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Will New US Administration Dislike of History Lead to Second Korean War?

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By Shehab Al Makahleh • 

What does history have to do with Donald Trump and his presidential decisions and his possible move on the Korean Peninsula (that may lead to the Second Korean War and more)?

What we know so far is that his Secretary of State Tillerson dislikes history, and his Press Secretary Spicer doesn’t know history of the Second World War. We also know that at least in three key fields related to public administration and governance ― international relations, diplomacy, and military studies ― history plays a crucial role. It helps countries understand both their friends and adversaries, build diplomatic relations with them and/or guard against conflict.

Creators of one of the world’s greatest empire ― the Romans ― taught us that history is a teacher of life. The Romans also believed that the strength of their army and the number of military bases in the conquered provinces were the best insurance of the survival of the empire. History, the teacher of life that they have defined so succinctly, proved them wrong in their belief about military might as their military brass became arrogant and corrupt, as did their elites, and eventually led to the Empire’s demise. Something similar seems to be happening, as the world is entering the final stages of Pax Americana. Trump promised his public (plebs) to drain the swamp, the American equivalent of the Roman patricians, but his last moves indicate that his promise went down the drain.

Donald Trump promised to make America great again, but he also promised to rebuild American military and create jobs. And as he kept on repeating his campaign motto, none of us stopped to think about the possible other meaning of his words, or for that matter the means he would have to use to achieve them, or whether and how much his presidency will differ from his campaign promises. In the past two weeks some of his actions may serve as a signpost of what is yet to come. Trump has been made a laughing stock by his opponents and the mainstream media in the US, in particular for his reality show stunts. What we are seeing in his presidency seems to be following the reality show script. And the reality show again has something to do with the Roman Empire. Panem et circenses ― bread and circuses was the final stage of decadence of the Roman patricians. In America today the situation is the same. Food and entertainment, but many sober heads are not so entertained anymore with the reality show being played in the White House and the Pentagon, and neither is the rest of the world.

When Donald Trump was announced winner of the US presidential election in November last year, most parts of the world, especially the so-called Third World, breathed a sigh of relief. Trump’s campaign rhetoric that won him support of the American electorate and ultimately led to his presidency was embedded in non-interventionist narrative, international cooperation and most importantly on putting ‘America First’ on his presidential agenda. On the 77th day of his presidency all this was forgotten when he ordered cruise missiles strike on Syria, while eating cake with the Chinese president. Another historic parallel is apt here. In the years leading to the French revolution, the arrogance of the elite was such that while they were living in absurd luxury, peasants were starving. The legend says that the French Queen, unaware of the horrendous conditions of the starving population, when told they had no bread to eat said, ‘let them eat cake’.  Trump was certain about the type of cake he ate that evening when he ordered the strike, but not so about the country he ordered cruise missile attack on.

The strike was an equal shock to the Americans who bought into his non-interventionist narrative and the world that hoped that America will mind its own business, for at least next 4 years. Few days after striking Syria in a violation of the international law, and based on unproven allegation that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons, Trump has put himself in the same basket of deplorable interventionist American presidents that the Americans are tired of, as is the rest of the world.

And as if the Syrian strike wasn’t bad enough, about a week later, while the printing press was still hot spinning stories asking for more intervention, US president went even further and dropped one of America’s most potent non-nuclear bombs, on none else but Afghanistan. On Afghanistan – a country that America came to save from the Soviet invasion; to prolong a war that Obama promised to end but never did, and instead authorized deployment of additional troops, sometimes in summer last year. The news of troop deployment went unnoticed by the media which was then busy with another terrorist attack, perpetrated coincidentally by an American of Afghan decent, in a gay club in Orlando, Florida.

And while the media is now abuzz with the stories about ‘Mother of all Bombs’ (MOAB) which the US decided to test in combat in Afghanistan, to bomb the caves and bunkers, Trump and his generals are continuing along the well known American interventionist policy. This time, the destination is Korea. In Korea, again the history repeats itself. Few years following the end of the Second World War, North Korea invaded South Korea. The US and the UN came to aid the South, and China and the Soviets came to assist the North. After several years of war in which for the first time in history fighter jets confronted each other in air combat, the armistice was signed with no peace treaty. Technically speaking, to this day the two Koreas are still at war as a Demilitarized Zone separates the two states.

Few days ago, North Korea fired a nuclear missile which was unsuccessful, but the American military brass continues talking about all options against the country. Meanwhile, president Trump has announced that the American navy group led by the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and even nuclear submarines are on the way to Korean Peninsula. China got visibly alarmed with the news and has sought Russia’s help to avert the looming crisis, and the two partners are reported to have dispatched intelligence gathering vessels to shadow US navy movement, while Russian troops have been sent to its Korean border. US Vice President Mike Pence on Monday visited the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas.

China and Russia, for whom Koreas represent close neighborhood, have called for resolving the issue via diplomatic and peaceful ways, but the US military movements show that they might be ready to repeat the tactics of the past two weeks – Syrian and Afghan attacks. Although the Korean ballistic missile launch was unsuccessful the US believes that putting pressure on North Korea by sending its navy group to the Peninsula would force its leadership to exercise restraint. The choice of military equipment that he has deployed to the Korean Peninsula vicinity is some indicator that Trump might follow the playbook of his predecessors and use aircraft to drop the US military’s much favored Tomahawk missiles. In case North Korea decided to retaliate, as it threatened, the submarines are ready with the ballistic missiles (SLBMs), as part of the ‘all options’ promise. Hopefully, the last option is not really on the table except in words, as the use of ballistic missiles would mean the beginning of the Armageddon.

The world is justifiably in the state of alarm and caution is highly warranted, because this US administration has already shown its unpredictable nature quite loudly. Even former Soviet president Gorbachev said the world is in the new Cold War. On a lighter note, Trump may only be seeking to expend some of the Tomahawks sitting in the warehouses because he has promised jobs and approved a huge defense budget. That money has to be used. The only way to do that is to wage some more wars because wars have made America great in the past, and military industry was its key economic driver for a century.

And one final thought, the North Korea tension may not be about its nuclear program at all, as Trump’s threats to cancel Iran’s nuclear deal indicate. Destabilization of its immediate neighborhood – China, Russia, Japan – may actually be the real reason.

Shehab al-Makahleh is a co-founder of Geostrategic Media, senior political and economic analyst and media adviser

Photo credit: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Posted April 18, 2017