The Washington Post didn’t like this piece on the US role in Korea…

…So I published it myself, in Medium.


People power, not the U.S. military, created South Korea’s vibrant democracy

As millions of South Koreans filled their streets in the weeks leading up to last week’s impeachment of their beleagured president, Park Guen-hye, I was reminded of a political refrain we often hear from U.S. political leaders about Korea.

It goes like this: by intervening in 1950 to prevent a communist takeover and then stationing thousand of U.S. soldiers at the border with North Korea, the United States provided the security that allowed South Korea to become the vibrant democracy it is today. The pride was typified by George W. Bush in a 2005 visit to U.S. troops.

“Five decades of sacrifice by the men and women of our Armed Forces secured peace and democracy on this peninsula,” Bush declared. Hillary Clinton echoed that sentiment in a 2013 speech to bankers later obtained by Wikileaks. South Korea, she said, became a “functional democracy” because “we had troops there, we had aid there, we had a presence of American business there. We were there for the long run.”

There’s a bit of hubris in these sentiments. While there is no doubt that American policy has had a positive influence on South Korea, it was the Koreans themselves who created their own democracy. Moreover, at several critical junctures in South Korea’s turbulent history, U.S. actions and miscalculations led to serious setbacks to their progress. Sometimes America was on their side; other times, not.

To read on, click here.


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American Military Power in Asia and the Trump Factor

The Pentagon is trying to push through a trilateral alliance with Japan and South Korea before anyone noticed. But I did.


My latest, from TomDispatch

Despite the attention being given to America’s roiling wars and conflicts in the Greater Middle East, crucial decisions about the global role of U.S. military power may be made in a region where, as yet, there are no hot wars: Asia.  Donald Trump will arrive in the Oval Office in January at a moment when Pentagon preparations for a future U.S.-Japan-South Korean triangular military alliance, long in the planning stages, may have reached a crucial make-or-break moment. Whether those plans go forward and how the president-elect responds to them could help shape our world in crucial ways into the distant future.

On November 18th, Shinzo Abe, Japan’s most conservative prime minister since the Cold War, became the first foreign head of state to meet with Donald Trump after his surprise election victory. The stakes for Abe were high. His rightist Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has run Japan for much of the last 70 years, has been one of America’s most reliable, consistent, and subservient allies. Yet during the campaign, Trump humiliated him, as well as the leaders of nearby South Korea, with bombastic threats to withdraw U.S. forces from both countries if they didn’t take further steps to defend themselves.

Even more shocking was Trump’s proposal that Japan and South Korea develop their own atomic weapons to counter North Korea’s rising power as a nuclear state. That left the governments of both countries bewildered — particularly Japan, which lost tens of thousands of lives when the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were incinerated by American atomic bombs in World War II. (Hundreds of Koreans in Japan died in those attacks as well.) Trump made these statements despite the LDP’s ardent support over the decades for American wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, and the Japanese government’s payment of around $2 billion annually to maintain a string of U.S. bases, primarily on the island of Okinawa, which host over 48,000 American soldiers.

Abe apparently got what he wanted. During an hour-long meeting at Trump Tower on New York’s Fifth Avenue, he and the president-elect agreed that their military alliance was stable and capped their discussions with a friendly exchange of golf equipment. “I am convinced Mr. Trump is a leader in whom I can have great confidence,” Abe declared to a gaggle of mostly Japanese reporters. The president-elect, he said, had established the trust “essential for the U.S.-Japanese relationship.”

That same day, a high-level delegation representing Park Guen-Hye, South Korea’s scandal-ridden president (who, three weeks later, would be impeached by the Korean parliament), was also in New York. She and her right-wing Saenuri Party had been no less disturbed than Abe by the tenor of Trump’s campaign. According to a recent analysis by the Wall Street Journal, South Korea already pays about $900 million a year, or about 40% of the costs of the network of U.S. bases it hosts.  It also has had a special relationship with the U.S. military that has no parallel elsewhere. Under the U.S.-Korean Combined Forces Command, established in 1978, should war ever break out on the peninsula, an American general will be in charge not just of the 28,000 U.S. personnel permanently stationed there, but of more than half a million South Korean troops as well.

Unlike Abe, however, Park’s delegation was shunted off to discuss its concerns with Michael Flynn, the retired general who will soon be Trump’s national security adviser. A few days earlier, Park had spoken to Trump for 10 minutes by phone. In that conversation, the president-elect reportedly stressed his admiration for Korea’s economic prowess. “I’ve bought a lot of Korean products; they’re great,” he told Park, according to a Reuters correspondent in Seoul. Flynn would also reassure the Koreans that their alliance with Washington was “vital.” So, on the surface at least, with less than six weeks to go until the Trump era officially begins, all is well and seemingly normal when it comes to U.S. relations with its allies in East Asia.

To read on, click here.


Posted in Asia, Japan, Korea, Military Industrial Complex | Leave a comment

20 years ago, my reporting caused a furor in South Korea

This was the best response I ever got to a story, as chronicled in 1996 by the Washington Post.



Posted in Asia, Korea, Kwangju Declassified | Leave a comment

Kilcullen to Me: “You’re a conspiracy theorist.”

Big Chief Counterinsurgent David Kilcullen prefers hagiography to reporting.


This photograph was taken in 2014 at a Washington seminar on Syria where I was finally able to speak directly to David Kilcullen about a story I was preparing about his contracting company, Caerus Global Solutions. As I reported in The Baffler this month, he refused to answer any questions about his publicly funded company, and instead told me this:

I don’t see you as a real reporter. I view you as a conspiracy theorist.

As veteran Matt Hoh told me after he read that, I should take his attack as a badge of honor. I do. Here’s what I reported about him.

True to the playbook of D.C.-based warmaking-for-profit, Kilcullen made the most of his ascension into guruhood by launching a consultancy, Caerus Global Solutions, to monetize the counterinsurgency movement. Within months, he had flipped the advisory work he did for McChrystal and Petraeus into a stream of lucrative contracts from the Pentagon, the State Department, USAID, and the NATO-led International Assistance Force in Afghanistan. In 2011, his first year in business, his company’s gross sales were $4.5 million, 97 percent of which came from Pentagon contracts, according to a government audit of Caerus I obtained. Most of that money was devoted to advisory work for ISAF on counterinsurgency and measuring the “stability” U.S. forces had theoretically created. One of his partners was MEP, the big CNAS donor. In 2013, Caerus and MEP teamed up on a Defense Intelligence Agency contract for Afghanistan that involved Caerus analyzing metadata obtained from NSA intercepts for U.S. “combat intelligence teams” in Afghanistan, according to documents I obtained.

But in 2014, Kilcullen’s company came under the scrutiny of the Defense Security Service, the investigative arm of the assistant secretary of defense for intelligence. I later learned that, while working with Petraeus in Afghanistan on a surveillance project funded by the Pentagon, someone in his company had accessed classified information that Kilcullen, as an Australian national, may not have been cleared to use. He denied any breach of classification rules, and told me for good measure, “I don’t see you as a real reporter. I view you as a conspiracy theorist.” But the breach and the audit of his company were confirmed by the Defense Security Service itself, as well as by one of Kilcullen’s business partners.

After the incident, Kilcullen’s media appearances and public-speaking gigs dropped dramatically. For a while, he shifted his focus to Australia, where he’s become one of the fiercest advocates for an expanded Australian military role—together with the United States—in the war against ISIS. By 2015, he’d returned to the think-tank world at the New America Foundation, where he works with his “Global COIN” ally Peter Bergen on an initiative on the “future of war.”

You can read the entire article here. I will be augmenting my story by posting key documents – watch this space.


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“Nation-Building” Is Back: Now with Contractors

My latest, published in LobeLog, a great publication on U.S. foreign policy. Here’s how Antony Loewenstein, the great Australian investigative journalist, just introduced the article on Twitter:

@TimothyS on interest in making $ from “nation-building” in the #MiddleEast; #disastercapitalism by any other name.


Last month, President-elect Donald Trump told The New York Times that the United States under his watch will not “be a nation builder.” It was a variation on a comment he had made dozens of times during the campaign as he attempted to lay out a vision for a new foreign policy that will avoid the pitfalls of his predecessors, particularly the Bush administration’s decision to invade and occupy Iraq.

Ironically, Trump made that proclamation at a time when the term has reentered the vernacular of the U.S. military and foreign policy elite. Long identified with the war in Iraq and the US-NATO counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, the phrase “nation-building” has renewed currency as the U.S. military and its allies confront a humanitarian catastrophe in the Middle East that has produced the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Barely two weeks before Trump’s election, in fact, I heard the term used several times by senior defense and State Department officials. “We may not be interested in nation building, but nation building is interested in us,” a senior Pentagon official said on October 26 at a Washington conference on how US government agencies should confront the social chaos engulfing the Middle East.

He called the situation in Syria “an unprecedented emergency” that offers “lots of opportunities at the nexus of development and humanitarian assistance” that closely resemble what U.S. military and civilian agencies tried in Iraq and, later, Afghanistan.

Opposition to the idea of nation-building, another Pentagon official explained at the same conference, “doesn’t mean we won’t be conducting long-term stabilization operations.” Americans, she added, must “get over the hangover of Iraq and Afghanistan” because “stability and security translates into victory.”

To read on, click here.




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