2017: The Year of Lying Brazenly

For connoisseurs of 21st century dystopian humour, there is a bleakly amusing clip doing the rounds showing Pete Hoekstra, the US Ambassador to the Netherlands, apparently being well and truly hoist by his petard.  Hoekstra is a diplomat appointed by Trump and forged very much in the template of his master.   Asked by a Dutch journalist whether he said that there were Muslim ‘no go areas’ in the Netherlands, Hoekstra denies that he said any such thing, and accuses the interview of spreading ‘fake news.’  Said interviewer then shows said ambassador a 2015 clip in which Hoekstra can be found saying exactly what he has just said he has not said.

When the interviewer shows Hoekstra the clip and asks him why he characterized it as as fake news, Trump’s man in the Netherlands immediately denies that he said it was fake news even though the interview that he is participating in clearly shows him saying exactly that.

This exchange tells us a number of things about the state we’re in.  The good news is that there are still good journalists who are prepared to hold lying politicians to account.  That might be grounds for optimism, were it not for the fact that Hoekstra doesn’t appear to care that his falsehoods have been exposed in full public view.

Hoekstra may be little more than his master’s lickspittle, but the contempt, arrogance and total indifference to truth or fact-based argument on display here are another indicator that 2017 has taken us into a new political territory, whose implications have yet to be fully absorbed.  ‘Post-truth’ politics didn’t begin with the election of Donald Trump.   Tony Blair and George Bush worked up one of the great political lies in modern history, and neither of them paid any serious price for it.

But Blair, Bush and their defenders have repeatedly denied that they were lying about WMDs and tried to make excuses for their catastrophic decision to invade Iraq.    In the Trump era excuses and apologies are not required.   We now have an American president can lie openly and brazenly on an almost daily basis without any consequences whatsoever:  a president who can ignore and reject photographs demonstrating that his inauguration was poorly-attended as ‘fake news’; who denies that he was in a ‘pussy-grabbing’ video in which he can be clearly seen and heard – and crucially, a president whose power base ignores and rejects whatever he ignores and rejects.

This isn’t some kind of American aberration.  David Davis has clearly lied through his teeth all year about the Brexit impact studies that turned out never to have been made.  Asked by the Brexit select committee early this month what had happened to these studies, Davis denied that they had ever been carried out, even though he himself had said on various occasions that such studies did exist.

As early as November 2016, Davis’s department said that it was preparing impact studies ‘ on over fifty sectors of the economy.’  Yet Davis sat before the Brexit committee looking bored, smug and utterly indifferent to the discrepancy between what he had promised and what he was offering that was being presented to him by his shocked interlocutors.

There are various reasons why we have ended up like this.  Part of the explanation lies in the common decadence of British and American politics, which increasingly produces politicians without any intellectual grounding or moral compass,  who no longer feel any motivation even to go through the motions of telling the truth.   But the arrogance shown by Trump, Davis et al is also the product of a deeper cultural and political shift, in which political arguments have become so tribalised that truth no longer matters even to their supporters.

Trump and Davis know that the people who support them don’t care if they lie, and don’t care if they are found out, as long as their lies suit and reflect their common agenda.  So if Davis lies about Brexit, that’s fine, as long as his lies are seen to further the cause of Brexit.  When Trump lies about…anything, that’s ok too, as long as his lies rub salt in the wounds of ‘liberals’, ‘leftards’ or ‘the elite.’   And when Hoekstra is caught lying about Muslim ‘no go areas’ in which ‘cars and politicians are being burned’, that doesn’t matter either because there are many people who want to be believe that such things are true.

This is why the likes of Katie Hopkins have continued to claim that October’s car accident outside the Natural History Museum was a terrorist attack, even when it was absolutely clear that it wasn’t.  After all, if you believe that the media and political class are so cowed by Islam that they will actively cover up a major terrorist attack to avoid causing offense, then you will believe anything, and politicians like Trump, Davis and Hoekstra appeal to an audience who are prepared to believe whatever confirms their prejudices.

This audience has been around for a long time, fed on a diet of poisonous allegations and conspiracies that goes beyond the current world of shock jocks, Infowars and Prison Planet etc to the ‘UN black helicopter’ conspiracies that circulated in the early Clinton era.  Social media have merely widened that audience and made it easier to reach it and compartmentalize it, and the results are plain to see.

There was once a time when Americans were taught to admire the young George Washington, who  supposedly admitted to cutting down a cherry tree on the grounds that ‘ I cannot tell a lie.’  A 21st century Washington would simply deny that a cherry tree had ever been chopped down or call it ‘fake news’, and his supporters would agree with everything he said even if someone showed them a chopped-down tree and an axe with his fingerprints on it.

These tendencies aren’t exclusive to the right, of course.  Leftists can think and act like this too, but the brazen dishonesty of Trump, Davis and Hoekstra is essentially a product of the tribalism of the right and the far-right.  And 2017 is the year in which this toxic sludge burst from the social media fringes into the mainstream,  to the point when the whole process of reasoned argument and fact-based discussion that makes democratic life possible is now at risk.

Because if lying no longer matters, then why should truth matter?  Why bother even trying to prove that something is true or false if people will simply ignore your arguments if they don’t like them?

And if you no longer believe that truth has a role to play in democratic politics, then you run the very real risk of transforming political life into the playground of bullies, demagogues, populists, Twitter hatemobs – and liars.

 

 

 

 

Trump’s Christmas Message

This week the Trump non-presidency posted what may well go down in history as some of the weirdest photographs ever taken in the White House, featuring Melania Trump as the spirit of Christmas.  One of them shows the First Lady walking with a fixed grin through what looks alarmingly like a giant silver vagina, but turns out to be a corridor of Christmas trees.  In another she is standing on a marble floor surrounded by a little copse of snow-covered Chrismas trees in her white dress and heels, looking like the wicked witch of Narnia in search of a dancing partner.

But the most striking image shows Melania standing on a red carpet in a white dress  and her arms by her side staring through a phalanx of ballerinas.  It’s an image that is  both surreal and also an inadvertent homage to the horror film genre, because Melania looks an awful lot like Sissy Spacek with that stare and dress, and you can’t help wondering what might happen to those dancers if  a bucket of pig’s blood was thrown on her.

You certainly wouldn’t want to leave her alone with the baby Jesus for long.  As is often the case with Melania Trump, it’s difficult to know whether she is Rapunzel or Countess Dracula in this Mar-a-Lago winterval.  Is she reveling in her power or is she too a prisoner of the dystopian sci fi satire made flesh that we are all forced to inhabit?  Either way, these joylessly saccharine images are unlikely to win the ‘ War on Christmas’.  This is partly because this ‘war’ is a figment of Trump’s imagination, and also because nothing and no one can conceal the fact that the howling beast who inhabits the White House walls has nothing to do with the message of peace and brotherhood that Christ’s birth was intended to bring to the world.

Trump isn’t the first world leader to fail to get this message.  Hitler was also a big fan of Christmas:

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And he liked Santa too:

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I know I’m probably being a bit of a killjoy posting such images, or maybe even going over the top a little, when all the White House wants us to do is think of tinsel and reindeer.  But that isn’t the only Christmas message that’s come out of the White House this week.  Because Trump has now retweeted none other than our own Britain First – a fascist would-be paramilitary organisation that specialises in anti-Muslim hate speech, whose name was quoted by the man who shot Jo Cox to death.

Even our PM, who up to now would have swum naked through a lake of cold sick to get a trade deal from the US, has said that Trump was ‘wrong’ to do this, without going too deeply into what his ‘wrongness’ consists of.  May has too few friends to risk cancelling the state visit on which the British diet of chlorinated chickens depends.  But even what she did say was too much for Trump, who tweeted back contemptuously that May shouldn’t be focusing on him, but on the ‘ destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism Radicalism that is taking place within the United Kingdom.’

Let’s just pause here and take stock of this.  The president of the United States retweeted anti-Muslim videos from a fringe fascist organisation – videos that don’t even depict what they purport to depict.  When accused of retweeting videos from said fringe fascist organisation, Trump ignored the fact that most of the videos were fake and told Theresa May off for saying that he was ‘wrong’ to retweet them and criticized her instead.

All that is bad enough, but I fear that its badness hasn’t been fully-digested. Because some commentators, our own government amongst them, continue to imagine that Trump ‘crossed a line’ or ‘went too far’ as if these retweets were some kind of gaffe that can be rectified.   But Trump’s retweets and his response to the criticism he received make it clear he hasn’t crossed a line.  On the contrary, he is moving very firmly along the tajectory that was established during his campaign, when he first reached into the fascistic underbelly of the GOP and US society: he is deliberately bringing fascism and racism back into the mainstream of American politics and pushing American society further towards the far-right.

He knows what he’s doing, and his closest supporters know it too. This is what the Bannon project is all about.  It’s what sexy/cool provocateurs and fake cultural insurrectionists like Milo Yiannopoulos are all about.  As the brilliant Buzzfeed investigation  into the Bannon/Yiannopoulos nexus recently showed, these people are conduits seeking to open up new channels through which far-right and even openly Nazi politics can re-enter the political mainstream and break down the barriers to such progress.

When Trump dubs calls CNN ‘fake news’ and tells the most jaw-dropping lies without even the slightest remorse or concern about whether he’s found out, it isn’t just because he is a narcissistic sociopath: he is deliberately shattering the intellectual context that makes evidence-based argument or rational discussion possible.

In Trumpland, there are no ideas that have to be respected, only feelings and instincts that don’t change when confronted with facts that contradict them.  Trump knows that his base has no interest in facts or truth and will love him as long as he sticks it to the ‘liberals’ or ‘lefttards’.  He knows that he can rely on the support of the intellectually and morally debased Republican Party, many of whose representatives either care only about their career or would not mind taking off their suits and putting on a paramilitary uniform should the opportunity arise.

They certainly don’t have to wear uniforms now, because 21st century fascists don’t do that until they are absolutely certain that they can get away with it.  Until then, they are content to allow their poisonous ideas to percolate,  until what once seemed abnormal and unacceptable becomes a new normal.  This is a long haul task, but Trump has powerful helpers: reactionary millionaires and Domininionist billionaires; Fox News, Breitbart, bullying shock jocks and many other fora that understand his game perfectly and have the same lack of scruples.

So Trump’s inadvertent tribute to the self-styled ‘Warrior for Christ’ Jayda Franzen isn’t just because he is a lazy, ignorant buffoon who can’t even be bothered to check a source – it’s exactly on a par with his tributes to the Nazis in Virginian and his praise for the Confederacy.  He is promoting her because he agrees with her, and because he wants to poison our politics as he’s already poisoned his own country.  Admittedly that isn’t too difficult to achieve in the toxic world of Brexitland,  and Trump has lots of willing  helpers swimming in the same dank waters.

These include not just the marginal crypto-fascist freakshow that is Britain First, which he has now transformed into a national brand.  Trump’s British co-enablers are way more mainstream than that.  They include Katie Hopkins,  Farage, Arron Banks, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, the Daily Mail and Rupert Murdoch, all of whom have used anti-Muslim hatred as the acceptable face of racism and a kind of intellectual Trojan horse to insinuate far-right narratives back into the mainstream – just as Trump did yesterday.

All of them, like Franzen and David Duke, can look to the white supremacist fascist enabler in the White House who is clearly dreaming of a white Christmas everyday, and the sooner we recognize Trump for what he is and treat him accordingly, the better chance we have of stopping him – and them.

 

 

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Trump Goes to Westphalia

There is nothing entirely new under the sun when it comes to US presidents and US military power, at least since the end of World War II.  All American presidents, whatever their political inclinations, preside over a quasi-imperial system of military power that spends spends more than twice as much on the military as the rest of the world put together.   They take it for granted that America has the ability to destroy any country in the world many times over; that America, and only America, can maintain military bases pretty much wherever in the world it chooses; that it can use its military power whenever and wherever it chooses; that it can ‘intervene’ in the internal affairs of any state it chooses, and can act whenever it sees it necessary to eliminate potential threats or regional ‘challengers’ to its global dominance.

Some presidents, such as Reagan and George W. Bush,  depict this military power as an instrument of divine will, that is always used for benign ends in moral confrontations between good and evil – a rhetorical tradition that reaches all the way back to the ‘evil empire’ to the ‘axis of evil’ and ‘moral clarity’ espoused by Bush’s two administrations.

Most presidents have tried to align with the wider interests of the ‘free world’, the ‘West’, civilization, the international liberal order etc, and many US allies share this assumption, at least most of the time.  Even when pursuing American economic or strategic interests, the more intelligent US administrations have always prefer to project military power within a multilateral format, building coalitions and working within international organisations like NATO or the United Nations where possible.

When this is not possible, or when these organisations don’t behave the way the United States wants them to behave, then it will act alone, perhaps dragging in a few partners as a multilateral fig leaf.  Given these precedents, we shouldn’t be entirely surprised by Donald Trump’s performance at the UN yesterday.  As in George Bush’s big international speeches there was a lot of theology and God, accompanied by Old Testament divisions of a world divided between  the ‘righteous many’ and the ‘wicked few.’

Taking a cue from Flannery O’Connor, Trump even warned that some nations were already ‘going to hell’.  There were some spectacularly crude explanations for this hellishness, from Trump’s suggestion that ‘international criminal gangs… force dislocation and mass migration; threaten our borders’ to his  crude analysis of Venezuelan ‘socialism.

There was also a lot of emphasis on about ‘sovereignty’, and ‘sovereign nations’, such as the assertion that ‘Strong, sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destiny, and strong, sovereign nations allow individuals to flourish in the fullness of the life intended by God.’

Such observations have been interpreted by some commentators as a reaffirmation of the old ‘Westphalian’ international order after the R2P interventionism of the last few decades.  This is giving Trump far more coherence and credibility than he will ever deserve.  One minute he was suggesting that the best way to ensure international order was to allow ‘sovereign’ states to act selfishly.  At the same time he persistently singled out members of the ‘wicked few’ such as Syria, Iran and Venezuela, because of the way their governments treated their ‘own people.

At one point, Trump told his audience that military action might be necessary against Iran, not only because of its supposed role in exporting ‘  violence, bloodshed and chaos’ – something the US itself knows a great deal about – but also because ‘The longest suffering victims of Iran’s leaders are in fact its own people.’

So are we ‘Westphalian’ or still ‘post-Westphalian’?   No point in asking Trump because he probably doesn’t know.   Still it’s worth remembering that R2P was never the altruistic ‘post-Westphalian’ phenomenon it was supposed to be.  After all, the US had been intervening in the affairs of other states for decades before such ‘humanitarian’ interventions were justified as an international ‘responsibility’ that  supposedly overrode the notion of the sovereign Westphalian state.

From Clinton to Obama, the US flirted with R2P when it suited its national interests or geopolitical agendas, ignoring some dictatorships and autocracies and only targeting the ones that were seen as potential ‘challengers’.  Yesterday Trump was more or less arguing exactly the same thing.   Nevertheless his speech left a lot of jaws dropping, and there was an unmistakable sense when it was over that the world had become a more dangerous, unstable and unpredictable place than it was when he took the podium.

Such anxieties aren’t entirely unfounded. American politicians have often reveled in their ability to ‘destroy’ countries that opposed them.  A drunken Nixon once talked about nuking North Vietnam and flooding dykes.   Hilary Clinton warned that the US could ‘obliterate’ Iran.  John McCain composed a little ditty about doing the same thing. Even Obama once politely reminded Iranians that the US could destroy their country if it chose to.

Few presidents have issued such threats with the same bullying arrogance that Trump displayed yesterday.  There was no talk of ‘regime change’ or ‘surgical strikes’ to ‘take out’ missile sites.  Just a little joke about ‘Rocket Man’ and the casual, almost bored suggestion that the US might have ‘no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.’

Thus, with a little flourish of a speechwriter’s pen, 25 million lives were rendered worthless, invisible and disposable – to say nothing of the devastation and carnage that will spread through South Korea and beyond if anyone attempts to resolve this crisis militarily.

No doubt Trump would just munch on a piece of chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago through all that, but the rest of us should be genuinely alarmed to hear such bloodthirsty Al Capone-like language delivered at an institution that,  for all its failings, still embodies the possibility collective security and multilateral, non-military solutions to international crises that was first mooted after World War I with the failed League of Nations. .

The US cannot be held uniquely responsible for the disastrous game of chicken that is now unfolding with Korea, but the Trump administration has made a bad situation worse and yesterday’s speech does not suggest that it has any intention of changing course. Trump declared yesterday that ‘No nation on Earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles.’  True, but the experience of the last two decades suggests that when it comes to the axis of evil, only countries that have them can guarantee their survival.

To say that this is not a desirable outcome does not even begin to describe it, but Trump’s frat-boy belligerence will do nothing to prevent it.  And North Korea isn’t the only looming conflict on the horizon. Trump’s attack on the Iran nuclear deal made it clear that sections of the US military and political establishment are still intent on ripping up that agreement –  regardless of whether there is any evidence to prove that Iran has breached it.

Trump is not interested in evidence.  He is listening to Saudi Arabia, to  the likes of John Bolton and Benjamin Netanyahu, whose applause blew like tumbleweed through the stunned auditorium yesterday, and that is very bad news indeed.

Because whether or not Trump has gone Westphalian, this is a president who combines the emotional empathy of a toddler with the instincts of Lucky Luciano and the military hardware of a superpower, and unless some serious diplomatic and popular pressure can be brought to bear on this administration soon, he and his fellow plotters stand a very good chance of unleashing precisely the kind of catastrophic confrontation he has been boasting about.

 

 

 

The Wars of Ralph Peters

Slowly, but inexorably, the world is drifting towards the prospect of an all-out war between the United States and North Korea.  At the very least such a conflict is likely to result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, most of them Koreans.  It also raises the very real possibility of the first nuclear exchange in history.

Primary responsibility for this terrifying prospect lies with the North Korean regime and the Trump administration.  A tyrannical despot with no other cards to play with except nuclear ones has attempted to wrest diplomatic and economic concessions from an unstable, chaotic and rudderless administration led by a sociopathic narcissist unconstrained by moral or humanitarian considerations or even any basic understanding of foreign policy.

Both North Korea and the US have bluffed and blustered to the point when neither of them can back down without losing face – unless some external pressure is brought to bear.  Yet such pressure is dangerously absent.   China appears paralysed and unwilling to intervene to prevent Kim Jong Un’s nuclear brinkmanship.  Trump’s allies have either been passive, or like our idiot foreign secretary, have actively supported the ‘tough’ US stance that has painted North Korea into a corner.

As consequence, the world is in very real danger of being dragged towards nuclear war by clowns and political gargoyles who either have no idea of the risks and consequences of what they are doing, or don’t care if they do know.   The North Korean regime undoubtedly knows that if there were a nuclear or even a conventional war, much of the country would be destroyed, and its provocations are clearly predicated on the on the possibility that the US can be brought to the negotiating table before such an outcome occurs.  But that is a big if when dealing with an administration for whom war offers possibly the only escape from political annihilation, impeachment and historical disgrace.

So this is as bad and as dangerous as it gets, and we will need common sense, diplomatic skill, sustained international pressure and crisis management, and very cool heads to defuse the situation.  What we absolutely do not need are the maniacal prescriptions of ex-lieutenant-colonel Ralph Peters.  For those who aren’t familiar with the name, Peters is a former US intelligence officer, turned novelist and military pundit, and a particularly bloodthirsty neocon and exponent of unconstrained US military violence.

Peters has not time for scruples about civilians lives or collateral damage, for fluffy strategies about soft power, or the democracy-building civic projects advocated by David Petraeus and the disciples of ‘COIN’ – countersinsurgency.  For him war is only about ‘Carthaginian’ solutions based on destruction, killing and the shedding of ‘blood’ – a concept that seems to arouse a visceral pleasure in him, as it does for the neocon imagination in general.

Peters first made a name for himself as a war pundit in an influential article in 1997 for the US military journal Parameters on ‘constant conflict’. Faced with a future of ‘multiple conflicts in mutating forms around the globe’, Peters argued that ‘the de facto role of the US armed forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To those ends, we will do a fair amount of killing.’

In the autumn of 2004, Peters returned to the same theme in a piece for the New York Post on the brink of the second US assault on Fallujah,  in which he argued ‘The most humane thing we can do in that tormented city is just to win, to burn out the plague of fanaticism and prove to Iraq’s people that the forces of terror will not be allowed to enslave them…Even if Fallujah has to go the way of Carthage, reduced to shards, the price will be worth it.’

For Peters, the price is always worth it, and virtuous destruction is a kind of health cure for sick peoples who rarely happen to be white.  Such ‘remedies’ are especially required, and even essential, when dealing with ‘civilisational’ conflicts against ‘savages’ or ‘barbarians’.   In a discussion paper for the National Intelligence Council’s future (NIC) 2020 Project, written in 2004, Peters urged the US military to inflict ‘virtuous destruction’ on its global Islamist enemies, on the grounds that ‘there is no substitute for shedding the enemy’s blood in adequate quantities’ .

In the 21st century’s new conflicts, it was no good simply destroying things, Peters argued, or trying to distinguish between fighters and civilians because ‘ Such a policy not only complicates the achievement of victory, but extracts no serious policy from the population…Enemy populations must be broken down to an almost child-like state…before being broken up again.’

It is tempting, at first sight, to see Peters as a descendant of the ‘war is cruelty, but you cannot refine it’  philosophy advocated by William Tecumseh Sherman in the American Civil War.  But Sherman, for all his overheated rhetoric, was a humane and thoughtful man, who knew war at first hand and was revolted by it, and whose actual practices were never as extreme as his proposals.

Peters is very different.  Like many neocons, he is essentially a bloodthirsty voyeur, who has never personally experienced war or combat and observes the mass slaughter that he advocates from a comfortable distance.  Where Osama bin Laden once crowed about the mass murder of ‘crusaders’, Peters celebrates the destructive power of the most powerful military nation in the world, and his single obsessive demand is that this power should be used ‘virtuously’ by inflicting punitive destruction on America’s enemies, whoever they are.

It is no surprise therefore, to find him once again advocating similar solutions for North Korea in the Murdoch press.  In an article in the New York Post last month  Peters asked his readers whether ‘ we kill our enemies with sufficient ruthlessness at the outset, or do we attempt to minimize North Korean casualties and expose ourselves and our allies to the prospect of a drawn-out mutual butchery?’

For Peters there is only ever one answer:  ‘ in warfare there’s no substitute for killing your enemy and all those who support him. And you keep on killing until the enemy quits unconditionally or lies there dead and rotting.’

There are those, and Rupert Murdoch is almost certainly one of them, who find this kind of talk from an ex-military man, bracing, ‘truthful’ and sexy.  And yesterday, Peters was at it again, arguing for a preemptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, on the grounds that ‘Better a million dead North Koreans than a thousand dead Americans.’

As is often the case, Peters presented this equation as a form of realism, since ‘If there is any real hope of a peaceful solution, of course that would be preferable. But we cannot rely on miracles or mirages.’

In fact diplomatic negotiations are neither miraculous nor chimerical.  They could happen, but Peters doesn’t want them, and never does.  He is a true patriot, unwilling to ‘sacrifice American lives to shield the consciences of intellectual elites who, from protected positions of immense privilege, insist that all human life is precious.’

Instead Peters coolly advocates ‘ a million dead North Koreans’ from his own position of immense privilege.  He even has the gall to give this bloodlust a patina of pseudo-philosophical gravitas.  For Peters ‘warfare has been humanity’s ultimate means of resolving intractable issues since the first cave-dwellers went at the gang from the cave down yonder with rocks. We may not like it — I don’t — but to insist that war isn’t humanity’s sometimes-necessary default means of survival is to ignore all of human history.’

And again

‘I realize this column will leave liberals aghast, while even conservatives cling to lullaby chatter. I do not relish death or human suffering. But it would be immoral to allow North Korea to develop an arsenal capable of attacking our military, our cities and our allies.’

In fact this column ought to leave anybody aghast, and no one should be fooled by his faux-revulsion.  Once again,  Peters has demonstrated that he is a disingenuous hypocrite as well as a depraved and bloodthirsty savage.   Once again the man who claims not to ‘like’ war or ‘relish’ death or human suffering advocates mass slaughter as the only ‘solution’ and a reluctant last choice, and once once again Rupert Murdoch has given him a platform to do it.

But this time, unless the world can find a way to bring the Trump administration and the North Korean regime to their senses, there is a very real possibility that Ralph Peters might just get the total war he has dreamed about for so long, and Asia and the rest of the world may be sucked into a hell that could – and should – have been prevented.