Reports from early Tuesday afternoon (EDT) show 14 sailors dead after a Russian nuclear sub caught fire. Russian media detailed that inhaling combustion products led to the deaths of those 14 aboard the vessel.
Thankfully, the remaining passengers were able to put out the fire on the boat, which media has reported was somewhere off of Russia’s northern coast. But shortly after, both Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence have seen their scheduled events canceled suddenly, both rushing to their respective capital cities for meetings.
Every dictator throughout history has cast himself and his supporters as victims. Oppressors aren’t sympathetic figures, but the oppressed are. So are saviors.
For Hitler, it was the Jews and others that failed to live up to the Nazi regime’s manufactured Aryan ideal. For Lenin, Stalin, and their successors it was the somewhat vaguely defined bourgeoisie that led the parade of enemies of the state invented by Soviet leaders. If we reach back to the rise of the Caesars we find wealthy and powerful men like Julius and Augustus Caesar portraying themselves as victims, as the common man struggles against a corrupt elite that wishes to hold them down.
Occasionally there might be some small slice of truth to the grievances that those grasping for power exploit to win popular support. But even legitimate complaints become exaggerated examples of oppression in the end. Regardless, having gained complete or near complete power, one would think these strongmen would be able to impose stability rather than perpetually calling out that they are victims. But true resolution eliminates the possibility of keeping an enemy handy that they can readily blame. For strongmen avoiding accountability is paramount.
Donald Trump, for all his authoritarian tendencies, is not Adolf Hitler. Even Vladimir Putin, a man who has been known to both assassinate and imprison his opponents, does not come close to that scale. That said, these men are no lovers of democracy and are skilled at manufacturing victims and threats of both the exaggerated and fake variety.
Authoritarians are not interested in making the trains run on time. Authoritarians derail the trains, blame the derailment on some group or another that they know a significant portion of the population is already suspicious of or despises, paint themselves as victims, then take credit for fixing the problem after workers have repaired the tracks and restored things to the way they were before the derailment. We actually saw this pattern in Trump’s dealings with North Korea, and will likely see it attempted again at some point soon in the case of immigration and border security. Indeed, Trump has set himself up beautifully to use this technique on a variety of issues in the coming months.
The case of North Korea is worth going into in some detail in order to demonstrate just how authoritarians go about manufacturing a problem in order to “solve” it. The so-called crisis on the Korean Peninsula has been slowly unfolding for generations. Had there been anything like an easy solution for it, it would have been solved decades ago.
But the fact of the matter is that even before North Korea acquired nuclear weapons it had thousands of conventional artillery pieces aimed at the heart of Seoul. Any effort to deal with the situation militarily would have, even under the best-case scenario, ended up with hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded on both sides of the 38th parallel, followed shortly thereafter by a massive humanitarian crisis. It was for this reason that sanctions were widely considered the safest way to apply pressure. Obviously, sanctions didn’t prevent North Korea from eventually developing nuclear weapons. But that doesn’t mean we should have sent in the army or dropped a bunch of nukes on them ourselves while we still had the chance. Some problems just don’t have good or obvious solutions.
North Korea’s long history of provocative words and actions have always been greeted by presidents from both political parties with either stern but diplomatic rebukes – sometimes followed by additional sanctions – or silence. Trump broke this pattern when he began responding with bellicose rhetoric of his own. As both sides began exchanging more and more heated words, a previously unthinkable US military response suddenly appeared thinkable. At that point, Trump had his crisis. All that remained was to extinguish the fuse that he had lit.
So, Trump signaled a willingness to talk and eventually agreed to a summit. In Singapore and in comments he has made since the president has practically embraced Kim Jong Un. The North Korean dictator has effectively been welcomed, at least for now, into Trump’s club of respected dictators. The president has declared complete denuclearization to be only a matter of time and claimed that thanks to his talent as a dealmaker the nuclear threat has passed. The fact that not a single nuclear weapon has been given up or that Kim Jong Un has so far refused to even disclose how many weapons he has hasn’t in the least diminished Trump’s assessment of the North Korean dictator or his conviction that he’s reached a peaceful resolution to the “crisis.” Problem solved.
By describing every problem as an emergency, authoritarians are able to create and maintain the siege mentality so vital to their efforts to hold onto sufficient public support. The policy of every authoritarian government is to create disruption, paint themselves as victims, and blame it upon a group that people can readily identify as outsiders. For this reason, those of us opposing the rise of authoritarianism must remain clear and consistent when it comes to the language we use to describe the manufactured crises men like Trump and Putin will continue to generate as they pursue their quest for greater power.
Families fleeing extreme poverty and violence in Central America do not represent either an economic or existential threat to the United States. Any differences we have with our NATO allies are small and do not justify the efforts currently underway to destabilize the alliance. Automation has historically had a far greater negative impact on manufacturing jobs than trade agreements. Burdening the world economy with tariffs because the president argues that even a slight trade imbalance with another country is an indication America has been “taken advantage of” will not only fail to change that reality but will ultimately make the problem worse.
There’s a reason that every problem wasn’t a grave emergency under previous presidents. None of them were primarily in the business of marketing fear. If America really is “the home of the brave”, instead of hitting the panic button every time Donald Trump says there’s a crisis we should be telling him to give it a rest.
According to the Washington Post, the US State Department has approved of a $41.5 million arms deal with Ukraine, who is currently the subject of Russian military intervention.
In early 2014, the Russian Military annexed Crimea. Ukraine still says that Crimea is still a part of their country, while Russia and 10 other UN states recognize Crimea as a part of Russia. This group notably includes Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba. Russia is still continuing their fight in Ukraine.
In 2014, Congress authorized the sale of lethal weapons to Ukraine, but the Obama administration never fully authorized this deal. Members of President Trump’s cabinet has come in support of this arms deal, including public support from Secretary of Defense James Mattis. The Washington Post also has reported that President Trump has approved of this deal. Canada has also paved the way for defense contractors to sell weapons to the Ukrainian government.
Today, December 22, Vladimir Putin remarked on the deal at a Defense Ministry board meeting. He said, “Russia has the sovereign right and capabilities to adequately and timely respond to such potential threats.”
He also made comments on US defense policy, saying, “The US has recently unveiled its new defense strategy. Speaking the diplomatic language, it is obviously offensive, and, if we switch to the military language, it is certainly aggressive.”
It is somewhat confusing that President Trump, a supporter of Russia, would be in favor of an arms deal that would give weapons to Ukraine. It is well known that he wants to increase ties with the US and Russian governments in the alliance. If this is the case, why does he want to give weapons to a country fighting Russia?
Somewhere, deep in a land fortress implanted in the far East of the world, is a man with his hands on a trigger. This man, so isolated from all, yet known by so many, has used this year to captivate an audience, build his power, and prepare his trigger finger for the ultimate decision. Kim Jong Un has single-handedly made the earth tremble, both figuratively and literally, by presenting a nuclear threat of a magnitude unseen since the 1960’s. This year, the leader of North Korea has shown an intense desire to shift American and Western attention from the Middle East to the Far East through aggressive threats and a new wave of missile and payload performance tests that have kept the defenders of democracy in Asia awake throughout all of 2017. Before this year, Kim Jong Un struggled to share the spotlight with other world threats. However, with the downfall of ISIS as a major threat combined with a surge in Korean nuclear capabilities, he has managed to give his threatening regime much more attention from South Korea, Japan, the United States and even China.
Kim began the year with a threat that fell on deaf ears. In a thirty-minute television speech on New Years Day, 2017, Kim personally delivered a message that North Korea was approaching the apex of nuclear technology, with a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile to be ready soon. Kim made a New Years resolution that his country would “translate the people’s ideas and dreams into brilliant reality on this land,” a promise that fell apart as the regime aggressively pursued nuclear hellfire ahead of the welfare of the country, pushing its citizens to the brink of starvation.
Kim began to make good on his threats starting in February, when on the 11th, North Korea tested a Pukguksong-2 medium/long-range missile, a test which prompted concern from Japanese President Shinzo Abe, who was meeting with President Donald Trump during the launch. Kim followed this fairly routine missile test with something much
more ambitious. On February 13th, Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam was found dead at a Malaysian airport, later found to be assassinated by DPRK operatives using nerve gas. This calculated killing of his half-brother showed that Kim was now willing to do anything to solidify his position as the supreme leader [of the DPRK] and prevent any political challenges so that he could operate more freely through the rest of the year. The assassination provoked a concerned response from the international community, including accusations from the South Korean government that the assassination of the fairer brother was “an intolerable crime against humanity and terrorist act.” Just weeks after these two February incidents, China announced that they would be banning all coal exports to North Korea, a decision that would have severe financial ramifications for both countries.
Despite creating a heightened tension in the international community, Kim Jong Un and the DPRK continued upping the ante by firing four ballistic missiles into Japanese waters on March 6th, testing a rocket engine designed for ICBM use on the 20th, and launching a failed missile test towards the end of the month. Kim continued his provocations into April, firing 3 more ballistic missiles as tests throughout the month and showing off new ICBMs and other military technology in a military parade. The United States tried to calm tensions throughout the month by taking part in joint exercises with South Korea and Japan, as well as engaging in talks with China. However, the US response came to an abrupt stop, after a carrier strike force group that was said to be headed for the peninsula as a show of force never showed up.
As tensions began to heat up in the Korean peninsula, the US finally had achieved concrete success through the installation of the THAAD missile defense system, that despite receiving heavy criticism from China, finally was installed in South Korea for its protection from a nuclear strike. Nevertheless, North Korea continued their unprecedented volume of tests, with more missile launches occurring in May on the 14th, the 26th, and the 29th. Following a busy month by Kim and the DPRK, the UN Security Council voted unanimously on June 2nd to introduce some of the toughest international sanctions on any country ever, further pressuring North Korea and endangering their progress towards a nuclear weapon. The situation between Kim Jong Un and his enemies escalated, after an American prisoner and college student, Otto Warmbier, was returned to the United States in such a state of medical neglect that he died days after returning home. Kim Jong Un pushed the envelope even more when on July 4th, on American Independence day, he ordered the test of the Hwasong-14, an ICBM
that most experts agree could strike most of the United States. Another successful long-range test on the 28th of July confirmed the opinion of many defense officials that North Korea was now capable of hitting cities in the United States as far inland as Denver and Chicago. Rhetoric reached a height on the 8th of September, with Donald Trump vowing that North Korean nuclear threats would be met with “fire and fury,” a threat that was directly countered by a North Korean threat to fire ballistic missiles at the US territory of Guam in the next month. Despite not attacking Guam, Kim did authorize another missile test on the 29th of September, one that flew so close to Japan that anti-missile sirens were activated. Testing and threats reached their pinnacle on the 3rd of September when after high volumes of missile tests, the DPRK tested a hydrogen bomb. The bomb, which had a yield of 120kT and produced a magnitude 6.3 earthquake, caused a flurry of responses from world leaders, with some like Vladimir Putin and various state department officials stating the time for dialogue with North Korea was useless and would not help the situation. North Korea has restrained themselves only slightly after September, with only 2 missile tests occurring since then. With the slowing down of missile tests, horror stories have been pouring out of North Korea displaying the dire conditions of hunger and radioactive poisoning that the citizens face under the Kim regime. The month of November was then capitalized by the successful escape of a DPRK soldier over the demilitarized zone and into South Korea, despite being shot multiple times during his escape.
Although there has only been one missile test in the last two months, Kim Jong Un has left his personal mark in 2017. A year, that otherwise would have been capitalized by the victory over ISIS, has been marred by the countless tests and empty threats by the Kim regime. Although it may not be apparent, Kim Jong Un now sits upon a foundation of instability, with UN sanctions spreading resources thinner and unrest at an all-time high The nation that Kim Il Sung built decades ago is now only held together by the momentum of its nuclear program and the threat it poses to international security. Kim Jong Un is now on the cusp of history. Will he strike the democracies of the East and the United States with unrelenting nuclear fire? Or will his exhausted state fade back into obscurity under international pressure? This is a question with an answer that is dependent on the one most important man of the year, the one still hiding in his fortress of Pyongyang. Until Kim himself makes the hard decision, he will remain alone, isolated and with the fate of the world in his hands, his hands wrapped around a trigger.
(Note: This is not an endorsement of North Korean policy or the Kim regime)