Focal Points Blog

Time to Sever the Saudi Ties That Bind

Abdullah Obama(Pictured: Saudia Arabia’s King Abdullah with President Obama.)

Apparently, King Abdullah of the House of Saud (the man with the unseemly title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”) got his feelings hurt that America objected when the totalitarian theocracy whose despot he is sent troops into a neighboring country to massacre peacefully protesting civilians. That the United States did indeed object to the deployment is news to those of us who had read the New York Times’ report that “the United States did not object to the deployment.”

Even a protestation so paltry that it escaped the Times’ notice was enough to get Abdullah’s knickers in a twist, and so it was that Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the trip all the way to Riyadh to grovel and make propitiations. It seems the Gates-Abdullah tête-à-tête sufficed where our recent $60 billion arms sale to the Saudis did not, Sec. Gates assessing that US-Saudi relations are now “in a good place.”

Perhaps, thanks to Gates’s efforts, Michelle Obama needn’t fear the withholding of gifts from Abdullah, who once lavished her with a ruby-and-diamond set valued at $132,000, or what the Saudi royals call “chump change.” Forbes on Abdullah:

“Ascended to the throne August 2005; soon after, construction began on a $26 billion city named in his honor, which the government hopes will become the new economic epicenter of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is now earning approximately $1 billion a day from oil exports, helping boost the royal family’s fortune. The king is an avid horseman and breeds Arabian horses; he founded the Equestrian Club in Riyadh.”

I propose that Gates’s approach is exactly wrong, and the time is now right to abandon the Saudis. The reasons are several.

Human Rights

Women who allow themselves to be seen in society without proper hijab violate God’s law, which is the law that governs Saudi Arabia. The only way for the offending parties to make amends is by surrendering their lives, often to hurled stones. However, if a woman is a virgin, stoning her to death itself violates God’s law, which consideration necessitates raping her first, in order to please God and the Saudi judges who interpret and affirm his proclamations, peace be upon them. Of course, rape of a woman by a man other than her designated guardian – that is, her husband or father – constitutes adultery, which alone is a crime demanding execution (of the woman, not the rapist).

I need hardly detail more thoroughly the perils of living in a theocracy, whose laws are derived not from a secular constitution that includes affirmative rights for citizens but rather from a medieval collection of desert superstition and mythology. Suffice it to say Saudi Arabia’s punishments for hudud crimes are harsh enough most closely to resemble the worst abuses of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Homosexuality warrants death, apostasy warrants death, etc.

This is of course in addition to what it does via its proxy state, Bahrain, which

The Independent recently revealed has been rounding up and disappearing doctors who have attended to pro-democracy protestors there who have been injured by Bahraini and Saudi authoritarian violence.

The United States is fond of claiming for itself that, as a matter of policy, it stands with the democratic aspirations of all oppressed peoples and in opposition to tyranny and repression. Lest it seem a naive contention, I submit that it is in principle worth America’s approximating that policy with its behavior in the world. Whatever the potential benefits and drawbacks of refusing friendship to murderous, ideological autocrats, it is a good thing to do. And it is a contemptible foreign policy, indeed, that is not concerned with doing good things.

I am well aware, though, that the people who congratulate themselves with the description “foreign policy realists” are un-persuaded by such arguments, so I’d like to address my remaining contentions in their language.

Terrorism

Many is the foreign policy realist who will espouse a position that goes something like this: “On the balance, it would be preferable for the United States to support only democracies, but the threats of terror facing America are so great that she is justified in bolstering the position of dictatorships that will ally with her in the Global War on Terror.”

This is based on a flawed calculus that too heavily favors regime stability. Even if 2011 hadn’t shown dictatorship to be the least stable form of government, it is not at all clear that it is instability that is responsible for the creation of terrorists. After all, readers may recall that the majority of the men who reduced that World Trade Center to detritus were Saudi, having grown up under the self-same stable regime that rules their country today. Rather, the primary circumstances to which the spread of a violent religious ideology is attributable are mistrust in the institutions of government, the infantilization of a population placed under compulsory guardianship, an evisceration of vital civic institutions (universities, advocacy groups, internationally cooperative organizations) and, of course, the espousal of violent religious orthodoxy.

That Saudi Arabia has hosted American troops since the first Gulf War makes it both an ideal base of US military operations on the peninsula and a major target of Al Qaeda hostility. All the same, though, its activities encourage just the type of jihadism advanced by Osama bin Laden and his fellow Qtubists. Indeed, not only is Saudi Arabia the world’s chief state perpetuator of Wahabbist and Salafist ideologies; it is guilty of financing the Yemeni madrassas where Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula officials Naser al-Wahishi and Qasim al-Raymi got their initial training before going to Afghanistan to fight. This was part of the same coordinated US/Saudi/Israeli/Pakistani effort to strangle the life out of socialist pan-Arabism (Southern Yemeni socialists demanded the closure of those madrassas during the 1994 war) that brought about the regrettable emergence of the Taliban, not to mention Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran’s other proxy parties.

Ironic, that, insofar as King Abdullah is one of the world’s leading cheerleaders for violent regime change in Iran, cables released by WikiLeaks revealing that he advised the US to “cut off the head of the snake” with regard to his neighbor across the gulf. Of course, that position allies him to American neo-conservatives but is motivated not by anti-totalitarianism or by a regard for international comity as much as by racism.

According to the cable, the king told the Americans what he had just told the Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki. “You as Persians have no business meddling in Arab matters,” the Saudi monarch was quoted as telling Mottaki. “Iran’s goal is to cause problems,” he told Brennan. “There is no doubt something unstable about them.”

Adbullah is too shrewd and concerned with self-preservation, though, to discharge this sort of bigotry publicly. Instead, he puts on a much kinder face in his official capacity, ending, for example, a letter to President Bush (PDF) on the occasion of the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks thus:

I would like to say to you, my dear friend, that God Almighty, in His wisdom, tests the faithful by allowing such calamities to happen. But He, in His mercy, also provides us with the will and determination, generated by faith, to enable us to transform such tragedies into great achievements, and crises that seem debilitating are transformed into opportunities for the advancement of humanity. I only hope that, with your cooperation and leadership, a new world will emerge out of the rubble of the World Trade Center: a world that is blessed by the virtues of freedom, peace, prosperity and harmony.”

One wants to ask the signatories of the “Saudi Women Revolution Statement” how lavishly Abdullah’s commitment to “freedom, peace, prosperity and harmony” has benefited them.

Diplomatic capital

It is customary for the Saudis’ media output to be as reassuring as that, including on their decision to grant asylum to deposed Tunisian dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.

Saudi Arabia announced Wednesday that it would not allow deposed Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali to engage in any political activity from the Kingdom. “This act (of sheltering) should not lead to any kind of activity in Tunisia from the Kingdom … There are conditions, and no act in this regard will be allowed,” Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal said in an interview with Saudi Television.

This is illustrative, though, because Saudi Arabia is everywhere the enemy of the Middle Eastern onzards or what is conventionally called the “Arab Spring,” this to exclude the case of Iran, of course. The House of Saud justly sees its own downfall prognosticated in the writing on the walls of its regional neighbors. As corrupt, brutal regimes that enrich themselves by exploiting citizenry falter and topple all around them, the Saudi royals have no priority higher than reversing the course of 2011’s geopolitical direction.

Saudi Arabia’s client despot to the South, Yemen’s embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh, has promised to resign in a month (Jeremy Scahill: “I’ll believe Saleh is stepping down from power when he is no longer president.”), leaving the government to his deputy – some regime change. This move retains the endorsement of the Obama foreign policy team. This position, at a time when the U.S. is bombing Libya and threatening to reverse its original commitment to keep ground troops out of that country, confirms many onlookers’ suspicions of America’s motives in the region.

These suspicions were most poignantly given voice by Mohammed ElBaradei during the Egyptian uprising. “You are losing credibility by the day. On one hand you’re talking about democracy, rule of law and human rights, and on the other hand you’re lending still your support to a dictator that continues to oppress his people.”

If Obama is seen to be hypocritical in these matters, America loses gravity in the demands it makes from rogue/failed states (Iran most pressingly) who are up to no good.

I, for one, don’t find the idea of an America with enough diplomatic power to steer the course of world affairs very relaxing (not least because of its devotion to regimes like the Saudi one). On the other hand, it seems unlikely that America’s replacement in the position of “superpower” by Chinese or Russian authoritarianism would be particularly preferable, and so, for the time being, it would be nice to see America expand its goodwill cache (by conspicuously supporting democracy) in order to have greater capital from a diplomatic – as opposed to military – standpoint (and spend it conspicuously supporting democracy).

American foreign policy’s stated objectives are losing enough ground in Libya; it doesn’t need to continue hemorrhaging credibility in the land of Mecca and Medina too.

The climate

Forcing corporations to pay taxes, removing money from elections, saving public unions’ collective bargaining rights, retaining reproductive health care privacy, achieving legal equality for homosexuals, overcoming dictatorships: all of the fights the left is currently waging in the US and worldwide are meaningless if the earth is inhospitable to human life a century from now.

Remember when the President spoke about the climate crisis terms like these? “Our generation’s response to this challenge will be judged by history, for if we fail to meet it — boldly, swiftly, and together — we risk consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe.”

Well, by his second State of the Union address, climate change had gone from existential crisis to… what’s another word for “less important than salmon-based jokes?” The man didn’t mention the word “climate” once. Nor the phrase “global warming.” Problem solved, apparently.

Except it’s getting way worse. Not only does the industrial drive to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere show no signs of slowing, but such limited means as we have to combat it are under attack at the political level. Writes Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones: “Congressional Republicans have mounted an all-out assault on the EPA, pushing a lengthy list of measures to handcuff the agency from exercising its regulatory authority. For good measure, they are also trying to slash the agency’s budget by a third.” That would be bad enough, but factor in the weakness of the President’s counterproposal and a very clear picture begins to emerge: neither the government nor regulatory state will avert coming climate disaster.

As always, the motivating factor for deep-cutting change will have to be a crisis. The problem is that we citizens are not in the same kind of distress the climate is. As the dream of 350 parts per million begins to take on a pipe-flavor, human beings retain relative immunity from suffering the effects clearly enough to spur us to mass action. And we won’t feel them until it’s too late.

What but the ability to ignore the crisis could set conservative columnists bellowing about the job-killing effects of climate policy that prohibits the production of light-bulbs shown conclusively to be dangerous? We’ll see how much their opposition to “big government” matters when the earth cannot sustain human life. This lack of concern has allowed the congress’s thinking to retard so deeply that the House Committee on Science and Technology recently began looking into what new chairman Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX) has termed “the global warming or global freezing.”

Luckily, people change not just because they perceive threats to their bodies and institutions; they also change because they perceive threats to their wallets. I submit that the only way to rescue us from the plunge whence no return is possible is to make greenhouse gas emissions as costly to us as they are to the earth.

There’s an easy way of driving up oil prices to staggering highs, engineering a state of affairs in which the market very heavily favors alternative energies in short order. All it requires is that we ally ourselves not with the dictatorship that oversees the most oil-rich country in the world, but with its women, homosexuals, democrats, secularists and youth instead.

J.A. Myerson, Executive Editor of the Busy Signal, is the Artistic Director of Full of Noises and a teaching artist with Urban Arts Partnership. He writes primarily on American Politics and Human Rights. Follow him on Twitter.

North Korea Ready to Deal, But West Wants It to Go All In

KimJongil(Pictured: North Korean military officers trying to convince Kim Jong-il to step back from the spent-fuel-rod pool.*)

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has finally been put on the table. At long last, NORK seems ready to make concessions. Yet the West remains unmoved. Writing about Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s trip to the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea, John Garnaut of the Sydney Morning Herald explains.

North Korean military officials have floated the prospect of ending the North’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for a peace treaty, to formally end the Korean War, and US forces leaving the Korean peninsula. . . . The approaches coincide with reports that North Korea is at risk of mass starvation on a scale it has not experienced in more than a decade following summer floods, an extreme winter and general economic dislocation. . . . “I think they really want to do a deal,” said a European diplomat, after what he described as candid discussion with a North Korean military officer.

But

. . . Julia Gillard, has hardened her uncompromising position on North Korea’s nuclear program. [Besides Australia] South Korea [and] the US . . . have dismissed the prospect of talks until North Korea meets tough preconditions.

In particular, Garnaut writes, “South Korea is deeply divided on what to do with its northern neighbour.”

“I think negotiations will be only possible once North Korea has displayed a clear position regarding its provocations with the Cheonan warship incident and the artillery attacks on Yeonpyeong Island,” South Korea’s Minister of Defence, Kim Kwan-jin, told the Herald .

On the other hand

Choi Jong-kun, at Yonsei University, said South Korean domestic politics should not stop Ms Gillard from engaging with the North. ”Make your own case, get involved in humanitarian aid, train them, spoil them with capitalism,” he said.

The West apparently seeks to turn North Korea’s misfortune into an opportunity to get its nonproliferation needs meets. But Pyongyang is nothing if not intractable and it may be willing to let its people eat grass before it agrees to every condition that the West sets.

*Kidding. For more such images, visit the Tumblr site Kim Jong-il Looking at Things.

Should We Feel Guilty Over How Sad the Deaths of Hetherington and Hondros Make Us?

If you’re anything like me, you experienced many sensations upon hearing of the deaths of photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros in Libya. Among them were sorrow and anger, perhaps to a greater degree than when hearing of the deaths of others in the war. Following hard on the heels of those emotions was the attendant guilt that their deaths elicited deeper feelings in us than the deaths of Libyans, or Arabs in general.

On the most basic level, the effect their deaths had on those of in the United States and Great Britain can be attributed to the nationalities we share with them (Hetherington British, Hondros American). On another level, artists and journalists may have taken their losses especially hard because — as anyone knows who has seen their photographs or the movie Restrepo, which Hetherington co-directed — their talent and accomplishments.

In the New York Times David Carr explains why we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves if we mourn the deaths of Hetherington and Hondros more deeply than others.

Many people have died in the recent wars the two men covered, and we should not make the journalist’s error of elevating the deaths of Tim and Chris above those of others. But beyond the personal loss for their families and friends, there is a civic loss when good journalists are killed. Most news organizations have retrenched and many overseas bureaus have been closed.

First, war journalists, noncombatants like medics, perform a valuable service. Second, as Carr explains, due to decreased funding they’re already an endangered species. Carr thus enables us to push how exceptional Hetherington and Hondros were as artists — okay, Western artists — into the background for a moment and remember how useful, essential even, their services were.

That said, we can also use the occasion of the deaths of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros as an opportunity to resolve to acknowledge and mourn more deeply the deaths of nationals in all conflicts.

WikiLeaks: No Special Treatment for Non-Compos-Mentis Gitmo Detainees

GuantanamoWe’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the forty-seventh in the series.

Perhaps the most troubling information confirmed thus far by the “Guantanamo Files” released by WikiLeaks Sunday has been the degree to which mental health disorders were recognized, and in many cases ignored, by American officials overseeing “unlawful combatants” imprisoned in the Cuban detention facility. According to the Guardian, the new WikiLeaks cache reveals that nearly one hundred prisoners, almost one in seven, “were classified by the US army as having psychiatric illnesses including severe depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.”

A particularly disturbing case of mental illness is described in the file of Algerian detainee Abdul Raham Houari, who was brought to the Gitmo detention facility in 2001 at the age of 21. The document notes that Houari had a demonstrated “history of non-compliance and aggressiveness,” behavior that was clearly the result more of psychological distress than willful insubordination. Brigadier General Jay Hood, who authored the Houari report, indicates as much in his brief history of the detainee:

24 year old Algerian with history of significant penetrating head trauma in 2001 with resultant blindness in right eye and shrapnel injuries to the frontal portion of his brain, causing difficulty with speech and understanding as well as loss of inhibitions, e.g. disrobing in public, urinating on floor, etc.

Not only that, but Houari “had ongoing behavioral services interventions, is currently on zyprexa, an anti-psychotic” and was “mobile yet has slowed motor functions and generally needs assistance with caring for himself and supervision of his safety.” His behavior was not merely uninhibited, but outrageous. “He has been informed to keep his clothes on and heas repeatedly disregarded those order and his stood in his cell naked. Detainee has many instances of masturbating in front of others without the slightest bit of self-coconsciousness,” behavior that led Hood to the conclusion that

Based on the detainee’s health status, intelligence [medium] value and [low] risk level, JTF GTMO recommends this detainees be released or transferred to the control of another country for continued detention.

Hood’s recommendation, however, was ignored for another four years. Houari was eventually repatriated to Algeria, where he was acquitted of terrorism charges late last year, but not before he made a series of attempts against his own life.

Fear of Fukushima Radiation Only Led to More Radiation

Paranoia on the part of Japan’s power utility Tepco may have helped make the crisis worse. Phred Dvorak reports for the Wall Street Journal.

The operator of Japan’s stricken nuclear plant let pressure in one reactor climb far beyond the level the facility was designed to withstand. . . . Japanese nuclear-power companies are so leery of releasing radiation into the atmosphere that their rules call for waiting much longer . . . before venting the potentially dangerous steam that builds up as reactors overheat.

File this under Cutting Off Your Nose to Spite Your Face. On March 12

. . . an emergency was brewing inside the plant’s No. 1 reactor. By around 2:30 a.m., the pressure inside the vessel that forms a protective bulb around the reactor’s core reached twice the level it was designed to withstand. . . . About an hour later, the reactor building itself exploded—a blast that Japanese and U.S. regulators have since said spread highly radioactive debris beyond the plant. . . . Experts in the U.S. and Japan believe the venting delay may have helped create conditions that led to the blast.

Hind sight is 50/50, but how might it have better handled?

U.S. protocols on handling accidents at similar reactors call for venting before pressure exceeds the design level. The same protocol is followed by plant operators using similar types of reactors in Korea and Taiwan, industry experts in those countries say. The U.S. approach . . . accepts the radiation released as part of venting as the price of possibly preventing a larger release.

One last cliché, if you can stand it: penny wise, pound foolish.

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.

Before proceeding, I’ll wait until you get over your spell of cognitive dissonance. Yes, this is what passes for disarmament in the Age of Obama. The Albuquerque Journal provided an overview about the Los Alamos National Lab project.

Federal officials want to push ahead with a proposed Los Alamos plutonium laboratory despite soaring cost estimates and questions about seismic safety, according to a new analysis released late Friday afternoon. But the study stops short of answering key questions about how best to build a structure capable of withstanding a major earthquake at the site.

The National Nuclear Security Administration [NNSA] study also brushes aside critics who argue that new understanding of earthquake dangers and . . . the resulting rising construction costs require a re-evaluation of whether the project as currently planned should go forward. . . . The most recent version of the replacement plan would cost an estimated $3.7 billion to $5.8 billion, according to a National Nuclear Security Administration report to Congress in December. That is a four- to sevenfold increase of the estimated price just four years ago.

“NNSA and Los Alamos Lab arrogantly think they can proceed with a blank check from the taxpayers for this gold-plated project,” [Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico] said in a statement Friday evening.

Another New Mexico nuclear watchdog group, the Los Alamos Study Group, is about to present its long-gestating lawsuit against the NNSA and the Department of Energy. In his latest 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 Los Alamos Study Group and the federal defendants — the Department of Energy . . . and the [NNSA] over whether final design of the proposed huge plutonium facility in Los Alamos — called the “Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility” (CMRR-NF) — should be halted pending analysis of alternatives to the project.

The two opposing motions:

. . . whether a) to throw out the Study Group’s lawsuit, from the defendants; or b) temporarily pause the project, i.e. grant a “preliminary injunction,” in order to give the court the opportunity to hear evidence on the Study Group’s contention that the project cannot proceed without a valid, new environmental impact statement (EIS).

Mello continues.

Recently, Everet Beckner, NNSA’s Assistant Administrator for Defense Programs during the George W. Bush Administration . . . said that not pausing CMRR-NF to consider the implications of the Japanese nuclear crisis would be a mistake. He has particularly pointed out the dangers of a fire in the proposed . . . plutonium storage facility [in the event of an earthquake], a possibility which LANS, the Bechtel-led corporation that manages Los Alamos, has said it hopes to make impossible — and therefore need not be analyzed.

However, LANS has also

. . . admitted that the safety of the . . . plutonium facility [as it currently stands] is more problematic than understood to date due to structural deficiencies in the building. [The] need for . . . structural renovation raise new questions about the practicality of proceeding with everything at once.

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.

  • 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.

Mello sums up:

We now know that this site is subject to seismic shocks twice as great as those experienced at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The full implications of LANL’s challenging geographic situation are only slowly being assimilated by the federal bureaucracy and contractor community. Both DOE and NNSA operate with an almost unbelievable “culture of optimism,” as defendants themselves name the problem.

All too often, the better part of optimism is denial, in this case, on the part of the federal government about the dangers and the eye-popping cost of work proposed for Los Alamos.

In Death, Hetherington and Hondros Stand in Mute Witness to Mankind’s Latest Savagery

The bodies of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros—the award-winning journalists killed earlier this week in Libya—were blessed Friday in a small ceremony held at the Benghazi Medical Center in the country’s rebel-held east. The service offers the cold comfort of closure to millions around the world deeply affected by the pair’s death even as they were unknown to many before their untimely passing, and who are but two of the countless victims claimed thus far by Libya’s civil war.

Their death was recounted in a remarkable piece by the Washington Post’s Leila Fadel:

On Saturday evening, Tim Hetherington, the director of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Restrepo” and Chris Hondros, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated photographer, hitched a ride to this besieged city on the Ionian Spirit, where they prepared sandwiches for refugees and talked about their plans back home. On Wednesday evening, the ship ferried the bodies of the two renowned journalists back to Benghazi.

The two journalists were fatally wounded during an attack by Moammar Gaddafi’s forces against rebels in Misurata. Two other photojournalists suffered injuries, some critical, according to doctors at the hospital where they were treated…

Guy Martin, a British freelance photographer who was wounded in the attack that killed Hondros and Hetherington, was out of surgery Thursday, conscious and in stable condition. Michael Christopher Brown, another freelance photographer wounded in the attack, was also recovering.

The journalists had accompanied rebel fighters to Tripoli Street in the city center, which Gaddafi’s forces pounded with mortar fire in an attempt to retake the strategic road that divides Misurata. An ambulance took Hetherington and Martin, 28, who was working for the news agency Panos, from the battle to the triage tent next to the Hikma hospital about 5 p.m. Hetherington was bleeding heavily from his leg and looked very pale.

“Come with me. Come with me. Everybody is injured,” an American photographer who had seen the attack shouted to ambulance drivers, imploring them to return to the scene. Her bulletproof vest was splattered with blood. “I’ll come with you. I’ll show you where they are.”

As she sought help, doctors attended to Hetherington and Martin, who had suffered a stomach wound and underwent surgery Wednesday evening. About 15 minutes after the ambulance’s arrival, doctors in the tent pronounced Hetherington dead.

About 10 minutes later, another ambulance carried Hondros and Brown [the fourth journalist injured in the attack], who also suffered shrapnel wounds, to the triage unit. Doctors examining a scan of Hondros’s brain explained that shrapnel had hit the photographer in the forehead and passed through the back of his head. They asked a reporter at the hospital to look after his battered helmet. Brown’s medical condition was considered less dire…

Last week, Hondros and Hetherington joined other colleagues on the Ionian Spirit, dispatched to evacuate foreign workers from the embattled city. During the 20-hour voyage, Hetherington ate chips while Hondros told the colleagues about his recent engagement to a woman from New York. “I don’t want to be a really old dad,” he confided.

On Wednesday evening, that same vessel waited at port in Misurata for another cargo of migrant workers but was enlisted for a different mission. Before Hondros died at 10:45 p.m., Human Rights Watch reached out to the ship’s handlers and asked whether it could be used to transport him and Martin back to Benghazi for additional medical care. Instead, the bodies of Hetherington and Hondros were due to leave aboard the Ionian Spirit on Wednesday evening.

There’s little to add to what’s already been said of Hetherington and Hondros—of their artistic brilliance, of their fearless determination to bear witness to humanity’s savageries time and again, of their decency as men. So perhaps it’s best to simply arrange what has been printed by their friends, colleagues and loved ones into a small collage of affection, admiration, and respect.

From Sebastian Junger, collaborator and friend of Tim Hetherington:

I’ve never even heard of Misrata before, but for your whole life it was there on a map for you to find and ponder and finally go to. All of us in the profession—the war profession, for lack of a better name—know about that town. It’s there waiting for all of us. But you went to yours, and it claimed you. You went in by boat because the city was besieged by forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi (another name you probably never gave much thought to during your life) and you must have known this was a bad one. Boat trips are usually such nice affairs, but not this one. How strange to be out on the water off a beautiful coastline with the salt smell and the wind in your face—except this time you’re headed toward a place of violence and killing and destruction. You must have known that the unthinkable had to be considered. You must have known you might not ever get back on that boat alive.

You and I were always talking about risk because she was the beautiful woman we were both in love with, right? The one who made us feel the most special, the most alive? We were always trying to have one more dance with her without paying the price. All those quiet, huddled conversations we had in Afghanistan: where to walk on the patrols, what to do if the outpost gets overrun, what kind of body armor to wear. You were so smart about it, too—so smart about it that I would actually tease you about being scared. Of course you were scared—you were terrified. We both were. We were terrified and we were in love, and in the end, you were the one she chose.

At Foreign Policy, Christina Larson remembers Chris Hondros, the photographer and the friend:

His long list of awards — from being nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for breaking-news photography (2004), to winning the Robert Capa Gold Medal (2005) for “best published photographic reporting from abroad requiring exceptional courage and enterprise” — attest to Chris’s skill and legacy as a photographer. As one of the many journalists privileged to have known and worked with Chris personally, I wanted to add a few words honoring the qualities that lay behind his work: tenacity, humor, thoughtfulness, and deep loyalty to colleagues and friends.

I met Chris in the spring of 2007 in Washington, D.C., on the rooftop of the Beacon Hotel, at a reunion for alumni of the International Reporting Project (IRP) at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Chris, who had traveled to Nigeria in 2001 as an IRP fellow, had taken the train from New York to participate in a panel on reporters in war zones at the reunion. (I was a newbie, just back from China, as a spring 2007 IRP fellow.) Chris was a loyal alumnus to the IRP program—always willing to lend a hand, go out of his way, or offer advice to younger journalists—just as he was loyal to most any organization he was affiliated with, and most of all, to his friends.

Among journalists working on many continents, Chris was well-known and well-loved for being a careful listener. Despite all his many commitments, projects, ambitions, and dreams, Chris always made time. (Last night, quite last minute, I emailed Chris to ask whether he was in New York to meet up. He wrote back quickly, at 1:49 a.m. U.S. Eastern time, “I’m still in Misurata, alas…. Sorry to miss you. We could have had a nice lunch.”)

The magazine also ran a stunning retrospective collection of the photographer’s work, and the Atlantic Monthly assembled his final photographs from Libya in a collection no less moving.

The last word, however, goes to the New York Times’ CJ Chivers, who presided over Friday’s ceremony. In a shell-shocked blog entry posted just hours after the bodies of the slain reporters were evacuated from Misrata, Chivers reminds us that even in the darkest moments of cruelty and barbarism, the better angels of man’s nature offer, if not a counterweight, then a salve against the devastation and human wreckage of war.

We’re numb here as the clock nears 4:30 a.m., and we’re not quite sure what to do. The deaths of Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington on Tripoli Street still seem unreal. Bryan just walked off from the little space we’ve been huddled in, working. He’ll sleep soon, I hope. The work kept us busy enough to hold the worst of the feelings away. But now the work is almost done, and it will hit again with the same shock as the first word.

Before that happens, a few words should be typed.

These:

Everyone who admires Chris and Tim, and everyone who loves them, has a debt of gratitude to Human Rights Watch and to the International Organization for Migration, who together, on extremely short notice, bent the world to get Chris’s and Tim’s remains on the Ionian Spirit, the evacuation vessel that by chance was briefly in Misurata port tonight. The vessel delayed its departure to take them aboard and begin their journeys out. Tim was brought down first, while Chris clung to life. When Chris died, there seemed no time to get him there. But HRW worked the phones, pleading by satellite call to the pier to have the ship held up again. They simultaneously urged one of Chris’s and Tim’s colleagues at the triage center to get Chris’s remains en route through the besieged city by ambulance, assessing — correctly as it turned out — that if they could honestly say that he was on his way that no captain would leave the pier.

They were right. Chris and Tim are at sea now, heading toward Benghazi, which means, in the indirect but solemn ways that the fallen travel from battlefields, that they are heading home.

One more thing must be said. None of this would have happened without Andre Liohn, the colleague in the triage tent mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Andre worked all afternoon and night to get word out about Chris and Tim, who are lost, and Mike and Guy, who are wounded. At the end, it was Andre who tended to the details at the hospital to put them in motion toward their families. Without Andre, Chris and Tim would still be in Misurata, in conditions I do not care to describe. Their friends and families would know little, and Chris and Tim would have been off-the-grid, and hard to reach, and the delays in their travel would have been painful for all who want them back. Andre was a savior tonight. He brought hope and humanity to a chaotic, devastating day.

If you want to know a little more of Andre, let me say this: When I spoke to him a short while ago, I asked if he has been wearing his flak jacket, which I had carried into Misurata for him last week. Tripoli Street is a hell of flying bullets and shrapnel, and he’s on it almost every day. No, he said, I am not wearing it. I asked why not. “I gave it to an ambulance driver,” he said.

These are the organizations and the people—HRW, IOM, Andre—who make it possible to imagine, on days like these, that we are people still, just as Chris and Tim did in the work that defined their lives.

Is the Nuclear Taboo More of a Deterrent Than Deterrence Itself?

Many believe that deterrence — once often known as Mutual Assured Destruction — deserves most or all of the credit for preventing the outbreak of nuclear war. In his new book How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III (Simon & Schuster), about which we’ve been posting, Ron Rosenbuam cites a book published in 2008, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (Cambridge University Press).*

Author Nina Tannenwald, he writes, who maintains that “the prevailing explanation — which she attributes to the realist school of foreign policy, which tends to see the behavior of nations as the pure product of self-interest — is wrong.”

Besides deterrence

. . . she argues for a second explanation for nuclear non-use, something from the realm of ideas and ideals that nonetheless acquired real-world power: the development of a “nuclear taboo” that evolved from an abstract ethical norm into something more than a norm. . . . Tannenwald finds instance after instance of American leaders thinking that first use of nuclear weapons, as in preventive or preemptive war, was . . . wrong morally and ethically, “inconsistent with American values,” which call for “discrimination and proportionality in use of force.”

Oh, just like we demonstrated in World War II with our attacks on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, Hamburg, Dresden . . . (you get the idea). We’ll let Rosenbaum continue.

But she also supports her explanation of nuclear non-use by citing an important study of the period by the nuclear historian and analyst George Quester [who] concluded that “the failure to even threaten [a nuclear attack] has to be explained more by moral absolutes than by the rational calculations of the American government.” It’s a daring argument [that] asks us to believe that abstractions, “values,” fear of moral opprobrium, “stigmatization,” “shaming” — the punishments for breaking taboos — became real-world factors as decisive as warhead throw-weight. It’s also an attractive argument, because it suggests that military and political leaders have a conscience that evolved in the face of a possible world holocaust.

An example of how this phenomenon might manifest itself in even a leader not noted for much in the way of character is provided in this vignette of Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev by David Hoffman in his instant classic, The Dead Hand (Anchor Books, 2009).

In 1972, the General Staff presented to the leadership [of the Soviet Union] results of a study of a possible nuclear war after a first strike by the United States. They reported . . . 80 million citizens were dead; 85 percent of Soviet industry was in ruins. Brezhnev and Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin were visibly terrified by what they heard, according to Adrian Danilevich, a general who took part. Next, three launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles with dummy warheads were planned. Brezhnev was provided a button in the exercise and he was to push it at the proper moment. Defense Minister Andrei Grechko was standing next to Brezhnev, and Danilevich next to Grechko. “When the time came to push the button,” Danielevich recalled, “Brezhnev was visibly shaken and pale and his hand trembled and he asked Grechko several times for assurances that the action would not have any real world consequences. Brezhnev turned to Grechko and asked, “‘Are you sure this is just an exercise?'”

About world leaders growing a conscience, Rosenbaum writes (emphasis added).

It would be nice to believe. But that certainly did not filter down to the missile crewmen I interviewed, who were mainly concerned . . . with making sure they could carry out the genocidal threat of deterrence. Instead, it was almost taboo . . . to talk about reasons for not committing retaliatory genocide, such as questioning the sanity of whoever gave the order.

Nor is a terrorist group that could conceivably get its hands on nuclear weapons, such as Pakistan’s Taliban or al Qaeda, likely to be susceptible to a nuclear taboo. Islamist extremists confine taboos to sexual mores and dietary laws (halal). In fact, paralleling the missile crewmen, refusal to use whatever weapons fall into their hands is what’s probably really taboo to them. Rosenbaum continues.

There are two further problems with Tannenwald’s taboo analysis. . . . Does the taboo extend down to even the smallest battlefield nuclear-tipped artillery, less powerful than many conventional weapons? [Also, Tannenwald] gives the impression that abstract ethical thinking alone was responsible for something as powerful as this taboo. [She] tends to neglect . . . culture [e.g] Hiroshima and the way it’s been portrayed and visually sacralized, and the power of popular culture.

Besides Life magazine photos showing Hiroshima’s living victims, Rosenbaum cites John Hersey’s New Yorker essay turned into a book Hiroshima.

. . . the power of Hersey’s spare but unsparing prose was the foundation stone, the rock on which the taboo was founded [and he deserves] credit for the geopolitical effect [of his book] on the dormant consciences of the world’s leaders.

Rosenbaum also cites films from On the Beach to Dr. Strangelove to The Day After. He concludes

Cumulatively culture has had a powerful effect in creating the norm and contributing to the taboo. I would even go so far as to say that popular culture more than politics was responsible for the peace movement becoming — in its nuclear freeze phase — a mass phenomenon.

But, he notes that the taboo itself “could undo the taboo.”

If there is no certainty of retaliatory response, because tabooed, a foe would be more likely to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons for a first strike regardless of the taboo since they would have reason to believe retaliation was taboo.

In other words, however unexpected a blessing the taboo has turned out to be, it’s foolhardy to rely on so fragile a phenomenon to protect us from a nuclear holocaust.

*In a more recent book, The Tradition of Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons (Stanford University Press, 2009), T.V. Paul also explores the nuclear taboo.

Obama and Gates Disagree to Agree on Military Spending

Obama GatesLast week Barack Obama announced that he wants to cut $400 billion in military spending and said he would work with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs on a “fundamental review” of U.S. “military missions, capabilities and our role in a changing world” before making a decision.

Spokesman Geoff Morrell responded by hinting that Gates was displeased with having to cut that much from his spending plan. Gates “has been clear that further significant defense cuts cannot be accomplished without future cuts in force structure and military capability,” said Morrell, who volunteered that the Secretary not been informed about the Obama decision until the day before.

But it is difficult to believe that open display of tension between Obama and Gates was not scripted. In the background of those moves is a larger political maneuver on which the two of them have been collaborating since last year in which they gave the Pentagon a huge increase in funding for the next decade and then started to take credit for small or nonexistent reductions from that increase.

The original Obama-Gates base military spending plan – spending excluding the costs of the current wars – for FY 2011 through 2020, called for spending $5.8 trillion, or $580 billion annually, as former Pentagon official Lawrence Korb noted last January. That would have represented a 25 percent real increase over the average annual level of military spending, excluding war costs, by the George W. Bush administration.

Even more dramatic, the Obama-Gates plan was 45 percent higher than the annual average of military spending level in the 1992-2001 decade, as reflected in official DOD data.

The Obama FY 2012 budget submission reduced the total increase only slightly – by $162 billion over the four years from 2017 to 2020, according to the careful research of the Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA). That left an annual average base military spending level of $564 billion – 23 percent higher than Bush’s annual average and 40 percent above the level of the 1990s.

Central to last week’s chapter in the larger game was Obama’s assertion that Gates had already saved $400 billion in his administration. “Over the last two years,” he said, “Secretary Gates has courageously taken on wasteful spending, saving $400 billion in current and future spending. I believe we can do that again.”

The $400 billion figure is based primarily on the $330 billion Gates claimed he had saved by stopping, reducing or otherwise changing plans for 31 weapons programs. But contrary to the impression left by Obama, that figure does not reflect any cut in projected DOD spending. All of it was used to increase spending on operations and investment in the military budget.

The figure was concocted, moreover, by using tricky accounting methods verging on chicanery. It was based on arbitrary assumptions about how much all 31 programs would have cost over their entire lifetimes stretching decades into the future, assuming they would all reach completion. That methodology offered endless possibilities for inflated claims of savings.

The PDA points out that yet another $100 billion that Gates announced in January as cost-cutting by the military services was also used to increase spending on operations and new weapons program that the services wanted. That leaves another $78 billion in cuts over five years also announced by Gates in January, but most of that may have been added to the military budget for “overseas contingency operations” rather than contributed to deficit reduction, according to the PDA.

Even if the $400 billion in ostensible cuts that Obama is seeking were genuine, the Pentagon would be still be sitting on total projected increase of 14 percent above the profligate level of military spending of the Bush administration. Last week’s White House fact sheet on deficit reduction acknowledged that Obama has the “goal of holding the growth in base security spending below inflation.”

The “fundamental review” that Obama says will be carried out with the Pentagon and military bureaucracies will be yet another chapter in this larger maneuver. It’s safe bet that, in the end, Gates will reach into his bag of accounting tricks again for most of the desired total.

Despite the inherently deceptive character of Obama’s call for the review, it has a positive side: it gives critics of the national security state an opportunity to point out that such a review should be carried out by a panel of independent military budget analysts who have no financial stake in the outcome – unlike the officials of the national security state.

Such an independent panel could come up with a list of all the military missions and capabilities that don’t make the American people more secure or even make them less secure, as well as those for which funding should be reduced substantially because of technological and other changes. It could also estimate how much overall projected military spending should be reduced, without regard to what would be acceptable to the Pentagon or a majority in Congress.

The panel would not require White House or Congressional approval. It could be convened by a private organization or, better yet, by a group of concerned Members of Congress. They could use its data and conclusions as the basis for creating a legislative alternative to existing U.S. national security policy, perhaps in the form of a joint resolution. That would give millions of Americans who now feel that nothing can be done about endless U.S. wars and the national security state’s grip on budgetary resources something to rally behind.

Three convergent political forces are contributing to the eventual weakening of the national security state: the growing popular opposition to a failed war, public support for shifting spending priorities from the national security sector to the domestic economy and pressure for deficit and debt reduction. But in the absence of concerted citizen action, it could take several years to see decisive results. Seizing the opportunity for an independent review of military missions and spending would certainly speed up that process.

Could “Virtual Deterrence” Actually Increase the Chances of Nuclear War?

Virtual deterrence, while not new, has gained some currency in recent years as a means to both avert nuclear war and expedite nuclear disarmament. “Virtual,” in this instance, means abolishing nuclear weapons, which the United States maintains primarily to deter, or prevent, other states from attacking us with theirs. Instead, only the know-how and production capacity (as well as the fuel) to reconstitute them would be retained in case of a perceived national security emergency.

In its inability to signal a true commitment to nuclear disarmament, virtual deterrence is hardly ideal. But it sounds like a step in the right direction, right? In fact, the sad irony is that divesting ourselves of the hardware and retaining only the knowledge might actually increase the risks of nuclear war. Worse, it might hasten it.

In a paper that the Hudson Institute published in November titled Nuclear Weapons Reconstitution and its Discontents: Challenges of “Weaponless Deterrence”, fellows Christopher Ford explains why as well as anybody. First, though, let’s deal with a questionable claim he makes first.

The logic of reconstitution would seem to presuppose what the disarmament community often takes as axiomatic, but what is in fact a highly contested issue — namely, that the only use of nuclear weapons is in fact for deterring the use of similar weapons by others.

He also alluded to this in a recent talk he gave on nuclear deterrence.

Discussions of nuclear deterrence, in some quarters, tend to presuppose what the disarmament community often takes as axiomatic, but which is, in fact, a highly questionable claim — namely, that the only use of nuclear weapons is in fact for deterring the use of other nuclear weapons by others. This is a seductive idea [which seems] to offer a kind of “fast-track” to nuclear disarmament. . . . because nuclear deterrence is assumed not really to “touch” any of the other structures of our lives, it could simply be lifted up and tossed away. [But if] nuclear weapons turn out to be entangled in various ways with broader security or other issues . . . it is much harder to imagine them being surgically excised, and nuclear deterrence so cleanly disposed of.

Among the ways in which nuclear weapons are entangled in broader security is deterring the use of not only nuclear weapons, but a larger conventional army, a service nuclear weapons ostensibly performed during the Cold War in Europe versus the massive Red Army. Also, states seek to proliferate for reasons other than national security, such as prestige. Besides, like a national airline, it’s just what a state often thinks it should do to show it’s arrived on the international scene.

Nevertheless, it’s a mistake to assert that disarmament advocates believe that deterrence is the only use of nuclear weapons. More likely, they were originally inspired to take up the cause and, for the most part, still are by the fear that states will use nuclear weapons offensively. It’s hawks and realpolitik types who have homed in on deterrence.

In recent years replacement of the phrase “nuclear weapons” with “our nuclear deterrent” has become commonplace. It’s as if not only is deterrence the primary reason that nuclear weapons are maintained by the United States, but nukes have no actual use in fighting a war. This phenomenon can be seen in the title of the most recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by Schultz, Perry, Kissinger, and Nunn (the Four Horsemen of the Un-Apocalypse): How to Protect Our Nuclear Deterrent.

I’ve been unsuccessful in discovering who “re-branded” nuclear weapons thusly. But this kind of “messaging” is an attempt to convey the notion that instead of the principal threat to life on earth (along with global warming), nuclear weapons actually make us safe.

We’ll return now to how virtual deterrence can make us less safe. In his talk, Christopher Ford cites nuclear strategist Thomas Schelling, who expressed a concern that, if nuclear weapons are de-mobilized

. . . “every responsible government must consider that other responsible governments will mobilize their nuclear weapons base as soon as war erupts, or as soon as war appears likely.” As a result, “there will be at least covert frantic efforts . . . to acquire deliverable nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible.” Worse yet, there might be incentives for the country that acquired nuclear weapons first actually to use them preemptively. . . . employing a temporary monopoly upon nuclear weaponry. . . . in order to halt its opponent’s analogous rush toward nuclear armament.

In short, Schelling

. . . suggests that a world without nuclear weapons would become one in which many countries “would have hair-trigger mobilization plans to rebuild nuclear weapons. . . . The urge to preempt would dominate; whoever gets the first few weapons will coerce or preempt. It would be a nervous world.”

Hawks and realpolitikers both discount disarmament because the road to it is filled with potholes or, if it were a healthcare policy, gaps in coverage. But, even if one believes that proceeding down that path is more of a risk than retaining nuclear weapons, the balance of power that deterrence supposedly affords is an illusion. States that aspire to nuclear weapons aside, some that possess them, such as North Korea, Pakistan, and perhaps Israel, haven’t given up the notion that they’re just as essential for their offensive, first-strike capability than for deterrence.

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