Focal Points Blog

Japan’s Three Elections

Japan Prime MinisterWashington may well be rejoicing at the result of today’s election inside the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Prime Minister Naoto Kan defeated rival Ichiro Ozawa by a large margin in a battle for the party’s top spot. Ozawa, with his calls for a more equal partnership with the United States and a renegotiation of the Okinawa military base deal, did not create a lot of warm, fuzzy feeling in Washington. If Ozawa had won, he might well have reopened negotiations on the 2006 agreement that would close the Futenma Marine Corps base, build a second facility in Okinawa, and relocate many of the Marines to Guam. Disagreement over this 2006 deal caused a deep rift in U.S.-Japan relations that continues even today.

Kan, on the other hand, has dutifully fallen into line. On taking over from Yukio Hatoyama, who resigned shortly after backing away from his call to renegotiate the 2006 relocation agreement, promptly called President Obama to make the proper reassurances. “He made the call even before formally assuming office,” writes Gavan McCormack at Japan Focus, “and in his introductory policy speech to the Diet he pledged, as had Hatoyama before him, the ‘steady deepening of the alliance relationship.’”

But Washington shouldn’t pop the champagne corks quite yet. There are two other elections to consider.

Nago is the city in Okinawa nearest to where the United States and Japan plan to build another base to replace part of the aging Futenma Marine Corps facility. Until recently, the city council in Nago was deadlocked, with twelve members supporting the relocation plan and twelve members against (and three neutrals). But after Sunday’s election, the anti-base forces have a 16-11 lead. This result strengthens the position of the mayor of Nago, Susumu Inamine, who ran on an anti-base platform last January.

Next up is the Okinawan governor’s race in November, which pits a lukewarm opponent of the base relocation plan against a steadfast opponent. “Okinawa’s governor can hinder the progress of the relocation plan by refusing to allow dumping tons of landfill into Oura Bay, known as the northernmost feeding ground of the endangered dugong, a saltwater manatee,” write David Allen and Chiyomi Sumida in Stars and Stripes. “If the governor refuses to approve the landfill project, the national government would have to pass special legislation to bypass his veto.”

Both Naoto Kan and the Pentagon have said on various occasions that they won’t go ahead with the relocation plan without local approval. Okinawans oppose the plan by a huge majority. After these elections, it will be increasingly difficult to find any political institution on the island to provide a veneer of local support.

Meanwhile, Congress is coming back in session and the Obama administration will soon have to answer domestic critics of the relocation plan. Barney Frank has taken the lead in questioning the utility of the Marine Corp’s presence on Okinawa. And, in a climate of belt-tightening, the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to cut three-quarters of the administration’s $452 million request for Guam relocation funds.

Some combination of Okinawan resistance and congressional skepticism may well derail the 2006 relocation agreement that so troubled U.S.-Japanese relations this year and cost one prime minister his job.

How to Convince a State That Thinks It Wants Nuclear Weapons That It Really Doesn’t

Written with the assistance of another individual, who, I can safely say, would not care to be identified with my work.

The success that nuclear weapons supporters have experienced in convincing centrists and other self-described realists that disarmament should be uncoupled from nonproliferation makes advocating nonproliferation a loaded proposition. In other words, one of the two greatest nuclear powers, the United States, seems to feel less of a need than ever to set an example for states that have yet to acquire nuclear know-how and technology by disarming. (Except for the token extent to which the United States is ostensibly disarming while seeking to funnel exorbitant amounts of funds to its nuclear weapons industry.)

In fact, nuclear-weapons advocates and those they’ve won over to their point of view not only insist that other states refrain from acquiring nukes while we keep ours and disarm ever so slowly, they’re using nonproliferation as a pretext to call for an attack on a state that seems to be developing the means to make a nuclear weapon, if not the actual weapon (Iran, of course).

Accepting, for the moment, the reality, or lack thereof, of disarmament, a plethora of options nevertheless exist for diverting states from acquiring nuclear weapons. But first, let’s examine the reasons why states feel the need to acquire the technology and know-how to build a nuclear weapons program in the first place. Those often cited include:

Security threats. States, of course, assume that nuclear weapons will deter them.

Prestige, as well as swagger. Primarily, this line of thinking goes, if a state cannot defend itself from foreign rivals, it is not legitimate. Furthermore, military organizations and advanced weapons systems serve a function similar to that of flags, airlines, and Olympic teams: They’re what modern states believe they need to win the respect of their peer states. Of course, they’re also a source of national pride and serve to exalt a ruler, as well as the state’s military, elite classes, and scientists in the eyes of the public.

Domestic politics. The development of a nuclear weapons program is used to advance political ends such as winning elections. Author Scott Sagan, in an article titled “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?” for the winter 1997 issue of International Security (not available online) provided an example: Support for the Ghandi government in India “had fallen to an all-time low in late 1973 and early 1974 due to [among other things] a prolonged and severe domestic recession. . . . it would be highly surprising for a politician with such problems to resist what she knew was a major opportunity to increase her standing in public opinion polls and to defuse an issue [a reluctance to test a nuclear weapon] about which she had been criticized by her domestic opponents.” The decision to proceed with the test was made by Gandhi at “the advice of a very small circle of personal advisers and scientists from the nuclear establishment. Senior defense and foreign affairs officials in India were not involved.”

Now let’s move on to how a state that aspires to be the proud possessor a nuclear-weapons program can be disabused of the notion that it needs one. Using the same bullet-point headings as above, measures that may be taken include:

Security threats. According to conventional thinking, a state is less likely to seek nuclear weapons if it’s in an alliance with a nuclear power, especially one with a declared first-use policy. Other ways to keep it from proliferating include instituting confidence-building measures, such as transparency and verification, as well as “negative security assurances” (that nuclear states will not use their weapons against non-nuclear states).

What tends to be forgotten is that states often develop nuclear weapons only in part to deter other nuclear states. More often, they seek to deter a neighbor with a more powerful military and a larger arsenal of conventional weapons from launching a non-nuclear attack (even if the more powerful state possesses nuclear weapons, too). The obvious examples are Pakistan and India. In fact, disarmament can backfire if states that divest themselves of nuclear weapons build up their conventional arsenals by way of compensation.

Moving to the next concentric circle beyond conventional thinking, a fundamental shift in how states identify and prioritize threats needs to be implemented. In other words states need to understand that custodianship of nuclear weapons and materials makes them less secure by turning them into targets for terrorists looking to sabotage or steal these capabilities. Furthermore, they need to stop viewing non-state actors as useful instruments of policy for engaging in low-grade conflict with other states (like Pakistan with the Taliban) and as threats to not only the state’s nuclear-weapons program but to the existence of the state itself. In fact, were it up to Islamic terrorists, with their dreams of a modern-day caliphate, the state system period would be dismantled.

Prestige, as well as swagger. Sagan writes that the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons appears to have had some success shifting “the norm concerning what acts grant prestige and legitimacy from the. . . notion of joining the ‘nuclear club’ to the. . . concept of joining ‘the club of the nations adhering to the NPT.’” For example, when the Soviet Union disintegrated, Ukraine decided to eliminate its nuclear weapons program. Sagan explains: “Without the NPT, a policy of keeping a nuclear arsenal would have placed Ukraine in the category of France and China.” Post enactment of the NPT, Ukraine would have been consigned to “the company of dissenters like India and Pakistan and pariahs like Iraq and North Korea.”

Besides the NPT, what are other paths to prestige are open to a state? For one, writes Sagan, “a policy that made permanent UN Security Council membership for Japan, Germany, and India conditional upon the maintenance of non-nuclear status under the NPT.”

As for actual swagger, moving yet another concentric circle beyond conventional thinking, other types of societal achievements are capable of instilling states with confidence in their technical capabilities and international prestige. In Renaissance Europe, Leonardo da Vinci’s revolutionary inventions were sometimes military in nature, but essentially they were trophies for royal courts. Italian city states competed by showing off the technical prowess and resources of their engineers.

What technologies today would impress other states as Da Vinci’s technologies did visitors to the royal court? Possibilities include high-powered computers, renewable energy sources, scientific research facilities such as the Hadron Collider, and satellite technology. In the future, nanotech and biotech are also capable of replacing nuclear-weapons programs in sheer prestige. Perhaps a nuclear terrorist attack itself could even act as the spur for a new technical race for prestige. For example, a nano-machine could be created or an organism bioengineered organism to “eat” the radioactive fallout from a nuclear detonation.

Domestic politics. It’s difficult to meet a ruler or ruling party’s perceived need for nuclear weapons when it’s motivated by internal politics since writes Sagan, “the key factors that influence decisions are domestic in origin and therefore largely outside the control of U.S. policy.” For example, he explains that South Africa surrendered its nuclear-weapons program, not, as often thought, because the threat of Soviet expansionism had disappeared. It seems that, because apartheid was ending, President F.W. de Klerk feared nuclear weapons would wind up in the hands of the ANC — or white extremists.

Still, he writes, “International financial institutions are [as of the nineties] demanding that cuts in military expenditures be included in conditionality packages for aid recipients. [Also] deducting the estimated budget of any suspect research and development program from IMF or U.S. loans to a country. . . could heighten domestic opposition to such programs.” Furthermore: “To the degree that professional military organizations area supporting nuclear proliferation, encouraging their involvement in other military activities could decrease such support. [For] laboratory officials and scientists, assistance in non-nuclear research and development programs. . . could decrease personal and organizational incentives for weapons research.”

These methods of meeting the needs of states that aspire to nuclear-weapons programs, however outside the box, still fall under the heading of policy prescriptions. But, ultimately, it’s difficult to deny that, even if swept up in the passions of nationalism, states experience deep, emotional needs that they believe will be met by the development of a nuclear-weapons program. Just as policy needs can be met in other ways, perhaps a state’s unconscious needs for nuclear weapons can be as well (a subject for a future post).

Americans Don’t Really Believe There Is Such a Thing as a Moderate Muslim

The Koran-burning minister and the Ground Zero “mosque” have lanced the boil of American Islamophobia which had been building since 9/11 and now the pus is oozing out. While I haven’t been able to locate a poll to authenticate it, my internal zeitgeist gauge (however idiosyncratically calibrated) informs me that many Americans labor under the impression that most Muslims seek the destruction of the United States.

First it behooves us to acknowledge that since 9/11 a number of Muslim charities operating in America have been exposed as fronts for Islamists. Also, at the risk of being politically incorrect, I maintain that progressives delude themselves if they think that cheers weren’t raised in some American mosques after 9/11, if not from the pulpit at least in back rooms. As for Muslims “hating” America, neither was that entirely nonexistent. This 2006 comment from a forum sheds light on those feelings (“sics” where appropriate.)

A few weeks ago an American I met at a friends house asked a much repeated query, “Why do you the Muslims hate the Americans?” To which I answered in the same way as all the preceding instances in which this question was posed to me: “We don’t hate the Americans, we might disagree with a certain US policy and dislike recent American actions in the Muslim world but we surely don’t hate the American people.”

The American who interrogated me was clearly not convinced with my answer and secretly I wasn’t either. The truth is that at present the Muslims hate America and now, they hate not only its policymakers but most of the American people since they have proven recently without a shadow of doubt that they agree with their elite by voting back into office, by a comfortable majority, the Bush administration in spite of it’s obvious record of lies and abuse of power.

Again, just a hunch, but Americans seem to think that Muslims support terrorism, when in fact such feelings are rare unless terrorism is defined as resistance to Americans in Iraq. The reason Americans labor under this impression is not only 9/11, but, perhaps, because they think that Muslims didn’t speak out with enough frequency and force after 9/11. But, begins an article on by one Huda . . .

In the aftermath of the violence and horror of 9/11, criticisms were made that Muslim leaders and organizations were not outspoken enough in denouncing acts of terrorism. Muslims are constantly perplexed by this accusation, as we heard (and continue to hear) nothing but unequivocal and unified condemnations by the leaders of our community, both in the United States and worldwide.

Huda then cites statements compiled by over 50 professors of Islamic and Middle-Eatern studies from the U.S. and Canada assembled under the title, Scholars of Islam and the Tragedy of September 11th. Also, a University of North Carolina professor compiled an extensive list of his own: Islamic Statements Against Terrorism in the Wake of the September 11 Mass Murders. Meanwhile The Chairman of Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Judicial Council said:

Islam rejects such acts, since it forbids killing of civilians even during times of war, especially if they are not part of the fighting. A religion that views people of the world in such a way cannot in any sense condone such criminal acts, which require that their perpetrators and those who support them are held accountable.

But most Americans either don’t remember or weren’t exposed to these condemnations. Jason Linkins at Huffington Post outlines what we’re more used to hearing (emphasis added):

Yesterday afternoon, the leader of a microscopic cult of idiots who announced plans to stage an “international” day of Quran burning in Gainesville, Florida held a press conference, for a rapt media which decided that his moronic plans were the single most important thing going on in America. At that press conference . . . this cult leader lied to everyone who was watching, telling them that he was going to call off his 9/11 book burning festival because he had successfully reached a deal with the people behind the Park51 community center in Lower Manhattan, in which they would move their facility away from the site of the World Trade Center.

In other words, while those media outlets to which most Americans are exposed may have reported the above statements, they didn’t feature them prominently. They’re not, as it were, sexy enough. In a recent post at Save the News, Libby Reinish explains the rules that the media play by.

Take a look at the “if it bleeds, it leads” approach expressed with chilling precision in the submission guidelines of the self-described “backbone of the world’s information system” — the Associated Press. . . . For example, here are AP Minnesota’s guidelines for journalists looking to pitch stories:

  • Train wrecks, airplane crashes, drownings, fatal auto accidents (if there are multiple victims or unusual circumstances) and unusual accidental deaths;
  • Meetings where action of regional or statewide interest is taken or where a prominent person speaks [a rare respite from the blood -- RW];
  • Riots, demonstrations, strikes;
  • Major fires (involves loss of life, public disruption or destruction of a structure/site known statewide), explosions, oil or other chemical spills. Unusual bank robberies (exceptionally violent, hostages taken, serial robber, etc.);
  • Weather news, including ice and hail storms, heavy snows, damaging rains and floods, record heat and cold, tornadoes. . . .

AP Ohio offers this twist:

Single-victim murders that involve unusual circumstances, a prominent person or happen outside the metropolitan areas, where murders are common. . . . No: Routine one-victim murders in big cities.

    In other words, until American Muslims hold a rally and burn an effigy of Osama bin Laden — or, better yet, burn the Koran themselves — Muslim denunciations of terrorism will never receive widespread exposure. And most Americans will persist in believing that most Muslims seek the destruction of the United Sates.

    When Nuclear Terrorism Isn’t Terrorism

    Wait, is this one of those articles that tries to justify terrorism as a legitimate tactic for a people fighting an occupying power? No, but we are questioning why atrocities committed by a state don’t qualify as terrorism. After all, as Jim Holt wrote at Slate in 2002 of terrorism . . .

    The broadest definition is the deliberate killing of noncombatants. That, for example, is how Caleb Carr characterizes terrorism in his recent book The Lessons of Terror. For this he was taken to task in the New York Times Book Review by Michael Ignatieff, who insisted that if the slaughter is carried out by “a state army under regular command, as part of a formally declared campaign to defeat another state,” then it ought not to be called terrorism.

    In other words, wrote Holt, “The decision to reserve ‘terrorism’ for nonstate acts of terror, or to extend it to state acts, is a semantic one.”

    In part, because the word “terrorism” just won’t stick to states, and no other term packs its punch, states (including the United States, of course) invariably avoid prosecution for killing noncombatants. Meanwhile, new attention has been focused on that subdivision of terrorism that plumbs the very depths of our terror — nuclear terrorism. The recent high-profile disarmament documentary Countdown to Zero has been criticized for hyping the threat from Muslim terrorists as a means to justify using force if necessary to keep Middle-Eastern states from proliferating. But at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Hugh Gusterson points out one of the film’s savings graces:

    But, if the film does play up the danger of a terrorist attack on an American city, is that so unreasonable in a situation where Al Qaeda is known to be seeking a nuclear weapon? . . . Indeed the reason that people like Henry Kissinger and Graham Allison have switched sides in the debate on nuclear abolition is that they fear a world where nuclear deterrence stops working because the people thinking of attacking American cities have no territory against which retaliation might be threatened. Surely the film is naming an all-too-plausible danger of our age that we need to confront.

    In other words, if Osama bin Laden had never attempted to procure nuclear material in the 90s, Kissinger might never have tested the waters in the disarmament end of the pool. See, we knew OBL was good for something.

    Meanwhile, nuclear terrorism is defined as a non-state actor such as a terrorist group obtaining nuclear weapons and brandishing them. But the degree of difficulty for such a group to deploy nuclear weapons may only be exceeded by attempting to do the same with a delivery system, such as a missile. Thus it’s usually assumed that the non-state actor would instead attempt to smuggle nuclear devices and uranium into the target country.

    Yet as Dr. Stanley Erickson, whose job title today is Principal Scientist supporting the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), wrote for the Nonproliferation Review back in 2001, a state on a budget might attempt to acquire an entry-level delivery system such as the cruise missile. Nor is it outside the realm of possibility that a terrorist group might attempt to do the same. Still, smuggling remains more likely.

    Stashing a cache of demolition munitions can also be called “prepositioning,” a term to which I was first exposed while reading 7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century (Bantam Books, 2009) by Andrew Krepinevich, the executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. The second of Krepinevich’s alarming, but plausible scenarios is titled “War Comes to America.” In 2011, a Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapon is detonated in San Antonio, home to several major Air Force bases and an intelligence center. Krepinevich writes (emphasis added):

    Strategic Command’s nuclear forces are placed on high alert . . . military specialists pore over incoming satellite imagery to determine if they somehow missed a missile launch indication . . . and to detect any additional missile launches that would indicate a follow-on strike. . . . That evening President David Reynolds . . . informs the American public that [they've found] no indication that the weapon was delivered by any kind of missile or aircraft. Simply stated, the bomb was prepositioned in the city covertly and then detonated, perhaps remotely.

    Turns out, though, that use of this term to describe munitions cached in advance — but only by a state — was already coined by Dr. Erickson, who wrote another article in 2001 titled Nuclear Weapon Prepositioning as a Threat Strategy, which appeared on the website of a company that provides analysis for the Department of Homeland Security. His definition: “Prepositioning is not the same as nuclear terrorism or state-sponsored nuclear terrorism, but is a military operation conducted by military personnel, using the new nuclear nation’s full range of military assets, including intelligence, communications, and special operations forces.”

    In fact, if successful, said state might even cache them in a safe house or underground. However far-fetched that sounds, a precedent may exist. Stanislav Lunev is the highest-ranking member of the GRU (Russian foreign intelligence agency) ever to defect to the United States. He speculates that GRU agents crossed the U.S.-Mexican border with SADMs (special atomic demolition munitions, aka, suitcase nukes) and buried them just in case war broke out between the United States and Russia. That his musings can be found in the pages of an autobiography published by Regnery Publishing (publisher of books like the Swiftboaters Unfit for Command) makes it automatically suspect, however.

    Meanwhile, the explanation that Dr. Erickson provides for what might possess a state to preposition is one you’re unlikely to have encountered.

    If a midsized nation were contemplating an activity such as taking over a smaller neighbor, suppressing discontent among some groups, or pushing out its boundary line, it would be concerned about international opposition. It might assume that the United States would be the principal opponent or be a leader in blocking it. It might therefore seek ways to prevent any serious U.S. response, especially military, to its activities. If the nation is a new nuclear nation, having accomplished nuclear proliferation either covertly or overtly, it might seek ways to use its new capability to promote this end and to deter the United States from taking any action against it. One possible method would be to preposition nuclear weapons at targets inside the United States and then inform the U.S. government that the threat exists and demand that the United States cease calling for or planning any military actions in the region of the new nuclear nation.

    In fact state prepositioning is a potentially more significant threat than a non-state actor’s terrorism. Dr. Erickson again.

    Terrorism is a difficult problem to deal with, but one advantage that counterterrorist forces have is the terrorist groups’ lack of resources, including technical expertise, planning ability, communications capability, transport options, and highly trained manpower. This advantage disappears in the prepositioning threat. Discussions of the terrorist threat revolve around a situation involving a single weapon, whereas in prepositioning, the threat is multiple weapons.

    Though, in 7 Deadly Scenarios Krepinevich postulates a terrorist group armed with seven weapons distributed throughout the United States. Either way, measures can be taken and some of them, writes Dr. Erickson, begin with you and me.

    Once a weapon is inside the United States, detection may depend on chance encounters rather than comprehensive search. An aware public can play a useful role in such a situation. Once clues are obtained regarding neighborhoods in which such weapons are located. . . . disabling an armed nuclear weapon that has been booby-trapped is a matter of extreme skill and care.

    One can only imagine. We’re obviously in Hail Mary territory here. Meanwhile, what what would have been a first line of defense keeping the weapons from penetrating so deeply into the country? That’s where the likes of Dr. Erickson come in. His work in support of the DNDO (in case you didn’t get it the first time, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office) includes cargo radiography and ASP (advanced spectroscopic portal) which, besides cargo containers, screens car, trucks, and railroads for nuclear materials.

    For all the outstanding work on the part of the DNDO, gaps remain through which terrorists bearing nukes could slip, such as along the southern and northern borders of the United States. Also nuclear material could presumably be offloaded from an ocean-going vessel to a smaller boat which could dock in a lonely cove.

    Even more important to national security is keeping nuclear weapons other than our own in the arsenals of the states that possess them, where they belong (if, indeed, they can be said to belong anywhere). This requires scrupulous compliance and verification to monitor the whereabouts of nuclear materials and weapons at all times, as well as continuing to secure loose nukes in the states of the former Soviet Union. In his book On Nuclear Terrorism, Michael Levi demonstrated how many different elements need to fall into place for an attack by nuclear terrorists, or states adopting their tactics, to succeed. But persistence on the part of a terrorist group or state determined to probe our defenses could eventually pay off for them (if you call the retaliation they’d likely bring down on them and their people paying off).

    In the end, of course, the chance that a state might attempt to smuggle nuclear weapons into the United States as if it were a terrorist group only compounds the urgency of disarmament.

    Fahrenheit 451, Park 51, and Mainstreaming Hate

    America underestimated Terry Jones.

    The pastor who planned to set the Qur’an aflame has revealed a razor-sharp political instinct, one that will advance his cause regardless of whether the bonfire takes place.

    When the nation’s top military, civilian, and religious leaders descended upon Jones with scorn and fury, the mean-spirited and mustachioed Floridian realized that he was in dire straits. Even the voices of hate—whose opposition to Park 51 serves as cover for a broader anti-Islamic agenda—kept Jones at a safe remove.

    But Jones was not to be outdone. Through some impressive acrobatics, he ensnared a well-meaning but credulous local imam into “mediating” between Jones and Park 51’s imam, Feisal Rauf. Jones soon declared that the Qur’an-burning extravaganza was off because he had struck a deal to achieve the unimaginable—relocate Park 51.

    That nothing of the sort happened was irrelevant. After letting the fake news percolate long enough to be discredited, Jones bounced back into his media spotlight and insisted that he had been betrayed by the sneaky Muslims. The images on television of Jones occupying one half the screen and an imam on the other subtly elevated Jones from a position of insanity to something approaching credibility.

    The anti-Muslim faction took it from there. While feigning disapproval for the pastor’s planned pyrotechnics, the zealots alighted upon their now-enhanced equivalency: burning a Qur’an would be hurtful—just like building Park 51.

    “People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to,” Sarah Palin intoned, “but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation—much like building a mosque at Ground Zero.”

    Palin was echoed by GOP speaker-in-waiting John Boehner, who admonished both Jones and Rauf with a disingenuous lecture that conflated one man’s actions with the other’s.

    According to the prevailing calculus, a book-burning is now “much like” a symbol of interfaith dialogue.

    How did it come to this?

    When a gaggle of Israeli zealots, white supremacists, and professional Islamophobes first manufactured outrage over Park 51, few cared about their backgrounds. The man who has led his flock in New York for 20 years was smeared as a radical and foreign element by radicals who are funded by foreigners—but those whose skin color and “Judeo-Christian” background privilege them above the Other.

    Even when attacks on Muslims and mosques nowhere near Ground Zero rendered the “sensitivity to September 11th” line absurd, public opinion did not shift in support of the Muslim center. As it turns out, that’s because a plurality of the public is itself prejudiced against Muslims, proximity to Ground Zero be damned.

    Against this backdrop, Terry Jones has served a valuable function: anyone slightly less radical than a man who wants to make a bonfire out of religious books can now appear reasonable in his own eyes and in the eyes of his peers.

    And thus, further down the rabbit hole we go.

    M. Junaid Levesque-Alam also posts at his website, Crossing the Crescent.

    The Worst of Both Worlds: The “Shimano Problem” Underscores Clash of Cultures When Buddhism Spread to West

    The “Shimano Problem” and its recent resolution make this an opportune time to briefly explore the subject of Buddhism’s integration into the West. Eido Shimano Roshi had been the abbot of the New York Zen Studies Society, one of the oldest Buddhist institutions in the West, and its 1,400-acre Dai Bosatsu retreat in the Catkills until he resigned from both earlier this week. Even though he’s headed the former since 1965 and is 77 years old, he isn’t retiring. This comment below, posted at the Tricycle Buddhist magazine blog in reaction to the apology that accompanied his announcement, gives you an idea of what transpired.

    Take it from someone who has known Eido Shimano for over thirty years, this is anything but a sincere apology. It is the same tired routine he has repeated each time he has been “caught with his robe open” for three decades.

    Yes, the Achilles heel of gurus, abbots, and pastors everywhere — sleeping with their students and/or worshippers. Before we explore its prevalence in Buddhist America, let’s take a moment to celebrate “how the swans came to the lake,” to borrow the title of a history of the Zen Buddhism diaspora, if you will, to the United States by Rick Fields (Shambhala, 1992).

    Since Buddhism originated in India and moved east to China and then Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia, it was probably as inevitable a migration across the Pacific as Homo erectus following the game out of Africa and populating Asia and Europe. Also since Eastern teachers were often stuck with students sent to them by their families, they were happy to find students in the West who, stoked in part by American traditions such as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalism, sought out the teachers on their own and were eager to initiate practice.

    Of course, the extent to which Buddhism needed to be Westernized became a central issue. American Buddhist centers may appear to have integrated East and West seamlessly, but many obstacles were surmounted during their formative years. Looking back, rituals, practice, and teachings may have been the least of it. Instead, due to mixed signals between the two cultures and, however much a cliché, culture shock on the part of the Easterners, many American students wound up emotionally and spiritually wounded by Buddhist teachers — Eastern and American. Besides, of course, the good names of the most highly regarded forms of Buddhism in America, Tibetan and Zen, were sullied.

    Perhaps the most notorious perpetrator of spiritual abuses was Trungpa Rinpoche, who, while still a teenager, headed several large Tibetan monasteries until, like the Dalai Lama, he was forced out by the 1959 Chinese invasion. Once in the West, his gift for teaching facilitated the founding of what has become known as the Vajradhatu (his U.S. meditation centers), Shambhala Meditation Centers around the world, and the Naropa Institute (now University). But his hedonistic lifestyle and provocative “crazy wisdom” both mystified and alienated.

    Trungpa died a grisly alcoholic’s death, but his successor was arguably even more dissolute. The claim to fame of Osel Tendzin, an American from New Jersey, was not only seducing students, but becoming infected with HIV and failing to tell those with whom he engaged in sexual behavior. This scenario was paralleled by two American Zen teachers: the womanizing Richard Butler, the abbott of the San Francisco Zen Center, and his successor, Reb Anderson, who gained fame by appropriating the gun from a suicide victim and later wielding it in public.

    As for Shimano, his serial philandering was a source of concern for decades to long-time colleague Roshi Robert Aitken, who recently died. At the Zen Site, Vladimir K. and Stuart Lachs illuminated a series of letters from Aitken to Shimano and to others in the Zen community, including two of Japan’s most venerated roshis who had been his teachers. Only much later was one of them inclined to condemn Shimano. Watch how the culture clash played out in this instance. (Emphasis added.)

    Aitken excuses this lack of interest by the two Japanese Zen masters to cultural differences between America and Japan, writing “it is important to understand that mental illness and character pathology are viewed tolerantly in Japan.” Aitken infers that he believes that Shimano may be suffering some form of mental illness or pathology, calling him “someone in a different dimension altogether.” Nevertheless, Shimano’s Japanese teachers “felt responsible for him, and were not prepared to disgrace him by recalling him to Japan.”

    In a 1990 piece titled Encountering the Shadow in Buddhist America that’s as nuanced as you’ll find on the subject, the culture clash was elucidated by Katy Butler. (If you haven’t yet, read her recent powerful New York Times magazine piece that begins with her mother speaking with her about her father: “Please help me get Jeff’s pacemaker turned off.”) Upon arriving in the United States, Eastern teachers found a nation already predisposed to hero worship and religious hucksterism. Here Ms. Butler writes about what keeps Eastern teachers in line back home until they arrive on these shores and act like a kid in a candy store.

    “Pressure from the community is very important in controlling behavior in Tibetan communities,” said Dr. Barbara Aziz, an internationally known social . . . who has spent 20 years doing fieldwork among Tibetans. . . . “In Tibetan society, they expect more of the guy they put on the pedes­tal . . . if such a scandal [as Osel Tendzin's] had happened in Tibet [he] might have been driven from the valley.”

    Furthermore, Aziz pointed out, Tibetans may “demonstrate all kinds of reverence to a [teacher], but they won’t necessarily do what he says. I see far more discernment among my Tibetan and Nepali friends,” she concluded, “than among Westerners.” [Emphasis added.]

    Alan Roland, a psychoanalyst and author of In Search of Self in India and Japan . . . . believes that Asian students approach the teacher-student relation­ships more subtly than Americans-who often commit rapidly and completely, or not at all. Asian students may display deference, but withhold veneration, until they have studied with a teacher for years. They seem to have a “private self” unknown to many Americans, which is capable of reserving judgement even while scrupulously following the forms. When a teacher fails, Asians may con­tinue to defer to his superior rank but silently withdraw affection and respect.

    In America, it’s often the reverse. Some Vajradhatu students could forgive Osel Tendzin as a human being, but could not treat him as a leader. . . . few Americans can show deference to some­one they don’t venerate without feeling hypocritical. Faced with this cognitive dissonance, they either abandon deference and leave, or they deny inner feelings.

    Ms. Butler then quotes the current Dalai Lama.

    “I recommend never adopting the attitude toward one’s Spiritual teacher of seeing his or her every action as divine or noble. . . . if one has a teacher who is not qualified, who is engaging in unsuitable or wrong behavior, then it is appropriate for the student to criticize that behavior.”

    Finally, a couple random observations about the issues teachers in Eastern traditions sometimes have with power and sex:

    1. The sheer immaturity they’re manifesting is breathtaking. Either they’re resisting the transformation that long hours of meditation should be impressing on them or, in the belief that they’re fully realized, or enlightened, they think that they’re beyond the effects of bad karma on their future as souls.
    2. It goes without saying that these problems are all but nonexistent in woman-led sanghas and zendos.

    It’s “Groundhog Day” All Over Again in Pyongyang

    Kim Jong II PosterIt’s 1994 all over again in North Korea, and that’s not good news for the country. The nuclear crisis continues to burn. There are food shortages and flooding. Jimmy Carter has gone to Pyongyang. Relations between North and South have sunk to new lows. And the country is preparing to pass the reins of power from father to son.

    But this time around, Groundhog Day in Pyongyang looks even grimmer. In 1994, the nuclear crisis was averted at the last minute. In 2010, no one is even at the negotiating table (no one even knows where the negotiating table is!). Jimmy Carter visited Pyongyang in 1994 and secured a nuclear deal with long-time leader Kim Il Sung. Just last month, Carter returned to North Korea and won the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes, an imprisoned U.S. citizen. But he didn’t get a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (the current leader and son of Kim Il Sung) and couldn’t announce any larger breakthrough. Meanwhile, in South Korea, the new hard-line government of Lee Myung Bak in Seoul has suspended most contact with the North after the sinking of a South Korean ship in March. Seoul is currently sitting on twice the amount of rice that it usually has in storage, partly as a result of not sending the surplus northward. It costs the South hundreds of millions of dollars to store the rice it isn’t sending.

    And then there’s the transfer of power, which is attracting the most headlines outside the country. In 1994, Kim Il Sung died rather soon after Jimmy Carter’s visit. But his son Kim Jong Il had been preparing to take over for at least two decades. This time around, Kim Jong Il has chosen his youngest son, Kim Jong Eun, who is reportedly only in his twenties. According to defector reports, there wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm for Kim Jong Il when he took over after his father’s death. This time around, according to The Washington Post, there is even less excitement, perhaps because even North Koreans don’t know much about Kim Jong Eun.

    Pyongyang is preparing this week for a party conference to herald the leadership change. Don’t confuse this gathering with a party congress, North Korea watcher Andrei Lankov warns. “In North Korea it has become an established tradition that a party congress should be accompanied by lavish celebrations and expensive gifts to both the elite and the general public,” he writes at Asia Times. And this time around, the state just doesn’t have the money to indulge in such largesse.

    And what is the Obama administration doing to take advantage of possible new leadership in Pyongyang? Sending Jimmy Carter was certainly a good idea. Announcing $750,000 in humanitarian assistance in the wake of the floods in North Korea was also a positive step. Dispatching North Korea envoy Stephen Bosworth for consultations next week in Seoul, Beijing, and Tokyo is also wise. But at the same time the administration has announced new sanctions against Pyongyang. “In many respects, what’s happening is the Obama administration is going back to the hard-line Bush approach to North Korea that Democrats had criticized,” says Michael Green, who was once part of the Bush administration.

    But the Bush administration turned on a dime back in 2006 and embarked on an engagement policy with North Korea that almost bore fruit. The Obama administration should welcome the new leadership in Pyongyang with a similar offer of engagement. Why leave all the surprises to the North Koreans?

    Et Tu, Buddha? Rationalizing Violence in Buddhism

    Earlier last month, in a book review at Britain’s Current Intelligence titled The myth of “nonviolent Buddhism” — demolished once again, Vladimir Tikhonov wrote that according to Mahayana Buddhism, when it comes to killing . . .

    . . . it is the intention and not the act in itself that is focused upon. . . . As some of the most influential MahÄyÄna sÅ«tras . . . suggest, “killing” is simply a meaningless misconception from an “enlightened” viewpoint (since neither the killer nor the killed have any independent existence) and may be undertaken if intended to prevent a worse misfortune, and done with the best objectives in mind.

    That’s some world-class rationalization. Furthermore, writes Tikhonov, “the Buddhist emphasis on ‘good intention’ opened the door for a broad spectrum of violence legitimization, including both war and in criminal justice.”

    One then feels compelled to ask: If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, is the road to heaven paved with bad intentions? Consider that your koan for the day.

    The subject of the review is Buddhist Warfare (Oxford University Press) edited by American academics Michael K. Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer. It follows in the tradition of Zen at War, Brian Daizen Victoria’s 1998 book that explored how closely much of Zen Buddhism aligned itself with Japanese militarism leading up to World War II. According to Tikhonov, the new collection . . .

    . . . persuasively argues that even though in theory Buddhism highlights the inescapably insalubrious [! -- RW] karmic consequences of any violence, in practice it functions pretty much like any other religion: From its inception, Buddhism was integrated into a complicated web of power relations; it always attempted to accommodate itself with the pre-existent power hierarchies while preserving a degree of internal autonomy; and it inevitably came to acknowledge, willingly or otherwise, that the powers-that-be use violence to achieve their objectives.

    If that’s not disillusioning enough for you, try this:

    . . . the passive acknowledgement of the inexorableness of state violence further developed into active collaboration with state war-making or internal pacification — as long as state bloodletting was seen as also serving Buddhist religious interests.

    At its most extreme . . .

    . . . a very similar logic was also applied to the cruelest forms of criminal justice utilized by secular rulers in Mongolian society after the conversion to Gelug-pa Buddhism in late sixteenth century. Executions by spine-breaking and slicing into pieces [as well as torture, were] justified as long as they were conducted by “Dharma-protecting” authorities with the “compassionate” intention of purifying society. Violence ended up being justified as long as it was seen as the best way of realizing rulers’ good intentions in what was perceived as an inherently violent world.

    “Good intentions” rears its now-ugly head again. Have you figured out the koan yet? Meanwhile, you may be surprised to learn that as Islamists take some of their cues from Muhammed leading followers into battle, the responsibility for Buddhist violence can be laid, in part, at the door of the “the historical Buddha and his disciples, since it was exactly their attitude of tacitly acknowledging state violence and accepting sponsorship from ruling-class personages directly or indirectly implicated in all sorts of violence.”

    Among the most pernicious effects of “early Buddhism’s dichotomous view of society” is that it “gave Buddhists little reason to take risks by actively promoting antiwar views certain to alienate state rulers.”

    Tikhonov’s powerful conclusion resounds. Much as he values Buddhist Warfare, he would still like to see . . .

    . . . a broader and stronger contextualization of Buddhist violence as part and parcel of a more general tendency of practically all religions to be violent. Religions are symbolic systems that organize the universe in such a way as to make themselves central and powerful — and closing the distance between “power” and “violence” is only a question of time, however “compassionate” the axiology of a given religion might originally have been.

    Why Don’t Iraqis and Afghans Embrace Democracy?

    “What’s wrong with those people?” many Americans — and not just those on the right — think about Iraqis. “We got rid of their tyrant and gave them their freedom. But look what they did with it — mowed each other down and blew each other up. Maybe they don’t deserve democracy.” (As I posted yesterday.)

    We seldom stop to think that to many in the world democracy is just another political system and since it’s not indigenous to them, one they’re likely to give short shrift. Also, whenever there’s a power vacuum, jockeying for position supersedes establishing a just political system even if an outside force is willing to help them with its institution. Of course, if the outside force is occupying their land, especially with a heavy hand that results in untold numbers of civilian deaths, it’s absolutely no advertisement for democracy whatsoever.

    Meanwhile, tailoring democracy to fit Afghanistan is proving even more unlikely. Anatol Lieven explains at Current Intelligence, a remarkable British web publication to which you (like myself) may not yet have been exposed. If you’re looking for a crash course on why Afghanistan is proving intractable to the West, you could do a lot worse than this article, which is, in fact a review of three books. (Thanks to Steve Hynd of Newshoggers for bringing it to our attention.) Lieven writes:

    . . . engagement in Afghanistan has been above all one of the largest and most expensive exercises in collective narcissism that the world has ever known, and Afghanistan itself a landscape of the mind, onto which Westerners could project a variety of agendas and fantasies. As Antonio Giustozzi [editor of one of the books reviewed, Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field] writes, “Every age has its follies; perhaps the folly of our age could be defined as an unmatched ambition to change the world, without even bothering to study it in detail and understand it first.”

    It would be nice to pin all the blame for this on Bush, Blair and their supporters, but this tendency spread much more widely and is much more deeply rooted in contemporary Western culture. . . . In the first years after 2001, literally thousands of government departments and contractors, but also high-minded NGOs swarmed around the bloated feast of Western “aid to Afghanistan.” . . . the desire to bring democracy, freedom, “good governance” and an improvement in the status of women to Afghanistan were laudable goals in themselves, but the result has been a ghastly masquerade. . . .

    [In fact, the West's] systemic ignorance [about Afghanistan] marks a difference from the era of European empires [when] scholars [were] working in the field. . . . This had at least some effect in modifying the fantasies that they could project onto their subjects. . . .

    Intense study of Afghan society, culture and politics are so important because they are so very different from those of the modern West. . . . it takes an enormous leap of knowledge and imagination for Western officials to apprehend those realities at all, or to design strategies to deal with them. [Emphasis added.]

    In practice, writes Lieven . . .

    . . . the West created the thin façade of an Afghan state in the image of itself, convinced itself that this flimsy object had real being, and then fell into paroxysms of rage and disappointment when our Afghan allies acted according to the traditions and the realities of their own society, and not according to our precepts. . . . [Giustozzi writes that the] West’s approach in Afghanistan has been to try to transfer the structures of fully-developed modern statehood to Afghanistan — and not just that, but . . . modern Western democracy. [But] Giustozzi suggests, Afghanistan is at an early stage of state formation [and] any parallels (however inexact) in European history would have to be sought not in the recent past but many hundreds of years earlier [such as] the period of Charlemagne. [Also Machiavelli is] a pretty good guide to the realities of warlordism, though the setting of contemporary Afghanistan is far poorer and less developed than that of 16th century central Italy. [Think about that. -- RW]

    Giustozzi’s basic conclusions concerning the nature and future of the state in Afghanistan are grim but convincing. “In the case of Afghanistan,” he writes, “the problem is still state formation more than state building. Gradually I came to think that the formation of a ‘modern’ . . . state in Afghanistan has little chance of succeeding unless it relies on the establishment of an international protectorate, with all the difficulties that come with that.”

    In other words, democracy is either far too advanced for Afghanistan or, if you wish to avoid patronizing it, far too alien.

    Bacevich Held Over Another Week!

    Foreign Policy in Focus recently posted two articles by Andrew Feldman on Andrew Bacevich, the esteemed international relations professor and author, who argues that, by habitually responding to threats with the military instead of diplomacy, the United States makes itself more vulnerable instead of shoring up its defense. Feldman not only reviewed his book, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, but interviewed Bacevich for posts that both appeared on August 26. Despite Bacevich’s status in anti-intervention camps, Feldman doesn’t exactly lob softball questions at him.

    For example, the former maintains, “But my argument is, roughly since the 1960s and very much so since 9/11, expansionism has an opposite effect. We’re not enhancing our power; we’re squandering it. We’re not building our prosperity; we’re going bankrupt.” But that’s not enough for Feldman, who replies, “Maybe you just don’t see it as a question of the ethical nature of expansionist policy.”

    After President Obama’s Iraq speech, the New Republic posted an opinion piece by Bacevich that enjoyed wide readership. First he wrote:

    And before we hasten to turn the page [on Iraq] — something that the great majority of Americans are keen to do — common decency demands that we reflect on all that has occurred in bringing us to this moment.

    Decency? Where — I’m convinced many Americans were wondering — was the decency on the part of Sunnis and Shias who showed their gratitude for the freedom we gave them by mowing each other down and blowing each other up? Until the Surge saved Iraq. Sending in reinforcements — what a concept!

    In fact, as Gareth Porter points out in a recent Focal Points post . . .

    The Sunni decision to cooperate in the suppression of al Qaeda in Iraq had nothing to do with the surge. The main Sunni armed resistance groups had actually turned against al Qaeda in 2005, when they began trying to make a deal with the United States to end the war.

    But that hasn’t kept the Obama administration from propagating the myth of the Surge. Porter again.

    For the Democratic foreign policy elite, staying ignorant of the real history of the Iraq War allows them to believe that deploying U.S. military forces in Muslim countries can be an effective instrument of U.S. power.

    Meanwhile, in his New Republic piece, Bacevich writes:

    So the Americans are bowing out, having achieved few of the ambitious goals articulated in the heady aftermath of Baghdad’s fall. The surge, now remembered as an epic feat of arms, functions chiefly as a smokescreen, obscuring a vast panorama of recklessness, miscalculation, and waste that politicians, generals, and sundry warmongers are keen to forget.

    The “ethical nature of expansionist policy” may not be as foremost in Bacevich’s mind as whether or not it helps the United States in its relations with the world. But has anyone summed up our Iraq adventure as well?

    Israel’s Bacevich

    Israel has its own Andrew Bacevich — a former solider who has become a respected spokesperson of his nation’s policies and, as well, a parent who has lost a son in one of his country’s military misadventures. David Grossman spoke to the Guardian on the occasion of the publication of his new novel, To the End of the Land, which it describes as “a memorial to his son who was killed while serving in the army, and why he remains an opponent of his country’s policy towards the Palestinians.” Interviewer Rachel Cooke writes:

    Meanwhile, life in Israel grows somehow narrower. Grossman’s Arabic is almost as fluent as his superlative English, but it is harder and harder to maintain links with Palestinian friends, let alone to travel there. “I spoke three weeks ago to a dear friend, the writer Ahmad Harb…” He sighs. “Between us, there is the mutual disappointment of people who had a common dream and who saw it evaporate. But I know he continues to fight in his society exactly as he knows I do in mine. We are like two groups of miners digging from either side of a mountain; we know we will meet in the end.” The settlers? They are distorting an Israeli idealism he still holds dear. “The emotional investment we put into the occupation! As Gershon Sholem said, ‘All the blood goes to the wound.’ We are not taking care of ourselves. We are looking in the wrong direction. The settlement movement might really ruin us.”

    By reflexively reaching for the military whenever they feel threatened, the United States and Israel threaten not only wreak havoc on national security and each respective state’s federal budget, but the very moral foundations of their societies.

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