Focal Points Blog

Tunisia: Yezzi Fock (Enough!)

BBC reports today:

It comes after violent protests in several districts of the capital, with riot police firing tear gas at demonstrators. Officials say at least 23 people have died across the country since the unrest began late last year. The protesters say they are angry about rising food and fuel prices, high unemployment and corruption.

Earlier on Wednesday, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali dismissed his interior minister in an attempt to stem the unrest. Rafik Belhaj Kacem had been responsible for the police force, which many people say has used excessive force against protesters. Human rights and trade union activists believe the number of dead to be at least 50.

Yezzi Fock!

This has become the theme of the nationwide protests in Tunisia which continue unabated. ‘Enough’ refers to the high levels of unemployment in the country, the pervasive corruption, especially of the two ruling families, and the decades of seething repression which has kept Zine Ben Ali in power now for 23 years.

Triggered originally on December 17, 2010 by the suicide of a 26-year-old university graduate who had had his unauthorized fruit and vegetable stand confiscated in Sidi Bouzid – and who soaked himself with gasoline and lit a match – the protests have only intensified, despite government attempts to suppress them continue.

Latest Developments

If anything, the opposition is only intensifying in the face of growing, if not massive repression. As ‘Kerym,’ my unknown but insightful Tunisian correspondent (see comments in ‘Tunisian Intifada’ below), comments: The demonstrations will continue because:

The people know very well that he’s (Ben Ali) trying to cool things down, and once the situation returns to normal, he will betray them again….just like he did before. In other words, this people happen to distrust this weird man and his mobster gangs. Therefore quitting the protests now, means more repression and more arrests to be expected, and unemployment will remain an unsolved issue in tunisian society.

So far, the situation is snafu, but not without hope.

Among the confirmed reports:

  • Joining Tunisia’s lawyers, the countries artists have taken to the streets and joined the calls for an end to repression, corruption along with calls for the government to deal with the unemployment crisis. A number of the country’s leading cultural figures – artists, rappers, and leading intellectuals have been arrested.
  • The trade union confederation in Sfax, Tunisia’s second largest city after Tunis, have joined the protests, called for a strike in the city.
  • The Tunisian government has closed all the high schools and universities in the country ‘until further notice’ in an attempt cool what started as a ‘youth rebellion’, but which has long extended to broad sectors of the population.
  • That at least some of the weapons being used against demonstrators are ‘made in the USA’, including tear gas.

Unconfirmed but worrisome [emphasis added — RW]:

  • That in Kasserine were a number of people were killed by security forces over the weekend, the government employed snipers on building tops who shot into the demonstrations, killing people at random. There are reports that the snipers are not from the Tunisian military who are actually trying to protect the demonstrators but from a special unit of Ben Ali’s security police called the Brigaude de l’Ordre Publique (BOP). Formed in the 1980s, the B.O.P. is based upon a French model
  • That demonstrations have now erupted in the interior agricultural center of Beja, in Djendouba and the northern coastal city of Bizerte. According to one source, in Beja, the police station, the local offices of the ruling party (Rassemblement Constitutionnel Democratique) and a bank in which the Ben Ali/Trabelsi families are part owners were burnt to the ground today.
  • That some members of the Ben Ali/Trabelsi familes are leaving the country, in one case for Canada.
  • That Tunisians living outside the country, all over the world, including in the United States, are mobilizing, overwhelming in opposition to the current government.

Economic Considerations

Although the protests in Tunisia began in opposition to the country’s economic policy, they have more and more become political in nature, with growing calls for Zine Ben Ali, the country’s dictator-president, to step down. To date, Ben Ali refuses, hoping to crush the opposition with the country’s 180,000 strong security police. He combines fierce repression with promises of economic reform and a government jobs program.

Tunisians have heard these promises before. Three years ago, when a six-month-long protest over unemployment and social decay in the country’s mining district around Gafsa erupted, Ben Ali pursued a similar approach – repression and the promise of jobs, except virtually no economic development followed.

The country’s official unemployment rate stands at 14%. However youth unemployment for people between the ages of 15-24 is at least double that, and in some parts of the interior, as high as 50%. Furthermore the main areas of job creation – the tourism industry, textile manufacturing targeting the European market in ‘free trade zones’ and what is left of Tunisia’s agricultural sector – are producing low wage jobs. And as in response to IMF/World Bank pressures, government subsidies continue to be reduced or eliminated from food and gasoline; even those with jobs find themselves having difficulty making ends meet.

None of the current economic problems weighing on Tunisia are new. Low wage jobs and growing unemployment for the country’s university graduates – high unemployment has been plaguing the country for some time as has Ben Ali’s longstanding policies of repressing dissent of any kind, in the name of course, of countering Islamic radicalism; this despite the fact that Islamic radicalism, while it exists, has less of a base in Tunisia than virtually any other Arab state.

Tunisia: Stuck in the Semi-Periphery of the Global Economy

The economic rut in which Tunisia finds itself is a result what has long been its strategic role in the global economy as primarily a peripheral or semi-peripheral country whose mission has been to provide cheap manufactured products – and now cheap vacations – to core countries, especially in Europe. Can the Tunisian economy evolve, break the role that it has played in the global economy since its reality was reshaped by French colonialism to meet the needs of Europeans for cheap Thibar wine? I think it can. It has the human capital to do so.

Other countries – among them China, S. Korea, even the Nordic countries if we spread the historical time line a little, have reconstructed themselves. Perhaps out of the ashes and pain of the current moment, fresh ideas and directions for the country’s future will emerge and the suffering the country is now enduring will not be in vein. Indeed, if Tunisians at present are appalled and saddened by the repression, people would be missing the point not to realize that this is also a moment of great hope, of transition, of the possibility of the success of reform.

Tunisia Gets Half of the Korean Model: Authoritarianism With Developmental Stagnation

This combination – an authoritarian political system that ‘supposedly’ delivers economic growth – is often referred to as ‘the Korean Model’ based on the dramatic development of the South Korean economy since the 1950s from economically backward to one of the most dynamic economies of modern times – albeit not a miracle, but still very impressive.

At the heart of the Korean model is the need to keep wages low and labor union activity in check through a repressive government in order that the accumulation of capital thus resulted can be re-invested into modernizing the economy. The logic continues that once the economy is modernized, authoritarianism can be eased and democratic processes encouraged. I would argue that it ‘sort of’ happened in South Korea.

But the Tunisian economic comparison with Tunisia fails on a number of key counts.

  • In Korea, there was something of a transition to democracy after 3 decades of repressive rule
  • The South Korean economy was a highly protectionist economy that did not open itself up to foreign capital until very late in the game and even then, not that much. Its industries were protected as was its currency. Foreign investment had to follow strict criteria. Perhaps most importantly, the role of the state in the S. Korean economy, as in Japan, has always been central to the country’s economic development
  • South Korea benefitted from its status as a front-line state in the Cold War. As with the competition between East and West Germany, there was always a political dimension to the economic competition between North and South Korea, with the former being something of a basket case, the latter one of the ‘Asian Tigers’. The point here is that South Korea could break the IMF-World Bank structural adjustment rules and get away with it in a way that Tunisia couldn’t and didn’t. And a large measure of its economic success comes from the fact that S. Korea did not have to follow the rules that were imposed upon Argentina, Mexico or Russia.
  • Tunisia on the other hand began opening up its economy, privatizing elements of it, opening the country to foreign investment with fewer and fewer strings already in the early 1980s and has, as a result I would argue, paid the price.
  • The economic sectors which were modernized – textiles, mining did not produce enough domestic capital to invest in new technologies and take the country in new directions, despite its highly educated work force. Foreign investment, let loose with fewer and fewer regulations, as in Thailand, concentrated in real estate, the financial sector and tourism, none of which help development that much.
  • So Tunisia has gotten ‘the authoritarian’ aspect of the S. Korean model without producing the development revolution.

If one looks closely at Tunisian society on the eve of independence in 1956, it is rather striking – there was most definitely what is referred to today as a highly developed ‘civil society’ with participation of most sectors of society in the political movement that led to independence. But that civil society was first seriously weakened by the country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba who saw it as a threat to his personal power. Then it was smothered by Ben Ali – or more accurately, Ben Ali tried to snuff it out. And yet despite everything, under the surface it has continued – until it erupted once again full force after the death of Mohammed Bouazizi.

Why the uprising (for that is what it appears to be) now?

So why is it now that the country as a whole has been pushed over the edge if these trends have been in play for so long?

In the end one never knows why it is that objective social conditions erupt into revolt. More often than not they do not. But still, there are a number of factors which might explain the current unprecedented protests.

  • Income distribution has sharply polarized in the past few years. As Basel Saleh points out, the top 10% of Tunisia’s economic ladder control 32% of the national income. The top 20% control nearly half. Tunisia’s income inequality is so severe that the bottom 60% of the population control only 30% of the country’s wealth, again with 40% of the population taking home 70% of the national income. At the same time, two families at the top, the Ben Ali’s and Trabelsi’s have come to dominate the country’s economy. One WikiLeaks cable from the U.S. embassy in Tunis suggests that the two families have their hands in and on 50% of the country’s economy. As the disparity between wealth and poverty increases, the corruption of the two ruling families has come more into focus.
  • There are regional disparities too, well known in the economic literature, with the northern and coastal cities benefitting much more from Ben Ali’s economic policies than the interior and the south which have long suffered. It should not be surprising to anyone who has followed Tunisian events over the past 30 years that social unrest, protest and rebellion tend to originate in the interior and the south.
  • 2009 was not a good year and Tunisia’s economy suffered despite World Bank/IMF claims that the country has weathered the global financial crises better than many places. Tourism was down as were textile exports to Europe only aggravating the already existing socio-economic crisis.
  • But the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back in this case is the growing distrust and distaste among the broader population for president Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Trabelsi and her siblings who have been scrambling to dominate whatever sectors of Tunisia’s economy they could, dominating the IMF pressured privatizations which have marked the country’s economic transition.

It appears rather likely that Ben Ali was positioning his wife to ‘take over’ the country in four years when he supposedly would retire. The thought that Zine Ben Ali would turn over power to Leila Trabelsi – and that the corruption at the top would thus be blessed and institutionalized that much more only added to the seething anger about to explode.

However else the situation in Tunisia plays out, the likelihood that the Trabelsi family will replace Ben Ali has all but gone up in smoke. Mohammed Bouazizi, the young unemployed man whose suicide by fire started this protest movement, has inadvertently taken one of Tunisia’s richest families, the Trabelsi’s, along with him. The first result of the Tunisian intifada is to de-legitimize that clan to such a degree so that politically speaking they are dead. It was not just Mohammed Bouazizi that went up in a ball of flames but the Trabelsi family’s political future in Tunisia.

Let us see what other lessons unfold.

Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Does Russian Defense Spending Mark Its Wholesale Return to Cold War Mentality?

Mistral warship

(Pictured: Mistral warship, two of which France sold to Russia.)

Russia is set to increase its defense spending by 60 percent, from $42 billion in 2010 to $66.3 billion by 2013. This news is several months old, but the recent remarks of Russian President Dimitry Medvedev, coupled with the completion of an arms deal for two French warships, with the possibility of two more to follow, has drawn attention to Russia’s military modernization program. By itself, the deal with France has drawn considerable notice, as it is the first time a NATO member has sold such sophisticated weaponry directly to Russia. France has defended its decision in purely economic terms, and as an opportunity to improve relations between NATO and Russia. However, other NATO members, most notably the United States, have been skeptical of what they see as a potentially dangerous reversion to Cold War-style militarism by the Kremlin.

Russia is intent to embark on a vigorous modernization program aimed at several areas. In particular, officials have enunciated the need to modernize an aging navy, as well as place ‘special emphasis’ on aerospace defense and the need to keep pace with other modern air forces. Indeed, these areas are likely to receive the majority of new defense funds. Along with the recently completed purchase of two French Mistral class helicopter carriers-amphibious assault ships, the increased defense budget will include allocations for three Talwar class frigates, three Improved Kilo class submarines as well as several advanced Yasen and Borei class submarines. In addition to the increased focus on naval modernization, Russia plans to direct significant funds towards reinforcing its air force. This will include significant additions of Su-family fighter aircraft, MiG-29K Fulcrum-D carrier-based fighters as well as Su-34 Flanker fighter-bombers.

It comes as no surprise that Russia should embark on a large-scale overhaul of its military, much of which still relies on Soviet-era equipment and methods. In particular, Russian military performance in the 2008 war with Georgia, continued conflict in Chechnya and the failure to keep pace with NATO, have helped sustain the drive to increase defense spending. However, of concern is the potential of modernization coupled with a reversion to out and out hard-power balancing. In his recent address to the Federal Assembly, President Medvedev, warned that failure to reach agreement with NATO over a European missile defense system may induce another arms race.

This seems particularly salient given Russia’s intent to use its increased budget to bolster its submarine fleet, in particular, by acquiring additional Borei and Yasen class submarines. The Borei class ballistic missile submarine is designed to enhance Russian second-strike capability, thereby ensuring nuclear deterrence. The Borei class sub is designed “to stay submerged for extended periods and launch long-range missiles in case of nuclear war.” The Yasen class attack submarine is designed to neutralize enemy maritime assets, particularly enemy ballistic missile submarines. Moreover, it is likely that these assets will be presented to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, placing them in ideal positions should conflict ensue with Europe. Based on these planned acquisitions, it seems clear that Russia continues to focus on the perceived threat emanating from NATO, and although relations have warmed between the two, Russia still believes a strategic hedge is in its best interest.

However, questions remain over exactly how the Russian government plans to pay for such a significant increase in defense spending, particularly given Russia’s economic situation and a rising need to address a shrinking population. Indeed, in his recent speech, Medvedev made clear that a major goal was initiating programs aimed at boosting the Russian population. Balancing defense spending with necessary social programs will likely prove to be difficult in an uncertain financial climate.

Despite arduous financial constraints, weapons sales are likely to help significantly offset the costs of modernization. After a several year hiatus, it appears that China is ready to resume buying high-end Russian weapons systems and aircraft. Sales of the fourth-plus generation fighter, the Su-35 along with military transport planes and air refueling tankers, as well as anti-aircraft systems will net a huge windfall for the Russian defense industry. Indeed, China’s modernization program, thoroughly reliant on imported Russian weapons technology, may help Russia fund its own modernization program.

Having seen its military forces struggle in several low-level conflicts and amid concerns over losing even more ground to NATO military power, Russia is set to engage in a large-scale military overhaul. Although relations have warmed significantly between Russia and the West in the past two decades, and despite very serious efforts to reach out to and include Russia in global governance, some even arguing for Russia’s admittance into NATO, it seems that shaking off a Cold War outlook remains difficult.

Greg Chaffin is an Intern/Research Assistant with Foreign Policy in Focus.

Obits for “Fabled Hero” of Vietnam War, Vang Pao, Omit CIA Drug Connection

Vang Pao CIA drugs(Pictured: Hmong army leader Vang Pao.)

Cynicism, as the late Molly Ivins once noted, is the death of good journalism, but reading through the New York Times and the Associated Press’ obituaries of Laotian-Hmong leader General Vang Pao made that sentiment a difficult one to resist.

Vang Pao, who died Jan. 6 in Clovis, a small town in California’s Central Valley, was described in the Times as “charismatic” and in AP as a “fabled military hero” who led a Hmong army against the communist Pathet Lao during the Laotian civil war. Van Pao’s so-called “secret army” was financed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency as part of the U.S.’s war against North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam.

Well, “financed” is a slippery word, and while, it was true Vang Pao got a lots of money and arms from the CIA, a major source of his financing was the opium trade run out of Southeast Asia’s “Golden Triangle.” That little piece of history never managed to make it into the obits, which is hardly a surprise. The people the CIA hired to run dope for Vang Pao went on to run dope for the Contras in the Reagan Administration’s war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. And talking about close ties between drugs and the CIA in Southeast Asia and Central America might lead to some very uncomfortable questions about the people we are currently supporting in Afghanistan.

Readers should search out a book by Alfred McCoy called “The Politics of Heroin in South East Asia,” and pull up a Frontline piece entitled “Drugs, Guns and the CIA” by Andrew and Leslie Cockburn. What they will find is not in the Times and the AP obits.

A major source for the Frontline piece was Ron Rickenback, who headed up the U.S. Aid and Development Program (USAID) in Laos. Rickenback says he witnessed drugs being transported from outlying areas in Laos aboard U.S. Air America aircraft, which was then put on larger aircraft for shipment to southern Laos and Thailand. Air America was on contract with the CIA.

Rickenback says the CIA knew drugs were being run on their airplanes, but that the drug trade helped finance the war against the Pathet Lao and Vietnamese. To cover their tracks, the CIA took an Air America C-47, painted it, named it Sing Quan Airlines, and gave it to Van Pao. Sing Quan quickly became known as “Opium Air.”

Frontline also tracked down several pilots that flew Sing Quan and Air America planes (some of them were in jail for running cocaine out of Central America), who confirmed that opium was a major part of their cargo. Journalist John Everingham’s investigation also linked Vang Pao to the opium trade.

Leslie Cockburn also managed to land an interview with Tony Poe, the CIA’s key man in Laos and the model for the out-of-control CIA agent in Apocalypse Now. Poe, who was driven out of the Agency when he refused to go along with the dope dealing, confirmed Van Pao’s central role in drug running.

The trade in opium and heroin in Laos was linked in turn to the U.S.-supported regime in South Vietnam led by President Nguyen Van Thieu. Much of that heroin ended up in the bodies of American GIs—during the height of the war there were between two and three fatal overdoses a day—as well as decimating neighborhoods back in the U.S.

The history of drugs and U.S. foreign policy is a long and dark one. At the end of World War II, the Agency made common cause with the Corsican Brotherhood and La Cosa Nostra to drive the Left out of the Port of Marseilles. Drug running was a major source of money for the two Italian criminal organizations.

The same people who ran the CIA’s drug operation in Southeast Asia turned up running drugs and guns for the rightwing Contras in the 1980s Nicaraguan civil war. Cocaine money was used to buy weapons and supplies for the Contras, with anti-Castro Cubans acting as organizers and middlemen.

And lest we think this is all ancient history, maybe Congress should take a close look at our current allies in Afghanistan: the Karzai government and the Northern Alliance.

First, a few facts.

The United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crimes estimates that the Afghan opium trade generates about $3.4 billion a year, of which about 4 percent goes as taxes to the Taliban. There is some dispute over how much cash this represents: the UN says $125 million a year; U.S. intelligence agencies estimate $70 million a year. Some 21 percent goes to the farmers. What happens to the 75 percent left over?

According to Julian Mercille, a lecturer at University College, Dublin, the bulk “is captured by government officials, the police, local and regional power brokers and traffickers.” This includes President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, and Northern Alliance general, Nazri Mahmad.

Mercille argues that the U.S. has an “historical pattern of toleration and empowerment of local drug lords in [its] pursuit of broader foreign policy goals.”

The pattern—established after the Second World War in Europe, and then later in Southeast Asia and Latin America—is that drugs are a handy way to generate lots of off-the-books money, and an easy way to buy loyalty. It is also good business. That UN report also found that between 90 to 95 percent of illegal opium sales over the past several years—some $400 to $500 billion—were laundered through western banks. Part of that money ended up being used to keep some of those banks from going under during the recent economic meltdown.

What these policies leave in their wake are ruin and destruction. Over 35,000 members of Van Pao’s army were killed fighting a losing war with the Pathet Lao, and some 200,000 Hmong were re-settled in the U.S., mainly in Minnesota, Wisconsin and California. Nicaragua is still trying to recover from the Contra War, and Afghanistan has turned into a bleeding ulcer.

Vang Pao was a pawn, first of the French, in whose colonial army he served, and later of the U.S. In the global chess game called the Cold War, he and his people were disposable. So were the Nicaraguans, and so are the Afghans. The dead are at peace; the living should remember, and the media should help preserve, not obscure, those memories.

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

Thanks to New START, You Too Can “Ride Out” a Nuclear Attack

Civil Defense manualWhen you think of a nuclear treaty such as New START, a decrease in the number of nuclear weapons naturally comes to mind. While that’s been true in the past, New START leaves the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia more or less intact. In March 2010 Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists explained at it Strategic Security Blog that:

. . . the treaty does not require destruction of a single nuclear warhead and actually permits the United States and Russia to deploy almost the same number of strategic warheads that were permitted by the 2002 Moscow Treaty [thanks to, in part, a] new counting rule that attributes one weapon to each bomber rather than the actual number of weapons assigned to them. [In fact, this] “fake” counting rule frees up a large pool of warhead spaces under the treaty limit that enable each country to deploy many more warheads than would otherwise be the case. . . . Indeed, the New START Treaty is not so much a nuclear reductions treaty as it is a verification and confidence building treaty.

(As well as — anyone familiar with my writing knows — a mechanism by which Republicans squeezed an $85 billion commitment from the Obama administration to shore up the nuclear-industrial complex over the next decade.)

The confidence-building to which Kristensen alluded is an element of the treaty to which many conservatives objected. With nostalgia for the Cold War still running high among them, they bridled at the extent to which New START signified a “reset” in relations with Russia. Thus, with hawks always willing to poke a stick into the hive of U.S.-Russia relations, it’s folly to think that just because the Cold War ended that we’ve been inoculated against nuclear war with Russia. Especially since the chances of an accident are greater than ever, as I explored in a previous post.

Not to worry, though — we can always “ride out” a nuclear attack. Ride-out is one of the president’s two options in the event of a nuclear attack, neither of which is declared policy, though. First, the other: launch-on-warning. In that scenario, as soon as it believes that it has detected nuclear weapons headed towards it soil, a state mounts a retaliatory strike. In another words, the attacked state isn’t waiting around for the decisive confirmation — which detonation on its soil constitutes — that the alarm wasn’t false.

Ride-out is waiting until struck before retaliating, to keep from responding to a false alarm. Besides, to do otherwise would violate the spirit of deterrence, which stands in opposition to a preemptive attack. Of course, you’re wondering if the United States would be in a position to counterattack after the initial nuclear strike on its soil. Not only will our missile silos have been targeted but the nuclear command and control infrastructure.

In a recent paper for the Hudson Institute, Christopher Ford, one of its research fellows, addresses this.

. . . analysts [have] wondered for years whether it was even possible to ensure sufficient nuclear force and C3I [command and control] survivability in the face of the enormous nuclear barrages that were possible at the height of the Cold War. Desmond Ball and John D. Steinbrunner, for instance, argued in the early 1980s that such survivability was, for practical purposes, a fool’s errand. . . . As the Soviets put more and more warheads on their missiles . . . it seemed increasingly likely that no such system would be able to survive a full-scale attack.

Back in 2004, writing for his Center for Defense Information, neither was Bruce Blair too sanguine about riding out a nuclear attack.

The option to “ride out” the onslaught and then take stock of the proper course of action exists only on paper. . . . The bias in favor of launch on electronic warning is so powerful that it would take enormously more presidential will to withhold an attack than to authorize it.


Military nuclear commanders designed the hardware and procedures of emergency decision-making to ensure that no president would actually deliberately opt to ride out a Soviet nuclear attack, even though U.S. nuclear policy [as stated above — RW] endorsed second-strike retaliation – assured destruction – as the essential element of U.S. deterrent strategy. . . . They knew full well that the U.S. nuclear command system would collapse under the weight of such a Soviet first strike. . . . Riding out was not a practical choice in the real world, and so the operational system was geared so that presidential approval to unleash U.S. strategic forces before the first incoming Soviet missile reached America would be obtained.

But, in “today’s post-Cold War context,” writes Ford, C3I “survivability may be less Quixotic an aspiration.” In other words, despite the incremental progress that New START represents, the number of nuclear weapons may now be low enough to enable us to ride out an attack. “It may now be possible,” he explains, “for both sides to develop a credible ‘ride-out’ option – arguably for the first time in decades . . . simultaneously ensuring retaliation and reducing incentives to implement launch on warning.”

The term “ride-out” implies a mutual decision about how many casualties are acceptable. Needless to say, no such consensus exists. One man’s survival is another’s “the living will envy the dead.”

More from Ford: “Domestic U.S. civil defense preparations were . . . discontinued” at the height of the Cold War when arsenals were at their largest. The “Kennedy Administration had proposed an extensive civil defense program in 1961, but it soon became clear that most defensive measures could be far more easily and cheaply neutralized by the enemy than created in the first place.”

Recently however, the Obama administration has revived the subject of surviving a nuclear attack if you’re not at ground zero. On December 15, William Broad wrote in the New York Times:

The government has a surprising new message: Do not flee. Get inside any stable building and don’t come out till officials say it’s safe. The advice is based on recent scientific analyses showing that a nuclear attack is much more survivable if you immediately shield yourself from the lethal radiation that follows a blast, a simple tactic seen as saving hundreds of thousands of lives. . . .

Administration officials argue that the cold war created an unrealistic sense of fatalism about a terrorist nuclear attack. “It’s more survivable than most people think,” said an official.

That’s if you hold to the prevailing doctrine that terrorists, not a nuclear state (the question of a state arming the terrorists aside), would be the likely source of an attack. The attack would presumably be a fraction of that mounted by a state such as Russia.

Whatever the case, the new emphasis on nuclear survival doesn’t sit well with many. In an article for the Atlantic titled The Unexpected Return of Duck and Cover, Glenn Reynolds writes:

But now “duck and cover” is back, not as kitsch but once again as serious advice from the federal government. Faced with growing concerns about a nuclear attack on one or more major cities . . . authorities are once again looking to educate citizens about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. And that advice sounds a lot like what they were saying in my grandfather’s day: Duck and cover.

False hope, in other words. At Truthout, Ira Chernus also scoffed at the notion.

The Obama administration wants us to learn to accept the prospect of a major American city destroyed. Its report never even mentions the possibility of averting disaster by changing the U.S. policies that enrage people, whether abroad or at home.

In other words, “negotiating with terrorists” frightens Washington even more than a nuclear attack on American soil.

Nuclear Weapons Just Not Sexy Anymore

Nuclear technicianThe incarnation of “sexy,” that is, that cropped up a few years ago: exciting or trendy in a general, not erotic, way. That settled, let’s move on to a paper that Christopher Ford wrote for the Hudson Institute in which he weighs, in classic nuclear-strategist mode (bearing in mind that Hudson was founded by its most notorious example, Herman Kahn), the merits of launch on warning (LOW).

To refresh your memory, LOW refers to a nuclear state launching a retaliatory strike when it believes that it has detected nuclear weapons headed towards it soil. In another words, the attacked state isn’t waiting around for the decisive confirmation that detonation constitutes. Needless to say, accidents happen. (The most famous was in 1983 when Soviet ballistics officer Stanislav Petrov was brave enough to act on his judgment that an alarm supposedly informing him that the United States had launched a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union was false.) Ford speculates on:

. . . the counter-intuitive possibility that progress since the end of the Cold War in reducing the perceived importance and strategic centrality of nuclear weapons and delivery systems [aka missiles — RW], and the attention given them within the military hierarchy, may itself be increasing accident risks.

Say what? Ford explains.

Already, for instance, it would appear that the gradual [reduction] of the perceived importance of nuclear missions within the U.S. military – and the degree to which nuclear specialties have gone from being considered a badge of elite distinction to a career backwater relative to “real” warfighting or exotic emerging arenas such as outer space and cyberspace – has helped produce a more accident-prone culture in the nuclear components of the U.S. military. [Such as] the incident in 2007 in which nuclear-armed cruise missiles were mistakenly loaded aboard a B-52 bomber and flown for several hours across the United States.

As hawks and Republican congresspersons are fond of reminding us, this phenomenon seems to apply to the fields of nuclear design and engineering as well. Much of the current workforce is approaching retirement and few young people seem interested in joining a field that seems like it’s trending down. If, that is, you believe that New START is a disarmament treaty rather than a vehicle for ensuring the nuclear-weapons industry is funded to the tune of $180 billion over the next decade. In other words, pro-nuclear-weapons advocates have managed to secure the money; they just need bodies.

This passage from San Francisco Chronicle article, though dated (2003), captures the predicament.

Bruce Goodwin admits he often meets with puzzled stares when he tells young people he designs nuclear bombs for a living and tries to recruit promising scientists, as though he had emerged from an outdated science fiction fantasy.

“People will say to us, ‘My God, you still work on nuclear weapons?'” said Goodwin, the head of the weapons program at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the East Bay. “I would say, ‘Yes, we do.’ But it is still a surprise.”

“It has become more difficult over the past 10 years to attract the right people.”

We solicited the perspective of one-time nuclear chemist Cheryl Rofer, who blogs at Phronesisaical. “My guess is that nuclear weapons are still a pretty exciting prospect for a certain subset of astrophysicists and engineers,” she said. As long as they don’t get wind of how frustrating working for the national laboratories such as Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Lawrence Livermore can be. Ms. Rofer explains.

Smothering of laboratory activity by safety and other regulations is part of it; the lab management culture is another. . . . Then there’s simply a loss of direction, which has been happening since arms control set in and nobody bothered to think about how that should or would affect the national labs. I’m not talking about a simplistic “oh dear, they don’t love our bombs any more” but a more pragmatic lack of guidance from the national security apparatus to the labs about where they should [then] be going. . . . That has finally been corrected with New START and the latest [Nuclear Posture Review], but too many problems have already set in for a quick recovery. Another problem is a shift in [Department of Energy] attitudes from collaboration with the labs to an insistence on “managing” them, even if the “managers” have no idea of what is needed. Finally, and perhaps most important, there’s been a shift in the lab culture from more collaborative to more competitive among the scientists.

A friend, who has worked on nonproliferation initiatives and is now employed in the field of nuclear energy, weighs in next. This individual wishes to remain anonymous.

Per nuclear weapons work . . . we saw that people in their 30’s were leaving and other people were not accepting positions when offered. From what I have heard – the reasons are: [Los Alamos] has moved from a place of high technology, pushing-edge science, creative thinking and engagement – to compliance [meeting regulatory requirements] and not on performance. . . .

When they moved the lab to private contractors they put in place a fee-based performance contract. . . . based upon meeting environmental and safety and security [and] the way [they’re] paid is to have the least amount of mistakes and what is the best way to get the least amount of mistakes – to do the least amount of work.

Echoing Ms. Rofer, she adds:

The management and staff used to be a team – when I worked there I knew everyone in my management chain to the director. Now it’s more . . . “us against them” . . . not so great for cutting edge science.

A disarmament advocate might react, “Great, they’re hamstringing themselves in the labs. Works for me.” In fact, my friend relates:

Some of the most interesting work is in nonproliferation – unfortunately with the loss of nuclear weapons capability it is significantly affecting the expertise needed for nonproliferation. The two go hand-in-hand.

In other words, the same, or similar, scientists and technicians needed to design and develop nuclear weapons are also needed to walk them back. She adds:

We ended up at Los Alamos with a large number of people doing nonproliferation work that had no technical backgrounds and it really showed in their analysis.

Meanwhile, writes Ford, about the military in words that could be equally applied to the science side:

. . . there would seem to be no intrinsic reason that a nuclear force could not remain doctrinally and institutionally “important,” superlatively trained and endlessly drilled, well-funded and supplied of state-of-the-art technology, and prized as an “elite” service, even if it shrinks to a small size. Nevertheless, ensuring such continued care, attention, and high-reliability operational effectiveness is apparently not easy, nor is it likely to be anything but expensive.

Nuclear weapons just needs its brand polished. In the end, though, the most natural form of disarmament of all might be attrition. What if they gave a nuclear-weapons program and nobody came?

WikiLeaks XXVIX: West Doesn’t Know What to Do With the New, More Reasonable Ahmadinejad

Ahmadinejad, Khameini(Pictured: Iran’s President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khameini.)

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the twenty-ninth in the series.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that a new WikiLeaks cable reveals Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was eager to reach agreement on a UN-sponsored nuclear fuel swap proposal put forward in 2009. The deal fell through when Iran balked at the proposal and outlined alternative fuel swaps involving allies Brazil and Turkey. But the six nations — the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany — said the offers fell short of their demands.

The cable, which the AP says was made public on Tuesday by WikiLeaks (though it has yet to appear at last check), makes clear that while Ahmadinejad was keen to hammer out some sort of agreement with the parties involved, the Iranian president “faced internal pressures from hard-liners who viewed it as a ‘virtual defeat,’” which ultimately killed any chances of a successful outcome.

In point of fact, the cable in question — which relates the contents of a meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu about the Iranian situation — has been publicly available for about a week. The Spanish newspaper El Pais published it, along with an accompanying article, at the end of December. The dispatch further complicates conventional wisdom concerning the nature of the Iranian regime and their foreign policy outlook on matters of international security.

Among other interesting observations, the cable reports that the Iranians put greater stock in the American pledge to honor a fuel swap agreement than their ally Russia, and that they held deep reservations about negotiating with the British. Still, according to Davutoglu,

the Iranians: a) are ready to send a delegation to Vienna to work out the specifics on this proposal; b) have given their “full trust” to Turkey; c) continue to face serious domestic problems inside Iran. He said the Turks actually see Ahmadinejad as “more flexible” than others who are inside the Iranian Government. Ahmadinejad is facing “huge pressure” after statements from some P5 members to the effect that a nuclear deal would succeed in weakening Iran’s nuclear capability — which is interpreted by some circles in Iran as a virtual defeat.

As a result, the issue boiled down to one of public relations.

The Turks had asked Ahmadinejad if the core of the issue is psychological rather than substance. Ahmadinejad had said “yes,” that the Iranians agree to the proposal but need to manage the public perception. Accordingly, the Iranians are proposing that the first 400 kilos be transferred to Kish Island — thereby keeping it on Iranian soil — and would receive right away an equivalent amount (30-50 kilos) of enriched fuel. The second stage would focus on the management of Iranian public opinion, after which Tehran would proceed with the Turkey option for the remaining 800 kilos, probably in two tranches.

In the event, this offer, among other the Iranians proposed, proved a bridge too far for the six nations across the table to accept. The talks broke down, and were only reinitiated this past month in Europe.

But what is most intriguing about the recently WikiLeaked cables concerning Iran has been the portrait emerging of Ahmadinejad. Lost in the hullabaloo of his being smacked in the face by the head of Iran’s revolutionary guard was the description offered in the cable of the Iranian president’s moderate disposition — the cause of the assault itself. Regardless of the motivations driving Ahmadinejad, it appears from these cables that political realities are forcing the Iranian leader to abandon his hard-line public rhetoric in private, which offers a small source of hope moving forward.

The unfortunate truth, however, is that even were Ahmadinejad to emerge as a reliably reasonable interlocutor in multilateral negotiations, it would scarcely matter. After all, the real power in Iran resides with the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Regrettably, the Supreme Leader continues to signal contentment with the kabuki theatre politics that have characterized US-Iranian relations since George W. Bush delivered his famous “axis of evil” speech — effectively destroying any hopes of constructive dialogue between the two countries after 9/11 — as the intrigues of bureaucratic infighting iron themselves out in Tehran. And all the while, drumbeats of war continue thudding softly but steadily in support of the lunatic calls for airstrikes against Iran, demands that grow shriller by the day.

Israel to Rattle Its Saber a Little Less?

Dagan and Netanyahu(Pictured: Retiring Mossad chief Meir Dagan and Israeli President Netanyahu.)

Plucked from the Tweet-sphere:

@TonyKaron: Israel now says Iran wont have nukes before 2015. Does this mean Spring 2011 war is off?

The esteemed journalist Tony Karon, one-time ANC activist in South Africa, is now a senior editor at Time. He links to a Haaretz article that begins:

Meir Dagan, who retired from his post as Mossad chief on Thursday after eight years, does not believe Iran will have nuclear capability before 2015.

In a summary given to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Dagan said Iran was a long way from being able to produce nuclear weapons, following a series of failures that had set its program back by several years.

In essence, he’s patting himself on the back.

Dagan’s term centered around two main issues: the Iranian nuclear program; and the assassinations of Hezbollah and Hamas leaders and Iranian scientists, most if not all of which have been attributed to the Mossad.

The Israeli intelligence community’s assessments of Iran’s nuclear capability have changed during Dagan’s tenure. . . . These adjustments were not the result of mistaken evaluations, but due to the difficulties Iran has encountered in advancing its program, largely because of the Mossad’s efforts.

Now, switching into Andy Rooney mood, ever wonder what exactly saber rattling means? Unless it’s defective, a saber (or sabre) has no moving parts and, when brandished, should make no sound. Theoretically, saber-rattling doesn’t even cut it (sorry, couldn’t resist) as a display. In fact, it can’t even be called all-bark-no-bite since there’s no real bark.

Nevertheless, phantom sounds or no, these days saber-rattling elicits its intended response of rallying like-minded souls to a cause.

An Opening for Progressives? Obama to Step up Outreach to Africa in 2011

Earlier this week, the AP reported that Obama is

[Q]uietly but strategically stepping up his outreach to Africa, using this year to increase his engagement with a continent that is personally meaningful to him and important to U.S. interests.

This story and the statement from Obama represent an opening for progressives in the United States. and in Africa to begin to push the Obama Administration on its short-sighted Africa policy. The last two years have been more or less a honeymoon where folks were so enthralled by a son of Africa in the White House that there was not enough hard criticism of the Administration’s policies, which continued rather seamlessly from Bush.

As you know, extractive industries – oil, gas and mining remain the dominant lens through which U.S.-Africa policy is set. AFRICOM and the expansion of U.S. militarism in Africa is a tool through which the United States can secure its narrow interests in Africa’s resources. In addition, the Obama Administration is pushing hard on its “Feed the Future” Initiative – which translates on the ground into land grabs for biofuels and genetically modified foods.

The key in the coming year will be the degree to which progressives can position ourselves to challenge harmful policies while pushing forward alternatives on food sovereignty (local food), land rights, human rights, environmental justice, economic justice (debt cancellation) and peace (stop the flow of weapons and military contractors). Many of these themes will be featured at the World Social Forum in Senegal next month.

The article focuses on elections noting that,

The administration is monitoring more than 30 elections expected across Africa this year, including critical contests in Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

Out of the 30, there will be 12 key elections in Africa this year (including the referendum in Sudan and Presidential elections in Nigeria, Uganda, Liberia – all of whom now have oil). This will bring more sustained mainstream media coverage to Africa than in other years.

An Obama trip to Africa will intensify that coverage. Rumors are flying as to where Obama will go and when. My bet is on the UNFCCC which will be in South Africa in December.

But Big Oil and other powerful U.S. companies and the negative impact of U.S. guns and training will remain a serious challenge to peace and stability on the continent.

WikiLeaks XXVIII: Organized Crime Squeezing the Life Out of Bulgaria

Bulgarian crime bosses the Galevi brothers(Pictured: Bulgarian crime bosses the Galevi brothers.)

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the twenty-eighth in the series.

A series of US cables WikiLeaked during the closing weeks of 2010 paint a discouraging portrait of the political economy in Bulgaria. In particular, the cables highlight the dispiriting degree to which organized crime has come to dominate the country, and the increasing frustration experienced by the country’s European neighbors with Bulgaria’s half-measure to combat mafia influence over society.

Crime’s grip over Bulgarian society is hardly news. Writing a decade ago, Robert Kaplan described the evolution of the country’s tradition of organized crime. Discussing former satellite states of Soviet Russia, Kaplan notes that

By the 1980s, communist parties had evolved largely into large-scale mafias which, when the system collapsed, simply divided into smaller mafias that purchased politicians in all those new and weak democracies…Nowhere, however, were such phenomena so transparent as in Bulgaria when I visited in 1998…Bulgarian crime has no centuries-old tradition like Italy’s, or even one of heroic thieves and warrior clans as in Russia, Serbia, or Albania. Nor is there the colorful ethnic ingredient here that distinguishes criminal circles in the Caucasus, particularly in Georgia and Chechnya, with their family mafias and highwaymen. The Bulgarian groupings essentially are the result of the transition from communist totalitarianism to parliamentary democracy.

But the cables released this past month reveal just how bad the mafias have headlocked the country’s economic and political development. The first cable, dating from 2005, plainly states that

The strength and immunity from the law of organized crime (OC) groups is arguably the most serious problem in Bulgaria today…OC groups range from local street thugs involved in extortion to sophisticated international narcotic dealers and money launderers. An estimated 118 organized crime groups were operating in Bulgaria at the end of 2004…though many of these groups are relatively small and the landscape is dominated by a handful of big players. Organized crime continues to be pervasive in many spheres of Bulgarian life, despite domestic and international efforts to combat it. To date, not a single major OC figure has been punished by the Bulgarian legal system, despite an on-going series of OC-related assassinations.

The scale and scope of mafia activity in Bulgaria is staggering.

OC groups are known to be involved in narcotics trafficking, prostitution, extortion and racketeering, various financial crimes, car theft, and trafficking in stolen automobiles. Human trafficking for sexual exploitation, counterfeiting, and debit and credit card fraud also are some of the most common criminal activities engaged in by Bulgarian organized crime. Crime groups involved in human trafficking are extremely mobile, and victims are often sold or traded amongst various groups. Many groups use a host of legitimate businesses domestically and abroad to launder the proceeds of their illegal activities. Several well-known businessmen linked to organized crime have parlayed their wealth into ownership of sports teams, property developments, and financial institutions. (An organized crime activity that received special attention due to its growth in 2004 was VAT (value-added tax) fraud. The Ministry of Finance estimated that VAT fraud cost the Bulgarian treasury over $700 million in losses annually.)

The seizure of Bulgaria’s political institutions by mafia groups, however, offers the most alarming evidence of Bulgaria’s troubles.

Organized crime has a corrupting influence on all Bulgarian institutions, including the government, parliament and judiciary. In an attempt to maintain their influence regardless of who is in power, OC figures donate to all the major political parties. As these figures have expanded into legitimate businesses, they have attempted — with some success — to buy their way into the corridors of power. During the 2001 general elections, a number of influential “businessmen,” including XXXXXXXXXXXX and XXXXXXXXXXXX, heavily financed and otherwise supported the XXXXXXXXXXXX campaign.

Below the level of the national government and the leadership of the major political parties, OC owns a number of municipalities and individual members of parliament. This direct participation in politics — as opposed to bribery — is a relatively new development for Bulgarian OC. XXXXXXXXXX Similarly in the regional center of XXXXXXXXXXX, OC figures control the municipal council and the mayor’s office. Nearly identical scenarios have played out in half a dozen smaller towns and villages across Bulgaria.

The problems with organized crime in Bulgaria have exacerbated Sofia’s relationship with Brussels, as a cable dating from mid-2009 and released this past week makes clear. Discussing the relationship between the European Commission and the Bulgarian government, the cable relates that a confidential source

told us that the Commission feels they have “tried everything” to make the Bulgarians reform their judicial system, but concluded “how do you make them reform when they do not want to?” The government’s defensive arrogance — and lack of political will — is intensifying enlargement fatigue in Brussels.

With respect to a commission report on Bulgaria’s efforts to combat the influence of crime in the country, the cable notes

The Bulgarian government — especially PG Velchev and European Minister Passy — are lobbying heavily for a positive monitoring report, magnifying modest progress. The government keeps presenting the Commission a list of on-going high profile organized crime and corruption court cases (the number has grown from 30 to 52 over the last two and a half years) as “successes.” Incredibly, several of the “success” cases have been suspended. Several other cases, against notorious shady businessmen Angel Khristov and Plamen Galev AKA the Galevi brothers, and others can hardly be called successes as these defendants gained immunity by running for parliament. XXXXXXXXXXXX said the team found this “loophole” quite disturbing, along with how some Bulgarian officials vehemently defend the law that permits this phenomenon. Along with the “Galevization” of politics (referring to the Galevi brothers election campaign), Brussels is also concerned with vote buying and general election fraud.

The cable concludes with the observation that their EU source’s

frustration with the Bulgarian government’s lame and insincere reform efforts was striking. It appears to be spreading in Brussels where at least the working level appears to be feeling “buyer’s remorse” over letting Bulgaria and Romania into the club too early. According to reliable contacts, Brussels Eurocrats have dubbed enlargement fatigue the “Bulgarian Break,” further tarnishing Bulgaria’s bad image within the EU.

Not only have crime groups infiltrated Bulgaria’s highest political institutions, but they have also effectively destroyed the country’s national pastime, according to a cable released this week that dates from January 2010.

Since the fall of Communism, Bulgarian soccer has become a symbol of organized crime’s corrupt influence on important institutions. Bulgarian soccer clubs are widely believed to be directly or indirectly controlled by organized crime figures who use their teams as way to legitimize themselves, launder money, and make a fast buck. Despite rampant rumors of match fixing, money laundering, and tax evasion, there have been few arrests or successful prosecutions. As a result, the public has lost faith in the legitimacy of the league as evidenced by the drop in television ratings and match attendance. Recent scandals involving the most popular teams and the mass firing of the referee selection commission for a second consecutive year have deepened the public’s disgust.

It isn’t only that the teams are controlled by the mafias; the games themselves are often rigged.

Long-standing allegations of match fixing have probably done the most to damage Bulgarian soccer’s reputation. According to the sports editor of the daily “Trud,” Vladimir Pamukov, and sports journalist, Krum Savov, the most common match fixing schemes are bribing referees and paying off players on the opposing club to insure a team loses by a certain score. They argue that thanks to organized crime influences and economic disparity between the teams, match fixing has become an extremely common practice. This has caused many Bulgarians to view the outcomes of soccer matches like Americans view the predetermined outcomes of professional wrestling.

It’s no wonder, then—given the country’s hopelessly corrupt political institutions, suffering economy, and fraudulent football leagues—that Bulgaria ranks dead last on a global happiness survey, according to the Economist, as the saddest place on earth.

Should Progressives Concern Themselves With Defense Strategy and Line Items?

Littoral Combat Ship(Pictured: The Littoral Combat Ship.)

The Progressive Realist re-posted an essential piece by Robert Farley of Lawyers, Guns and Money. Prompted by the Defense Department’s purchase of the controversial Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), he reiterates his position that “progressives consistently underestimate the importance of discussions about military doctrine and technology.” Farley explains (emphasis added).

I believe that, right now, progressives have evacuated the field on questions of military doctrine and technology (with a couple of important exceptions, as noted below), leaving the conversation to conservatives and “centrists”. Effectively, this means that the “left” side of the US debate on the composition (rather than the size) of the defense budget is represented by people like Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, or (at very best) by the folks at the Center for American Progress. . . .

Progressives should start making arguments framed around the question of whether or not the F-35 (or the LCS, or whatever you feel like) is the kind of weapon that could underpin a progressive vision of US foreign policy. . . .

Finally, I think that we are approaching a political reality in which real cuts to defense spending will become possible, and that staking out genuinely progressive positions on issues of military doctrine and technology actually have a chance of affecting the composition of US military forces. . . . I think it’s very important that progressives start thinking through the details of defense issues now.

Most progressives are allergic to weapons. With a few exceptions, such as William Hartung (whose new book Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex, has just been published), we find it counterintuitive to immerse ourselves in the details of defense acquisition, not to mention “war-fighting” (sorry, I’m incapable of typing that without adding quotes) strategy. Do Focal Points readers agree with Robert Farley that, indeed, it’s exactly the kind of work we should be doing?

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