Focal Points Blog

“Nuclear Spy” Arrests: Remember Who Your Friends Are, Iran

As you may have heard, in response to the Stuxnet cyber attack on its nuclear program, Iran has been detaining Russian personnel working on Iran’s first nuclear reactor at Bushehr. Hence, “dozens of Russian nuclear engineers, technicians and contractors are hurriedly departing Iran for home since local intelligence authorities began rounding up their compatriots as suspects of planting the Stuxnet malworm into their nuclear program,” reports Israel’s DEBKAfile.

Hold on there, Tehran, don’t go off half-cocked. Chances are, if transmitted via the Russians, unless one was on the pad of the cyberwarring entity, that one of them is not to blame. Jason Fritz provides some perspective in Hacking Nuclear Command and Control, a paper commissioned by the ICNND (International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament) (emphasis added).

All computers which are connected to the internet are susceptible to infiltration and remote control. Computers which operate on a closed network may also be compromised by various hacker methods, such as privilege escalation, roaming notebooks, wireless access points, embedded exploits in software and hardward, and maintenance entry points. For example, e-mail spoofing targeted at individuals who have access to a closed network, could lead to the installation of a virus on an open network. This virus could then be carelessly transported on removable data storage between the open and closed network.

The Iranian computers were initially spread using flash drives, which anyone could have infected. Tehran: remember who your friends are. When it comes to “crippling sanctions” and even an attack on your nuclear facilities, you don’t want to drive Russia into the full embrace of the West.

It’s When He Most Tries to Appear Strong That Obama Is at His Weakest

Obama PetraeusIn Bob Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars, as you’ve no doubt heard by now, he describes the procedure that President Obama attempted to follow in determining how to proceed on Afghanistan. After informing the Pentagon of his need for distinctive policy options, he was instead presented with three variations of a single course of action. Rather than send it back to the drawing board, he grudgingly chose one.

As Andrew Bacevich explains in Obama Can’t Stand Up to His Generals — And That’s Dangerous at the New Republic (emphasis added) . . .

. . . presidential weakness — even an inkling of weakness — can have international as well as domestic implications. This is notably the case in matters related to national security. If the occupant of the Oval Office appears less than fully in command, friend and foe alike will wonder who exactly is in charge. . . . [Whether Obama] possesses the temperament to govern is fast becoming an open question. Put simply, the question is this: Does Obama have sufficient backbone?

No doubt Obama had fallen prey to the conventional thinking that proceeding with the war was actually a sign of said “backbone.” Of course, that was predicated on the notion that news of his capitulation to the generals didn’t leak out. Once that happened, we see how an attempt to appear strong on national security was actually a demonstration of weakness. In fact, as a reversion to the default position of Democratic presidents to reflexively come down on the side of the military out of deference to the misconception that Democrats are weak on national security, it was especially cowardly.

Also, writes Bacevich, “Once Obama endorsed choices made by unelected subordinates, the office of commander-in-chief had acquired additional tenants.”

You mean in addition to the coporations that have taken up lodging in the Oval Office? It’s getting pretty crowded in there.

Flat-lined Iraqi Politics Shocked Back to Life

Congratulations were in order last Friday for Iraq, which set the world’s record for the longest stretch of parliamentary statehood without an actual government. Dutch politicians took 208 days to form a government in 1977, a period of political log-jamming that Iraqi politicians not only surpassed this past week but will likely dwarf once they finally assemble a ruling coalition in Baghdad.

Apparently satisfied with having achieved this disreputable honor, however, a significant bloc of Iraqi politicians celebrated by taking the first steps to break their stalemate and ultimately produce a functioning government. On Friday, followers of Shiite firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr dropped their longstanding opposition to Nouri al-Maliki’s bid for a second term as Iraqi prime minister. This unexpected development—undoubtedly the product of behind-the-scenes horse trading between Shiite political factions—seemed to shock flat-lined Iraqi politics back to life. The following day, Kurdish lawmakers signaled willingness to align with the would-be premier, a move that would firmly give al-Maliki the majority support needed to form a functioning coalition government.

This is good news, of a sort.

Iraq needs a working government, and quick. While lawmakers in Baghdad continue practicing petty kabuki politics with little regard for the broader public, ordinary Iraqis suffer from a dearth of basic public services, a decimated infrastructure, deteriorating security, and a broken economy. Understandably, Iraqi faith in democracy has worn thin, and regional neighbors grow increasingly wary of the country’s political vacuum. Whatever the merits of al-Maliki’s potential stewardship of the Iraqi state, a functioning government will at least stop the bleeding.

But the news highlights the problems that still lie ahead. The most immediate challenge will be roadblocks thrown up by the Sunni opposition. Of central concern is former prime minister Ayad Allawi’s al-Iraqiya party, a self-professed secular organization that enjoys widespread Sunni support. Al-Iraqiya captured the most seats outright in the country’s March election but failed to build on its electoral gains by establishing a governing coalition. Allawi and his followers refuse to accept al-Maliki’s return to the executive and have signaled their intention to boycott any government with al-Maliki at its head.

If Allawi and his Sunni bloc simply refuse to participate, as some experts fear, the prospect of increased political violence will present itself. On Sunday, a leading Sunni politician, Atheel al-Nujaifi, told the Associated Press that al-Maliki’s reinstatement as prime minister would mark dictatorship’s defeat of democracy in Iraq. Pointing to the possibility of Sunni refusal at the local level to carry out decisions emanating from Baghdad, al-Nujaifi predicted that this state of affairs “could lead to government institutions ceasing to work—they just won’t function anymore,” but added that the resumption of sectarian violence is unlikely. “People are really tired of that kind of thing.” Still, the resurgence of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which has brutally reasserted itself over the past few months by exploiting political and economic frustrations, compounds concern of Sunni disenfranchisement.

But the longer-term sticking point in establishing a secure framework for governance could come from the Kurdish north. Smelling the opportunity to play kingmaker in whatever coalition government moves forward, the Kurds made plain their intention to marry al-Maliki’s fledgling premiership to a series of potentially explosive demands. Chief among them, the Kurds will look to reinstall Jalal Talabani in the presidency, push for greater autonomy over the country’s oil-rich north and assume formal control of the disputed territory in and around the northern city of Kirkuk —traditionally a graveyard for political negotiations in Baghdad. The Kurds may budge on Talabani but are less likely to soften on concessions concerning oil and have ruled out, at least publicly, accepting anything less than a constitutional mandated referendum on the future of Kirkuk.

Meanwhile, the internal dynamics of Iraqi politics have kicked off a diplomatic proxy war between the country’s neighbors, and frustrated the political calculus of American withdrawal. Thus far, Iran looks to be the big winner. Widely believed to have had a hand in convincing al-Sadr to throw his weight behind al-Maliki, Tehran can expect to enjoy considerable influence over a united Shiite front in Baghdad. At the same time, Allawi’s possible sidelining would further hobble the interests of Saudi Arabia and other regional Sunni powers in Iraq.

But without a doubt, developments over the weekend tag Washington as the biggest loser. On the one hand, tolerating the legitimate presence of al-Sadr—who is responsible for the considerable bloodletting of American troops—in a collation government will be a difficult pill for the Obama administration to swallow. On the other, the marginalization of Allawi threatens to further exacerbate Iraq’s fragile security conditions, and preemptively discredits American claims to leaving behind functioning democratic institutions in the wake of withdrawal. It will be interesting to see whether Washington, which up to this point has largely kept its hands off Iraq’s political stalemate, will continue resisting the impulse to do so.

All totaled, the good news of progress in Baghdad will produce, necessarily, more frustration in the short term. Even if al-Maliki takes control of the rudder and successfully steers the country through these choppy waters, it will be months before anything meaningfully coalesces. The International Crisis Group’s Joost Hiltermann warned the New York Times on Saturday not to “expect a government before January.” Given the myriad tensions in need of resolution, however, even this disheartening forecast may prove prematurely optimistic.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Senate Again Undermines Obama’s Middle-East Peace Efforts

Once again, as President Barack Obama began pressuring the right-wing Israeli government to freeze the expansion of its illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territories, leading Congressional Democrats have joined in with Republicans to try to stop him.

Recognizing that increased Israeli colonization on occupied Palestinian land would seriously threaten the viability of an independent Palestinian state that could emerge from the peace talks and thereby make the process worthless, and recognizing that he would lose any popular mandate to continue negotiations under such conditions, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to withdraw from the negotiating table. As a result, Obama has been trying to get the rightist Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to extend the partial freeze on new construction of the Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank.

In an apparent effort to undermine administration’s efforts, Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer and Robert Casey joined with Republican senators Johnny Isakson and Richard Burr in preparing a letter to President Obama that criticizes Abbas’ threat to withdraw from the talks while completely ignoring the threatened resumption of Netanyahu’s illegal colonization drive that would prompt it. According to the letter, “…it is critical that all sides stay at the table. Neither side should make threats to leave just as the talks are getting started.”

There is no mention in the letter that Netanyahu should abide by commitments of previous Israeli governments to freeze the settlement drive nor is there any mention of the five UN Security Council resolutions and the 2004 World Court decision calling on Israel to withdraw from the already-existing settlements. Instead, they praise the right wing prime minister for “not abandon(ing) the talks.”

It appears that Boxer and the other initiators of the letter decided that rather than emphasize the importance of both sides refraining from taking actions that would undermine the credibility of the negotiations, they were determined to put the U.S. Senate on record putting all the blame for the possible collapse of the talks on the Palestinians and none on the Israelis.

In response to international calls for pressure on Israel to live up to its international legal obligations to withdraw from Palestinian territories seized in the June 1967 war in return for security guarantees, the letter also insists that the United States “not to attempt to impose an agreement on the two parties,” and – despite the gross asymmetry in power between the Israeli occupiers and the Palestinians under occupation – that a peace settlement must be “embraced by both sides.”

The letter was strongly criticized by the liberal Zionist group Americans for Peace Now and praised by the right-wing American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC.)

Back in April, Boxer and Isakson initiated another letter, which was signed by 76 senators (half of whom were Democrats), to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton implicitly rebuking President Obama for challenging Israel on its illegal settlements, insisting that “differences are best resolved amicably and in a manner that befits longstanding strategic allies.” The letter, which criticized the Palestinians for conditioning talks on a settlement freeze, insisted that “Progress occurs in the Middle East when everyone knows there is simply no space between the U.S. and Israel.”

Ironically, despite the efforts of senators like Boxer, Russ Feingold, Patty Murray and others who have signed such letters to undermine President Obama’s peace efforts in the Middle East, liberal groups like Democracy for America and MoveOn have recently been praising Boxer, Feingold, Murray, and other signatories as “progressive heroes” deserving support for their re-election.

It is hard to get excited about defeating Republican challengers, however, when incumbent Democrats embrace the same right-wing foreign policy and try to undermine President Obama when he tries to do something right.

No Mean Feat: Justifying Israel’s Nukes Without Acknowledging Them

What’s it like to be one of the principal keepers of “The Worst-Kept Secret” (as Israel bomb historian Avner Cohen calls it in his new book)? David Danieli, the deputy director general and head of the policy division of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission, was recently interviewed by Yossi Melman for Haaretz. Some background: at this year’s General Conference of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), the Arab states, along with Iran, sought to pass a resolution calling for Israel to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In the process, Israel would place its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards and, oh yeah, finally admit to possession of nuclear weapons. The resolution failed to pass as narrowly as it succeeded in passing last year (though obviously to little effect that time).

First, Washington’s response. Reuters reports . . .

Washington had urged countries to vote down the symbolically important although non-binding resolution, saying it could derail broader efforts to ban nuclear warheads in the Middle East and also damage fresh Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“The winner here is the peace process, the winner here is the opportunity to move forward with a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East,” said Glyn Davies, the U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

With its insinuation that they’re less invested in the peace process than the United States and Israel, Davies’s gloating is an insult to the Arab states. Worse, its suggestion that all it takes for the Middle East to be a nuclear-weapon-free zone is for the likes of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria to hold their heavy water makes him sound delusional. If Davies wants to pretend that Israel has no nuclear-weapons program, fine, but don’t expect the Arab states — or the citizens, if not the governments, of Western states — to succumb to this mass hallucination.

Neither was Danieli the soul of graciousness when he told Melman: “This was definitely a very important achievement for Israel. . . . This is also an unprecedented decision, in light of the fact that there is an automatic majority against Israel in international organizations. Israel is not blessed with a lot of decisions in the international arena that defeat the bloc of Arab-Muslim states.” In other words, it wasn’t the peace process and the nuclear-free weapons zone in the Middle East to which he was referring, just sheer victory over the Arab states.

In fairness to Israel, it must be pointed out that when it comes to this, he has a case: “One of our more convincing arguments was asking why Israel should be singled out when the IAEA has never passed a resolution against any other country that is not a signatory to the treaty, such as Pakistan and India.”

As for Israel joining the NPT . . .

Israel does not see fit to join the treaty as long as the current conditions in this region remain in place. . . . There are other weapons of mass destruction here — chemical and biological [as well as] terrorist organizations that get aid from terror-supporting states like Iran and Syria [and] have tens of thousands of rockets aimed at Israel.”

See what Danieli is saying here? Because of extenuating circumstances, Israel needs its nuclear weapons. But in the next breath he says: “Israel has a clear and responsible nuclear policy, and it has frequently reiterated that it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.”

As you can see David Danieli has a thankless job trying to juggle Israel’s nuclear lies. Unless his audience has undergone mass hypnosis, there’s no way he can keep all those balls in the air.

Nick Kristof’s Calls for Force No Antidote to Genocide in Sudan

The New York Times’ man-about-the-global-village returned to his op-ed spot yesterday with a grisly timeline of how genocide might play out in Sudan over the coming months. Kristof sets the scene:

The place is southern Sudan, and the timetable is the next few months. The South, which holds more than 75 percent of Sudan’s oil, is scheduled to hold a referendum on Jan. 9 on seceding from the rest of Sudan. Here’s how one more [it] might unfold.

You can imagine what follows—it begins as “word trickles out of massacres and widespread rapes by tribal militias from the North in the boiling borderlands between North and South,” picks up steam when “the South issues a unilateral declaration of independence,” and really gets going as “tribal militias from the North,” respond by “sweep[ing] through South Sudan villages, killing and raping inhabitants and driving them south.” Kristof’s ghastly fantasy reaches a cinematic climax as Sudanese president Omar Bashir, seeing the raw chaos spreading throughout the south, wonders aloud “How can those people think that they can run a country?” Soon, “he calls for ‘peaceful negotiation with our brothers to resolve these problems and restore unity,’” but not before “warfare ripples through the Nuba Mountains and then Darfur as well,” leaving the world, and specifically Barack Obama, with a world-class mess to clean up.

Despite Kristof’s disclaimer that his only confident prediction is that events won’t unfold exactly as he describes, something similar may very well be in the cards for the Sudanese in coming months. Then again, it may not. But Kristof isn’t concerned with weighing alternatives, and where he goes next is more disturbing still. Kristof points out that while Obama’s recent focus on Sudan is to be applauded (“That’s terrific”!), “there’s a fatal flaw” in his approach: “The carrots being offered to Khartoum by Mr. Obama are juicy and smart,” but “I see no evidence of serious sticks.”

Fair enough, but what makes for a compelling model of tough-minded seriousness? Apparently, George W. Bush:

The Bush administration mapped out exactly what would happen to Sudan if it did not share intelligence on Osama bin Laden. C.I.A. officers met in a London hotel with two top Sudanese leaders. An excellent new book from Yale University Press, “Sudan,” reports that the C.I.A. officers explained that America would use bombers or cruise missiles to destroy the oil refinery at Port Sudan, the port itself and the pipeline carrying oil to the port Sudan decided to cooperate…Why shouldn’t we privately make it clear to Mr. Bashir that if he initiates genocide, his oil pipeline will be destroyed and he will not be exporting any oil?

Sorry, what?

There are plenty of reasons, moral and pragmatic, that the prospect of military strikes against Sudan is too stupid a notion to contemplate. Here are just a few.

In the first place, the idea that macho chest-thumping and threats of military violence should be central to Obama’s foreign policy constitutes either distressing naiveté or willful cynicism. We saw this movie on constant re-run over the last decade or so in the United States, and the ending was rarely positive. What good comes of American bellicosity in a situation that demands peaceful resolve above all else? Nothing as far as I can see, and yet it’s curious to note that Kristof is silent on what might be done before any genocidal violence breaks out other than threaten to contribute further to what would be an after-the-fact bloodbath.

But even if you believed that military intervention was the way to go…bombing pipelines? My unfailingly perceptive friend Nomvuyo Nolutshungu points out that depriving Bashir of oil revenue would hardly bring the violence to an end, and certainly not in the short term. If anything, we would likely see an uptick in fighting.

American intervention solely from the skies might just lead Bashir to ratchet up state aggression, not scale it back. Bashir demonstrates considerable cunning at testing other countries’ stomachs for confrontation. Igniting greater levels of violence would force the White House to decide just how far it’s willing to go prevent genocide from taking place on its watch. Needless to say, boots on the ground is all but out of the question, especially in the midst of withdrawal from two deeply unpopular wars and an economic depression at home.

At the same time, as Oscar Blayton argues in his smart analysis on the Social Science Research Council’s Sudan blog, American military intervention, in threat or deed, could very easily encourage the Southern Sudanese to engage the north in violent conflict with the understanding that the United States had its back. Neither of these scenarios auger well for peace. And we haven’t even discussed the effects that disrupting Sudan’s oil production might have on international oil markets, nor the US relationship with China.

Of all these things, I suspect Kristof is fully aware. Why, then, the repackaging of arguments for Iraq for sale in North Africa?

Again, Blayton: “These drumbeats of doom seem to be coming from those most interested in regime change in Sudan. Like snipers in the bush, many Westerners…are taking a page out of the playbook for the Iraq invasion, with the hopes that history will repeat itself.” Blayton pins the majority of blame on those “with an interest in a divided and weakened Sudan.” It’s not clear that Kristof should be pegged with membership in that category: his arguments derive instead from a misplaced, arrogant, and unexamined morality. Yet good intentions are hardly permission for the Times to allow their op-ed pages to become a launching pad for arguments justifying unprovoked American military aggression abroad…again.

Kristof seems to recognize this himself, but appears too intellectually exhausted to think through the issue any further. “Yes, [this] would be a dangerous and uncertain game. But the present strategy appears to be failing, and the result may be yet another preventable genocide that we did not prevent.” Hardly the clinching conclusion to a defense of the use of force.

If Kristof is taxed out from meditating on Sudan, perhaps he should silence his pen. Perhaps he should relinquish the bully pulpit of the Times’ editorial spread and make room for other writers on the subject: writers who refuse to shrink in the face of complexity, writers who reject abdicating their commitment to values and peace in a world that privileges violence.

Is Mumbai-Style Attack Scuttlebut Just Cover for Increased Drone Strikes?

CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips writes: “According to reports . . . al Qaeda affiliated groups have been planning Mumbai-style commando attacks in western Europe — and only [increased] strikes using unmanned U.S. drones in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan have derailed those attacks by targeting the terror cells which have been planning them.” He continues.

But others in the security establishment are wondering . . . whether [instead] the new alleged threat is being used as a cover for a drone offensive in Pakistan. [After all] Germany’s interior minister said Wednesday that there are “no concrete pointers to imminent attacks in Germany. . . . Meanwhile, a well-informed British source went so far as to [told] CBS News he’s been told by law enforcement officials that the reports of a foiled plot are, “a load of old rubbish which have been planted to justify the increased drone attacks taking place in the tribal areas” of Pakistan.

Do such tactics strike Focal Pointers as something the Obama administration was reject as too Bush-like? Or is it still operating from the old playbook that Bush & Co. left lying around the Oval Office?

Jon Stewart’s False “Moderation”

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

Back in December 2007, I was visiting my home state of Iowa. The presidential primary season was in full flower. It seemed like you couldn’t make a run to the supermarket without bumping into Hillary. My brothers and I joked with a neighbor (perhaps the strongest Biden supporter in the precinct) that the future vice president had been so ingratiating that we expected to see him come over soon to personally shovel the snow off her sidewalk.

That month, I went out to see both John Edwards and Barack Obama stump. Obama gave a solid speech, but he was far less specific and unrelenting in taking on corporate power than Edwards. Instead, Obama stuffed his speech with a lot of filler. He savored lines such as, “I don’t want to be president of Red State America or Blue State America. I want to be president of the United States of America.”

OK, I get it. The line got a lot of applause. But I had a hard time taking that stuff seriously. After all, what politician doesn’t claim to want to transcend the fray, work as a diligent bipartisan, and be a “uniter, not a divider”? Far from shaking up the political status quo in Washington, such appeals to high-minded moderation are an ingrained part of business as usual. I guess some people view these pledges as refreshing; I think they are pretty cynical.

Obama’s line came to mind when I saw that Jon Stewart—an undeniably funny guy and often brilliant satirist—has announced a “Rally to Restore Sanity,” which is to take place in Washington the week before the midterm elections. His premise with the event (originally dubbed the “Million Moderates March”) is that politics has been taken over by the lunatic fringes on “both sides.” He believes that everyone needs to “be reasonable” and “take it down a notch.” As of this writing over 160,000 people on Facebook have vowed to attend, and the rally has garnered enthusiastic support from some political commentators as well.

I understand what Stewart is going for. Most Americans are fed up with the overheated hectoring of the political class. Glenn Beck’s posturing deserves to be challenged. And, sure, it’s possible to find examples of excess on both ends of the political spectrum. I’ve written against the “End of America” or “descent into fascism” thesis presented by folks like Naomi Wolf, and I strongly oppose 9/11 conspiracy theorists (although they are as likely to be right-leaning libertarians as leftists). Moreover, I didn’t like it when lefties carried signs comparing Dick Cheney or George W. Bush to Hitler; I think it reflected a lazy and unhelpful analysis. (On a side note, I’m currently in a debate at Dissent in which my interlocutors have invoked Hitler, Franco, and Mussolini in describing elements of the Latin American Left. I don’t think it has been particularly helpful in that instance either!)

But are the problems with American politics really a case of “both sides” equally going overboard? The Right has Fox News spouting extremist ideas about Obama on a 24/7 basis. The Left had…what? The people making equivalent claims about Bush tended to be very much on margins and got very little airplay.

My colleague Daniel Denvir, over at the Huffington Post, and Glenn Greenwald at Salon have each done a fine job of taking on what the latter author calls “the perils of false equivalencies and self-proclaimed centrism.” The two pieces are well worth a read.

Denvir writes:

As Jon Stewart has it, the problem is “loud folks” and a tone of political debate that has become untempered: too many crazies yelling and screaming, comparing people they don’t like to Hitler.

But yelling is not just a matter of loud noise expelled through the human throat. It matters what’s being yelled. When it comes to the Republican Party—and Democratic fellow travelers—they are shouting in favor of corporate exploitation and war.

The Tea Party far right leans on made-up things, also known as lies—“ground zero” Mosque, illegal immigrants purposely causing highway accidents, death panels killing grandma—to win political power. The left has a different problem. We could have used a little more hysteria in recent years, as Wall Street robbed Main Street and the most powerful military on earth invaded multiple countries. Instead, a real anti-war movement never materialized to challenge one of this nation’s most violent presidencies. The people “who have shit to do” that you cited as your fan base, Jon Stewart, should have been out in the streets protesting and putting our 1960s radical parents to shame. But we’ve got “shit to do.” On the Internet, I suppose….

Ironically, the Rally to Restore Sanity repeats the liberal establishment’s greatest error: when Republicans go on attack—either at home with lies or abroad with bombs—hunker down somewhere in the middle and plead for civility. This young century’s great problems are a government abetting ruthless misadventure at Wall Street and the Pentagon, not rudeness and rank partisanship.

Greenwald adds:

Leave aside the fact that, as Steve Benen correctly notes, Stewart’s examples of right-wing rhetorical excesses (Obama is a socialist who wasn’t born in the U.S. and hates America) are pervasive in the GOP, while his examples of left-wing excesses (Code Pink and 9/11 Truthers) have no currency (for better or worse) in the Democratic Party. The claim that Bush is “a war criminal” has ample basis, and it’s deeply irresponsible to try to declare this discussion off-limits, or lump it in with a whole slew of baseless right-wing accusatory rhetoric, in order to establish one’s centrist bona fides.

It’s admirable to want to apply the same standards to both sides, but straining to manufacture false equivalencies doesn’t accomplish that; sometimes, honestly applying the same standards to each side will result in a finding that one side, at least in that regard, is actually worse. When that’s the case, a person engaged in truly independent, non-ideological inquiry—rather than the pretense of such—will expressly acknowledge the imbalance, not concoct an equivalency where it doesn’t exist….

One other point about this fixation on the “tone” of our politics. Political debates are inherently acrimonious—much of the rhetoric during the time of the American Founding, as well as throughout the 19th Century, easily competes with, if not exceeds, what we have now in terms of noxiousness and extremity—but far more important than tone, in my view, is content. For instance, Bill Kristol, a repeated guest on The Daily Show, is invariably polite on television, yet uses his soft-spoken demeanor to propagate repellent, destructive ideas; I don’t think anyone disputes that our discourse would benefit if it were more substantive and rational, but it’s usually the ideas themselves—not the tone used to express them—that are the culprits.

I’m not as hung up as Greenwald on defending the “Bush as war criminal” point. (I always thought that was a losing cause for the Left.) But I think Denvir’s argument about the Democrats’ tendency to run for the middle at the first sign of trouble is very important, as is Greenwald’s observation about the problems of fixating only on tone.

It was for this same reason that I was never particularly impressed by Jon Stewart’s famous takedown of Tucker Carlson on Crossfire.

Stewart argues that tone of the show was “hurting America” and that we need more “civilized discourse.” I’ll admit that it’s sort of satisfying to see him accuse Crossfire of “partisan hackery,” and that his refusal to play along with the hosts creates some rare and unsettling television. Then again, I’m not convinced his critique of the program is all too deep. Stewart says he wants less political “theater” and more “real debate.” But in my view he never gets beyond platitudes.

A lot of people loved the appearance, so I’m sure plenty of folks will disagree with me. Therefore, I’ll end with something around which we can all come together: in response to Stewart’s rally, fellow comedian Stephen Colbert announced that he would hold a counter-demonstration of his own. It’s called the “March to Keep Fear Alive.” Now that one is simply brilliant.

Mark Engler can be reached via his website, Democracy Uprising.

Never Mind the Black Helicopters, Coming Soon to an Airspace Near You: Drones

Reaper droneI’m not sure how others feel, but when I hear a helicopter overhead I feel uneasy. My initial exposure was to the innocuous weather whirlybirds, but I suspect that Apocalypse Now ruined helicopters for many of us. With their use in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we view them as bringers of death.

Then there are those who fear “black helicopters.” I was first exposed to that concept in books about UFO — they’re alleged to appear when aliens are attempting to intermingle with humans. More commonly, U.S. militia types, perhaps because Customs and U.S. marshalls have used black-painted helicopters, associate them with a military takeover of the nation. Never mind, though — here to realize even more deeply seated fears and represent a projection of your unconscious is our new old friend, the drone.

At the British site Open Democracy, in an article titled From Helmand to Merseyside: Unmanned drones and the militarisation of UK policing (thanks to Focal Pointer John Goekler for drawing my attention to it), Steve Graham writes:

In February of this year, Merseyside Police became the UK first police force to routinely deploy unmanned drones for normal policing duties. . . . Whilst not equipped with weapons, civilian police drones . . . are equipped with digital closed circuit TV. . . . The drone has a built-in speaker to allow instructions to be relayed to civilians on the ground.

Yes, I know — too much like a parody of Big Brother to be real. First, though, let’s explore another element of civilian police drones that’s equally disturbing (emphasis added).

The Merseyside deployment is [part of] a much wider push by arms contractors and security and technology corporations. . . . The European Defence Agency, for example, a body funded by the UK and other European governments, is lobbying hard to support the widespread diffusion of drones within UK and EU policing and security as a means to bolster . . . European security corporations like BAE systems, EADS and Thales within booming global markets for armed and military drones. The global market for drones is by far the most dynamic sector in the global airline industry.

Their potential applications include detecting “fly-posting [advertising posters], fly-tipping [illegal dumping], abandoned vehicles [and] theft from cash machines,” not to mention “preventing theft of tractors.” Sounds small-time, but some U.K. police officials think it would “revolutionise policing.” In fact, they’re looking forward to deploying “both civilian and military (RAF) ‘Reaper’ drones to monitor the 2012 London Olympics.”

As for “broader concern about the regulation and control of drone surveillance of British civilian life,” it’s been notable by its absence, writes Graham.

And yet the widespread introduction of almost silent, pilotless drones . . . raises major new questions about . . . the UK as a ‘surveillance society’. Is the civilian deployment of such drones a justified and proportionate response to civilian policing needs or a thinly-veiled attempt by security corporations to build new and highly profitable markets?

It’s hard to deny that drones seem like the over-reaction to real or imagined threats that’s typical of domestic security forces, such as the police, carried to new heights. You almost feel embarrassed for them using drones to spot abandoned cars or ATM theft.

Near as I can tell, no U.S. police force is currently using them, but Miami and Houston have them in their sights. Once they’re deployed in the United States, maybe it’s our patriotic duty to keep police forces from looking silly for investing in them by staging some vigorous resistance and giving the drones a real show.

Cyberwarfare Works on Same Premises as Nuclear War

The computer worm Stuxnet didn’t exactly bore into the computers of workers in Iran’s nuclear program. In fact, whoever unleashed it — Israel or another state — sprayed it indiscriminately like machine gun fire. John Markoff of the New York Times reports:

The most striking aspect of the fast-spreading malicious computer program — which has turned up in industrial programs around the world and which Iran said had appeared in the computers of workers in its nuclear project — may not have been how sophisticated it was, but rather how sloppy its creators were in letting a specifically aimed attack scatter randomly around the globe.

Thus, perhaps because of a perceived time crunch on the part of the creators, it created what Markoff called “collateral damage” as if it were a military attack. Now for a riddle: name the weapon which never causes collateral damage? Nuclear weapons. Civilians, of course, form the better part of their intended targeted and are in no sense of the word collateral.

But cyberwarfare resembles nuclear weapons in other ways. Markoff also writes that cyberwarfare is . . .

. . . also raising fear of dangerous proliferation. . . . “Proliferation is a real problem, and no country is prepared to deal with it,” said Melissa Hathaway, a former United States national cybersecurity coordinator. The widespread availability of the attack techniques revealed by the software has set off alarms among industrial control specialists, she said: “All of these guys are scared to death. We have about 90 days to fix this before some hacker begins using it.”

Of course, with nuclear weapons, proliferation occurs at a glacial pace compared with malware. In other words, the dangers of proliferation, purely as a concept, are much greater with a worm. To a certain extent, the immediacy of the threat of worms and viruses makes up for the immensity of the threat from nuclear weapons.

At War in Context, Paul Woodward called Stuxnet the Trinity test of Cyberwarfare. Which brings us to the most important similarity between nuclear war and cyberwarfare: love it or leave it — deterrence. Woodward rhetorically asks what the implications of Stuxnet are.

1. Iran has been served notice that not only its nuclear facilities but its whole industrial infrastructure is vulnerable to attack. As Trevor Butterworth noted: “By demonstrating how Iran could so very easily experience a Chernobyl-like catastrophe, or the entire destruction of its conventional energy grid, the first round of the ‘war’ may have already been won.”

2. The perception that it has both developed capabilities and shown its willingness to engage in cyberwarfare, will serve Israel as a strategic asset even if it never admits to having launched Stuxnet.

That’s why Woodward compares the Stuxnet attack to Trinity, the first U.S. nuclear test. A demonstration of the weapon’s power, it was intended to act as a deterrent to keep other states, such as Iran, from . . . what exactly? It might only motivate Iran to complete the nuclear-weapon development process. After all, it wouldn’t want to be two weapon systems — nuclear and cyber — down on Israel, would it?

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