Intelligence will be back — and a likely shootdown of a North Korean test missile aimed at us.
Now that our national nightmare — the perennial presidential horse-race — is interrupted, we have entered the two-year period in our four-year election cycle when we can actually deal with the realities beyond the media’s nose. There’s a lot of SGO for President Trump to deal with and think about. Most of it is already landing on his desk with a loud thump.
(For those just joining us, “SGO” is the comprehensively useful acronym for “S*** Goin’ On” created by my late pal and former SEAL Al Clark.)
It’s impossible to begin without congratulating President Trump for returning the Obama-banished bust of Winston Churchill to its proper place in the Oval Office. It’s a clear signal to England that our special relationship is restored. Which brings us to his first opportunity.
His meeting this week with British PM Theresa May should clarify that beyond doubt. Mr. Trump, contrary to his usual opposition to trade agreements, has hinted that he might agree to negotiations with England to achieve a new trade agreement with it and help the Brits exit the European Union with minimal damage to their economy. He should do so with enthusiasm.
But there are too many other matters that demand Trump’s attention to dwell on that. Trump’s Inaugural SGO comes at us courtesy of Turkey, his faux pal Vladimir Putin, and North Korea.
Turkish President Erdogan, having arrested tens of thousands of military members, lawyers, journalists and others after last year’s coup attempt, is now holding those people indefinitely. While he does that, he is cementing his autocracy with changes to Turkey’s constitution. Those changes were approved by the Turkish parliament last week and will be subjected to a plebiscite later this spring which will almost certainly approve them as well.
Erdogan has been gradually realigning Turkey away from its NATO membership and toward cooperation with Russia. Erdogan has conferred with Putin in Moscow (and otherwise) several times, engaging in failed peace talks supposedly aimed at a settlement of the almost six-year long Syrian war.
Last week, Turkish aircraft conducted joint airstrikes with the Russians allegedly against ISIS. Turkey’s aim, of which Putin apparently approves, is to extend Turkish power into northern Syria and Iraq where the opposition to ISIS includes Kurdish forces aligned (so far) with the United States.
President Trump will find himself unable to influence the outcome in Syria. Russia, having established a permanent naval base at Tartus and a permanent airbase at Hmeimem (a town evidently chosen for its unpronounceability), is now an established power in the Middle East.
Russia is, of course, partnered with Iran as well as with Turkey. Erdogan, an Islamist, is a Sunni Muslim. Iran is his — and Turkey’s — enemy in a religious war that has been going on for about thirteen hundred years. Erdogan is apparently a Palmerstonian, believing that Turkey has no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests that he must pursue. Those interests are a mixture of Sunni dogma and Turkish nationalist ambitions. He has, for example, declared that once Mosul is liberated from ISIS, only Sunni Muslims should be permitted to live there.
That interest is contrary to those of the United States. While Erdogan is realigning his nation with Putin and thus, necessarily, against NATO, America has every reason to attempt to bring him back into the fold and to make it clear that it is in Turkey’s best interest to come back. That’s being made doubly tough by Putin.
On January 13, Putin extended an invitation to Trump to participate in the next round of Syria peace negotiations commencing today in Moscow. Obama had been pointedly excluded from prior rounds of those talks.
Putin may have invited Trump to participate (reportedly suggesting that National Security Advisor Michael Flynn attend). Trump has correctly rejected the invitation, his spokesman citing transition difficulties for the reason. Whatever Putin’s motive, Trump would have found that he has no influence to bring to bear in the talks.
It’s not in the interests of the United States to sit at the kids’ table and only be able to watch negotiations unfold. To do so would trap us into agreeing with the results, which we can predict won’t be consistent with our interests. Unless and until we can have a major influence on them, we shouldn’t participate in any such negotiations.
While this is going on, the North Koreans are preparing to test an intercontinental missile capable — purportedly — of delivering a nuclear weapon to the United States. Reports that the launch would coincide with Trump’s inaugural proved incorrect, but the launch and perhaps another nuclear weapons test could happen at any time.
Once again, Trump will find himself almost without options. If the Norks launch a missile on a trajectory that could reach the United States, Trump’s best option would be to shoot it down. We have both sea-based and land-based interceptors capable of destroying the test missile in flight. It would behoove Trump to preposition our sea-based interceptors and put them and our land-based interceptors on alert. Any decision on launching them would have to be made in the first few minutes after the Nork launch.
However, if we try to shoot it down and fail, the Norks will have an immense propaganda victory that will undermine the confidence of our South Korean and Japanese allies. Trump will have to rely on our intelligence agencies to predict a launch and on the Defense Department to warn him of it in time to decide whether to attempt a shoot-down.
In his speech at the CIA on Saturday, Trump expressed his liking for and trust in the intelligence community. He needs to do better than that, re-enabling the IC to brief him daily. He should become a better consumer of intelligence. That means he — and Gen. Flynn, his national security advisor — should view those briefings as an opportunity to question the briefers, challenging their conclusions to make them defend their findings. Flynn knows how to do it. Trump should take the briefings and learn from Flynn how best to do it. That way, Trump will learn how to absorb the intelligence products and make better decisions.
Trump’s plate is pretty full, and there will be no respite for him. But that’s what a president has to expect.