Current Events: War by Thursday? How Rational Are We?

The United States could be at war with North Korea by Wednesday.  The scenario, as laid out by Ambassador Wendy Sherman at The New Yorker Festival’s North Korea panel, could go something like this.

Tuesday, October 10: North Korea tests a new long range missile to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the communist party and to show it can hit the United States.

Wednesday, October 11: Donald Trump decertifies the Iranian nuclear treaty, despite reports from the International Atomic Energy Commission that Iran is complying.

Thursday, October 12: The United States pulls out of the Iran deal, and war starts with North Korea.

Ambassador Sherman served as special adviser on North Korea to President Bill Clinton, and was the lead American negotiator the Iran nuclear deal. She did not specify what the spark would be that could touch off a war with North Korea or who would initiate it, but instead pointed out that the danger was an escalating cycle that would override the rationality of the two sides.

Ambassador Sherman was on the panel with James R. Clapper, Jr., the former U.S. director of national intelligence, having held the position under President Barack Obama from 2010 to 2017, Suki Kim, is the author of the Times best-seller “Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korean Elite” and the novel “The Interpreter,” Robert E. Kelly, a professor in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University, and the famed BBC dad, and Sue Mi Terry, the senior adviser on Korea for BowerGroupAsia, and who was formerly a senior analyst for the C.I.A., focusing on Korean issues. The panel was moderated by New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos.

This distinguished panel did have some good news. They say that nearly everyone who studies North Korea agrees on two points.

  1. Kim Jong Un is not suicidal, and is primarily concerned with preserving his regime, which leads to…
  2. North Korea is not going to attack the United States directly.

These conclusions are based on the notion that Kim Jong Un is rational person. That rationality also means that he will not give up his nuclear weapons, because he is worried about suffering the same fate as Muammar Gaddafi, who gave up nuclear weapons and ended up deposed and dead, Ms. Terry said.

So the question becomes whether or not the United States could live with a nuclear armed North Korea that is capable of sending a nuclear tipped ICBM to the United States. The question becomes one of living in a kind of cold war existence with the North Koreans. On one hand, there is a belief that the North Koreans would be unlikely to ever do anything of the sort because they know that it would be the end of their country. On the other hand, there are some observers who believe that the North Koreans would try to blackmail the United States with its nuclear arsenal so that U.S. troops would leave and North Korea could try to take over the whole peninsula.

Prof. Kelly dismissed the second idea as unlikely because the Koreans would never be able to absorb the South Korean people into their society even if they could beat South Korea’s larger, and better equipped army. The South Korean people would never accept a repressive regime, and being far more numerous would overwhelm the North Korean culture. Additionally, they would never buy the notion of King Jon Un as a god-like ruler, not having been indoctrinated into that notion since birth.

The indoctrination of the North Korean people is what makes the problem of North Korea more difficult. Ms. Kim pointed out that the people of North Korea are somewhat infantilized by the constant control and that they have no context to think about their regime from the outside world. So, it makes sense for the average north Korean to believe that the United States is an enemy poised to attack them at any moment and that the dear leader is the only one who can save the people. She believes the long term strategy for dealing with Korea is to try to get information into Korea about the world outside so that they can rethink their situation, but she and the rest of panel admit this is a long play and not enough to deal with the current nuclear situation.

Mr. Clapper said that there are signs of hope in that the a member of the younger generation had said to him on one visit that “I have been to Seoul and I have seen what is there” in a way that made him think that the official had second thoughts about how great North Korea is. Mr. Clapper also pointed out that unless there is some kind of carrot to go with the threat of sticks, there would not likely be much movement in the situation. He thinks that the North Koreans will need to be accepted into the nuclear club and told to act like grownups now that they are in it.

One further complication in all of this is that China wants North Korea as a buffer against South Korea, the United States and Japan, despite being South Korea’s largest trading partner. Convincing China that a regime change in North Korea would be ideal is probably the easiest bet for change, but that is a tall order.

Ultimately, the panel agreed that it will take more than one thing to solve the North Korea problem successfully. As Ambassador Sherman said, the United States will need to use every tool it has, diplomacy, the credible threat of force to support diplomacy, sanctions, public diplomacy to the North Korean people, cyber warfare, and even basketball diplomacy with the likes of Dennis Rodman.

With any luck, we all won’t be singing the blues about Sad News from Korea.

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Current Events: All the President’s Reporters Over Simplify America

What is the role of the press in U.S. politics? How did it do during the 2016 presidential election?  How is it doing covering President Trump?

These are some of the questions that a panel of experienced reporters attempted to answer during The New Yorker Festival’s “All The President’s Reporters” panel.

The panel, which included Jo Becker, from The New York Times, Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame and now at Vanity Fair and CNN, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, and Greg Miller, of the Washington Post, had a lively discussion with the moderation of David Rohde, the news director of the thenewyorker.com.

The discussion moved me to do something I rarely do at events like these, and that is get up and pose a question to the panel. In their conversation, they covered Russian interference in the election, the ideological divisions in the country, and the repeated assaults on the new media by Donald Trump, who nevertheless remains very concerned about his coverage.

David Rohde asked whether or not the media had somehow failed in its coverage of Donald Trump and of the presidential election as a whole.

Jo Becker said that the media had covered things about Donald Trump’s business dealings and personal scandals but that none of it seemed to matter very much. Greg Miller added that it seemed that the media had been used as a tool of the “Russian operation” and that there were limits to what the media could be expected to report in real time.

Carl Bernstein made an important point, which was that “I don’t think it is our job to keep Donald Trump from being president of the United States or to see that he has has a premature exit. Our job is to learn what the hell is going on.”

But in all of this, whether it is a Russian attempt to influence the election, a divided electorate that searches for news that reinforces its preconceived notions, the discussion continued as though Hillary Clinton had not won the popular vote by 3 million votes. The idea of Russian hacking or people not learning about the scandals of Donald Trump start to fail when you consider that most of the people in the United States did not vote for him. Half of the people didn’t vote, and of those, fewer than half voted for him. Even among the quarter of the population that voted for Donald Trump, there was a significant group that voted for him strictly as a protest vote, those that voted for him because they thought Clinton would win regardless, and those that voted for him because he was the Republican, not because of the candidate himself.

I feel there is a condemnation of the American people based on an electoral system glitch. To her credit, Jo Becker did point out that Obama had been elected twice and that one of the things historians would need to grapple with is how the country could go from voting for him twice to electing Donald Trump.

While I believe that Carl Bernstein was correct that cable news gave Trump too much free airtime and that Jo Becker was right that Trump was not taken seriously enough, I do believe that in a country where he got less than 25 per cent of the vote and where this week 64 percent of the country says the United States in on the wrong track in a USA Today poll, we should not be too quick to say that Trump won thanks to some combination of American racism and Russian meddling. Our country is far more complicated and sophisticated than that.  Our panel, as accomplished and distinguished as they were, and the rest of the press, should adjust their reporting to account for that complicated picture.

Sorting Out Right and Wrong With Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell Ticket Stub.jpgHow do we know what is right and wrong? This was the question that Malcolm Gladwell put to his audience at the New York Fest on October 7.

Gladwell set the stage for the question by comparing to pieces of literature: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson and In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien. He compared the treatment of what combat meant to veterans after World War II and after Vietnam. In The Man in the Grey Flannel suit, there are harrowing depictions of combat, but the effects of the war on the main character come from an affair he had with a woman while overseas and not the violence he faced. On the other hand, the main character of In the Lake of the Woods is greatly affected by the violence that he was caught up in during the Vietnam War.

Gladwell found this quite strange, and I don’t think there were any combat veterans among the New Yorker Fest audience to explain how one veteran might be able to put aside the experience of the war and another could not. But Gladwell used this as a jumping off point to talk about our sense of right and wrong and how it has changed over time.

In the first book, the violence committed was not wrong, but the extra-martial affair was, whereas in the second book, the violence was part of what was wrong.

But Gladwell acknowledged that it was not that simple. He noted that our sense of right and wrong has changed over time to the point that we now measure right and wrong not by a more sense, but rather by how much harm has been done by an action. In the first book, the wrong was an affair that caused no particular harm. In the second book, the harm caused by the violence made it wrong.

Acknowledging that there were difference between the wars and the generations, Gladwell confronted the question a little differently. He raised the question of childhood sexual abuse. He gave as an example a study done by Bruce Rind that found that survivors of childhood sexual abuse were able to overcome the trauma and go on to lead normal lives. The response in the media was that Rind’s study was somehow minimizing sexual abuse, rather than the positive interpretation that people can overcome terrible experiences. Rind essentially said that just because people could overcome the effects of the abuse, that didn’t make it any less wrong. (You can read more about it here.)

Gladwell said that this recent approach — that wrongfulness is strictly related to the amount of harm it causes — is a result of secular thinking displacing religious thinking, and that it has impoverished our moral conversations. He mentioned the controversy over the Woodrow Wilson school at Yale, and noted that the students protesting against the name were claiming they were harmed by it.

“You can’t argue , if you are a student at a great school. you aren’t being harmed by the name on the outside of the school,”Gladwell said.

Gladwell asks why they can’t just argue that it is morally wrong to name the school after him, and instead have to claim harm.

I think Gladwell has missed two currents in American society that have led to the shift in our definition of wrong and right from moral to level of harm.

First, the United States legal system has made the determination of harm a fundamental part of determining right and wrong. You can’t bring a case in the courts unless you can prove harm. This is the ‘case or controversy clause,’ which comes out of Art. III, Section 2, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution, and was part of Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife. You need to show that you have suffered actual harm in order to bring a case. I believe that this kind of thinking carries over, even if unconsciously, into the American psyche.

The second current that I think Gladwell has missed is more controversial, but it is the fact that there is a certain power in being a victim. Rory Miller, a corrections officer and tactical team leader, has written a number of books on violence and its aftermath. On of the things that he has mentioned is that people will sometimes adopt the role of victim/survivor because it gives them the power to manipulate situations and groups of people. Miller cautions that we should be careful about this, because survivors of trauma and attacks have the capability to recover and even become stronger after something terrible happens to them. He notes that the anyone who might have to deal with violence could end up in the position. But there is a notion, almost unspoken, that victims never truly recover and thus must always be catered to. Miller notes that it is not unreasonable that someone might try to turn that weakness into a strength.

The upshot is that claiming harm has been done and that one is a victim lets people feel as though they are in a stronger position than just making a moral claim. The problem is that spurious and manipulative claims of harm make it harder to help people who have really been hurt.

I think Gladwell would benefit from talking to Miller before writing anything because Miller understands the power of victimhood and the processing of trauma. I don’t know that either of them will ever see this, but I think the conversation would add dimensions to both of their works.

I also think that Gladwell has it right: we do need to think about right and wrong both in terms of harm and in terms of a moral calculus.

“I’d like to see is hold both notions. There are times when what is harmful is wrong. I’d like to say that there are times when you don’t have to make a harmful claim if you are going to make a moral claim,”Gladwell said.