Focal Points Blog

Hey, Dude, Who Stole My Islamophobia?

A headline at Tom Dispatch reads Where Did All the Fatwas Go? James Carroll, author of House of War, an extraordinary history of the Pentagon, and a new book, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, writes of the recent Arab uprisings:

. . . jihadists who think nothing of slaughtering innocents in the name of Allah have been nowhere in sight, as millions of ordinary Arabs launched demonstration after demonstration with a non-violent discipline worthy of Mohandas Gandhi. True, rebels in Libya took up arms, but defensively, in order to throw back the murderous assaults of Muammar Qaddafi’s men. . . . The demonizing of Israel, anti-Semitic sloganeering . . . all have been absent from nearly every instance of revolt. . . . Perhaps the two biggest surprises of all here: out of a culture that has notoriously disempowered women has sprung a protest movement rife with female leadership, while a religion regarded as inherently incompatible with democratic ideals has been the context from which comes an unprecedented outbreak of democratic hope.

So what? The movement is secular, right? Carroll:

It’s an irony, then, that Western journalists, always so quick to tie bad Muslim behavior to religion, have rushed to term this good Muslim behavior “secular.” In a word wielded by the New York Times, Islam is now considered little but an “afterthought” to the revolution. In this, the media is simply wrong. The protests, demonstrations, and uprisings that have swept across the Middle East have visibly built their foundations on the irreducible sense of self-worth that, for believers, comes from a felt closeness to God.

Curses. Muslims are taking all the fun out of hating them. Still, for those of us who insist on scapegoating somebody, there’s always that old standby, Mexicans.

Calls for Libya No-Fly Zone an Excuse to Put American Stamp on Arab Revolution?

Libya no interventionThe U.S. Congress, like the mainstream media, has been frequently accused of having a terrible problem with memory. In either case the talking heads, whether on Fox and Friends or in a committee hearing, have often displayed an unfortunate tendency to propound political analyses and policy prescriptions that betray little insight into even the most recent history.

But perhaps attempting to buck this trend, members of Congress have imbued their calls for a no-fly zone over Libya — read air strikes — with a colorful palette of sordid historical moments.

Here’s the New York Times recounting Senator John Kerrys (DMA) remarks at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee:

“You want to be prepared if he is bombing people, and killing his own people,” he said, referring to Colonel Qaddafi. The Libyan people, he said, would “look defenseless and we would look feckless — you have to be ready.”

He added: “What haunts me is the specter of Iraq 1991,” when former President George Bush “urged the Shia to rise up, and they did rise up, and tanks and planes were coming at them — and we were nowhere to be seen.”

“Tens of thousands were slaughtered,” Mr. Kerry said.

President Bill Clinton, he said, “missed the chance in Rwanda, and said later it was the greatest regret of his presidency, and then was too slow in Bosnia,” where the United States ended up using air power, also in the defense of a Muslim population.

This call has been echoed by other prominent senators as well, notably Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT).

But how curious is this newfound power of recollection! In order to bring up an Iraq of 1991, one must first bypass the Iraq of anytime from 2003 to the present. And absent from even this discussion of the 1991 tragedy is the understanding that the Iraqi Shiite and Kurdish uprisings were expressly encouraged by the first Bush administration before it decided to hedge its mission in the country. The 1991 debacle was thus part and parcel of a prior U.S. intervention. Of course, it should go without saying that the subsequent U.S. intervention permitted an even deadlier tragedy to unfold.

Nor should guilt about the failure of the international community to stem the flow of blood in Rwanda or (to a somewhat lesser extent) the former Yugoslavia supplant our memories about the perils of intervention in Iraq or Afghanistan. Guilt must not supersede reason.

And the reasons are manifold. Phyllis Bennis and Adil E. Shamoo have already laid out the case against a U.S.-led no-fly zone or intervention in Libya. Citing not least that a no-fly zone would be of limited utility in stopping the largely ground-based attacks on Libyan rebels and civilians, they also note that the U.S. must not deprive the revolution of its wholly Libyan character, which would play directly into Gaddafi’s hands. And if such an assault would be of little assistance to Libyans, one can only imagine what yet another American incursion into an oil-rich Middle Eastern country would mean for the United States.

But the Libya hawks press on. Members of the resistance have requested such assistance, they insist. True — a few of them have. But spokesmen for the would-be interim government have also urged the West to stay out of it. Meanwhile the calls of prodemocracy protesters in Bahrain for even rhetorical support from the U.S. have fallen largely on deaf ears. One wonders what could explain the discrepancy.

For all their curiously selective appeals to history, Libya hawks in Congress seem blithely unaware of the gravity of taking military action — or even what counts as military action. Setting up a no-fly zone, as Adm. Gary Roughead explained to Sen. Roger Wicker (RMI), would mean “entering into combat operations.” “Air combat operations,” interjected Wicker, as though an attack from above were somehow less an act of war than one from below. Do American-made bombs somehow implicate the United States less than American-made tanks? Would they play into Gaddafi’s narrative any less, or make the United States less any less responsible for the outcome?

But rest assured that the media and the Congress are once more on a similar page. In its dutiful quest for balance, the New York Times notes that “some would indeed regard [missilestrikesonLibya] as an act of war.” But what else could it be?

Perhaps our Libya hawks are only now coming to terms with the indigenous character of the revolutions sweeping the region. Tired of playing a purely reactive role, liberals and conservatives alike are now champing at the bit to put an American stamp on what has thus far been an Arab-led phenomenon. But whether in Iraq, the Gulf states, or Libya’s neighbors in Egypt and Tunisia, surely the region has seen enough of these already.

One needn’t look to Rwanda or Bosnia for instructive examples about how the U.S. should proceed in Libya. The entire Middle East is already stained with the ink of old stamps that read “Made in the USA.”

Peter Certo is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus as well as the Institute of Policy Studies Balkans Project and the Global Day of Action on Military Spending.

Beneath Shortening the War and Shocking the Soviet Union Lay Another Reason for Hiroshima

Japan surrendersIn his authoritative new book Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq (Norton, 2010) John Dower addresses the question — as hot as ever — of what drove Japan to surrender. Many today suspect that it wasn’t the atomic bomb, but the threat of a Russian invasion. Ultimately, using documents from the time, Dower one-ups even that one-time heresy. First, let’s examine what he writes about the threat of a Russian invasion.

Would the Soviet declaration of war alone have been decisive? . . . In a careful analysis of Japanese records between August 6 and August 17, the historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa found only two statements (out of twelve) referring to the impact of the bombs [on Hiroshima and Nagasaki] alone; the rest emphasized both the bombs and Soviet action, or Soviet action alone. In Hasegawa’s own estimation, the Soviet entry rather than atomic bombs was the determining factor in forcing Japan’s hand.

Beyond that

. . . a few years after the war . . . the British physicist and 1948 Nobel laureate P.M.S. Blackett, who was involved in wartime military deployments [wrote]

So we may conclude that the dropping of the atomic bombs was no so much the last military act of the second World War, as the first major operation of the cold diplomatic war with Russia now in progress.


The plain-speaking Vannevar Bush, who served as director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development from mid-1941 through the end of the war . . . when he was later asked what significance he attached “to the delivery of the A-bomb on time” [said]:

It saved hundreds of thousands of casualties on the beaches of Japan. It was also delivered on time so that there was no necessity for any concessions to Russia at the end of the war.

And the inimitable General Leslie Groves, who directed the Manhattan Project

casually observed, “You realize of course that the main purpose of this project is to subdue the Russians.”

In other words [emphasis added]

[American] decision makers opted [to use] the bomb essentially without warning in a manner that would shock and awe the Russians every bit as much as the Japanese — and, in the process, ideally deter them from their territorial ambitions in eastern Europe while simultaneously undercutting them in Asia. [This] reflected belated recognition of the strategic downside of Soviet entry into the war — a sudden fear . . . that even moderately prolonged Russian engagement with Japanese forces would strengthen the postwar Soviet position in Manchuria, the rest of China, and northeast Asia generally, including Korea, while simultaneously enhancing Moscow’s ability to demand a . . . territorial “zone,” as in occupied Germany . . . in the occupation of Japan.

In short, it wasn’t only the threat of a Russian invasion that drove Japan to surrender, that same threat — beyond even defeating the Japanese or, in general, putting the fear of God (or Stalin) into Russians about U.S. capabilities in a post-war world — may well have been what prompted the United States to use atomic bombs as expeditiously as it did. The United States didn’t want Russia to get a foothold in the Far East.

One could say, however barbaric, that was clever on the part of the United States. But, the last laugh is on us. As I wrote recently at Focal Points, the use of the bomb laid the foundation for the fear that has infected generations of Americans since — not just of the then Soviet Union, but of a much greater threat: nuclear weapons themselves.

By Enabling India’s Nuke Program U.S. Shares Blame for Pakistan’s

AQ Khan(Pictured: AQ Khan, the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.)

“Washington — New American intelligence assessments have concluded that Pakistan has steadily expanded its nuclear arsenal since President Obama came to office . . . for the Obama administration the assessment poses a direct challenge to a central element of the President’s national security strategy, the reduction of nuclear stockpiles around the world.”
New York Times

The above words, written this past February, were followed by a Times editorial, titled “Pakistan’s Nuclear Folly,” decrying that “the weapons buildup has gotten too little attention,” and calling on Washington to “look for points of leverage” to stop it.

Well, the administration and the Times may be unhappy about Pakistan’s nuclear buildup, but it certainly should not have come as a surprise, nor is there much of a secret to the “points of leverage” that would almost certainly put a stopper on it: scupper the so-called 1-2-3 Agreement between the U.S. and India.

Back in 2003, Douglas Feith, then Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in the Bush Administration, pulled together a meeting of the U.S.-India Defense Policy Group to map out a blueprint for pulling New Delhi into an alliance against China. The code word used during the discussions was “stability,” but as P.R. Chari of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies noted, “What they really mean is how to deal with China.”

The Bush administration changed the Clinton Administration’s designation of China as a “strategic partner” to “strategic competitor,” and in its U.S.-China Security Review concluded that Beijing is “in direct competition with us for influence in Asia and beyond” and that in “the worst case this could lead to war.” Another Pentagon document revealed by Jane’s Foreign Report argued that both India and the U.S. were threatened by China, and that “India should emerge as a vital component of US strategy.”

One of the obstacles to that alliance was the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which blocks any country that is not a signer from buying nuclear fuel on the world market. Since neither India nor Pakistan has signed the Treaty, they can’t buy fuel from the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group. That has been particularly hard on India because it has few native uranium sources and has to split those between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. The ban, however, is central to the NPT, and one of the few checks on nuclear proliferation.

But the Bush administration proposed bypassing the NPT with the so-called 1-2-3 Agreement that permitted India to purchase nuclear materials even though New Delhi refused to sign the Treaty. India would agree to use the nuclear fuel only in its civilian plants and open those plants for inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But the Agreement also allowed India to divert its own domestic supplies to its weapons program, and those plants would remain off the inspection grid. In short, India would no longer have to choose between nuclear power and nuclear weapons: it could have both.

In July 2008, Pakistan’s then Foreign Minister Khurshid Kusuri predicted that if the 1-2-3 Agreement went through, “The whole Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will unravel,” and, in a letter to the IAEA, Pakistan warned that the pact “threatens to increase the chances of a nuclear arms race in the subcontinent.”

However, neither the Bush administration nor the Obama administration paid any attention to Pakistan’s complaints. The results were predictable. Pakistan ramped up its nuclear weapons program and may soon pass Britain as the fifth largest nuclear weapons nation in the world.

It also dug in its heels at the 65-nation 2011 Conference on Disarmament in Geneva and blocked a proposal to halt the production of nuclear weapons-making material. The 1-2-3 Agreement and the push to bring India into the Nuclear Suppliers group, warned Ambassador Zamir Akram, were “undermining the validity and sanctity of the international non-proliferation regime” and would “further destabilize security in South Asia.” The Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) is a priority for the Obama administration.

Islamabad is not alone in its criticism of the 1-2-3 Agreement or the FMCT. A number of nations are challenging NPT signers, including the U.S., China, Russia, Britain and France, to fulfill Article VI of the NPT that requires the elimination of nuclear weapons. While the U.S. and Russia have reduced their arsenals, both still have thousands of weapons, and the Americans are in the process of modernizing their current warheads.

Pakistan is a far smaller country than India, and would likely face defeat in a conventional conflict. It has already lost three wars to India. Its ace in the hole is nuclear weapons, and some Pakistanis have a distressingly casual view of nuclear war. “You can die crossing the street, or you could die in a nuclear war,” remarked former Pakistan army chief Gen. Mirza Aslem Beg. A BBC poll found that the Pakistani public has an “abysmally low” understanding of the threat.

Many Indians are not much better. Former Indian Defense Minister Georges Fernandes commented that “India can survive a nuclear attack, but Pakistan cannot.” And that same BBC poll found that for most Indians “the terror of a nuclear conflict is hard to imagine.”

Both countries have recently rolled out cruise missiles that are capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The Pakistani Hatf-7, or “Babur,” has a range of almost 500 miles and a speed of 550 miles per hour. It appears to have been copied from the U.S. BGM-109 “Tomahawk,” several of which crashed in Pakistan during 1998 air strikes against Afghanistan. The Indian PJ-10 BrahMos cruise has a shorter range—180 miles—but a top speed of 2,100 mph. India and Pakistan also have ballistic missiles capable of striking major cities in both countries.

In its editorial declaiming Pakistan as guilty of “nuclear folly,” the Times pointed out that “Pakistan cannot feed its people [or] educate its children.” Neither can India. As a 2010 United Nations Development Program report discovered, as bad as things are in Pakistan, life expectancy is lower in India, and the gap between rich and poor is greater. In fact, neither country can afford large militaries—Pakistan spends 35 percent of its budget on arms, and India is in the middle of a $40 billion military spending spree—and a nuclear war would not only destroy both countries, but also profoundly affect the entire globe.

Nuclear weapons are always folly, but what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The U.S. currently spends in excess of $1 trillion a year on all defense and security related items, while our education system is starving, our infrastructure is collapsing, and hunger and illiteracy are spreading. If the Times wants to ratchet down tensions in South Asia, let it call for dumping the 1-2-3 Agreement and beginning the process called for in Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measure relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty of general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

More of Conn Hallinan’s work can be found at Dispatches From the Edge.

Not Only al Qaeda But West on Outside Looking in at Libyan Opposition

At Asia Times Online Syed Salaam Shahzad reports on Libya.

The root of the unrest is intrinsically liberal and secular — as it was in Egypt and Tunisia — leaving very little ground on which Islamic political forces can operate. [But while during] these turbulent times in the Arab world, al-Qaeda has been only a spectator . . . it is poised to pounce on any opportunity that might arise to allow it to become a part of the action in Libya. [In fact al-Qaeda’s] most powerful Libyan cluster, al-Jamaa al-Muqatilah (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group), is apprehensive of being marginalized, according to members of the Libyan militant camp in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area.


. . . this places al-Qaeda in the same position as Western countries, some of which are positioning to actively intervene in Libya, even if it is at the least by enforcing a no-fly zone.


[Al-Jamaa al-Muqatilah] believe that al-Qaeda needs to kick in to give an ideological mooring to the armed opposition and to prevent the situation from falling into the hands of pro-Western agitators.

It’s looking to one of al Qaeda’s most notorious members to help pull it off.

Asia Times Online contacts in the militant camps say that current al-Qaeda ideologue and military strategist Abu Yahya al-Libi is now trying to mobilize of al-Qaeda’s cadre in Libya to quickly jump onto the unrest bandwagon. . . . Crucially, though . . . it will not incorporate the terror operations that have characterized al-Qaeda’s operations over the past years, notably in Iraq. . . . Libi, who . . . escaped from the US detention facility at Bagram in 2005 and was recently elevated as one of al-Qaeda’s main leaders . . . played a significant role in al-Qaeda’s mobilization in Yemen and Somalia.

Well, if anyone can do it he can. Meanwhile, who does the West have to compare with al-Libi’s star power? Hillary Clinton?

Loose Nuclear Ends

At the “other” IPS Thaif Deen reports:

The global civil society campaign for the abolition of nuclear weapons could be politically reignited by the phenomenal successes of the grassroots demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia, shadowed closely by Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Jordan.

“Developments in the Middle East [and North Africa] show how fragile ‘stability’ is when people’s needs and desires are ignored,” says Hirotsugu Terasaki, executive director of the Office of Peace Affairs at the Tokyo-based Soka Gakkai International.

Apparently he’s extrapolating a fragility to the stability of the worldwide nuclear arms regimen, as well. Wishful thinking?

Jeopardy wizard Ken Jennings writing at Slate on playing against IBM computer Watson:

To [the IBMers], I wasn’t the good guy, playing for the human race. That was Watson’s role, as a symbol and product of human innovation and ingenuity. So my defeat at the hands of a machine has a happy ending, after all. At least until the whole system becomes sentient and figures out the nuclear launch codes. But I figure that’s years away.

Author of the new book How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III, Ron Rosenbaum, also writing at Slate about a man who trained for work in a missile silo, but was unceremoniously discarded when he questioned the command and control structure:

. . . some might say we can’t give the impression that everyone in missile launch control centers engages in Socratic debate about whether genocidal revenge is justified, or could be seen as “insane” in itself. Such debate, the official line goes, would end up “weakening the credibility of our deterrent” and perhaps inviting a genocidal attack.

Speaking of deterrence, they’re ba-a-a-ck. Who? The four horsemen. Of the apocalypse? Not exactly — ostensibly, in fact, that’s what they seek to head off at the pass. George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn, of course, joint authors of Wall Street Journal op-eds calling for nuclear arms control. Their latest, titled Deterrence in the Age of Nuclear Proliferation, is an attempt to advocate for reducing the number of nuclear weapons needed for deterrence.

Achieving deterrence with assured security will require work by leaders and citizens on a range of issues, beginning with a clearer understanding of existing and emerging security threats.

The op-ed comes with the usual disclaimer, though.

. . . as long as nuclear weapons exist, America must retain a safe, secure and reliable nuclear stockpile primarily to deter a nuclear attack and to reassure our allies through extended deterrence.

Sometimes I think we won’t make any substantive progress toward nuclear disarmament until we declare a moratorium on phrases such as “our nuclear deterrent” and “a safe, secure and reliable nuclear stockpile.” As long as policymakers continue to resort to them, we’ll continue to view other states (and non-state actors) as a greater threat than the most “existential” of all threats to life on earth — nuclear weapons themselves.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki Sabotaged Prospects for a True Post-War Peace

Recently John Dower’s Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq (W.W. Norton, 2010) was reviewed by Greg Chaffin for Foreign Policy in Focus. Halfway through it, I find Cultures of War, in which the author uses a comparison between U.S. reactions to Pearl Harbor and 9/11 as a starting point, powerful and convincing. In the course of the book, he delivers a compelling analysis of the “terror” or area — as opposed to precision — bombing campaigns that the allies waged against, in large part, the citizens of Germany and Japan. After that, it only seemed natural to the United States to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Dower writes:

The euphoria of victory over Japan, and of the end of the struggle against Axis fascism and aggression more generally, was extraordinary.

It was also fragile and ephemeral. The underside of triumph was profound anxiety — a presentiment that making and using the atomic bomb had birthed not peace but vulnerability of a sort inconceivable just a few years earlier.

In other words, instead of laying a solid foundation of peace, the use of nuclear weapons ensured that it was constructed, as it were, of inferior materials. As a result, the whole house of our national security could come crashing precipitously down at any time. Dower quotes Manhattan Project physicist I.I. Rabi, reflecting on Trinity, the first nuclear test: “Suddenly the day of judgment was the next day and has been ever since.”

Two sentences after his first quote above, Dower writes:

When the twin towers of the World Trade Center were taken down on September 11, this suppressed or diluted dread [of nuclear attack] erupted, certainly among Americans, as full-blown collective trauma.

Our arms race with the Soviet Union instilled a deep-seated fear in our hearts. Damped down and building pressure over the years, that fear only needed to be ignited by 9/11 before it came spewing out. Hence, most of us were all too happy to, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, “go massive.” Our wide-of-the-mark reaction to 9/11 paralleled area as opposed to precision bombing and, in the process, only stiffened the resolve of the opposition.

Should the Arms Control Community Back Off Missile Defense?

Cross-posted from the CUNY Graduate Center Advocate.

If you followed the halting progress that the New START nuclear treaty made towards ratification at the end of last year, you know missile defense was a bone of contention. Russians fear its implementation while American conservatives fear the implications on national security of its lack of implementation. Nevertheless, Republican senators swallowed their pride and ratified New START while the Obama administration managed to win Moscow’s acknowledgment that current U.S. missile defense systems were no threat to Russia.

Wait, missile defense is still around? “Star Wars” gained infamy at the 1986 Reykjavík summit when it became the security blanket that Ronald Reagan couldn’t relinquish in return for the prospect held out by Mikhail Gorbachev of the abolition of nuclear weapons. Replete with lasers, particle-beam weapons, and space-based systems, hasn’t it since been laughed off the national security landscape?

Besides the experimental nature of the weapons, it was obvious that, during the Cold War, a system that could stop Russia’s prodigious ICBMs from raining down on the United States was decades from coming to fruition. But, thanks in part to relentless lobbying by the likes of right-wing defense think tanks such as the National Institute of Public Policy, once the Cold War ended, the defense establishment decided that, instead of turning a crisis — peace — into an opportunity — cutting back defense spending — it would turn the newfound lack of a crisis into one.

In other words, at least for the purpose of the missile defense discussion, it conceded that Russia’s nuclear weapons were no longer a central concern of the United States. Instead, it reconfigured the concept of missile defense as a way to halt nuclear attacks from rogue countries with their starter kit nuke programs, such as North Korea and, ostensibly, Iran. Russia, of course, wasn’t buying that. For instance, while the missile defense program on U.S. soil has been winnowed down to Ground-Based Interceptor missiles, they’re based in the region of the United States in closest proximity to Russia — Alaska and California.

Meanwhile, in September 2009, President Obama announced that the United States was scrapping plans for missile-defense sites in East Europe, in favor of the sea-borne Aegis system. But the United States still harbors long-range plans to to install missile-defense systems just to the west of the former Soviet Union. Besides, though temporarily mollified enough to sign New START, Moscow has long doubted that missile defense is meant to intercept missiles from North Korea and Iran because it knows full well both states are a long way from fielding missiles that can reach Europe. Russia, of course, deploys its own missile-defense, such as the S-300 anti-ballistic missile. In fact, it had planned to sell the system to Iran until a recent round of U.N. sanctions against Iran forced Russia to abandon that idea.

The fundamental question that the controversy over missile defense evokes is: How can a nuclear power, such as Russia, object to the wish of another nuclear power, such as the United States, to defend itself with weapons intended solely to block Russia’s weapons once launched, not target its soil and people?

In other words, how can a state be faulted for attempting to erect a shield to shelter it from nuclear weapons? Turns out, conventional thinking on nuclear strategy holds that missile defense upsets — “destabilizes” — the whole nuclear-deterrence apple cart.

Here’s how it works. A state — Russia again — is considered vulnerable to a first, or initial, strike by the United States, during the course of which many of its surface (as opposed to those based in submarines, which are, of course, mobile) nuclear weapons would be wiped out. (This argument requires a suspension of belief that Russia would refrain from launching a counterattack on warning, that is, while the U.S. missiles were in the air, instead of waiting until they struck — still the only sure-fire method of verifying a nuclear attack.)

Russia’s retaliatory force would be further diminished if much of it was destroyed while in the air by U.S. missile defense. (This requires a suspension of belief that the day when missile defense is that effective will ever come). The crux of this theory is that since Russia knows that under this arrangement it’s going to lose missiles both on the ground and in the air it’s motivated to build more to compensate. (Why Russian missile defense isn’t considered destabilizing to America’s “deterrent” is a question seldom, if ever, raised.)

That’s what nuclear strategists mean when they make the claim that missile defense destabilizes deterrence — it disturbs the fragile “balance of power.” I know: you’re incredulous that in the same year in which we toast the Cold War’s two-decade-old demise that the United States and Russia still relegate themselves to such old-school thinking. The other supposedly destabilizing characteristic of building a missile defense system is that it’s a red flag to Russia signaling the United States plans to mount a first strike. (Of course, Moscow knows the unlikelihood of that scenario; it’s just playing politics.

Ironically in the 1960s and 1970s roles were reversed. The United States feared Soviet anti-ballistic missile defense and consequently fortified its ballistic missile offense. But the two superpowers realized that it was to the benefit of each to refrain from running what’s been called a “missile defense arms race.” The 1972 ABM Treaty set a limit to missile defense systems and offensive warhead totals were reduced in kind during the 1980s and 1990s. But, in defiance of the common wisdom that held that reductions in nuclear weapons required keeping missile defense to a minimum, the Bush administration withdrew from the ABM treaty in 2002.

Again, it must be asked: why does the burden fall on the designated victim to keep its defenses to a minimum lest the aggressor augment its armaments? It’s like saying the best defense is a bad defense.

Counterintuitive to a fare-thee-well, this argument provides ammunition for conservatives. First, though, we need to mention that many of those who support missile defense share Reagan’s child-like fantasy of an umbrella that will shield us from the very same weapons that we’re still allowed to wield. Second, consciously or not, many are only too glad to see the other side build up its offensive capabilities to justify the continuation of the U.S. nuclear-weapons industry.

Granted, steeped in game theory, nuclear strategy is not for everybody. But faulting a party for defending him or herself not only encourages passivity, it’s a form of blaming the victim. Imagine holding someone who’s been attacked responsible for his fate because, in the act of putting up his dukes or even just adopting a defensive crouch, he’s provoked the bully into not just attacking with his fists but upping the ante and bringing a baseball bat to the affair.

In other words, those of us opposed to missile defense should cease and desist making the case that defending ourselves tips the nuclear scale. Not only do neither conservatives nor the public understand the argument, it provokes them. While polls on missile defense are few and far between, back in 2006 a pro-missile defense group found that over 70 percent of New York state citizens supported missile defense and in 2004, 84% of Floridians.

In effect, this approach resembles another mistake made by progressives: reciting the mantra that the U.S. presence in the Middle East creates terrorists. Even though, these days, realpolitik types ring in with this refrain as often as progressives, the reaction of conservatives runs something like this: since when does the United States worry about making enemies when (in their eyes, anyway) it’s in the right?

But opponents of missile defense, who, by definition, are also disarmament advocates, still have a great fall-back position, right? When you get down to it, what good is this curtain of the heavens if it fails to protect us when we most need it — against states like Russia with formidable nuclear arsenals? In fact, as missile defense stands, it’s questionable whether it would even prove effective against North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

But making that case is walking into a trap. It caters to conservatives all too eager to stand in judgment of a state, because of its perceived potential for mounting such an attack, as insufficiently “rational” enough to be allowed to develop a nuclear weapons program. In other words, despite failing to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Israel and India, yes. Iran and North Korea, on the other hand, no. Worst of all, it encourages a recent tendency on the part of nuclear-weapons advocates to deny the link between nonproliferation and disarmament. States deemed unworthy of nuclear weapons are to be denied them, by force if necessary, without reciprocity in the form of substantive disarmament (beyond the tepid New START), as ordained by the NPT, on the part of the large states.

Missile defense is ultimately a more defensible investment than nuclear weapons. But it’s best for disarmament advocates to keep their eyes on the big picture — nuclear weapons themselves, as well as the overarching subject of massive casualties. Missile defense is just a subdivision of nuclear weapons and when the rationale powering their acquisition runs out of steam, the umbrella of missile defense will collapse upon itself as well.

In the interim, one argument remains to which we can avail ourselves. If, however unlikely, we ever succeed in building the perfect missile defense, why would we need nuclear weapons any longer?


Podvig, Pavel. “Russia and missile defense in Eastern Europe,”, August 26, 2009.

Podvig, Pavel, “The false promise of missile defense,” The Bulletin Online, June 14, 2009.

Thielmann, Greg, “Strategic Missile Defense: A Threat to Future Nuclear Arms Reductions?,” Threat Assessment Brief, Arms Control Association, January 16, 2010.

What the Army Thinks the Taliban Would Do With Data on Genitourinary Injuries

David Brown for the Washington Post reports on land-mine injuries suffered by U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Doctors and nurses treating soldiers injured in Afghanistan have begun speaking of a new “signature wound” — two legs blown off at the knee or higher, accompanied by damage to the genitals and pelvic injuries. . . . Of the 142 soldiers with genitourinary wounds who arrived at Landstuhl [Germany, site of U.S. military hospital] last year. . . . 47 had injury to one testicle, and 21 men lost a testicle. Eleven soldiers had injuries to both testicles, and eight lost both testicles.

In fact

Twice as many U.S. soldiers wounded in battle last year required limb amputations than in either of the two previous years. . . . and nearly three times as many suffered severe wounds to their genitals.

Why the increase?

Although the U.S. Army Medical Command released the data on genital injuries, military officials are reluctant to discuss these wounds further.

Why not? According to Maj. Gen. Stephen R. Lanza, chief of Army Public Affairs, “detailed discussion . . . can potentially provide insights to our enemies into the effectiveness of their improvised explosive devices and other weapons they use.”

What kind of insights is the Army afraid that the Taliban might glean from information about the injuries? Let’s take a guess: figuring out exactly how much explosives and of what variety to ensure the majority of victims lose both testicles.

What about body armor? Brown reports:

Body armor, which has greatly reduced fatalities, usually includes a triangular flap that protects the groin from projectiles coming from the front. It doesn’t protect the area between the legs from direct upward blast.

Odd oversight, isn’t it? Brown again.

Various laboratories are reportedly working on forms of shielding that would provide such protection.

Doesn’t this remind you of the early years of the Iraq War when Hummers were insufficiently protected with armor plating? Meanwhile, Americans need to ask themselves if they really want their troops in a conflict where not only do our young men need to concern themselves with being injured and killed, but with an enemy that may be all too eager to calibrate its mines for maximum castrating effect.

Bradley Manning: Death by Elastic Underwear Waistband

In an earlier Focal Points post on depriving Pfc. Bradley Manning of his clothing for three days, we quoted the New York Times:

First Lt. Brian Villiard, a Marine spokesman, said. . . . that the step was “not punitive” and that it was in accordance with brig rules, but he said that he was not allowed to say more. . . . “It would be inappropriate for me to explain it. . . . I can confirm that it did happen, but I can’t explain it to you without violating the detainee’s privacy.”

Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, subsequently learned the rationale, which he posted it at his website Army Court Martial Defense.

On Wednesday March 2, 2011, PFC Manning was told that his Article 138 complaint requesting that he be removed from Maximum custody and Prevention of Injury (POI) Watch had been denied by the Quantico commander, Colonel Daniel J. Choike. Understandably frustrated by this decision after enduring over seven months of unduly harsh confinement conditions, PFC Manning inquired of the Brig operations officer what he needed to do in order to be downgraded from Maximum custody and POI. . . . In response to PFC Manning’s question, he was told that there was nothing he could do to downgrade his detainee status and that the Brig simply considered him a risk of self-harm. PFC Manning then remarked that the POI restrictions were “absurd” and sarcastically stated that if he wanted to harm himself, he could conceivably do so with the elastic waistband of his underwear or with his flip-flops.

Hey, maybe Col. Choike is right: look at the self-abuse Manning has already inflicted on himself with his humor and sense of irony. Still, Choife is whiffing on a learning moment. He should interrogate Manning to learn how he would turn the elastic in his underwear or flip-flops into a his garrote. It could be incorporated into SERE training* to help our troops escape if they’re captured by the enemy.

As for the rest of us, Pfc. Manning has much to teach us in the way of courage.

*SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) military training in, among other things, evading and/or surviving capture.

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