Democrat or Republican, American or foreign — none of these differences interfered with a portrayal of the world in the throes of a threat of historic proportions.
That was the frightening consensus of former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, former NATO supreme allied commander (and former Democratic presidential candidate) Wesley Clark, U.S. senator and presumptive GOP presidential candidate Lindsey Graham and Japanese state minister for foreign affairs Yasuhide Nakayama — all of whom shared the stage Monday morning at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California.
Clark cut to the historic nature of today’s “global risk,” the title of the Monday morning session, when he told an audience heavily drawn from the financial services industry:
“Putin has crossed the greatest red line in post-World War II international diplomacy. He has invaded another country and seized it by force … We in the business community are not understanding geopolitical risk.”
Blair too spoke in stark terms, at one point rattling off a long list of terrorist groups such as Islamic State, Al-Nusra and Boko Haram and saying:
“None is capable of being negotiated with; all have to be defeated. We’ve got to have the will and commitment to defeat them.
Graham asked the large audience how many people thought Iran was developing strategic nuclear weaponry as opposed to a mere nuclear power plant, adding rhetorically that “those who didn’t raise their hands shouldn’t have a driver’s license.”
And Nakayama conveyed today’s level of global risk, at first, wordlessly: humming the modulating sound of World War II fighter aircraft dropping their bombs and contrasting that with what it takes today to inflict mass destruction: one click.
The Japanese diplomat was engaged in ultimately fruitless efforts to gain the release of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto and military contractor Haruna Yukawa, held hostage by Islamic State. The terrorist group beheaded both men in January after Japan failed to meet the kidnappers’ $200 million ransom demand within 72 hours.
Nakayama pointed out that 70 years ago, as World War II ended, global conflict meant nation against nation. Today, he said, “even one terrorist can fight against a nation.”
The diplomat said he and fellow G8 members “decided never to pay ransom, never to negotiate with terrorists directly,” adding:
“It’s difficult to negotiate with people with no rules,” citing chess as an analogy.
“I have rules; they have no rules; [they] can take king and queen immediately.”
Given the unreasoning nature of this enemy, Blair affirmed the need to fight terrorists without negotiation, but added:
“The problem is not simply countering violent extremism, but countering extremism … represented by Iran on the Shia side and al-Qaida and ISIS on the Sunni side. That ideology must be defeated … Even in Europe, that ideology of extremism is taught day in day out.”
The former prime minister, whose charitable foundation is dedicated to rooting out extremism in world religions, said it makes little sense for Western governments to spend billions of dollars on security against terrorism without addressing the fact that people are being educated in extremism in the very bosom of Western societies, alluding to ISIS’ many Western recruits from places like London and Paris.
One possible barrier to violent Islamic extremism is expected this week in Graham’s Senate, where senators from both sides of the aisle are expected to back the Corker-Menendez bill forcing the White House to submit the president’s Iran nuclear agreement to approval before sanctions are relaxed.
Graham drew a distinction between North Korea’s nuclearization, which didn’t trigger U.S. allies Japan and South Korea to acquire their own, to the Middle East, where a nuclear arms race would surely ensue.
“The Arabs will feel they need to match [Iranian capabilities], and then some,” Graham said.
A good deal, he added, requires “anytime, anywhere inspections including military facilities,” as well as an end to state sponsorship of terrorism. Without those conditions, the Iranians would simply plow profits from lifted sanctions into continued military efforts at regional domination rather than “buy hospitals.”
General Clark, a former Democratic presidential candidate, agreed with the current Republican presidential candidate on Iran:
“We’re greatly underestimating geostrategic risk with the idea that we’ll open up Iran and investment will pour in. Yah, investment will pour in and Iran will use its wealth for self-aggrandizement, support for [Syrian dictator] Bashar Assad, further relations with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin … and using a misshapen [ideology] of achieving heaven through killing.” If the Middle East were not frightening enough, Clark painted a portrait of powder-keg chaos in Europe, where further Russian aggression — against, say, the Baltic countries — could trigger NATO Article 5’s provision obligating member countries to defend any other alliance member under attack.
The Russians’ MO, he says, is to start a provocation on nationalist lines using militarily trained fighters posing as angry Russian national citizens. If, say, Latvian police crack down, “ordinary police don’t do well against Delta Force. You need some special forces, people on two-hour alert who can handle this on the lines of the Italian Carabinieri…If we don’t have this rehearsed, there’ll be lots of confusion: Are these Russians, and can we do something?”
“I feel like I’m sitting at the League of Nations,” the general lamented, referencing the plea by Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie when the Italians invaded Abyssinia and the new world body stood helplessly by.
“We need a real wake-up call to get to 21st century warfare, where the Russians are. Putin is right today where Hitler was in 1936,” when the Nazi leader illegally militarized the Rhineland, unopposed by Western powers.
Far from having a 21st century military, Graham noted that under the current budgetary sequestration, U.S. defense forces are headed toward “the smallest Army we’ve had since 1940 and the smallest Navy we’ve had since 1915.”
Blair also echoed Clark’s views on Putin: “He’s not hard to understand. He said the collapse of the Soviet empire is the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. That’s what he says, that’s what he thinks, that’s what he believes,” the prime minister said.
Bringing the talk home for the mostly financial audience, Clark said: “Don’t wait for the next war [the title of Clark’s new book]. We’ve created … hundreds of trillions of dollars in derivatives based on low interest rates. When will we get away from QE? The answer is never,” he said, predicting another round of global financial crisis.
But for Japan’s state minister for foreign affairs, military troubles are the more imminent threat:
“If [North Korean dictator] Kim Jong-un pushes the [nuclear] button, it’s 7 minutes away to my country.”