Focal Points Blog

New Nuclear Project Distracts From Existing Safety (Read: Seismic) Issues

“The vastly ambitious CMRR project has greatly detracted from the attention needed to solve existing nuclear safety problems at LANL,” writes Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG) in its latest newsletter. LANL, of course, is the Los Alamos National Laoratory, one of the United States’ two nuclear weapons-design laboratories. The CMRR, about which I’ve often written about in conjunction with LASG’s attempts to retard its progress, is the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility, intended to expand production of plutonium pits (where the chain reaction occurs in a nuclear weapons).

In a cruel joke at a time of supposed disarmament, the CMRR promises to be the most expensive construction project in the history of Los Alamos. As for those safety problems, Mello writes, “LANL harbors many buildings which do not meet even the optimistic seismic hazard assessment of 1995.”

In a press release, the LANL admits as much, announcing

. . . that it has self-reported to the National Nuclear Security Administration a new preliminary analysis of structural load capacities at [PF-4 plutonium processing facility]. That analysis, which incorporated new geological data and sophisticated computer modeling, showed that a large earthquake that might occur in north-central New Mexico every 2,500 years could cause significant damage to some parts of the facility.

In response, LANL’s associate director for nuclear and high hazard operations, Bob McQuinn said, “While the latest calculations revealed some new areas to improve, we will quickly incorporate those into our ongoing facility improvement activities.”

But Greg Mello says:

On 3/25/11 I spoke with a senior NNSA official in DC who offered the opinion that PF-4 would “never” meet modern seismic and safety requirements. It is not clear to me that any large-scale plutonium processing facility can be built at LANL, for any reasonable price, which does meet those standards.

Hey, look at the bright side. At least there’s no danger that Los Alamos, on a plateau in the middle of desert country, will be overcome by a tsunami.

From Baghdad’s Own Tahrir Square to Mosul: The Friday of the Free

Lieven De Cauter presents a letter from his colleague in Iraq, Asma Al Haidari:

April 15th. What am I to write to you about today? It is the Friday of the Free! For this is what our young revolutionaries have called it. I will start with the demonstrations on Tahrir Square in Baghdad. Of course all the bridges and streets leading to Tahrir were cut off but people came all the same and are still there. They are chanting that Maliki is a liar and a thief. They are chanting that whoever does not say Tahrir, “Liberation”, his life is a loss. They are daring the security forces who are there in great numbers to detain them. I have always known and told you what we are made of, how could the Americans have ever thought that they can colonize us? You can feel the atmosphere of Tahrir. You can see and feel the life that is Tahrir. Tahrir belongs to the People.

A man of 50 who cries, says: ‘Death to Iran! Death to America! Death to Maliki! 80% of Parliament and the people who rule are Iranians, there is no loyalty to Iraq. Long Live Iraq! All our sons are in detention centers, my 16 year old son is in prison. Iraq is the crown on our heads. We will all die for Iraq. Iraq will live forever!’ Then there is a young man who shouts: ‘Down with sectarianism! Down with the Quota System! Death to Iran! Let all Iraqi Young Men rebel and fight for Iraq! If Mohammed is a Sunni then I am a Shia, but we are all one. We are all brothers. We all have the same blood!’ Women cry and men, grown up men shed tears of agony and anguish for Iraq and for our sons and daughters, for our country that has been raped and pillaged.

Ah, the scenes in Tahrir were phenomenal, because Maliki and his henchmen yesterday ordered people to demonstrate in two football grounds, again on a sectarian basis, can you imagine? But he is a stupid man and so are his advisors. The Iraqis are much too intelligent and clever for all of this and proved that they are now at the point of no return in their rebellion and revolt. They assembled in Tahrir and told Maliki and his parliamentarians to go and play football in the stadiums he has assigned.

The young man who said let’s all unite and fight also said that he was sure a massacre was going to be committed by the security forces against the demonstrators today. But these same security forces could not stop them from coming to Tahrir. Men, women, and children, Muslims and Christians who are speaking out about the “government’s” criminality against them – it was amazing and enthralling. The crushed Iraqi middle class in all its colours and hues is out and will remain out. This is the beginning of civil disobedience, all very peaceful but full of force. The women who are in Tahrir are in the hundreds, all women whose sons or husbands have disappeared in the secret prisons of Maliki and the Occupation. But Iraqis have broken the chains. The world should watch this. But the world is silent and apparently deaf and blind. Where is the free western press? Reading the New York Times one would believe that their correspondents are living on another planet. All the mainstream press is silent, in fact.

Today, there were also large demonstrations in Basra, all over Anbar province and in Babil as well. In Diwaniya they were threatened by the security forces that they would all be detained. Of course, in Sulaymaniya the crowds are in the tens of thousands on Azadi Square. The scene is developing and the protest is building up. Then there is Mosul, where for the past 6 days a huge demonstration and gathering has been gradually grown in numbers and today there are 5,000 people in The Square of the Free, the old prison square. All the tribal sheikhs who had not sold themselves to the occupation came from the very south of Iraq, from Nassiriya and Basra. There were tribal sheikhs and leaders from Kut, Diyala, a contingent of Kurdish demonstrators from Sulaymaniya. They came from Haweeja and Tikrit. The Christians in the north as well as tribal leaders from Anbar, Kubaissa and Fallujah. We have come together again, this time publicly, for all the world to see.

But what is most amusing is that today the American Occupation’s helicopters made a great entrance on the stage demonstrating that the American Administration really does believe the democracy it alleges it brought to Iraq is in fact equal to garbage… literally! It was funny and it is all on film: daily, since the vigil and demonstration started in Mosul, American helicopters buzzed the demonstrators and the demonstrators answered back by throwing their shoes at them in disdain! Today, the helicopters performed what they considered their coup de grace, by flying very low over their heads and throwing down bags of garbage. When the people were asked for comments they answered that the Americans throw garbage every day since the occupation: all the depleted uranium, all the white phosphorous, all the drugs, all the disease, tyranny, oppression, plunder, theft, lies and illiteracy they brought with them. So we, Iraqis, know everything and we will have justice at the end of the day, when a new dawn comes. The feeling is that it is going to be quite soon.

Lieven De Cauter is a philosopher, writer and activist. He teaches philosophy of culture (in Leuven, Brussels and Rotterdam). His latest books: The Capsular Civilization. On the City in the Age of Fear (2004) and, as co-editor, Heterotopia and the city (2008); Art and activism in the Age of globalization (2011). He is initiator of the BRussells Tribunal.

Nuclear Disarmament Can Be a Very Disarming Experience

“Is Zero realistic, possible?” asks Ron Rosenbaum in his provocative new book How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III (Simon & Schuster). After listing reasons why it may not be, he writes:

But the Zero advocates have answers. They concede that the moment of Zero won’t arrive instantaneously tomorrow. . . . But the most persuasive argument they make is a cultural one: that as the world moves toward Zero by means of sharper and sharper reductions, and works together each step of the way toward solving the problems of inspection and verification procedures, presumably including the development of advanced detection technology, this diminution of the role of nukes and concomitant cooperation will draw the world into a different mind-set.

As often happens, when gazing at a distant goal, not only those critical of it but those drawn to it find that the obstacles loom larger than interludes of smooth sailing. Few foresee that, in and of itself, facing hardship together might have a transformative effect on all concerned that facilitates the success of the enterprise.

Rosenbaum writes that former Cold warrior Richard Burt turned Zero advocate

. . . admits the final stage will be the hardest to conceive much less execute, but he argues that the cumulative trust-building effect of the arms reduction to near-Zero will encourage confidence in the final step across the final line.

Skeptical realists might be better off kept in the dark about the transformative powers of the collaborative process, at least in this case. Should they be privy to advance knowledge that they might wind up meeting disarmament advocates halfway, or further — as with Burt, their resistance fallen way like a molting carapace — they may not embark on the journey. After all, disarmament can be a very disarming experience.

Want to Die in a Fire? No? Then You’re Opposed to Nuclear Weapons

What’s the worst way to die? Most will agree that perishing in a fire is at or close to the top of their list.

A number of factors inform those members of the America public who are in favor of the United States maintaining nuclear weapons to deter other nations. On one level, they fear the loss of liberty, which, during the Cold War, translated into life under communism should the Soviet Union defeat us. (Of course, the fall of communism begs the question: to which form of government do we fear being subjected should Russia defeat us today? A nominally more flagrant plutocracy than currently rules in the United States?)

Meanwhile, those subject to fear of a nuclear-terrorism attack by Islamist extremists tend to operate under the assumption that only death awaits us. Faced by an equally plausible scenario in which we’re held hostage to their demands, we’d instead fear shariah law. (Just a cut below Stalinism, according to the hard right.)

Much of the public believes that even if nuclear weapons fail to prevent an attack by another nuclear-weapon state, at least we’ll be able to use them to retaliate and ensure the survival of the United States. Of course, this reflects an ignorance of just how damaged the United States would be after a first strike by another country, as well as a disturbing acceptance of mass death in warfare to the nth agree (a topic for another day).

To reiterate, at the most primal level, we fear fire. But, the implications of it are too dreadful for most of us to contemplate. Instead we erect a firewall, if you will, in our psyche that insulates us from the knowledge that nuclear war likely means death by fire.

Nor does our lack of knowledge of history help. Hiroshima aside, how many have learned or recall learning of the firestorms created by the bombing of Hamburg and Dresden in World War II? If war is a nightmare, firestorms are the stuff of horror films.

Fire has a way of reducing matters to the essentials. In other words, if being consumed by flames ranks as the most frightening form of death, ergo, avoiding death by fire outranks avoiding life under communism or under shariah law. But there also exists among the American public those who seek not to escape death by fire, but actually embrace the prospect of an apocalyptic conflagration. This theatrical means of escorting them to the afterlife will also, they believe, purge the planet of its wickedness.

The difficulty that nuclear disarmament advocates face is opening up Americans (those who don’t embrace the end times, anyway) to the fear of fire that nuclear war represents. Unfortunately, Americans seem only to respond to scare tactics from the right.

Tunisian Jews Resist Pressure From Israel to Emigrate

Tunisian fathers of independence(Pictured: Fathers of Tunisian independence Mohammed Masmoudi, Mongi Slim, and Albert Bessis.)

Writing in his journal on June 7, 1967, in the aftermath of anti-Jewish vandalism in Tunis following the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli Middle East War, Albert Bessis, a Jewish community leader and collaborator with Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia’s anti-colonial pro-independence movement, wondered, “What is the future of Tunisia’s Jewish Community? The old ones are dying off, our youth is leaving.”1, 2

When Bessis was writing in his diary, the Jewish population of Tunisia had already plummeted from perhaps 120,000 on the eve of independence in 1956 to a modest 5,000.3 Today it has shrunk to 1,500, among an overall population of 10.5 million. Despite the drop in Jewish numbers, the historically relaxed nature of Jewish-Muslim- relations that has characterized Tunisian society before the outbreak of the 1967 war comes through vividly in Ferid Boughedir’s film A Summer In La Goulette.

That spirit of tolerance, of a Jewish place in Tunisia’s past and present, never died. It remains alive and well in the post Ben Ali era that has just begun to unfold. The youth-led revolution that is sweeping through the Arab world is not driven by Islamic fundamentalist themes. Its referred to by some as ‘the third wave’ (the first the anti-colonial movement; the second the Islamic wave beginning in the 1980s).

Although not anti-religious, this revolution rejects the ideological approaches of the first wave and the narrow religious fundamentalism of the second. The movement instead is profoundly democratic, recognizing the legitimate place of the country’s minorities which make up a small percentage of the overall population.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that manifestations of anti-Jewish prejudice are not taken lightly. This past February 11, two months ago, 40 demonstrators, posing as Islamic fundamentalists, chanted anti-Jewish slogans in front of the main synagogue in Tunis. They were immediately condemned by the Tunisian government transition Interior Ministry as extremists inciting racial violence. In the United States, Los Angeles based ‘Free Tunisia‘ joined in the criticism:

What occurred outside the Jewish synagogue in central Tunis last Friday should never happen again. The Quran defends the right of religious expressions and defends religious institutions.(Quran, 5, 69) There should be no tolerance for hatred in the new Tunisian State. The oppression of religious minorities and the language of hatred towards the Jewish community must not be tolerated. It’s the Tunisian pride that one of the oldest Jewish Synagogues in the world is located in Tunisia.

Suspicions abounded among Tunisian social activists that this anti-Jewish outburst, so untypical of Tunisia’s uprising, was orchestrated by deposed President Ben Ali’s security apparatus to sow confusion and discredit the Tunisia revolt as Islamic-fundamentalist driven. There are indications that the crowd included members of ‘Tahrir’, a small splinter Islamic movement still banned in Tunisia that has barely a few hundred members. Tahrir’s goal is the establishment of an Islamic caliphate that unites all Moslem countries. Anti-Jewish and anti-Christian – indeed anti-everything that is not Islamic, it is also banned in most Arab countries. Movements like ‘Tahrir’ are often heavily infiltrated by security forces.

While such actions sent a temporary chill through the country’s tiny Jewish community, its message fell flat. As elsewhere throughout the Arab World, the Tunisian protests are youth, labor movement and student driven with a generally secular and democratic orientation. Islamic fundamentalists have played a limited role, if any. Established Islamic groups in Tunisia let it be known that they were not behind the synagogue protest. No public Islamic figure took part, and underneath their traditional Arab garb, protesters wore modern European garb typical of the security personnel.

It appears that through its contacts – Israelis who previously lived in Tunisia – Israel has exerted pressure on Tunisian Jews to emigrate. Given that Tunisia’s Jewish population is so small, one would think it is not worthwhile for Israel to engage in such a misguided ‘public relations’, or more precisely, ‘disinformation’ campaign.

At least one major American based Jewish organization, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, also participated in its own way, embellishing the situation all out of proportion, suggesting Tunisia’s Jewish Community is in danger. Without the myth of radical Islamic threat to guide them, the Center seems at sea. Ideological blinders prevent them from appreciating the obvious: that there is very little – no – there is no place in Tunisia’s great democratic upsurge for the kind of anti-semitism that the Center argues is lurking in every Tunisian olive grove.

In Tunisia itself, it turns out, the situation is viewed quite differently. One month into the revolutionary upsurge in Tunisia, one of the country’s Jewish leaders, Roger Bismuth, a prosperous developer, was interviewed by JTA (the Jewish Telegraphic Agency is an influential U.S. Jewish source of news and opinion) about the situation. Although a long time advisor to deposed President Zine Ben Ali, Bismuth’s comments were not what the Israelis wanted to hear:

“The community is fine,” Bismuth told JTA by phone from Tunis. “Up until now we’ve had no problems. This is not really a matter of religion; it’s a popular revolution. The Jewish community is very well taken care of.” “He was behaving like a crook,” Bismuth commented about his former boss. He went on to reinforce what is now common knowledge. “He (Ben Ali) and his family stole property from people and the state, and they destroyed everything they could put their hands on.”

Tunisian Jewish sources in contact with the author take Bismuth’s comments further. They note that to date, Tunisian rabbis have resisted the pressure to discredit the changes unfolding by crying wolf about anti-semitism and setting the stage for a Jewish stampede to Tel Aviv. Precious few have responded to Tel Aviv’s siren call. According to press reports only 10 Tunisian Jews – one family – have moved to Israel since the protest movement started on December 17, 2010 when Mohammed Bouazizi immolated himself in Sidi Bou Zid. Reports of vandalism against Jewish property (beyond the Tunis synagogue demonstration cited above) have proven either exaggerated or fabricated. For example:

  • There was a report that circulated widely in the Israeli press that a synagogue in the southern Tunisian city of Gabes was burnt down. Not mentioned is that Gabes’ small Jewish Community had sold the synagogue to a private party more than 25 years ago.
  • Another rumor which proved less than accurate concerned an alleged burning of a Torah in a synagogue in El Hamma, a conservative Muslim community further south of Gabes. Minor detail: El Hamma hasn’t had a synagogue for nine centuries. El Hamma does have a ‘Jewish cemetery’ consisting of a one room mausoleum which was not vandalized and in any case did not contain a Torah.

It was with surprise and some anger that Tunisians learned that Israel is urging Tunisian Jews to emigrate. Recently the Israeli government approved a funding package to help Tunisian Jews move to Israel citing ‘the worsening of the Tunisian authorities’ and society’s attitude toward the Jewish community; it its offer, Israel also noted the difficult situation that has been created in the country since the revolution. Despite an absence of proof, the Israelis are suspicious that Islamists are somehow driving the Tunisian revolution.

The Tunisian government did not take Israel’s call to gather Tunisian Jews lightly.

Tunisia’s post Ben Ali foreign ministry condemned Israel’s interference in the country’s internal affairs by offering Jews financial incentives to emigrate. The ministry “expressed great regret”, labeling the Israeli offer “a malicious call to Tunisian citizens to immigrate to Israel in an attempt to damage the image of Tunisia after the revolution and to create suspicion about its security, its economy and its stability.” In unusually strong language it continued:

Tunisia is outraged by the statements…(from) a country which still denies the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland, shamefully defying international law.

Interestingly enough, spokespeople for Tunisia’s Jewish Community have publicly rejected Israel’s offer, suggesting that as a community, they too are upset with this pressure. A spokesperson for the Jews of Djerba (where half of Tunisia’s Jewish population resides) echoed the foreign ministry’s comments:

We are Tunisians above all, and we do not have any problems. We live like everyone else and no Jew is going to leave the country.

Do Tunisian Jews face problems? Of course, the short-term economic woes that Tunisia is unlikely to avoid will impact Tunisia’s Jews as well as the rest of the country, especially on Djerba where tourism to the oldest synagogue in North Africa has been an important source of income. Tunisia’s Jews, like the rest of its citizens, are likely in for economic hard times. But it appears those remaining will stick it out – as they have for 2000 years – with their Muslim brothers and sisters.


1. Juliette Bessis. Magreb: La Traversée du Siècle. Harmattan:Paris: 1997. p 361

2. A Peace Corps volunteer in Tunis at the time, I witnessed this disturbing spectacle. Several days prior, the Jewish Community was warned by the Bourguiba government itself to stay away from the synagogue and Jewish owned businesses. The vandalism was well organized. A man with a list was directing his rag-tag mob. I still remember his voice: ‘not, that shop, no! no!, the next one .’ Juliette Bessis suggests that the vandalism was organized from the Algerian and Iraq embassies at the time. I thought differently, concluding that the Tunisian government itself had orchestrated the disruption as a diversion, to take the attention off of the mounting criticisms of the Bourguiba presidency itself. The vandals themselves were mostly lumpen elements, poor, many homeless, recruited by Tunisia’s security forces, trucked to the town’s center, paid a few dinars and directed to do property damage. Later some were arrested, tried and given prison sentences. The government reimbursed the damaged shop owners and the synagogue. But a psychological barrier had been breached and a sense of malaise, already present among Tunisia’s Jews, grew deeper.

3. Bessis, p. 283

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

Robert Kaplan Continues to Flog His Tribal Ruler Meme With Gaddafi, Gbagbo and Saleh

Robert Kaplan has never shied away from bad ideas. A seasoned and sometimes shrewd observer of international affairs, Kaplan’s chief failing has always been his unwillingness to analytically retreat when he’s out of his depth—a weakness that often leaves readers stranded between mind-numbing banality and outright erroneousness.

Case in point: Kaplan’s new essay at Foreign Policy. Posing a reasonably interesting question—“Why is it so hard for strongmen to say goodbye?”—Kaplan offers an answer that is as intellectually flimsy as it is poorly presented. The reason, Kaplan argues, that Laurent Gbagbo, Muammar al-Qaddafi and Ali Abdullah Saleh just can’t bring themselves to leave political office is because…they’re “tribal warriors”!

The concept of warrior politics is familiar ground for Kaplan, who devoted an entire, and entirely absurd, book to the subject. Indeed, its only notable feature was the famous conclusion that “The short, limited wars and rescue operations with which we shall be engaged will…feature warriors on one side, motivated by grievance and rapine, and an aristocracy of statesmen, military officers, and technocrats on the other, motivated, one hopes, by ancient virtue,” a statement that stands out for being both nonsensical and patently wrong no matter how you slice it.

You might think that the book’s poor critical reception would make Kaplan think twice before resurrecting the “warrior” leitmotif in attempting to explore the Yemen, Libya and Cote d’Ivoire crises. After all, the notion of warrior politics, and attendant claims of ancient hatreds and the like, have been scoffed at and dismissed as being racist, unhelpful, and politically dangerous since at least the end of the Cold War.

But then you’d be wrong.

Things get off to a rotten start, and quickly. “By any rational standard,” Kaplan opens, “it would seem that the fighting and power struggles in the Ivory Coast, Libya, and Yemen should have been over weeks ago.” Really? What rational standard is that? And what precedent do we have to base it upon? Kaplan doesn’t bother with these sorts of considerations, but steams ahead to the observation that

the fact that they have already gone on as long as they have is an indication that there is a basic truth that those in the West fail to grasp about the individuals involved…[based on] reasoning [that] assumes that what divides these strongmen from their adversaries are issues as benign and susceptible to compromise as, say, Medicare and tax rates.

It’s not clear that anyone is assuming any such thing, but the basic point is fair enough. What, then, drives leaders? “They have been fighting for something far more age-old, basic, and less susceptible to compromise: territory and honor.” One need not bother pointing out Kaplan’s “the-barbarians-are-at-the-gates” racism to appreciate the fact that his driving thesis—that “their world is not one of institutions and bureaucracies [but] of dominating scraps of ground through dependence on relatives and tribal and regional alliances”—is already coming apart at the seams.

First off, according to Kaplan’s frame, “in such a world, figures like…Hosni Mubarak, are without virtue. They ruled in the Western style through institutions and bureaucracies, and when those institutions—the military and the internal security services—refused to shoot people in the streets, [they] had no choice but to meekly resign and quickly go into…exile.” Funny, I don’t remember Mubarak’s fall being quite so speedy. But this is largely beside the point. The real question here is: what does this have to do with anything? Nothing, it would seem, especially as Kaplan conveniently ignores the host of other cases where virtueless authoritarians operating through institutions and bureaucracies have stood fast in the face of popular protest—Iran, Bahrain, and Syria to name but three recent examples.

But it gets worse from there. According to Kaplan’s taxonomy of warrior thugs, “a figure like Gbagbo is especially despicable.”

In his mind, he fought an election and garnered close to half the votes. And those votes were not because of his position on this or that social or economic issue, but because of what he represented tribally and regionally…In places without sufficient economic development, like the Ivory Coast, elections often end up reifying differences based on blood and belief. To fight it out until he was cornered in the basement of his palace…is not a sign of moral weakness from his point of view, but of manly virtue.

Kaplan offers exactly zero evidence to support this claim, assuming that its truth is apparent on its face. Instead, he follows with the observation that

The same, of course, might be said of the sons of Saddam Hussein, Uday and Qusay, who were killed in a gunfight with US troops near Mosul in 2003—except that they, the spoiled-brat, gangsterish sons of the Stalinesque ruler, were by no means self-made men. Thus, they belong in a lower category of specimen than Gbagbo, Saleh, and Qaddafi.

Here again, Kaplan succeeds more in revealing his own class antagonisms and biased assumptions than he does in offering a coherent argument to explain the behavior of thuggish political elites under threat.

Seemingly sensing that readers might be scratching their heads in confusion, Kaplan gently admonishes his audience. “Remember, we are not talking about politicians so much as about warriors.” Oh, of course! How silly to forget! Except this is exactly what Kaplan does himself in the paragraph immediately following.

Take Saleh. The Western media labels the Yemeni president a recalcitrant tyrant whose stubbornness in clinging to power has, like Gbabgo in the Ivory Coast, threatened to unravel his country. [As if Yemen was the model of state stability before the recent protests.]…Saleh is clearly a man of steely nerves and subtle skill who, for decades, has dealt with levels of stress that would psychologically immobilize the most hardened Washington politico. The game he is playing now—negotiating the terms of his departure—is not just about him, but about the fate of his near and somewhat distant relatives. So, in a sense, who can begrudge him if he hangs on still longer, grasping for better and better terms?

Hold on. A moment ago, Kaplan was arguing that the manly ethic of tribal virtue militated against compromised solutions to political crisis. But now, Kaplan would have us believe that Salah is simply a crafty politician looking to work the angels for an optimum bargain. But never mind. Kaplan wraps up his discussion of Saleh by warning that “A few years from now, we may even look back on his rule as one of relative stability and cooperation with the West. Just because he deserves our condemnation now does not mean from an analytical perspective that he should be sold short.” Huh?

As for Qaddafi, “the fact that he has not gone quietly is a sign that he, too, is not fighting about any particular issues, per se, but about a vision of honor that strikes us as primitive, connected as it is to region, tribe, and territory.” I don’t know about anyone else, but Qaddafi doesn’t seem to me so much primitive as just plain nuts. Kaplan, however, isn’t all that interested in actually grappling with Qaddafi’s nature. Instead, he shifts gears entirely to set up new arguments of even greater incoherence.

And while we are on the subject of tribe and territory, it is important to recognize that the particular kind of tribalism that is one background factor in the rules of Qaddafi, Saleh, and Gbagbo is actually not a primitive, before-the-modern-state tribalism at all, but, as the late European anthropologist Ernest Gellner defined it, a tribalism that constitutes a conscious rejection of a particular government in favor of a wider culture and ethic…life under these men was hell, no doubt, but there was an identifiable logic to their madness, however much I have simplified it. Indeed, nobody captures the attraction of life outside the state as brilliantly as Yale University anthropologist James C. Scott in his book The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Tribes today, Scott suggests, do not live outside history, but have “as much history as they require” in order to deliberately practice “state avoidance.” That is to say, tribes are rich in traditions and consequently do not seek the intrusion of government officialdom.”

This may offer an explanation of Qaddafi’s historic troubles getting control over the eastern regions of Libya, but hardly explains his own decision-making behavior. After all, for all intents and purposes, Qaddafi is the state, not an actor trying to escape it.

But no matter. Just when it seems like Kaplan’s analysis is about to crash and burn, he ejects from the cockpit and parachutes to relative safety with the limp and, at least in the case of Gbagbo, inaccurate conclusion that the three warrior rulers “have lived within this complex and ambiguous reality their whole lives and have thus not been state builders, yet another reason, in addition to the moral ones, that they have not found sympathy in the West. But that is no argument against trying to understand them.” That may be, but this essay surely offers good reason to give up trying to understand Robert Kaplan.

Impact of Fukushima Continues to Inch up to Chernobyl Levels

New radiation leaks at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant spurred Japanese nuclear regulators to raise the level of how great an accident it is from five to seven (“major”). Since that’s the highest on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s scale, it’s now on a par with Chernobyl.

Of course, Fukushima has emitted only a tenth of the radiation as Chernobyl, according to the Associated Press. In other words, if Fukushima is 7.0, Chernobyl was 7.999. But, AP writes of the Fukushima radiation leaks, “they eventually could exceed Chernobyl’s emissions if the crisis continues.”

This came hot on the heels of news that five communities had been added to the 12-mile suggested evacuation radius. In addition, citizens were urged to keep the ill, pregnant, and very young outside an 18-mile radius. In fact, reports the Japan Times, the Fukushima radius “will soon be turned into a legally binding off-limits zone,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano. “Officials suggested Sunday that they will now be able to force anyone out of the evacuation zone who refuses to leave.” A commentator on PBS, whose name I failed to catch, suggested that Japan may use eminent domain with the residents relocated and somehow provided housing elsewhere.

Meanwhile, at ABC News, Stephen Brozak and Henry Bassman, executives at WBB Securities, wrote about the consequences of Fukushima for the world, business and otherwise. They point out that the enlarged 18 miles-plus evacuation radius is “the same distance as the exclusion zone around Chernobyl in Ukraine.” But less radiation than Chernobyl aside, in other respects, the implications are as or more serious.

. . . Japan is neither as large or as sparsely populated as Ukraine. Close to 73 percent of Japan is unsuitable for agricultural, industrial, or residential use.

Presumably, the authors mean that was already true before the disaster. Though it’s difficult to understand why since three-quarters of Japan certainly isn’t park land. Nevertheless, Brozak and Bass write:

The Japanese government and Japanese investors comprise the second largest holders of U.S. Treasuries, at $885 billion. The Bank of Japan also is reported to hold $493 billion in its reserve balance to avert credit problems. Some financial observers have speculated that the earthquake and tsunami may force Japan’s government and investors to liquidate much of the U.S. debt they hold.

In other words, Japan may call in what the United States owes it. While the United States is staggering from that roundhouse right, neither will the rest of the world be immune from the economic ripple effects of Fukushima.

Farmers have been forced to destroy crops and dispose of dairy products. Because of continuing contamination of seawater, the healthfulness of seafood from the Pacific Ocean is in question. Japan is already a net food importer. In response to a continuing shortage of Japanese home-grown food, the Japanese government may encourage importation of even more foreign food, which is likely to increase the price of food in a nation where food is already an extremely expensive commodity. Worldwide, increased competition for food is likely to affect prices, causing some people in marginal economies to go hungry.

No matter how desperate we are for energy, it’s difficult to understand how people can still proselytize for a form of it in which one accident can cause waves at home and elsewhere as powerful as, well, a tsunami.

How Did the Candidates With the Highest Negative Ratings Advance in the Peru Presidential Elections?

Cross-posted from Peru Elections 2011, a Tumblr site of the WOLA Electoral Observation Delegation.

One day after Peru’s elections for president and congress, all indications are that Ollanta Humala and Keiko Fujimori will compete in the June 5 run-off. The question on many people’s minds is why these two candidates made it into the second round, given that they had the highest negative ratings of the leading candidates. Polls prior to Sunday’s election revealed that over 50% of the population said that they would never vote for either candidate. As we’ve noted in previous posts, in Humala’s case, one key factor is that he was the only candidate to offer an alternative to the existing economic model, in a country where a significant portion of the population has not benefited from years of steady economic growth.

More surprising is that the daughter of a former president who fled the country in disgrace after a ten-year regime marred by massive corruption, abuse of power and human rights violations could be this close to the presidency just 11 years later. Moreover, Keiko Fujimori ran on a platform invoking the legacy of her father’s government. Ironically, at her post-election rally Sunday night, supporters did not yell her name, but rather “Chino, Chino, Chino”—a popular nickname for her father. As we noted in our post from Villa El Salvador on election day, some voters supported her precisely because her father’s government “defeated terrorism” and dispensed concrete benefits, such as food, to the rural and urban poor and carried out public work projects in some of the poorest areas of the country. It is important to note, however, that she only increased her traditional base of support by a few percentage points. Her second-place victory is due more the fragmented political field.

Another key factor that has received scant attention is the role of President Alan Garcia. As one person told us, the newspaper headlines today should have been, “Gracias President Garcia.” He explained, “Garcia is responsible for this. He left us Fujimori in 1990 and he could leave us another Fujimori in 2011.” In his five years in government, Garcia has repeatedly allied himself with the Fujimori coalition, he said, “without asking them to account for what they did in the past.” Garcia abandoned efforts to root out official corruption and ensure accountability for those responsible for human rights violations. In short, he legitimized the Fujimoristas. At the same time, none of the other presidential candidates challenged Keiko Fujimori strongly or consistently about her father’s government and its extremely negative impact on Peruvian democracy.

The other major question is how the second round will shake out. It is not a question of simple math. Because voter allegiances are very weak, endorsements by other candidates may not have as much impact as expected. Much depends on the extent to which Humala can strike alliances, primarily with Toledismo, as well as the extent which Keiko Fujimori can convince those who did not vote for her that her government would represent their interests. Another key factor is the extent to which the right will be able mobilize the “fear factor,” invoking the threat that Humala allegedly represents for Peru’s economic stability and his relations with Hugo Chavez.

In the end, many voters will vote in opposition to one candidate or the other, rather than for a candidate they believe strongly in. Humala’s fear factor will weigh heavily with some. But as others told us, “We have doubts about Humala, but we know for certain what we get with Keiko Fujimori.”

Coletta A. Youngers is the Latin America Regional Associate with the International Drug Policy Consortium and a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Jo-Marie Burt is an Associate Professor at George Mason University and also a WOLA Senior Fellow.

Confronting the Urge to Urge on the Libyan Intervention

An airstrike is one of the most horrendous phenomena on earth. But were I constitutionally capable of supporting them, I’d find it hard to resist those that the United States and NATO have called in on the Gaddafi regime.

Most progressives reflexively condemn foreign intervention by the United States; the use of armed forces is condoned only in self defense. In effect, though, they’re making common cause with a branch of conservatives — libertarians — not out of their principles of isolationism and respect for sovereign states (also known to libertarians as mind-your-own-business), but because of the United States’ poor track record.

However understandable, that response shuts the door on a room in our psyche. Perhaps I’m just projecting my own childhood trauma, but I think many of us have experienced the desperation of being picked on or bullied. We yearn for someone to intervene and come to your rescue. On a larger scale, no sadder story exists than the rescue that either doesn’t arrive on time or that isn’t even dispatched. In recent years, the classic case is Rwanda.

Because of the perception that she twisted the arm of President Obama to intervene and is considered a shill for humanitarian intervention thinly disguised as imperialism, Samantha Power is out of favor with progressives. But her 2007 book, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, was an eloquent plea to identify genocide before it happens and prevent it.

Worse from the standpoint of almost the entire political spectrum, the concept of a world government that stands at the ready to dispense armed forces to trouble spots without concerns for state sovereignty doesn’t cause an allergic reaction in me. In a 2008 column for the Financial Times Gideon Rachman acknowledged that world government represents “the kind of ideas that get people reaching for their rifles in America’s talk-radio heartland.” But, he wrote of the European Union:

So could the European model go global? . . . a change in the political atmosphere suggests that “global governance” could come much sooner than that. The financial crisis and climate change are pushing national governments towards global solutions, even in countries such as China and the US that are traditionally fierce guardians of national sovereignty.

Add the imperative to abolish nuclear weapons to the financial crisis and climate change and you have a troika of causes making the case for global government. After all, under what authority do you think we on earth will be living 500 years from now? Sovereign states will be a distant memory. Let’s get on with it.

In fact, once states see the benefits that other states that have cast their lot together are receiving, suddenly state sovereignty loses its luster. Ian Williams explains in a 2009 World Policy Journal article.

Ironically, Albanians, Kosovars, and Serbs — along with all their neighbors in the Balkan cockpit of nationalities — unite in sharing the same overriding ambition. They all desperately want to join the European Union, which would entail them giving up much of the sovereignty that they have been so zealously squabbling over. . . . European Union citizens can live and work anywhere they want within the EU, claim education, healthcare, and welfare benefits — and even vote in many elections. For all those nations, whose working definition of sovereignty seems to include the right, indeed the duty, to harass foreigners at the borders and inside them, this is serious self-denial in the interest of a broader human or economic security.

At first, except for the small detail that I can’t stomach airstrikes, I let my imagination run away with me and fantasized the Libya intervention as a new model for coming to the aid of a people in peril. Predictably, though, a closer look cast some doubt on just how calumnious the villain is and virtuous the beleaguered are. Besides, did the latter truly represent a substantial segment of their country’s people?

At Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt spoke for those who question whether Gaddafi would actually massacre Libyans.

. . . the claim that the United States had to act to prevent Libyan tyrant Muammar al-Qaddafi from slaughtering tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Benghazi does not stand up to even casual scrutiny. Although everyone recognizes that Qaddafi is a brutal ruler, his forces did not conduct deliberate, large-scale massacres in any of the cities he has recaptured, and his violent threats to wreak vengeance on Benghazi were directed at those who continued to resist his rule, not at innocent bystanders. . . . the threat of a bloodbath that would “[stain] the conscience of the world” (as Obama put it) was slight.

But Jon Western‘s response at Duck of Minerva is convincing in its comprehensiveness.

None of us are privy to the specific U.S. intelligence reports on Libya in the run-up to the March 18 Security Council decision, but both the CIA and the State Department now have strong war crimes and mass atrocity analysis units and. . . . we can infer from a number of things that there was a broadly held view (beyond just the views of the “fiery” Samantha Power) that there were real and credible threats to civilians. . . . we have the Arab League warning of serious threats to civilians, the United Nations Security Council has rarely acted as quickly as it did with UNSC Res 1973, and several human rights organizations issued specific warnings. In addition, both the ICRC and Medecins Sans Frontieres . . . issued warnings about the perils to civilian populations.

Furthermore. . . . Retributive politicide are strategies designed during or in the immediate aftermath of political rebellion and are often implemented by regimes when political rebellions have been defeated. We have plenty of cases of this phenomenon such as Sri Lanka, Guatemala, East Timor, Angola, and Sudan.

The selectiveness that the West demonstrated in singling out Libya at the expense of, say, Bahrain was universally commented on. As if we were going to intervene in Bahrain when it hosts our Fifth Fleet. Still, insult was added to injury. At Asia Times Online Pepe Escobar explains.

You invade Bahrain. We take out Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. This, in short, is the essence of a deal struck between the Barack Obama administration and the House of Saud. Two diplomatic sources at the United Nations independently confirmed that Washington, via Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gave the go-ahead for Saudi Arabia to invade Bahrain and crush the pro-democracy movement in their neighbor in exchange for a “yes” vote by the Arab League for a no-fly zone over Libya – the main rationale that led to United Nations Security Council resolution 1973.

But, many have asked, why should help be withheld from the Libyan people just because the United States turned its back on the protesters in Bahrain? It’s equally as heartless to use U.S. selectivity as a pretext to call for the United States and NATO to stand down on the Libya intervention simply out of principle.

As for whether the Libyan rebels represent the people, judging by the size of their forces, they may not. C.J. Chivers in the New York Times:

The rebel military, as it sometimes called, is not really a military at all. What is visible in battle here is less an organized force than the martial manifestation of a popular uprising. . . . And their numbers are small. Officials in the rebels’ transitional government have provided many different figures, sometimes saying 10,000 or men are under arms in their ranks. But a small fraction actually appear at the front each day — often only a few hundred.

Inevitably, Islamists have muddied the intentions of the rebels by horning in on the action. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Two former Afghan Mujahedeen and a six-year detainee at Guantanamo Bay have stepped to the fore of this city’s military campaign, training new recruits for the front and to protect the city from infiltrators loyal to Col. Moammar Gadhafi. . . . Abdel Hakim al-Hasady, an influential Islamic preacher and high-school teacher who spent five years at a training camp in eastern Afghanistan, oversees the recruitment, training and deployment of about 300 rebel fighters from Darna. . . . Sufyan Ben Qumu, a Libyan army veteran who worked for Osama bin Laden’s holding company in Sudan and later for an al Qaeda-linked charity in Afghanistan, is training many of the city’s rebel recruits.

Also, reports Gareth Porter:

Iraqi intelligence has indications that the original al Qaeda in Iraq network is in the process of leaving the country for Libya.

Perhaps most troubling of all to progressives was the administration’s failure to seek congressional approval and the dangerous precedent that sets. Still, as with withholding assistance because of Washington’s bias against helping the Bahraini protesters, it would have been dogmatic to spurn Libya out of concern that intervening without congressional approval would set a precedent.

In fact, an even more dangerous precedent may have been set. Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett at Race for Iran on those who promote humanitarian intervention for their own purposes:

Above all, they want to establish a robust, international mechanism for humanitarian intervention, and saw the Administration’s response to the Libyan case as critical to this end. . . . Make no mistake — Obama has supplemented the George W. Bush doctrine of “preventive” war with his own doctrine of “preventive” humanitarian intervention. And there are clearly forces in the American body politic — if not within the Obama Administration itself — who would ultimately like to use this as a precedent for eventual action against Iran.

If not familiar with its history, you could be forgiven for wondering how a practice with such a benevolent name as humanitarian intervention got such a bad rap? After all the United Nations mandated the Responsibility to Protect. But, as mentioned earlier, it’s tough to be certain whether those on whose behalf you’re intervening are worthy beneficiaries. In the course of providing its recent history in a nutshell at BBC, Adam Curtis writes that

. . . humanitarian interventionism offers us no political way to judge who it is we are helping in Libya — and thus what the real consequences of our actions might be.

Even if one’s instincts are to help those fighting Gadaffi, it is no longer enough just to see it as a struggle of goodies against baddies. For it is precisely that simplification that has led to unreal fantasies about who we are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Despite Responsibility to Protect, as long as states are sovereign, intervention will always be difficult to justify. Also, it’s time we realized that airstrikes are not the answer. Though capable of stamping out small forces, such as al Qaeda in Afghanistan, from this commentator’s perspective, their moral horror dictate that they be shelved in favor of — oh, no — the dreaded “boots on the ground.”

A central reason that the use of armed personnel becomes a dead end is because the intervening force allies itself with the force that’s facing extinction. Meanwhile, the concept of fighting terrorism is denounced on the premise that a tactic is not an enemy. But, in these kinds of situations, that’s exactly what’s needed.

The goal is to end the violence, not support a particular force. Then, for their part, should the beneficiaries of your aid themselves become repressive, the interventionnaires must be able to pivot on a dime and turn on them. And once the violence on both sides is quelled, absquatulate*. Of course, easier said than done.

*ab·squat·u·late intr. v. To depart in a hurry; abscond.

Humala and Fujimori Likely to Compete in Second-Round Vote for Peruvian Presidency

Cross-posted from Peru Elections 2011, a Tumblr site of the WOLA Electoral Observation Delegation.

Lima (April 10, 2011)—Transparencia, the election monitoring group, has released its quick count, with 74% of the voting tables counted. The results, with a 1.5% margin of error, are not expected to change, and are similar to the quick count being reported by Ipsos APOYO. The Transparencia results are:

Ollanta Humala 31.3%

Keiko Fujimori 23.2%

Pedro Pablo Kuczynski 18.7%

Alejandro Toledo 15.9%

Luis Castañeda 10%

Humala and Fujimori will now face each other in a second-round vote on June 5. These results reflect the fragmentation of the right and center-right of the Peruvian political system. Interestingly, the combined results of Kuczynski, Toledo and Castañeda—all right or center-right candidates—are almost double the vote received by Fujimori.

While many observers remain stunned at Fujimori’s strong showing, she has consistently polled between 18 and 22 percent in national elections over the past three years. Today’s results are only marginally higher than what is perceived to be the “hard core” of Fujimori supporters.

At the same time, Keiko’s brother, Kenyi Fujimori, appears to have received the highest vote among all members of congress. Fujimori’s coalition Fuerza 2011 will have a large bloc in Congress, including many old faces from her father’s regime. Kenyi Fujimori has already announced that with these results, “the revindication of Fujimorismo has begun.” So too begins a period of extreme polarization in Peruvian politics.

Earlier . . .

Peru Election Update: A View from Villa El Salvador

This morning, members of the WOLA elections observation delegation visited polling sites in Villa El Salvador, a sprawling popular district in Lima’s Southern Cone. Peruvians stood in line across the district to cast their ballot for president and congressional representatives. Transparencia, a respected elections monitoring group, reports no major irregularities to date, though some candidates violated the prohibition on electoral propaganda in the few days just before the vote, particularly in the provinces. Polling companies are expected to emit exit polls shortly after voting stations close at 4:00 p.m. A more reliable quick count will be released by Transparencia some hours later, while the official elections agency, ONPE, is expected to make its first statement at 8:00 p.m.

In our conversations with voters, no single candidate emerged as the obvious victor. However, a significant number indicated their support for the front-runner, Ollanta Humala. People said that he is the only candidate who is addressing two key issues Peruvians are most concerned about: jobs and crime. One elderly woman, a veteran of the left, said, “Every five years we have to go vote. For what? All of the candidates make promises, but after they are elected they don’t deliver. I would be happy if there were jobs, and if there were an eight-hour work day with adequate pay. That would be sufficient for me.” Humala is the only candidate, she said, who is concerned with the poor. The other reason people said they are voting for Humala is because they perceive that he would be tough on crime. His background as a military officer plays into that perception both in Lima and in the provinces.

One 20-year old law student from Villa El Salvador who was voting in presidential elections for the first time said he voted for Toledo, though he noted that many of his friends had been won over by Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. “There’s not much difference between Kuzcynski and Toledo; they are both from the right,” he said. “But Kuzcynski is from the more radical right, and is not sensitive to social issues.” He added that one of the key problems facing Peru today is social conflicts, which he felt Toledo was better prepared to address. His friends, however, are impressed by Kuzcynski’s resume. “He held high posts in the IMF and the World Bank, for example. And he’s seen as different from traditional politicians.”

There is also a strong vote for Keiko Fujimori in Villa El Salvador. One 42-year-old worker from the popular district, who said he was also voting for Toledo, explained that he thought Fujimori is popular among some sectors chiefly because of her father’s legacy. “People aren’t voting for her,” he said, “they are voting for her father.” He said that many women remember that Fujimori gave large quantities of food for the soup kitchens and built lots of public works in the poorest areas of the district. “They are expecting the same should Keiko Fujimori be elected.” Anti-Fujimori sentiment is nevertheless strong in Villa El Salvador because of massive corruption and human rights violations committed during his government.

There are strong rumors in Villa El Salvador and elsewhere that Toledo supporters may be switching their vote at the last minute in favor of Kuzcynski to prevent Fujimori from making it into the second round. Given that last night’s poll by Ipsos APOYO showed only a 1.3 percent difference between Fujimori and Kuzcynski for second place, even a minor shift in voting patterns could place Kuzcynski in the second round against Humala. Either way, the second round vote is shaping up to be highly contentious.

Coletta A. Youngers is the Latin America Regional Associate with the International Drug Policy Consortium and a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Jo-Marie Burt is an Associate Professor at George Mason University and also a WOLA Senior Fellow.

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