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Guns of August: Americans no safer than two years ago

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
Protesters and mourners pray for the nine victims killed outside of Ned Peppers bar, the site of an August 4 mass shooting. Photo by John Sommers II/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/ec87952fac64e92593a83a80b0164a79/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
Protesters and mourners pray for the nine victims killed outside of Ned Peppers bar, the site of an August 4 mass shooting. Photo by John Sommers II/UPI | License Photo

Here is a simple question that could determine who becomes president in 2020. In 1980, Ronald Reagan asked Americans if they were better off than four years before. The answer helped him trounce Jimmy Carter.

Today, are America and its allies safer or more secure than two years ago? The answer must be a resounding no.

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One hundred and five years ago, the guns of August erupted, starting World War I. Europe was destroyed and the seeds for a second world war and then a cold war were sown. No one is predicting a global war today. That does not mean there is a lack of potential crises that could lead to conflict -- militarily or economically.

The Trump administration's withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Acton with Iran could prove as catastrophic as President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq over what turned out to be nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. As a result, the region has been in turmoil ever since with little sign of even a partial return to stability. The purpose of the JCPOA was to prevent Iran from ever obtaining nuclear weapons.

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Had the agreement been honored by all parties, Iran never -- repeat never -- would obtain a nuclear weapon. That Iran persists in testing ballistic missiles and what Washington calls "malign" behavior in the region are vital Iranian interests and could not be part of this agreement no matter how much the White House and Republicans believe both must be.

The Trump plan of maximum pressure is to force Iran to negotiate, an objective as unachievable as expecting sanctions to precipitate a regime change. While all sides insist no one wants a war, a miscalculation such as the downing of an Iranian airliner 30 years ago by USS Vincennes is always present.

As Iran responds to increased American military presence and the United Kingdom's seizure of an Iranian tanker in the Mediterranean, further escalation remains a risk. One conclusion is that two years ago, Iran's path to nuclear weapons was blocked and there was no threat to shipping in the Gulf. Those conditions no longer exist.

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Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing a superbly weak hand superbly well. America is playing a superbly strong hand superbly badly. Syria is exhibit A.

Russian arms sales to Turkey of S-400's is exhibit B. Brexit and growing incohesion in NATO could be exhibit C, even if Putin's not-so-fine hand is not involved. And Russian flirtation with Israel, Saudi Arabia and embrace with China cannot be ignored. That Moscow will intervene in American elections in 2020 is taken as a given by U.S. intelligence. Surely, the security situation has shifted in Moscow's favor as many allies question Trump's "America First" policies and his commitment to longstanding friends.

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Worse, the Trump administration has abrogated the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty on the basis of repeated Russian violations. But now Russia has no restrictions on its nuclear arsenal. With New START's future uncertain, the prospect of an unwanted and unnecessary arms race looms. And while Trump and Kim Jong Un exchange love notes, North Korea's nuclear posture is stronger than it was two years ago. Does this make us safer or more secure? Most sane people would say no.

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Last week, a Wall Street Journal editorial argued that Americans were worse off economically since 2018 and the beginning of the tariff and now currency tiffs with China. Trump's promised 4 percent economic growth was half that. Stock market volatility has intensified and is worrisome. And both Chinese and world economic growth has declined. Does this make America economically and fiscally safer or more secure?

Trump supporters will rightly criticize the Obama administration for not taking stronger stands against Chinese theft of intellectual property and predatory trade policies. But one does not cure a headache by cutting off one's head. And naming China a currency manipulator when basic economics argues that as exports decline and imports increase or remain the same, the yuan will weaken is fiscal malpractice.

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At home, given the recent spate of mall shootings and the seeming upsurge of white supremacist violence, are Americans any safer, given that domestic terrorism dating well before the 1995 bombing of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City has always been present?

Alas, the Democratic contenders for the presidency so far have no answers for making America safer or more secure that stand up to hard questioning and rigorous analysis. Rhetoric only goes so far. At some stage, realistic policies are needed. Americans, however, will have to wait for those.

Of course, nations can suffer a great deal of ruin. This and future Augusts may pass without incident -- maybe. Or may be not.

Harlan Ullman is a senior advisor at the Atlantic Council. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him @harlankullman.

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