Focal Points Blog

Immolations Draw Attention to WikiLeaks Tunisia Cables (Part 2)

Part 2 of Nawaat‘s interview (edited) with Rob Prince.

The Obama Administrations has few illusions about [Tunisian President] Ben Ali. Remember even what I would describe as our least eminent president, George Bush, found it necessary to make a public criticism of Ben Ali to his face not that long ago!

The problem is this: the U.S. would like to see change in Tunisia, but only that change that supports the status quo; the cables suggest that Washington no longer cares that much about Ben Ali today nor sees him as particularly effective in helping realize US strategic goals, but they are concerned with who might replace him.

That is the problem…those damned reformed movements! You can never tell which way they will go and if they will, either economically or strategically go off in another direction. After all, look at those Latin Americans — Ecuadorians, Venezualans, even Brazil, Bolivia and Chile all seeking their own path to development, snubbing the World Bank, IMF etc. An “uncontrolled” reform in Tunisia could well have consequences far beyond the little country itself, thus one must (or the State Department must) tread carefully.

The State Department seems to be probing a suitable replacement, one that will follow the broad guide lines of U.S. foreign policy (privatization and openness of the economy, support for the war on terrorism) and for Tunisia to play a role in U.S. strategic and military goals (they have merged) in the Middle East and North Africa.

It would do Tunisians, even Ben Ali (!) well to recall how many U.S. allies different American administrations have discarded…the list is long and I will only mention a few: the Diem regime in the 1960s, Noriega of Panama — first a key U.S. ally, now rotting in a jail in Florida — the most famous ally-turned-enemy Bin Laden, Marcos of the Philippines.

Although Habib Bourguiba bent the national will to accommodate the United States in many ways, in the end, it didn’t seem to matter. He had carefully cultivated U.S. support from the outset, even during the colonial period as a wedge against the French, and did so brilliantly. I have little doubt that the presence of the Peace Corps in Tunisia (in which I participated so long ago) was a concession to the U.S. made specifically to irritate the French (which it did).

In any case, Bourguiba thought all that kowtowing to Washington would keep Tunisia safe from some kind of U.S. (and or Israeli) military action. But then there was the Israeli strike on the Palestinian headquarters in Tunis, something that was inconceivable without U.S. approval. Reagan didn’t hesitate to turn on Bourguiba when he thought it necessary. It left Bourguiba extremely bitter; it also revealed how “flexible” Washington could be with allies they no longer felt useful, and that such figures are “expendable.” Add to this that while it is unclear just how involved the U.S. was with the coup that unseated Bourguiba in 1987, it has to be a bit more than coincidental that Ben Ali got some of his police training in the USA.

An alternative to Ben Ali?

At a certain point reading the cables, it occurred to me: they’re looking for an alternative to Ben Ali, they think “his goose is cooked” and are probing Tunisian society to find a viable alternative.

Admittedly this is just a hypothesis, and here I am sitting in Denver, high in the Rockies, speculating about Tunisia. But reading the cables over, it comes through loud and clear. How so?

  • In the cables there is open admission of the overall crisis in Tunisian society, and the opposition to Ben Ali and the Trabelsi family.
  • The events of Redeyef in 2008 are noted with the fear that it might just be the opening salvo of a deeper social crisis that the US should prepare for.
  • There are several notes that the US “cannot do anything” until the “post Ben Ali” era opens. That relations with Ben Ali are jog jammed at present.
  • But in its own way, the dinner with Sakhi and Nesrine Ben Ali Materi was not as vapid, or empty as I suggested above. It seems that the U.S. ambassador was feeling Materi out…as a possible replacement for his father-in-law. Materi impresses the ambassador that the censorship of the Tunisian media is “too much,” he suggests that his media (he owns one of the country’s two radio stations) is not afraid to hear critical voices. On Middle-East policy — Israel-Palestine, Iran, Iraq — he basically follows U.S. foreign policy to the letter. Even the comments about Nesrine are interesting. If she is “naive and clueless” perhaps she will not play the kind of nefarious role of running her husband as Leila Trabelsi has with Ben Ali!

Did the ambassador “decide” that Sakhi Materi “should” replace his uncle Ben Ali…No, that is not how things work. I would guess the ambassador is “shopping around,” getting a feel for who within Tunisia’s ruling circles might cooperate with U.S. policy and if and when “the right moment” presents itself, that the U.S. would “encourage” one of a number of “candidates” for power. And of course the French, the British and a number of other foreign embassies are doing precisely the same thing. After all, the few reports we get about Ben Ali, that he has cancer, that he spends an inordinate amount of time with his grandchildren, that the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families run only the economy today (and are frantically trying to buy up, steal what they don’t own, also in preparation for a change in power?) and that Zine Ben Ali is showing signs of senility not unlike Bourguiba manifested in 1986. So… the vultures are swarming.

That is what a careful reading of the WikiLeaks documents suggests. Do they scream it out loud? No…but re-read the cables and see if I am off the mark? So there is far more there than meets the eye, and I have to admit that . . . the State Department’s take on what is happening in [Tunisia] is less stupid than I originally imagined.

Immolations Draw Attention to WikiLeaks Tunisia Cables (Part 1)

Last week two young men committed suicide in the Tunisian town of Sidibouzid. One lit himself on fire in front of the town hall; the other climbed a lamp post and reaching out to a high voltage wire in front of a crowd of hundreds who were protesting the deteriorating social and economic conditions in the country. Prior to that, Nawaat, a Tunisian opposition website, solicited Rob Prince’s perspectives on the consequences of the WikiLeaks Tunisia cables for the US-Tunisia relationship, and how Tunisians can use the leaks to push for a real change. Part 1, edited, follows.

From what I can tell, it is not the New York Times that has revealed anything about the US-Tunisia relationship, it has been the Guardian of London and El Pais of Spain. This is curious. What to make of it? An attempt to embarrass the US in its N. Africa policy? Perhaps…there is a certain competition for Algerian natural gas between Spain and the U.S., there are voices in UK, especially at the Guardian that have been critical of U.S. Middle-East and North Africa policy since September 11, 2001. How do such things play into the release of the documents. Dunno, but it would be a bit foolish to think that some strategic considerations (if only to embarrass the U.S.) are not at play.

I have now read the Tunisian cables – the ones you have provided at Nawaat – through, three times.

There are certain themes which stand out, others which appear to be omitted. My first impression, which I have written and spoken about is that there was less there than meets the eye, ie, that they were not so interesting except for a few details here and there, that pretty much everything in the cables was certainly common knowledge to most Tunisians, and to those who, for various reasons, follow developments in Tunisia closely.

  • Most just gossip, ie, that Nesrine Ben Ali El Materi is “naive and clueless”
  • or that her husband Mohammed Sakia El Materi feeds his pet tiger in Hammamet four chickens a day (but are the chickens organic?)
  • or that Imed and Moaz Trabelsi are addicted to stealing yachts from French bankers and painting them over, the way that mafia’s here in the USA steal and dissemble cars, etc, etc.

Juicy reading perhaps, but less than meets the eye at first glance until such remarks are put in context. Even the more substantial stuff, was, with a few exceptions (the shopping list the Tunisian military would like get as U.S. aid), “not new”:

  • the general state of the country
  • the corruption of the economic sector that seems to know no bounds of those closest to the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families in economic matters
  • the intensified levels of repression against journalists and social movements (students, trade unions) that has reached epidemic proportions
  • the impact of the social uprising in Redeyef in 2008.

We could have found out about all of this — and most of us did — elsewhere.…the ambassador would have done better reading Le Monde, Liberation orNawaat to be honest.

After first reading the documents, a distinct sense was that the embassy, in reality, does not know that much about Tunisia. It has little feeling or understanding for what is going on “on the ground”; while aware of the growing discontent and social movement there seems to be little or no contact or even interest in speaking to people outside of narrow government circles.

And for its part, it appears that the government of Tunisia — GOT — (like many others) is not particularly forthcoming to American authorities, as if to hide as much as possible. In these cables, GOT gives the American embassy as little as is possible. Embassy contacts with independent voices are severely restricted. But what surprises me is the willingness of State Department reps to accept these limitations! The Tunisian authorities seem to know how to play U.S. paranoia about Islamic fundamentalism, overstate “the Iranian threat”…i.e., giving the State Department what they want to hear to elicit aid and modern weaponry.

Now the suggestion that all is not well in the US-Tunisian relationship is, I would argue, very serious stuff. More on this below.

All that is not “new,” but it does have some substantiate many things that both Tunisians and others have thought about what is going on in the country:

  • that the place is corrupt today almost beyond belief
  • that the human rights abuses are getting worse — the torture, the forced detention, the atmosphere of fear that permeates the countries beyond the hotels and beaches of Sousse
  • that the “economic miracle” is something less than that
  • Or put another way, that the U.S. State Department has become aware of the many-sided crisis which has been percolating in Tunisia for a long time, and which has these past few years exploded into a general crisis of society, so much so that not even the U.S. State Department — which has known about it all along — can any longer avoid. The cat is out of the bag. The cables substantiate this.

And something else is going reading between the lines, a kind of dangerous dance that on some level the two sides are both aware of: it is as if the State Department is probing Ben Ali: are you still useful to us, they seem to be asking. And he is responding, “Why yes, of course.” Tunisian authorities are somewhat defensive, nervous one would say and while the US ambassadors are not particularly rude, they are actually “diplomatic,” they have made mild criticisms to Ben Ali himself, to the Tunisian foreign secretary. And the cables themselves make the situation clear: all is not well in the relationship.

Does Prague Stop With START?

Obama's Prague Speech(Pictured: Russian President Medvedev, Czech President Klaus, and US President Obama in Prague in April.)

“There’s just been no talk about that right now, none whatsoever.”

Thus spake John Kerry, who led the Senate campaign for New START ratification as reported by David Sanger of the New York Times when asked about the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. At his famous Prague speech in April 2009 that buoyed the hopes of many in the disarmament community, President Obama said, among other things that he would seek U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (on nuclear-weapons testing).

Like many on the left we’re usually less than sanguine about Sanger, with his tendency to bend to the prevailing winds, but this article is straightforward.

[New START] was initially envisioned as a speed bump on President Obama’s nuclear agenda, a modest reduction in nuclear forces that would enable him to tackle much harder issues on the way to his dream of eventually eliminating nuclear weapons altogether.

It turned out to be a mountain. . . . his own aides acknowledge that the lesson of the battle over the treaty is that the political divide on national security is widening. . . . “If the Start treaty was this hard, you can only imagine how difficult the rest will be,” said William J. Perry, a secretary of defense during the Clinton administration and one of the four former cold warriors who helped formulate the goal of a world without nuclear weapons that Mr. Obama has embraced.

Couple this with the $185 billion* for nuclear weapons which the Obama administration has proposed for 2011 (in part to win Republican votes for New START) and it’s almost as if New START is the beginning of the end of the disarmament movement. Or at least of this second phase after the first phase of ban-the-bomb and nuclear freeze grassroots movements. In his recent paper for the Western States Legal foundation, The START Treaty and Disarmament: a Dilemma in Search of a Debate, Andrew Lichterman sheds some light on the current phase

A recent U.S. Congressional Research Service catalog of U.S. arms control agreement begins with this statement: “Arms control and nonproliferation efforts are two of the tools that have occasionally been used to implement U.S. national security strategy.” This reflects a far more realistic view of what arms control is than seems to prevail among NGO disarmament professionals today [most of whom] seem to have lost sight of the fact that. . . . arms control is little more than the pursuit of military advantage by diplomatic means. Working for disarmament, in contrast, means opposing destructive weaponry . . . without favoring the concerns of elites. . . .

Most who do [the] kind of professionalized interest group campaigning and advocacy [that passes for] disarmament work act as if this decline of civil society and the rise of an oligarchic politics . . . is inevitable, something to be adapted to rather than struggled against.

In July, at MRZine, Darwin BondGraham of the Los Alamos Study Group zeroed in on an example, the Ploughshares Fund, about which, he begins, “In spite of its name, Ploughshares’ mission these days actually involves beating ploughs into swords.”

Throughout the 1990s, but especially during the George W. Bush years, Ploughshares and its circle of foundations called the Peace and Security Funders Group increasingly narrowed the range of acceptable anti-nuclear activism, while simultaneously ghettoizing the field so that the work of various NGOs became less and less applicable to social justice and economic development issues, and increasingly focused on abstract global problems and hypotheticals, such as the possible use of nuclear weapons. In the process, discussions of the injustices of the global political economy and how nuclear weapons fit into it were silenced. Anti-nuclear activism became increasingly specialized, boring, and disconnected from issues that affect people’s everyday lives. Arms control eclipsed abolition as the rallying cry. [Emphasis added.]

Back to Lichterman:

No disarmament movements capable of having even the kind of modest effects of the very large, visible Cold War-era anti-nuclear movements exist today. . . . Most who do [the] kind of professionalized interest group campaigning and advocacy prevalent in. . . . disarmament work act as if [the] decline of civil society and the rise of an oligarchic politics . . . is inevitable, something to be adapted to rather than struggled against.

What’s to replace the current era of the disarmament specialist?

The requisite vision and analysis of cause and effect will not be developed in conversations among ambitious policy professionals with an eye to what moves them up the career ladder in Washington D.C. [Meanwhile, in] those instances [in the past] where pressure from disarmament movements may have played a significant role in obtaining arms control treaties, there was far more going on than lobbying campaigns backing the treaties. Instead, there were large movements with far more sweeping demands, from those who called for Banning the Bomb . . . to the international peace and disarmament movements of the 1980′s [both of which] were intertwined . . . with other social movements.

Rebuilding such movements will require. . . . . a redirection of resources away from centers of corporate, political, and military power down to where the rest of us live, starting over again in the long hard task of building movements that can give us power and voice.

*$85 billion is for nuclear weapons R&D; $100 billion is for delivery systems over the same period. (Thanks to Andrew Lichterman for enlightening me.)

Cultures of War

From 1989-1995, I worked at IPS as a diplomatic and military historian assisting former IPS Fellow Gar Alperovitz with a research project that culminated in the book The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth (New York: Knopf, 1995). Recently, C-SPAN asked me to interview John Dower, MIT Professor Emeritus of History about his new book Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq which was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

Sahno Tree interviews John DowerNot only does his book explore the parallels between the bombing of Hiroshima and the attacks of 9/11, but he also finds striking similarities between Japan’s reckless decision to attack the United States and George W. Bush’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq. Analyzing conflicts that claimed so many lives and caused such immense suffering, Dower finds similar mistakes and assumptions repeated just decades apart. His book distills those hard won lessons in the hope that they will not be repeated again. Cultures of War should be mandatory reading in our military academies and in government.

You can watch the C-SPAN interview here:

“Scam Fatigue” May Save Singh’s Hide

Manmohan Singh“‘People are struck by the magnitude of the scandal,’ said political analyst Praful Bidwai. ‘This is pretty outrageous.’”

. . . writes Jason Overdorf at Global Post about the corruption cases that have been rocking India. Wikipedia explains that what’s known as the 2G spectrum “involved officials in the government of India illegally undercharging mobile telephony companies for frequency allocation licenses, which they would use to create 2G [second generation] subscriptions for cell phones. The shortfall between the money collected and the money which the law mandated to be collected is 1,76,379 crore rupees or USD 39 billion.”

Meanwhile, writes Overdorf, “Every day, new revelations hit the headlines from leaked transcripts of tapped telephone conversations between an influential lobbyist and top politicians, billionaire tycoons and (formerly) respected journalists.” While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh isn’t implicated, “the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party [the right-wing, vehemently Hindu BJP -- RW] . . . said he was asleep at the switch.” However Singh’s National Congress party retaliated via its “general secretary, Digvijay Singh, in the role of hatchet man as he defended the 40-year-old prime minister-in-waiting, Rahul Gandhi.”

Embracing Rahul’s trepidations about “Hindu terror” — WikiLeaks’ diplomatic cables revealed that Rahul told the U.S. ambassador that he feared Hindu terrorist groups more than Islamic ones — the general secretary attacked the BJP’s Hindu nationalist parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). And by amplifying Rahul’s rhetoric — [Digvijay Singh] apparently sought to shift the focus from corruption to communalism, the word India uses to discuss its religious divides.

“The RSS in the garb of its nationalist ideology is targeting Muslims the same way Nazis targeted Jews in the 1930s,” Digvijay told plenary attendees.

Meanwhile, will the 2G spectrum scam bring down the Manmohan Singh administration? Overdorf again:

. . . in scam central, questions remain whether corruption allegations alone — or even a smoking gun — is enough to engineer a change in government. One need look no further than the last election results to see that Indians — who by and large believe that all their politicians are equally corrupt — suffer from scam fatigue.

We can commiserate. Americans too have an almost endless capacity to overlook corruption.

New START Closer to Breaking Out of the Blocks

The ratification vote for New START is finally at hand today or tomorrow and the Obama administration may have finally garnered enough supporters. The Los Angeles Times reports:

Aides to Senate supporters of the treaty said that of the nine Republican members they need, they have four committed supporters: Sen. Richard Lugar (IN), Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), and Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH). Scott Brown of Massachusetts announced Monday he would also vote to ratify.

They considered as likely or possible votes are Sen. Bob Corker (TN), Johnny Isakson (GA), and Lisa Murkowski (AL). Sen. Bob Bennett (UT) Sen. Saxby Chambliss (GA) Thad Cochran (MS) are considered maybes.

Once again, though, we feel a responsibility to point out what New START isn’t: a true disarmament treaty. In a recent commentary for the Western States Legal Foundation (despite its name, an anti-nuclear group), Andrew Lichterman sums up this perspective as well as anyone:

The principal purported benefits of new START, given that it requires only marginal arms reductions over seven years, mainly fall into two areas: resumption of on-the-ground verification measures, and re-establishment of a negotiating framework for future arms reductions. The concessions extracted by the weapons establishment in anticipation of ratification, in contrast, will have immediate and tangible effects, beginning with increases in weapons budgets and accelerated construction of new nuclear weapons facilities. These increased commitments of resources are intended to sustain a nuclear arsenal of civilization destroying size for decades to come, and will further entrench interests that constitute long-term structural impediments to disarmament.

One would think that the START deal, with a treaty constituting at best very small arms reductions coming at the cost of material and policy measures that are explicitly designed to push any irreversible commitment to disarmament off many years into the future, would spark considerable debate within the U.S. — arms control and disarmament community. With the struggle over treaty ratification in its final stages, however, most U.S. arms control and disarmament organizations have obediently lined up behind the Obama administration, parroting its talking points and saying little or nothing about the budget increases and policy promises provided to the nuclear weapons establishment.

The last sentence is what, in part, Lichterman means by the subtitle of his paper “The START Treaty and Disarmament.” It reads: “a Dilemma in Search of a Debate.” More on that:

For months now, what little public discussion there is in the United States about arms control and disarmament has been dominated by treaty negotiations between the Obama administration and a formidable adversary. . . . The adversary is not Russia (those negotiations concluded last spring); it is the U.S. military-industrial complex and its representatives in the United States Senate.

To this observer the saddest irony may be that the Republicans who are finally agreeing to vote to ratify may not have needed the $86 billion which the Obama administration has indicated that it will designate for the nuclear-weapons industry. The Republican senator to which the money was directed to win their votes, led by Jon Kyl and Mitch McConnell, remain unmoved.

WikiLeaks XXIV: Security for Radioactive Materials in Yemen Goes From Bad to Nonexistent

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

A brief, but alarming, dispatch from the US embassy in Sana’a emerged this weekend, outlining the lax conditions under which radioactive materials are guarded in Yemen. According to a cable written earlier this year and published by the Guardian on Sunday afternoon, “The lone security guard standing watch at Yemen‘s main radioactive materials storage facility was removed from his post on December 30, 2009, according to XXXXXXXXXXXX.” In his place? A single “closed-circuit television security camera [which] broke six months ago and was never fixed.”

While it is unclear who, exactly, XXXXXXXXXXXX might be, they were sufficiently worried about the unguarded storage facility to plead with the United States “to help convince the [government of Yemen] to remove all materials from the country until they can be better secured, or immediately improve security measures at the NAEC facility.” The cable reports that the unidentified source warned US authorities that “Very little now stands between the bad guys and Yemen’s nuclear material.”

The facility under question held

various radioactive materials, small amounts of which are used by local universities for agricultural research, by a Sana’a hospital, and by international oilfield services companies for well-logging equipment spread out across the country.

While these stockpiles would be useless to those seeking to build a nuclear bomb, they are nonetheless of interest to mischief makers keen to cause large scale disaster. Speaking with the Guardian, Harvard University’s Matthew Bunn points out that materials such as those discussed in the cable

could make a very nasty dirty bomb capable of contaminating a wide area… enough to make a mess that would cost tens of billions of dollars in cleanup costs and economic disruption, with all sorts of controversy over how clean is clean, how will people go back there.

The Yemen cable offer at least the second disturbing report in recent weeks of potentially harmful materials being exposed to possible capture by non-state actors. In late November, the Atlantic‘s Max Fisher detailed a previously unreported US-Russian standoff with Libya during the closing weeks of 2009. Fisher’s reporting was later backed up by cables released by WikiLeaks (and very strangely reported as fresh news by the New York Times a week later with absolutely zero acknowledgment of the Atlantic‘s scoop). As the north African country prepared to send its final shipment of weapons-grade nuclear material to Russia as part of a major disarmament agreement with Washington, Tripoli suddenly reversed course, refusing to allow the batch of nuclear goods leave Libyan territory.

As Fisher reports, the standoff

left the seven five-ton casks [of nuclear material] out in the open and under light guard, vulnerable to theft by the al-Qaeda factions that still operate in the region or by any rogue government that learned of their presence.

For one month and one day, U.S. and Russian diplomats negotiated with Libya for the uranium to be released and flown out of the country. At the same time, engineers from both countries worked to secure the nuclear material from theft or leakage, two serious dangers that became more likely the longer the casks sat exposed. On December 21, Libya finally allowed a Russian plane to remove the casks, ending Libya’s nuclear weapons program and with it the low-grade game of nuclear blackmail they had been playing.

Details of the crisis itself are the stuff of a West Wing episode. After concluding a deal with the United States to disarm its fledgling nuclear program, all seemed to be progressing well.

For six years, Libyan officials complied with U.S.-led international efforts to dismantle the program. In November of last year, when officials without notice halted the dismantling process, the Libyans were down to their last 5.2 kilograms–still enough to make a bomb. A few days later, the U.S. embassy was contacted by Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi. The son of Muammar al-Qaddafi, Saif is widely seen as Libya’s great hope for reform should he win out against his more conservative brother, Mutassim, and succeed their father. But on that day, Saif told the U.S. ambassador to Libya that he was “fed up” with the U.S. He warned, “Slowly, slowly, we are moving backward rather than forward.”

Saif, according to the State Department cables reviewed by The Atlantic, told U.S. representatives that he could “fix” the nuclear crisis–if the U.S. met his demands. His list included military equipment, assistance in building a nuclear medical facility, relaxation of trade embargoes against Libya, and a sum of money that he implied would be in the tens of millions of dollars. But Saif made clear that what he sought most was respect. He suggested that the United States and Libya end their decades of enmity with a grand gesture of détente, even recommending that the senior Qaddafi and President Obama hold a joint summit. The incongruity of demanding friendship from the U.S. while simultaneously blackmailing it with the risk of loose nuclear materials does not appear to have bothered Saif. He concluded with a bit of American vernacular, telling the ambassador, “The ball is in your court.”

As the Libyans played out their hardball strategy of nuclear brinkmanship, the highly vulnerable casks of nuclear material sat exposed.

At one point, according to the documents, U.S. officials were alarmed to find only a single armed guard at the nuclear facility, and “they did not know if [his gun] was loaded.” Perhaps most worryingly, the casks had been left near the facility’s large loading crane. U.S. officials worried about the security of the casks. It would have been easy for anyone with a gun and a truck to drive up, overpower the guard, use the crane to load the casks onto the truck, and drive off into the vast Libyan dessert.

Even if the uranium was not stolen, Russian nuclear engineers warned of the likelihood that the casks would eventually crack, leaking radiation and causing a biological and environmental disaster. But as the meetings between U.S. and Libyan officials stretched on, it was not clear when, if ever, Libya would consent to removing the casks.

At the end of the day, it appears that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton successfully interceded to diffuse the crisis by simply making a call to Libya’s foreign minister. While details of the conversation are not known, Fisher reports that the US embassy in Tripoli requested that Clinton deliver “a general statement of commitment to the relationship [with Libya], a commitment to work with the Libyans to move the relationship ahead.” Whatever was said, worked. A week later, the materials arrived safely in Russia where they presumably were treated and ultimately destroyed.

In the case of the Yemen stockpile, the more recent embassy cable notes that Yemen’s “Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi told the Ambassador on January 7 that no radioactive material was currently stored in Sana’a and that all ‘radioactive waste’ was shipped to Syria.” Cold comfort to be sure, especially in light of other WikiLeaks documents—for starters, see here, here, and here—demonstrating the ease with which dangerous materials can be had by just about anyone who wants them.

South Korea: Seeking Reunification by Live Fire?

If you look closely at the AP photograph of the South Korean marines conducting a drill on Yeonpyoeong island, you can see that their yellow headbands read tongil. That’s the Korean word for reunification. With the South Korean government conducting another round of live-fire artillery drills in contested waters near North Korea, the message of the headband is unambiguous. Rather than waiting patiently for reunification to take place through negotiations, the Lee Myoung-bak administration wants to accelerate the process, by force if necessary.

When South Korea conducted live-fire drills in the area last month, North Korea responded by shelling Yeonpyeong island, killing two soldiers and two civilians. The South shelled back. This time around, the South disregarded pleas by China and Russia to postpone its military exercise. On Monday, it conducted 90 minutes of artillery shelling from Yeonpyeong island as South Korean jet fighters flew overhead. Despite initial threats to retaliate, North Korea has so far refrained from responding to what it has called a “despicable military provocation.”

South Korea’s resolve to go through with the test was simply a refusal to be bullied, argued many analysts, including former South Korean foreign minister Han Sung-Joo. “If each North Korean threat tied our hands, we would become hostage to their threats,” he commented.

As the yellow headbands indicate, however, the current South Korean government is not just sending a message of deterrence. The Lee Myung-bak government, like its recent predecessors, sees an opportunity to break the stalemate on the peninsula. But unlike either the Kim Dae-Jung or Roh Moo-Hyun administration, Lee doesn’t see a long, slow process of negotiating reunification.

When Lee looks north, he sees an ailing dictator, a struggling economy, and a desperate national-security apparatus. The Wikileaks documents, meanwhile, suggested that China was losing patience with its North Korean ally. All of this contributed to last week’s statement by the South Korean president that “unification is drawing near.” The South Korean government is putting money into preparing for regime collapse in the north in much the way the Kim and Roh governments put money into engaging the North economically and politically.

The U.S. government has generally backed the South Korean government’s more aggressive posture. Twenty U.S. soldiers participated in the recent live-fire drill. Joint South Korean-U.S. military exercises in these contested wars have ratcheted up the tensions. And at the United Nations, the United States has pushed for a condemnation of North Korea’s November 23 artillery attack to be included in a statement otherwise designed to calm the waters. China has blocked consensus, sensibly pointing out that such a statement would only roil the waters more.

At the same time, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson just returned from Pyongyang with the outlines of a possible deal that could bring the disputing parties back to the negotiating table. North Korea is willing to allow back UN nuclear inspectors, send fuel rods out of the country, and establish a hotline between the two Koreas and the United States. While in Pyongyang, Richardson urged the North Korean leadership to show “maximum restraint” in dealing with South Korea’s drills.

Today North Korea followed Richardson’s advice. Now it’s the South Korean and U.S. turn to show maximum restraint. By following up on the offer on the table, all sides can step away from the precipice and go back to pursuing reunification the old-fashioned way: by talking, not fighting.

Why Would U.S. Urge U.N. to Allow Iraq a Nuclear Energy Program?

From the Department of You-Can’t-Make-This-Stuff-Up . . . in the National Interest Paul Pillar reports that on Wednesday, “At the urging of the United States, the United Nations Security Council passed . . . a resolution permitting Iraq to have a civilian nuclear program [which] also lifted prohibitions on exports to Iraq of certain materials that could be used to develop nuclear and other unconventional weapons.”

Even more worrisome, he writes: “The Council’s action represented a retreat from its earlier position that it would not lift the nuclear restrictions unless Baghdad accepted . . . more intrusive international inspections.”

He then points out how ironic the “Council’s action in affirming Iraq’s right to a peaceful nuclear program is . . . in view of the obsessive campaign to deny the country on its eastern border the same right.”

Hmm, what country could that be? (Actually the campaign isn’t to deny Iran a peaceful nuclear program, but nuclear arms.) Further irony accrues to the United States “in view of the obsessive campaign” on its part to ferret out imaginary nuclear weapons in Iraq before the War. Pillar himself was a former CIA official who later criticized the Bush administration for adjusting intelligence (or the lack thereof) to justify the Iraq War.

He elaborates:

This is one more demonstration of the hypocrisy and inconsistency that characterize much nonproliferation policy, especially as it relates to the Middle East. [It's not so much] a concern about nuclear-armed regimes throwing their weight around and handling neighbors roughly; if it were, then we ought to be paying far more attention than we do to . . . Israel’s sizable nuclear arsenal. [In fact, what] ostensibly is a concern about [nuclear weapons is] much more a concern about the . . . regimes that might get those weapons.

A further irony [the third here -- not that we're counting -- RW] is that one of the most commonly voiced worries about Iran possibly acquiring a nuclear weapon is that it might touch off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, with Arab countries trying to acquire their own nuclear weapons. In any inventory of candidates to wage an arms race with Iran, Iraq—which fought a highly destructive war with Iran in the 1980s—should be at or near the top of the list. [Especially since] Iraq is a very unstable country, to the point of substantial and seemingly unending violence.

Why then would Washington’s seek to facilitate an Iraqi nuclear energy program?

The current administration has an interest in showing that Iraq is not failing on its watch and that it will be safe for U.S. troops to complete their withdrawal by the end of 2011.

Nuclear Disarmament: First Line of Defense Against the Destruction of the Environment

Nuclear wasteland(Pictured: The proverbial nuclear wasteland)

In recent years, when applied to the United States, the term “exceptionalism” has escalated from its usual first meaning — uncommon — to its second — extraordinary. Meanwhile, when it comes to the planet on which we live, Americans and the rest of its inhabitants may not exactly be earth exceptionalists, but we are earth-centric. Since the earth is our only frame of reference, we’re alternately resigned to how its history repeats itself or we’re wracking our brains, trying to figure out how to navigate the next millennium as if nothing like it had ever been done before — by anyone, anywhere in the universe.

As one disposed, by nature, to believe in alien life forms, I often ask myself about the various obstacles with which we’re confronted or those of our own making: How do they do they surmount them on other planets? For example, does anyone really believe that a civilization elsewhere that may be a millennium — or a million of them — older than ours bases its economy on capitalism and free markets? It doesn’t take much imagination to see that dwindling resources require a managed economy, at the least, to parcel out what’s left.

Recently, however, the pendulum of my perspective has begun to swing back to earth-centric. Recent thinking places planets that just might host human life forms at the far reaches of the universe. In other words, prospects for a community of planets inhabited with humanoids, in our corner of the universe anyway, may be slim and none. In fact, it may be a millennium before such planets are even visible via telescopes. Last spring, at Astrobiology Magazine, Dan Choi wrote:

Although our telescopes will likely become good enough to detect signs of life on exoplanets [planets revolving around another sun besides ours. -- RW] within the next 100 years, it would probably take many centuries before we could ever get a good look at the aliens.

Signs of life may be all we see because what’s required is not the most powerful telescope of all time, but a series of telescopes.

To begin imaging even giant organisms 30 feet long and wide on the closest putative exoplanet [which is] 4.37 light years away, the elements making up a telescope array would have to cover a distance roughly 400,000 miles wide. . . . The area required to collect even one photon [the basic unit of light -- RW] a year in light reflected off such a planet is some 60 miles wide.

In other words, it’s likely that we’re more alone than I had thought. The logical response then is to value the planet for its uniqueness as if it were a priceless museum piece which we pledge to keep out of harm’s way.

It’s difficult to believe that many still view the earth as a raw resource to be developed, when, in fact, such a pursuit comes perilously close to rifling the pockets of a corpse. Unless, that is, they’re convinced that once the earth is used up, they can colonize another planets. (Mining aside, some scientists maintain that Mars and other planets may be arable.)

More likely, environmental concerns are tuned out because of an inability to stomach the messengers — whether progressives in general or scientists who hold no truck with creationism. But it’s folly to believe that when the earth finally keels over and expires, colonization and migration can be ramped up on demand.

In the end, when it comes to planets conducive to the care and feeding of advanced life forms, earth is likely a space oasis. Which should serve to firm up one’s commitment to nuclear disarmament. For when it comes to ravaging the earth, a nuclear attack accelerates the entropy of global warming many times over. The number of dead may result in a suddenly sustainable population, but that’s a poor consolation prize for the physical and psychic trauma inflicted on the survivors. Complete with a radioactive landscape and nuclear winter as well, nuclear war can send the planet on a fast track to hell.

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