Focal Points Blog

The Phases of the Moon and an Attack on Iran

Cross-posted from Reflexive Fire.

They are beating the war drums again for the attack on Iran. Reports are that sometime after the IAEA report (no doubt bought and paid for) comes out on the 9th that we will see Israel initiate the strike and “drag” the US into the conflict. I’m banking on sometime between 22NOV and 28NOV based on ambient light illumination levels, with the new moon happening on 25NOV with 0% illumination as ideal conditions for stealth aircraft and other bombers.

Source: Moonrise, Moonset and Moonphase for Iran – Tehran – November 2011

Jack Murphy, an eight-year Army Special Operations veteran, served in the 3rd Ranger Battalion and the 5th Special Forces Group and on tours of Afghanistan and Iraq. He posts at Reflexive Fire.

Pakistani Nukes in Step Vans Have Ripple Effect on Iran

Pakistan, writes Spencer Ackerman at Wired’s Danger Room, “is making the world a vastly more dangerous place.” Is he referring to support by its military and intelligence to the Taliban and the Haqqanis in their fight against Afghan and coalition forces? Not exactly.

Freaked out about the insecurity of its nuclear arsenal, the Pakistani military’s Strategic Plans Division has begun carting the nukes around in clandestine ways. That might make some sense on the surface: no military wants to let others know exactly where its most powerful weapons are at any given moment. But Pakistan is going to an extreme.

The nukes travel “in civilian-style vehicles without noticeable defenses, in the regular flow of traffic,” according to a blockbuster story on the U.S.-Pakistan relationship in The Atlantic. Marc Ambinder and Jeffrey Goldberg write that tactical nuclear weapons travel down the streets in “vans with a modest security profile.”

In short, writes Ackerman, “Pakistan is taking nuclear paranoia to a horrifying new low.” It’s hyper-alert to the lust that militants experience for its nukes — tactical, as well as strategic — right? Again, not exactly. Ackerman explains.

It’s trying to safeguard its nukes from us. The Navy SEAL raid in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden has made important Pakistani generals think that the U.S. military’s next target is Pakistani nukes. So off the vans go … trying to throw off the scent of the U.S.

As with its failure to rein in the militants that it supports in Afghanistan, never underestimate Pakistan ability to underestimate the terrorist threat on its own soil.

Ackerman writes: “The irony is that the U.S. isn’t planning to steal Pakistan’s nukes — but Pakistan’s cavalier attitude toward nuclear security is making the U.S. think twice about whether it should.” No, not steal Pakistan’s nukes, but “revise some worst-case-scenario contingency planning.”

Furthermore, Pakistan’s skewed nuclear-security priorities might have a trickle-down effect on the West’s attitude toward Iran’s nuclear program. As if the attitude toward Iran’s nuclear plans of many in the United States government and, of course, Israel weren’t at least as overwrought as Pakistan’s attitude towards designs it thinks that the United States has on its nuclear program. In the end, Pakistan’s behavior only adds to the tendency of the West to divide the world into states that we deem of sound enough mind to administer a nuclear-weapons program and those that we don’t.

Super Stuxnet? U.S., Israel Escalating Malware War Against Iran

Iran centrifugesRichard Sale, author of Clinton’s Secret Wars, has written an article outlining the escalation of the joint U.S.-Israeli cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear program. A new malware, apparently built off of the Stuxnet worm used against Iran’s centrifuge systems between 2009 and 2010, is in development:

According to former and serving US intelligence officials, leaders of the three major software companies, Sergey Brin at Google, Steve Ballmer at Microsoft and Larry Ellison at Oracle have been working with Israel’s top cyber warriors and have now come up with a new version of a Stuxnet-like worm that can bring down Iran’s entire software networks if the Iranian regime gets too close to breakout, according to US intelligence sources.

[Snip]

This new Stuxnet worm is being advanced by administration and intelligence officials as a more powerful tool with a stronger range and capability than the previous version. Officials want this new cyber capability to derail any military action that could result in a regional war.

You have to ask, if it’s that good, why stop at deterrence when you can aim for preemption? It would be far easier for Israeli, U.S. and UK warplanes to operate over Iran in the event of an attack if this “Super Stuxnet” scrambled Iran’s air defense systems, rendering early warning and interception systems impotent. It opens up new scenarios for U.S. action — covert or overt — vis a vis Iran’s nuclear program. Surely the UK military, which has committed to reinforcing the U.S. naval presence in the Gulf and whose officials spoke at length in the Guardian on what might be used to take out Iran’s nuclear assets (Tomahawk cruise missile, airstrikes, commandos) will welcome this new tool.

Far from being a deterrent, this new malware has the potential to be the software equivalent of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Yet while “Super Stuxnet” might turn into a U.S.-Israeli trump card, it also has the potential to become the electronic equivalent of Operation Fast and Furious.

Stuxnet, which entered the world wide web as early as 2009 and was discovered at work in Iran the next year, was built under U.S.-Israeli government auspices using stolen Taiwanese software certificates so that it could infect a widely-used “industrial control system made by the German conglomerate Siemens that was used to program controllers that drive motors, valves and switches,” i.e., Iranian centrifuge components. According to Wired magazine, the sophistication of the device and its target befuddled security experts because no one could initially figure out why a hacker would want to sabotage these systems (the answer was that the hackers were government-backed cyber warfare experts).

Then again, this avenue of attack is not new. If certain Cold Warriors are to be believed, the U.S. has a thing for valve sabotage. Thomas C. Reed, a former Secretary of the Air Force and Reagan-era advisor affiliated with the nuclear-warhead manufacturer Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, contends that in the 1980s, the U.S. discovered a KGB network that existed solely to steal and reverse engineer Western computer technology. Rather than expose the network, the U.S. used information from a KGB double agent’s papers (the “Farewell” Dossier) to determine what companies the KGB was stealing from. The U.S. then slipped all manner of cyber ordinance into their products. One such “logic bomb” allegedly destroyed a key Soviet pipeline by scrambling the software that controlled the pressure and flow of oil. The story of this sabotage effort was publicized by William Safire in 2004, and by the CIA itself in 2007.

Programming valves and motors to malfunction? Now doesn’t that sound familiar?

If this “Super Stuxnet” does exist, then it represents a comprehensive sabotage plan with far grander goals than the original Stuxnet, or even the “Farewell” Dossier, which, for all its defense applications (launch silo shutters unable to be opened or closed due to a bug?) was only targeted at the Soviet economy. It essentially amounts to an internet kill switch + EMP that can be activated remotely — or is already capable of activating itself at a preprogrammed time.

Iran, like the USSR in the 1980s, presumably has no advanced cyber warfare capacity to retaliate with, despite its attempts to play up its own cyber warfare capacity. The USSR could not identify or isolate the electronic weapons used against it in the 1980s. Iran today would likely have a tough time doing anything more with “Super Stuxnet” than enduring it’s machinations. But Iran has some friends who might be more adept at turning “Super Stuxnet” on its handlers.

Russia, of course, comes to mind. Revenge for “Farewell”? Poetic, but not pragmatic. Instead, Russia would presumably be interested in both the original and the new Stuxnets because of their security applications. Defensively, seeing how these worms work would help Russia enhance protection of its own nuclear production assets and protect its communications systems from being scrambled during a military action. Offensively, we saw Russia use cyber warfare in the 2008 Georgian conflict, targeting civilian, government and military internet assets. For all Russia’s financial and technical problems, she does endeavor to stay on the cutting edge in every military arm.

The cutting edge is very important for Russia not just because of NATO, but because she shares a very long border with the world’s leading cyber warfare aspirant, the People’s Republic of China — which also happen to be friends of Tehran’s.

China’s interests in seeing how the Stuxnets work are basically similar to Russia’s, with the added goal of surpassing the U.S.’s own cyber warfare capabilities as soon as possible. The People’s Liberation is Army is tailoring cyber warfare assets towards an “Integrated Network Electronic Warfare” that can target U.S. civilian and military infrastructure, from satellites to stop lights.

So, whatever success or deterrence “Super Stuxnet” brings Tel Aviv and Washington, I’d like to ask its creators what they think the Iranians did with the original Stuxnet-contaminated hardware after removing it?

A. Dumped it in an electronic graveyard 

B. Locked it in a heavily-guarded warehouse

C. Passed it onto the People’s Republic of China and/or Russia

Of course, this presumes China and Russia have normal diplomatic relations with Iran, the kind of relations in which countries with some shared strategic objectives — securing energy access, increasing their regional influence, undermining American hyperpower — exchange military, financial and diplomatic support on a semi-regular basis.

It doesn’t take much. One flash drive, a laptop or two. Maybe a server. All bundled off to bunkers in Moscow or Shanghai c/o the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

As Richard Sale quotes an unnamed U.S. official, cyberweapons are essentially electronic bioweapons. And when you want to see how your opponent’s bioweapons work, you need infected tissue samples — both to make a cure, and then to engineer your own, superior version.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

Nuclear Weapons Projects Don’t Even Qualify as Pork

As those who read Focal Points regularly know, a facility intended to provide technical support for the production of the plutonium pits for nuclear warheads is under construction at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The pit — which, one ventures to guess, makes the warhead the fruit of our nuclear-weapons program — is where the chain reaction occurs. To Focal Points’ surprise, the New York Times addressed the facility in an editorial on October 29 titled The Bloated Nuclear Budget, which began:

Twenty years after the end of the cold war, the United States still has about 2,500 nuclear weapons deployed and 2,600 more as backup. The Obama administration, in an attempt to mollify Congressional Republicans, has also committed to modernizing an already hugely expensive complex of nuclear labs and production facilities. Altogether, these and other nuclear-related programs could cost $600 billion or more over the next decade. The country does not need to maintain this large an arsenal. … especially when Congress is considering deep cuts in vital domestic programs. … President Obama [should speed up] already negotiated reductions in deployed weapons and committing to further cuts, unilaterally if necessary.

Including

Halt construction of the new plutonium storage facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Costs have increased tenfold, and there are serious safety questions about the location — along a fault line and near an active volcano. Savings: $2.9 billion.

Greg Mello is the executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, which is leading the charge to block the facility, known as the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility (CMRR-NF), via the courts. The LASG is both appealing the dismissal of its case which sought a new Environmental Impact Statement (under the National Environmental Policy Act) to address those seismic concerns and is filing a second lawsuit to the same end. In the comments section of the op-ed, Mello points out that the Times underestimated the cost of the CMRR-NF.

The CMRR project is now expected to cost between $4 and $6 billion, not $3 billion. NNSA and the Bechtel-led consortium that runs Los Alamos want to start construction a year or more before design is completed; currently the Senate would allow and fund that but the House would not. A year from now when design is 90% complete the cost may be higher; experience shows further large cost increases can be expected between now and the planned completion date in 2023.

Continuing to look at the CMRR-NF in purely economic terms, at the New Mexican, Roger Snodgrass writes:

Some small-business owners in Santa Fe are opposing the proposed plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory. … Although the group has been gathering support for several weeks, the announcement of its formation in a newspaper ad coincided with the release of a formal record of decision, a day earlier, that approved the plan to build a nuclear facility at LANL. … “We hope New Mexicans will take more interest now, and if they want to keep some value in the real estate and attract visitors from all over the world, they better think twice about their relation with Los Alamos,” said Willem Malten, the organizer of the businesses.
Also, in 2008

… 326 New Mexico businesses … signed a “Call to Disarmament” developed by the Los Alamos Study Group. The petition called for a stop to the “design and manufacture of all nuclear weapons, including plutonium bomb cores [‘pits’] at Los Alamos and elsewhere.”

Mello, too, speaks about the effect (or lack thereof) of nuclear-weapons projects such as the CMRR-NF on the local economy in an interview with Mary-Charlotte Domandi on KSFR, Santa Fe Public Radio:

Unlike a solar or wind-energy project, which could potentially bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in capital investment and create thousands of jobs (as opposed to just 660), the CMRR, in Mello’s opinion, benefits primarily the companies who already own LANL (Bechtel, the University of California, BMW), while hardly generating any long term value. “It doesn’t train people to do anything in the economy,” observed Mello. “It doesn’t provide any infrastructure, in that it functions in the real economy (there are no goods or services provided, since no one buys or sells nuclear pits). And it attracts no private capital.”

Or as Andrew Lichterman, also a member of the LASG, as well as the Western States Legal Foundation and Reaching Critical Will, writes: Even though the CMRR-NF is

… by far the largest government construction project in New Mexico history aside from the interstate highway system [much] of this money will flow to contractors based elsewhere, as Los Alamos is now managed by a consortium including such huge multinational nuclear industry players as Bechtel and B&W. Complex high tech military construction projects create fewer jobs per dollar than most other types of public spending, and even fewer permanent positions. The end result for New Mexico, where Los Alamos County residents have a per capita income over 4 times that of the poorest county, will be further economic stratification.

Nuclear-weapons projects are of so little benefit to the economy of the state that they don’t even qualify as pork. Lichterman explains who they benefit and how. Take a moment to digest his thoughts: if you’re like me, you haven’t seen nuclear weapons viewed in exactly this light before.

The nuclear road provides elites in that sector with privileged access to their own country’s resources, a development context that can be shielded from foreign competition, and forms of trade and industry that can be portrayed as increasing in importance as fossil fuels diminish. The powerful tools of nationalism and “national security” secrecy both facilitate the extraction of wealth from the rest of society and prevent scrutiny of national nuclear enterprises that … have been rife with technical problems, corruption, and widespread, intractable environmental impacts. Nuclear technology, with its vision of near-magical, limitless power (an image its purveyors energetically promote), casts a positive aura over other big, centralized high-tech development programs that are profitable for elites, but have little or even negative value for much of the population in an ever more stratified world.

Israelis Beginning to Understand the Consequences of Attacking Iran

972Mag devotes itself to reporting and commentary on Israel and the Palestinian territories. On Friday, October 28, one of its columnists, Larry Derfner, posted about the explosive op-ed that Israeli Nahum Barnea, who he calls “the best-connected, most influential journalist in Israel” recently wrote.

He’s calling out Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak for cooking up an attack [on Iran], maybe before this winter, maybe afterward, even though the security establishment, foreign governments and relatively level-headed members of this government are completely against it.

Then, on Wednesday, October 2, Derfner wrote:

They’re freaking out in Jerusalem over the shitstorm that Barnea’s “Atomic pressure” column started. “All sorts of systems and people have gone mad. This has no logical explanation or precedent,” [Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor] Lieberman told IDF Radio. Dan Meridor, the proper, level-headed minister of intelligence and atomic energy, made Ma’ariv’s top story today by saying, “Anat Kamm (just imprisoned for 4-1/2 years for leaking classified IDF documents to a journalist) is nothing compared to what’s happening here. This is really crazy. I don’t think there’s ever been a public discussion like this.”

Consequently, yesterday, October 3, Haaretz reported:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed Shin Bet [Israel’s internal security service] chief Yoram Cohen to begin investigating the information recently leaked to the media regarding Israel’s preparations for a military offensive against Iran’s nuclear facilities, the Kuwaiti al-Jarida newspaper reported Thursday.

According to the report, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin are those responsible for leaking information to the media regarding an attack on Iran.

“The two recruited prominent journalists in Israel and disclosed false information in order to politically harm Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak,” the newspaper quoted an Israeli source.

According to the source, Diskin wanted revenge for not receiving the post of Mossad chief and Dagan was disgruntled since his term as Mossad chief was not extended. [Emphasis added.]

Dagan and Diskin couldn’t have had any other reason — such as keeping Iranian missiles from raining down on Israel with no guarantee that Israel’s could knock out Iran’s program — could they? Never mind the security of the Israeli people, along with self-aggrandizement (acting “Churchillian,” in the words of his supporters), revenge and disgruntlement may be among the only motives which Netanyahu can understand.

Is Alarm About Seven Billion People Just Modern-day Eugenics?

OverpopulationOn the occasion of the world’s population reaching seven billion, William Ryerson, founder and president of Population Media Center and chairman of the Population Institute, told Alanna Shaikh at UN Dispatch:

The first earth day was largely about population growth, then it became taboo. Part of why it become taboo was human rights violations committed by India and China [in the name of population control presumably — Ed.], and partly was because of Ronald Reagan, who said that population growth was a good thing. He was influenced by Julian Simon, who said [in his book The Ultimate Resource and elsewhere — Ed.] there was no limit to how many people the planet could support.

Furthermore

There are economists that believe that endless population growth is necessary for economic growth. This is a Ponzi scheme form of economics. It will not last. … Some biologists feel that after oil and fossil fuels are gone, the planet could sustain 2 billion people in a Western European lifestyle. At the Ethiopian lifestyle, we could maybe sustain 10 billion people.

Those of the belief that economic growth requires open-ended population growth would be advised that living Ethiopian-style (or lack thereof) makes for poor consumers. Meanwhile, Ryerson refrains from mentioning those who believe the exploding world population — the planet’s “carrying capacity” — is an excuse for “global elites” to institute the Great Die-off. According to this world view, by means ranging from neglect to sterilization to dosing with infectious diseases the super-rich hope to re-design the world with a minimal look, population-wise. Since it focuses on no particular group, it’s not genocide, just mass murder to the tenth power. An example of this outlook is provided by Webster Tarpley back when he was with Lyndon LaRouche. (His work is often valuable today.)

During their preparations for the United Nations’ so-called International Conference on Population and Development, scheduled to be held in Cairo in September of this year [1994], the genocidal bureaucrats of the U.N. are seeking to condition governments and public opinion worldwide to accept the notion of a “carrying capacity” for our planet. In other words, the U.N. butchers would like to establish scientific credibility for the idea that there is an absolute theoretical maximum number of persons the earth can support. Some preliminary documents for the Cairo conference set a world population level of 7.27 billion to be imposed for the year 2050, using compulsory abortion, sterilization, euthanasia and other grisly means.

Note how much sooner we’re reaching the number that will trigger these events than was anticipated at the time. Those who believe this cite Malthus at his worst (however imaginative).

All the children born, beyond what would be required to keep up the population to this level, must necessarily perish, unless room be made for them by the deaths of grown persons … we should facilitate … the operations of nature in producing this mortality. … Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague.

Or as James Corbett, whose website The Corbett Report is a media center for open-source intelligence news, claims:

Overpopulation, like the global warming fraud, is a false front for the eugenics program.

Here’s an example of quotes that those who subscribe to this line of thinking cite as proof.

“A total world population of 250-300 million people, a 95% decline from present levels, would be ideal.”
Ted Turner

“We must speak more clearly about sexuality, contraception, about abortion, about values that control population, because the ecological crisis, in short, is the population crisis. Cut the population by 90% and there aren’t enough people left to do a great deal of ecological damage.”
Mikhail Gorbachev

“World population needs to be decreased by 50%.”
Henry Kissinger

“Childbearing should be a punishable crime against society, unless the parents hold a government license.”
David Brower, the Sierra Club

Looks like, when it comes to percentages, loose lips sink not only ships but populations. In fact, there may be some truth to the murderous aspirations attributed to the super-rich. It doesn’t, however, detract from the need to slow population growth. In fact, we’re close to a tipping point, or, pivoting to another cliché, a perfect storm, as Ryerson says.

The combination of rising oil prices and declining water could lead to a perfect storm where suddenly all these things lead to human catastrophe around the planet. … Right now [the World Food Program] responds to famines in Sahel [the North African coast-to-coast zone just below the Sahara] or East Africa but they have never dealt with a billion people starving all at once [with] chaos all over the world as a billion people rampage for food. … There would simply be no ability of the donor countries to respond to a situation of this magnitude. It could happen between 2012 and 2015, according to an estimate by the U.S. military.

Those who dismiss concerns about overpopulation parallel and, as well, are enmeshed with those who deny climate change. Since the price we’ll be paying if they’re wrong is non-refundable, it’s better to be safe than sorry ­ — to trot out another cliché — and at least act as if overpopulation and climate change true.

Even small measures, accumulated, can help turn the tide. At the Globe and Mail, Doug Saunders writes about a variation on family planning.

The solution is outlandishly simple. Mexico … did it successfully in less than a decade: You send out teams to villages who explain not how to cut family sizes (an abstract concept) but how to widen the space between children – a concrete act that both parents and children appreciate. Four years between kids, rather than four months, opens up a new world. “… It’s the moment when poor families notice they can do better for their children if they have fewer children.”

We’ll give Ryerson the last word.

We must persuade governments to celebrate low fertility rates and declining populations.

It might help if religions bought into this too.

Travel Writer Michael Jacobs Does Justice to the Andes

A volcano in Ecuador.

A volcano in Ecuador.

For those who have travelled extensively throughout South America, the astonishing majesty of the continent’s Andean mountains is surely etched in the imagination. From the lush jungles in northern Colombia and the lunar salt plains of the Bolivian heartland, to the snow-covered peaks of Argentina’s southernmost tip, the breathtaking diversity of the world’s longest, and perhaps most glorious, mountain range is as wondrous as its history is rich. The mountains have served as the backdrop for the rise and fall of great civilizations, offered scientific discoveries that changed the face of human understanding, inspired masterworks of art and literature—not to mention political revolution—and have witnessed centuries of unspeakable slaughter.

Michael Jacobs’ Andes, an account of the author’s journey across South America by way of the 4, 500 mile-mountain chain, is as expansive and enthralling as the geography it covers. Beginning in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela and finishing up in the heart of Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego, Andes masterfully details the history, art, geography, personalities, and politics that have defined and been given shape by life in the region.

I recently spoke with Jacobs about his book and the art of writing on the road, Latin American politics, the legacy of Bruce Chatwin in Argentina, and what lies ahead for one of the truly great stylists of the modern travel memoir.

I was hoping we could begin by discussing what compelled you to undertake the arduous task of journeying across the entire length of South America’s Andean spine.

I was first drawn to the Andes by childhood tales of my English grandfather, a railway engineer who worked in Chile and Bolivia. When following in his footsteps to those countries, and experiencing the extraordinary contrasts between, say, the Atacama Desert and the ice fields of Patagonia, I thought how wonderful it would be to follow the whole length of the world’s longest mountain range, and see such an unparalleled range of extreme and spectacular landscapes. I also conceived the idea of following the mountains as if unraveling the course of a human life, beginning in the Tropics, where the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt had located the life force, and ending south of Tierra del Fuego, where Humboldt’s great pupil Darwin believed that life barely existed at all.

Talk a bit more if you would about Humboldt who serves, in many respects, as your loadstone throughout Andes. What was his importance to you (and in general) and in what ways did his experiences in South America shaped your own?

Humboldt was certainly the guiding spirit behind the whole book. He inspired me in the same way as he inspired hundreds of other travellers in the 19th-century. Charles Darwin would probably not have taken up the offer of a job on the Beagle had it not been for a reading of Humboldt’s account of his South American travels. Nor would the great American artist Frederick Edwin Church have travelled to Ecuador to paint what are certainly some of the most ambitious landscape canvases in the history of art, notably “Heart of the Andes.”

Humboldt was a pioneer in so many ways. He was the first great scientific popularizer, able to turn a book on the cosmos into one of the great nineteenth-century bestsellers. He was a pioneering ecologist who foresaw the damage to the planet caused by the felling of trees. He was an outstanding mountaineer, who, in climbing almost to the summit of Ecuador’s Chimborazo (then considered the highest mountain in the world), climbed higher than any known human before him. He was an early supporter of indigenous rights, and was violently opposed to slavery. Above all, for a travel writer, Humboldt’s importance lies in his extraordinary ability to induce in the reader a sense of the wonder of nature. Writers like Christopher Isherwood and Paul Theroux have written funny books chronicling their grumpiness as travellers, with Theroux going even so far as to dismiss the Andes because he suffered continually from altitude sickness. But personally I prefer the relentless energy and enthusiasm of Humboldt. They kept me going throughout my hugely ambitious journey, and during the writing of the book. I began to see nature through Humboldt’s strangely innocent eyes, and to perceive as he did the “irrelevance of man in the face of the natural order.”

Despite the fact that roughly half of the Andean chain runs throughout Argentina and Chile, most of the book takes place in the north and central heartlands of the mountains with comparatively little about the Southern Cone. Does this reflect your own geographical preferences, the exhaustion of a long journey, or something else?

In terms of the actual travelling I spent probably as much time in Argentina and Chile as I did in the rest of the Andes. But when it came to the actual writing I realized I was going to be well over length before even reaching the south! I love the southern Andes as much as I do the central and northern ones, and I was by no means exhausted when I got there. In fact I had reached that point in travelling when you feel you could continue forever. Similarly, in the writing, I had built up by then an impetus that was allowing me to write for up to eighteen hours a day. The book’s last one hundred pages were written in a frenzy of inspiration, and my own favorite section is from Mount Fitzroy southwards.

I cut out an enormous part from the book’s first half, and could have cut even more in the interests of creating less of an imbalance. But ultimately the imbalance reflects my vision of the Andes as a developing human life. You begin slowly, thinking that you have all the time in the world, and then reach your middle years realizing that you still have so much to do and see but so relatively time to achieve this. The speed of the book’s last pages is intended also to convey the literal and metaphorical race to reach the continent’s southernmost tip before the winter sets in, making travel impossible.

I’m interested in picking your brain about politics, briefly. Andes, especially the first half, is very much wrapped up in the world of the Bolivarian revolution and its discontents, and yet the book is almost entirely apolitical. Is this a reflection of your own political worldview, or do you consciously remove your private political judgments and analysis form the narrative. And if so, why?

That’s an excellent question, and difficult concisely to answer. I am fascinated by South American politics, and travelled through the continent at a time of great political change, what with the recent advent of Evo Morales and Rafael Correa, and the region’s general swing to the left. I am also highly conscious of how relatively little is known (in Europe at least) about the political situation there. However, I thought that to give a proper political assessment of each of the countries I went through would detract too greatly from the book’s principal theme—the impact of the Andes on travellers. It would also have made the book become rapidly outdated, and would have been much better done by serious political commentators such as Jon Lee Anderson.

A long section on Chávez is included, as well as a chapter on Morales’ Bolivia because these touch on another of the book’s uniting threads—Bolívar’s vision of a united South America. For me Bolivar becomes an increasingly interesting figure the more he turns into a hero from a Shakespearian tragedy. Though the book is apolitical, it does in a sense reflect my disillusionment with politics. The last part of the book hopefully conveys an idea of grand ilusions and ideals coming to nothing. My interest in politics ultimately boils down to an interest in individual case histories, such as that of the tragic young Ecuadorian who is betrayed by corrupt individuals in his desperate attempt to get a visa.

Turning to the more technical side of things, I was wondering if you’d share some about your process of travel writing. One of the things that stands out to me about your experiences is that unlike, say, a Theroux, you’re constantly on the move and often on little sleep—touring by day, indulging in the nightlife after dark. How do you find time to write while on the road? Or do you not?

Though I have written books based on long stays in a place (i.e., The Factory of Light, which is about my adopted Spanish village of Frailes), I take the Stendhalian view that you either spend a day or two in a place or several years. Often, as with judgments of a person, your immediate impressions are the ones you go back to. If you get to know somewhere too well, your judgments can become too complex and confused. And someone such as Theroux seems to spend much of his time in a place reading books, or complaining how uninteresting somewhere is! I love intense short stays when travelling, even if it’s always sad to be constantly moving on, especially after making friends. To make the most of somewhere you need to be constantly active which is why I never write when travelling (other than notes), and only use hotels for sleeping in. I always carry lots of books with me, but invariably never read. I’m either sightseeing, being with people, or absorbing every moment of a journey, whether listening to my fellow passengers, or else enjoying the changing landscapes. I am never, ever bored. I always write up a trip when I get back, when you have a better over-view of your experiences, and can see more clearly what might be interesting to others and what is not…Fortunately I have a good memory, and can mentally reconstruct for a long time afterwards every day of a journey, however long the journey.

Bruce Chatwin comes off particularly bad in Andes, having left behind in Argentina an awful reputation with the locals he encountered in Patagonia. You note, somewhat tongue and cheek, that Chatwin basically did what travel writers do: “exploit confidences, publish material without permission, misrepresent, exaggerate for literary effect, use people, and promise to stay in touch and then go away, never to be heard from again.” Is this really how you see yourself as a travel writer? If so, did the anger of the Argentines that had known Chatwin in any way affect your own reflections on how you approach the craft of traveloguing? Or is Chatwin’s work fundamentally at odds with your own?

First, of all, for the record, I’m a huge fan of Chatwin as a writer, and he had an impact on travel writing greater than anyone else of his generation. I love his effortless fusion of past and present, and his ability to transform the ordinary into the mythical and the magical (which has always been my ambition!). But the fact that he was an immensely original stylist doesn’t mean that he was either a particularly attractive person, or particularly original in what he had to say about Patagonia (which in no way detracts from his greatness as a writer, just as the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca is in no way diminished as a poet by having a view of his native region heavily influenced by romantic stereotypes). I never met Chatwin, but I suspect that he was one of the many Englishmen who can be absolutely charming when it served his purpose, and not so endearing in his everyday treatment of people. What I certainly learned after Andes was published was that you can’t be in the slightest bit negative about him without incurring the wrath of fans of his, such as Chatwin’s excellent biographer Nicholas Shakespeare. This is very unfair, as I clearly stated that Chatwin’s failings were those of all travel writers, myself included. One of the great drawbacks of the genre is that you’re bound to offend someone, however hard you try not to. The anger of so many Argentines towards Chatwin did not affect me in the slightest, as I have seen exactly the same reaction to other writers in whose footsteps I have followed, for instance the Nobel-Prize Winning Spanish author of the classic Journey to the Alcarria, Camilo Jose Cela who is almost universally disliked in the region. My own books on Spain have earned me law suits and death threats, even though I write about people with a fundamental love for them. The irony of my style seems often misunderstood. However, I have to add that the villagers in my adopted Frailes took, in general, remarkably well to the recent publication in Spanish of The Factory of Light. People told me that they couldn’t complain about my portrayal of them because that was exactly what they were like. If only others were so tolerant and enlightened!

Your mention of Chatwin’s ability to turn the ordinary into the magical makes me think of Gabriel Garcia Márquez and the world of Colombia more generally. I was intrigued by your experiences in the country: you entered with a certain amount of foreboding considering the country’s (now undeserved) reputation for lawlessness and insecurity, but by the time you left, I sensed that you were especially fond of it, perhaps more than the other countries on your itinerary (with Peru a close second). Is this accurate? And if so, what was so attractive to you about the place? If not, was there a place or region where you felt particularly at home, or fell in love with?

You’re absolutely right about Colombia. I went with apprehension, and fell in love with the country from the moment of crossing the frontier! I only regretted afterwards that I did not take greater risks, and visit the then more problematical parts of the Colombian Andes such as the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy, or do the overland journey from Cúcuta to Bogotá. Since that first trip I’ve been back to the country four times, and have gone almost everywhere. I spent two months in Colombia earlier this year, travelling the whole length of one of South America’s most important rivers, the Magdalena. I was researching my next book, provisionally titled The Robber of Memories, whose starting point is a chance meeting in Cartagena with García Márquez. It’s being modestly promoted as a cross between One Hundred Years of Solitude and Heart of Darkness! I certainly spent two of the best months of my travelling life doing the journey, even though I had a terrifying three day encounter with guerillas in the middle of the jungle (they were absolutely charming, and were keen that I should help them in their goal of promoting tourism to the region!).

The appeal of the country? First of all the people, the friendliest in the world. Secondly, the place instantly reminded me of the Spain of my childhood, with its old-fashioned courtesies, hugely atmospheric colonial towns, and extraordinary hospitality towards foreigners. Thirdly, it’s a place that for me sums up the essence of South America, with some of the oldest ruins in the continent, some of the best preserved colonial towns, and every possible type of scenery, from desert to Amazonian jungle, to the Andean moorland. I’m convinced that it will soon become one of South America’s most important tourist destinations. Despite what happened to me on my last visit, safety is improving all the time.

Last fall Foreign Policy magazine ran an online forum of articles debating the current state of travel writing literature, with some writers pronouncing the genre the dead, others arguing that it is alive and well, and still others staking out territory somewhere in between. What’s your own feeling on the question? Do books like Eat, Pray, Love represent the decline of travel literature, or was there never a golden age as is sometimes pretended?

From 2008 to 2010 I was chairman of the only serious travel book award in Britain, the Dolman Travel Book Award. I had to read about eighty books a year, only about five of which were really worthwhile. But that doesn’t mean that travel literature is in a bad state. If you had to read eighty novels, you would probably come to a similar conclusion. People often look back to the so-called “golden age” of travel literature inspired by Bruce Chatwin—but that was essentially an invention of a group of friends at Granta magazine.

I believe that travel writing today is as healthy/unhealthy as it has ever been. What has happened is that the good travel books tend now to cross genres. Some of the best travel writing of recent years has fallen into an indeterminate category between travel writing and reportage or memoir. There is also a current fashion in Britain for “nature writing,” headed by such interesting authors as Robert MacFarlane.

Books such as Eat, Pray, Love are not favorites of mine, nor are “good life abroad” books, with their romantic, cliché-ridden evocations of charming Provencal peasants, and Tuscan olive farms. But there has always been a market for those books, and their success allows publishers to bring out more adventurous works.

Finally, people often say that the internet will be the death of travel-writing. Access to a huge amount of information about a country obviously makes redundant that type of Victorian book full of statistics about a country’s commerce, politics etc. But good travel literature will be unaffected, because it does something a computer cannot do: give a poetic interpretation of reality.

Finally, what’s next? You mentioned in our earlier correspondence that you were working on a new book? Any chance you’d be willing to pull the curtain back a bit and let us in on your upcoming projects?

My next book is provisionally titled The Robber of Memories. It’s going to be one of those hybrid travel books I mentioned—a mixture of a travel book tracing my journey up Colombia’s Magdalena river, from Barranquilla to the source in the Paramo de las Papas (where I had my ‘encounter’ with guerillas), and a book about memory and memory loss (my father died of Alzheimer’s and my 92-year-old mother is in an advanced state of dementia). The prologue centers on my chance meeting with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose rapidly fading memories of life are concentrated on the river. The bulk of the book takes the form of a journey by tug boat up the river, the boat eventually getting stuck on a sand bank, in the middle of territory still controlled by paramilitaries. On the way I enter Oliver Sacks territory by visiting some of the villages with the highest incidence of Early Onset Alzheimer’s in the world. A doctor who went to investigate the phenomenon got kidnapped, but then helped the kidnappers when one of their parents got affected by the disease. The ‘Robber of Memories’ is what they call the disease in rural Colombia.

That sounds fascinating. We’ll look forward to it. Thanks so much for your time!

It’s been a pleasure.

A Silver Lining for Palestine?

At IPS Special Project Right Web, Samer Araabi writes:

For decades, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been mired in stalemate. Countless peace overtures over the past 30 years have fallen apart for one reason or another, and the basis for many of these negotiations—the division of the territory into two distinct states—is becoming increasingly impossible as a result of demographic changes both inside Israel’s 1948 borders and in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Frustrated by the failure of international players—and the United States in particular—to act as neutral and effective arbiters, the Palestinian Authority recently put in motion a plan to unilaterally declare statehood. Despite the fact that this objective is in line with long-standing U.S. foreign policy, the response by many Washington pundits and policymakers has been remarkably vitriolic.

Washington has come down hard on the idea of an independently pursued statehood bid, attacking not only the Palestinian Authority but the United Nations itself, while implicitly supporting the increasing militarization of Israeli settlements. Washington’s reticence to acknowledge the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people could severely compromise the potential for future peace.

To read the piece in its entirety, visit Right Web.

The World Is Finally Fighting Off the Infection of Neoliberalism

Tunisians counting votes.

Tunisians counting votes.

The narrative seems simple enough: on December 18, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, an over-educated but under-employed Tunisian fruit seller, immolated himself in protest and died at the age of 26. His act touched off a wave of activism that toppled the governments of his own country, neighboring Egypt, and (in different circumstances) Libya. The revolutionary wave touched most countries considered to be part of the Arab World, along with many others, and continues to place the governments of the region in precarious positions. Directly and openly inspired by this, a Canadian magazine called Adbusters issued a call for similar tactics to be used in the United States, specifically targeting the Wall Street financial district in New York City. This led to the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, which in turn spread across the United States and thereafter to many other locations around the world.

After taking a step back and examining all of this from a larger perspective, the chain of events is still evident and accurate, though much less linear. During the height of the Egyptian Revolution in late winter and early spring, thousands of citizens of the state of Wisconsin occupied the state’s Capitol building and the surrounding grounds in order to protest a contentious anti-union law. Demonstrators drew parallels between their situation and that in Egypt, and the Egyptians noticed, sending orders of pizza and other assistance in solidarity. Similarly, during the past year Israel was roiled by extraordinarily large (and tactically similar) demonstrations focused on deteriorating living conditions, and anti-austerity protests swept most of Europe, notably including the occupation-style tactics of Spain’s Indignados. A large anti-corruption movement emerged in India, masses of Mexicans indicated that they feel the Drug War must end, and Evo Morales’s Bolivian government’s construction program drew the ire of some of its indigenous supporters. This is just a sample.

In other words, 2011 has been a busy year, and much of the aforementioned activity crossed national (and ethnic, and religious) boundaries, with activists in different countries communicating with one another and coordinating their activities internationally, or at least acting in solidarity with those they see as their brethren. This stands to reason. All of these movements are battling neoliberalism, the guiding principle of Western governments and their foreign satraps for over three decades. Under the guise of such slogans as “free markets,” “free trade,” and the like, the end result is privatization of gains and socialization of risk, or, to put it another way, welfare for the rich and free markets for the poor. Corporations and the wealthiest classes receive tax breaks and subsidies in ordinary times and bailouts in emergencies, all under the stated rationale that this will result in increased investment, thereby spreading prosperity to the rest of society through a “trickle-down” effect. Meanwhile, various social programs and measures designed to protect workers, the environment, and the disadvantaged are weakened or eliminated entirely, in the name of austerity, among other things.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these trends were initiated by those who grew up with all the advantages they sought to remove. By the 1970s, most of those on both sides of the North Atlantic who had struggled, often in the face of lethal opposition, for such things as labor rights, progressive taxation, workplace safety, universal education, environmental protections, and the like were dead, and their descendants had known nothing but the resulting broad-based prosperity that followed, at least in peacetime. Either a lack of appreciation for these struggles created an environment where they could be lumped in with “big government” in general as the cause of the stagflation and other economic problems of that era, or reactionary elements finally saw an opportunity to roll back changes they had violently opposed for generations, or perhaps both scenarios are true.

In any case, the 1980s saw Margaret Thatcher declaring “there is no alternative” to the neoliberal prescriptions of the era, while in the United States, the Reagan Administration famously pursued “trickle-down economics,” also known as “Reaganomics.” The change seems striking when one considers that Reagan’s Republican predecessors such as Eisenhower and Nixon dismissed such policies in their terms in office, and even his own Vice President, George Herbert Walker Bush, had earlier referred to neoliberalism as “voodoo economics.” In other developed nations around the world, neoliberal reforms similarly flew in the face of a hard-won social compact, and while such reforms were most enthusiastically pursued in the United States and United Kingdom, they proceeded apace almost everywhere, to varying extents.

Resistance was immediate, with activists pointing out that the First World was now experiencing what the Third World had experienced for centuries at the hands of foreign imperialists and their local collaborators. A perfect example is the British de-industrialization of the Indian subcontinent, with its motive to protect the fortunes of British industrialists and resulting in calamitous effects that are still being felt today. This was the general pattern for Euro-American-Japanese-etc. imperialism for ages. The phrase “local collaborators” is crucial, because very often the elites of the colonized nations were indispensable to the process of empire, and as time went by, imperialists dispensed with colonization (or even direct rule) entirely, instead ruling through compliant clients. This has been the preferred method of the United States (notwithstanding Hawaii, the Philippines, and elsewhere,) and thus it is fitting that the first successful resistance to neoliberalism emerged in Latin America.

In late February of 1989, massive urban strife embroiled Caracas, the Venezuelan capital. The unrest was touched off by an attempt by President Perez to implement a package of neoliberal reforms at the behest of the International Monetary Fund. The Washington-based IMF and the Perez administration sought to take advantage of Venezuela’s economic problems in order to restructure the country along neoliberal lines. These events were unique in neither circumstance nor scale, but they did occur at a precipitous time: the Cold War was ending. During the Cold War, attempts by Latin American activists (labor unions, peasants’ organizations, religious groups, and armed rebels) to challenge the state of affairs in their countries were met with accusations of Communism, followed by state violence and repression, usually with funding, training, and sometimes direct military assistance from the United States.

Red-baiting not a necessary excuse for intervention, but after decades of stating that intervention was necessary to combat a Communist menace, it became politically problematic to wage such interventions when the Communist menace no longer existed. After decades of repression, culminating in the especially brutal 1980s, and in the face of unfriendly regimes, Latin American social movements began to regain their momentum, and by the end of 2010 much of Latin America was (or had been) ruled by leftist (often “left populist”) administrations for the first time in the history of many countries.

Poverty and inequality are still ubiquitous in much of the region, but at the same time these and other social ills have been under intensive attack. For example, in Brazil, the administration of President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, a former metalworker and trade unionist, embarked on social programs that would likely have brought an aggressive response from right-wing Brazilians and their backers in Washington and elsewhere. This is exactly what happened to President Joao Goulart in 1964. Lula, in contrast, finished his term having overseen steep drops in poverty and inequality, and also worked to deepen the process of Latin American economic integration.

None of the governments in the “new Latin America” have entirely pleased the social movements responsible for their elections. Lula’s administration compromised with international financial institutions, and also participated in the occupation of Haiti after the controversial toppling of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, though Lula did oppose the coup against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya (the Cold War is over, but reactionary forces remain.) The recent problems of Bolivia’s Evo Morales were mentioned above. Meanwhile, and perhaps ironically, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” is in serious economic trouble. The point is that the people of Latin America have shown what is possible, and the issues that motivate their struggles are the same of most people around the world. On October 25, a “Solidarity Statement from Cairo” appeared on the website of Occupy Wall Street, making similar assertions. While some have questioned the statement’s veracity, the aforementioned gestures of support during the Wisconsin imbroglio, recent visits to American demonstrations by Egyptian activists, and a march from Tahrir Square to the American embassy in solidarity with embattled Occupy Oakland all show the global solidarity that characterizes this “movement of movements.”

“Movement of movements” was one phrase used to describe the collection of environmental, labor, and trade groups (though their opponents, and the mainstream media, used the label “anti-globalization”) that achieved considerable prominence by the late 1990s in their struggle against neoliberalism. Their struggle was/is international, actually global, with abundant participation from the Global South. Such a focus on international solidarity goes back as far as 1864 and the founding of the International Workingmen’s Association (aka the First International,) if not earlier. The focus has always been to remind the world’s masses that those who rule them always seek to divide or distract them along national, racial, religious, ethnic, and other lines. This is essentially what happened in the First World War, among other occasions, but in contrast, if people are able to organize, sustain their activities, and support one another locally and globally, there are few limits on what can be achieved. That is exactly what the Occupiers and every allied struggle worldwide have in mind.

Scott Charney is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Gilad Shalit’s Release Emboldens Netanyahu’s Iran Mandate

“The ‘Israel will bomb Iran’ meme has been used so often that it doesn’t make much sense to take it serious anymore,” writes Bernhard at Moon of Alabama. “So why even discuss when it, as now, comes up again?”

The difference is that the old campaign, via IDF jail guard [Jeffrey] Goldberg in The Atlantic and others in U.S. venues, was supposed to influence the U.S. to do the dirty work.

The new version of the meme is coming through major commentators in the Israeli press and its purpose seems is to publicly warn Israelis about some lunacy Netanyahoo and his defense minister Barak are seemingly committed to.

After citing three of the commentators, Bernhard refers us to “the best-connected, most influential journalist in Israel” — Nahum Barnea. He links to Tikun Olam, where Richard Silverstein translates and comments on the piece by Barnea, who he calls “the consummate media-political insider.”

He also reflects on a dual, conflicted approach within the Israeli policymaking apparatus toward the prospect of war. Many point to previous attacks on Iraq’s and Syria’s nuclear reactors which accomplished their mission without casualties and without negative fallout in the international sphere. [See my recent piece for more on this. — Ed.] They say attacking Iran is likely to follow the same scenario. Those like Meir Dagan, who argue that Iran is a different matter entirely, find it hard to gain traction because Israel has never endured the type of counter-attack of which the former Mossad chief warns. Thus, it’s hard to get a nation to focus on. … the dangers of an Iran assault. … an outcome it’s never experienced.

Money quote by Silverstein:

Israelis always seem to be fighting the last war rather than anticipating what may be new in the next one.

As for Netanyahu, writes Barnea himself, “the popularity that he gained as a result of the Shalit deal hasn’t calmed him: just the opposite, it gave him a sense of power.” Is that what Netanyahu craves? Not necessarily; instead, “all his life he’s dreamed of being Churchill. Iran gives him with the chance.” He and defense minister Ehud Barak are “two Siamese twins of the Iranian issue.”

Twas ever thus. Leaders have long sought out opportunities to fight instead of make use of diplomacy. However, Silverstein writes:

In the ancient past this may’ve been more common, but today in few countries do leaders think of a good war as their personal political legacy. [Since George W. Bush left office anyway. — Ed.] Most politicians, when they think of legacies think of treaties signed, edifices erected, laws passed.

Netanyahu may assure himself that he’s saving Israel, but even a hint of foresight should tell him that attacking Iran could be the beginning of the end for Israel. As for Barak’s motivation, Silverstein again:

This is both his strategy and legacy. … There are those who suspect Barak of having personal motives. … A strike on Iran would be the big bang that would make it possible for [him to] continue to be defense minister.

Silverstein:

It’s an indication of the pathology and impoverishment of latter-day Israel that Bibi and Barak would think in such terms.

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