With Joe Biden leading in the polls and President Trump’s attempts to avoid addressing the Covid danger now undermined by his own encounter with the virus, the White House is scrambling for a new line of attack on his opponent. Trump’s attempt to use “law and order” as a wedge in suburban areas has clearly failed, and his drive to shoehorn the Supreme Court appointment of Amy Coney Barrett is at risk because of Covid infections among key Senate Republicans. What remains, then, as a last-minute game-changer? Knowing Trump’s impulsive nature, we cannot rule out war as a possible option.
A military crisis of some sort would be a plausible last-ditch move for several reasons. To begin with, it would dominate the news cycle and take the spotlight away from Trump’s numerous shortcomings. A confrontation with one of America’s favorite enemies—be it China, Russia, Iran, or North Korea—would also rally many of those independent voters who are now leaning toward his opponent. Biden, for his part, would be forced to curtail his campaign and join everyone else in expressing concern for American men and women in uniform. A military blowup would also allow Trump to fully assume the role of commander in chief and, conceivably, exercise emergency war powers to silence dissent and cancel the election.
The fact is, it would be surprisingly easy for Trump to ignite a war. That’s because the Pentagon has adopted an offensive stance toward all four of those putative adversaries. At this very moment, American aircraft carriers with their accompanying cruisers and destroyers are patrolling in the vicinity of Iran, China, and North Korea, while other US warships are deployed in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic. It would not be difficult, in those highly contested areas, to provoke a deadly incident, allowing Trump to order retaliatory strikes and commence the process of escalation. There are many locales on the borders of Eurasia where such a confrontation might occur. Here is a brief survey of the five most likely sites.
At their historic February 2018 meeting in Singapore, North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un promised Donald Trump that Pyongyang would stop testing nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles—a concession Trump has often cited as one of the great diplomatic successes of his presidency. The United States reciprocated, to a degree, by scaling back its annual joint exercises with the South Korean military. But nothing of substance has been resolved in the two and a half years since that meeting, and the North Koreans have steadily enhanced their nuclear and missile capabilities.
Several recent developments could provide the justification for a fresh nuclear crisis over North Korea. At the end of 2019, Kim announced that his government no longer felt bound by the commitments made in Singapore, and, on June 12, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Son Gwon indicated that Pyongyang is determined to “build up a more reliable force to cope with the long-term military threats” from the United States. In August, CNN reported that a confidential study by a UN panel of experts had concluded that the North has made significant additions to its nuclear weapons stockpile. And in September, satellite imagery detected signs of preparations for the test-firing of a new submarine-launched ballistic missile.
Should the White House decide that such a test, or some other weapons activity, constituted an unacceptable threat to national security, it could order the Pentagon to take a variety of countermeasures, ranging from the sinking of a North Korean warship to a missile attack on the North’s nuclear test facilities. The North Koreans are bound to respond to any such acts with aggressive measures of their own, producing exactly the crisis atmosphere a desperate White House staff might be looking for in the final days of a losing campaign.
America’s ties with Taiwan have often proved a source of tension, but until recently US leadership has tried to avert a major blowup by discouraging the Taiwanese from moving too swiftly toward independence as well as by encouraging Beijing to rely on economic rather than military means in seeking to regain dominion over the island. But now, under President Trump, Washington has abandoned this evenhanded approach and signaled its support for faster moves toward Taiwanese independence—a stance that has naturally infuriated Beijing and increased the risk of a military clash in the area.
The administration’s altered stance on Taiwan has been demonstrated most notably through its dispatch of high-level officials to Taipei and a spate of recent arms agreements. On August 10, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex M. Azar II met with Taiwan’s pro-independence President Tsai Ing-wen, in Taipei—becoming the first US cabinet member to visit the island in 41 years. Other high-level delegations have followed and, on September 17, the administration announced that it would sell Taiwan advanced AGM-84H/K air-to-ground missiles—a weapon that would allow Taiwanese fighters to strike targets on the Chinese mainland for the first time from “standoff” positions beyond China’s air defenses.
The Chinese have responded to all this with numerous protest notes and by sending combat planes into Taiwanese-claimed airspace; this, in turn, has prompted the Taiwanese to scramble their own jet fighters. Meanwhile, the US Navy has stepped up patrols by its missile destroyers through the Taiwan Strait. As these military tests of strength escalate, the opportunities for Washington to provoke a crisis—whether by downing a Chinese plane or goading the Chinese into attacking an American ship or plane—are bound to multiply.
The South China Sea
South of Taiwan lies another contested area where the ships and planes of the United States and China often encounter each other at close range. This body of water contains a scattering of small islands and reefs, some of which are thought to sit astride valuable deposits of oil and natural gas. China, citing historical ownership, says the entire region falls under its sovereignty; Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, following rules set by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, have established exclusive economic zones that extend deep into the area claimed by China. In repudiation of those other countries’ claims, Beijing has sent its warships to harass their fishing boats and drill-ships and has implanted military installations on some of the islands within the area it claims.
For Washington, China’s aggressive activities in the South China Sea pose two challenges: First, its bullying behavior towards the other claimants has raised doubts about America’s “reliability” as a military partner; second, the militarization of those islands is seen as a threat to the US Navy’s historic dominance of the Western Pacific. Until recently, US leaders have responded to these challenges with diplomatic protests, but now the Trump administration has signaled that it is prepared to assume a more militant stance. In a statement issued on July 13, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that China’s claims to the entire region are “completely unlawful” and that “America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources.”
As an indication of what this might mean in practice, the US Navy has begun sending its warships to protect the drillships of friendly countries and increased its “freedom of navigation” operations—that is, the deliberate sailing of American warships near the islands that have been militarized by Beijing. With the frequency of these inherently dangerous activities on the rise, it would not be hard for the Trump administration to engineer a clash between US and Chinese gunboats, provoking a major crisis.
The Persian Gulf
That the United States has long been at odds with the current regime in Iran does not need much spelling out. When it became evident more than a decade ago that the Iranians were developing the infrastructure to manufacture nuclear weapons, Washington imposed stiff economic sanctions on Tehran and persuaded its European allies to do likewise; at the same time, talk of military action to destroy that capacity was widely heard in Washington. In an extraordinary effort to avoid such an outcome, President Obama persuaded the Iranians to dismantle their weapons-related facilities in return for a promise to relax the sanctions—an arrangement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Fulfilling a campaign pledge, Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA and imposed even more onerous sanctions in a foolhardy attempt to force Tehran to negotiate a new, more stringent agreement. The Iranians, however, have yet to agree to fresh negotiations and have taken modest steps to revive their dismantled nuclear program. Although Tehran remains far from possessing the capacity to manufacture nuclear weapons, its moves in this direction have once again sparked talk of military strikes.
Aside from its nuclear program, Tehran has also faced friction from Washington over Iranian efforts to extend its geopolitical sway over adjacent areas of the Persian Gulf. Iran has long been accused of aiding anti-American militias in Iraq and Syria, anti-Israeli forces in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, and anti-Saudi factions in Yemen. On September 29, moreover, Secretary Pompeo threatened to close the American Embassy in Baghdad if Iraqi leaders fail to prevent Iranian-backed militias from firing rockets at the compound, further heightening tensions in the area. At present, the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz is patrolling the Persian Gulf, along with its escort fleet of cruisers and destroyers. With all this going on, it’s not hard to imagine a range of scenarios in which the Iranians are accused of endangering US allies or American forces in the area, allowing Trump to order retaliatory strikes of one sort or another.
The Baltic Sea Area
Ever since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the Baltic Sea area—encompassing Poland, the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, southern Sweden and Finland, and western Russia—has become the main center of US/NATO-Russian military competition. That’s because the Baltic republics are widely viewed in the West as the next likely target of Russian aggression in the event that Vladimir Putin decides to duplicate his Crimea conquest with further acquisitions—a proposition for which there is scanty evidence—and because the resulting US/NATO buildup in the area has put western Russia at increased risk of attack by superior Western firepower.
The Baltic Sea area is of particular strategic importance because, within its relatively compressed space, it houses four NATO countries (Poland and the Baltic republics) plus two major Russian enclaves—Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg. Kaliningrad, a sliver of Russian territory on the Baltic Sea sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland, houses Russia’s Baltic Fleet and many other military installations. Given this geography, the military forces of the various parties often maneuver in the same air and water space as their rivals, generating many opportunities for near-collisions and clashes.
This was readily apparent this summer when NATO conducted its annual Baltic Operations naval exercise and, at the same time, the Russian air force conducted bombing runs against simulated maritime targets in the same general area. Intersections like this—some involving dangerously close encounters between US and Russian aircraft—occur all the time in the Baltic Sea area, so it would not be difficult for the Trump administration to engineer a clash of some sort resulting in a major international crisis.
All this shows that it would not be hard for the White House, in a desperate throw of the dice, to ignite a significant crisis or military engagement in any of these potential flashpoints. American forces are positioned close to all of them and are ready for combat at a moment’s notice. The US capability to act swiftly would not be affected by the quarantining of the Joint Chiefs, as everything is already in place for a rapid US move. So, once the order to “move” is given, it would be only a few hours before the first bombs were dropped or bullets fired. In the most favorable of circumstances, a few bombs or bullets might be enough to give Trump a “victory” to brag about at home. But none of these countries is likely to absorb an American attack without striking back, and three of the four are armed with nuclear weapons. We can only hope, then, that Trump and his aides are sufficiently aware of these risks to exclude war as a campaign-altering option.