International Man: Last year, President Trump took the unusual step of bypassing his advisors to announce his intention to withdraw all US troops from Syria quickly. The decision rattled Washington and the mainstream media. It caused former Defense Secretary Mattis to resign. Almost a year later, the US has withdrawn only a token number of soldiers. It still has thousands of troops occupying the part of the country where oil fields are located. What is going on here?
David Stockman: Well, that’s the Deep State at work.
Donald Trump is all by his lonesome. He’s home alone in the Oval Office. Now, half of it, he can blame himself. If he hires someone, a known idiot like John Bolton, what does he expect is going to happen except that everything he wanted to do is going to be undermined.
Nevertheless, he can’t seem to find anybody who can articulate on a day-to-day basis a pathway to the more restrained America First posture that he had in mind.
He’s surrounded by people who constantly countermand his orders. You have James Jeffery, the US Ambassador and special envoy to Syria saying, “Well, Trump didn’t mean that when he said he wanted the troops out of Syria.”
We have the same thing with North Korea. Trump finally said, here we are, 66 years after the armistice and we still don’t have a peace treaty, and we’re still occupying the Korean peninsula, which is of no interest to our national security one way or the other.
You have to do what I would call “contrafactual history.” In other words, if you understand what could have happened the other way, then maybe you’re not going to be so impressed with all this threat inflation.
I go back to why the Korean War happened, because I think it’s important to this whole thing going on now, with Trump trying to make a deal with Kim Jong-un.
In the late ’40s, Washington officials said that Korea is outside our sphere of influence, the line between North and South hastily drawn at the Potsdam war conference in July 1945. Dean Acheson, the US secretary of state in the late 1940s, said it was a mere surveyor’s line; it’s of no strategic influence. What if common sense had prevailed, instead of the hot-headed advice that President Truman got?
What if Truman had said, “Okay, we’re vacating this damn peninsula”? Well, it would have become a quasi-province of China, just like all the rest of them.
They’d probably be making all kinds of stuff, sending it to Walmart today, and nobody would know the difference.
Instead, we had a war. If I remember right, 54,000 servicemen were killed. The whole peninsula was pummeled, carpet bombed, and literally destroyed. It was like a wasteland in the north. There are reasons why the Kim family has survived all these years, because they hate us for what happened. People remember. It was really scorched earth. I mean, it was in some sense genocide, even then.
So, all of that happened, and Eisenhower comes in and is astute enough to say that we don’t really have national security on the line. He negotiated an armistice, and yet the War Party kept tension on the DMZ for all those years because it had to be in the playbook of threats.
I remember well when I was fighting the big Reagan defense build-up, back when I was budget director. It was always, we need all these different new tanks and attack aircraft and resupply logistics capabilities, because we have to have the ability to fight two and a half wars.
Well, where was the half war? I knew where the other ones were. The half war was in Korea. Well, why did we have to have a half war in Korea? But nevertheless, that was part of the rationalization—justification—for this massive military force that really is a tool of empire and not a tool of homeland defense.
Today, we have Trump finally saying, let’s let the Koreans decide how to run the future of Korea—and back off this long-running, 65-year confrontation.
And yet as courageous in some ways as he has been, he’s constantly being undermined by his own people, who as soon as he’s not looking send real nasty messages to the North Koreans—that will only set Kim back on his heels—and therefore nothing gets done. Even though it could very easily be done.
When you have a regime change policy—and this was the one real positive thing Trump brought to the table. He said regime change has failed; we’re not going to do it under my policy.
Why do you think the North Koreans are quasi-starving? And I know the Communist elite and Kim’s family and so forth live a pretty fat life, but nevertheless they’re in dire straits economically.
Why do they invest all this money in developing nuclear capability and missile capability? Because they don’t want to be regime changed. Kim is a young man, he’s in his mid-30s, and he doesn’t want to be another Muammar Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein.
He knows what happens. You get hung on national TV if you’re a Hussein, or you get tortured and drugged behind a Jeep if you’re a Gaddafi.
Obviously, this stuff has consequences. These idiots in Washington and all these think tanks that talk about regime change and bringing democracy to the world and so forth—never even think about the consequence—the message that these violent episodes send—and the unfortunate reaction that people take in order to defend themselves.
International Man: With John Bolton out of the picture, do you see US talks with North Korea bearing fruit for Trump?
David Stockman: I think it’s touch and go.
The problem is there’s lasting damage when you engage in all this regime change over so many years and episodes. They don’t trust you.
Trump has worked very hard, using an odd, idiosyncratic personal diplomacy to build up trust with Kim. It seems to be working, but there are just so many forces at work behind the scenes that are aiming to undermine that trust-building so that nothing happens.
They want to keep 29,000 troops in South Korea, in harm’s way, as a tripwire, so that the North Koreans obey us as we tell them to behave. It’s crazy.
I would give it a 50/50 chance. I know he wants a big victory, a foreign policy win. He’s desperate for one, because not much is happening elsewhere and what he intended to do is being totally undermined.
Maybe there’s a chance that something could happen here, but I am so distrusting of the Deep State machinery and their need for perennial threats.
If you take away the Korean threat, if you recognize the Iranians aren’t a threat, if you see that Russia is a tiny little country that’s not going to invade Western Europe and crash through the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, and so forth—
All of a sudden somebody is going to do the math as we get into the coming fiscal crisis and say, “We can’t afford all this defense that we don’t need. Let’s cut it back dramatically.”
They don’t want this to happen. And so, they have to keep these hot spots burning and these threats maintained or inflated, because they know if the real truth of the world were considered by Congress, the defense budget would be slashed dramatically.
International Man: So far, President Trump has had a very different foreign policy than Candidate Trump. What will happen to Trump’s chances for re-election if he doesn’t make any progress on ending the war in Afghanistan, withdrawing from Syria, and bringing peace to Korea?
David Stockman: I think his re-election is binary.
If the stock market holds up and the economy manages to skirt recession, he’ll be in good shape. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.
I think the stock market is in its last days of bubble excess. I think the economy is slouching toward recession within a matter of a few quarters or months. If that happens, Trump is toast. Elizabeth Warren becomes president, and then that’ll be a whole new ball game that is hard to figure.
International Man: What kind of role do you see foreign policy playing in the 2020 election?
David Stockman: It won’t be the normal sense of debating policy—where there’s usually the bipartisan duopoly, with nuanced shades of difference that they like to debate and pretend are meaningful.
That isn’t even going to happen this time. Foreign policy has been totally taken over by the Democratic paranoia about Russia and Putin and meddling in our elections.
Now it’s extended to the whole impeachment inquiry and Ukraine-gate. That’s what the whole debate is going to be about. The debate is going to be about a sideshow.
The underlying issues are why we are constantly steaming warships into the Black Sea. That’s like the Gulf of Mexico to Russia.
Why are we sending warships into the Baltic?
Why are we constantly doing big maneuvers in Poland and in the Baltic states, right on Russia’s doorsteps with these tens of thousands of forces going through these maneuvers and exercises? What the hell are we doing all this for?
Those are the issues. But they’re not even going to get debated.
One last point: Trump had raised the question, isn’t NATO obsolete? The Soviet Union is gone. The 50,000 tanks allegedly on the central front facing western Europe have been melted down for scrap. And yet, he can’t even do anything about NATO.
He’s had to double-talk his way into saying, “Well, the other countries are going to commit some more money they don’t have. They’re going to waste more money on defense.” That’s all that’s come of it.
The point is we ought to be debating what the hell are we doing with NATO 25 years after the Soviet Union disappeared from the face of the earth?
Why isn’t Washington and the president leading the world with this disarmament conference so that we can begin to reduce this massive expenditure for weapons that nobody can afford?
This is what Washington should be doing. The president of the United States should be leading the great global disarmament conference of 2021, and yet that won’t even come up. It’s not even on the radar screen.
It’s not even mentioned because, as I say, the Warfare State machinery essentially squelches any kind of debate, suffocates any kind of thought that at all deviates from the status quo.
The big issue in the world today is war and peace, and we’re facing a campaign in 2020 where it won’t even be mentioned.