Focal Points Blog

The Narco-Terror War

(Excerpted from Right Web.)

The emerging consensus, even among the political establishment, is that the war on drugs is a costly failure. Drug production is surging in Latin America—as are the body counts—opium is a staple crop in Afghanistan despite the presence of tens of thousands of occupying troops, and anti-drug policies that have helped put hundreds of thousands of non-violent offenders behind bars have had no discernible impact on usage.

But for much of the rightwing establishment, drug prohibition is just like any other war: deserving of uncritical support even in the face of defeat.

Not so long ago the only folks try to link the war on terror and the war on drugs were antiwar critics and crusading reformers attempting to highlight the futility of both wars. Now the linkage is a staple of the neoconservative right’s stated rationale for maintaining a global U.S. military presence in a quixotic effort for perfect security.

The Emerging Elite Consensus

Many people trace the advent of the modern war on drugs to President Richard Nixon, who in a 1971 special message to Congress formally declared a war against illicit narcotics, stating his intention to launch a “full-scale attack on the problem of drug abuse in America.” And not just by locking up users, he said, but by striking at the “supply” side of the problem: the production “and trafficking in these drugs beyond our borders.”

Forty years and more than a trillion dollars later, the U.S. government’s war on drugs—which from South America to Central Asia has been more than mere metaphor—is widely considered by both policy experts and former presidents alike to be a dismal failure.

Read the rest at Right Web.

Shifting Targets: From Iran to Libya and Syria (Part 1)

U.S. military bases Iran(Pictured: Just a few of the U.S. military bases encircling Iran.)

Invasion of Iran on Hold

Several years ago, looking at the alignment of forces in the world – and the continued exaggerated role of the neo-conservatives in U.S. foreign policy combined with Netanyahu’s obsession with ‘taking out’ of Teheran – I feared a U.S. led military offensive against Iran was in the making, and predicted as much on several occasions.

At times the past few years the rhetoric became more heated, the U.S. naval presence in the Gulf increased and the political deadlock over Iran’s nuclear program seemed to all converge towards war. To the above, add the near open admission of U.S. Special Forces missions in Iran and funding of the Iran opposition. Bring them all together with the usual pre-war vilification (part merited, part not) of the Iranian domestic situation and there isn’t much of a conceptual jump to war. The Iranian government’s crushing the Iranian reform movement of 2009 – a prelude to the 2010-2011 Arab Revolt – only made matters worse, weakening domestic U.S. opposition here to military action.

It is impossible to predict the results of a U.S.-led attack on Iran, but the indications are that it would not be a cake walk. To the contrary:

1. It would probably further strengthen the authority and position of the mullahs, uniting the Iranian nation against the outside aggressor (as the threats have already done) and weakening the democratic movement in the country considerably.

2. There is nothing to indicate that invading Iran – whatever shape the military action might take – would result in the collapse of the government there as it did in Iraq in 2003. Without overstating the case – the 2009 protests revealed deep fissures within the country – still, the current government in Iran has considerable mass support. It is easy to forget one of the worst wars of the 20th century – the Iraq-Iran War of 1980-1988 when Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger and the like argued that supporting Iraq would result in the collapse of the Iranian regime. Didn’t happen then; won’t now either.

3. If war did break out, it would probably not be as one-sided as the U.S.-led 2003 Iraq invasion where the Iraqi military all but collapsed. Iran is in a position to hurt the U.S. and its closest allies in the region militarily and politically. A ‘shock and awe’ type military offensive would cause great suffering in the country, but it is doubtful such a campaign would either bring down the regime, or for that matter, eliminate its potential to strike back militarily and politically.

4. Although rarely discussed, the U.S. actually needs (and cooperates with) Iran for stability in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Any U.S. military operation against Iran would seriously undermine the U.S. position, already quite tenuous, in these two countries. The U.S. military is obviously much stronger, but in any war, you can expect that there will be serious U.S. casualties with the naval fleet in the Gulf being essentially sitting ducks. Then there are the Saudi (and Kuwaiti and Emirates) oil fields. One has to be either pretty stupid or blinded by arrogance to believe the strategic resources the U.S. military is in the Middle East to protect, would not be hit in the event of war.

Once again, it is that latter-day global muckraker, Seymour Hersh, in another one of his pathbreaking articles in The New Yorker that helps clear the air about Iran, both in clearly denying that Iran’s nuclear program is about building weapons and also in explaining why the United States did not, in the end, invade Iran. It is not so much that Hersh’s reasons are new, it is more that he has documented what U.S. peace activists have been arguing for years.

Among the reasons:

a. Iran is not developing nuclear weapons. This has been the case since 2003 and very possibly the Iranian nuclear program was never about developing weapons’ grade uranium.

b. That the United States is already militarily overextended. Hersh argues that both in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite Administration claims to the contrary, the two wars are not going well. There is also stepped-up U.S. military activity in Somalia and Yemen.

c. There would be quite active opposition to a U.S.-led military intervention in Iran from Russia, China (perhaps predictably) but also from India and Japan, which get oil from Iran.

d. A military intervention in Iran would more than likely seriously disrupt world oil supplies resulting in unacceptable complications to the broader world economy. To think otherwise is to be somewhat out of sync with reality.

Whatever, all these considerations became all that much more relevant with the advent of the Arab Revolt which spread through the region and through U.S. policy into something approaching complete disarray (at least temporarily). Washington had come to believe its own rhetoric. It was counting on a radical Islamic fundamentalist thrust which nowhere in the region played a critical role but instead a youth-secular driven movement for greater democracy and a more generalized prosperity.

With the U.S. trying to ‘manage’ the political changes in Tunisia and Egypt, to eliminate long-term political adversaries in Libya and Syria, and to protect and defend at all costs its allies in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Emirates, the plans for military intervention against Iran have been put on the back burner.

Besides, as Hersh points out (see link above), even before Tunisian youth, Mohammed Bouazizi set himself and the whole region on fire, the Obama Administration was already seriously divided over whether to attack militarily. According to Hersh – usually an accurate source – retiring Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates was opposed as are much of the leadership of the U.S. high command.

At the least, the Arab Revolt has bought Iran time, and the more time it has to prepare, the more its ability to both defend itself in case of attack, and to hurt its adversaries militarily as well. The revolt throughout the Arab World has also, to a certain extent, undermined the myth of the Iranian threat. It turns out that Iran is much less of a threat to its Arab neighbors than the Arab governments themselves. The corruption, pervasive repressive practices and the vast economic and social inequities that have characterized the largely Western allies in the Arab World turned out to be a much more salient threat, than militant Iranian Shi’sm.

Increasing Prospects of Ground War in Libya and Syria

One invasion put on hold in order to prepare for another – or two others? More and more, the specter of U.S. led ground wars in both Libya and Syria, possibly this fall, are coming into focus. Certainly some of the same themes that preceded the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq are coming into focus.

  • The internal contradictions in both countries – real as they are in both cases – are being exaggerated. True enough, neither Khadaffi nor Assad are innocent babes in the woods. Both regimes have used repression extensively to maintain their power base. But if both are admittedly authoritarian, their overall record (especially that of Libya) are not without economic and social accomplishments, now denied or trivialized.
  • Again as with Iraq in 2003, the United States, Great Britain and France adamantly deny or downplay the strategic considerations that underlie the policy of ‘regime change’ (a euphemism for overthrowing governments) in Libya and Syria.

In Syria’s case, it is not so much about oil as it is a chance for the U.S. to eliminate the only Russian naval base in the Mediterranean at Latakia. Furthermore, eliminating Assad and his coterie would weaken Hizbollah in Lebanon, the Palestinian Movement and somewhat undermine Iran’s position as well.

To eliminate Khadaffi’s circle in Libya also has far reaching strategic consequences. It is rather amusing to see the arguments to the contrary being put forth (including by some liberal and left circles) minimizing or actually denying that oil is a factor in the current NATO military intervention in Libya. This line of thinking is such utter nonsense that it hardly deserves commentary (but, yes, I will do so all the same).

  • It is noticeable how little is made of the fact that 60% of Libya’s oil goes to China. As in Sudan, where oil politics underline the political and ethnic considerations, oil and the wealth that comes from oil play big in the Libyan events.
  • In those areas controlled by the rebels, international oil companies have already moved in to get contracts at much cheaper rates than those negotiated by the Khadaffi government. We can expect, should Khadaffi’s regime finally go the way of Saddam’s, that a new Libyan government’s oil policy would include a weakening of OPEC.
  • The British-French rush to war against Libya also has an energy connection. While it is not generally advertised, with the serious reduction of North Sea oil – overdeveloped with great encouragement by Margaret Thatcher – Britain finds itself in something of an energy crunch and is looking for more stable oil sources. It sees a great opportunity in overthrowing Khadaffi.
  • The French impetus is a little different but not much. The Fukushima nuclear accident – whose parameters appear to be much worse than publicized – has shaken a country where 80% of its power generation comes from nuclear energy. For France, ‘diversifying’ its energy sources means relying on more, rather than less, oil given its growing concerns of a Fukushima type accident.
  • To the degree it can increase its Middle East oil and gas sources, France can rely on Russian sources less. Limiting its dependence on Russian oil – with its political consequences – is a key factor (not the only one) explaining the current French military aggressiveness in Libya, of course under the cover of ‘humanitarian’ concerns and ‘the values’ of the French Revolution, values that were easily forgotten as France tortured and slaughtered a million Algeria between 1954 and 1962. Is it coincidence that a week after Khadaffi, in anger, claimed he would cancel his oil contracts with French and British oil companies, that both countries discovered Libya’s humanitarian crisis?
  • In a more general sense a change in Libya shifts the balance of power in the region to the right at a time when the dramatic events of the past year are shifting the balance of power in the opposite direction.

It is true that Khadaffi himself opposed the changes in both Tunisia and Egypt, fearing that once his neighbors were overthrown, it would be more difficult for him to stay in power. He too preferred a status quo he was familiar with to changes the direction of which he could not predict. In Tunisia’s case, there is some evidence that he (and his Algerian neighbors) would have liked to have stopped the Tunisian Revolution cold in its tracts. The speed of the challenges to his own power prevented him from moving effectively in this direction.

It is also the case that if in certain ways Khadaffi was a benevolent tyrant, that he is a tyrant who has always dealt with dissent harshly. In this sense he is hardly different from other regional authoritarians from Saudi Arabia to Algeria: to maintain power try to buy off the opposition first with economic and social programs. If that fails, crush the movement. In all cases, do what is necessary to maintain power.

Still, in his regional politics, Khadaffi has some genuine achievements, among them:

  • It was Libya’s Kadhafi who put up some $300 million to fund the purchase of an African satellite, dramatically bringing down the cost of telephone, television, telemedicine and radio broadcasting throughout Africa. He did this while the World Bank and the IMF – and other western financial – institutions refused to back such projects.
  • Ironically the $30 billion of Libyan resources that Obama recently confiscated was not for Khadaffi’s personal use, but was earmarked to fund the African Monetary Fund (AMF). The AMF was founded at the beginning of 2011 (just prior to the uprising in Libya) with an operating capital of $42 billion with headquarters in Yaoude. It would have funded an African currency that would have replaced the CFA Franc, and African financial dependence on the French monetary system. This fund also would have replaced the IMF and World Bank – with all their now well-known punitive conditions of structural adjustment – as a major funding source of African development
  • Khadaffi understood and opposed the European effort to break North Africa off from the rest of Africa economically through what is referred to as the Mediterranean dialogue. He understood that for the African Union to act independently, Africa had to be independently funded.
  • Khadaffi – agreed his foreign policy in record in Africa is quite mixed – still was one of the most ardent opponents of South African apartheid, a fact underlined by Nelson Mandela’s insistence on visiting Libya despite a Western embargo. Mandela went anyway in gratitude for Libya’s political and financial support for the African National Congress in the days before apartheid was overthrown.

Maybe, just maybe these points help explain why the NATO military intervention in Libya is unpopular in Africa and elsewhere in the Third World? And that while Khadaffi is admittedly no angel or great democrat at home, that he is respected in the Third World for good reason and that known Third World left leaders – Castro, Chavez, Nelson Mandela – and others are not abandoning him at present.

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

Apple: Crown Jewel of Technology or Human-Rights Abuser and Tax Cheat?

Excerpted from “Three Strikes against Apple” at Other Words.

In college, I considered my Apple laptop a faithful, effective, and occasionally even fun machine. A year past graduation, this constant companion to late nights spent studying, working, or wasting time has aged into a decrepit device. Like the old Windows hourglass, its colorful pinwheel cursor consistently heralds interminable delays.

Similarly, my prehistoric mobile phone frequently freezes, drops calls, or prematurely runs out of battery power. Even in those treasured moments when it operates at capacity, it lacks the touch screen, email, and Internet capabilities today’s savvy consumers supposedly demand. By all indications, I’m ripe for an upgrade to a new MacBook, iPhone, or iPad.

Here’s why I’m taking a pass.

Apple, like most other electronics companies, makes liberal use of an ore called columbite-tantalite — widely known as coltan — whose electrical retention properties improve the battery lives of electronic devices. While Australia is the world’s largest coltan producer, suppliers for Apple and its competitors often prefer to buy their coltan at lower cost from mining operations in war-ravaged eastern Congo.

The money from these transactions rarely reaches the miners themselves. Rather, it’s funneled to Rwandan- and Ugandan-backed rebel groups inside the Congo who control the mines and use the revenues to fund their operations in the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II.

Read the rest at Other Words.

Burma’s Ethnic Insurgencies Erupt in a Chain Reaction

The respective rebellions of Burma’s (or Myanmar, as its government prefers it be called) three largest ethnic minorities are, for once, all aflame at the same time. At Asia Times Online, Brian McCartan writes: “Myanmar moved closer to civil war in recent weeks after fighting broke out in Kachin State,” thus breaking its ceasefire with Burma’s ruling junta. “Myanmar’s newly elected government now faces ethnic insurgencies on three separate fronts,” thus putting at risk “Myanmar’s development and international confidence in its supposed democratic transition.”

“In the southeast,” meanwhile, a revolt by “the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) on November 7, 2010, election day, resulted in the temporary seizure of two important border towns.” What’s significant about this is that, despite the noble sentiments suggested by its name, the DKBA had been allied with the government.

McCartan again: “Although the government was able to retake the towns, fighting continued in the area and the [DKBA] allied itself with the Karen [ethnic group] National Liberation Army.” He adds: “The operations of [the] DKBA commander Major General Lah Pweh . . . have added new energy to the Karen insurgency through stepped up ambushes and attacks on army camps both in rural areas and in towns and villages.”

Meanwhile, about Shan State, the third large minority, McCartan writes that “increasing government pressure against the 1st Brigade of the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N),” with which the government also had a ceasefire, “resulted in open conflict in early March.” The government had been trying to “incorporate the military units of the ethnic ceasefire armies into the Myanmar armed forces ahead of the 2010 elections,” but the 1st Brigade, as well as other SSA-N brigades, had refused to join. McCartan again.

Indications are that if the government chooses to continue pushing these conflicts fighting could continue for years. Myanmar army casualties, if insurgent and exile media reports are accurate, have been high while insurgent casualties remain low. . . . Many Myanmar Army units have not seen combat in many years. . . . Low morale is a major problem among government troops. . . . Units are hugely under resourced and desertion is rife.


To continue operating, the insurgent groups will require safe havens and access to supplies and ammunition either through the direct or tacit approval of neighboring governments and militaries in China and Thailand. Thailand has increasingly turned its back on the ethnic groups along its border as it has emerged as Myanmar’s top trading partner. [Its] relationship [with China], too, may be changing as China’s investments in Myanmar expand, including strategically important energy projects such as the Shwe gas project and a vital oil and gas pipeline scheduled to run from the Indian Ocean to China’s southern Yunnan province across Myanmar.


A new alliance of 15 insurgent and former ceasefire groups, including the KNU, KIA and the SSA, offers new hope. [But it] remains to be seen whether. . . . the so-called United Nationalities Federal. . . . can coordinate operations on the battlefield or maneuver politically with internal ethnic political parties or internationally.

McCartan concludes that, unless the junta, in its present form as an ostensibly elected government, “can come to a sincere agreement with ethnic insurgents, the country seems poised to spiral into the type of widespread civil war not seen in its ethnic territories for over two decades.”

Bush Sr. and Huntsman: A Tale of Two Ambassadors to the Middle Kingdom

Huntsman ChinaIt may seem odd at first to associate Jon M. Huntsman with George H. W. Bush. Bush Sr. is an Episcopalian while Huntsman is Mormon; Bush served in the military during World War II while Huntsman went on a religious mission long after the war; and the list goes on and on.

However, a close look at the personal and career paths of the two suggests several convergences, and the nexus is the Middle Kingdom.

On June 21, Huntsman officially announced that he would run for the GOP nomination. He is the second former U.S. ambassador to the PRC to make such a vow. As with his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, his Mormon faith has been kept off the table in several public discourses. Instead, what comes into the public light is his international profile, which features substantial experience in the Confucian sphere, including his roles as a Mormon missionary to Taiwan and as the former U.S. ambassador to the PRC. Like Bush Sr., Huntsman could indeed, as president, make an important contribution to Sino-American relations.

The China Connection

In 1974, Gerald Ford, Nixon’s successor, appointed Bush Sr. as the chief of the U.S. Liaison Office to the People’s Republic of China. At a time when official relations between the two countries were yet to be established, Bush Sr. unofficially acted in the capacity of an ambassador. His charisma, open-mindedness, and curiosity served him well as a diplomat, and he was widely loved in China. During his fourteen months in Beijing, Bush Sr. sought every opportunity possible to get to know the lives of the Chinese public. He and his wife, Barbara would tour around Beijing on their bicycles, the most popular means of everyday transportation in the 1970s. Although regulations at the time limited his access to local Chinese families, he would go to grocery stores and talk to the salespeople. He would also try to get to know the people that he met while walking his dog.

HW Bush ChinaDespite congressional and public criticism of his conciliatory approach to dealing with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, Bush Sr. managed to use his China experience to his advantage, and perhaps, to the advantage of the United States. Indeed, his efforts as president to maintain contacts with Beijing can perhaps only be appreciated in hindsight. During his presidential years, Bush Sr. famously served as “his own China Desk Officer,” that is, his own resident expert on the multi-faceted aspects of China and Sino-American relations. His previous experience dealing with the CCP officials effectively established a realist framework for relations between the United States and China, a defining feat in the foreign relations of the 1990s for both sides.

Compared to Bush Sr., Huntsman began to have contact with the Confucian sphere at an earlier stage of his life. Still a college student, Huntsman served as a Mormon missionary to Taiwan. During his two-year mission there, he not only immersed himself in the social and cultural dynamics of Taiwan but also obtained fluency in Mandarin Chinese and Hokkien, a regional dialect of Fujian Province.

Huntsman’s experience with China and Taiwan and his proficiency in Mandarin Chinese proved to be an asset when President Obama appointed him the ninth U.S. ambassador to the PRC. Kenneth Lieberthal, Director of the China Center at the Brookings Institution, once expressed that “in terms of knowledge and diplomatic skills, I’d regard him as one of the best ambassadors we had. I thought he was very good. He related effectively to Chinese audiences.” Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, told the press that Huntsman was well-liked by the embassy staff. Schell added that Huntsman “is a very smart guy, quick on his feet, and he has a certain candor.”

Will or Should History Repeat?

Like his predecessor Bush Sr., Huntsman is now running for GOP nomination. It is not surprising to any U.S. presidential campaign watcher that clouds of suspicions surround Huntsman’s candidacy, centering on his ability and willingness to place public interests before corporate interests, given his background as a billionaire businessman. There are also his politically expedient actions to consider. To some degree, Huntsman seems to be reinventing his image to cater to Republican voters. These efforts are characterized by his reversal of positions on several key issues of interest to the Republican voters, including his stance on health reform and the Recovery Act. In addition, he was a Democratic appointee as ambassador to the PRC, which may undermine his ideological loyalty to the GOP.

On the other hand, Huntsman has taken perhaps the strongest stance among the Republican candidates on U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, which reveals something provocative about his foreign policy in general. His press release on the president’s remarks last week highlighted his approval for “a safe but rapid withdrawal” of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. In addition to maintaining that there is a great need for “nation building at home,” which is in line with Obama’s vision for U.S. foreign policy, Huntsman went further to say that it is time to “get serious about what needs to be done on the ground, not a counter-insurgency but a counter-terror effort.

The globally minded Huntsman appears to be committed to effective U.S. engagement with the world. As an old China hand, his expertise on China and Sino-American relations is invaluable, considering that China may become the most crucial partner to the United States in the 21st century. Furthermore, he is likely to be less conciliatory and controversial on China’s poor human rights profile than Bush Sr., given his blunt criticism of the CCP’s detention of prominent Chinese activists like Liu Xiaobo.

At the moment, Huntsman is leaning to the right in order to appeal to the more conservative wing of the Republican Party. Perhaps if his campaign gains traction, however, his views on foreign policy, and on China in particular, might begin to make the Republican Party lean more in his direction.

Shiran Shen is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus and a senior honors political science student at Swarthmore College.

As Taliban Tactics Grow More Sophisticated, Why Does It Still Use Suicide Bombers?

Typical of articles calling the Taliban attack on the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul a “showcase for their abilities” and a “carefully orchestrated operation” is this from the Daily Beast:

[The Taliban] had proven once again that insurgents can strike just about any time and anywhere against their chosen targets, exposing the fragility of Kabul’s security just days before Afghan security forces are scheduled to take responsibility for securing the city and several other towns and provinces around the country in the wake of President Obama’s announcement of the phased U.S. military withdrawal.

Still, the eight attackers, all armed with suicide vests in addition to weapons, were killed. This begs the question: with its increasing tactical sophistication, why does the Taliban continue to rely on a technique that’s as strictly from hunger as suicide bombing?

As a tactic (if it can be called one), suicide bombing makes the Taliban look not only desperate, but, of course, too savage – read: al-Qaeda-like – to inherit the reins of a nation. My guess is that the willingness of those wearing the vests to die as martyrs is supposed to represent a de facto blessing by Allah for the operation. It’s almost like a shahid are a good luck talisman.

But this is not the way for a regime-in-waiting to behave if it expects to be taken seriously by other states. Time to grow up, Taliban. Act as if you belong on the international stage and maybe you’ll get there.

Australian PM Gillard’s Call for Abolition of Nuclear Weapons No Shot in the Dark

Australia’s prime minister Julia Gillard, reports Sydney’s Telegraph, “will call for a parliamentary vote on a motion calling for nuclear armed countries — including our closest allies in the US and Britain — to destroy their atomic weapons. It would be the first time the Australian parliament had adopted a resolution calling for global disarmament.”

Presumably it was only a matter of time since in June 2008 then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proposed the formation of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) to be co-chaired by former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans. The ICNND closed down operations in July 2010 after concluding what it considered its mandate, which, in large part was creating a comprehensive report titled Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers.

But Ms. Gillard was reluctant to sponsor the motion and agreed to, the Telegraph reports, only “after pressure from Labor MPs on a parliamentary Committee on Treaties. . . . It is believed it was the second time the [committee] had written to Ms Gillard, after she ignored the first request earlier this year.” By doing so she assures the ICNND’s legacy.

. . . the Prime Minister confirmed the government would adopt recommendation 21 of its [the ICNND’s, that is] Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament report. The resolution calls for an immediate cut to all nuclear arsenals, starting with a ban on enrichment and the production of fissile material.

Below are excerpts from a post I wrote at the time that “Eliminating Nuclear Threats” was issued (posted elsewhere, prior to the existence of Focal Points).

Another Nuclear-Weapons Commission? Wait, This One’s the Bomb!

In December, what for all intents and purposes looks like the mother of all reports on nuclear weapons was issued. The entity responsible is called the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND). A joint initiative of the Australian and Japanese Governments, it was launched to reinvigorate global nuclear disarmament in time for the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.

The ICNND is chaired by Gareth Evans, Australia’s respected one-time foreign minister who has since dedicated his life to preventing and resolving deadly conflict, and Yoriko Kawaguchi, Japan’s former minister of foreign affairs. Its other members are mostly individuals who’ve held high positions in government, including a former chairman of Pakistan’s joint chiefs of staff, a former prime minister of Norway, and Prince Turki Al Faisal of the Saudi royal family.

Come to think of it, the commission’s mainstream membership is reminiscent of that of the recently concluded Congressional Commission on the Nuclear Posture of the United States. The latter included, on the one hand, Clinton Secretary of Defense William Perry, since reborn as a disarmament advocate, and, on the other, former CIA director and noted hawk James Woolsey. Among the Nuclear Posture Review Commission’s recommendations were ratifying the follow-up treaty to START, but not the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In effect, it nullified itself.

But disarmament itself was central to its deliberations, while in the ICNND’s case, it was its raison d’etre. Titled “Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers,” the ICNND’s report counsels disarmament in studied steps.

Reading it proves slow going — it’s as nuanced as it is comprehensive — but it’s no slog. To those of us who’d like to see a shortened route to disarmament and one shorn of the nuclear-energy programs ICNND considers essential to its agenda, the results of the report disappoint to a degree. On the other hand, it’s awash in keen observations and sound reasoning. As I work my way through it (about one-third thus far) I’ll highlight some of those — as well as have some fun with it.

Let’s begin with what the report refers to as nuclear weapons’ “delegitimation” (which, apparently, is to “deligitimization” as “preventive” is to “preventative”). The report reads:

If we want to minimize and ultimately eliminate nuclear weapons, the critical need is to change perceptions of their role and utility: in effect, to achieve their progressive delegitimation, from a position in which they occupied a central strategic place to one in which their role is seen as quite marginal, and eventually wholly unnecessary as well as undesirable.

We’re part way there, according to the report, because

. . . it is now broadly accepted that nuclear weapons have little or no utility as instruments of warfighting [because, among other things nuclear weapons], creating impassable terrains and causing long-lasting environmental damage, cannot rationally be used to take territory.

Not only are nuclear weapons weighed down by the irony that they’re inherently unusable, but one rung down the hierarchy of irony resides the humbling knowledge that the biggest, baddest weapons ever invented are of absolutely no use when it comes to seizing territory. If one state covets another for its resources or whatever and were to attack it with nuclear weapons, the resale value on the acquired state immediately plummets.

Even if the conquering state were willing to help rebuild its newfound acquisition, needless to say, great swaths of it are rendered uninhabitable by radiation. Of course, a nuclear-weapons advocate might make the case that not only do nuclear weapons deter a world war, they’re the reason that while states may fight over disputed territory like Kashmir, they no longer seek to acquire new territory.

As opposed to conquest or world wars, today small wars are all the rage. But nuclear weapons

. . . lack finesse in a world where advanced militaries increasingly focus on reducing collateral damage and civilian deaths. . . . weapons of choice in war these days are precise in both targeting and effect.

The last sentence might be amended to read “weapons of choice in war these days are intended to be precise in both targeting and effect.” The report also reads (emphasis added):

Nuclear weapons are essentially self-deterring for actors who depend upon public support from their own populations, their allies, and broader international society. Every time states have come close to their use they have recoiled.

Deterrence aside, another argument that the proponents of nuclear weapons proffer for the retention of nuclear weapons is

. . . the notion that because nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented they can never wholly disappear.

No question — refuting the uninvented argument isn’t easy. But that’s why God created compliance and verification: Vigilance is all. Besides, mankind hasn’t been able to uninvent torture and slavery, but they’ve been eradicated. Oh wait, no they haven’t. Moving on, the report reads:

If these perceptions [about the uninvention of nuclear weapons] are to change, they have to be tackled. . . in a way which recognizes and respects. . . the weight of opposing arguments. . . . The necessary commitments to disarmament will not be achieved by simply denouncing the nuclear-armed states. . . for being in thrall to false theories and prey to unwarranted anxieties.

In fact, said states

. . . can both recognize [the] long-term risks and at the same time fear the short-term impact on their security posed by the processes of disarmament. . . .They must be convinced that there is no incompatibility between nuclear disarmament and security.

As you can see, despite how hypocritical a state sounds when it calls for disarmament while also insisting on retaining nukes, concerns about a disarmament time frame are legitimate. Thus (emphasis added)

Those who advocate elimination need to break the process into manageable steps, countering perceptions that it is a leap into the unknown. . . . the number of diverse states that must cooperate to make nuclear abolition feasible is too great, and the issues too complex, to allow anything but incremental movement. Here as elsewhere in public policy, inertia tends to be the norm, major change the rarity, and sustaining major change extraordinarily difficult. The real alternative to an incremental approach is not more rapid change, but stasis. But doing nothing is not an option.

We can’t know if Prime Minister Gillard’s motion to abolish nuclear weapons will have any impact. But at least she and Australia’s parliament are not doing nothing.

Obama’s Noble Sentiments About Afghanistan Undermined by Meager Drawdown

“This is the beginning – but not the end – of our effort to wind down this war.” President Obama told the American public in a speech on Wednesday, June 22, 2011. The president’s address was full of encouraging statements and ideas, pertaining to both the immediate conflict in Afghanistan and his views of American power in general. Yet with all of his spot-on assessments and high-minded principles, there was a great disconnect between what the president espoused and what he did.

Let’s begin with what the president did right:

He acknowledged that the U.S. has made serious progress on its the objectives in Afghanistan. The military missions, to decimate al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups in the region, turn out the Taliban and train Afghan forces for the transfer of local security, are going well. Considering this news that seems too good to be true, President Obama rightly said that it was time to begin a transition in the war effort: fewer troops, fewer combat missions, more training, devotion to civil society and a serious pursuit of negotiations as a means to responsibly leave this conflict. The United States has spent enough lives, time, and money on the conflict and it is time for it to focus on its domestic issues that are not in short supply.

Further, the president provided insights into his notion of the U.S. in the world that were rather encouraging. Though Robert Creamer highlights the differences between Obama and Bush’s perceptions of just war and ability to follow through on promises, the most important comparisons have to do with their vision of American power and its relations with the world. Though Obama commented on his willingness to use force against those who threaten American lives, he made clear overtures to the United States’ role within the international system and not above it: “When innocents are being slaughtered and global security endangered, we don’t have to choose between standing idly by or acting on our own. Instead, we must rally international action.” Rather than ignoring the calls of NATO and other allies, the president proudly spoke of his conferences with NATO in Lisbon and his desire for a closer relationship with Pakistan around common goals and mutual-accountability.

Another important difference in Obama’s worldview and that of the former president is his emphasis on the diplomatic process as a means to managing conflict. Expressing his desire to work with the people of Afghanistan and the governments in Kabul and Islamabad, the president highlighted his belief that “peace cannot come to a land that has known so much war without a political settlement.” Whereas Bush refused to negotiate with his enemies, Obama acknowledges that there is no way out of Afghanistan that does involve “initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban.” Negotiating with not just an enemy but also one whose past is ridden with oppression and tyranny, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized at the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on June 23, 2011, will not be easy to swallow but it is necessary to the process that ultimately presents the best way for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan.

Now for what he did wrong:

Sadly, for these high-minded principles of inclusive agreements and political settlements, Obama’s proposed plan for withdrawal does not seem to be steering the conflict away from our current methods. To usher in this change in strategy and acknowledge that the fight with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan has largely gone well, the president agreed to withdraw a meager 10,000 troops this year and another 23,000 the next. This wholly underwhelming drawdown hardly deserves that definition. By the end of 2012, the withdrawal of 33,000 troops will still leave approximately 70,000 U.S. forces in the country – twice as many as were in-theater when Obama took office. Let’s not forget the 100,000 contractors that will still be there as well. Combine these figures with whatever commensurate drawdown NATO makes from their 50,000 soldiers and there will still be a rather large military force still on the ground.

For Obama’s talk of changing strategy and turning the corner in Afghanistan, the short term effects of this announcement will be fairly slight despite warnings from Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that these withdrawals are “risky.” Political pressure carried in warnings from top military advisors and a mixture of fear and enthusiasm by those in Afghanistan may help to explain why this decision was made, but it does not excuse it. When asked by various senators at the aforementioned hearing about how U.S. strategy will change, Secretary Clinton commented that current counterinsurgency and counterterrorism missions will continue while training efforts will be increased. Only with more time and greater pullouts should anyone expect to see a real shift away from counterinsurgency and major combat missions. This does not sound like a rethinking of strategy or an immediate change of any kind.

Speaking of risks, many of the senators at the hearing pointed out that there are several problems that could result from not changing strategy soon enough. Most touched upon were concerns of creating an Afghan dependence on U.S. security and aid that will leave them unable to defend or support themselves when withdrawals become more severe. Both the president and Secretary Clinton spoke of this plan as gradual and responsible, but one wonders if the incredibly slow pace agreed upon is necessary or even detrimental to anyone’s long-term interests. Even as senators prayed that Clinton might find a political way out of the conflict that could accelerate the return of U.S. troops, those looking for a serious change in the war in Afghanistan will likely have to wait until the withdrawal plans are decided for 2013 and 2014.

A steeper, more responsible drawdown and a serious alteration of our military strategy would have gone a long way in showing the world we are serious about pursuing a more cooperative and diplomatic approach to solving international problems. Instead, President Obama opted for a plan that seemed at odds with his enlightened views of U.S. foreign policy he advocated for in the same speech. Of course, the U.S. is actively pursuing political solutions to the war, but these meager withdrawals show a lack of commitment to a lighter combat approach. This dissonance between Obama’s words and actions provokes questions of how much control he has over his own foreign policy decisions in what is now undoubtedly his war. More importantly, it means that there are still too many U.S. soldiers in harm’s way for little reason.

Adam Cohen is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

The Nuclear Terrorists Are Coming: Break Out the Varsity Squad!

“In a briefing last week for the visiting commandant of the Marine Corps,” writes Nathan Hodge at the Wall Street Journal, Japan-based Marines “said the experience of Operation Tomodachi, the Japan relief effort launched after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, could help the U.S. military respond to worst-case battle scenarios.”

“This is varsity-level stuff,” Gen. [James] Amos said.

Hodge again:

Japan has become an unlikely laboratory for the U.S. to study modern warfare after the March nuclear accident created conditions like those the military could face if a terror group set off a “dirty” radiological bomb. It was the first time Marine aircraft had operated in a radiologically contaminated environment, and Lt. Col. Marsh [commander of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 265], which was involved in the operation. . . told [Gen. Amos], “it’s not hard to believe that we could be responding someplace involving a disaster at a nuclear power plant, dirty bombs or terrorism.”

Fukushima has focused the attention of the world on the safety of nuclear plants. As Matthew Bunn of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs writes:

At Monday’s opening of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s ministerial meeting in Vienna on what to do about nuclear safety after Fukushima, [IAEA] Director-General Yukiya Amano laid out a sensible five-point plan for improving global nuclear safety. But Amano missed a crucial point: Disasters like Fukushima can be caused not only be accident but by terrorist action. The nuclear industry in many countries is much less prepared to cope with security incidents than with accidents.

As if the nuclear industry (at least in Japan) was even prepared to cope with an accident. Dr. Bunn again (emphasis added).

[Thus] the need to take steps to strengthen global nuclear security – protecting against both sabotage of nuclear facilities and theft of nuclear weapons or the materials to make them — [is] particularly urgent. . . . Both al Qaeda and Chechen terrorist groups have repeatedly considered sabotaging nuclear reactors – and Fukushima provided a compelling example of the scale of terror such an attack might cause. Indeed, given the multiple layers of safety systems in place for nuclear facilities today – and the extraordinarily weak security measures in place in some countries – the chance that the next big radioactive release will happen because someone wanted to make it happen may well be bigger than the chance that it will happen purely by accident.

Back in 2003, at the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote:

An attack on a nuclear power plant would seem to fulfill, almost perfectly, Al Qaeda’s objective of using America’s technology against it. In his State of the Union Message last year, President Bush announced that United States forces searching Afghan caves had indeed found diagrams of American reactors. Around the same time, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, acting on information provided by the F.B.I., warned of a plot to crash a commercial aircraft into a plant. . . . As potential targets go, Indian Point [nuclear energy plant] seems almost too obvious. It is situated on the Hudson River . . . thirty-five miles from midtown Manhattan. . . . A 1982 analysis by a congressional subcommittee estimated that, under worst-case conditions, a catastrophe at one of the Indian Point reactors could result in fifty thousand fatalities and more than a hundred thousand radiation injuries. . . . By an uncomfortable coincidence, American Airlines Flight 11, just minutes before it slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, flew almost directly over Indian Point’s twin reactor domes.

Then there’s the threat of cyberwarfare, as exemplified by the impact that the virus Stuxnet has had on Iran’s nuclear program. Still, as Seymour Hersh wrote in a New Yorker piece last November, The Online Threat, which is a cautionary tale about the dangers of allowing the intelligence communities and the military to hype cyberwarfare: “There is surprising unanimity among cyber-security experts on one issue that the immediate cyber threat does not come from traditional terrorist groups like Al Qaeda.”

He quotes John Arquilla of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School: “Terrorist groups are. . . . not that interested in. . . . attacking our computer system.” When it comes to cyber security, their priority is to “protect their operations.” Still, Hersh warns: “As terrorist groups get better at defense, they may eventually turn to offense.”

Meanwhile, as Bunn writes

. . . attempting to separate safety and security is wrongheaded as the two are integrally linked. Better safety measures can make a facility more secure (by making it more difficult to sabotage, or keeping better control of where nuclear material is within a plant), and better security measures can make a plant safer. . . . Ultimately, a nuclear facility cannot truly be safe unless it is also secure.

Three years ago, the World Institute for Nuclear Security (WINS) was launched in Vienna at an IAEA conference, the first organization dedicated to strengthening the “physical protection and security of nuclear and radioactive materials and facilities worldwide.” After another conference in May, this time about Fukushima, WINS issued this statement, which I’ve excerpted:

Safety and security have traditionally been regulated and managed in isolation from each other. Safety management has been the responsibility of operators, engineers, safety managers and scientists, whereas security [is] frequently led by ex-military and police personnel. . . . This situation must change. The complex, interconnected nature of safety, security and emergency management requires convergence.

As Cause for Hope in Afghanistan, “Light at the End of the Tunnel” Has Lost Its Luster

At the Atlantic, Michael Cohen writes of President Obama’s Afghanistan speech:

For the first time in ten years, the light at the end of the tunnel of the U.S. war in Afghanistan is suddenly visible. . . . If there is one overriding takeaway from Obama’s speech . . . it is that the same President who 18 months ago was led by his generals into an escalation that he didn’t appear to fully support has now taken back control of his policy in Afghanistan. Right now, that means leading U.S. strategy down the path of de-escalation. As Obama said, this not the end of the war in Afghanistan, but it’s certainly the beginning of America’s effort to “wind down the war.”

No, not the beginning of the end, but, after almost 10 years, only the beginning of the beginning . . . someday the United States may reach the end of the tunnel of the war in Afghanistan. One can’t help but wonder, though, if the purpose of these excruciatingly long drawdowns, which the United States now seems to specialize in, is to ensure that before we reach the end of the tunnel, enough time will have passed to allow excavation of another out of peace’s impassive mountainside.

In other words, the long drawdown — to whatever extent it is one — seems less intended to leave the occupied state stabilized than to provide the defense establishment with a seamless transition to another war. We wouldn’t want them all standing around with nothing to do but drill or worry about future procurements, would we?

Continuing with Cohen, to upend another cliché — “idle hands are the devil’s tools” — what could be more demonic than this?

All of this suggests that the Obama administration is pushing the military away from a strategy of stabilization and pacification in Afghan’s most insecure regions . . . and toward a more limited counter-terrorism strategy. On the ground, this will likely mean [among other things] more drones [and] more special forces operations to eliminate high value targets.

One could be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that we’re countering terrorism “in like kind” (as they say of a response to a nuclear attack with an equivalent amount of nuclear weapons) with nothing but more terrorism.

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