Welcome back to Foreign Policy Friday! This week we’ve got… ah, yeah, the North Koreans tested a missile that can reach the whole eastern seaboard aaaand… oh, perfect timing, the Secretary of State is about to get fired! How exciting.
Yesterday, North Korea tested its biggest missile yet. The missile spent most of its 50+ minute flight tooling around space just to see how long it could, and South Korean experts assess that given previously demonstrated missile capabilities and how much bigger the new missile is, it could be capable of delivering a 1,000 kg warhead to anywhere in the continental United States.
So let’s break that down. Nuclear weapons work thus: the actual bomb is a nuclear warhead that can be delivered in a number of ways. The way we usually think about it is as a missile, but as in WWII, you can also simply drop it as a bomb, or, if you were truly so inclined, deliver it by means of a trebuchet (the superior siege weapon).
The missiles they’ve been testing are basically single-use spaceships – they haven’t carried any warheads. But, if the report from South Korean officials is to be believed, the new missile could very well carry 1,000kg to anywhere in the US. For reference: one of the US’s most popular models weighs only about 200kg, and is 20x more powerful than the bombs we dropped in WWII.
Now, in terms of difficulty, getting the missile into space is the easy part; getting it back down to earth is harder; but the hardest part is getting it to land where you want it to land. The North Koreans have now nailed the first two pieces. But consider: if the missile fails in the first two stages, no harm done. The missile never makes it off the ground, or burns up on reentry. But if you’ve got a problem with the third part? The bomb just lands somewhere else. So say Kim Jong-Un has had about enough of Trump and decides to hit him where it hurts: New York. And the calculations are off and they undershoot by about 20 miles. That’s a HUGE error, but now Newark is dust and half the state is on fire, and New York and Philadelphia will experience the effects of radiation for years. So, if accuracy isn’t super important (and it’s not – the above scenario is already strategically unacceptable) then this missile is already a threat, and would be, according to the same report, ready to be deployed as early as next year. And they’ll only get better at this.
Trump and Xi have agreed to step up sanctions, but sanctions haven’t worked before and won’t now, especially when they’re so close. North Korea is a nuclear state. It’s time to accept it.
With regards to Mr. Tillerson:
The White House leaked a plan to oust Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week. While folks have been waiting for his departure for literally months, this is the first official rumbling of an ouster. “Senior officials” said that the WH planned to replace Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who would in turn be replaced by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) (famous for writing a letter to the leader of Iran telling him not to trust Obama. Yeah. That guy.) What the heck?
Tillerson is no darling of the foreign policy community – the enmity he’s earned at the State Department for his management shake-up has not abated over his nearly-year-long tenure. Former diplomat (and my former boss!) Brett Bruen has indicated that Tillerson is so unloved and has done so much damage to the State Department (3/5 career ambassadors have left, as well as literal hundreds of other career diplomats, expertise which is not easy to replace) that diplomats are willing to give literally anyone else a shot.
So who’s this Pompeo character? For one, he’s a bit more hawkish than Tillerson. Despite Trump’s tweets and provocations and declarations that Tillerson is wasting his time, Tillerson has remained committed to negotiations with North Korea. Despite Trump’s threats to pull out of the Iran deal, he’s fought to keep the US in it. Despite Trump’s view that NATO was defunct, Tillerson has made overtures to our allies to reassure them. This is not to say that Tillerson has been a GOOD Secretary of State – merely that he hasn’t done anything incredibly dangerous and provocative.
We might not be able to say the same of Pompeo, who has made it his mission to undo the Iran nuclear deal. This would bring the State Dept and WH into agreement on policy, something that cannot be said of Tillerson’s constant contradictions of the President, but being in agreement is not necessarily better when the agreement is to start ANOTHER war in the Middle East. While Tillerson has been maligned for being the foreign policy equivalent of an absentee father, Pompeo is more like the verbally abusive iteration who you’re afraid may turn actually violent. He’s been trying to connect Iran to al-Qaeda in order to justify war, just like we did back in Iraq, that beacon of foreign policy success (sarcasm intended) and recently sent a message to Iran warning them not to screw with us. Classy.
As a lovely addition, there are rumors that Pompeo/Cotton could use their power at State/CIA to prevent the use of classified information about Russian interference in the 2016 election by Robert Mueller in his investigation of Trump. This would be a gross misuse of power if that is indeed the case, but it would require Mueller’s case to hinge on information gather by either the CIA or State Dept.
We knew Tillerson wouldn’t last (I mean he called Trump a moron and the president doesn’t exactly have a tolerance for that sort of thing) – honestly, it’s a surprise he’s stuck around this long – but now, with a fully nuclear NK and the Trump administration unraveling at the seams, his departure and replacement by Pompeo seems more damaging than it might have a few months ago. Tillerson has said he wants to at least finish the year with some dignity. We’ll see if he gets either of those wishes for Christmas. #fpf