sold its soul to the Saudis again after the US intelligence services confirmed months ago that the Saudi Prince is responsible for the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Biden administration is already much more inhumane and much worse than Trump. Biden doesn’t care about the thousands of American citizens that he left behind at the mercy of the Taliban, the Biden administration kills innocent civilians in drone strikes, they are in bed with the worst of the worsts human right violators calling them friendly nations. 

Biden dropped and humiliated France managing to do what no US President has ever accomplished —  make France pull out its Ambassador to the US, and all this only to go bother China actively seeking the next big war. Trump’s blunders were never this big. And this is just the beginning. There is nothing good in store for America and the world with Biden. All the hope is quickly evaporating, as the world sees the actions behind the fake smile and what’s behind the seemingly right and restrained rhetoric on the surface. It’s the actions that matter. Trump talked tough talk for which he got a lot of criticism and rarely resorted to military action. Biden is the opposite: he says all the right things but the actions behind are inhumane and destructive. It makes you wonder if Trump wasn’t actually better for the world.

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Biden’s worrisome construct of security and self-defense in the first year of his term

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Official White House Photo by Carlos Fyfe

US President Joe Biden’s foreign policy is failing so far. He can’t get the Iran nuclear diplomacy on track. The Afghanistan withdrawal was a disaster seen by all, placing an unusually high number of weapons and armaments in the hands of the Taliban and leaving everyone behind, to the point that one wonders if it was intentional. The US military has been able to accomplish far more impressive and bigger logistics tasks in the past, so when they want to they can do it.

More worrisome, however – and because it is also oriented towards future impacts – is Biden’s construct of vital concepts such as security, international peace and self-defense which has already displayed a consistent pattern during the first year of his term. The signs are already there, so let me bring them out to the surface for you.

Treating a counter-attack in self-defense as an original, first-move strike

This is a pattern that can be noticed already in Biden’s reading of what constitutes defense. It first struck me in a place where you might not think of looking. It originated from the criticism of the previous Trump administration’s support for the destructive Saudi Arabia campaign on Yemen, leaving Yemen as the biggest famine and disaster on the planet. To avoid the same criticism, the Biden administration decided to do what it always does – play technocratic and legalistic, and hope that people won’t notice. On the face of it, it looked like Biden ended US participation by ending the “offensive” support for Saudi Arabia. Then in the months after the February decision, reports started surfacing that the US actually continues doing the same, and now most recently, some troops from Afghanistan were redirected towards Yemen. Biden didn’t end Yemen; he set up a task force to examine and limit US military action only to defensive capabilities, which sounds good to a general observer. It reminds me of that famous Einstein saying that all the big decisions were to be taken by him and all the small decisions were to be taken by his wife, but there hasn’t been one big decision so far. So see, it just turns out that everything falls under defense, ask the lawyers. Usually no one would object to the well-established right to defend yourself. The problem with that is that the US is actually in Yemen. Treating any counter-strike and any response to your presence as an original, first-move attack is not only problematic but it also simply doesn’t work in legal terms. It goes along the lines of “well, I am already here anyways, so your counter-response in self-defense is actually an attack and I get to defend myself”. If the issue was only with terrorist or rebel organizations (because let’s face it, who cares about the Houthies in Yemen?) I don’t think we would be discussing this. But as you guessed it, this approach can already be traced as a pattern in Biden’s thinking and the way he forges alliances, draws red lines and allows things to happen, and it stretches to areas that most people definitely care about such as a possible military conflict between the US and China.

Let’s take the newest development from today. The US just announced that it has entered into a trilateral partnership with the UK and Australia in the Indo-Pacific, which is encirclement of China par excellence. Where it gets interesting is that the trilateral partnership is purported to be only for “advanced defense capabilities”. The equivalent of this is someone from another city squatting at the door step in your apartment, inviting two others to join, and then when in the morning you push them and step on them to go to work, the squatters claiming that you attacked them and calling the police on you in your own apartment. This is Biden’s concept of self-defense: since I am already here in your space, you are attacking me.

The US is trying to start something with China but it doesn’t know how to, and China seems completely unconcerned with the US.  Chinese leader Jinping doesn’t even want to meet Biden, as became clear this week. China doesn’t care about the US and just wants to be left alone. They already said that in clear terms by reading it out loud to Wendy Sherman last month. Biden didn’t have to ask for a meeting in that phone call this week because he already knew the answer. Wendy Sherman got a clear signal on her China visit that the US president won’t be getting that coveted red carpet roll-out any time soon.

So the story says that the US is going all the way to the other side of the world and staging military presence there but only to defend itself. The US has no choice but to move in to defend all the US citizens at risk in the Indian Ocean — that’s the stand-up comedy line of the week. It is staging military presence right at China’s doorstep — if not in Chinese waters, and the idea is “yes, that’s your turf but now that I’m here, if you push me to leave, you are attacking me”. This is the strategy of narcissists and those that are looking to point the finger to their opponent when they just don’t have anything, so they stage something. China is in the long-term game, playing against itself. The US is that number 2 that’s trying to create provocation. In the Indo-Pacific, the US is biting more than it can chew. China is not a big mouth or one to throw around military threats. That’s the US style: “be very careful, we might bomb you if you don’t do what we say”. A dog that barks doesn’t bite. On the other hand, China is more like a Ferrari — it will go from 0 to 200 in seconds and then it will go back to its business. The US and Biden will be left whimpering but no one will jump to save the US from its own folly because self-defense in the US packaging is not even bought by the US government itself. Even they don’t buy their own packaging. So why should anyone else?

Treating embarrassing discoveries and things that don’t go my way as a threat to international peace

This one is a big one. With this one, Biden is playing with the queen, namely action under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter in the name of international peace and security. A threat to international peace and security is grounds for action under Chapter 7 which includes military action, and it’s never to be spoken lightly. Words have consequences. The UN Security Council rarely specifies grounds for action under chapter 7 for threats to international peace and security but it’s enough to take a look at the practice: resolutions were passed when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, in response to 9/11, against Kaddafi who was marching toward Benghazi to wipe out the people in 2011, in relation to genocide, etc. Grounds for a threat to international peace can’t be “because I don’t like the way things are turning out for me”.

Peace and security are not like beauty – in the eye of the beholder. There has to be an actual or imminent attack and actual military action or violence. Loose interpretations of threats to peace and security are a sign of weak leadership.

Leaders who construct dissent and criticism as terrorism in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement, as I have argued about the FBI previously in the left media, are weak leaders. In smearing Martin Luther King, the FBI argued national security. As director Oliver Stone said in Cannes this summer, when he was investigating the JFK assassination, every time he was getting close, he heard “national security”. 

You can see a lot about the character of a nation by the way it constructs security, and notice traits such as narcissism, weakness, cheating. The Biden Administration has to know that a threat to international peace and security can’t be “things that make my government look bad”. In 2001, the world followed the US in Afghanistan because there was an actual military attack. The world won’t follow the Biden administration on a bogus threat to international peace that can best be summed up as a major embarrassment for the US government. Suggesting a link is a threat to the fabric of international society. Not only is it a sign of national narcissism but also a sign of arbitrariness and authoritarianism. Treating criticism and the exposure of US government crimes as if it were a military attack is what horror movies are made of. What’s next? Droning journalists?

Treating issues which are a subject to treaties, rules and negotiations as a threat to international peace  

The Biden security construct stretches to various regions, including my own. This first struck me with Biden’s executive order regarding the Western Balkans when he tied blocking these countries from EU accession to a threat to international peace, which carries significant consequences. If a country, let’s say Bulgaria, is exercising its lawful right to veto EU processes, hypothetically, based on Biden’s understanding, the US could table a resolution for Chapter 7 action to punish an EU member-state for blocking the accession of an EU candidate because that’s a threat to international peace. That could hypothetically lead to military action against an EU country making use of its veto. Biden doesn’t have a veto in the EU. Do you know who does? Bulgaria. So until Biden becomes an EU country he doesn’t have a say.

Biden was visibly irritated that the process of EU accession has been stalling for quite some time, especially with N. Macedonia and Albania at the EU’s doorstep, so he decided to give it a go. Let’s not forget that the Balkans are a favorite Biden region and this goes back to the 1990s. I have written about it before: Biden is stuck in the 2000s when if you mentioned the Western Balkans the words international peace were a guaranteed association. Not anymore. Negotiations, rules and voting are the peaceful and reasonable way to resolve issues, agree or even not agree in some situations, and are the opposite of war and aggression. Treating these ways as a threat to peace is just the rhetoric of those who can’t get their way. But it’s also indicative of a worrisome trend with Biden that anything that the US government doesn’t like can be dressed as a threat to international peace, which carries the most significant of all consequences in the international arena.

Treating lawful counter-measures as a threat to national security

Perhaps the best and most fascinating example of lawful counter-measures I ever heard was brought by Andrew Clapham at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. Here is the story. The UK issued unlawful sanctions on a country. In response, lawful counter-measures by that country targeted jam exports because a jam factory in Scotland was the key to turning the elections. The targeted counter-measures worked, hit jam exports, discontent people in the region voted the other way and the government that put in place the sanctions to begin with was ousted. This was a brilliant example that you hit where it hurts and you do it lawfully. Counter-measures don’t have to be identical. The US likes to put tariffs on Louis Vuitton bags in retaliation when it deals with France, for example. In the Trump trade wars, Europe would hit bourbon and jeans exports as a counter-measure. You hit their signature product. Not all counter-measures are illegal and count as an attack. International law is full of examples.

Similarly, lawsuits against a government are a lawful counter-measure. This area reveals another part of Biden’s worrisome construct of national security. A threat to sue the US government cannot in and of itself be a threat to national security. Tortured reading of what is national security is a sign of weak leaders, narcissists, those on the losing end, or straight up losers – or all of the above. 

Treating lawful counter-measures as a cause for self-defense is not only a sign of a wrong understanding of self-defense, but is the ultimate sign of narcissism. Usually those who attack know better and brace for impact in anticipation of the counter-measures. Narcissists, on the other hand, cry that they are being attacked when they receive a counter-strike in response. Strategists know better.

Mistreatment of whistleblowers, critics and opponents as spies and as a threat to national security

This one is an easy one. Only losers treat whistleblowers and critics as spies and as an automatic threat to national security. Take the treatment that Gary Stahl has received at the hands of the Biden Administration and the FBI, for example. Again, the US government doesn’t get to construe a huge embarrassment (in what will soon be revealed to shows the true criminal nature of the US government) as a threat to international peace. This is a problem for America. Not only doesn’t China plan to attack militarily the US any time soon over what’s to come, but China is largely unconcerned with the US and would like to be left alone. Any talk about a risk of military conflict could only mean that it is the US that plans to attack because they are embarrassed they got caught red-handed and the world will see the US government’s true nature. Talk of threat to international peace has a very high threshold. No one cares about how America would feel – that’s your problem, not an issue of international peace. 

The Biden concept of security is that of an ugly, pretentious, old woman who is told she can’t enter because her ticket is not valid. She then throws a feat screaming she was attacked, beaten and insulted, expecting everyone to be on her side. But the world simply doesn’t care about the problems of this pain-in-the-ass anymore. The US government will have to try much harder if they want to present the issue as anything close to security and self-defense, let alone a threat to international peace. That tune is old and there are no buyers. 

The US surely thinks very highly of itself if they think that a scandal like that is worthy of a military conflict but literally no one else sees the US as this important anymore. This scandal will matter only to America in what it reveals about all the layers of the US government across rank, institutions and administrations. That’s it. It ends there. Any talk of Chapter 7 threshold is war mongering and no one will care. 

People talk about the Biden doctrine on Afghanistan but the Biden doctrine that will be sealed in history will be something along the lines of “Anytime I get caught, it’s a threat to international peace and security.” This is how Biden will be remembered in history: for creative writing endeavors in the security field and no substantial foreign policy achievements. 

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Americas

Biden’s credibility restoration plan

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Although damages of the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan cannot be easily undone, by taking a series of wise steps, Biden can send a strong signal that America is coming back.

Joe Biden’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan has shattered his reputation as a safe haven for allies. This is while, he pledged to restore U.S. leadership after Trump by confronting China’s and Russia’s growing totalitarian ambitions, restoring historic alliances with European allies, and ending the never-ending conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

But he is not the only President whose decision has eventually damaged the United States’ global reputation. Donald Trump’s capitulation deal with the Taliban, Barack Obama’s indolence in Syria, and George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq have all tarnished the United States’ credibility around the world. The question now; however, is no longer whether Biden and his predecessors should have acted differently. It’s how the United States can minimize the damage.

Biden should begin by speaking the truth. So far, the President has failed to admit the failure of his withdrawal plan. Biden ought to be straightforward with himself, the American people, and the whole world.

Biden’s policy should, of course, vary depending on the area and global conditions. To promote its interests in the Indo-Pacific area, the United States should station a few ambassadors, including a Navy or Coast Guard attaché, in the Pacific Island countries of Tonga, Tuvalu, and Kiribati. In addition, a considerable number of troops currently stationed in Afghanistan should be redeployed to the Pacific. Finally, Biden’s administration should engage with U.S. defense contractors to speed up the transfer of military equipment to Taiwan. Getting Taiwan its armaments swiftly would be a powerful show of support as a steadfast ally, as well as provide modern platforms to prevent a Chinese amphibious invasion.

The Biden administration should also do all in its power to rebuild relations with European partners. For the very first time, NATO invoked Article 5, which identifies an assault on one member as an assault on all. Since then, soldiers from a variety of countries have fought and died alongside US troops. Nonetheless, Biden decided to leave Afghanistan without consulting the governments of these countries, leaving them to plan emergency rescue efforts for their populations. Close allies of the United States are understandably enraged. America’s behavior is being chastised in Paris, Berlin, and the British House of Commons on both sides of the aisle.

Last month, at a meeting of regional leaders in Baghdad, Macron made it clear that, unlike the Americans, he was dedicated to remaining in the Middle East. “Whatever the American choice is,” he stated in public remarks in Baghdad, “we will maintain our presence in Iraq to fight terrorism as long as terrorist groups function and the Iraqi government requests our assistance.” It was a clear example of Macron’s idea of “strategic autonomy,” which implies European independence from U.S. security policy, and an attempt to use the United States’ humiliation to underline that Europe and Washington were not always on the same page. At an emergency G7 summit, Mr. Biden is said to have turned down allied requests to extend the August 31 deadline for exit.

The Biden administration’s recent decision not to penalize Nord Stream 2 pipeline participants has enraged Europeans as well. Poland and Ukraine underlined their worries in a joint statement about the ramifications of choices taken on the pipeline without the participation of nations directly impacted, claiming that Nord Stream 2 poses both geological and ecological risks to Europe.

As a result, whether it’s diplomatic recognition of the Taliban regime, humanitarian aid for the Afghan people, or any other major issue, the US should not take any more action without engaging partners. Mr. Biden should also dispatch senior members of his national security team to Europe and other regions of the world to reinforce America’s commitment to their security.

As to the Middle East, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, in a Foreign Affairs article described “America’s opportunity in the Middle East,” suggesting that diplomacy may work where previous military interventions have failed. The United States’ involvement in the area is frequently portrayed in military or counter-terrorism terms, and as a binary option between going all-in or going all-out. Instead, Sullivan advocated for a strategy that relied more on “aggressive diplomacy to generate more long-term benefits.”

Accordingly, the President and his team in Vienna should get the new Iranian administration back to the negotiating tables and rejoin the JCPOA and ease the tensions in the Middle East. Also, the United States should do all possible in Afghanistan to secure the safe transit of Afghans who qualify for U.S. visas to the Kabul airport – and to keep flights flying until they are able to leave. This should apply to both Afghans who dealt closely with the United States’ military, and to those who engage with U.S. media and humanitarian organizations and must get visas from a third country. In addition to ensuring that the United Nations and humanitarian groups have the resources they need, the United States should cooperate with its Security Council allies to guarantee that the Taliban does not hinder the free flow of help.

Moreover, to follow any influx of jihadists to Afghanistan, intelligence agencies will have to rededicate resources and increase surveillance. They must be pushed to coordinate their efforts on the Taliban in order to keep the most threatening groups under control. The United States could set an example by agreeing to accept a fair share of any displaced Afghans. Neighboring countries like Iran and Pakistan, which already have millions of Afghan refugees, are closing their borders.

Biden may not be able to prevent all of the disastrous repercussions of the Afghan catastrophe, but he must act now before the harm to U.S. interests and moral stature becomes irreversible. By taking these steps, he can send a strong statement to the world that he has learned his lessons and that America is coming back.

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