Focal Points Blog

Loose Nuclear Ends

At the “other” IPS Thaif Deen reports:

The global civil society campaign for the abolition of nuclear weapons could be politically reignited by the phenomenal successes of the grassroots demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia, shadowed closely by Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Jordan.

“Developments in the Middle East [and North Africa] show how fragile ‘stability’ is when people’s needs and desires are ignored,” says Hirotsugu Terasaki, executive director of the Office of Peace Affairs at the Tokyo-based Soka Gakkai International.

Apparently he’s extrapolating a fragility to the stability of the worldwide nuclear arms regimen, as well. Wishful thinking?

Jeopardy wizard Ken Jennings writing at Slate on playing against IBM computer Watson:

To [the IBMers], I wasn’t the good guy, playing for the human race. That was Watson’s role, as a symbol and product of human innovation and ingenuity. So my defeat at the hands of a machine has a happy ending, after all. At least until the whole system becomes sentient and figures out the nuclear launch codes. But I figure that’s years away.

Author of the new book How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III, Ron Rosenbaum, also writing at Slate about a man who trained for work in a missile silo, but was unceremoniously discarded when he questioned the command and control structure:

. . . some might say we can’t give the impression that everyone in missile launch control centers engages in Socratic debate about whether genocidal revenge is justified, or could be seen as “insane” in itself. Such debate, the official line goes, would end up “weakening the credibility of our deterrent” and perhaps inviting a genocidal attack.

Speaking of deterrence, they’re ba-a-a-ck. Who? The four horsemen. Of the apocalypse? Not exactly — ostensibly, in fact, that’s what they seek to head off at the pass. George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn, of course, joint authors of Wall Street Journal op-eds calling for nuclear arms control. Their latest, titled Deterrence in the Age of Nuclear Proliferation, is an attempt to advocate for reducing the number of nuclear weapons needed for deterrence.

Achieving deterrence with assured security will require work by leaders and citizens on a range of issues, beginning with a clearer understanding of existing and emerging security threats.

The op-ed comes with the usual disclaimer, though.

. . . as long as nuclear weapons exist, America must retain a safe, secure and reliable nuclear stockpile primarily to deter a nuclear attack and to reassure our allies through extended deterrence.

Sometimes I think we won’t make any substantive progress toward nuclear disarmament until we declare a moratorium on phrases such as “our nuclear deterrent” and “a safe, secure and reliable nuclear stockpile.” As long as policymakers continue to resort to them, we’ll continue to view other states (and non-state actors) as a greater threat than the most “existential” of all threats to life on earth — nuclear weapons themselves.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki Sabotaged Prospects for a True Post-War Peace

Recently John Dower’s Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq (W.W. Norton, 2010) was reviewed by Greg Chaffin for Foreign Policy in Focus. Halfway through it, I find Cultures of War, in which the author uses a comparison between U.S. reactions to Pearl Harbor and 9/11 as a starting point, powerful and convincing. In the course of the book, he delivers a compelling analysis of the “terror” or area — as opposed to precision — bombing campaigns that the allies waged against, in large part, the citizens of Germany and Japan. After that, it only seemed natural to the United States to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Dower writes:

The euphoria of victory over Japan, and of the end of the struggle against Axis fascism and aggression more generally, was extraordinary.

It was also fragile and ephemeral. The underside of triumph was profound anxiety — a presentiment that making and using the atomic bomb had birthed not peace but vulnerability of a sort inconceivable just a few years earlier.

In other words, instead of laying a solid foundation of peace, the use of nuclear weapons ensured that it was constructed, as it were, of inferior materials. As a result, the whole house of our national security could come crashing precipitously down at any time. Dower quotes Manhattan Project physicist I.I. Rabi, reflecting on Trinity, the first nuclear test: “Suddenly the day of judgment was the next day and has been ever since.”

Two sentences after his first quote above, Dower writes:

When the twin towers of the World Trade Center were taken down on September 11, this suppressed or diluted dread [of nuclear attack] erupted, certainly among Americans, as full-blown collective trauma.

Our arms race with the Soviet Union instilled a deep-seated fear in our hearts. Damped down and building pressure over the years, that fear only needed to be ignited by 9/11 before it came spewing out. Hence, most of us were all too happy to, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, “go massive.” Our wide-of-the-mark reaction to 9/11 paralleled area as opposed to precision bombing and, in the process, only stiffened the resolve of the opposition.

Should the Arms Control Community Back Off Missile Defense?

Cross-posted from the CUNY Graduate Center Advocate.

If you followed the halting progress that the New START nuclear treaty made towards ratification at the end of last year, you know missile defense was a bone of contention. Russians fear its implementation while American conservatives fear the implications on national security of its lack of implementation. Nevertheless, Republican senators swallowed their pride and ratified New START while the Obama administration managed to win Moscow’s acknowledgment that current U.S. missile defense systems were no threat to Russia.

Wait, missile defense is still around? “Star Wars” gained infamy at the 1986 Reykjavík summit when it became the security blanket that Ronald Reagan couldn’t relinquish in return for the prospect held out by Mikhail Gorbachev of the abolition of nuclear weapons. Replete with lasers, particle-beam weapons, and space-based systems, hasn’t it since been laughed off the national security landscape?

Besides the experimental nature of the weapons, it was obvious that, during the Cold War, a system that could stop Russia’s prodigious ICBMs from raining down on the United States was decades from coming to fruition. But, thanks in part to relentless lobbying by the likes of right-wing defense think tanks such as the National Institute of Public Policy, once the Cold War ended, the defense establishment decided that, instead of turning a crisis — peace — into an opportunity — cutting back defense spending — it would turn the newfound lack of a crisis into one.

In other words, at least for the purpose of the missile defense discussion, it conceded that Russia’s nuclear weapons were no longer a central concern of the United States. Instead, it reconfigured the concept of missile defense as a way to halt nuclear attacks from rogue countries with their starter kit nuke programs, such as North Korea and, ostensibly, Iran. Russia, of course, wasn’t buying that. For instance, while the missile defense program on U.S. soil has been winnowed down to Ground-Based Interceptor missiles, they’re based in the region of the United States in closest proximity to Russia — Alaska and California.

Meanwhile, in September 2009, President Obama announced that the United States was scrapping plans for missile-defense sites in East Europe, in favor of the sea-borne Aegis system. But the United States still harbors long-range plans to to install missile-defense systems just to the west of the former Soviet Union. Besides, though temporarily mollified enough to sign New START, Moscow has long doubted that missile defense is meant to intercept missiles from North Korea and Iran because it knows full well both states are a long way from fielding missiles that can reach Europe. Russia, of course, deploys its own missile-defense, such as the S-300 anti-ballistic missile. In fact, it had planned to sell the system to Iran until a recent round of U.N. sanctions against Iran forced Russia to abandon that idea.

The fundamental question that the controversy over missile defense evokes is: How can a nuclear power, such as Russia, object to the wish of another nuclear power, such as the United States, to defend itself with weapons intended solely to block Russia’s weapons once launched, not target its soil and people?

In other words, how can a state be faulted for attempting to erect a shield to shelter it from nuclear weapons? Turns out, conventional thinking on nuclear strategy holds that missile defense upsets — “destabilizes” — the whole nuclear-deterrence apple cart.

Here’s how it works. A state — Russia again — is considered vulnerable to a first, or initial, strike by the United States, during the course of which many of its surface (as opposed to those based in submarines, which are, of course, mobile) nuclear weapons would be wiped out. (This argument requires a suspension of belief that Russia would refrain from launching a counterattack on warning, that is, while the U.S. missiles were in the air, instead of waiting until they struck — still the only sure-fire method of verifying a nuclear attack.)

Russia’s retaliatory force would be further diminished if much of it was destroyed while in the air by U.S. missile defense. (This requires a suspension of belief that the day when missile defense is that effective will ever come). The crux of this theory is that since Russia knows that under this arrangement it’s going to lose missiles both on the ground and in the air it’s motivated to build more to compensate. (Why Russian missile defense isn’t considered destabilizing to America’s “deterrent” is a question seldom, if ever, raised.)

That’s what nuclear strategists mean when they make the claim that missile defense destabilizes deterrence — it disturbs the fragile “balance of power.” I know: you’re incredulous that in the same year in which we toast the Cold War’s two-decade-old demise that the United States and Russia still relegate themselves to such old-school thinking. The other supposedly destabilizing characteristic of building a missile defense system is that it’s a red flag to Russia signaling the United States plans to mount a first strike. (Of course, Moscow knows the unlikelihood of that scenario; it’s just playing politics.

Ironically in the 1960s and 1970s roles were reversed. The United States feared Soviet anti-ballistic missile defense and consequently fortified its ballistic missile offense. But the two superpowers realized that it was to the benefit of each to refrain from running what’s been called a “missile defense arms race.” The 1972 ABM Treaty set a limit to missile defense systems and offensive warhead totals were reduced in kind during the 1980s and 1990s. But, in defiance of the common wisdom that held that reductions in nuclear weapons required keeping missile defense to a minimum, the Bush administration withdrew from the ABM treaty in 2002.

Again, it must be asked: why does the burden fall on the designated victim to keep its defenses to a minimum lest the aggressor augment its armaments? It’s like saying the best defense is a bad defense.

Counterintuitive to a fare-thee-well, this argument provides ammunition for conservatives. First, though, we need to mention that many of those who support missile defense share Reagan’s child-like fantasy of an umbrella that will shield us from the very same weapons that we’re still allowed to wield. Second, consciously or not, many are only too glad to see the other side build up its offensive capabilities to justify the continuation of the U.S. nuclear-weapons industry.

Granted, steeped in game theory, nuclear strategy is not for everybody. But faulting a party for defending him or herself not only encourages passivity, it’s a form of blaming the victim. Imagine holding someone who’s been attacked responsible for his fate because, in the act of putting up his dukes or even just adopting a defensive crouch, he’s provoked the bully into not just attacking with his fists but upping the ante and bringing a baseball bat to the affair.

In other words, those of us opposed to missile defense should cease and desist making the case that defending ourselves tips the nuclear scale. Not only do neither conservatives nor the public understand the argument, it provokes them. While polls on missile defense are few and far between, back in 2006 a pro-missile defense group found that over 70 percent of New York state citizens supported missile defense and in 2004, 84% of Floridians.

In effect, this approach resembles another mistake made by progressives: reciting the mantra that the U.S. presence in the Middle East creates terrorists. Even though, these days, realpolitik types ring in with this refrain as often as progressives, the reaction of conservatives runs something like this: since when does the United States worry about making enemies when (in their eyes, anyway) it’s in the right?

But opponents of missile defense, who, by definition, are also disarmament advocates, still have a great fall-back position, right? When you get down to it, what good is this curtain of the heavens if it fails to protect us when we most need it — against states like Russia with formidable nuclear arsenals? In fact, as missile defense stands, it’s questionable whether it would even prove effective against North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

But making that case is walking into a trap. It caters to conservatives all too eager to stand in judgment of a state, because of its perceived potential for mounting such an attack, as insufficiently “rational” enough to be allowed to develop a nuclear weapons program. In other words, despite failing to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Israel and India, yes. Iran and North Korea, on the other hand, no. Worst of all, it encourages a recent tendency on the part of nuclear-weapons advocates to deny the link between nonproliferation and disarmament. States deemed unworthy of nuclear weapons are to be denied them, by force if necessary, without reciprocity in the form of substantive disarmament (beyond the tepid New START), as ordained by the NPT, on the part of the large states.

Missile defense is ultimately a more defensible investment than nuclear weapons. But it’s best for disarmament advocates to keep their eyes on the big picture — nuclear weapons themselves, as well as the overarching subject of massive casualties. Missile defense is just a subdivision of nuclear weapons and when the rationale powering their acquisition runs out of steam, the umbrella of missile defense will collapse upon itself as well.

In the interim, one argument remains to which we can avail ourselves. If, however unlikely, we ever succeed in building the perfect missile defense, why would we need nuclear weapons any longer?


Podvig, Pavel. “Russia and missile defense in Eastern Europe,”, August 26, 2009.

Podvig, Pavel, “The false promise of missile defense,” The Bulletin Online, June 14, 2009.

Thielmann, Greg, “Strategic Missile Defense: A Threat to Future Nuclear Arms Reductions?,” Threat Assessment Brief, Arms Control Association, January 16, 2010.

What the Army Thinks the Taliban Would Do With Data on Genitourinary Injuries

David Brown for the Washington Post reports on land-mine injuries suffered by U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Doctors and nurses treating soldiers injured in Afghanistan have begun speaking of a new “signature wound” — two legs blown off at the knee or higher, accompanied by damage to the genitals and pelvic injuries. . . . Of the 142 soldiers with genitourinary wounds who arrived at Landstuhl [Germany, site of U.S. military hospital] last year. . . . 47 had injury to one testicle, and 21 men lost a testicle. Eleven soldiers had injuries to both testicles, and eight lost both testicles.

In fact

Twice as many U.S. soldiers wounded in battle last year required limb amputations than in either of the two previous years. . . . and nearly three times as many suffered severe wounds to their genitals.

Why the increase?

Although the U.S. Army Medical Command released the data on genital injuries, military officials are reluctant to discuss these wounds further.

Why not? According to Maj. Gen. Stephen R. Lanza, chief of Army Public Affairs, “detailed discussion . . . can potentially provide insights to our enemies into the effectiveness of their improvised explosive devices and other weapons they use.”

What kind of insights is the Army afraid that the Taliban might glean from information about the injuries? Let’s take a guess: figuring out exactly how much explosives and of what variety to ensure the majority of victims lose both testicles.

What about body armor? Brown reports:

Body armor, which has greatly reduced fatalities, usually includes a triangular flap that protects the groin from projectiles coming from the front. It doesn’t protect the area between the legs from direct upward blast.

Odd oversight, isn’t it? Brown again.

Various laboratories are reportedly working on forms of shielding that would provide such protection.

Doesn’t this remind you of the early years of the Iraq War when Hummers were insufficiently protected with armor plating? Meanwhile, Americans need to ask themselves if they really want their troops in a conflict where not only do our young men need to concern themselves with being injured and killed, but with an enemy that may be all too eager to calibrate its mines for maximum castrating effect.

Bradley Manning: Death by Elastic Underwear Waistband

In an earlier Focal Points post on depriving Pfc. Bradley Manning of his clothing for three days, we quoted the New York Times:

First Lt. Brian Villiard, a Marine spokesman, said. . . . that the step was “not punitive” and that it was in accordance with brig rules, but he said that he was not allowed to say more. . . . “It would be inappropriate for me to explain it. . . . I can confirm that it did happen, but I can’t explain it to you without violating the detainee’s privacy.”

Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, subsequently learned the rationale, which he posted it at his website Army Court Martial Defense.

On Wednesday March 2, 2011, PFC Manning was told that his Article 138 complaint requesting that he be removed from Maximum custody and Prevention of Injury (POI) Watch had been denied by the Quantico commander, Colonel Daniel J. Choike. Understandably frustrated by this decision after enduring over seven months of unduly harsh confinement conditions, PFC Manning inquired of the Brig operations officer what he needed to do in order to be downgraded from Maximum custody and POI. . . . In response to PFC Manning’s question, he was told that there was nothing he could do to downgrade his detainee status and that the Brig simply considered him a risk of self-harm. PFC Manning then remarked that the POI restrictions were “absurd” and sarcastically stated that if he wanted to harm himself, he could conceivably do so with the elastic waistband of his underwear or with his flip-flops.

Hey, maybe Col. Choike is right: look at the self-abuse Manning has already inflicted on himself with his humor and sense of irony. Still, Choife is whiffing on a learning moment. He should interrogate Manning to learn how he would turn the elastic in his underwear or flip-flops into a his garrote. It could be incorporated into SERE training* to help our troops escape if they’re captured by the enemy.

As for the rest of us, Pfc. Manning has much to teach us in the way of courage.

*SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) military training in, among other things, evading and/or surviving capture.

Gaddafi’s Ace In The Hole? Algeria (Part 2)

Algeria protestsCross-posted from Counterpunch.

Algeria, Part 1: Where the Demonstrators Wave Black Flags

At this moment when it appears that Muammar Gaddafi’s days in power are numbered, the Libyan leader has made it clear repeatedly that he will stay and fight. So far he has. His domestic support is evaporating around him, leaders of the country’s 140 tribes siding with the rebels, military units siding with the rebellion in larger and larger numbers, air force pilots and naval vessels defecting to Malta. Much of his government, other than his sons, has abandoned him as well.

What is left?

Those heavily armed private militias controlled by his sons? The army of mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa? Some Mirage jet fighter planes with, until now, pilots less than willing to bomb rebel strongholds? All that is true. Yet while the U.S. and Europe work to isolate Gaddafi, he is not completely alone and without allies.

Libya appears more and more headed for civil war. Given his ever shrinking domestic base, one has to wonder how it is that Gaddafi can appear so defiant? It might come from the fact that he is not entirely isolated and alone. Indeed, the support that Gaddafi is garnering has stiffened the colonel’s backbone.

Gaddafi has the support of at least one important regional ally, the Algerian government, which has both militarily and diplomatically thrown its full (and substantial) weight behind his effort to retain power. In so doing, it would appear that Algeria, which has long cooperated with the US and NATO on its North and Sub-Saharan Africa anti-terrorism policies, is breaking ranks to protect its regime’s very survival.

Since its independence, Algeria has been controlled by its military which lives high off the country’s oil profits at the expense of its own people. Algeria’s leaders fear that if Gaddafi falls, their hold on power will be that much more fragile. Their support of Gaddafi is very much one to save their own skins.

If Mubarak saw the writing on the wall as Ben Ali’s little castle in Tunisia crumbled, so the Algerian military leadership understands that if Gaddafi falls, it very likely is next in line, or if not, not very far down the list. Desperate to cling to power, the Algerian government is – offering a few political and economic concessions it is true – essentially reorganizing the state’s substantial repressive apparatus to weather the protest storm. But in addition, it is pulling out all stops to support Gaddafi’s increasingly feeble hold on power.

Maybe it is the support of its North African oil producing ally Algeria that has given Gaddafi that confident appearance that he can indeed – with a little help from his friends – hold out longer. An alliance of two of Africa’s most important oil producing countries is nothing to sneeze at, and could have all kinds of implications, consequences. Should the alliance between the two tighten, and they engage in a common front oil embargo, which some news outlets speculate could happen, oil prices could jump to as high as $220 a barrel.

Less than a week ago, an Algerian human rights group based in Germany Algeria Watch published a statement alleging that the Algerian government is providing material aid – in the form of armed military units – to Muammar Gaddafi to help prop up his shrinking (and sinking) regime. The statement is found on the website of an Algerian youth group, Mouvement Rachad, involved in the current protests against the current Algerian government.

The statement opens as such:

It is with both sadness and anger that we have learned that the Algerian government has sent armed detachments to Libya to commit crimes against our Libyan brothers and sisters who have risen up against the bloody and corrupt regime of Muammar Khadafi [their spelling]. These armed detachments were first identified in western Libya in the city of Zaouia where some among them have been arrested. This has been reported in the media and confirmed by eye witnesses. (Prince translation)

Zaouia is the site of fierce fire fights between the residents of Zaouia, now a zone liberated from Tripoli’s control and under the authority of rebel forces on the one hand, and the military elements still faithful to Gaddafi on the others. There were reports today of a 6-8 hour battle in which Gaddafi’s forces, led by one of his sons, tried to recapture the city but were repulsed by the city’s defenders and pushed back after fierce fighting.

Algeria Watch goes on to accuse the Algerian government of having provided the air transport planes that have carried sub-Saharan African mercenaries from Niger, Chad and the Dafur province of Sudan to Libya to strengthen Gaddafi’s position militarily. It goes on to add that Algeria had played a similar role in transporting troops to Somalia to support the U.S. directed government military offensive against rebellious Somali tribes.

The statement goes on to allege that on the diplomatic front that the Algerian government has been lobbying different European powers (which are presumably France, Italy, German, Belgium, Luxembourg and Spain) pressing them to continue to support Gaddafi. These diplomatic efforts are being led by Abdelkader Messahel, Algerian Minister of Magrebian and African Affairs. On the all-European level, Amar Bendjama, Algerian ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as Algeria’s representative to the European Union and NATO and Belkacem Belgaid, another Algerian diplomat whose responsibilities include NATO and the EU, have together opened up an active lobbying campaign in support of Gaddafi.

The political approach that Bendjama and Belgaid are pursuing echoes Gaddafi’s own statements – that if his government were to fall, Libya would fall into the hands of radical Islamic fundamentalists – all this nonsense about Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden being behind the national uprising. Gaddafi’s argument is identical to what Ben Ali and Mubarak have been arguing for decades: that they are the alternative to an Islamic takeover. The West might not like them, but better Gaddafi than Osama. This kind of fear mongering – the threat of Islamic radicalism – has lost its appeal in the current protest wave in which the Islamic fundamentalist element has been marginalized or irrelevant.

The lobbying is similar to what has happened in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, where the first offer of concessions consists of ceding as little as possible. Bendjama and Belgaid appear to be pressing (unsuccessfully) for a solution that would see Gaddafi’s son, Saif, replace his father. It is not clear if they are asking for some kind of arrangement that would protect Gaddafi from prosecution in exchange for stepping down, but such an approach is more than likely. But as one of the first demands in the Tunisian, Egyptian and Yemeni protests was precisely that no family member (sons or family member) succeed these elder and now disgraced statements to power, it is not likely that such arguments or suggestions will carry much if any weight. There is more.

Under the direction of Colonel Djamel Bouzghaia, an advisor to Algerian President Bouteflika on security matters, Algeria has, according to the statement, ‘embraced’ a large number of elements of disposed Tunisian president Zine Ben Ali’s private security force and republican guard. These are the same units that were used as snipers to assassinate demonstrators in Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid and Thala in Tunisia. Now in the employ of Algeria, they too have been sent to Libya to shore up Gaddafi’s regime. Bouzghaia works directly under Major General Rachid Laalali (alias Attafi), head of Algeria’s external relations bureau.

Who else is helping Gaddafi? Will be interesting to see what shakes out.

Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Waterboarding Next for Bradley Manning?

In response to reports that Bradley Manning was deprived of his clothes and forced to sit naked in his cell for seven hours on Wednesday, the New York Times reports:

First Lt. Brian Villiard, a Marine spokesman, said. . . . that the step was “not punitive” and that it was in accordance with brig rules, but he said that he was not allowed to say more.

Then he added

“It would be inappropriate for me to explain it. . . . I can confirm that it did happen, but I can’t explain it to you without violating the detainee’s privacy.”

I’m sorry, but what the heck did the army just do if it wasn’t a violation of Manning’s privacy?

We’re Being Out-Democracied

On March 1, Doug Saunders of Toronto’s Globe and Mail reported from Zarzis, Tunisia:

The entire student population, plus one teacher, have defied their principal’s orders and skipped school to pack the streets in a jubilant and defiant mood. They are demanding a quick move to democracy — not just in the capital of Tunis, but also here in Zarzis, where it is the youth who have forced out the regime-appointed mayor and set up a committee that now controls the town.

Walid Fellah, 27, one of the organizers of the local-government committee. . . . set up Zarzis TV, a Facebook page upon which he posted videos of local protests and government reprisals. It became an instant hit and fanned the local revolution. . . . The comment threads on Zarzis TV became a rallying point for students, who would spend hours debating the best structure for municipal government and the pathway to elections.

“These students were never taught anything about democracy . . . but they’re learning it all by experience,” said Mourad Dani, 32, the lone high-school teacher willing to join the school’s “revolution.” (He risks suspension from his job, and the students risk losing their diplomas, for being involved.)

In one respect, though, they resemble American students. Mr. Dani added:

“Before, government was the most boring subject, nobody thought about it.”

With one important difference.

“Now it’s all they can talk about.”

No matter to what extent the civic foundation of the United States disintegrated, it’s difficult to imagine American teenagers debating the structure of municipal government. Meanwhile, the Obama administration was a couple of beats slow in voicing its support for the opposition in Tunisia and Egypt. As for American adult citizens, one can’t help suspect that were the Constitution drawn up and submitted for ratification today, it would be considered much too radical for passage in the House and Senate.

Recent events in Wisconsin and elsewhere caution one against caving in to complete cynicism. Still, it’s entirely likely that most Americans are more comfortable with a surveillance (if not all-out police) state than one in which civil liberties rang throughout the land. If America is China’s future, China may be America’s future.

We’d better be careful: we’re about to be out-democracied by newly engaged citizens around in the world.

The Arab Awakening: The Name Changes, But Will the Song Remain the Same?

If you can’t beat ‘em, try smothering ‘em with a bear hug.

While no doubt the United States is quite nervous about where all the Middle East protests are headed – the unknown factor rattles the stock market and oil prices – the Obama Administration, not without internal divisions, has, grudgingly, accepted the need for some change – democratization and shifts in economic policy – in the region.

It is tactically clever (and realistic) to ride the wave – rather than oppose it outright. Those discredited dictators – the Mubaraks, Ben Alis – around whom the United States has built and cultivated its post World War II Middle East policy have moved from ‘category asset’ to ‘downright-liability’. For the moment, let’s bypass the question of whether this new moral epiphany results from ‘a position of principle’ or rather, simply a response to the flow of events that the Obama Administration neither expected nor for which it was prepared.

It is precisely the element of the unknown which scares U.S. policy makers, plus the fact that the administration has tried to play down: most of the corrupt regimes which are ‘facing their maker’ have had strong political and military support from Washington (and the European Union) for decades.

It is easier to praise the democratic upsurge, criticize repressive crackdowns with arms and tear gas that usually has ‘made in USA’ on it and to avoid the U.S. military interventionalist impulse, when, as with Tunisia, strategic interests are less at play. It becomes more difficult as the protest wave comes closer to the oil producing and transporting region as with Egypt, and almost irresistible when oil production itself is involved as it is with Libya.

Watching the pressure grow for a U.S. and/or NATO military intervention in Libya to oust Gaddafi and end the growing bloodshed there, one has to wonder if anyone has learned anything from history? The answer seems to be ‘apparently not much’. We’ve been ‘kind of’ here before.

A U.S. military intervention in Libya is – let me say it frankly – an extremely bad idea. It will strengthen Gaddafi’s hand; he’s long been able to rally support against the big outsider bully (who did in fact try to assassinate him by cruise missile in April, 1986). It would undoubtedly inflame anti-American sentiment throughout the region, pull the United States into yet another military quagmire adding to the current list (Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia). To their credit, it appears that both Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (in a recent speech) want none of it…for the moment.

How long ago was it that popular support was mobilized for military intervention to unseat a ruling tyrant from an oil producing country and ‘liberate’ its people? The end result to that ‘crusade’ is a country destroyed, maybe a million people dead, 3½ million or so made refugees, an oil industry privatized and ‘enduring’ U.S. military bases, some as large as medium sized American cities, in Iraq.

The Tunisian people resolved the debate within a paralyzed Obama Administration over whether or not to support Zine Ben Ali in his political death rattle by massive, largely peaceful demonstrations that forced the president and his influential wife to flee.

But not every social movement can place roses in tank gun turrets and not get blown to bits for it. Let us hope that Libya does not descend much further into civil war, that its people in not-so-peaceful revolt – methods forced upon them by objective conditions – can end the debate in Washington, London, Paris, etc. – overthrowing Gaddafi and defeating private armies and mercenaries. It’s a tall order.

Supporting ‘pliant’ third world nationalism

With China making inroads into Africa, (imagine, they offer loans to poor African countries without structural adjustment criteria!) the U.S. will be well served to embrace Middle Eastern democracy for obvious reasons. But as long as the United States – and many of the core countries of the world economy – are addicted to oil at a time of tight oil markets, dramatic shifts in U.S. Middle East policy in support of dramatic democratization are unlikely.

The Obama Administration hopes the changes will be ‘manageable’, that new political figures (or older ones forced to make concessions) won’t diverge too much from U.S. global economic and security policies. Like other U.S. administrations since Truman, it has long supported a certain kind of pliant Third World nationalism.

The nationalism of Ben Ali, Mubarak – or better, Pinochet – has suited it far more than that of Nasser and Lumumba.

Of course, the Obama Administration has no choice but to accept the changes unfolding and with which they can hardly keep up. Then again, we have seen that Washington has plans for the Middle East, though the peoples of the Middle East have their own, largely yet to be defined, agendas.

Nor is Washington’s policy of ‘celebrating democracy’ while quietly working to dampen its impact particularly new. In the 1980s, at the same time Ronald Reagan was trying to smother Nicaraguan democracy, he was making different moves in the Philippines.

Will it be Cuba 1959 or the Philippines 1986?

In early 1986, a great Filipino democratic wave broke the back of the Marcos dictatorship. The issues were more or less the same as in the Middle East today: growing income inequality, crushing poverty and debt, massive corruption and repression. As the demonstrations swelled to ‘Tahrir Square proportions’ then U.S. President Ronald Reagan sent Senator Paul Laxalt to offer Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos a deal he couldn’t refuse.

If his autobiography is to be believed, Laxalt successfully negotiated Marcos’ departure from power. The deal included the promise of safe haven in Hawaii plus U.S. protection of Marcos’ billion dollar assets. Sound familiar?

Marcos, whose family wealth today by some estimates might top $50 billion, was removed with much fanfare. The Filipino people celebrated and for good reason. However, while the tyrant and his wife with her famous 2,000 plus pairs of shoes (a novice by the way compared to Tunisia’s Leila Trabelsi) were forced to flee to Honolulu, ‘the system’ remained largely unchanged. It was a bit more open politically, but…

  • The new government honored the enormous debt burden the country had incurred during the Marcos years. The economic policies that were at the root cause of the crisis were hardly altered.
  • The Filipino strategic relations with the United States remained unaltered.
  • The crushing poverty has remained largely intact; the decay of health, educational infrastructure hardly improved.

The leadership’s face changed, but ‘the system’ remained essentially the same. A quarter of a century later, the Philippines remains a country mired in debt, its government still addressing appalling poverty, its democratic moment a distant memory of things past. The Marcos children are making a political comeback in the Philippines, running for public office. Could this happen to the Ben Ali, Trabelsi, Mubarak and Khadaffi offspring?

Are these the kind of changes that the Obama Administration is working for in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond?

Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Dirty Bombs, Despite Their Name, Not Sexy Enough

RDDYou may never heard of a radiological dispersal device (RDD). That’s because it’s more often referred to as a dirty bomb. Come to think of it, many don’t even know it by that name, however provocative. (Think of it recited by the English woman in the Orbit gum commercial: Duh-ty Bomb.)

A dirty bomb, though, bears no resemblance whatsoever to a sex bomb. “Dirty” means it’s contaminated with radiation. Which is why you may not be familiar with it. Because it’s not a true nuclear weapon, the RDD is not accorded the level of attention it deserves as a threat comparable to terrorists detonating a nuclear bombs in a U.S. city. But, as long as it’s obscured by the threat of a nuclear explosion, its construction and transport, already much less challenging than with a nuclear weapon, can be expedited.

The fatalities caused by detonation of an RDD likely wouldn’t exceed those caused by a moderate-sized conventional bomb. But clean-up would cost billions and, as for psychological terror sowed by the incident, the “value-added” for the protagonists would be off the charts.

The reason an RDD is easier to create, of course, is because it doesn’t require highly enriched uranium like a nuclear weapon, which has become next to impossible to procure since the nuclear black market was crippled in the wake of Pakistan’s nuclear godfather, A.Q. Khan’s, bust for selling nuclear knowhow and technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Materials that are simply radioactive, on the other hand, can be obtained from radioactive sources used for industrial, medical or research purposes.

Another reason that the RDD threat isn’t taken seriously may be because the creation of one has never been verified. The closest any group has come was in 1995 when Chechen rebels deposited a container of cesium-137 in a Moscow park. They chose not to open it and disperse the radioactive material, content instead to simply demonstrate what they were capable of.

In a recent Nonproliferation Review (subscription only) article titled “Preventing Dirty Bombs: Addressing the Threat at the ‘Source’,” Charles Streeper, an international coordinator at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, addresses the RDD threat.

Despite the high consequences of an RDD attack, scant attention has been paid to the dangers posed by the large number of poorly regulated sources that can now be found in nearly every country. The problem has stagnated for decades; news media have reported only selectively on the topic, focusing mainly on serious contamination incidents, and the subject has been excluded from most articles on global security and nonproliferation policy.

But, as a kind of starter weapon of mass destruction, isn’t it beneath, say, al Qaeda? Not necessarily, writes Streeper.

. . . a terrorist group would prefer a nuclear weapon, but an eventual inability by a group to steal or create and use a nuclear weapon might make radiological sources an attractive alternative. . . . there are references to Al Qaeda seeking a radiological weapon. In fact, the group has already resorted to and shown a preference for smaller-scale weaponry and attacks.

It’s hard enough making sure enriched uranium is locked down and accounted for, especially in the former Soviet Union states. But, to give you an idea of the magnitude of the task of tracking radioactive material, Steeper reports that within the United States alone two million licensed sources of radioactive material exist. Further complications arise because

. . . the beneficial applications of sources in the medical, industrial, and agricultural fields should not be impeded. Measures simply have to be put in place to ensure that those beneficial uses are fairly balanced by proper management of dangerous sources throughout their entire life cycle.

That’s easier said than done. Streeper explains.

The international community can depend neither on commercial mechanisms nor the inconsistent implementation of individual states’ regulatory systems to control the life cycles of sources worldwide.

Though the industry doesn’t sufficiently regulate itself (bet you’ve heard that one before), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) formulated a code and, Streeper writes, “its guidelines are positive steps toward a framework for cradle-to-grave management for the life cycle. [But] the drawback is that the Code lacks the legal weight of the NPT [nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty].” The solution? “A new, legally binding treaty negotiated at an international convention, modeled using key aspect of the [aforementioned IAEA] Code.”

Another treaty? Especially at a time when New START barely squeaked through the Senate ratification process, despite how watered down it was and compromised by giveaways to the nuclear-weapons industry? And when the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty seem to be going nowhere fast?

But since it doesn’t address nuclear weapons themselves, tied up as they are with a state’s notion of national security — and with some states, their very identities — a treaty might find easier going. Besides, the NPT, despite being violated and ignored at times, has, arguably, been as integral as deterrence to the prevention of states from attacking each other with nuclear weapons. A treaty on radioactive sources might create just enough of an obstacle to keep non-state actors or criminals from securing them.

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