Focal Points Blog

If We Survive the Next 100 Years, Which Came First: Nuclear Abolition or World Peace?

Imagine a future in which mankind has wrestled global warming to a draw and the rich have finally come to understand that extreme income inequality degrades their quality of life as much as the next guy’s. To those of us who, for so long, have been begging for crumbs — just the survival of the planet and our financial lives — it’s a veritable golden age.

The third leg on which, if not utopia, the next best thing to it — the ability to stave off dystopia — stands Global Zero, the abolition of nuclear weapons. Which bring us to the old chicken and egg cliché. In this case, which came first: global zero or world peace?

In November of 2010, Hudson Institute fellow Christopher Ford issued a paper, in response to which I’ve written a number of posts, titled Nuclear Weapons Reconstitution and its Discontents: Challenges of Weaponless Deterrence. In the course of his work, he details the challenges of a possible transitional stage to Global Zero: dismantling nuclear arsenals, but retaining the infrastructure and know-how to re-build them in the event of a perceived national-security emergency. Ford writes:

. . . that it is difficult to imagine today’s weapons possessors actually agreeing to it without some quite fundamental transformation in international politics already having taken place. [It may, in fact, be] a self-solving problem by virtue of becoming unnecessary under the only conditions that would make abolition possible in the first place. [Commentator Alexei Arbatov] has argued that “much more important” than solving the many “concrete problems” presented by [weaponless deterrence] is the likely precondition it demands of “profound improvements in the world’s political and military environments and in great powers’ ability to cooperate and trust one another.”

Continuing to belabor the obvious, another commentator has

. . . . suggested that “[t]raditional worries associated with nuclear crisis stability disappear if all states no longer find the need to maintain an operational assured nuclear retaliation capability.” For his part, Harald Müller also argues that “[i]n order to realize the vision of a nuclear weapons free world, the relationship among the great powers must be one of cooperation and mutual trust, not one of sharp geopolitical rivalry in which the security dilemma reigns.”

In other words, if that’s not obvious enough for you, two other commentators

. . . have averred that “a world free of nuclear weapons would likely become a reality only after significant political developments around the globe, leading to more stable and secure international relations than at present.” [Another observed] that “the nuclear weapons problem cannot be separated analytically, politically, or militarily from the larger strategic context.”

Along similar lines, at Switzerland’s ISN (International Relations and Security Network), John Mueller, author of Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda (Oxford University Press, 2010), writes:

It is difficult to see how any country that has possessed nuclear weapons has found them beneficial since World War II. They have supplied little diplomatic advantage, and no nuclear-armed country has discov­ered an effective use for them in the many wars waged [since]. Nor have they been useful in deterring war. Their supposed chief achievement was to prevent World War III during the Cold War, but this notion continues to be undercut with each leak from Soviet archives. . . . For nuclear weapons to fade toward obliv­ion, perhaps nothing needs to be done but wait, as more and more people come to question the weapons’ value and cost. . . . No real “manage­ment” may be necessary.

Already, the US and Russia have engaged in something of a negative arms race, mas­sively reducing their atomic arsenals from levels that are ridiculously large to ones that are merely foolishly large. Meanwhile, France has unilaterally and without any in­ternational agreement cut its collection of nuclear bombs by two-thirds; the UK has wondered in public why it needs to have any at all. . . . in time, perhaps even American taxpayers will come to muse on the expense. . . . The weap­ons, without studied effort, might then be allowed to rust in peace.

What’s missing here? Oh, the urgency of the nuclear threat. Little things like an irrational leader (such as in North Korea), overweening nationalism (as in India and Pakistan), or, of course, an accident. Both approaches — waiting for international relations to heal or for nuclear weapons to live out their usefulness — are, in fact, too casual. Under these circumstances, Zen-like forbearance only adds to the threat of nuclear risk.

Improved international relations, to help ensure disarmament, would be ideal. But, the situation is an emergency, and, as with other illegal weapons such as land mines and cluster weapons, it cries out for us to be in a “put down the weapon” mode.

Like Strauss-Kahn, Christine Lagarde Dragging Baggage Into Likely IMF Directorship

Lagarde Geithner(Pictured: “Bilderbergers” building bridges.)

In the infamous column in which French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy cried his outrage at the public humiliation inflicted to Dominique Strauss-Kahn in the aftermath of his arrest, one sentence described particularly well the unspoken but unshakeable consensus governing politicians and the law in France. Levy expressed his indignation against: “The American judge who by delivering him to the crowd of photo hounds, pretended to take him for a subject of justice like any other.”

The idea that Strauss-Kahn should not be treated as “a subject of justice like any other” remained a leitmotiv through the flood of media reactions to his arrest in France. Because he had more to lose than “a vulgar delinquent” would have in a similar case, the argument went, because of his years of service to the world as head of the IMF and because of his prestige as future presidential candidate, he should be given special treatment. His disgrace should be hidden from public view; he should be spared the humiliation and disagreement of handcuffs, detention, and monitoring; and most importantly he should be given the benefit of the doubt.

This is nothing new in under the sun in French Politics. During his twelve years as President, Jacques Chirac was cited in nine different corruption cases while shielded both by presidential immunity and a merciful public opinion. One of his former Prime Ministers, Alain Juppé, was convicted of corruption in 2004, only to be recently welcomed back into Sarkozy’s government in the key spot of Minister of Foreign Affairs. Other prominent members of the French government have been implicated in scandals in the past few years, from Minister of Budget Eric Woerth’s shady dealings with L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt to former Minister of Interior Brice Hortefeux’s conviction for racial slander. While these cases certainly sparked media scandals, Sarkozy maintained his public support to the indicted ministers — perpetuating the tradition of that political figures benefiting from impunity, proportionally to their rank. The message is clear: you might have to lay low for a couple of years after the scandal but you will be protected, and eventually come back safely to the front rows of power.

Another such disreputable figure is Bernard Tapie, a Berlusconi-esque figure who has dabbled in murky-yet-profitable business ventures, show business, politics and soccer club management. He last hogged newspaper headlines in 2008, for receiving 403 million Euros of public funds in compensation for having been cheated fifteen years earlier by the French Bank Credit Lyonnais in the sale of the firm Adidas, which he headed at the time. In a time of economic downturn, public opinion was outraged that Tapie would received such a colossal sum, coming straight from their tax-Euros. But most importantly, the procedure through which the settlement was made was shady: three arbiters were picked to review the case and come to a decision behind closed doors a process contested at the time by several legal commentators, since public funds were involved.

Most critical to the affair is who took these questionable decisions and personally picked the arbiters: France’s Minister of Economy and Finances, and now leading candidate to take Strauss-Kahn’s spot as head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde. Lagarde could face prosecution for “abuse of authority” in this case, as the Cour de Justice de la Republique (CJR), in charge of judging crimes and offenses perpetrated by Ministers in office, is evaluating the case and deliberating on the need for further investigation. More severe than the dubious process chosen to settle the case is the fact, revealed by french independent news website Mediapart (), that Lagarde knew of a relationship between one of the arbiters and Tapie’s attorney and chose not to interrupt the process or appeal its outcome.

In the mainstream media’s coverage of Lagarde’s candidacy, the case is usually referred to as a detail, almost a footnote. Lagarde herself dismisses these accusations as innocuous. “I am perfectly confident and serene regarding this subject and this has absolutely no bearing on my candidacy” she declared on June 10th, after her audience was pushed back to July. Once again, just as Strauss-Kahn’s widely known compulsion toward sexual harassment never impeded his political ascendency, we are faced with an example in which a political leader is not held to the rule of law because of a “special treatment” granted by her position on the national and now global political chessboard. There is serious evidence that Christine Lagarde, in the cesspool of corruption that is France’s political landscape turned a blind eye on another instance of cronyism. Should it be disregarded as Strauss-Kahn’s history of sexual “misconduct” was four years ago?

Jeanne Kay is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Can Lasting Disarmament Be Achieved Without Peace First?

When speaking about nonproliferation and disarmament, it’s usually assumed that the latter cuts the ice for nonproliferation. In fact, it’s part and parcel of the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. In other words, large nuclear states are expected to demonstrate via substantive disarmament measures that it’s safe for smaller nuclear states to follow their lead in disarming. In the same vein, it becomes un-necessary for non-nuclear states to acquire or develop nuclear weapons.

But conservatives and even some realpolitik types, especially lately, seek to decouple nonproliferation from disarmament. That is, they believe that not only shouldn’t nonproliferation depend on disarmament, but that disarmament shouldn’t transpire until nonproliferation has been assured.

That’s not the only cart they put before a horse.

In A Survey of the Nuclear Weapons Landscape, Hudson Institute fellow Christopher Ford at New Paradigms Forum illustrates another such transposition. He asks:

. . . has the Cold War model of bilateral and numerically-focused arms control finally run its course? Does traditional arms control need to give way to a new era focusing more upon improved transparency and confidence-building relationships as a prerequisite for any potential further cuts? . . . That’s certainly a lot harder than just crunching numbers for a new treaty, but the time when disarmament could be regarded as being principally about numbers may be past.

In other words, he suggests disarmament may be contingent on the political climate, a position that conservatives can scarcely be faulted for adopting. It’s true, of course, that improved relations between states is the only enduring answer to arms control. In fact, in its idealism and faith in human nature to change, adhering to this position is kind of endearing on the part of conservatives.

At the same time, this approach reveals a conservative blind spot: inability to acknowledge that possession of nuclear-weapons program is a global emergency. The sheer existence of nuclear weapons is more of a threat than the dispositions of the states that possess them.

We’re talking about triage. As with land mines and cluster bombs, for example, nuclear weapons need to be taken out of the hands of mankind well before it sorts out its dark impulses, if it ever does.

Specter of Not Only 9/11, But the ’93 WTC Bombing, Haunts One World Trade Center

One reason for the failure of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing to make as great an impact on America’s consciousness as it deserved may have been because that was all it was called. In other words, the incident was never properly branded like — however simply, but effectively — 9/11 (along with the other attacks of the day). Our concerns may also have been alleviated because “mastermind” Ramzi Yousef and other conspirators were rounded up post haste as opposed to the decade it took to locate Osama bin Laden.

How quickly we forgot that the 1,336-lb. fertilizer-based bomb — supercharged with hydrogen cylinders — tore a 30-yard-wide hole through four concrete sub-basements, killed seven, and injured thousands injured. From one perspective, along with swift apprehension of the suspects, the incident was viewed as a success because the buildinsg survived the bombing. (How did they survive that attack and not planes crashing into them? Oh, sorry. Down, you bad Truther.)

Since the structural damage to the building wasn’t significant, it couldn’t be demolished and insurance money collected. Lessors just had to soldier on. In the years between 1993 and 9/11, one couldn’t help wondering how distracting the threat of another attack must have been to employees of companies that leased space in those buildings.

But even 9/11 failed to prevent plans for the 1,776-foot-tall replacement for the Twin Towers, the Freedom Tower, the name of which was soon changed to One World Trade Center. As Ron Rosenbaum at Slate writes, “The new thinking, I guess: no use in unduly provoking al-Qaida—after all, they hate our freedoms!” But, he calls it a “never-ending security nightmare.”

Because the security concerns that were there from the beginning have not gone away, and the fixes for the flaws in the security have not been proven, and the site planners have been shown over and over again to be shockingly, scandalously inept.

Among the flaws:

One of the things the NYPD counterterrorism squad insisted on was that the base of the tower be moved further back from . . . heavy truck traffic. (Can you say “truck bomb”?) Of course, I may have missed it, but what’s the plan to prevent an explosion originating on one of the hundreds of trains that will be passing below the base of the tower?

As for ineptitude, Rosenbaum reminds us of

. . . the “confidential” floor plan leak last month. . . . Documents marked “confidential” and containing floor plans for One World Trade Center were posted and made available to terrorists on New York City’s website by mistake in May. . . . There are 17 documents stamped confidential showing every nook and cranny—including load-bearing walls, mechanical rooms, and ground floor entrances—of the still under construction tower.

What’s the big deal? After all, writes Rosenbaum, “al-Qaida has no reason lately for renewed interest in the World Trade Center anyway. That’s so 2001. Oh, right.”

In case you didn’t catch his meaning, that last comment is presumably an allusion to the raid on bin Laden’s compound. Perhaps most frightening of all (emphasis added):

Here’s what usually savvy NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly (probably under pressure from real estate types) had to say about it last December. See if you find it reassuring (emphasis added):

Landlords, managing agents and tenants will change over time, but the threat to the World Trade Center will persist. . . . the NYPD and the Port Authority are working together to make the World Trade Center the safest work environment in the world. . . . Now is the time for anyone with alternate ideas for securing the site to present them for consideration. They admit they don’t know if there’s a better plan than the one they’re putting in place!

Sounds suspiciously like a disclaimer . After all what could Kelly do “about a Stinger missile (widely available on the black market, I’m told) from across the river?” In the end the name change from Freedom Tower to One World Trade Center (emphasis added)

. . . has not diminished the folly of the whole building-as-symbolic-gesture, nor has it eliminated the fear factor in forcing thousands of middle-class and working-class employees to serve as live bait in World Terrorist Target No. 1. . . . Would you want to go to work in place people are scheming 24/7 to destroy?

If the Twin Towers looked like bowling pins just asked to be knocked down, consider that before conspirators had to make a split; now they need hit only one pin.

Will Flotilla 13 Attack Freedom Flotilla 2?

Shayetet 13(Pictured: Emblem of Shayetet – Flotilla – 13.)

“We will have to come prepared in the future as if it was a war.”
– Top Israeli Naval Commander on the response to efforts to break the siege of Gaza

The attack on the flagship of the Freedom Flotilla on May 31, 2010 was carried out by an elite branch of the Israeli Navy known as the Shayetet 13, or Flotilla 13 in English. The unit, “one of the most decorated units in the Israeli military,” is frequently compared to the U.S. Navy Seals – most recently in the news for their high profile extrajudicial execution in Pakistan – and they sometimes train together.

The Shayetet 13 (or S-13; get your t-shirts here!) reputedly “specializes in sea-to-land incursions, counter-terrorism, sabotage, maritime intelligence gathering, maritime hostage rescue, and boarding.” As such, they represent a telling choice to lead operations to stop civilian ships in international waters. Imagine if in 1961 Washington had sent the Green Berets to halt the Freedom Rides in the Deep South.

The outcome of last year’s operation in the dead of night could hardly have come as a great shock. Sending lethal combat teams on operations of civilian crowd control is a recipe for bloodshed.

The point was made by Max Blumenthal just days after the attack on the Mavi Marmara. He quotes the leading Israeli daily Maariv in an article published before the May 31 attack: “If the people aboard the boats will not agree to turn around, the operation will transfer to the stage of force.” The article quotes a “high ranking” Israeli officer: “We want to avoid using force but as soon as there will be danger to the life of our forces we will be forced to use live fire as a last resort.” As Blumenthal comments, “The stated conditions for using live fire were arbitrary and poorly defined, giving the commandos little direction and lots of leeway to kill — at the very least the plan demanded force in some form.”

In the past decade, the S-13 have become engaged in enforcing the occupations of Gaza and the West Bank, including participation in the infamous April 2002 combat in Jenin, and earned a reputation for extrajudicial executions in Nablus in 2004.

Most telling, the Israeli political leadership has sent clear signals that they intend to once again stop the flotilla, using violence if necessary to “neutralize” passengers. They have refused to apologize to Turkey or the United States (not that Washington would seek such an apology anyway) for the executions of their citizens last year.

The Times of London reported last year, shortly after the Mavi Marmara attack, that, “Israeli military experts have questioned whether it was wise to send a unit trained in covert operations behind enemy lines into a scenario with so many civilians present.” The Times paraphrased an Israeli military analyst commenting that the S-13 “should have been sent with a police force, or other security unit more accustomed to riot control and civilian disturbances.”

Yet once again Israel appears to be planning to board the ship with heavily armed commandos, rather than, say, simply disabling the propeller and towing the ship. Just days after the 2010 attack, Israeli officials were already asserting that the S-13 would likely be used in any similar future actions. Furthermore, “a top Navy commander” told The Jerusalem Post anonymously that, “We boarded the ship and were attacked as if it was a war. That will mean that we will have to come prepared in the future as if it was a war.”

In October, Netanyahu visited the Atlit naval base to address the S-13, and spoke of their “professionalism,” “heroism,” and “restraint.” He said of the flotilla raid, “The Shayetet’s mission was vital, necessary, legal and of the utmost importance.”

Then he went on to tell his men — while the Israeli government’s internal investigation (the Turkel Committee) into the killings was ongoing, thus inevitably prejudicing the results — “You, the fighters, encountered a violent terrorist-supporting force armed with knives, clubs and electric chain saws, and also with arms. I have to say that your actions against people that came to kill you and tried to kill you were professional and characterized by heroism, restraint and a morality that I don’t believe could be exemplified any better by any army or navy in the world.” He assured them that, “you enjoy my full backing as well as the full backing of the Israeli government, the Israeli people and of every decent person looking at the facts as they are.”

The Prime Minister told his elite team, “I salute all of you. You act in the name of the State of Israel for Israel’s security. Nobody’s better than you. I salute you.”

All of which is just as well perhaps – it is certainly a more honorable course than throwing the hired muscle under the bus after they finish the dirty work. But it is also an indication of the depths of debasement that Israeli political culture is plumbing.

As Blumenthal commented in the aftermath of the flotilla raid, “Though Israel may be more isolated than ever as a result of the massacre, the Netanyahu administration is reaping considerable political benefits at home. The day after the massacre, spontaneous celebrations broke out in Ashdod, Tel Aviv, and throughout the country, bringing together right-wing elements with everyday Israelis.”

Not to be outdone in the midst of this rapturous ode, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi piped in with, “You shot at whom you had to, and not at those you didn’t have to.” Official sanction does not get much clearer than that.

Meanwhile, rather than seek assurances for the safety of its citizens, Washington has devoted itself to initiatives to prevent the flotilla from getting out of the docks.

Fittingly, reports indicate that all participants in the flotilla will undergo nonviolence training — while the S-13 preparations consist of additional training in hand-to-hand combat.

Along with Kevin Funk, Steven Fake is the author of “Scramble for Africa: Darfur – Intervention and the USA” (Black Rose Books). They maintain a website with their commentary at scrambleforafrica.org.

Germans Now Draw as Much of Afghans’ Ire as Americans

On May 18, thousands of people took to the streets of Taloqan, the provincial capital of Takhar province, in the north of Afghanistan. They were protesting nighttime raids by Afghan and NATO troops the day before in which four people were killed, including two women. They clashed with security forces and 12 people reportedly lost their lives. NATO said four “insurgents” were killed and two captured.

That evening scenes of the massive and angry protest march were shown on television throughout the world. The major U.S. networks said that the demonstrators shouted “death to the Americans.” Only the German news agency Deutsche Welle reported shouts of “death to the Germans.”

That the people waving their fist in the streets were especially angry with the German troops stationed in the area was clear, and they tried to storm a Bundeswehr military outpost. It was later confirmed that the dead were victims of German gunfire. What remains unclear is why the sharp Afghan-German tension went unreported in the U.S. media, even after May 28, when a bombing attack killed Gen. Daud Daud, regional police commander in northern Afghanistan, the provincial police chief, and two German soldiers. The bombing also wounded German Gen. Markus Kneip, the NATO forces’ commander for northern Afghanistan.

This week, the German magazine Spiegel gave a more complete picture of the May events.

On June 7, under the headline “Mood in Northern Afghanistan Shifts against German Troops,” Spiegel Online reported that “The situation is in northern Afghanistan is deteriorating. Bomb attacks against German soldiers are increasing in frequency and force, and local ambivalence has turned into hate. The risk for Bundeswehr troops deployed in the country has increased as has the number killed.”

When Afghan demonstrators took to the streets again following the death of Daud and Kneip, “They were carrying one of their great generals to his grave, thousands of mourners marching through the streets of the small city, chanting words of hate and trembling with rage,” said the magazine.

“But when the crowd surged through the streets of the provincial capital Taloqan, it wasn’t calling for revenge against the attackers but, rather, against those who are supposedly to blame for everything: Americans, Germans and any other foreigners,” wrote Spiegel correspondents Matthias Gebauer, Susanne Koelbl and Christoph Reuter. “At the head of the march was a car equipped with loudspeakers. Inside, a young cleric chanted ‘Khariji,’ an umbrella term for evil directed toward the foreigners. It didn’t seem to matter that the Taliban promptly and proudly claimed responsibility for the attack, or that German soldiers were among its victims.”

“Indeed, Germany is once again at odds over the war in Afghanistan,” said the Spiegel report. “This ironically comes at a time when the northern part of the country was supposed to be getting safer. Since 2009, American Special Forces have conducted nighttime ‘capture or kill’ operations, often several times a week, though prisoners are rarely taken. Last year, they killed at least two-dozen Taliban commanders in Kunduz. By last fall, half of the Taliban’s leaders were dead, and most of the remaining ones had reportedly fled to Pakistan. Some even defected to the government’s side.

“Likewise, coalition and Afghan troops were gradually recapturing large swaths of Taliban-held territory. They were operating in tandem with — and rearming — the same local militias they had tried to disarm before 2006. In early January 2011, Gen. Hans-Werner Fritz, Gen. Kneip’s predecessor as the German regional commander in the north, sounded self-assured and confident of victory in a video press conference with Pentagon correspondents. ‘They are leaving the area,’ he said, in reference to the Taliban. ‘If they don’t leave, they are killed.’ But Gen. Kneip, who barely escaped with his life, has now been forced to realize that this strategy can cut both ways.”

According to Spiegel, the day after the deadly May 17 raid, “At about 8 a.m., a first wave of protesters marched through the streets of Taloqan carrying four bodies covered in flowered shrouds. The procession wound its way toward the foreigners at the German base. The protesters started throwing stones, but they pulled back after the Germans fired warning shots.

“The next wave arrived two hours later. This time there were an estimated 2,000-3,000 people, some of whom were armed with Molotov cocktails and hand grenades. They tried to storm the German base, but Afghan guards and Bundeswehr soldiers fired on the crowd. By evening, 12 protesters were dead, and local hospitals were treating 75 people for wounds.”

The next day German military officials said there was “no indications that attackers had been killed by shots coming from German soldiers.” Subsequently, the Bundeswehr released a statement online indicating that German soldiers might have shot an attacker after all. “According to current information,” the statement said, “it cannot be ruled out that one person was shot in the head-and-neck area.”

“A United Nations investigative report now concludes that the Bundeswehr shot and killed three attackers in Taloqan,” said Spiegel. “The UN account describes the situation as follows: The mob was raging out of control, four Afghan and two German soldiers were already wounded, and the camp’s generator was on fire. The Germans hadapplied the correct methods of escalation, first firing with signal pistols, then firing warning shots in the air and, finally, shooting at the attackers
with live ammunition.”

“The UN calls the behavior of German soldiers ‘appropriate.’” said Spiegel. “The same conclusion is reached in the German investigative report that the Defense Ministry has kept under wraps for more than a week now, along with the images recorded by surveillance cameras at the base. Though the reports seem balanced, the Germans soldiers are still hated in Taloqan. Of course, none of this matters much in Taloqan, where residents now believe that the foreigners are killers. Now that the local population’s confidence in the foreigner aid teams has been destroyed, the last remaining German reconstruction and development workers and the entire UN staff are being withdrawn.”

Most of the troops with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan’s north are German. Germany commands two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), and operates the logistical support base for all forces in the region, including 5,000 U.S. troops.

The events in Taloqan can be expected to affect the situation in Berlin. German public opinion is running strong against the country’s involvement in the war. A recent opinion poll by the magazine Focus says 84 percent of Germans oppose sending combat troops to the south of Afghanistan where the fighting is most fierce, and 63 percent do not support present deployment in the north, where the emphasis is said to be on reconstruction.

All this happened while repots were circulating that Germany is sponsoring one of the efforts to bring U.S. and Taliban representatives together for truce negotiations, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel was preparing to visit the U.S for talks with President Barak Obama. Very little was disclosed about the content of those talks, with scant mention of Afghanistan aside from Obama’s public statement of appreciation for Germany’s efforts there. But Spiegel had this to say June 8: “And in Afghanistan, the US has ceased making demands that Europe step up its engagement in the war-torn country. Indeed, Washington itself is considering a quicker withdrawal than originally planned. ‘We wish to go in together, out together,’ Merkel said on Tuesday. ‘Afghanistan will need our support, however, in the long run. So we will not abandon them.’ But the end of the Afghanistan engagement will also mark the end of another project that bound Europe to America.”

Can Economists Back Us Out From the Corner of Poverty They Helped Paint Us Into?

Cross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

No matter how disastrously myopic they might be, it seems that economists can do no wrong in the eyes of many.

If there was one outcome of mainstream economists failing to recognize the multi-trillion dollar housing bubble of the past decade and being roundly blindsided by the most significant economic downturn in three-quarters of a century, you would think it would be a decrease in the amount of respect afforded to their “expert” opinions.

Instead, with a distressing lack of mea culpas, the economics profession—still dominated by neoclassical, “free market” assumptions—continues its march of progress. Ever greater swaths of public life and democratic decision-making are handed over to economists, and they continue to fearlessly propagate the idea that they are the right technocrats to get the job done.

Now, globetrotting liberal Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has decided to give them a hand. In his column, “Getting Smart on Aid,” he offers—without irony or any mention of recent blemishes on their record—“a paean to economists.” He writes:

When I was in college, I majored in political science. But if I were going through college today, I’d major in economics. It possesses a rigor that other fields in the social sciences don’t—and often greater relevance as well. That’s why economists are shaping national debates about everything from health care to poverty, while political scientists often seem increasingly theoretical and irrelevant.

Economists are successful imperialists of other disciplines because they have better tools. Educators know far more about schools, but economists have used rigorous statistical methods to answer basic questions: Does having a graduate degree make one a better teacher? (Probably not.) Is money better spent on smaller classes or on better teachers? (Probably better teachers.)

If our society’s alternative to irrelevant political scientists is letting economists take over the university, I’d say we’re in big trouble. (I can’t help but recall Larry “Daddy Truck” Summers’ imperial move on the field of women’s studies, which, as it turned out, was not the most insightful contribution to feminist thought one could imagine.)

Yet, satisfied that the incisive thinking of the market-minded experts has punctured those pesky schooling problems, Kristof proposes that the experts be unleashed to solve the problem of global poverty.

Now, I’m not against the use of quantitative methods. And there are certainly left-leaning and heterodox economists who do good work challenging market-fundamentalist assumptions. But they are in the minority. The project of bringing economic reasoning to bear on social problems is usually loaded with neoliberal assumptions and ideological biases, and its boosters are distressingly naive about the past damage done in the name of applying market know-how. Dean Baker, one of the good guys—and one of the few economists to warn early and often about the housing bubble—thankfully pointed to at least of few of Kristof’s glaring oversights. As Baker writes, the columnist

…urges people who want to help the world’s poor to study economics and points to useful results that economists have uncovered. While the results he mentions are intriguing, Kristof somehow manages to ignore all the harm that economists have done in the developing world.

For example, the economists at the International Monetary Fund had routinely imposed structural adjustment programs that required that parents pay fees for their children to attend primary school. These agreements also often required fees for the provision of basic health services. This practice kept millions of children out of school and denied them basic preventive health care, since even small fees were unaffordable to many poor parents.

The practice was not changed voluntarily by the economists at the IMF.Rather it was a change that was forced on the institution by activists who were able to use their influence in Congress to require that the IMF stop making these fees a condition of getting loans.

In truth, Kristof’s proposition that economists should get more involved in solving social problems is not an uncommon one. It is part of the thriving field of “philanthrocapitalism.” Last year I wrote a review (with co-author Arthur Phillips) of Michael Edwards’ Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save the World. Arthur and I argued:

The activities covered under the umbrella of philanthrocapitalism are diverse enough to offer exceptions to any generalization about the category. But its practitioners would almost uniformly describe themselves as ‘results-oriented,’ implicitly critiquing the ineffectiveness of existing nonprofits and voluntary organizations. Their unifying idea is that business is more efficient and outcome-driven than government and civil society, and that unleashing market forces is the best means of addressing entrenched problems such as poverty, malnutrition, preventable disease, and poor education.

In Edwards’ words, ‘the basic message of this movement is pretty clear: Traditional ways of solving social problems do not work, so business thinking and market forces should be added to the mix.’ During his nine-year tenure as a director at the Ford Foundation, Edwards saw the popularity of this argument skyrocket. He writes, ‘if I had dollar for every time someone has lectured me on the virtues of business thinking for foundations and nonprofits, I’d be a philanthropist myself.’

….Ironically, in the wake of the recent economic collapse, an increasing number of such consultants are now offering their ‘services’ to civil society. Edwards quotes a leading Indian social activist, who spoke to him anonymously out of fear of retribution from funders, who argues, ‘In a world falling apart with the financial crisis, the nonprofit sector is a good haven for management consultants. Lots of money to pontificate about obvious things, very little questioning of the fact that you can cover your ignorance of fields and issues through management jargon, no accountability to anyone for mistakes arising from your lack of experience or plain ignorance, and plenty of arrogance to boot.’

In a slightly more philosophical vein, Alix Rule had a brilliant essay in the Spring 2009 issue of Dissent entitled “Good-as-money,” which very effectively attacks the theoretical underpinnings of the philanthrocapitalist school of thought.

Kristof’s argument about the work of economists is a little more specific than some of the broad claims about the power of business thinking. But the idea that global poverty persists because of a lack of econometric studies into its dynamics only serves to compound our problems. The injustices of unfettered capitalism are not an accident; they are a product of a system whose academic advocates have a lot to answer for. Economists have done enough of late. Let’s hold the paeans.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website Democracy Uprising.

Desperately Seeking Vindication: Bin Laden and Torture

An excerpt from a new analysis at Right Web titled Enhanced Embellishment Techniques:

The death of Osama bin Laden has elicited myriad responses among the policymakers charged with tracking him down, the commentators who pontificated about him, and the millions of people whose lives he touched, however indirectly. The news triggered jubilant celebration, somber reflection, and even a subsequent attack on a Pakistani constabulary that killed scores of military recruits.

Already analysts have begun to ponder what bin Laden’s death will augur for the future of U.S. foreign policy. But this discussion has not resolved the debates over the tactics of the previous decade, not any more than many Americans’ joyous celebrations marked an end to the conflicts spurred on by the highest profile manhunt in recent history. Finding Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound required following a complex trail of intelligence gathered across multiple presidential administrations. In the end, the CIA used intelligence about a man who called himself Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, an alleged courier and confidant of bin Laden, to pinpoint the location of the al-Qaeda figurehead.

Nevertheless, for some pundits and officials, the death of Osama bin Laden represents pure vindication. Indeed, several former Bush administration officials, prominent neoconservatives, and their supporters in Congress and the media have loudly proclaimed that waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” were instrumental in locating America’s most wanted terrorist—and in the process they have laid credit at the feet of the previous administration. But their claims have amounted to little more than an embellishment of the historical record and a distortion of the real impact of torture on U.S. policy and security.

Visit Right Web to read the rest of Enhanced Embellishment Techniques.

Israel and Iran: Partners in Plausible Nuclear Deniability

Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are known to be champing at the bit to bomb Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities. Even though, as the New York Times reported:

. . . former intelligence chief, Meir Dagan. . . . made headlines a few weeks ago when he asserted . . . that a military attack on Iran would be “a stupid idea.” This week Mr. Dagan . . . said that attacking Iran “would mean regional war, and in that case you would have given Iran the best possible reason to continue the nuclear program.”

Israel of course enjoys a non-nuclear program with everything from tactical (battlefield) nuclear weapons to thermonuclear (hydrogen) bombs. To the contrary, it insists, enabled in its charade by the United States. In Iran’s case, the International Atomic Energy Agency has yet to find damning evidence of a nuclear-weapons program. In fact, some of the “evidence,” such as what’s called the alleged studies documents, seemed manufactured and/or planted. Still, those of us most opposed to using force against Iran would make more credible advocates for a negotiated solution if we accepted that Iran most likely seeks weaponless, or “virtual,” deterrence (no weapons, but the full-blown capacity to manufacture them).

In Israel’s case, though, it’s nuclear denial is full of holes large enough to drive a truck through. As far back as 1986, former Israeli nuclear technician Mordecai Vanunu blew the whistle on Israel’s program to the British press, for which he served 18 years in Israeli prison.

Iran now has its own Mordecai Vanunu, however much he doesn’t realize it. A couple of months ago, Iran watchers were agog when an article appeared on a website run by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) that envisioned the day when Iran becomes a nuclear-weapons power. The piece, as Julian Borger reports at the Guardian, begins:

The day after Iran’s first nuclear test is a normal day. The day after Islamic Republic of Iran’s first nuclear test will be an ordinary day for us Iranians but in the eyes of some of us there will be a new sparkle.

Borger writes:

This strange, hypothetical, article . . . hammers home again and again the message that an Iranian nuclear test will not lead to disaster. On the contrary, life will go as before except that Iranians will feel better about themselves.

Why would the IRGC sanction such a statement? Borger again.

This has the look of a kite being flown, but for whom? It could be intended to get Iranians used to the idea of a nuclear test. . . . It could be a gesture of defiance to the world by hardline elements. . . . The article comes during a period when Tehran’s official stance is particularly . . . assertive, announcing today that it will triple its production of 20% enriched uranium and shift it to the underground Fordow site, near Qom.

Borger then quotes Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli expert on the Tehran regime, about the article.

It’s breaking a major taboo. . . . if this report is followed by others similar to it, then it would signify a major change in the way Iran refers to its nuclear program.

But such a campaign would likely backfire as it

. . . would be a significant boost for western efforts to isolate Iran [which, along with Iran’s] deteriorating economic situation could be more damaging to the regime’s top priority, which is its survival, than a military attack by the West.

In fact, if the IRGC author had been more truthful, he would have written:

The day after Iran’s first nuclear test will be an ordinary day for us Iranians — until Israel rains down holy hell on our heads.

Iran needs to tread carefully. You would think it would have learned a lesson from archrival Saddam Hussein, who, in a clumsy form of regional deterrence, behaved as if Iraq possessed nuclear weapons. By foiling United Nations inspectors at every turn, he helped provide fodder for the United States to win support for an attack on the premise that Iraq was a rogue nuclear state.

Iran denies nuclear-weapons aspirations but, for a whole host of reasons from deterrence to status to using the program as a bargaining chip, seems to want the region and the West to think it might one day possess them. In the interim, it could well wind up attacked like Iraq’s Osirak reactor was by Israel in 1981. When Iran inevitably retaliates, it would no doubt suffer a devastating second wave of attacks from the United States, which would pitch in when Israel got in over its head. Prevaricating about nukes is a dangerous game to play.

Humala’s Victory in Peru’s Presidential Election Cause for Cautious Optimism

Ollanta HumalaCross-posted from the Tumblr site Peru Elections 2011.

With nearly 99.697 percent of the vote counted as of Wednesday morning, Ollanta Humala has maintained a three point lead over Keiko Fujimori, assuring his victory in Peru’s hotly contested presidential elections. Humala has maintained his three point lead, with 51.5 percent of the vote compared to 48.5 percent for Keiko Fujimori. Humala’s win was hailed by many as a victory for democracy and the promise of social justice. In the end, despite the highly polarized electoral climate, hope defeated fear.

Yet as noted by Peruvian analyst Carlos Basombrío, Humala’s honeymoon appears to be over before it even began. Despite the fact that he has yet to be declared the official winner, since Sunday night Fujimori supporters have been demanding that he announce his economic team in order to calm the nerves of national and international investors – this notwithstanding that key Humala advisors have repeatedly said that there will be no nationalizations or property confiscations and that they would ensure macroeconomic stability. Yesterday Humala announced his transition team, which will be led by his Vice Presidential candidate, Marisol Espinoza. The list reflects the diversity of views that his campaign came to represent, including, for example, more left-wing economists such as Félix Jiménez and Humberto Campodónico and the moderates who joined forces with Humala in the second round, such as Kurt Burneo, who was the deputy Economic Minister, and Daniel Schydlowsky, who was the head of the state bank, COFIDE, under the Toledo government.

Humala is already being pressured from all sides. He will have to implement the promises of his campaign to develop economic and social policies that will make Peru a more equitable and inclusive society – promises which brought him over 30 percent of the vote in the first round. But he won on Sunday by moving beyond his political base to gain support from more moderate sectors who in many instances voted for Humala in order to prevent Keiko Fujimori from being elected president, which they feared would mean a return to the corrupt and undemocratic practices of her father’s government. While some of these moderates support Humala’s core idea of the need to achieve a more just country, they may have very different ideas about how to achieve that change.

Humala is also under tremendous pressure from conservative economic elites who are threatening to withdraw investments from the country if he strays from economic orthodoxy and who will no doubt show resistance to even moderate policy change, such as increasing taxes on mining companies (hardly considered radical in Latin America today). Experiences in neighboring countries, such as Bolivia, give credence to concerns of attempts at economic sabotage by those staunchly opposed to Humala. Indeed, in her surprisingly late concession speech (although it was clear on Sunday night that Humala was poised to win the elections, Keiko Fujimori waited until 5:30 pm the next day to admit her defeat), Fujimori warned that she represents 48 percent of the population and that her supporters will insist on “continuity” with regards to the prevailing economic model.

Humala’s victory is a stunning metaphor for the long-standing divide between Lima and the rest of the country. In stark contrast to past Peruvian elections, as noted in Otra Mirada, for the first time Lima and the agro-export northern regions of the country did not determine the winner. Though he lost by a significant margin in Lima (where Fujimori got 58.4 percent of the vote) and in some northern departments, he won 17 of 26 regions outright, concentrated in the south, central and jungle regions of the country. He took Puno with 78 percent of the vote, Cusco with 75 percent, and Ayacucho with 73 percent. He won with over 60 percent of the vote in Apurímac, Arequipa, Huancavelica, Huánuco, Madre de Dios, Moquegua and Tacna. While it may be fair to say that Humala did not win a mandate for radical change, he certainly has a mandate for some change. In particular, he has a mandate to address the concerns of the provinces regarding the concentration of economic and political power in Lima.

Another major challenge Humala faces is a deeply fractured Congress, which since 1993 has been a unicameral body and now has 130 members. His Gana Peru coalition has 47 members of Congress. Humala thus lacks an outright majority that would allow him to easily implement his economic and social programs. He also faces a powerful and usually united opposition in Keiko Fujimori’s Fuerza 2011 which has 37 members, with potential allies among another 20 representatives from right-wing parties (including APRA’s four representatives), which will most likely try to block his social and economic proposals. However, the last-minute support thrown to Humala’s candidacy by former Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo has allowed him to build at least a short-term coalition with Peru Posible’s 21 congressional representatives, which constitute the third largest block in Congress. That gives Humala a potential total of 68 votes in Congress, an extremely slim majority but a majority nonetheless. It remains to be seen whether or not Humala will be able to hold this coalition together in order to initiate crucial social and economic changes – and fend off the likely incessant attacks from the political opposition.

With the second largest voting bloc in Congress, Fujimori’s Fuerza 2011 is a political force to be reckoned with. Yet as Gustavo Gorriti asserts in IDL-Reporteros: “Despite the statistics, the defeat of fujimorismo leaves this movement with an uncertain future.” He points out that even with the support of Peru’s powerful economic sectors and business associations, Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani (an outspoken member of Opus Dei), the major media and President Alan Garcia, Fujimori still lost the election.

Of particular significance for Keiko Fujimori is what now happens to her father. Securing his release from jail remains a primary objective of his supporters and now there will be even more pressure for some action to be taken before Humala assumes office on July 28. As we reported previously, it appears that the Constitutional Tribunal is poised to accept a writ of habeas corpus presented by Alberto Fujimori’s attorneys, which would amount to a revocation of the ratification of the original sentence. If that happens, a new trial to review the appeal of the April 2009 conviction would be held that could lead to Fujimori’s exoneration, or to a different sentence that could facilitate a presidential pardon.

Alternatively, Peru’s president could immediately pardon Fujimori. (Although Peruvian law prohibits pardons from being granted to those convicted of aggravated kidnapping, as was the case with Fujimori, and international law prohibits pardons from being granted to those convicted of crimes against humanity, it would hardly be the first time that a Peruvian president subverted the law.) Already, there are calls for Garcia to do just that. Just two days after the elections, APRA Congressman Jorge Vargas called on Garcia to pardon Fujimori on humanitarian grounds, due to his age and allegedly poor health. An opinion poll already shows that most Peruvians oppose granting a pardon to Fujimori. It would be a true mockery of the will of the Peruvian voters if after they rejected the return of fujimorismo, the convicted former president were set free.

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