Focal Points Blog

Leave Afghanistan and Declare bin Laden Dead in One Fell Swoop

Someone recently posted a blurb to a security list I play on, quoting a noted Mid East analyst (whose work I admire, incidentally) as saying that the Democrats can’t leave Afghanistan, because that would make them losers, and as a result, they would lose elections for decades to come.

I guess I was either under or over-caffeinated at the moment, because this is a polite version of what spewed out of my terminal . . .

Get over it, people! This is pure legacy thinking!

The Democrats are forever angsting over being accused of ‘losing China’ or being ‘soft on communism’. Time to get their meds titrated.

Between debt, disinterest and rising casualties, it will likely be far more dangerous politically for Obama NOT to bring the boys home quickly.

And here’s how he can do it.

  1. Frame it as a bad war, started by the bozos across the aisle, which he tried to fix, but – so sorry – it was just too late after years of mismanagement under those duplicitous Republicans. And, really folks, we can’t justify more blood and treasure for people who look and talk funny, and don’t like us anyway. Also, dear voters, let’s talk about all that money we’ll save, and how, as your leader in a new term, I’ll use it to create jobs, rebuild your communities and bake a whole ton of apple pies using my dear, old Nona’s secret recipe
  2. Throw (SecDef) Gates under the bus as an example of what happens when you try to be a nice guy and let those duplicitous Republicans help govern and they go and lose a war for you. Dump Hillary, too, for totally bricking it as SecState, being a general pain in the butt, and for a little righteous payback. I mean, it will be time for a cabinet shuffle prior to the election anyway. Also, with any luck, Petraeus will be collateral damage, just as people start to call for drafting him as the Great Republican Hope in 2012.
  3. Blend this with a righteous maskirovka claiming ‘We got UBL!’ (like we ‘got’ all those other muj who later turn out to be inconveniently alive) and claim victory. By the time anyone burns through the jamming, it will be beyond the attention span of the Average American Voter. (Currently estimated at the length of one Idol episode, or until the beer runs out.) Great October Surprise payback, too. Plus, the thought of Osama jumping up and down in front of a video camera screaming, ‘I’m alive, you idiot infidels!’ is just too funny. Imagine it with a Bart Simpson voice-over. Could set the movement back 20 years and the BBBG (big, bad, bearded guy) might even be tempted to wave at a drone pilot just to be taken seriously.
  4. If it turns out the polls say POTUS needs some tough guy creds (if saying ‘kick some ass’ wasn’t tough enough, although it totally scared me) he can just send the Secret Squirrels over and blow the bejeebers out of Somalia, Yemen or some other third world backwater in the name of freedom, democracy and using up the ordnance so the contractors who own congress can replace it all with newer (and more expensive, if not better) models.
  5. Start practicing the tango with Michelle because you’ll look soooo cool at the (second!) inaugural ball.

Oh, gotta run. The phone’s ringing, and I think it’s Rahm Emanuel offering me a consulting gig.

(Yeah, I know I’m being cynical, but am I being cynical enough? And I DO need the work.)

Reader Challenge: Do Burma’s Generals Just Need a Little Love and Understanding?

In Sanctioning Disaster (the June Guernica magazine) author Joel Whitney writes that Obama’s policy on Burma “has something for everyone. It’s a hodgepodge of baby-step diplomacy, self-righteous threats, and crippling economic sanctions.” He then interviews Morten Pedersen, “a Burma scholar lurking in the bibliography of a lot of Burma policy books,” who “insists that the sanctions . . . are undermining [President Obama's] diplomacy. Oh, and starving the Burmese.”

According to Pedersen, Whitney writes, “the most dire rights violation he found was crushing poverty.” Pedersen himself expands on that.

People especially in the U.S., are quick to say, “If you’re not sanctioning then you are doing ASEAN-style engagement, which is commercial engagement.” The kind of engagement I’m talking about is what I term “principle engagement,” … the entire range of human rights, not just political and civil rights, but also socioeconomic rights. [Besides] it is not possible to target sanctions; because if you target them to hurt the generals, they can pass it on [and] deflect it.

Whitney again:

But such an approach would seem anathema to a Congress that prioritizes condemnation and punishment of the generals over the well being of the people of Burma.

Meanwhile, Pedersen doesn’t think that . . .

[Assistant Secretary of State] Kurt Campbell flying into the capital, talking about how they should conduct the elections [is] gonna lead anywhere. … We simply don’t have the means, the leverage, to change a country like that in the dramatic ways that we tend to focus on. … But we do know that conversations about economic policy . . . from time to time have an impact and lead to changes in governance.

But what exactly (their personal wealth aside) is uppermost in the generals’ minds? Pedersen explains.

You need to accept that national security, as the generals define it, is their key concern. … So when you engage with them you need to. … frame your conversations in a way that . . . accepts that there are security concerns that are legitimate. [Emphasis added.]

Then maybe it can be demonstrated to them, says Pedersen, that . . .

. . . other countries in Southeast Asia have also faced risks [to] their country [such as rebellion or civil war]. Rather than addressing that problem militarily like the Burmese have done, [those other countries] have addressed it economically by pushing economic growth and spreading it to provinces.

Do Focal Points readers agree with interview-er and -ee that human rights are, in large part, economic well-being and that it makes more sense to engage with the generals — odious as they are — rather than beat the dead sanctions horse?

Question: Will Lithium Be Good For Afghanistan?

GhazniAnswer: Only if US policymakers ingest enough of it.

The mainstream media is all agog over the ‘discovery’ of ‘at least $1 trillion in mineral wealth‘ in Afghanistan.

Never mind that this is not ‘news’. (The data has been public for many years.)

Nor that it was conveniently ‘discovered by a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists’ just as support for the disastrous American adventure in that ‘country’ seems to be ebbing rapidly.

(I do kind of like the image of those tough guy brass-hats spelunking about in pith helmets with their little rock hammers, though. No doubt they were poking around in a cave looking for UBL and just happened to ‘find’ that $1 trillion by accident. ‘Oh, my gosh, Fred, lookie here. Why Afghanistan could become the Saudi Arabia of lithium.’)

Well, excuse my cynicism, but . . .

There is a school of thought that the ‘discovery’ of significant mineral wealth in Afghanistan may, in fact, be the worst thing that could happen in the near- to mid-term for that disastrous parody of a nation state.

As Ganesan and Vines reported for Human Rights Watch, ‘One theory influential in World Bank circles is that countries with abundant natural resources are more prone to violent conflict than those without, and that insurgent groups are more likely motivated by control over resources than by actual political differences with government authorities, ethnic divisions, or other factors typically viewed as root causes of civil war. Paul Collier, formerly the head of the World Bank’s development research group, now a professor at Oxford University and one of the strongest proponents of this theory, says, “[e]thnic tensions and ancient political feuds are not starting civil wars around the world—economic forces such as entrenched poverty and the trade in natural resources are the true culprits”.’

I’d argue Collier (author of The Bottom Billion and The Plundered Planet) overly simplifies this, and that variables such as geography / proximity, the relative capacity of governance, environmental fragility or robustness and many other factors come into play here.

But multiplying them together, the new ‘wealth’ of Afghanistan seems, to me, far more likely to increase than stabilize or reduce conflict.

Consider:

  • truly dismal social / economic conditions for the vast majority of the population
  • proximity to other conflict zones such as Iran, Kashmir, Paki and the other ‘Stans’
  • Great Game interests and accumulated toxic residues
  • access to arms and trafficking routes
  • soil depletion, air and water pollution, deforestation, desertification and limited / unequally distributed / poorly managed fresh water resources
  • an amazingly corrupt and ineffective ‘government’
  • a tribal fabric that defies any larger identity / cohesion

Blend up that complex little cocktail and I believe the technical term for the most likely outcome may indeed be, ‘Open Pit’.

But it won’t be a mine. (At least of the mineral variety.)

It will be a crater.

Reader Challenge: Is Afghan Mineral Find a Game-Changer?

The New York Times reports in U.S. Identifies Vast Riches of Minerals in Afghanistan.

The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.

“There is stunning potential here,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command, said in an interview on Saturday. “There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”

At first glance, it looks like, fate-wise, Afghanistan has finally caught a break. Do Focal Points readers think this will fundamentally improve the country? Or will Afghanistan’s rulers and military siphon off the money? The Taliban have to be drooling. Suddenly, drug trade seems like kid stuff. How will it react?

A Bad Week for the Monroe Doctrine

It is hard to find words that quite describe U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s performance at the June 7 meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Lima, Peru. Cluelessness certainly comes to mind, but leavened with a goodly dash of arrogance and historical amnesia.

Clinton leaned on the 35-member grouping “to move forward and welcome Honduras back into the inter-American community,” urged the OAS to step up the fight against drug trafficking, and scolded the organization for a “proliferation of priorities and mandates that dilute its efforts, drain its budget, and diminish its capacity.” She added that the OAS should “refocus” on such tasks as monitoring elections.

Where does one begin? Well, Honduras and elections for starters.

While Clinton characterized the election that followed the coup against Manuel Zelaya “free and fair,” it was boycotted by 51 percent of the population. The U.S. has been silent about the fact that the new president, Porfirio Lobo, has overseen a reign of terror that, since the June 28, 2009 coup, has seen the assassination of some 130 anti-government activists, including seven journalists. The murders bear a close resemblance to death squad assassinations carried out under military dictator Policarpo Paz Garcia in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Reporters Without Borders recently designated Honduras “the world’s deadliest country for the media.”

“We are living in a state of terror,” says human rights activist Dr. Juan Almendares, a former director of research projects at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. Almendares currently runs a free clinic in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital.

Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino told the OAS meeting that the Honduras coup has put the “inter-American order at risk,” and that “My government cannot recognize the new government in Honduras while there are violations against human rights.”

In the old days, the U.S. would have steamrolled any opposition, but now-a-days supporting the Colossus of the North can be a lonely business. Only a handful of countries, including Canada, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Peru, and Guatemala backed re-instating Honduras to the OAS.

Tone deaf was all you could call Clinton’s call for stepping up the war on drugs. A few months ago the 17-member Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, chaired by three former heads of state, concluded “The U.S.-style anti-drug strategy was putting the region’s fragile democratic institutions at risk, and corrupting the judiciary system, government, the political system, and especially the police force.” Former Brazilian president and Commission member Fernando Cardoso said, “The war on drugs is a failed war. We have to move from this approach to another.”

Several Latin American countries, including Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, and Uruguay have moved to legalize personal drug possession, and other countries in the region are considering how to move from punishment to treatment.

And what did Clinton mean by that phrase “proliferation of priorities”? There was no question as to how OAS members read it: “Keep your nose out of the Middle East,” not an instruction likely to be followed. Brazil and Turkey’s effort to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue peacefully has drawn widespread applause throughout the continent, and a number of Latin American countries have become increasingly critical of Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians. Argentina, El Salvador, Panama, Nicaragua, Peru, Venezuela, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Mexico, Chile, and Brazil were sharply critical of the Israeli attack on the recent Gaza flotilla, and many called for lifting the blockade of Gaza.

Clinton’s efforts to lobby Latin American nations to support sanctions against Iran fell flat.

What Clinton did not mention was why the Obama administration has not ended the blockade of Cuba, failed to tackle the immigration issue, and remained silent on a plan by Britain to drill for gas and oil in waters north of the Malvinas (Falkland Islands).

Back in February the newly minted Rio Group—which excludes the U.S. and Canada— held a Unity Summit in Cancun and endorsed an Argentinean document accusing Britain of violating international law by allowing the British oil company, Desire Petroleum, to drill near the islands. Geologists estimate that the area could hold up to 60 billion barrels of oil, not much smaller than Brazil’s vast offshore Salto Deposits.

“Our attitude is one of solidarity with Argentina,” said Brazilian President Luiz “Lula” da Silva, speaking for the 32-member group. “What is the geographical, political, and economic explanation for England to be in the Malvinas? Is it possible that Argentina is not the owner while England is, despite being 14,000 kilometers away?”

It increasingly looks as if the Rio Group—rumor is that its new name will be the “Latin American and Caribbean Community”—will eventually replace the OAS, which partly explains Clinton’s plea for the organization to “refocus.” The OAS is “refocusing,” but that means members no longer has to curtsy to the United States, that countries in the region should determine diplomatic priorities, and that Brasilia has as much right to become a player in the Middle East as Washington.

Just to show you how the world has turned upside down, the June 6 Financial Times told its readers that “the safest place to be” in a risky world was Latin America.

In her address to the delegates, Clinton complained that the OAS “has not always lived up to its founding ideals.” Now it is, and Washington is less than happy. All in all, a bad week for the Monroe Doctrine, and a very good week for Latin America.

Hostility to Plans for New Mosques

It has been said before that Al-Qaeda’s greatest victory was not September 11th but Abu Ghraib. Indeed, the images of Americans reveling in the humiliation of Arab prisoners enhanced the potency of al-Qaeda’s narrative and won it scores of new recruits.

But to achieve this propaganda victory, the terrorist organization first had to accomplish something more basic: provoking a vigorous hatred of Arabs and of Islam among Americans. In that sense, September 11th was not so much a lesser victory as it was preparation for the real goal.

As Muslims in New York are learning, that preparation continues to exercise a powerful effect.

Some New Yorkers—egged on by Israeli loyalists who are eager to intensify American animosity toward Muslims—are expressing increasing hostility to plans for new mosques.

To take one example, The New York Times reported yesterday on a meeting Wednesday night on Staten Island, where tensions have erupted because of a Muslim group’s plans to convert a Catholic convent into a mosque; the church’s pastor has signed an agreement to sell the property. but a slew of administrative hurdles remain.

The meeting, held by the local civic association with the aim of defusing tensions, merely shed light on the mob mentality of much of the audience. The three invited Muslims, leaders of the Muslim American Society, were interrogated, jeered, shouted down, and booed by an audience that included rabid supporters of Israeli colonialism such as Robert Spencer, the presiding ayatollah at Jihad Watch.

Spencer, following the neoconservative rulebook to the letter, lobbed predictable smears and loaded questions, asserting that MAS had ties to Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood. In a touching display of restraint, he apparently did not assert the three guests were hiding Osama bin Laden under their beds.

But Spencer, along with more than a dozen other audience members, did insist that MAS was on some sort “terrorist watch list.” As the Times noted, that is false:

“The State Department maintains a terrorist watch list for foreign organizations, and the Justice Department has identified domestic groups it considers unindicted co-conspirators in various terror-related prosecutions. The American Muslim Society is on neither of those lists.”

The interrogation session ended abruptly when it “eventually collapsed in shouting around 11 p.m., prompting the police and security guards to ask everyone to leave.”

Before that happened, however a shamefully revealing exchange took place:

“But just 20 minutes earlier, as Bill Finnegan stood at the microphone, came the meeting’s single moment of hushed silence. Mr. Finnegan said he was a Marine lance corporal, home from Afghanistan, where he had worked as a mediator with warring tribes.

After the sustained standing ovation that followed his introduction, he turned to the Muslims on the panel: ‘My question to you is, will you work to form a cohesive bond with the people of this community?’ The men said yes.

Then he turned to the crowd. ‘And will you work to form a cohesive bond with these people — your new neighbors?’

The crowd erupted in boos. ‘No!’ someone shouted.”

It is dispiriting to see these Americans—who probably imagine themselves to be patriots—united in hostility to fundamental First Amendment rights. But Muslim organizations have nonetheless adopted a posture of engagement, secure in the conviction that, in America, bigotry slinks away under the enduring gaze of fairness.

“We are newcomers, and newcomers in America have always had to prove their loyalty,” Mahdi Bray, MAS’s executive director said. “It’s an old story. You have to have thick skin.”

Part 3-The Futility of Trying to Debate Our Way to Disarmament

“What price security?”

This post is Part 3 of a three-part series. Read Post 1 here and Post 2 here

In the end, disarmament won’t spring from a fruitless quest for ironclad rationales. Its establishment will be the result of a groundswell of reactions ranging from disgust with to bewilderment at a national security policy that puts the lives of tens of millions at risk. Never mind preserving the sanctity of the state, this will even be seen as too high a price a pay to keep not only us from dying, but our families. “What price security?” indeed.

That’s not to disparage the head-banging work of those who hammer out treaties, summits, and posture reviews, as well as the recently completed nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty review conference. At worst, as mentioned above, they’re a cover under which the nuclear-weapons industry can continue to flourish. But viewed in a more positive light, these undertakings are stopgap measures, or delaying tactics, to keep hawks and the nuclear-weapons industry at arms length until the day that worldwide disarmament momentum might build to a crescendo.

But how do we rally Americans around disarmament? For most of us the fear of nuclear weapons has narrowed to a nuclear terrorist attack. We believe either that the end of the Cold War has freed us from the threat of war between nuclear powers or we’re convinced that deterrence works. Speaking of tough arguments to win, demythologizing deterrence is almost as difficult as explaining to pro-lifers that pro-choice is not murder.

Still, avenues to the consciousness of the public, remain. For example, two can play the “messaging” game. In a report titled Talking about Nuclear Weapons with the Persuadable Middle, an organization called U.S. in the World analyzed various research projects undertaken to facilitate communication with what might be called political independents. In the following passage, the phrases that are emphasized highlight two of its essential recommendations:

Peace and security advocates should . . . “re-frame” the issue [of nuclear weapons] to help people see that it is the existence of the weapons themselves — not who has them — that poses the primary threat to global and national security. The fact that nuclear weapons are a source of risk — not the fact that they are morally wrong — should be presented as the underlying reason why the issue of nuclear weapons matters.

An evangelical group, of all things, agrees with both points. As the Two Futures Project‘s founder, Rev. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, sees it, even with the devout, “the moral argument doesn’t [always] run the show. The first question that everyone has is, ‘What makes us safer?’ So it’s important to lead, at least in most contexts, with the fact that nuclear weapons don’t make us safe anymore — that the problems they cause are far worse than any they purport to solve.”

Rev. Stevenson also addresses the “What price security?” question in a piece on the Washington Post website (emphasis added):

There’s nothing wrong with a strong military [but] we cannot simply take a secular utilitarian, value-less approach to security policy. [If] we take seriously the whole witness of Scripture, we must also recognize that the unfettered pursuit of strength — fearing mortal enemies more than God’s judgment — in fact leads to an ungodly arrogance and idolatry.

When it comes to fear, we need to understand that nuclear weapons are not just a greater risk than those who possess them. But, what the messaging reports don’t address, as implied by the word risk they’re a more legitimate source of fear than states we deem hostile.

IR (international relations) types may argue that the human psyche comes in a distant second to political considerations as a cause of war. But as with nuclear methods, there’s no way we can win that debate. Common sense, or our own intuition, tells us that safer methods of addressing our fear than by arming ourselves to the point of overkill exist. They include, on an individual basis, psychotherapy, meditation, and body work. Even better, let’s nip incommensurate fear and its consequence, the reflex to violence, in the bud before they have a chance to gain a foothold in a child as a default state.

The first goal is to halt the abuse of children: emotional, physical violence, and sexual. As the influential and recently deceased Swiss psychotherapist and author Alice Miller wrote (emphasis added): “The total neglect or trivialization of the childhood factor operative in the context of violence . . . sometimes leads to explanations that are not only unconvincing and abortive but actively deflect attention away from the genuine roots of violence.”

In other words — surprise, surprise — abusing a child predisposes him or her toward violence and, arguably, an inclination to advocate or support violent solutions to international conflict.

How do we reverse centuries of violent tendencies? By promulgating methods of enlightened child-rearing. Measures to that end have already been implemented: laws banning corporal punishment’ community centers and high-school programs to teach parenting skills. Or as linguist and “framing” master George Lakoff suggests: “The president should ask the First Lady to sponsor a major government program to do research on and support empathetic parenting.”

The more these programs are implemented, often at little cost with staffing consisting of volunteers, the more children will grow up without being marked by abuse and devoid of the impulse to respond to fear by turning to or supporting violence. One day, individuals in positions of authority will wake up and find that the public is no longer on board with national-security strategies that put enormous numbers of individuals in harm’s way.

The Oil Spills You Never Heard Of

While the news about British Petroleum’s (BP) Deepwater Horizon platform blowout in the Gulf of Mexico is on a 24-hour news feed, it took a long boat ride and some serious slogging by John Vidal of The Observer (UK) to uncover a bigger and far deadlier oil spill near the village of Otuegwe in Nigeria’s Niger Delta.

“We lost our nets, huts and fishing pots. This is where we fished and farmed. We have lost our forest,” Otuegwe’s leader, Chief Promise, told Vidal.

The culprits in Nigeria are Shell and Exxon Mobil, whose 40-year old pipelines break with distressing regularity, pouring oil into the locals’ fishing grounds and drinking water. The Delta supports 606 oil fields that supply close to 40 percent of U.S. oil imports.

This past May, an Exxon Mobil pipeline ruptured in the state of Akwa Ibon, dumping more than a million gallons into the Delta before it was patched. According to Ben Ikari, a writer and member of the local Ogoni people, “This kind of thing happens all the time in the Delta…the oil companies just ignore it. The lawmakers do not care, and people must live with the pollution daily. The situation is worse than it was 30 years ago.”

Just how bad things are is not clear, because the oil companies and the Nigerian government will not make the figures public. But independent investigators estimate that over the past four decades the amount of oil released into the Delta adds up to 50 Exxon Valdez spills, or 550 million gallons. According to the most recent government figures, up to June 3, Deepwater Horizon had pumped between 24 to 51 million gallons into the Gulf.

Nigerian government figures show there have been more than 9000 spills between 1970 and 2000, and there are currently 2,000 official spill sites. The oil companies claim the majority of them are caused by local rebels blowing up pipelines or siphoning off the oil, and that spills are quickly dealt with.

However, the locals say most of the spills are caused by the aging infrastructure, and they and environmental groups charge that the companies do virtually nothing to clean them up. And when local people do challenge the oil giants, they say they get run off by oil company security guards.

The biggest oil disaster in the world, however, is not in Africa or the Gulf of Mexico, but in Ecuador’s Amazon jungle, where Texaco—now owned by Chevron—pumped 18.5 billion gallons of “produced water” into an area of more than 2,000 square miles. “Produced water” is heavily laden with salts, crude oil, and benzene, a carcinogenic chemical,.

According to the Amazon Defense Coalition, Chevron dumped the toxic waste directly into rivers and streams, in spite of recommendations by American Petroleum Institute that such waste be injected deep into the earth. “The BP tragedy was an accident; Chevron’s discharge in Ecuador was deliberate,” said the Coalition in a press release.

Experts estimate that 345 million gallons of oil have been discharged into the rainforest, one of the most biodiverse areas in the world. The oil and wastewater, along with “black rains” produced by the uncontrolled burning of gas, has created a nightmare for the local indigenous groups—the Secoya, Cofan, Siona, Huarani, and Kichwa.

Ecuador and the five tribes are currently suing Chevron for $27 billion, but the oil company claims it bears no responsibility for Texaco’s practices and says it will not pay a nickel if it is assessed for any of the damage.

As oil resources decrease, the pressure will be on to seek new resources in more marginal territory, including the deep ocean, tropical rain forests, and sensitive artic and tundra zones. Shell is chomping at the bit to start drilling in the Artic Ocean.

Judith Kimerling, who wrote “Amazon Crude” about the oil industry in Ecuador, toldThe Observer, “Spills, leaks and deliberate discharges are happening in oilfields all over the world and very few people seem to care.”

Except, of course, the people who live in the middle of them.

Gaza Flotilla: Prelude to a Wider War?

Looked at from a diplomatic point of view, Israel’s attack on the Gaza aid flotilla was an act of astonishing stupidity: it burned bridges to Israel’s one friend in the Middle East, Turkey; it drew world-wide condemnation for what many call an act of piracy; and it shifted the focus from Hamas to the inhumanity of the blockade. What were Tel Aviv’s decision makers thinking?

Well, a leading Jerusalem Post columnist suggests “a possible way to explain Israel’s decision to stop the flotilla to Gaza…was the Israeli government’s readiness to accept the development of a potential war with no other than Teheran.”

While the idea of jumping from the Gaza disaster into an Iranian frying pan seems insane, Shira Kaplan argues that Israel has used such “casus belli” in the past as a rationale for making war: the 1956 Suez Crisis sparked by an Egyptian move to nationalize the Canal; the 1967 Six-Day War in response to Nasser’s closing of the Tiran Straits; and the 2006 invasion of Lebanon following the seizure of two Israeli soldiers.

“Israel may very well be meaning to seize this regional crisis as a casus belli to challenge Teheran, “she writes.

There are a few developments that give one pause.

First, Israel recently deployed Flotilla 7 in the Persian Gulf, consisting of three submarines—the Dolphin, the Tekuma, and the Leviathan—armed with nuclear tipped missiles. According to an Israeli naval officer quoted in the Sunday Times, “The 1500 kilometer range of the submarines’ cruise missiles can reach any target in Iran.”

Second, the Netanyahu administration has elevated the use of unreasonable force to its standard modis operandi. The recent debacle in Dubai is a case in point. The Israelis sent a team of 27 assassins to kill a mid-level Hamas official who didn’t even merit a bodyguard. The hit not only deeply angered Dubai—which at the time had a cordial relationship with Tel Aviv—but annoyed Australia, Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany by counterfeiting their citizens’ passports.

According to the Financial Times, the Gaza flotilla calamity bears a lot of similarity to the disastrous 2006 decision to invade Lebanon. Yehezkei Dror, a member of the Winograd Committee that examined the 2006 invasion, concluded that a major reason things went wrong was that the Israeli cabinet deferred to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), which long has had a tendency to underestimate an enemy.

In the case of Gaza, however, the key decision-makers didn’t have to defer to the IDF. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are both former members of the Sayeret Matkal special forces, and the Minister of Strategic Affairs, Moshe Yaalon, is a former IDF chief of staff. According to the newspaperMaariv, Netanyahu and Barak never even bothered to hold a full cabinet discussion about the Gaza operation, and even cut out the cabinet’s five member inner core. To Netanyahu and Barak—two hammers—the Gaza flotilla was a nail.

Kaplan suggests that the Israeli government “has probably decided to come nearer to a point of no return with Teheran.” Certainly things are not going Tel Aviv’s way right now.

The Brasilia-Ankara initiative to ship 1,200 kilos of Iranian nuclear fuel to Turkey for reprocessing is gaining support, and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva is launching a full-court press aimed at getting Russia, China and France on board.

Israel has never been this internationally isolated, and its charge that the Gaza blockade is aimed at preventing Iran from establishing a foothold on the Mediterranean is gaining few supporters. But rather than backing off, Netanyahu has pulled the wagons in a circle and stepped up the rhetoric about the Iranian threat. All the talk about Iran being an “existential threat” and references to the Holocaust is the kind of language that leads people to make very bad decisions..

Right now the last thing the Obama administration needs is a war with Iran, because a war between Teheran and Tel Aviv would almost surely involve the U.S. on some level. But the Israelis are not listening much these days to Washington. The White House said it told the Israelis not to “over-react” to the Gaza flotilla, a plea that was clearly ignored.

Polls show two out of three Israelis disapprove of the attack on the flotilla, but are the two military men running the Tel Aviv government listening? Or are they about to take advantage of a crisis to launch a regional war that would make the Gaza boat attack look like a glass of spilled milk?

Part 2-The Futility of Trying to Debate Our Way to Disarmament

Tilting at Windmills

This post is part of a three-part series. Read Part 1 here. Check back tomorrow for Part 3.

Another obstacle to those who seek disarmament through policy channels is just how difficult it is to dispute “realist” arguments against disarmament. Among them, as enumerated by center-right nuclear-weapons analyst Bruno Tertrais in a recent issue of the Washington Quarterly, are:

The bottom line is that it is very difficult to explain the absence of war among major powers in the past 65 years without taking into account the existence of nuclear weapons.

[It] is far from certain that even modern conventional weapons alone would be able to hold a major power such as Russia or China at bay.

Proponents [of disarmament] argue that driving toward zero would [by demonstrating leadership or setting an example, help prevent] the emergence of a nuclear-armed North Korea and Iran. [Yet disarmament measures] have not had any impact whatsoever on the nuclear programs of India, Iran, Iraq . . . Israel, Libya . . . North Korea, or Pakistan.

Worse, Tertrais maintains in his realist-representative argument, disarmament might even incite proliferation.

Smaller countries that seek to balance Western power may actually feel encouraged to develop nuclear weapons . . . if they believed that the West is on its way to getting rid of them. … the smaller the U.S. arsenal becomes, the less costly it would be to become “an equal of the United States.”

Here’s the essence of the realist argument:

The emphasis on abolition would distract the current nonproliferation regime from the “real world” priorities of rolling back Iran and North Korea. … The argument that arms control [settling for halting the spread of nuclear weapons as opposed to abolishing them -- RW] is [a diversion] from the more valuable goal of abolition should in fact be reversed: abolition as a vision would distract from arms control.

Those who seek absolute disarmament operate under the assumption that by ratcheting back its top-end weaponry, a state eases the strains between hostile states and creates the conditions for peace. Realists flip that around and assert that defusing the tension over disputed regions such as those cited by Tertrais — Kashmir, Palestine, Taiwan, and the Korean Peninsula — is required to beget disarmament (in however distant a future).

They claim that they’re just echoing the language of the preamble to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons argument. Those signing the treaty, it reads, seek to “further the easing of international tension and the strengthening of trust between States in order to facilitate” disarmament. [Emphasis added.]

Whether or not they were intended to be the watchwords that realists and conservatives regard them as is open to debate. But when all the arguments are assembled, it becomes apparent how difficult it is to argue for disarmament without sounding like you’re soft on national security or in a state of denial about the facts on the ground.

True disarmament cannot be reasoned into existence. The simple truth is that many of us are, at heart, incapable of consenting to the continued possession of nuclear weapons until states begin to solve the underlying differences between them. However unassailable some realist logic may be, I think I speak for many in the disarmament movement when I say we simply don’t have the stomach for such a regimen.

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