Democrats targeted with pipe bombs; Erdoğan applies heat to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; Widodo treads gently with Saudis. By Hamish McDonald.

Trump returns to the nuclear barricades

Vladimir Putin (left) with the United States national security adviser, John Bolton, in the Kremlin this week.
Vladimir Putin (left) with the United States national security adviser, John Bolton, in the Kremlin this week.
Credit: REUTERS / Maxim Shemetov

Last Sunday, Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987.

The agreement lowered tensions in the final throes of the Cold War, banning ground-based missiles with a range between 500 and 5500 kilometres. By 1991, about 800 US missiles and about 1800 Soviet missiles were withdrawn and scrapped. It was, as Reagan said, the first time an entire category of nuclear weapons was not just reduced but eliminated.

It seems Trump’s declaration is not just a thought bubble. His national security adviser, John Bolton, went to Moscow midweek to tell Vladimir Putin. One reason given was that Russia has been cheating, by testing and deploying a new ground-launched cruise missile called the Iskander or SSC-8, a version of the sea-launched Kalibr that its navy has occasionally fired into Syria. The other was that the INF didn’t include China. “There’s a new strategic reality out there,” said Bolton. “This was a Cold War bilateral ballistic missile-related treaty, in a multipolar ballistic missile world.”

Bolton has a track record of tearing down nuclear arms agreements, having persuaded George W. Bush to withdraw from the anti-ballistic missile treaty in 2001. Trump delights in pulling out of international pacts, and this may well be a prelude to letting the existing strategic arms limitation agreement, known as New START, expire in 2021.

If the world embarks on a ruinously costly new nuclear arms race, much of it could happen in the Asian region. Some US defence chiefs have been fretting about China’s build-up of medium-range missiles that could threaten US bases and allies. They advocate putting matching US missiles on mobile ground launchers around the region to take them out or threaten proportionate retaliation. But there is no evidence China has put nuclear warheads on these missiles, and other US military voices argue the US already has a counterforce in sea and air-launched cruise missiles. Withdrawing from these agreements also removes the inspection regime that allows each country to verify what the other has.

So far, the Russian military has inducted only one regiment with 40 to 50 of the new Iskander missiles, and it’s not known if these have nuclear warheads or where they have been deployed. Russia has its worries about China, too. Trump and Putin seem likely to meet in Paris at the centenary of the World War I armistice on November 11 and will discuss this further. Gorbachev, now 87, said Trump’s decision was “not the work of a great mind”.

Democrats targeted

With the US congressional midterm elections closing in on November 6, pipe bombs arrived by post and hand-delivery to several of the far-right’s hate figures including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, former attorney-general Eric Holder, New York governor Andrew Cuomo, former CIA chief and CNN regular John Brennan, liberal philanthropist George Soros and two Democrat congresswomen. All were safely intercepted.

It added to an already toxic atmosphere as Republican administrations in the states, which run the electoral process even for federal voting, continued efforts to disenfranchise likely Democrat voters such as African Americans. Polling shows the Democrats have a chance of regaining control of the House of Representatives, but the Republicans look like keeping a tight Senate majority.

Trump has been working hard to fire up his base to turn out and vote, partly by trying to create a Tampa moment by castigating the caravan of Central American asylum seekers marching through Mexico towards the US border as a Trojan Horse for terrorists. He had to condemn the pipe bombs, but added: “The media also has a responsibility to set a civil tone and stop the endless hostility and constant negative and oftentimes false attacks.”

Turkey points finger

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan applied some heat to Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman on Tuesday in a speech to the Turkish parliament about the ‘‘premeditated murder’’ of the Saudi journalist and government critic Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2.

“It is clear that this savage murder did not happen instantly but was planned,” said Erdoğan, offering a time line that included the new detail of consulate officials apparently scoping a country area beforehand for places to dispose of Khashoggi’s body.

The Turkish president dismissed the Saudis’ story that Khashoggi died accidentally in a scuffle with a Saudi team trying to question him, without the crown prince having any knowledge of their mission. “Putting all the burden on a few security and intelligence members would satisfy neither us nor the international community,” said Erdoğan. “We could be satisfied only if everyone, from the one giving the order to the one who carried it out, are called to account.”

Salman seared by accusations

While Erdoğan has been making the most of Khashoggi’s death to counter his own record as one of the worst jailers of journalists – and perhaps to squeeze funds out of the Saudis – those who pinned hopes on the Saudi crown prince, known as MBS, are on the back foot.

Trump said the killing was “a very bad original concept” carried out poorly, followed by “one of the worst cover-ups ever”. He said the crown prince “ran everything” in Saudi Arabia and carried ultimate responsibility.

Writing in Haaretz, former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro said the killing has undermined US and Israeli efforts to build a consensus against Iran.

In a staged media event, King Salman and MBS offered condolences to Khashoggi’s son Salah, who accepted their handshakes with a wooden expression. He has been barred from leaving the kingdom since last year. Later, MBS took the stage at his Davos in the Desert investment conference in Riyadh to assure the audience, diminished by boycotts (including Australia), of cooperation with Turkey to bring all responsible for “this heinous crime” to justice.

On Thursday, the story changed again when Saudi state media reported that a joint Saudi–Turkish taskforce had found evidence Khashoggi’s murder was “premeditated”.

Joko treads gently with Saudis

Of security interest to Australians will be the effect on Saudi influence in Indonesia, where the visit by King Salman and his vast retinue in March last year saw President Joko Widodo’s government sign off on a big expansion of Saudi-funded teaching of its fundamentalist Wahhabi version of Islam.

This agreement allowed the Institute for the Study of Islam and Arabic or LIPIA, to open new campuses in Makassar, Medan and Surabaya. Its existing campus in Jakarta, started in 1980 as part of a worldwide Saudi drive to counter Iran’s revolution, teaches in Arabic and obliges students to adopt Arabic dress and customs. While some graduates have joined violent jihadist groups or pursue vicious campaigns against Shiites and other minorities, even the peaceful ones contribute to the “Arabisation” of Indonesia.

Official reaction to the Khashoggi case has been muted, though Widodo did raise it with the visiting Saudi foreign minister on Tuesday, expressing concern and asking for transparency. One senior official said Jakarta does not want to jeopardise the Haj quota it receives, always a sensitive domestic political issue. As the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, Indonesia has the biggest yearly quota, but there is still a 20-year waiting list.

Under MBS the Saudis had been promising to tone down the teaching of Wahhabism, but the Khashoggi incident will perhaps increase the persuasiveness of moderate and inclusive local schools of thought such as the Islam Nusantara (Islam of the Archipelago) of the 40 million member Nahdlatul Ulama or the wasatiyyah (middle path) of the 29 million member Muhammadiyah.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 27, 2018 as "Trump returns to the nuclear barricades".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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