Focal Points Blog

Nuclear Pits: Death in Its Most Concentrated Form

Nuclear pitEven more than biological weapons such as anthrax, one drop of which may kill thousands, nothing kills more with less volume than a strategic nuclear weapon (as opposed to the smaller tactical, or battlefield, version). At only about five centimeters in radius, the nuclear pit — the core of the weapon which contains the plutonium — could be characterized as death in its most concentrated form ever.

At Focal Points, I frequently about the CMRR-NF, a proposed nuclear facility at Los Alamos said to be intended for the manufacture of nuclear pits. A friend of mine recently took me to task for operating under an unconfirmed presumption. This individual, who worked at Los Alamos on, among other areas, nonproliferation, asked us exactly how we knew that the CMRR-NF was intended for the manufacture of nuclear pits. Turns out, a little research reveals, that, while figuratively speaking it may be, technically it’s not.

We found our first clue at the website of the Los Alamos Study Group, which, as yo may know from my posts, is spearheading the fight to halt the CMRR-NF. In a page on nuclear pits, it urges caution in speaking about the CMRR-NF and nuclear pits

. . . because no one outside [the National Nuclear Security Administration] and LANL [Los Alamos National Laboratory] can be sure exactly what pits LANL is making now or is preparing to make in the future, since these programs are classified. Many details can be withheld even from Congress in a variety of ways. Most workers in these programs have no access to this information.

In fact, on June 25, 2010, in a letter to the Santa Fe New Mexican, Kevin Roark, a spokesman for Los Alamost, wrote:

While [a] June 18 editorial about the construction program at Los Alamos National Laboratory, accurately describes the economic opportunity and controversy associated with the proposed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Project, it’s important to clarify the national security purpose of the replacement facility.

Contrary to the editorial’s assertion, plutonium pit manufacturing operations have been, and will continue to be, performed at an existing facility known as the Plutonium Facility. CMRR will be a world-class working laboratory for the science of actinide elements, including plutonium and uranium [to] support work in counter-terrorism, nuclear forensics, and nonproliferation.

Shortly afterward, at Nuclear Watch New Mexico, Jay Coghlan responded (emphasis his).

While being narrowly correct, LANL PR man Kevin Roark is misleading when he claims . . . that plutonium pit production will not take place in the new Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Project (CMRR). What he fails to disclose is that the Lab is not building just one facility, but instead is creating an integrated manufacturing complex for expanded production for which the CMRR is absolutely key. This complex will [also include] LANL’s existing production facility “PF-4″ with ~$300 million in upgrades. . . . The [CMRR] will be literally next door to PF-4 and linked to it via underground tunnel. While pits are physically manufactured [at PF-4], the [CMRR’s] central missions [which include analytical chemistry] are essential operations that ensure . . . plutonium and pit production quality control. The National Nuclear Security Administration’s own documents show that the [CMRR] is being specifically sized to support expanded production of up to 80 pits per year, quadruple LANL’s currently approved rate.

Nothing says “smoking gun” like an underground tunnel. Kidding aside, while the CMRR-NF is not technically a facility for the manufacture of nuclear pits, it’s obviously critical to the process. Those who state that the CMRR-NF is a facility for the manufacture of nuclear pits can be forgiven for speaking in shorthand.

Coghlan adds:

Roark must think that New Mexicans are naïve enough to accept the Lab’s claims that the CMRR is all about “science” even as LANL becomes more and more a production site.

Perhaps not naïve, but like most Americans — including the Obama administration as it brandishes the ratification of New START while simultaneously seeking to fund the CMRR-NF — unprepared to shut the door on nuclear weapons.

Fukushima Be Damned, Federal Court Brushes Off Seismic Nuke Risks

Regular readers are aware of how alarmed we are by the construction of a facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico intended, in large part, to manufacture something known as plutonium pits. Before examining the latest development in attempts to halt it, first some background on the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) from recent posts.

If you’re not a regular reader, you may be surprised to learn the federal government seeks to ram through a new nuclear facility that’s intolerable on a number of counts.

1. Its intended purpose is to build plutonium pits — the living, breathing heart of a nuclear weapons, where the chain reaction occurs. In other words, mad science at its most extreme.

2. Its projected cost, adjusted for inflation, may be greater than all the work done on the Manhattan Project in New Mexico during World War II.

3. The land the building will occupy is seismically, uh, challenged (subject to seismic shocks as great as those experienced at Fukushima).

A watchdog association called the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG) has been spearheading efforts to stop the CMRR-NF in its tracks via a lawsuit against the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the Department of Energy (DOE). Re the objections to CMRR-NF, again from a previous post:

In the hearings Mello and Noted nuclear physicist Frank von Hippel, who, during Perestroika, helped sell the Russians on monitoring and verification (as chronicled in David Hoffman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Dead Hand), testified. LASG’s lawyer asked von Hippel why he thought a new study of alternatives to the CMRR-NF was called for? His reply (in truth, to an imaginary question: why do we need a facility that builds nuclear pits anyway?):

The need for large-scale pit production has vanished. In 2003, the [NNSA] was arguing that the [United States] needed the capability to produce 125 to 450 pits per year by 2020 to replace the pits in the US weapon stockpile that would be 30 to 40 years old by then. . . .But, in 2006, we learned that US pits were so well made that, according to a Congressionally-mandated review of Los Alamos and Livermore studies on pit aging, “Most primary types have credible minimum lifetimes in excess of 100 years as regards aging of plutonium.” [Besides, although] the Los Alamos and Livermore National Laboratories have been lobbying to develop and manufacture new-design “reliable replacement warheads,” and the Bush Administration supported the idea, Congress refused in 2007 to fund the program.

Also the updated U.S. Nuclear Posture Review Report mandates that

In any decision to [develop] warhead LEPs [Life Extension Programs], the United States will give strong preference to options for refurbishment or reuse. . . . the preferred strategy is to reuse existing pits where necessary, or simply refurbish the balance of the warhead. . . . As of the end of Fiscal Year 2009, the total size of the U.S. warhead stockpile was about 5,000 warheads . . . and about 14,000 pits recovered from [decommissioned] warheads . . . were in storage at the Pantex warhead assembly/disassembly facility in Amarillo.

In other words

There will be no shortage of pits to reuse.

Let’s hope that those who worry that the United States would run out of these infernal little internal destruction machines will rest easy now.

Also testifying was LASG executive director Greg Mello. When asked by LASG’s lawyer about the CMRR-NF’s estimated cost, he responded.

In November 2010, the White House estimated the budget at “$3.7 to 5.8 billion.” Defendants recently pushed back the projected date of a reliable cost estimate to 2015.

In fact (emphasis added)

In its submissions to Congress, NNSA is just writing “TBD” in the future cost and schedule columns.

Echoing von Hippel (or vice versa; not sure who testified first), Mello explained that the Department of Energy’s science advisory group, known as JASON,

. . . reviewed research done at LANL and Livermore on pit life. JASON concurred with these labs that most U.S. pits would last for a century or more. There are also extra pits for almost every kind of warhead, thousands in all, and these reserves [as von Hippel also mentioned] are growing as warheads are dismantled. . . . Production of new plutonium pits is not necessary to maintain a very large, diverse, powerful nuclear weapons stockpile for several decades to come.

Besides which, it seems the NNSA may have bitten off more than it can chew. I’ll break down the relevant paragraph of the LASG newsletter into bullet points. The NNSA is attempting to create

  • existing and planned new programs in the building, including new pit production and industrial-scale production of plutonium dioxide for mixed-oxide (MOX) reactor fuel
  • the production of additional kinds of plutonium pits and in much larger numbers than before
  • while also trying to fix the building in fundamental ways
  • while also undertaking a giant construction project immediately adjacent to the facility
  • not to mention several “smaller” projects (in the $50-$300 million range) that NNSA hopes to start nearby as well.

In the lawsuit, LASG contended that the project should not proceed without a valid, new environmental impact statement (EIS) to address seismic risks that creation of the facility at Los Alamos might incur. Apparently, the area is at risk of earthquakes as large as those that rocked Japan. Worse, the site rests on loose volcanic ash especially susceptible to shifting should an earthquake occur, which can result in fire and the release of radiation.

An EIS hasn’t been worked up for the facility since 2003 and LASG believes that simply revising it in the form of a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) is woefully inadequate in light of how much plans for the facility have expanded. Unfortunately, the judge didn’t agree and dismissed the lawsuit. From LASG’s latest newsletter:

Judge Herrera’s opinion rested heavily on the [SEIS] now underway, stating that this process itself, which began only after the Study Group’s litigation was filed, and its “public participation” component in particular were sufficient for the court to stay its hand — and dismiss the lawsuit. The judge did not rule on the Study Group’s motion to enjoin the project. [LASG] has been urging members of the public to stay away from the SEIS hearings, which it regards as illegitimate.

And which, as has been pointed out to me, began the day that the judge dismissed the suit. Of the hearings, Mello said

We need to call them ‘hearings,’ in quotations . . . because the public record is replete with Administration statements saying it is not under any circumstances going to reconsider its commitment to this project, unlike what is implied in the hearing process. . . . [LASG] has instead called citizens to engage substantively with government on all levels to challenge. . . . Local government resolutions supporting [LASG’s] lawsuit were passed by four local governments.

In the end, writes Mello:

This decision, while disappointing, will not stop our opposition to this highly destructive project. It’s a speed bump. If NNSA thinks they are in the clear now, they are wrong.

Nor does the ruling

. . . change the facts on the ground — the high seismicity, the cramped site and poor geology, the lack of need, the lack of money, and the basic horror and immorality of the mission.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Los Alamos Study Group is manning the front lines of disarmament: the actual building of nuclear facilities. In a sense, what it’s doing is trying to save the Obama administration — and the United States — from itself. The vast amount of money being spent on the CMRR-NF and the nature of one of its products — the cores of nuclear weapons — undermines any message of nonproliferation that we’re trying to send to the world with initiatives such as the new START treaty. Excuse me if I repeat myself, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think our disarmament double-dealing escapes the notice of a state like Iran.

Casting Credibility to Winds, Republicans Attempt to Disarm Disarmament

At Huffington Post, William Hartung writes:

Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee. . . . led by Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH) seem . . . to be afraid that the modest but important New START nuclear arms reduction agreement between the U.S. and Russia is somehow going to sap the strength of the United States, unless it is accompanied by massive new investments in nuclear weapons facilities along with bombers, submarines, and ballistic missiles.

Their version of the Fiscal Year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, scheduled to be debated on the House floor this week, Hartung reports, includes amendments such as:

  • A provision delaying the reductions called for in New START until the Secretaries of Defense and Energy certify that a 10-year,185 billion plan to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal is on track;
  • A provision barring funds to “retire, dismantle or eliminate” any nuclear weapon until new factories to produce plutonium and uranium components of nuclear weapons are at full capacity, a process that could take until 2024 or longer;
  • A provision preventing the president from reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal below levels approved in New START, even if there is a chance to achieve security-enhancing reductions without a formal treaty.

Hartung calls these amendments “obnoxious, dangerous and questionable.” I would add laughable and damaging to their credibility. But Republicans’ main concern is moving that Overton Window right in order to make their most extreme policies visible within the parameters of national debate.

By Targeting Palestinian Civilians Israel Only Strengthens Influence of Islamist Ideologues

Mer Khamis(Pictured: Murdered actor and activist Juliano Mer-Khamis.)

Hardliners, whether Israeli or Palestinian, do not desire a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that ends in a negotiated peace like the one that U.S. President Barack Obama suggested in his speech of May 20, 2011, calling for a negotiated two-state solution based on Israel’s pre-Six Day War borders.

These radicalized actors want an all-or-nothing end that justifies their ideological certainties. It has to end that way for them. Human rights groups, Israeli and Palestinian, are just as much an enemy to Palestinian hardliners and Israeli hardliners. Palestinian extremists pursue a “strategy of tension” by targeting Israeli civilians, hiding behind Palestinian civilians (knowing that massive retaliation will follow) and assassinating Palestinian moderates. They hope to provoke a radicalization of the conflict on the Palestinian AND Israeli sides by framing the debate as a “clash of civilizations” or an “existential threat” conflict.

On the Israeli side, the IDF pursues the “Dahiya Doctrine,” which amounts to the collective punishment of civilians “to make the fear we sow among them greater.” In practice, it necessitates the targeting of civilian infrastructure in a military operation to break the people’s “will” to support their (that is, “the enemy’s”) political leadership.

Or as tsarist General Mikhail “Bloody Eyes” Skobelev put it when summarizing his campaign strategy for subjugating Central Asian tribes, “the harder you hit them, the longer they stay quiet.”

The Dahiya Doctrine, as an extreme form of collective punishment, has its genesis in the US occupation of the Philippines. Applied more selectively, it is the practice of executing (or jailing) X number of civilian hostages based on the number of one’s soldiers killed or wounded by the enemy (recall how the capture of a single Israeli soldier was used as a plank in the political foment in Israel to launch Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008). Such a practice has been more recently employed by the Axis Powers and the USSR in WWII, the USSR in Afghanistan, Israel in Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) and the Pakistani Army in its border conflicts.

On the scale that the Israelis have practiced it, the Germans, Americans and British practiced it in WWII through city destruction (i.e., flattening whole cities deliberately to break the population’s will to fight).

It has never worked, though. Such a strategy strengthened the civilian support for their political leadership, as was the case during WWII when German “terror bombing” and Allied “area bombing” failed to break support among the British, German and Japanese populations for continuing the war. If anything, it intensified their resistance by amplifying their suffering.

Today, Israel inadvertently strengthens Islamist ideologues through the practice of the Dahiya Doctrine, just as extremist Palestinian groups and Israeli settlers knowingly attempt to set the tone for the conflict (“clash of civilizations,” “existential threat“) by attacking one another and luring their rivals into massive retaliation operations like Operation Cast Lead or the al-Asqa Martyr’s Brigade’s operations against civilian targets and use of child suicide bombers in the al-Asqa Intifada. They are all quite happy that the violence is setting the tone for the debate and drowning out negotiated political settlements.

That is why hardliners such as these are railing against any two-state solution: they do not want it, and cannot accept it because then their reason for existence, their capacity to hold onto power (because it is ultimately about power), is called into question.

It also goes a long way towards explaining inter-Palestinian violence, which has taken the lives of thousands of those committed to peace, such as Juliano Mer-Khamis and Vitorrio Arrigoni. People like Juliano and Vitorrio are dangerous to peace – even more dangerous than the President of the United States or Israeli moderates – in the eyes of those who oppose a negotiated settlement.

For these extremists who pursue violence, it must end with one people, on one land – no compromise, no coexistence. And land is, more so than religion, at the heart of this conflict.

Machiavelli, although writing nearly five centuries ago, adequately characterized the nature of the current state of the conflict, writing in The Prince:

But when it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.

Both sides have intentionally caused deaths of civilians to spread fear and wreck vengeance. And in doing so, such belligerents simply hope to use the pain from those losses to advance their preferred solution: a world where the other side ceases to exist, or whose existence provides justification for retaining control over a people through a cycle of attack and retaliation.

The conflict, of course, must be decided by those bound up in it. But, when the US government is providing Israel with upwards of US$3 billion in aid annually, Americans should have a say in how Israel approaches the conflict. After the Israeli electorate, American taxpayers are the biggest shareholders in the Israeli state.

We – Israelis, Palestinians and Americans – have an obligation to seek a just return on our collective investment, as taxpayers, yes, but also as people who, by virtue of our nationality, believe in just compensation for the disposed and the wounded.

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

Washington Needs to Provide Some Diplomatic Cover for Exposed Middle-Eastern Protesters

At Other Words, Adotei Akwei writes:

The world is transfixed as the unprecedented events in the Middle East and North Africa unfold. And foreign policy aficionados are equally transfixed as the U.S. government maneuvers between its stated values and sometimes short-sighted security policies. With targeted airstrikes and lofty rhetoric supporting some, but not all, of the brave activists seeking respect for their rights, Washington’s relations and approach with the region are inconsistent and off the mark.

This is a seminal opportunity that the United States can’t afford to miss. The Arab Spring requires a consistent approach to the shared clarion call of freedom from the 300 million-plus people in the 11 countries where significant protests are unfolding. With the escalation of the drone strikes in Pakistan and especially in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s killing, Washington must place itself on the right side of history by unequivocally supporting popular protests with strategic, human rights-centered policies.

The U.S. government has a critical role to play in protecting the virtual town square. Access to Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and the Internet fueled and documented the Arab Spring. But since January, the governments of Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Libya, Syria, and United Arab Emirates have either tried to restrict Internet access or have detained bloggers. The Obama administration should step up its efforts to promote expanded and unrestricted Internet access and forcefully condemn efforts by other governments to undermine this freedom.

Read the rest at Other Words.

Raise Your Hand if You Think the Expansion of Our Nuclear-Industrial Complex Escapes Iran

Focal Points has frequently featured posts about the distinctly Soviet era-sounding Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility. The CMRR-NF, as it’s known, is a project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory of such mind-numbing expense that it boggles the mind (doggles the boon?).

A watchdog association called the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG) has been spearheading efforts to stop the CMRR-NF in its tracks. Permit me to excerpt an April 25 post that I blurbed: “Nuclear watchdogs take to the courtroom to halt the manufacture of a new facility to build the part that makes nuclear weapons explode.”

Forces Opposed to Dangerous, Extravagant Nuke Project Get Day in Court

If you’re not a regular reader, you may be surprised to learn the federal government seeks to ram through a new nuclear facility that’s intolerable on a number of counts.

1. Its intended purpose is to build plutonium pits — the living, breathing heart of a nuclear weapons, where the chain reaction occurs. In other words, mad science at its most extreme.

2. Its projected cost is greater than all the work done on the Manhattan Project in New Mexico during World War II.

3. The land the building will occupy is seismically, uh, challenged (subject to seismic shocks twice as great as those experienced at Fukushima).

At the time the New Mexico nuclear watchdog group, the Los Alamos Study Group, was about to present its long-gestating lawsuit against the NNSA and the Department of Energy. In a recent LASG newsletter, Executive Director Greg Mello explains.

At 9:00 am Wednesday April 27th, in the Brazos Courtroom . . . of the Federal Courthouse . . . Albuquerque, the Honorable Judge Judith Herrera will hear arguments from the [LASG] and the federal defendants — the Department of Energy . . . and the [NNSA] over whether final design of the CMRR-NF . . . should be halted pending analysis of alternatives to the project.

The two opposing motions:

. . . whether a) to throw out [LASG’s] lawsuit . . . or b) temporarily pause the project . . . in order to give the court the opportunity to hear evidence on the [LASG’s] contention that the project cannot proceed without a valid, new environmental impact statement [EIS] [to address, primarily, the sesmic risk].

Hearing held, the LASG is cautiously optimistic. Noted nuclear physicist Frank von Hippel, who, during Perestroika, helped sell the Russians on monitoring and verification (as chronicled in David Hoffman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Dead Hand), testified. LASG’s lawyer asked von Hippel why he thought a new study of alternatives to the CMRR-NF was called? In part, he replied:

The need for large-scale pit production has vanished. In 2003, the [NNSA] was arguing that the [United States] needed the capability to produce 125 to 450 pits per year by 2020 to replace the pits in the US weapon stockpile that would be 30 to 40 years old by then. . . .But, in 2006, we learned that US pits were so well made that, according to a Congressionally-mandated review of Los Alamos and Livermore studies on pit aging, “Most primary types have credible minimum lifetimes in excess of 100 years as regards aging of plutonium.” [Besides, although] the Los Alamos and Livermore National Laboratories have been lobbying to develop and manufacture new-design “reliable replacement warheads,” and the Bush Administration supported the idea, Congress refused in 2007 to fund the program.

Also the updated U.S. Nuclear Posture Review Report mandates that

In any decision to [develop] warhead LEPs [Life Extension Programs], the United States will give strong preference to options for refurbishment or reuse. . . . the preferred strategy is to reuse existing pits where necessary, or simply refurbish the balance of the warhead. . . . As of the end of Fiscal Year 2009, the total size of the U.S. warhead stockpile was about 5,000 warheads . . . and about 14,000 pits recovered from [decommissioned] warheads . . . were in storage at the Pantex warhead assembly/disassembly facility in Amarillo.

In other words

There will be no shortage of pits to reuse.

Hope those concerned that the United States would run out of these infernal little internal destruction machines will rest easy now.

Also testifying was executive director Mello. When asked by LASG’s lawyer about the CMRR-NF’s estimated cost, he responded.

In November 2010, the White House estimated the budget at “$3.7 to 5.8 billion.” Defendants recently pushed back the projected date of a reliable cost estimate to 2015.

In fact (emphasis added)

In its submissions to Congress, NNSA is just writing “TBD” in the future cost and schedule columns.

Echoing von Hippel (or vice versa; not sure who testified first), Mello explained that the Department of Energy’s science advisory group, which is referred to as JASON

. . . reviewed research done at LANL and Livermore on pit life. JASON concurred with these labs that most U.S. pits would last for a century or more. There are also extra pits for almost every kind of warhead, thousands in all, and these reserves [as von Hippel also mentioned] are growing as warheads are dismantled. . . . Production of new plutonium pits is not necessary to maintain a very large, diverse, powerful nuclear weapons stockpile for several decades to come.

Meanwhile the NNSA is attempting to ram through a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), instead of an entirely new EIS. But

. . . issuing a SEIS at this point could not achieve NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] compliance [since NNSA] is . . . in the process of executing it as fast as it can. . . . To enforce NEPA, the Court should put the brakes on this juggernaut and then look for a way to achieve an objective NEPA analysis.

After all, Mello reminded us:

The Administration has made agreements with Senators to complete the Nuclear Facility.

Von Hippel expanded on this when the LASG lawyer asked “Why then, with this huge cost over-run and lack of mission, is the Administration pushing so hard to build the CMRR-NF?”

This appears to be primarily because a number of Republican Senators [led by Jon Kyl (R-AZ)] extracted a commitment from the Administration to build the CMRR-NF and a facility for producing weapon-components [at another] site in exchange for their votes to ratify the New START Treaty.

But, of course,

In the end, Senator Kyl did not vote to ratify the New START Treaty.

Von Hippel then speculates on how Kyl’s double-cross, as it were, might have affect the administration’s current attitude toward the CMRR-NF.

My guess is that, if this Court required it, some in the Obama Administration would welcome being forced to have a relook at alternatives to the CMRR-NF.

With so much invested in nuclear disarmament as an achievement that the Obama administration can brandish, scarcely does it wish to be played again by the opposition. As it is, the sincerity of its disarmament intentions is called into question by the CMRR-NF. Don’t think nations such as Iran aren’t watching the progress CMRR-NF and posing the hypothetical question “And you wonder what we want with nuclear weapons?”

Daylight Opening Between U.S. and Israel Barely Visible to Naked Eye

Netanyahu ObamaLike many people, I expected little from Obama’s performance at AIPAC. He has to straddle parallel universes: the real one, in which most countries recognize Israel as tantamount to an international scofflaw, and the American domestic political universe in which Israel is always right. The US’s real allies and the rest of the world have long wearily resigned themselves to how, as with his speech at the State Department, the President has to pander to pro-Israeli organizations and the Congress members whose support he needs on domestic issues.

Obama congratulated himself, deservedly, for continuing to raise unpalatable issues with elections in the air, and while pandering in a traditionally nauseous way, there was some reassurance from the sound of silence in his speech.

AIPAC’s conference is a mind-numbing experience. “My country right or wrong” is a rightly derided principle. But at AIPAC ten thousand people are assembled dedicated to the proposition that someone else’s country should be supported, right or wrong, even if it flouts every principle they support at home — and even if its civil laws on marriage and conversion deny the branches of Judaism to which most practicing American Jews adhere.

The organizations tend to be donor-driven rather than grass roots motivated. American Jews, true to their liberal roots, voted for Obama in higher proportions than any other ethnic group — even as a raucous minority of the community questioned Obama’s citizenship and Christianity. That minority is disproportionately represented in the counsels of AIPAC and many of the “official” organizations and tends to Republican, Likudnik hawkishness.

But they also tend to think in slogans and catchphrases, without comparing them to reality, let alone with Robert Burns’s “giftie to see oursel’s as others see us.” They have been helped to remain in their parallel universe because presidents and secretaries of state have pandered (with the notable exception of James Baker) for decades to AIPAC — and no one notices. As is customary, dogs are biting men.

The media attention to President Obama’s address is significant since for the first time in twenty years, there is visible crack showing between the White House and AIPAC — and Israel. It is going too far to say that Obama is biting the dog — but he is sinking his gums into the Lobby and Netanyahu. He is doing so to the background of an American Jewish community that is split more than ever before, and certainly more so than the “official” spokesmen and organizations reveal.

While admitting there are problems with a unity Palestinian government, “We will continue to demand that Hamas accept the basic responsibilities of peace: recognizing Israel’s right to exist, rejecting violence, and adhering to all existing agreements,” Obama did not exclude negotiations, but in effect put conditions, which Hamas has, in reality, already gone a long way to meet and is on the way to go further.

One hopes that he realizes that the key phrases he used, such as the need to accept Israel’s “right to exist,” were introduced by Israeli leaders precisely because they were unacceptable to Palestinians. He might even have noticed how quickly Israel switched from refusing to negotiate because the authority was divided, to refusing because it is united! It is like demanding that American Indian tribes accept that their dispossession was right and goes beyond acceptance of the obvious fact of Israel’s existence and its now nearly universal acceptance as an established state.

Such phrases have traditionally been used in the Levantine blame game in which the purpose of negotiations is not to reach a solution but to blame the other side for failure. But there is always a way to wiggle — a phrase that would irk some Israelis would be for the Palestinians to recognize Israel’s “right to exist under UN Decisions!”

One hopes that the president is now playing this game with Netanyahu. One also hopes he harbors grudges. For the world’s most benefitted welfare queen to publicly dress down the president of its benefactor at the White House should give most Americans some frisson of indignation.

While in the real world, Obama’s insistence on the 1967 boundaries as a basis for negotiation for land swaps has been generally accepted, Palestinians irate at this admitted denial of the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force,” may have missed, along with nuance-free AIPACers, his endorsement of the Palestinian people’s “right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state,” which presumably implies that in return for giving up some of the settled area, the Palestinian state will have a land bridge between Gaza and the West Bank. One can see why he might not have chosen to spell that out for AIPAC!

While he stated a fact, “No vote at the United Nations will ever create an independent Palestinian state,” he did not state a principle. He said, “The United States will stand up against efforts to single Israel out at the UN or in any international forum. Because Israel’s legitimacy is not a matter for debate.” He did not say that the US would veto a UN acceptance of Palestine as a member state.

Indeed, he challenged the sloganeers with reality. “The number of Palestinians living west of the Jordan River is growing rapidly and fundamentally reshaping the demographic realities of both Israel and the Palestinian territories. This will make it harder and harder – without a peace deal – to maintain Israel as both a Jewish state and a democratic state.” Secondly he pointed to how atavistic the old obsession with territory as security is since “technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself in the absence of a genuine peace,” and finally, he pointed to the changes in Israel’s neighbours, so peace can no longer be bought with few local kleptocrats. “Going forward, millions of Arab citizens have to see that peace is possible for that peace to be sustained.”

If the US is retain influence in the region, it can no longer pay exclusive attention to Israeli public opinion while sending a few billion to local rulers. It, and Israel, have to show ordinary Arab citizens that they are serious about peace. Obama cannot regret the consequences to Palestinians of occupation while carrying on passing the ammunition to Israel.

It is unlikely that Netanyahu will voluntarily relinquish the not so secret Likud desire for an Arab-free state all the way to the Jordan. Obama has, perhaps deliberately and adroitly, maneuvered the Israeli Prime Minister into insulting the President of the US. He now has to follow up and show that there are consequences for Israel.

Obama balked at his best opportunity, which was the UN resolution on the settlements. He should stop equivocating and come out plainly with a declaration that if Netanyahu continues to refuse to come to terms with reality in the region, then he cannot take a US veto in the Security Council against Palestinian membership for granted nor even a nay vote in the General Assembly against a declaration of statehood.

Ian Williams has written for newspapers and magazines around the world. He is currently writing a book on the Americans who blame the UN for all the US’s ills. For more by Ian Williams visit Deadline Pundit.

WikiLeaks: Mauritanian Child Brides Embody the Dark Side of Globalization

Mint El Moctar(Pictured: Mint El Moctar.)

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the fifty-fifth in the series.

One of the least remarked upon aspects of the WikiLeaked embassy cables is the persistent focus by diplomats on the so-called “dark side of globalization”—the illicit global economy. From gun-runners and nuclear smugglers to concerns about the trafficking of people and natural resources, cables detailing the corrosive effects of organized crime on the national interest pepper the Cablegate database with remarkable frequency.

The issue of human trafficking, particularly, consumes the focus of numerous cables. As the anthropologist Pardis Mahdavi warns in her new book, Gridlock, the discourse around trafficking tends to oversimplify and blur thinking about a spectrum of activity that is not always coerced nor connected to the sex trade, but is often assumed to be monolithic, gendered and defined by socioeconomic desperation. However true this observation—and evidence suggests that it’s spot on—some cases are less unambiguous.

Child trafficking is one such instance, the subject of a 2009 cable with the alarming title “From Child Bride to Sex Slave,” which discusses the disturbing trend in Mauritania of young girls being “married off to wealthy Saudi [Arabian] men in exchange for hefty bride prices.” The bulk of the report recounts a discussion embassy officials had with Aminetou Mint El Moctar, president of the Association of Women Heads of Household, a Mauritanian NGO advocating for women’s rights.

Mint El Moctar told the diplomats that the traditional practice of child marriages

Was the main driver of trafficking. Traffickers approach poor and ignorant Mauritanian families about marrying their daughter to wealthy Saudi men. Hefty bride prices amounting to five to six million ouguiya (approximately $20,000) and promises of better opportunities for the girls lure the families into accepting…The intermediaries are usually associated with local travel agencies, which Mint El Moctar are in reality trafficking networks. The girls are taken to Saudi Arabia by a family member or by a travel agency-designated “tutor.” The agency intermediary gets a commission from the husband for the striking the marriage deal—amounts vary according to the girl’s beauty and youth.

What’s worse,

Mint El Moctar stressed that once they arrive in Saudi Arabia, these child brides become sex slaves to their husbands. She explained that pre-pubescent girls are highly prized by Saudi men but, once they reach puberty or become pregnant, they are of no further interest to their husbands. According to Mint El Moctar, the girls are then repudiated and thrown into the streets. Without a support network, they have no choice but to become prostitutes.

Mint El Moctar’s claims came as no shock to embassy officials which, the cable notes, had heard similar stories from other human rights activists. One claimed that “she had met a Mauritanian girl who had spent three years in Saudi Arabia locked up in a room without seeing anybody but her husband and a female servant who tended to her needs. ” American diplomats had also heard reports from Radio France International which in an expose of the networks had interviewed young women brought to Saudi as child brides, including one “who, upon her divorce, had to leave her children behind in” the country.

Compounding the problem, “the Mauritanian government does not recognize trafficking as a problem” despite the fact that” articles 332 and 335 of the penal code have provisions against trafficking,” provisions that “are not enforced.” Mint El Moctar reported that she had contacted government officials in an effort to get them to at least rhetorically “denounce government inaction, but received no response.” As a result, Mint El Moctar reported that she had begun mobilizing “a public awareness campaign and is fighting for the creation of a law project to criminalize and combat trafficking.”

The cable’s author, Charge d’Affaires Dennis Hankins, notes in an aside that Mint El Moctar would likely have her work cut out for her. The previous February, embassy officials had raised the issue of human trafficking with a representative of the Ministry of Justice

Who states trafficking of Mauritanian women did not exist and trafficking to Saudi Arabia was not possible because there was a government law that required women to travel with a male family member.

For a problem that supposedly doesn’t exist, the stakes sure are high for activists like Mint El Moctar, who warned that “she has received death threats for pushing the issue. She has been accused of being a liar, a madwoman, and a traitor who damages Mauritania’s reputation.”

More broadly, Mint El Moctar reported that young girls in Mauritania who were not trafficked out of the country faced other problems no less upsetting. She

Expressed concern about a recent surge in child marriages in Mauritania…According to Mint El Moctar, early marriages expose young girls to domestic violence, domestic servitude, and endangers their health. She introduced PolOff to a pregnant twelve-year-old girl who had already been married for three years and regularly beaten by her husband.

After the meeting, Hankins followed up by verifying the child’s claims with another human rights NGO representative, who also reported that “one of her clients was a twelve-year-old who almost died in childbirth.”

Mint El Moctar argued that families pressing their daughters into early marriage were driven by fears of pre-marital sex or worries about the possibility of rape. As Hankins notes,

Rape is a generalized problem in Mauritania that receives no government attention. Zeinebou Mint Taleb Moussa, president of the Mauritanian Association for the Health of Mother and Child (AMSME), said that in 2008 the center she supervises—the only one providing services to victims of rape in Mauritania—received 304 victims. She stated that most victims do not seek help. The week of April 1, a center volunteer was raped and threatened for her affiliation to the center.

Even as the Mauritanian government willfully ignored these violations of women’s rights, transnational advocacy groups and their partners at the United Nations were fully aware of what was going on. Yet sadly, the cable reports that UNICEF officials made clear to the embassy that “they do not have the resources to take concrete actions,” and “requested United States funds to help accelerate actions against child trafficking in Mauritania.” It’s not immediately evident what their idea of action might look like, but if their other tentative plan—“to approach this issue in its next national study”—is any indication, there’s much to be desired.

Hankins closes the cable with the observation that

trafficking, the corollary of poverty and traditional practices harmful to women, is one of many taboos in Mauritanian society. NGOs like Mint El Moctar’s wage a lone battle without resources or recognition…As the United States seeks to support democratic forces in Mauritania, it should put emphasis on increasing these NGO’s capacity to denounce and fight human rights abuses as well as provide support to victims. With their “in your face approach” towards the government, their capacity to undertake concrete actions and mobilize the population at the grassroots level, and their desire to fight against all odds for a more democratic society—even at the expense of their reputation and personal safety—human rights activists like Mint El Moctar are among our best partners in democracy.

Hankins’ recommendations did not go unheeded. In June 2010, Mint El Moctar and other activists dedicated to ending the trade in human trafficking were recognized by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for their courageous work. And to be sure, it has been impactful. The government of Mauritania now officially recognizes child trafficking as a public problem demanding emergency attention. At the same time, words have not been met with deeds. According to the US State Department’s 2010 annual report on human trafficking, Mauritania has not made any significant efforts to combat the phenomenon within its borders since 2009, inhabiting the exclusive basement tier in a worldwide ranking of countries fighting the trade in people.

WikiLeaks: To Maintain Illusion of Independence From U.S., Canada Downplayed Role in Iraq Invasion

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the fifty-fourth in the series.

In the wake of 9/11, Americans were introduced to some of the uglier features of their government at war. On the one hand, we were witness to the petty politics of competing bureaucracies—small-minded battles over information that ultimately led to failures of security and bungled missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the other hand, we became subject to the repressive character of secrecy regimes that defend Constitutional violations in the name of preserving the very principles—such as transparency—that bolster a democratic society. But according to new embassy cables published this week by WikiLeaks, the United States isn’t alone. Our neighbors to the north, it seems, have had their own problems with sharing information—amongst themselves and with the public.

During the chaotic period immediately following the American invasion of Iraq, the Canadian government was stuck scratching its chin over what to do with Mamdouh Mustafa, the sole Iraqi diplomat remaining in Ottawa. The Canadians had already kicked a handful of Iraqi diplos out of the country on suspicion of espionage by then, but Mustafa had been allowed to remain, even if kept under close watch.

In a cable dashed off roughly a month after the initial stages of the US invasion, the American embassy in Ottawa reported that the Canadians continued “to monitor closely the activities of…Mustafa, and had no indication that he was destroying Iraqi Government records or property.” The leadership in Ottawa was particularly keen, it would seem, to get inside of the embassy once Mustafa left the country so they could “remove items of an ‘undiplomatic nature’ from the premises of the Iraqi Embassy,” though what those items may have been is left a mystery.

But the bigger problem, beyond confiscating the leftovers of an abandoned embassy, was how to proceed with the diplomat himself. The Baath regime of Saddam Hussein had collapsed two days earlier, and according to the Canadian Foreign Affairs Desk Officer for Iraq, Chris Hull,

Mustafa…has given no indication of his future plans. Hull saw no basis for him to be granted refugee status, but said that if Mustafa makes such a claim he could remain in Canada while his case is being reviewed. The GoC could also decide to declare him persona non grata. The RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] is providing security for the Iraqi Embassy and is escorting Mustafa due to concerns about potential demonstrators.

Despite Canada’s official refusal to aid the American toppling of Saddam (which may have masked Canadian participation in the invasion, as new Cablegate documents suggest), the two governments worked closely together on the Mustafa situation.

The GoC has been very helpful to us…and we have concurred with their reasons for not expelling him from Canada. The GoC is now taking a wait-and-see approach on how to deal with him. The Foreign Affairs spokesperson has said it would be up to the new Iraqi government to decide whether to withdraw current diplomats.

By the following month, however, waiting around for a new government to magically appear in Baghdad seemed a distinctly less wise proposition than before. Whether at the behest of Ottawa or by his own volition, Mustafa returned to Iraq, as a second cable—written the following month—makes clear.

Thing is, the Foreign Ministry didn’t bother to let their associates in Canadian intelligence know. As the cable notes, while “the GoC had taken a decision to facilitate the return to Baghdad of Iraqi Charge d’Affaires…sources at post advise that CSIS (Canadian intelligence) was unaware of the…decision.” Not only did the ministry apparently want to keep the news hidden from their interagency partners, but they were also looking to cook the books to obscure the nature of Mustafa’s repatriation to Iraq. The government’s Middle East Division Deputy Director Graeme McIntyre requested that the United States smuggle Mustafa’s name onto “the worldwide list of former regime officials posted abroad whose departure USG previously had encouraged to different host governments,” a move Ottawa would find helpful in greasing the wheels of Mustafa’s exit from Canada.

The reason for this bit of bureaucratic deception, it would seem, had less to do with national security and everything to do with controlling the possibility for domestic political damage to the ruling Liberal Party, which was already falling apart at the seams.

McIntyre said the GoC is particularly sensitive to the possibility of negative press coverage about Mustafa’s departure (and probably, the likelihood that left-leaning opposition MPs will attack the government decision as a “rights” violation etc.).

That way, “if Mustafa was accredited to Canada as a full charge, then it would appear” as if Canadian-American machinations had nothing to do with the diplomat’s return, because he would fall “into the category of ‘head of mission’ and is thus covered by the instruction from the Iraqi [foreign minister].”

The United States obliged, and with good reason: Washington owed Canada a pretty big favor. Despite then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s adamant public refusal to support the American adventure in Iraq, another WikiLeaked document clearly shows the behind-the-scenes reality to be quite different. As my friend Matthew Bondy, a conservative political columnist in Canada, has written, Chretien’s party “blew their nationalist trumpet with one hand and crossed their fingers with the other,” offering to “discreetly” assist coalition forces as they prepared to overrun Iraq even as the Liberals celebrated their foreign policy independence from Washington.

One bad turn, after all, deserves another.

Iranq: One Size Foreign Policy Fits All

At Right Web, Eli Clifton and Ali Gharib write:

Imagine there’s a Middle Eastern country with a history of rocky relations with the United States. Washington hawks insist the country poses a threat to both the United States and its allies. They undertake a PR campaign demonizing the country’s polity and make cocksure claims about its imminent acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. They also make dubious claims tying the country to the perpetrators of the worst attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor. The country’s name starts with the letters I – R – A. What country comes to mind?

Iraq and Iran both fit the profile.

In Iraq, years of pro-war drumbeating were kicked into high gear after 9/11, culminating in the 2003 invasion and occupation—and subsequent bloody civil war—based on inaccurate claims of WMD production and ties to Al Qaeda. The war came with enormous costs in blood and treasure, as well as loss of U.S. prestige and credibility—not to mention the price paid by Iraq.

Undeterred by these costs, many of the same people who led the push for regime-change in Baghdad now have their sights set on Tehran. Using the same playbook they used for Iraq, these hawks are again selling U.S. military strikes as a sort of “cakewalk.”

Few high-profile American commentators have openly called for a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran, but many of those who have are neoconservatives pundits, among them Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin[1] and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ (FDD) Reue lMarc Gerecht[2]. Others still, such as the AmericanEnterprise Institute’s (AEI) Michael Rubin, have called for assassinating Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.[3]

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

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