The Geo-Political Poker Game: Where’s the ‘Off-Ramp’?

Alastair Crooke, Sic Semper Tyrranis blog, 29 March 2018

At the beating heart of Trump’s Presidency lies the notion of the Art of the Deal. It is said that Trump has few convictions, but his notion of how to negotiate – with a big stick, maximum leverage, and with credible, fear-inducing ‘threats’ - is central to his whole Presidency. It underlies his tariff and American job protection platform; his fiscal profligacy that has to keep giving a fiscal quid pro quo to social programmes, in return for escalating ‘big stick’ defence expenditures; and – of course – it underlies his whole geo-political approach, particularly in respect upping the stakes toward China, North Korea and Iran.

This underlying notion of the ‘deal’ is transactional in essence, best practiced as a one-to-one operation, rather than in a multilateral context. But in the sphere of geo-politics this is not so easy. In the next months, but climaxing in May (other things being equal), Trump will put his negotiating theory to the test in a very different ambit to that of New York real estate. The North Korean summit should be held; the verdict on the nuclear agreement with Iran is due to be pronounced then; the US Israeli-Palestinian determination is scheduled to be ‘handed down’ in May; the Sunni states’ Iran containment roles to be set; and any punitive tariffs on China will be decided, and enacted. Although apparently disconnected issues, their clustering together in May will inter-connect them: Success or failure in one, will leach into parallel spheres.

And in the background – of course – will grind on the western Intelligence Establishment’s determination to cut down President Putin and Russia (the Salisbury Skripal affair) to size - and through slapping down Putin, to wound Trump too, naturally.

Russia has said that it will respond proportionately to the collective diplomatic expulsions. Plainly, some in the Deep State fraternity are hoping that Russia’s response will serve as pretext for a further round of decrying President Putin, with the added possibility to push Russia out of the SWIFT clearing system.

Such then is the confluence of issues, but what happens if someone calls the bluff? (We can ignore South Korea caving-in on trade). What happens, more importantly, if the bluff is shown for what it is – a bluff, widely and publicly?

What happens if the Chinese, the North Koreans, the Iranians and the Russians understand the concept behind the Art of the Deal, and furthermore know that the US is not really in a position to make good on the bluff – on its full-throated threats of military or trade actions – at least? Trump may be ready for a demonstrative missile ‘tweet’ such as the 57 Tomahawk missiles launched at Syria. But the principal global actors are unlikely to ‘quake’ at that. Times change. American military might is now seen in its limitations, as well as in its substantial capabilities.

Trump likely, is not the only one who knows how to play high-stakes poker: You do not become the undisputed leader of either China or Russia without knowing a bit about high-stake, risk-taking.

There are further problems too with this Art of the Deal strategy. President Trump has recruited a team of foreign policy war-hawks, and trade hawks, around him. It has been termed, by some, a ‘war cabinet’. In part, it may have been assembled to wrap the President in a cloak of American muscular nationalism as he moves against Robert Mueller and the allegation of Trump’s disloyalty to the American interest. But, also it is clearly intended to lend credence to the image of America ‘carrying a large stick’.

John Bolton is convincing as a war-hawk for sure, however, it is likely that his very (public) bellicosity may undermine the ‘other party’s’ conviction that America is at all sincere about negotiations and, rather, promote the contrary notion that America is merely going through the negotiating motions, primarily in order to make a subsequent pre-emptive attack seem somehow more ‘legitimate’.

Bolton is a choice that – rightly or wrongly – says ‘regime change’ in bright lights (Bolton favours it for North Korea, Iran and Russia). Regime change may not be being spoken of in terms of China, but the latter fully understands that it is at the top of the Bolton-Pompeo-Trump ‘hit list’, and that its standing as ‘revisionist threat, number one’ enjoys bipartisan support in America.

Strengthening the other party’s ‘hawks’ is a real danger to this type of ‘big stick’ gambit. Indeed, it is not easy to imagine what advice Mr Bolton can give the President for his summit with the North Korean leader (assuming that such a meeting takes place). Bolton has said many times that he does not believe that North Korea would voluntarily relinquish its nuclear weapons (and he may be partly right on this), and in answer to the question on what might be the American ‘carrots’ offered, Bolton has said absolutely no peace treaty, and no economic relief, either.

Which brings us to the question of an ‘off-ramp’. After having warned of military action, and after having raised the stakes sky high, what if Kim Jong Un just says ‘no’. Or, rather ‘yes’, but only if America de-nuclearises too: i.e. withdraws its nuclear shield from the Korean Peninsula, and insists on an American forces exit from northeast Asia altogether? What does President Trump do then? Go to war, killing hundreds of thousands, if not millions?

Maybe Trump is bluffing, but it will prove to be a highly dangerous bluff if Trump, egged on by Bolton, paints himself into a tight corner. What then will be his ‘off-ramp’ – except a demonstrative ‘bloody-nose’, militarily inflicted on Kim Jong Un? And will not Iran, China, Russia and the whole Middle East not be watching intently, to judge whether Mr Trump is bluffing, or he's serious? And if America is forced to back down, all the world will draw their own conclusions.

This is the risk to geo-political ‘poker’: the risk attaches as much – if not mot more - to the bluffer as to those who are the target of the bluff (for the stakes here are not bankruptcy, as in Trump’s earlier business experience, but nuclear conflict): i.e. ultimately, he is betting the globe.

Some sense of the outrage that this ‘hard nose’ approach already has induced, can be seen from yesterday’s editorial (27 March 2018) in the Global Times of China, an organ that accurately reflects official Chinese thinking:

“Diplomat expulsions [following from Skripal affair] signal crude western intention … the fact that major Western powers can gang up and "sentence" a foreign country [Russia] without following the same procedures other countries abide by, and according to the basic tenets of international law, is chilling … Such actions are nothing more than a form of Western bullying that threatens global peace and justice … It is beyond outrageous how the US and Europe have treated Russia. Their actions represent a frivolity and recklessness that has grown to characterize Western hegemony that only knows how to contaminate international relations. Right now is the perfect time for non-Western nations to strengthen unity and collaborative efforts among one another. These nations need to establish a level of independence outside the reach of Western influence” (emphasis added).

Whilst some Europeans élites are congratulating themselves on the coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomats, the Global Times editor, speaking for the leadership, is saying that this act has made China not more amenable, but rather, more determined to resist western bullying and threats. It has served to make China and Russia yet more determined to work closely together – and “outside the reach of western influence”. This expulsion ‘stick’ – supported by only just over half of EU member states – paradoxically has made both states less amenable to western influence, this extraordinarily tough editorial would imply. (It has incidentally, also widened divisions in Europe too, as there is substantive minority support there for détente with Russia).

In their eagerness to demonstrate #Resistance to Trump (and to target his alleged ‘weak spot’ towards Putin), the ‘professional’ security officials in the US and Britain, worked together to conjure up the concerted expulsion ‘slap down’ to President Putin. Former Pentagon spokesman (in the Obama Administration), Admiral John Kirby explains that the expulsions were:

“… embraced by our European allies because they’ve been worried that with some of the things they’ve heard or haven't heard from this president [i.e President Trump] about Russian President Vladimir Putin means he might be soft on Moscow. But this tells them that the national security professionals they’ve been talking to behind closed doors really have held sway and the US policy is following what they have always promised, which is to crack down.”

It was, as a Western diplomat told Robin Wright, “a muscular message from the West to President Vladimir Putin that he can’t attack one Western country without generating a broad response from them all”. Separately, another US diplomat (and former Ambassador to Russia), William Burns described the message as being:

“… in many ways, the end of an illusion—[Trump’s] illusion of some sort of grand bargain with Putin, under which Trump has seemed to operate for so long”. Today was a pretty extensive set of measures. We’ll see what Russia does in response,” he said. “We and our allies are constantly talking to each other about how we deal with this strategic threat. The locker is not empty.”

The Anglo fraternity of national security ‘professionals’ talking ‘behind closed doors’ have leveraged – by virtue of intensive EU lobbying, rather than any quality of evidence - the poisoning of a former Russian intelligence defector into a European Union ‘narrative’ that now must be maintained, irrespective of any subsequent investigation or evidence. The evidence is beside the point: here was the opportunity to close-off Trump’s ‘illusion’ of a possible détente with Russia. The narrative is all. We will likely never know the full story.

And the British government has taken the ‘narrative’ beyond mere attribution of the apparent poisoning of this defector to Russia (and to President Putin personally), but has couched it in the apocalyptic terms of a chemical weapon attack in, and on, Europe. Britain has deliberately sought further to suggest a parity with alleged chemical weapons attacks on civilians in Syria. Mrs May, in short, in an attempt to contrive domestic UK national unity - in the face of Brexit domestic political polarisation and fragmentation - risks severing the whole of the west's relations with Russia. Using a chemical weapon, an act of war, in Europe, brooks no mediated repair of relations. It is, and is intended to be, final.

There is an air of desperation - both British, and from the global élite - to this saga. Russia cannot be treated in this way, as if it is some mere minor ‘regional power’ with ‘a GDP less than the New York metro area’, to be pushed, and pushed, and pushed again, until it either collapses, or backs down. William Taylor, a former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, gives an example of this, saying that the West can somehow “force Russia to rethink its strategy. It [Russia], faces a growing economic morass, troubling demographic trends, the cost of foreign military interventions in Crimea and Syria, and diminished international standing. Putin literally can’t afford another Cold War”.

With language inflamed by disdain, and visceral #Resistance to Trump (more even, than to Putin), the relationship with Russia will worsen, and may spin out of control – especially as these efforts against Russia (as well as against China, Iran and North Korea) practically invites, (as the Global Times so well illustrates), some American rival to call out The Art of the Deal as nothing more than elaborate bluff.

“At the moment, it’s a game of chicken with no off-ramp,” Tom Pickering, another former US Ambassador to Russia, has said. “And we need to be looking at the off-ramp.”