Focal Points Blog

Nuclear Weapons Just Not Sexy Anymore

Nuclear technicianThe incarnation of “sexy,” that is, that cropped up a few years ago: exciting or trendy in a general, not erotic, way. That settled, let’s move on to a paper that Christopher Ford wrote for the Hudson Institute in which he weighs, in classic nuclear-strategist mode (bearing in mind that Hudson was founded by its most notorious example, Herman Kahn), the merits of launch on warning (LOW).

To refresh your memory, LOW refers to a nuclear state launching a retaliatory strike when it believes that it has detected nuclear weapons headed towards it soil. In another words, the attacked state isn’t waiting around for the decisive confirmation that detonation constitutes. Needless to say, accidents happen. (The most famous was in 1983 when Soviet ballistics officer Stanislav Petrov was brave enough to act on his judgment that an alarm supposedly informing him that the United States had launched a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union was false.) Ford speculates on:

. . . the counter-intuitive possibility that progress since the end of the Cold War in reducing the perceived importance and strategic centrality of nuclear weapons and delivery systems [aka missiles -- RW], and the attention given them within the military hierarchy, may itself be increasing accident risks.

Say what? Ford explains.

Already, for instance, it would appear that the gradual [reduction] of the perceived importance of nuclear missions within the U.S. military – and the degree to which nuclear specialties have gone from being considered a badge of elite distinction to a career backwater relative to “real” warfighting or exotic emerging arenas such as outer space and cyberspace – has helped produce a more accident-prone culture in the nuclear components of the U.S. military. [Such as] the incident in 2007 in which nuclear-armed cruise missiles were mistakenly loaded aboard a B-52 bomber and flown for several hours across the United States.

As hawks and Republican congresspersons are fond of reminding us, this phenomenon seems to apply to the fields of nuclear design and engineering as well. Much of the current workforce is approaching retirement and few young people seem interested in joining a field that seems like it’s trending down. If, that is, you believe that New START is a disarmament treaty rather than a vehicle for ensuring the nuclear-weapons industry is funded to the tune of $180 billion over the next decade. In other words, pro-nuclear-weapons advocates have managed to secure the money; they just need bodies.

This passage from San Francisco Chronicle article, though dated (2003), captures the predicament.

Bruce Goodwin admits he often meets with puzzled stares when he tells young people he designs nuclear bombs for a living and tries to recruit promising scientists, as though he had emerged from an outdated science fiction fantasy.

“People will say to us, ‘My God, you still work on nuclear weapons?’” said Goodwin, the head of the weapons program at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the East Bay. “I would say, ‘Yes, we do.’ But it is still a surprise.”

“It has become more difficult over the past 10 years to attract the right people.”

We solicited the perspective of one-time nuclear chemist Cheryl Rofer, who blogs at Phronesisaical. “My guess is that nuclear weapons are still a pretty exciting prospect for a certain subset of astrophysicists and engineers,” she said. As long as they don’t get wind of how frustrating working for the national laboratories such as Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Lawrence Livermore can be. Ms. Rofer explains.

Smothering of laboratory activity by safety and other regulations is part of it; the lab management culture is another. . . . Then there’s simply a loss of direction, which has been happening since arms control set in and nobody bothered to think about how that should or would affect the national labs. I’m not talking about a simplistic “oh dear, they don’t love our bombs any more” but a more pragmatic lack of guidance from the national security apparatus to the labs about where they should [then] be going. . . . That has finally been corrected with New START and the latest [Nuclear Posture Review], but too many problems have already set in for a quick recovery. Another problem is a shift in [Department of Energy] attitudes from collaboration with the labs to an insistence on “managing” them, even if the “managers” have no idea of what is needed. Finally, and perhaps most important, there’s been a shift in the lab culture from more collaborative to more competitive among the scientists.

A friend, who has worked on nonproliferation initiatives and is now employed in the field of nuclear energy, weighs in next. This individual wishes to remain anonymous.

Per nuclear weapons work . . . we saw that people in their 30′s were leaving and other people were not accepting positions when offered. From what I have heard – the reasons are: [Los Alamos] has moved from a place of high technology, pushing-edge science, creative thinking and engagement – to compliance [meeting regulatory requirements] and not on performance. . . .

When they moved the lab to private contractors they put in place a fee-based performance contract. . . . based upon meeting environmental and safety and security [and] the way [they're] paid is to have the least amount of mistakes and what is the best way to get the least amount of mistakes – to do the least amount of work.

Echoing Ms. Rofer, she adds:

The management and staff used to be a team – when I worked there I knew everyone in my management chain to the director. Now it’s more . . . “us against them” . . . not so great for cutting edge science.

A disarmament advocate might react, “Great, they’re hamstringing themselves in the labs. Works for me.” In fact, my friend relates:

Some of the most interesting work is in nonproliferation – unfortunately with the loss of nuclear weapons capability it is significantly affecting the expertise needed for nonproliferation. The two go hand-in-hand.

In other words, the same, or similar, scientists and technicians needed to design and develop nuclear weapons are also needed to walk them back. She adds:

We ended up at Los Alamos with a large number of people doing nonproliferation work that had no technical backgrounds and it really showed in their analysis.

Meanwhile, writes Ford, about the military in words that could be equally applied to the science side:

. . . there would seem to be no intrinsic reason that a nuclear force could not remain doctrinally and institutionally “important,” superlatively trained and endlessly drilled, well-funded and supplied of state-of-the-art technology, and prized as an “elite” service, even if it shrinks to a small size. Nevertheless, ensuring such continued care, attention, and high-reliability operational effectiveness is apparently not easy, nor is it likely to be anything but expensive.

Nuclear weapons just needs its brand polished. In the end, though, the most natural form of disarmament of all might be attrition. What if they gave a nuclear-weapons program and nobody came?

WikiLeaks XXVIX: West Doesn’t Know What to Do With the New, More Reasonable Ahmadinejad

Ahmadinejad, Khameini(Pictured: Iran’s President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khameini.)

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

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that a new WikiLeaks cable reveals Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was eager to reach agreement on a UN-sponsored nuclear fuel swap proposal put forward in 2009. The deal fell through when Iran balked at the proposal and outlined alternative fuel swaps involving allies Brazil and Turkey. But the six nations — the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany — said the offers fell short of their demands.

The cable, which the AP says was made public on Tuesday by WikiLeaks (though it has yet to appear at last check), makes clear that while Ahmadinejad was keen to hammer out some sort of agreement with the parties involved, the Iranian president “faced internal pressures from hard-liners who viewed it as a ‘virtual defeat,’” which ultimately killed any chances of a successful outcome.

In point of fact, the cable in question — which relates the contents of a meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu about the Iranian situation — has been publicly available for about a week. The Spanish newspaper El Pais published it, along with an accompanying article, at the end of December. The dispatch further complicates conventional wisdom concerning the nature of the Iranian regime and their foreign policy outlook on matters of international security.

Among other interesting observations, the cable reports that the Iranians put greater stock in the American pledge to honor a fuel swap agreement than their ally Russia, and that they held deep reservations about negotiating with the British. Still, according to Davutoglu,

the Iranians: a) are ready to send a delegation to Vienna to work out the specifics on this proposal; b) have given their “full trust” to Turkey; c) continue to face serious domestic problems inside Iran. He said the Turks actually see Ahmadinejad as “more flexible” than others who are inside the Iranian Government. Ahmadinejad is facing “huge pressure” after statements from some P5 members to the effect that a nuclear deal would succeed in weakening Iran’s nuclear capability — which is interpreted by some circles in Iran as a virtual defeat.

As a result, the issue boiled down to one of public relations.

The Turks had asked Ahmadinejad if the core of the issue is psychological rather than substance. Ahmadinejad had said “yes,” that the Iranians agree to the proposal but need to manage the public perception. Accordingly, the Iranians are proposing that the first 400 kilos be transferred to Kish Island — thereby keeping it on Iranian soil — and would receive right away an equivalent amount (30-50 kilos) of enriched fuel. The second stage would focus on the management of Iranian public opinion, after which Tehran would proceed with the Turkey option for the remaining 800 kilos, probably in two tranches.

In the event, this offer, among other the Iranians proposed, proved a bridge too far for the six nations across the table to accept. The talks broke down, and were only reinitiated this past month in Europe.

But what is most intriguing about the recently WikiLeaked cables concerning Iran has been the portrait emerging of Ahmadinejad. Lost in the hullabaloo of his being smacked in the face by the head of Iran’s revolutionary guard was the description offered in the cable of the Iranian president’s moderate disposition — the cause of the assault itself. Regardless of the motivations driving Ahmadinejad, it appears from these cables that political realities are forcing the Iranian leader to abandon his hard-line public rhetoric in private, which offers a small source of hope moving forward.

The unfortunate truth, however, is that even were Ahmadinejad to emerge as a reliably reasonable interlocutor in multilateral negotiations, it would scarcely matter. After all, the real power in Iran resides with the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Regrettably, the Supreme Leader continues to signal contentment with the kabuki theatre politics that have characterized US-Iranian relations since George W. Bush delivered his famous “axis of evil” speech — effectively destroying any hopes of constructive dialogue between the two countries after 9/11 — as the intrigues of bureaucratic infighting iron themselves out in Tehran. And all the while, drumbeats of war continue thudding softly but steadily in support of the lunatic calls for airstrikes against Iran, demands that grow shriller by the day.

Israel to Rattle Its Saber a Little Less?

Dagan and Netanyahu(Pictured: Retiring Mossad chief Meir Dagan and Israeli President Netanyahu.)

Plucked from the Tweet-sphere:

@TonyKaron: Israel now says Iran wont have nukes before 2015. Does this mean Spring 2011 war is off?

The esteemed journalist Tony Karon, one-time ANC activist in South Africa, is now a senior editor at Time. He links to a Haaretz article that begins:

Meir Dagan, who retired from his post as Mossad chief on Thursday after eight years, does not believe Iran will have nuclear capability before 2015.

In a summary given to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Dagan said Iran was a long way from being able to produce nuclear weapons, following a series of failures that had set its program back by several years.

In essence, he’s patting himself on the back.

Dagan’s term centered around two main issues: the Iranian nuclear program; and the assassinations of Hezbollah and Hamas leaders and Iranian scientists, most if not all of which have been attributed to the Mossad.

The Israeli intelligence community’s assessments of Iran’s nuclear capability have changed during Dagan’s tenure. . . . These adjustments were not the result of mistaken evaluations, but due to the difficulties Iran has encountered in advancing its program, largely because of the Mossad’s efforts.

Now, switching into Andy Rooney mood, ever wonder what exactly saber rattling means? Unless it’s defective, a saber (or sabre) has no moving parts and, when brandished, should make no sound. Theoretically, saber-rattling doesn’t even cut it (sorry, couldn’t resist) as a display. In fact, it can’t even be called all-bark-no-bite since there’s no real bark.

Nevertheless, phantom sounds or no, these days saber-rattling elicits its intended response of rallying like-minded souls to a cause.

An Opening for Progressives? Obama to Step up Outreach to Africa in 2011

Earlier this week, the AP reported that Obama is

[Q]uietly but strategically stepping up his outreach to Africa, using this year to increase his engagement with a continent that is personally meaningful to him and important to U.S. interests.

This story and the statement from Obama represent an opening for progressives in the United States. and in Africa to begin to push the Obama Administration on its short-sighted Africa policy. The last two years have been more or less a honeymoon where folks were so enthralled by a son of Africa in the White House that there was not enough hard criticism of the Administration’s policies, which continued rather seamlessly from Bush.

As you know, extractive industries – oil, gas and mining remain the dominant lens through which U.S.-Africa policy is set. AFRICOM and the expansion of U.S. militarism in Africa is a tool through which the United States can secure its narrow interests in Africa’s resources. In addition, the Obama Administration is pushing hard on its “Feed the Future” Initiative – which translates on the ground into land grabs for biofuels and genetically modified foods.

The key in the coming year will be the degree to which progressives can position ourselves to challenge harmful policies while pushing forward alternatives on food sovereignty (local food), land rights, human rights, environmental justice, economic justice (debt cancellation) and peace (stop the flow of weapons and military contractors). Many of these themes will be featured at the World Social Forum in Senegal next month.

The article focuses on elections noting that,

The administration is monitoring more than 30 elections expected across Africa this year, including critical contests in Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

Out of the 30, there will be 12 key elections in Africa this year (including the referendum in Sudan and Presidential elections in Nigeria, Uganda, Liberia – all of whom now have oil). This will bring more sustained mainstream media coverage to Africa than in other years.

An Obama trip to Africa will intensify that coverage. Rumors are flying as to where Obama will go and when. My bet is on the UNFCCC which will be in South Africa in December.

But Big Oil and other powerful U.S. companies and the negative impact of U.S. guns and training will remain a serious challenge to peace and stability on the continent.

WikiLeaks XXVIII: Organized Crime Squeezing the Life Out of Bulgaria

Bulgarian crime bosses the Galevi brothers(Pictured: Bulgarian crime bosses the Galevi brothers.)

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

A series of US cables WikiLeaked during the closing weeks of 2010 paint a discouraging portrait of the political economy in Bulgaria. In particular, the cables highlight the dispiriting degree to which organized crime has come to dominate the country, and the increasing frustration experienced by the country’s European neighbors with Bulgaria’s half-measure to combat mafia influence over society.

Crime’s grip over Bulgarian society is hardly news. Writing a decade ago, Robert Kaplan described the evolution of the country’s tradition of organized crime. Discussing former satellite states of Soviet Russia, Kaplan notes that

By the 1980s, communist parties had evolved largely into large-scale mafias which, when the system collapsed, simply divided into smaller mafias that purchased politicians in all those new and weak democracies…Nowhere, however, were such phenomena so transparent as in Bulgaria when I visited in 1998…Bulgarian crime has no centuries-old tradition like Italy’s, or even one of heroic thieves and warrior clans as in Russia, Serbia, or Albania. Nor is there the colorful ethnic ingredient here that distinguishes criminal circles in the Caucasus, particularly in Georgia and Chechnya, with their family mafias and highwaymen. The Bulgarian groupings essentially are the result of the transition from communist totalitarianism to parliamentary democracy.

But the cables released this past month reveal just how bad the mafias have headlocked the country’s economic and political development. The first cable, dating from 2005, plainly states that

The strength and immunity from the law of organized crime (OC) groups is arguably the most serious problem in Bulgaria today…OC groups range from local street thugs involved in extortion to sophisticated international narcotic dealers and money launderers. An estimated 118 organized crime groups were operating in Bulgaria at the end of 2004…though many of these groups are relatively small and the landscape is dominated by a handful of big players. Organized crime continues to be pervasive in many spheres of Bulgarian life, despite domestic and international efforts to combat it. To date, not a single major OC figure has been punished by the Bulgarian legal system, despite an on-going series of OC-related assassinations.

The scale and scope of mafia activity in Bulgaria is staggering.

OC groups are known to be involved in narcotics trafficking, prostitution, extortion and racketeering, various financial crimes, car theft, and trafficking in stolen automobiles. Human trafficking for sexual exploitation, counterfeiting, and debit and credit card fraud also are some of the most common criminal activities engaged in by Bulgarian organized crime. Crime groups involved in human trafficking are extremely mobile, and victims are often sold or traded amongst various groups. Many groups use a host of legitimate businesses domestically and abroad to launder the proceeds of their illegal activities. Several well-known businessmen linked to organized crime have parlayed their wealth into ownership of sports teams, property developments, and financial institutions. (An organized crime activity that received special attention due to its growth in 2004 was VAT (value-added tax) fraud. The Ministry of Finance estimated that VAT fraud cost the Bulgarian treasury over $700 million in losses annually.)

The seizure of Bulgaria’s political institutions by mafia groups, however, offers the most alarming evidence of Bulgaria’s troubles.

Organized crime has a corrupting influence on all Bulgarian institutions, including the government, parliament and judiciary. In an attempt to maintain their influence regardless of who is in power, OC figures donate to all the major political parties. As these figures have expanded into legitimate businesses, they have attempted — with some success — to buy their way into the corridors of power. During the 2001 general elections, a number of influential “businessmen,” including XXXXXXXXXXXX and XXXXXXXXXXXX, heavily financed and otherwise supported the XXXXXXXXXXXX campaign.

Below the level of the national government and the leadership of the major political parties, OC owns a number of municipalities and individual members of parliament. This direct participation in politics — as opposed to bribery — is a relatively new development for Bulgarian OC. XXXXXXXXXX Similarly in the regional center of XXXXXXXXXXX, OC figures control the municipal council and the mayor’s office. Nearly identical scenarios have played out in half a dozen smaller towns and villages across Bulgaria.

The problems with organized crime in Bulgaria have exacerbated Sofia’s relationship with Brussels, as a cable dating from mid-2009 and released this past week makes clear. Discussing the relationship between the European Commission and the Bulgarian government, the cable relates that a confidential source

told us that the Commission feels they have “tried everything” to make the Bulgarians reform their judicial system, but concluded “how do you make them reform when they do not want to?” The government’s defensive arrogance — and lack of political will — is intensifying enlargement fatigue in Brussels.

With respect to a commission report on Bulgaria’s efforts to combat the influence of crime in the country, the cable notes

The Bulgarian government — especially PG Velchev and European Minister Passy — are lobbying heavily for a positive monitoring report, magnifying modest progress. The government keeps presenting the Commission a list of on-going high profile organized crime and corruption court cases (the number has grown from 30 to 52 over the last two and a half years) as “successes.” Incredibly, several of the “success” cases have been suspended. Several other cases, against notorious shady businessmen Angel Khristov and Plamen Galev AKA the Galevi brothers, and others can hardly be called successes as these defendants gained immunity by running for parliament. XXXXXXXXXXXX said the team found this “loophole” quite disturbing, along with how some Bulgarian officials vehemently defend the law that permits this phenomenon. Along with the “Galevization” of politics (referring to the Galevi brothers election campaign), Brussels is also concerned with vote buying and general election fraud.

The cable concludes with the observation that their EU source’s

frustration with the Bulgarian government’s lame and insincere reform efforts was striking. It appears to be spreading in Brussels where at least the working level appears to be feeling “buyer’s remorse” over letting Bulgaria and Romania into the club too early. According to reliable contacts, Brussels Eurocrats have dubbed enlargement fatigue the “Bulgarian Break,” further tarnishing Bulgaria’s bad image within the EU.

Not only have crime groups infiltrated Bulgaria’s highest political institutions, but they have also effectively destroyed the country’s national pastime, according to a cable released this week that dates from January 2010.

Since the fall of Communism, Bulgarian soccer has become a symbol of organized crime’s corrupt influence on important institutions. Bulgarian soccer clubs are widely believed to be directly or indirectly controlled by organized crime figures who use their teams as way to legitimize themselves, launder money, and make a fast buck. Despite rampant rumors of match fixing, money laundering, and tax evasion, there have been few arrests or successful prosecutions. As a result, the public has lost faith in the legitimacy of the league as evidenced by the drop in television ratings and match attendance. Recent scandals involving the most popular teams and the mass firing of the referee selection commission for a second consecutive year have deepened the public’s disgust.

It isn’t only that the teams are controlled by the mafias; the games themselves are often rigged.

Long-standing allegations of match fixing have probably done the most to damage Bulgarian soccer’s reputation. According to the sports editor of the daily “Trud,” Vladimir Pamukov, and sports journalist, Krum Savov, the most common match fixing schemes are bribing referees and paying off players on the opposing club to insure a team loses by a certain score. They argue that thanks to organized crime influences and economic disparity between the teams, match fixing has become an extremely common practice. This has caused many Bulgarians to view the outcomes of soccer matches like Americans view the predetermined outcomes of professional wrestling.

It’s no wonder, then—given the country’s hopelessly corrupt political institutions, suffering economy, and fraudulent football leagues—that Bulgaria ranks dead last on a global happiness survey, according to the Economist, as the saddest place on earth.

Should Progressives Concern Themselves With Defense Strategy and Line Items?

Littoral Combat Ship(Pictured: The Littoral Combat Ship.)

The Progressive Realist re-posted an essential piece by Robert Farley of Lawyers, Guns and Money. Prompted by the Defense Department’s purchase of the controversial Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), he reiterates his position that “progressives consistently underestimate the importance of discussions about military doctrine and technology.” Farley explains (emphasis added).

I believe that, right now, progressives have evacuated the field on questions of military doctrine and technology (with a couple of important exceptions, as noted below), leaving the conversation to conservatives and “centrists”. Effectively, this means that the “left” side of the US debate on the composition (rather than the size) of the defense budget is represented by people like Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, or (at very best) by the folks at the Center for American Progress. . . .

Progressives should start making arguments framed around the question of whether or not the F-35 (or the LCS, or whatever you feel like) is the kind of weapon that could underpin a progressive vision of US foreign policy. . . .

Finally, I think that we are approaching a political reality in which real cuts to defense spending will become possible, and that staking out genuinely progressive positions on issues of military doctrine and technology actually have a chance of affecting the composition of US military forces. . . . I think it’s very important that progressives start thinking through the details of defense issues now.

Most progressives are allergic to weapons. With a few exceptions, such as William Hartung (whose new book Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex, has just been published), we find it counterintuitive to immerse ourselves in the details of defense acquisition, not to mention “war-fighting” (sorry, I’m incapable of typing that without adding quotes) strategy. Do Focal Points readers agree with Robert Farley that, indeed, it’s exactly the kind of work we should be doing?

Will U.S. Use Punjab Governor’s Death as Pretext for More Drone Attacks?

Taseer assassinationOn Tuesday morning, the reports of Salman Taseer’s assassination topped headlines around the world. Taseer, the governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, had been killed by one of his own security guards in a market in Islamabad. The assassination comes amidst mounting political chaos in Pakistan, marked by the instability of the government’s ruling coalition and the increasing prominence of Islamist opposition to the country’s secular leaders.

In its initial coverage of these developments, the mainstream press has drawn attention to many issues, including the price of fuel, which was the immediate cause of the defection of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, or MQM, from Prime Minister Gilani’s ruling coalition, and Taseer’s opposition to a blasphemy law, which imposes a death sentence against those who insult Islam. But one thing the mainstream press has not addressed is the U.S. war in the Af-Pak region. Following the coverage of Taseer’s death, you would not even know that such a war existed.

This is a remarkable omission in light of how the strategic focus of the U.S./NATO war has shifted from Afghanistan to Pakistan in the last year, as evidenced by the latest progress report on the war and the current pressures being placed on Pakistan to cooperate with the U.S. agenda. In 2010, there were 118 drone attacks along the border between Afghan and Pakistan, mostly in North Waziristan, more than double the number in 2009.

What Guardian reporter Mehdi Hasan and others have called “the year of the drone” was neglected by The New York Times, which did not even report the drone attacks that killed over 65 people in the last ten days of 2010.

Although readers of the Times may not have the full story, the drone attacks and the U.S. influence on the ruling coalition are a key part of Pakistan’s political landscape. At a recent press conference in Peshawar, Nek Zaman, who heads the group Jamiar Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) in the federally administered tribal areas, denounced the drone war, which killed 800 civilians in the last year: “Those claiming to be part of the civilized world and human rights organizations should take note of the gross violation of human rights and killing of innocent women, children and elderly and raise their voices for an immediate halt to the drone attacks.”

JUI-F is just the latest political group in Pakistan to condemn the drone attacks. By most accounts, the Pakistani populace opposes the U.S. intervention and the ruling coalition that supports it. They see it not only as an attack on their sovereignty, but also an act of humiliation against Muslims.

On Monday, State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley insisted that the current parliamentary crisis is about “internal politics within Pakistan.” If only the line between domestic and foreign policy were that clear. As Anatol Lieven wrote in The Nation, U.S. pressure on Pakistan has contributed to the instability of the Pakistani state. According to Lieven, it has also contributed to the rise of Islamism within Pakistan: “More than any other factor, it is our campaign in Afghanistan that has radicalized Pakistanis and turned many of them not only against the West but against their own government and ruling system. In the worst case, the consequence of Western actions could be to destroy Pakistan as a state and produce a catastrophe that would reduce the problems in Afghanistan to insignificance by comparison.”

In the days ahead, official spokespeople and supporters of the unofficial surge in Pakistan will no doubt condemn Taseer’s assassination, lament the rise of Islamist sentiment in Pakistan, and emphasize the importance of stability there. In hawkish national security circles, the assassination will serve as cause for increasing the U.S. military presence in order to ensure stability in the region. In Tea Party circles, a new round of anti-Muslim speak will use Taseer’s death to support claims about the dangers of radical Islam to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. None of this rhetoric will acknowledge the role of the U.S. in fostering the very climate it claims to be fighting against.

If these voices have their way, the drones will go on and Lindsey Graham will have his wish of permanent bases in Afghanistan fulfilled.

It’s curious how the power of U.S. foreign policy to disrupt and destabilize the Af-Pak region can be so de-emphasized while at the same time its power to change the region for the better can be so exaggerated.

What Would It Take for Americans to React Like “Gaza Youth Breaks Out”?

Gaza Youth Breaks Out(Pictured: Gaza Youth Breaks Out’s logo.)

“F**k Hamas. F**k Israel. F**k Fatah. F**k UN. F**k UNWRA. F**k USA! We, the youth in Gaza, are so fed up with Israel, Hamas, the occupation, the violations of human rights and the indifference of the international community!” Thus begins the Gaza Youth’s Manifesto for Change, as posted on Gaza Youth Breaks Out Facebook page, which over 8,000 Facebook users “like.” As the Guardian reports, the document details “the daily humiliations and frustrations that constitute everyday life in the Gaza Strip.”

Equal-opportunity dissidents, the members of Gaza Youth Breaks Out are almost as outraged by the heavy hand of Hamas as by Israeli oppression.

We barely survived the Operation Cast Lead. . . . During the last years, Hamas has been doing all they can to control our thoughts, behaviour and aspirations. Here in Gaza we are scared of being incarcerated, interrogated, hit, tortured, bombed, killed. We cannot move as we want, say what we want, do what we want.

Recent months have seen the emergence of another unlikely source of outrage: 93-year-old former French Resistance fighter and Buchenwald survivor Stéphane Hessel. His slim volume — actually a long essay — Indignez-vous! (Get indignant!) has spent two months atop French bestseller lists. Another Guardian article reports:

Hessel’s book argues that French people should re-embrace the values of the French resistance, which have been lost, which was driven by indignation, and French people need to get outraged again.

Among his personal hot-button issues:

. . . the growing gap between the very rich and the very poor, France’s shocking treatment of its illegal immigrants, the need to re-establish a free press, protecting the environment, the plight of Palestinians and the importance of protecting the French welfare system.

It’s easy to lament how sad it is that Western public needs to be told to become indignant. But one might look at someone in Hessel’s position — not exactly the French Michael Moore, he once served as his country’s ambassador to the United Nations — as providing the populace with the permission it subconsciously feels it needs to express outrage.

Allow me to qualify that by explaining that the disinclination of 90% of the population to refrain from rebellion does not make them sheep. They may just be hard-wired to support the society and government into which they’re born. In his version of the the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, nutritionist and renaissance man Gary Null called them “adaptive-supportives.” That’s not so bad, is it? (For more, see my January 2010 piece for Scholars & Rogues Is apathy socially redeeming?)

But do Westerners, Americans especially, and not just youth, but adults, need to be reduced to straits as dire as the Palestinians in Gaza before they react as Gaza Youth Speak Out did?

One-time neocon Francis Fukuyama, the celebrated political economist who has since turned his attention to the subject of wealth inequality, wrestles with why Americans endure what we do without fighting back in the January-February issue of the American Interest. Note that, in the passage that follows, when he refers to the left he means moderates such as Obama supporters, not true progressives. Here is, to Fukuyama, the “paramount puzzle.”

Why has a significant increase in income inequality in recent decades failed to generate political pressure from the left for redistributional redress, as similar trends did in earlier times? Instead, insofar as there is any populism bubbling from below in America today it comes from the Right, and its target is not just the “undeserving rich”—Wall Street “flip-it” shysters and their ilk—but, even more so, government policies intended to protect Americans from their predations. . . . Within a year of Barack Obama’s inauguration, the most energized and angry people on the American political scene were not the homeowners with subprime mortgages who faced foreclosure as a result of the crisis, but rather those who faulted the government for taking steps to protect those homeowners, and to prevent the crisis from deepening. It was a strange phenomenon that saw many of those most deeply injured by the crisis become, in effect, objective allies of those who caused it.

This, then, is the contemporary context in which we raise the question of plutocracy in America: Why, given the economic history of the past thirty years, have we not seen the emergence of a powerful left-wing political movement seeking fairer distribution of growth? [Operative word: powerful. -- RW] . . . How can it be that large numbers of congressional Democrats and arguably the most socially liberal President in American history are now seriously considering extending, and even making permanent, the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003? Is this not prima facie evidence of plutocracy?

In an outstanding article at Huffington Post titled The Poorhouse: Aunt Winnie, Glenn Beck, And The Politics Of The New Deal, Arthur Delaney and Ryan Grim provide a clue. (Emphasis added.)

[President Franklin] Roosevelt came into office a deficit hawk, pushed to balance the budget and cut federal worker pay. He quickly realized his error and turned around. He had the room to maneuver, however, because poverty had become so widespread that it lost its stigma. It could finally be addressed with a level head rather than a wag of the finger.

Before then, however, the nation was just prosperous enough for those with a little to look down upon those with less.

In other words, the United States hasn’t been reduced to the circumstances that many lived under during the Depression, nor under which the elderly once routinely lived. Delaney and Grim again.

Though there were no national measurements, in surveys taken between 1925 and 1932 in Connecticut, New York and Wisconsin, nearly half of elderly people lived on less than $25 per month, which survey administrators deemed “insufficient subsistence income.” A third in Connecticut had no income at all. An attempt to quantify elderly poverty in 1939, deep into the depression, using census data, found the rate may have been close to 80 percent.

The day that poverty loses its stigma doesn’t, of course, mean that it’s become acceptable. It’s just that it’s become pervasive to the point we can no longer indulge in denial that we’re about to be overtaken by it too. It’s the same with, say, warrantless surveillance. Until the day comes when many of us are actually dragged from our homes and taken into custody, we’ll remain in denial that our rights are being systematically abrogated. However tired, the metaphor of the boiling frog demands to be trotted out again: by the time we decide we’ve had enough, it’s too late.

WikiLeaks XXVII: Ahmadinejad’s About-Face Prompts Slap in the Face

Ahmadinejad, Jafari(Pictured: President Ahmadinejad and Revolutionary Guard Chief of Staff Mohammed Ali Jafari in happier times.)

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

Of all the bizarre and intriguing information collected by US intelligence and revealed by the recent dump of WikiLeaked cables, none has been as surprising as a cable published on Jan. 3 by the German newspaper Der Spiegel. The dispatch, written this past February, relates details of a meeting amongst Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. The council met to discuss next steps in dealing with an Iranian population still reeling from state repression from the previous summer when citizens took to the streets to protest an obviously corrupted election.

Ahmadinejad, not exactly known for his open-minded disposition,

surprised other SNSC members by taking a surprisingly liberal posture during a mid January post-Ashura meeting of the SNSC called to discuss next steps on dealing with opposition protests. Source said that Ahmedinejad claimed that “people feel suffocated,” and mused that to defuse the situation it may be necessary to allow more personal and social freedoms, including more freedom of the press.

The suggestion didn’t go over so well with those in attendance.

According to source, Ahmedinejad’s statements infuriated Revolutionary Guard Chief of Staff Mohammed Ali Jafari, who exclaimed “You are wrong! (In fact) it is YOU who created this mess! And now you say give more freedom to the press?!”

In a flash of fury,

Jafarli then slapped Ahmedinejad in the face, causing an uproar and an immediate call for a break in the meeting, which was never resumed. Source said that SNSC did not meet again for another two weeks, after Ayatollah Janati succesfully acted as a “peacemaker” between Jafarli and Ahmedinejad.

While peace in the short-term may have been achieved between the two leaders, the cable goes on to report that

both sides are digging in for new confrontations, while various sub-groups maneuver. He stressed the importance of recent speeches by Karroubi and Khatami to the effect that Ahmedinejad will not be able finish his term, and that Supreme Leaders should not take partisan political sides. He stressed that “Karroubi chooses each word carefully,” and said the recent speeches reflect an ongoing effort to split Khameini from the Ahmedinejad group. Source described the overall political situation within and without the political elite as “getting worse and worse.” xxxxx opined that this situation (of protests and instability) cannot be sustained indefinitely, and predicted that events are trending towards major developments and a new phases. Asked what Iran will likely look like over the next year, he responded “ask me after 22 Bahman (February 11).”

As that draws near, Iranian politics continues to experience turbulence. Recent weeks have witnessed major reshufflings in Ahmadinejad’s inner circle. After the Iranian parliament jettisoned the president from the governing board of Iran’s central bank, Ahmadinejad has purged key members from positions of authority throughout his government. The highest-profile sacking was that of Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, but in a more sweeping move on Jan. 2, Ahmadinejad fired fourteen of his most senior advisors from their posts. It isn’t immediately clear whether the move was political in nature or not, but according to the Times of India, the “dismissals appeared to signal a rift at the top levels of the Iranian leadership, pitting the president against rival conservatives.”

Inspiring Story of Tunisian Protests Ignored by Washington

Ben Ali, Sarkozy(Pictured: Tunisian President Ben Ali and French President Sarkozy.)

1. They Just Don’t Stop Protesting
Not even torture, which is rampant, or live bullets, which the Tunisian authorities are using with greater frequency, stop them.

It is more than two weeks since a distraught and unemployed young university graduate, Mohammed Bouazizi, sat down in front of the town hall in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, poured gasoline on himself and lit a match. Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation and protest against Tunisia’s high unemployment, rampant corruption and decades of repression by the government of Zine Ben Ali triggered a protest movement, first in the country’s center and south, but now virtually everywhere, including the capital, Tunis.

Unwilling to admit how his own regime has contributed to the crisis, Ben Ali, predictably blames the protests on ‘radical elements,’ ‘chaos mongers’ ( an interesting and empty phrase) and ‘a minority of mercenaries’ rather than on the policies Tunisia has implemented during his 23 years in power.

Neither the intervention of the Tunisian security forces and army using live ammunition nor Zine Ben Ali’s sacking of 4 members of his cabinet combined with promises of a $5 billion state jobs program has stopped the wave of anger and protest, which at the time of this writing (January 2, 2011) continues and is more and more taking the form of a national uprising. While some property has been destroyed, the overwhelming amount of violence has come from the state and the security forces. Virtually all of the demonstrations have been peaceful to date. That said, the economic grievances which fueled the initial outbursts now have a more political aspect to them as more and more voices within Tunisia outside of the ruling party, the Rassemblement Constitutionelle Democratique (RCD), are calling for Ben Ali and his increasingly influential wife, Leila Trabelsi, to step down and relinquish power.

Ben Ali is giving no indication of stepping down. He has combined increased repression on the one hand with a media campaign and promises of economic and social reform on the other. Ben Ali is gambling that the protests, which seem to be led mostly by unemployed youth as well as some elements of Tunisian’s student and labor movement, are a spontaneous expression of frustration that will fizzle sooner rather than later. While this might be the case, it appears that broad sectors of Tunisian society are more supportive of the protestors than the government and that Ben Ali’s promised reforms are too little too late. Even if he is able to maintain his grip on power for the moment, his social base support has narrowed to the military, police and security apparatus, along with the support of a few key European governments, France key among them.

2. The United States Remains Silent
The United States State Department remains silent in face of the Tunisian protests. Since the protests began on December 17, 2010, there has been little media coverage in the mainstream US media, virtually nothing on mainstream television, nothing in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, or for that matter even Democracy Now! This is in sharp contrast with the European, North African and Middle Eastern media where theTunisian protests have become big news. In two articles in the British Guardian, columnist Brian Whitaker calls the Tunisian protests the ‘most important and most inspiring story from the Middle East this year’. In another story a few days earlier, he wrote a scathing critique of the Tunisian government commenting at the end that Ben Ali’s days in power are probably numbered.

The Obama Administration’s failure to comment on the Tunisian events is another indication of its more general hypocrisy when it comes to supporting human rights in Middle East countries. It is not that the administration is unaware of the situation in the country. The WikiLeaks cables concerning Tunisia, from a former US ambassador to the State Department, contained very explicit and damning information, detailing the repressive environment in the country and the rampant corruption, most especially of the families of President Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi, at one point labeling the regime as a ‘kleptocracy’.

So why the measured silence by the Nobel Peace Prize winner?

A number of factors come into place, central among them, the Obama Administration is wary about opening up another front of social unrest with Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia on its hands. If Washington has no particular love for Ben Ali, still they worry about a replacement, wanting one that would, like Ben Ali and Bourguiba before him, support US strategic policy in the Middle East and Africa, who will cooperate with NATO and AFRICOM as Ben Ali has. It would not be the first time that the Obama Administration has thrown a U.S. commitment to human rights concerns to the winds to maintain strategic support for this or that tyrant.

There are also economic considerations. Tunisia has been played up as an IMF-World Bank poster child, an example of how following ‘the Washington Consensus’, — i.e., the IMF structural adjustment program — leads to success. Except it didn’t. Take for example Tunisia’s rush to privatization, one of the IMF’s sacred cows — you know, that line of reasoning made popular by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, that somehow the private sector sector can conduct business better than the state. According to the dogma, privatization is supposed to lead to increased competitiveness and greater efficiencies. Perhaps under certain (increasingly rare) circumstances the logic works.

But in Tunisia – as in many other places, privatization became a means of the two ruling families, the Ben Alis and Trabelsis, to buy up state property at bargain basement prices and make a financial killing. It did not lead to a growth of Tunisian entrepreneurship, but simply to a greater concentration of economic power in the hands of the two families, and the corruption involved was so bad that even the U.S. ambassador (in a WikiLeaks cable) was embarrassed.

Yet despite the current economic crisis, which these structural adjustment programs only exacerbated, the IMF continues to pressure Tunisia to ‘stay the course’…cut remaining subsidies on basic food stuffs and fuel, privatize its social security system and open up its financial sector even further. And once again, the IMF is oblivious to how those policies have only deepened the socio-economic crisis in the country and that an entirely different economic strategy is in order.

3. ‘Most Inspiring Story Coming Out Of The Middle East This Year’
There is another reason for Washington’s hesitancy, call it ‘revolutionary contagion’ …what starts in one place, as in the strategically not particularly important Tunisia, could spread to…Egypt, Saudi Arabia and who knows where else. Signs abound. Just to the west, Algerians are protesting inadequate housing that they have been promised for years. Although current turmoil in Egypt appears to center around the bombing of a Coptic Church, with accusations of the hand of al Qaeda in the attack, under the surface, for all its differences with Tunisia, Egypt too is facing serious socio-economic problems.

And throughout the Middle East, governments are nervous. The Iranian and Syrian press have commented on Tunisia’s unemployment and corruption problems, as if they too don’t have to deal with similar drawbacks. Saudi commentators (of all people) are lecturing Ben Ali on the need for democracy, etc. Throughout the region among the ruling elites there is the growing concern that the Tunisian protests could spread to their countries. And they have reason for concern, for despite many differences, unemployment, corruption and dictatorship are by no means limited to Tunisia.

So already, ‘the Tunisian example’ in two short weeks has spread beyond the country’s borders and governments are taking the events seriously. If Ben Ali will not relinquish power (yet), still, he reshuffled his cabinet firing four ministers and promised a $5 billion jobs program. He also was careful to visit Mohammed Bouazizi (the young man who set himself aflame) as well as meet with the families of those killed by the security forces. As the protests grew in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarek, speaking to the ruling political party in Egypt, seemingly ‘out of nowhere’, announced that Egypt too would launch a $3.5 billion jobs program to deal with Egyptian unemployment. Coincidence? In a gesture to help Ben Ali, Muhammar Khadaffi in nearby Libya announced that Libya would not limit entry to Tunisians seeking jobs. Khadaffi also announced a major government financed housing project not long ago.

Nesrine Malik, like Brian Whitaker, writing in the Guardian on New Year’s Eve, calls the Tunisian protests ‘one of the most inspiring episodes of indigenous revolt against a repressive regime.’ Referring to the Tunisian protests she comments: ‘Change is sometimes more likely to happen when people know what it looks like, when the first person dares to point to the emperor and say that he is naked.’

And if events continue in Tunisia, what does it mean for the other ‘geriatric regimes’ of the Middle East, many of which themselves are on the verge of transitions of power? For if the Tunisian people can stand up to power and oppression, why not the others?

Meanwhile the protests in Tunisia continue…La Lutta Continua.

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

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