Duterte, Dating, & Diplomacy in the Nuclear Age

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

Dating and Diplomacy in the Age of Nuclear Missiles…

Part ten million one of a seemingly infinite series.

Note: For the deepest emotional experience, please play “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurythmics as you read this article.

Diplomacy is at times a bit like dating. We’ve all felt that thrilling infatuation. Sometimes it leads to a great night or weekend, or, if you’re very lucky, a few good decades. But in romance, as in foreign policy, some relationships start poorly and go to hell all too quickly. At least in those cases, when the first date is horrific, you have a chance to avoid a bad marriage with an abusive creep. Don’t pass on the chance.

 

Philippine Pres. Rodrigo "Rody" Duterte Image by Gvt. of the Philippines, public domain

Philippine Pres. Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte
Image by Gvt. of the Philippines, public domain

 

Many of our readers are now quite familiar with the challenges and problems facing the US and other nations in the South China Sea. The short description of those problems is “China.”

Many readers are also familiar with that colorful new celebrity on the world stage, Rodrigo “Rody” Roa Duterte. Normally, sensible people avoid weird-acting dudes called “Rody,” but this particular weird dude is now the leader of one of our key Asian allies, the Republic of the Philippines.

Most Americans and Westerners became aware of Rody this summer when, within a matter of a few weeks, he publicly called the US Ambassador to the Philippines a “gay son of a bitch” and then, for an encore, he called US President Obama “that son of a whore.” Foreign policy gurus the world over are all prompted to ask the same obvious question. I can answer that obvious question here and now. US Intelligence services have definitive evidence that, in spite of the strong similarities between them, Rody Duterte is not the long lost brother of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

Rody’s anti-American outbursts were prompted by the fact that the US government, in an underwhelming response to the alleged 3,000+ recent murders by Rody death squads, had suggested to him that he might please consider following the Philippines constitution when conducting his campaign against “crime, corruption, and drugs.”

The Philippines does indeed have serious problems with violent crime, corruption, and drug addiction. When Rody Duterte was the mayor of Davao City, he gained fame, and infamy, by conducting a violent campaign against criminals. Some questioned if, while killing drug dealers and drug addicts, he hadn’t accidentally murdered a few innocent Philippines citizens that happened to oppose his political career. Accidents do happen. In Davao City and Manila, they seem to happen a lot.

While Duterte has only recently become an annoying clown to Americans and Westerners, he’s been aggravating folks in the Philippines and neighboring states for a few years.

As Mayor of Davao City, when journalists questioned him about possible connections to extrajudicial death squads, he casually responded “Yeah, I am death squad.” Prior to being elected to the presidency of the Philippines, Duterte bragged to reporters that he would kill up to 100,000 criminals if elected President.

In May of 2015, New York-based Human Rights Watch accused Duterte of being involved in more than a thousand killings. It accused him of being what he said he was. In a television interview, Duterte responded by saying that the group should go ahead and file a complaint with the UN, and then he would show the world how stupid they are by killing them.

In 1989, a 36-year-old Australian lay minister named Jacqueline Hamill was held hostage, raped, had her throat slashed, and was shot during a prison riot in the Philippines. In April of 2016, during his Presidential campaign, Duterte, referred to the rape and murder of Jacqueline Hamill, saying, “I was angry because she was raped, that’s one thing. But she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first. What a waste.” Yes, the mayor that he was referring to was himself. He thought he should have been the first to rape Jacqueline Hamill.

So what are the impacts to Rody’s ignorant and barbaric behavior?

It depends on whom we ask. During a recent social call on American Artist John Alexander, I asked him to describe Duterte. John described him as “A Post-Modernist Head Hunter.” That seemed reasonably artistic to me.

When asked what they thought of Rody Duterte, the Philippine people responded by electing him President. We should not ignore this obvious evidence of the Philippine people’s desperation concerning rampant crime and corruption in the Philippines.

For China, Rody had to seem like a wonderful opportunity.

A week before the September 6, 2016 Asian Summit in Laos, Rody dramatically warned China that it would “face a reckoning” for its aggression in the “Philippine Sea.” Then, a couple of days before the summit, he switched over to his Anti-American rhetoric, demanding that the US stay out of Philippine domestic policy. After returning from the summit, Rody seemed to have experienced a Chinese-style epiphany. Rody then said that the Philippines remained committed to a peaceful solution to the conflict in the South China Sea, and he urgently advised “the US to not escalate matters in the South China Sea.” The wording sounded like vintage Chinese diplomatic dogma.

So what caused the wild vacillation in Rody’s passionate political opinions?

The Chinese government does not believe in the “prayer and meditation method” of achieving epiphanies. They do believe in cash and ruthless pragmatism in the shameless pursuit of unrestrained self-interest when conducting diplomacy. I can only wonder what China might have whispered to Duterte during the Asian Summit in Laos.

For the current US administration and for any future US administration, Duterte adds to the complexity of dealing with China in the South China Sea.

The US obviously hopes to continue to help the Philippines build a credible defense capability. The US has pursued this goal by sending military aid, investing many millions of dollars in military base construction for the Philippine military, and sending military advisors in large numbers to the island nation. Those US military advisors are not happy with the Philippine government’s glib attitude concerning the casual murder of civilians in the Philippines. Duterte loves the American cash, free military equipment, and the advisors as long as the advisors don’t attempt to advise him to be civilized.

Any US President will have to worry about Rody Duterte’s wild behavior.

For his part, Rody seems thrilled at the prospect of taking advantage of the US desire to resist Chinese hegemony in the West Pacific. At the same time, he cozies up to China. Older Americans will recognize the similarity to the routine Cold War diplomatic dilemma. The US often showered cash and military equipment on pathetically bad despots in order to simply keep those countries from allying with the USSR.

My best guess is that this US administration and the next will try to deal with Duterte as best they can without being suckered into a spending competition with China.

The Philippine people have elected and tolerated Rody Duterte in the hope of reducing corruption, crime, and drugs in the Philippines. If Rody pulls that off, then the Philippines will have an opportunity to prosper, but if his brutal methods don’t create real results, then the Philippine people will tire of him and elect someone else.

Buying an ally with cash and free military equipment is never a sound basis for a reliable alliance. Buying that ally and only getting an enemy for your cash is worse. We in the US will have to dispassionately evaluate Rody Duterte and the Philippines and act accordingly. This is no time for the US to “lead with the check book.”

Gaza — An Exercise in Subtle Intelligence

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

Intelligence work is usually thought of as being conducted by costly and sometimes high tech methods. A glance at the intelligence budgets of the US, Russia, China, and a few others would confirm that view.

For the most part, that view is accurate.

 

canstock-2016-sep-spy-satellite

We expect our intelligence agencies to use extravagantly expensive satellites, planes, drones, submarines, ships, and listening stations. They do, and those methods often lead to obtaining critical intelligence.

We also expect agencies to conduct Human Intelligence, or “HUMINT.” HUMINT requires vast amounts of personnel around the globe and at home to penetrate the governments, military, and industries of states that are of concern to us. It’s expensive, but it does indeed get results. It never gets as many results as we would like, but it gets a lot more than if we didn’t try.

Teams of analysts rely on these and other sources to create best guesses about what is going on in the world. With so much data of various forms arriving all day, every day, every week at the desks of various teams, it’s not always easy to sift through the chaff to find the best wheat. The collective experience of an analytical team is a huge factor in this. Modern computers with good software help improve the results.

With so much high dollar, high tech spying going on, it’s easy to miss subtler pieces of intelligence that become available to us. Yet sometimes, these seemingly mundane, inglorious bits of information can give us important insights.

One current example of an important subtle bit of information is staring us in the face in the Gaza Strip.

In a land where bombs, missiles, assassinations, and kidnappings are daily events, sets of well-proven expectations enter into our judgements about the current situation in Gaza. One clearly verifiable phenomena occurring in Gaza today is the change amongst Palestinian voters regarding the upcoming elections, which will possibly be held this October.

In the 2005 elections, Hamas ran on a We Hate Israel So You Must Love Us platform. That platform plank was supported by another tried-and-true Hamas marketing method, the Love Us and Vote for us or We Kill You method.

 

canstock-2016-sep-burning-flags-of-palestine-and-israel

Unlike the Palestinian West Bank, where the Fatah political group held sway, in Gaza, Hamas had most of the guns and controlled most of the local media so Hamas got the votes. The Vote for Us or We Kill You method is effective for winning elections. It’s far less effective at governing. Hamas has demonstrated the difference very clearly.

Thanks to Hamas, Gaza is an economic disaster, a health disaster, and a hellish place for Palestinian children to live.

The basic fact that Hamas is even worse than the governments in places like Chicago or DC when it comes to completing the basic tasks of government is no great intelligence coup. As long as Hamas could show that they were hurting Israel, they could keep their outside financial support from Europe, various fellow terrorist governments, the UN, etc. The question of whether or not Hamas would govern anything other than the usual Kill the Jews program was generally ignored by many Palestinians and many outsiders.

So here is the good news.

Unlike during the 2005 campaign, Palestinians are frequently and sometimes openly speaking against Hamas. Hamas’s chief rival, Fatah, is happy about that. But when we look more closely, the Palestinians in Gaza are not expressing much love for Fatah either.

The most important piece of intelligence data in Gaza today has to do with the Palestinian people in Gaza.

They are less impressed than ever with suicide bombs in Israel, missiles fired into Israel, kidnapping of Israelis, etc. The majority of the Palestinian public in Gaza is now most concerned with fixing Gaza. They want real schools, real health care, jobs, and reconstruction of the many bombed out areas of Gaza. Crushing Israel is not on most of their wish lists.

Both Fatah and Hamas are aware of this shift in their respective voters.

Both groups have responded with massive social media campaigns. Both parties have adopted newer platforms, or at least are presenting them in social media. In fact, I’ll be disappointed if we don’t get a few Gaza trolls attacking this article.

The problem for both groups, but especially for Hamas, is that few Palestinians are buying Hamas’s shiny new You’re Better Off Today Than You Were Six Years Ago campaign.

Palestinians are openly laughing at Hamas’s ridiculous claims of having improved life in Gaza. It hasn’t, and the folks in Gaza know it and admit it.  In particular, young Palestinian adults are mocking Hamas’s social media campaign. They routinely convert Hamas campaign videos into dark comedy.

None of this means that we should expect a sudden and dramatic change in life in Gaza after the October elections.

The Palestinian public may not be able to exercise a democratic choice. A panicking Hamas is capable of anything. But an important implication for intelligence on Gaza should not be ignored. The Kill the Jews sales pitch is no longer a sufficiently popular product with the voters in Gaza.

canstock-2016-sep-palestine-and-israel-flags

Over time, this may lead to improvement in Gaza and a lessening of the conflict with Israel. A few decades ago, an Israeli woman told me, “There will be peace in Israel and Palestine when Palestinians love their children more than they hate Israeli children.” I have always been certain that she was right. That day may be arriving in Gaza.

The F-16 Offer to India — India Might Refuse It, But Pakistan Can’t Ignore It

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

For the last few years, military and foreign policy aficionados around the world, not to mention very excited governments and corporate accountants, have been following the Indian government’s fighter procurement plans.

The process has been more dramatic and colorful than the average major defense purchase. Given the profit potential of any contract to supply modern fighters to the Indian Air Force (“IAF”), we would expect fierce competition from fighter jet manufacturers accompanied by massive propaganda campaigns from both government and corporate sources. We would not be disappointed.

 

UAE F-16 Block 60 Similar to F-16 Block 70 Offered to India Image public domain, wikimedia commons

UAE F-16 Block 60
Similar to F-16 Block 70 Offered to India
Image public domain, wikimedia commons

 

The technical aspects of the competition have been debated by millions of passionate aviation “experts.”

Unfortunately, most of those “experts” either have no experience in piloting or aerospace engineering, or they work for companies connected to the competition. My purpose in publishing this article is not to add to the technical and political debates. My hope is to consider some interesting geopolitical/geo-corporate questions that have arisen from the long and dramatic procurement process. My spellchecker is resisting the term “geocorporate,” but I fear that the time has come when the term is both fair and depressingly relevant.

The IAF wants a new fighter.

It wants a fighter that is better than their current hodgepodge mix of aircraft from a slew of countries and manufacturers. For both domestic and foreign political reasons, the IAF also wants guarantees of parts and weapons availability without interference from the governments where the aircraft is manufactured each time the political climate changes in those governments.

For domestic political reasons, the Indian government wants major technology transfer and local work cost offsets of 50%.

For those who are not acquainted with industry jargon, that means the Indian government wants the ability to use the same or similar technology to produce the same or similar products, and it wants half of the cost of production to be spent in India.

The serious competitors for India’s fighter deal were France’s Dassault Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon, and Sweden’s Gripen. Other competitors offered their products but were, justifiably, seen as dark horses in the race for the huge contract.

US Boeing half-heartedly offered the F-18 Super Hornet, but perhaps did so with the hope of eventually convincing the IAF to consider them for use on future Indian carriers. The F-18 would not seem to be ideally suited for the IAF’s particular requirements.

US Lockheed Martin offered the F-16 C/D. Given the age of the airframe design and India’s desire for a massive technology transfer, it seemed unlikely that India would choose the F-16. It didn’t.

Russia straight-facedly tried to offer up everything in their inventory, along with a few things not actually in their inventory.

Given the IAF’s torturous troubles in dealing with Russian aircraft companies Mikoyan and Sukhoi on previously purchased fighters, there seemed little chance of the IAF choosing a fighter from Russia. The IAF has been sold too many lemons over India’s decades of purchasing Russian military equipment, and the Russians have refused to uphold warranty promises. Russia may have saved money in the short term by screwing India on these deals, but in the process, it pretty well lost a customer.

The IAF has been pleased with the performance of the Dassault Mirage 2000s that they previously purchased from France.

The Mirages have performed well for it. Also, when the rest of the West embargoed weapons sales to India in response to nuclear weapons tests or conflicts with Pakistan and China, France continued to supply weapons and parts to India. Naturally, India has remembered this. Likewise, the IAF is confident that unless it starts bombing the very best restaurants and art museums in Paris, Dassault will remain willing to take their cash.

Without even considering technical arguments, the Swedish Gripen relies on critical parts from other nations, making it unlikely. Getting those nations to agree to a Swedish export of their technologies to India was going to be about as easy as getting all of France to switch to a Swedish cuisine diet. If you’ve ever eaten in Sweden, you will recognize this proposition as absurd humor.

Note to Swedish people: I like you. You are lovely people. Most of your food sucks.

But back to fighter planes…

The Eurofighter Typhoon might have met the technical requirements set forth by the IAF, but India would be at the mercy of the governments of Germany, the UK, and Italy for parts and weapons if they ever tried to do something crazy with those Eurofighters like perhaps fight with anyone. The Eurofighter, like the Grippen was a bad political choice.

In January 2012, to nobody’s real surprise, the Indian Government announced that the Dassault Rafale had won the competition for the huge contract of 126 multirole fighters.

It was a slam dunk for Dassault. Almost. As my grandma told me, the devil’s in the details.

Dassault was anxious to deliver the Rafales. The IAF was anxious to receive them. I was not going to hold my breath waiting for the first Rafale to be delivered to the IAF.

The small matters of price and warranties remained to be settled. Dassault vacillated on the price as India pressed for more technology transfer.  The pricing started high, then got lower, then got higher again, then lower, etc. As the months and years passed, the first Rafale fighter was never delivered because the parties could never agree to details on price, warranty, and technology transfer. Unlike the average American tourist in Paris, the IAF was willing to argue about the bill.

Finally in March 2014, India and France announced that the first 18 aircraft would be delivered to India in flying condition – off the rack, so to speak – at a cost of $200 million + per fighter. Another 108 would be 70 percent built by HAL Corporation of India. The 18 seemed to me like a very high priced improbability, and building more with 70% construction by Hal in India struck me as more fanciful than home fusion generator trash disposal units.

In April of 2015, India indeed announced that the purchase had advanced to the long anticipated “Hell no, we won’t buy any” stage of the negotiations.  No cash, no new fighters, nothing.

And then Lockheed Martin slipped in and knocked on the back door with a very interesting proposal.

Lockheed Martin offered to move its entire production of F-16s to India if India would upgrade the order to the F-16 Block 70 model.

Instead of technology transfer debates, Lockheed Martin will let India build the fighters on a Lockheed Martin system installed for less than $30 Million per fighter.

And as grandma would say, again, the devil is in the details.

Lockheed Martin can propose all they want, but the US government will have to completely agree to all the details of any transfer of F-16 technologies and production to India.

Many US allies fly the F-16.

Some fly newer, recently-built versions and will be flying them for a long time. In fact, without any new orders, Lockheed Martin will be busy turning out F-16s for at least another year to satisfy current orders. Neither Lockheed Martin nor the US government wants to aggravate these allies by telling them to get their parts from India.

The Pakistan Air Force flies F-16s.

For Pakistan, which is in a state of perpetual low level war and near-war with India, hating India is central to its dogma. How many parts will India send to Pakistan? Maybe a few nylon seat covers and some cool looking decals. That’s about it. In effect, Lockheed Martin is telling the Pakistan government to piss off.

The Lockheed Martin offer is not officially coming from the US government.

If John Kerry visited Pakistan tomorrow, he would swear to them that he loves Pakistan, roots for the Pakistani national cricket team, loves Pakistani food, and that some of his best friends are Pakistanis. John would not believe any of it, and neither would anyone in Pakistan.

Though the Lockheed Martin proposal has not yet received US government approval, it’s hard to believe that the Lockheed Martin tail is wagging the US government dog.

The Lockheed Martin proposal to India represents a major shift in US foreign policy toward both India and Pakistan. Is the US finally accepting that Pakistan has never been and never will be anything like an ally? Are we offering a closer relationship to India?

My guess is that Lockheed Martin and India will not conclude the deal in its current form. At this point, the proposal can be withdrawn for any number of reasons, but the message to both India and Pakistan will stand. India might not take the Lockheed Martin offer seriously, but Pakistan must.

Turkey and The Little Coup That Couldn’t

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

One of the most pressing national security issues for the US and NATO is the recent coup disaster in Turkey. Along with the people of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, NATO state citizens, Americans, and the Putin gang are all pondering the same questions. . . . What really happened in Turkey, and what does it mean for us?

 

Turkish No-Coup Protest Image by Pivox, wikimedia commons.

Turkish No-Coup Protest
Image by Pivox, wikimedia commons.

 

The coup attempt resembled another poorly directed episode from a comically bad Mexican telenovela. Much speculation and media frenzy has focused on the “who,” “what,” and “why” aspects of the coup.

The “who” depends on whom you ask.

Some Westerners are certain that Putin quietly sponsored the coup. I am always happy to blame dastardly schemes on Putin and his thugs. However, while in many cases “Putin” is the right answer, in this case I don’t think it is.

I have two reasons for not blaming Putin.

The first is that although the Erdogan government in Turkey is suspected of helping Islamic terrorists in Russia, and although Erdogan wants Syria for himself rather than for the Russians or Iranians, Putin does not take him very seriously as a threat.

Putin does not like the Erdogan Circus, and he sees Erdogan as an ineffective and inept clown. If Erdogan were to be replaced, then nearly any Turk would be a more formidable opponent. Erdogan is an effective conqueror, but he’s only effective at conquering Turkey. Beyond Turkish borders, Erdogan is a run-of-the-mill inept political hack. Putin would not wish to spin the dice for a new leader in Turkey. There are scenarios that we could imagine where Russia would hand pick a successor to Erdogan, but that would involve risky gambling that Putin does not find necessary.

The second reason for doubting that there are Russian weasels at the bottom of the Turkish coup disaster is that the Russians are better at running a coup than the coup organizers were in Turkey.

Other folks are certain that the CIA is behind the coup attempt.

It is not. Lots of folks are certain that the CIA gives orders to Obama. It doesn’t, and neither Obama nor the CIA would wish to throw Turkey into instability or civil war by instigating a coup.

Like the Putin gang, the US has enough reasons to be disgusted with Erdogan. He has stabbed the US in the back on more than one occasion, and he is a one way “ally” for NATO. Erdogan’s NATO motto is, “All for Erdogan, and to hell with you guys.” The US and NATO could easily conduct better relations with almost any randomly selected Turkish citizen over the age of twelve.

The problem is that the CIA and the State Department are very aware that Erdogan has spent over a decade crushing opposition and making himself coup-resistant by using the tried-and-true “Stalin purging” method of government. Any coup in Turkey could easily have ended up looking like another Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lansing, etc. The US wants a Turkey that is stable enough to allow the US to operate from bases in that country. It’s easier and a little cheaper to bomb ISIS idiots from bases in Turkey rather than having to conduct all operations from further afield.

The second reason why you can be certain that the US did not organize a coup attempt in Turkey is that, like the Russians, the CIA is better at it.

The CIA is not big on the “find ten thousand co-conspirators” method of coup organizing. Any coup attempt involving so many conspirators will always have a security problem, and that makes success less likely.

Personally, I would never conduct a coup, but theoretically speaking, if my evil twin were to throw a coup, I am certain that he would use the “dispose to depose” method. I know. It’s so old fashioned and makes for dull reading, but it’s way more effective than the silly modern “tell him he’s deposed, and maybe he’ll let us depose him” method.

All in all, it’s sad that a nation like Turkey, with such a proud tradition of quick and effective military coups, ended up with such a half-assed coup. It’s damned embarrassing for the international coup fraternity.

As for the “who,” the Western media is fascinated with the question of how much Fethullah Gulen was involved in organizing the failed coup.

 

 

Gulen was Erdogan’s ally until he realized that Erdogan was perfectly capable of jumping in bed with jihadis – which Erdogan did. Since the two men parted ways, they have been opponents. Erdogan targeted and marginalized Gulen’s friends and supporters within Turkey, but Gulen remains popular with the people. In spite of that remaining popularity, the coup organizers did not need Gulen or his supporters to get the ball rolling because Erdogan has done such a good job inciting a coup against himself by just being Erdogan.

The remaining question of “who” is not all that important. The “what” ended up being damned sloppy, and the “why” is the easiest part of this shallow mystery.

Erdogan is a creep, and lots of folks in and out of Turkey wish that he would vanish. No news there. Hating Erdogan is more popular than playing Pokémon in Turkey.

This leaves us all with the more important question, “Now what?”

Unfortunately, the answers are as ugly as they usually are when one asks a Mid-Eastern region question.

I know that a lot of folks on the Middle Eastern teams at the CIA will be aghast at my willingness to simplify the Turkish picture. But let’s compare it for a moment to a Kandinsky painting. Is another gallon of spilled house paint or a gallon less of spilled house paint really going to improve the picture? It is ugly, and it will remain ugly. It hurts to look at it, and it will still hurt tomorrow. Just like a Kandinsky painting, if you think about it at night, you won’t sleep.

As we all know, and as any reasonable soul would predict, Erdogan is using the coup flop to conduct his biggest Stalinist purge ever.

He’s enjoying it. His poor wife is probably happy that he finally found something that helps his marital life better than all those blue pills that he tried. (Word on the street is that it’s been a long time since Erdogan has been able to bring this much enthusiasm to his home life.) Unfortunately, along with her husband, she and Erdogan’s unfortunate mistresses are the only ones seeing any “up tick” from this lousy coup.

Erdogan will continue to scream at the US and make all sorts of demands.

 

Recep Tayyip Erdogan & Barack Obama Image by State Dept., public domain.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan & Barack Obama
Image by State Dept., public domain.

 

Secretary of State John Kerry will continue to fuss over his hair and try to look like a male model when he gets off the plane in Turkey. Kerry will make his regular meaningless statements when dealing with Turkey. The President (this one or the next) will look “deeply concerned” and not do much.

Europe will continue to respond with another frightening “Euro-frown,” and Turkey will continue to not care.

The good news for the West is that even a dope like Erdogan knows that in the final analysis, since he lives next to Iraq, Syria and Russia, and we don’t, he can only push his snotty temper tantrums so far.

Erdogan has always wanted a bigger, more powerful military to make him more relevant. Despots hate being laughed at when they make threats. He has planned for and tried to finance that better military, and he fantasizes about an indigenous 5th generation fighter for Turkey. It won’t happen under an Erdogan government.

Unfortunately for Turkey, Erdogan has always been more effective at destroying his own military than destroying his foreign enemies. If Erdogan had a campaign slogan to share with the US audience, it would be “don’t hope for any change.” The future of Turkey, Turkish-NATO relations, and Turkish-US relations will continue to look a lot like the last ten years, just slightly worse.

US-Vietnam Relations — The Healing Power of Cash

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

Due to Communist China’s aggression in the South China Sea, or as the Vietnamese call it, the Eastern Sea, the US has become interested in building a closer relationship with Vietnam. Despite strong emotions on both sides, the changing relationship with Vietnam is less complicated and less subtle than the relationships that the US has with other South Pacific nations. However, it is not without obstacles.

 

US Pres. Obama & Vietnam Pres. Tran Dai Quang Presidential Palace, May 23, 2016 Image public domain.

US Pres. Obama & Vietnam Pres. Tran Dai Quang
Presidential Palace, May 23, 2016
Image public domain.

 

Understanding the forces that drive the US/Vietnam relationship is easy if we consider a few key events since the end of the US involvement in the Vietnam War in 1973.

From the point of view of many US citizens, building a working relationship with the communist Vietnamese government is something new and innovative. From Hanoi’s point of view, it is something natural that should have happened a long time ago.

It might surprise many Western Cold War survivors to know that Hanoi fully expected to quickly normalize relations with the US once it was able to capture and control South Vietnam. US President Richard Nixon had ordered an increased bombing campaign against North Vietnam to force Hanoi to return to the Paris Peace Talks. Both the North Vietnamese government and the US government understood that those peace talks were pure theater and without any potential lasting value, but Nixon felt he needed to create the appearance of a peaceful settlement to the conflict. All Nixon really wanted was for the US to pull out of South Vietnam.

When President Nixon told the South Vietnamese government that the US military would return if North Vietnam broke the peace treaty, he knew that he was lying. The South Vietnamese government knew it, as well, but there was nothing it could do about it. Years of blatant corruption and criminality in the South Vietnamese government, combined with the thousands of deaths of young Americans, had left much of the American public unwilling to continue to support South Vietnam. Nixon fully understood that the US public was done with Vietnam.

Westerners understood that Nixon was clearly using a “big stick” approach against the North Vietnamese government in order to force them back to the transparently farcical Paris Peace Talks, but most were unaware that Nixon and his soon-to-be Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were also quietly holding out a large carrot to the North Vietnamese government. That carrot was a normalization of relations with the US, trade agreements, and US influence to allow North Vietnam access to the International Monetary Fund.

The North Vietnamese government carefully considered the offers from Nixon, and after about two minutes fully agreed. What could be more splendid than the US showering North Vietnam with cash instead of bombs? In response to Nixon’s offers, Hanoi suggested that the US quickly develop offshore oil reserves in Vietnamese territory with a perfectly reasonable revenue sharing formula. The communists in Hanoi were clearly in love with capitalism.

Hanoi wanted to become something like a new Saudi Arabia.

The automobile-addicted Yankees would get more oil, and Vietnam would get cash. And here is the subtle little detail that mattered most in all this. Hanoi expected its “capitalist Yankee dog” enemies to become Vietnam’s beloved allies against Vietnam’s problematic neighbor, the People’s Republic of China.

It might be difficult for Americans that remember the Vietnam War to believe that the Hanoi government would have been capable of an alliance with the US after the Vietnam War.

If we consider the North Vietnamese view for a moment, it’s a little easier to understand how they might have hoped for our bombing campaigns to be converted to cash-dropping operations. From Hanoi’s perspective, the US had spent more than a decade lavishing cash, equipment, and young American blood on a wildly corrupt South Vietnamese government in exchange for nothing.

So why then would the Yankees not do the same for a wildly corrupt communist Vietnam in exchange for oil rights?

It made perfect sense to the pragmatic Kissinger, the impatient Nixon, and to everyone else involved in the Vietnam quagmire. It would have worked except for another critical event. To the surprise of no sober adult in Vietnam or the US, the North Vietnamese could not resist invading and conquering South Vietnam after the US military went home. They miscalculated. Oil or not, the US was not going to become close friends with Hanoi once Hanoi so completely violated the Paris Peace Treaty.

So, all “that” explains why communist Vietnam would pretend to be our friend now. Now let us consider why the US government might be willing to pretend it believes that the Vietnamese are our friends.

The answer is simple enough to express in one word – China.

It is easy for the Vietnamese communists to abandon their own dogma and do business with their old “Imperialist Yankee dog” enemies in the face of the more avaricious Communist Chinese imperial aggression. In the face of that same Chinese Imperialist campaign in the Pacific, the US government is willing to cooperate and even aid its old “communist terrorist” enemies.

Vietnam understands that the USA does not wish to install a “Pax Americana” in the South Pacific. It understood that we weren’t even willing to install a “Pax Americana” in South Vietnam, and it counted on that fact in its strategy in the 1960s and 1970s. For other South Pacific nations, an escalated conflict with China is future possibility to be avoided. For the Vietnamese, it is a reality that they have experienced many times over, and as recently as 1979, when China again invaded Vietnam. For the Obama administration, convincing the Vietnamese to take the Chinese Imperialist agenda seriously is about as difficult as convincing a teenager that sex is good.

Changes in the US-Vietnam relationship can be measured by key steps the two countries have taken.

On January 13, 1993, the US Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs gave a favorable final report that cleared the way for the Clinton Administration to resume IMF and World Bank lending to Vietnam. For Americans such as me, who were still waiting for a loved one to return from Vietnam, the fact that Vietnam had conducted a visible long-term effort to account for all US MIAs in Southeast Asia mattered a great deal. For the Vietnamese, access to the IMF and World Bank mattered a great deal financially.

On February 3, 1994, US President Bill Clinton partially lifted the trade embargo on Vietnam. This was a boon for the Vietnamese economy and provided US corporations with an alternative to cheap Chinese manufacturing labor.

On July 11, 1995, US President Bill Clinton announced the normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States of America and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

In November 2003, the USS Vandergrift became the first US Navy vessel to make port call in Ho Chi Minh City since 1975. This initiated a regular schedule of US Navy calls at Vietnamese ports.

The US Congress approved Permanent Normal Trade Relations for Vietnam in January 2007. This further boosted US Capital investment in Vietnam.

In early October 2014, the United States approved a relaxation of its arms embargo on Vietnam.

In May 2016, President Obama announced the full lifting of the embargo during his visit to Vietnam.

Thus far, there has been little practical impact from lifting the embargo because Vietnam prefers to purchase less expensive weapons and systems from their Russian allies. However, one sign that that the trade agreement might benefit the US economy is the $11.3 billion pending Vietnamese agreement with Boeing for the purchase of 100 airliners. It is not clear to me where the cash will come from to make this deal a reality, but time will tell. There is also optimistic chatter about Vietnam purchasing P-3 Poseidon maritime reconnaissance planes, but I can’t see Congress and the DoD signing off on the sale of such high tech military systems to a close ally of Russia.

Many human rights groups feel betrayed by the Obama administration.

Critics of the lifting of the embargo feel that Obama could easily have demanded human rights reforms in Vietnam in exchange for such a lucrative agreement for Vietnam. Vietnam has clearly demonstrated that it is in no rush to improve human rights for their citizens. From a political point of view, Vietnam remains very similar to Communist China. The one difference is that Vietnam is reliably anti-Chinese, and, therefore, this administration and previous administrations have been willing to ignore Vietnam’s transparently horrible human rights record.

It’s tough to not see the parallel between current US Pacific strategy and the US strategy in Central America during the Cold War.

Then, as now, we have often been willing to tolerate wildly corrupt governments when they have opposed major enemies of the US. The philosophical and moral questions surrounding the current US administration’s willingness to do business with a despotic Vietnamese government are beyond the scope of this article and this series of articles. In the European tradition of “Realpolitik” and in step with the worldwide practice of self-interested political policies, the US has chosen to strengthen ties with Vietnam.

In my estimation, the relationship between the US and Vietnam will continue to grow. The next US presidential election will not likely disrupt this trend, regardless of which candidate wins.

In our next article, we will consider the relationship between the US and India, and India’s huge potential influence on South Pacific affairs.

 

Chinese Aggression Spurs New Alliances for Japan

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

Chinese aggression in the South China Sea is causing Japan to strengthen its alliance with the US and build new and unlikely partnerships with some traditional enemies.

 

US Pres. Obama and Japanese Emperor Akihito Image by State Dept., public domain

US Pres. Obama and Japanese Emperor Akihito
Image by State Dept., public domain

 

Building a stronger defensive alliance with Japan is the least challenging foreign policy task faced by the Obama administration. It is also the easiest foreign relationship from the point of view of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration.

Modern Japan and the US share similar political and social values, and both countries are strongly independent and democratic in structure and outlook. At times in the past, trade imbalances and the vast US presence in Okinawa have stressed the US-Japan relationship, but those issues never prevented strong military and diplomatic cooperation. The two countries have shared a consistently solid relationship since the founding of modern Japan in 1947.

To understand the US-Japan relationship, we should consider Japan’s geographic and political dilemmas.

Japan imports most of its fossil fuels and about sixty percent of its food. Free navigation of the seas is critical to Japan’s prosperity, and even to its very existence. To varying degrees Russia, China, and North Korea all pose serious threats to Japan’s national security. In a sense, Japan is the “Israel” of the Pacific. They have no allies in their region. Fortunately, this may be changing.

China remains bitter for the brutal invasion and occupation carried out by Imperial Japan during the first half of the twentieth century.

 

Japanese Soldiers with Broken Statue of Chinese Leader Dr. Sun Yat Sen. Image public domain.

Japanese Soldiers with Broken Statue of Chinese Leader Dr. Sun Yat Sen.
Image public domain.

 

China’s communist government has found it convenient for its political mythology to foment hatred toward Japan rather than seek reconciliation. Fifty years ago, Japan could afford to be less concerned with China’s hatred.

As the People’s Republic of China has begun to overcome its long history of inept and self-destructive government, it has been able to develop its massive population and considerable natural resources.

Having established a stronger economy and a stronger military, China has made itself more “relevant” in the Pacific. Unfortunately for them and for everyone else, they have chosen to seek “relevancy” and legitimacy through increased aggression toward their neighbors. As China’s military strength and aggressive attitude grows, so grows Japan’s concern for self-defense.

The one challenge that remains in US-Japan relations is Japan’s poor relationships with other US allies in the Pacific.

The US has had a close, though rather one-sided, relationship with South Korea since WWII. That relationship has been based on the US’s willingness to defend South Korea against its communist neighbors. While North Korea remains a menace and a constant nuisance to both South Korea and Japan, until recently that has not been enough motive to bring the two nations closer. Both South Koreans and North Koreans remain angry over the Japanese occupation prior to and during WWII.

However, there are now signs of a thaw in relations between South Korea and Japan.

To a degree, North Korea’s nuclear threats and China’s increasing aggression are motivating Japan and South Korea to cooperate more on issues of trade and defense. It may take several more decades for South Koreans to form a more favorable view of Japan, but if the Japanese exercise some diplomatic skill, they may eventually be able to change their image in South Korea. This would enable more effective military cooperation against the growing threats from the North Koreans and China.

A similar three-way dilemma exists between Japan, the Philippines, and the US.

For the same historic reasons, Japan remains unpopular in the Philippines while the US maintains close relations with both countries. As with South Korea and Japan, the US has long hoped for and attempted to promote closer relations between the Philippines and Japan.

In the case of the Philippines, there have been strong signs of growing cooperation with Japan.

Recently, a Japanese warship took part in naval exercises with the US and the Philippine navies. Even as recently as two years ago, the presence of a Japanese warship in Philippine coastal waters would have been completely unwelcome in the Philippines. In another clear sign that China’s aggression is forcing Japan and the Philippines together, Japan is selling jet trainer aircraft to the Philippines. This sale is a major event in Philippine-Japan relations.

By quietly acting as a go-between, the US has been able to help Japan begin to build better relations with its Western Pacific neighbors.

In military terms, relations between Japan and the US are very good and getting better. Japan continues to allow the US to maintain considerable air and naval forces in Japanese territory, and the working relationship between US and Japanese forces is excellent. Senior military officers from both nations have a high degree of trust in each other’s ability and integrity. When the US and Japanese militaries make an agreement, both sides are confident that the agreement will be carried out.

Perhaps the single greatest impact thus far from China’s growing aggression in the South China Sea can be seen in Japan.

The Japanese constitution limits Japan to a relatively small self-defense force. While the Japanese self-defense force is small, it is high in quality. Whenever the Japanese government has committed to building ships for its maritime self-defense force, the ships have been well designed, well built, and delivered on time. Japanese politicians and voters are starting to consider expanding their military both in budgetary and doctrinal terms. In budgetary terms, Japan has made small increases in expenditures, and they are now developing their own stealth fighter. This new stealth fighter is in addition to Japan’s participation in the expensive US led F-35 program.

 

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at Edwards Air Force Base Image public domain.

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at Edwards Air Force Base
Image public domain.

 

In doctrinal terms, Japan was willing to participate in naval exercises in the Philippines.

Until recently, the Japanese government and Japanese voters would have considered such a deployment unacceptable. The Japanese voters still have a deep aversion for involving themselves in another war of aggression, but they are beginning to accept that the security of the Philippines directly impacts their own national security.

Over eighty percent of Japan’s oil comes from the Mideast. Since the Fukushima nuclear power plant leak disaster in 2011, Japan’s oil import requirements have increased. Free navigation of the international waters of the South China/West Philippine Sea is even more critical to Japan than it is to the Philippines.

The US has announced that the linchpin for US strategy in the Pacific will be the Philippines.

In reality, that only appears to be the case because of how little Japan needs to improve its self-defense as compared to how desperately the Philippines needs to build a credible military. For diplomatic reasons, both the US and Japan prefer to publicly keep the focus on the Philippines.

The relationship between Japan and the US has evolved in to one of equality, shared values, and genuine mutual respect. Whatever problems might arise between the US and Japan, the relationship will remain strong.

The Japanese people have no desire to create a Japanese hegemony in the Pacific, but China’s expansionist agenda has forced them to accept a greater role in international affairs in the region.

In our next episode, we will consider the changing US-Malaysian relationship.

Shifting Sands in the House of Saud

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

Since Fahd ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Āl Sa’ūd ascended to the throne of Saudi Arabia in 1982, relations between the West and Saudi Arabia have been fairly stable, if somewhat complicated.

 

Secy of Defense William Cohen (left) and King Fahd ibn 'Abd al-'Azīz Āl Sa'ūd (right) October 13, 1998 Image by Dept of Defense, public domain

Secy of Defense William Cohen (left)
and King Fahd ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Āl Sa’ūd (right)
October 13, 1998
Image by Dept of Defense, public domain

 

The Saudi government has remained consistently willing to maintain close diplomatic, business, and military ties with the US and other Western nations. At the same time, it has supported Wahhabi religious leaders in maintaining extremely conservative Sunni religious dominance over Saudi citizens. While the West enabled technological and business modernizations in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government to a great extent allowed the Wahhabi religious leaders to define culture in their country.

Saudi Arabia’s dichotomy of petroleum-fueled modernization versus conservative Wahhabi cultural control has been somewhat baffling to Westerners from democratic nations.

In spite of these constantly conflicting forces, King Fahd managed to maintain a stable balance. From the US point of view, the Saudi Arabian government was one of two allies in the region, Israel being the other. Yet while relations between Riyadh and Washington remained warm, not all Saudis felt that warmth toward the US or the West. In fact, Saudi Arabia, thanks to Wahhabi influence, remained a breeding ground for violent jihadism.

Fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 attackers hailed from Saudi Arabia, and wealthy Saudi Arabians have consistently been a leading source for terrorist funding. Yet the oil flowed to the West while Western cash fueled the extended Royal family’s lavish lifestyle. That oil wealth also fueled vast social programs and a bloated civil government that makes our US government seem almost efficient by comparison.

In 1993, King Fahd sent shockwaves through Saudi society when he instituted a sixty person consultative council.

All the members of the council were picked by him. It was nothing like “elected representation,” but by Saudi standards, but it was a huge step forward for Saudi society. Two years later, twenty women were allowed to attend the consultative council. To Westerners, it might seem like a miniscule token step toward liberalization, but to the Wahhabi religious leaders, it was wild heresy.

King Fahd suffered a major stroke in 1995. His brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, acted as his regent and unofficial prime minister. When Fahd died in 2005, Abdullah ascended the throne and continued the balancing act.

 

King Abdullah bin Abdul al-Saud, January 2007 Image by Cherie A. Thurlby, Dept. of Defense, public domain

King Abdullah bin Abdul al-Saud, January 2007
Image by Cherie A. Thurlby,
Dept. of Defense, public domain

 

Like his predecessors, Abdullah was willing to use the Wahhabi establishment to maintain order and enforce their version of Sharia law in his Kingdom, but like every Saudi King, he was leery of their power. He continued to use oil wealth to further drive modernization and hold up vast social welfare programs while simultaneously struggling with the domestic terror issues caused by the radical Wahhabi influence.

Gradually, King Abdullah implemented small steps toward liberalizing Saudi society.

In 2007, he banned the infamous religious police from making arrests and began to institute major judicial reforms. Two years later, Abdullah pushed ahead with reforms and fired most of the senior judges and leaders of the religious police system.

In 2011 the Arab Spring swept across North Africa and the Mid-East. When it reached Saudi Arabia, it was quickly stifled by police action.

To outsiders, it may have appeared to be simple oppression, but inside the kingdom, there was genuine fear that Al Qaeda and their many clones would hijack any Arab Spring. There was also concern that Iranian-backed Shia minorities in Saudi Arabia would agitate on behalf of the Iranian Ayatollahs. King Abdullah responded by announcing increases in social welfare programs in the hope of appeasing many of the potential “Springers.”

In September of 2011, King Abdullah announced that women would be allowed to vote in municipal elections and run for office. While Saudi women were quietly celebrating their newfound empowerment, the Saudi courts sentenced a woman to ten lashes for driving a car. King Abdullah overturned the verdict.

In 2013, while Saudi Arabia continued to struggle to control domestic terrorism by homegrown jihadists, King Abdullah appointed thirty women to the consultative council.

The following year, fearful of Iranian-backed insurgents in Yemen and the simmering unrest of the Shia-backed majority in Bahrain, King Abdullah did an about face in policy and introduced strict anti-terror laws.

The new laws give the police the power to arrest anyone that protests against or speaks against the Saudi government or the Wahhabi religious establishment. The law even prohibits “thoughts” against the government or Wahhabi Islam.

When King Abdullah died in January of 2015, his brother, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, ascended the throne.

 

Saudi Arabian executions graph Image by Runab, wikimedia commons.

Saudi Arabian executions graph
Image by Runab, wikimedia commons.

 

Though Salman had supported King Abdullah’s reforms he was already eighty years old and in declining health. Instead of appointing one of his aging brothers as his acting regent, he appointed his thirty year old son, Mohammed bin Salman al Saud, as deputy crown prince and defense minister. The choice may prove to be an exceptionally bad one.

Unlike his father and uncles, Mohammed bin Salman was educated in Saudi Arabia rather than in the US, and he is not well travelled. He has a reputation for arrogance and ruthlessness.

Salman and his son face the same challenges that King Abdullah faced, but they lack one important resource that King Abdullah and his predecessors always relied on . . . They lack the cash. Oil prices have been down for the last couple of years, and that has forced the Saudi government to reduce the allowances of the extended royal family and to reverse the increases in social welfare programs that helped calm the attempted Saudi Arabian Spring.

The fear in the house of Saud is showing.

The new anti-terrorism laws are being rigorously enforced. Executions are at a two-decade high. There were 150 public beheadings in 2015. In the first week of 2016 alone, there were 47 executions by beheading or firing squad.

 

Human Rights Activist Samar Badawi Image from Int'l Women of Courage Awards 2012, Dept. of State, public domain

Human Rights Activist Samar Badawi
Image from Int’l Women of Courage Awards 2012,
Dept. of State, public domain

 

In addition, popular blogger, Raif Badawi, who urged Saudi society to be more liberal and secular, was imprisoned in 2013 and sentenced to 10 years and 1000 lashes. His lawyer, Wahleed Abu al-Khair, was imprisoned in 2014. Now, Samar Badawi – Raif Badawi’s sister and al-Khair’s former wife – was arrested on January 12, 2016, along with her 2-year-old daughter. A long time human rights advocate, Samar Badawi’s crime was running a Twitter account to raise awareness of al-Khair’s situation. At this rate, the Saudis might have to use any money left over from their campaign in Yemen and their weapons acquisitions to fund new prison construction.

On top of the domestic strain, on January 2, 2016, the Saudi execution of a prominent Shiite cleric led to an Iranian mob storming the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Iran and Saudi Arabia then severed diplomatic ties.

The current generation of Saudi leaders is under pressure, and it shows.

The growing influence of Iran in the new Shia government in Iraq, the Iranian-backed rebellion in Yemen, the rise of ISIL in Syria, the increased Russian military presence in Syria, all combine to present what the young Saudis likely perceive to be a menace to their rule and their physical survival. When they add to that the American and Western “accord” with Iran, they may see themselves as being isolated while facing unrest at home and increasing threats by Iran.

So where will the young Royals take Saudi Arabia?

Mohammed bin Salman is planning major economic reforms. He will have to implement those reforms while dealing with Saudi Arabia’s expensive support for Sunni (non-ISIL) rebels in Yemen, the war in Yemen, and the brewing opposition at home.

 

King Ibn Saud & President Franklin D. Roosevelt Great Bitter Lake, Egypt, 2-14-1945 Image public domain

King Ibn Saud & President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Great Bitter Lake, Egypt, 2-14-1945
Image public domain

 

In 1928, King Ibn Saud came to power on the back of a fierce Wahhabi tiger. The house of Saud has never been able to completely dismount from that tiger. Since 1928, governing in Saudi Arabia has required an acrobatic balance of Wahhabi interests versus Saudi national interests. The future of Saudi Arabia depends on how well Mohammed bin Salman can ride that tiger.