Focal Points Blog

South Korea Odd Man Out in Cheonan Outcome

Many of us suspect that, given the lack of proof, the light South Korean warship the Cheonan wasn’t sunk by a North Korean missile. But, whatever we think occurred, North Korean culpability is, by consensus, the premise from which the United States and China have proceeded. Peter Lee explains at Asia Times Online.

As United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates this week met in Seoul with their Republic of Korea (ROK) counterparts . . . the Cheonan sinking in March, the defining crisis that was supposed to highlight . . . their relationship, instead cast an ugly shadow over the event. The United States failed to organize a vigorous international backlash against North Korea [and] the United Nations Security Council failed to condemn [North Korea]. Joint US-ROK naval exercises, designed to build on UN condemnation with a massive show of united force and resolve, have instead turned into an embarrassing fizzle.

Initial plans for the exercises targeted the Yellow Sea between China and the Korean Peninsula and promised the intimidating presence of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington. The reports aroused a barrage of official criticism and popular anger inside China. In response, the expected location began to drift eastward. … The most recent report is that the US will . . . split the difference . . . with the George Washington and three destroyers in the east and a face-saving smaller exercise in the west.

China, which as recently as two weeks ago looked to be facing an intransigent united front of the US, South Korea and Japan, received an unexpected gift thanks to this American muddling: an alliance showing distinct signs of dismay, demoralization and division.

An alternate scenario courtesy of the author (emphasis added):

If the Barack Obama administration had a modulated policy combining recognition of core Chinese interests and pushback against Chinese opportunism . . . concessions on the . . . US-ROK drills might have been viewed as a welcome sign that [everyone's] mutual interest [was being respected].

However, in the context of an Obama administration foreign policy that appears to frame Asian affairs as a zero-sum game of global norms . . . vs Chinese [parochialism] it is difficult to view the saga of the wandering naval exercise as anything other than a defeat. [Meanwhile] South Korea, which for a time expected to ride the Cheonan crisis to . . recognition as the key US security partner in Asia . . . instead found itself shunted to the side as the two superpowers, China and the United States, once again dispose of the affairs of the Korean Peninsula between them.

South Korea, if you really did accuse North Korea of sinking the Cheonan when you knew that, in truth, it ran aground, freed itself, and collided with another ship . . . well, how’s that working out for you?

Proclaiming One’s Supremacy Doesn’t Become a Supreme Leader

Last Tuesday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a lightning rod of a fatwa that has since been removed from the web. One “Mr. Verde” at Enduring America (the website’s title is an ironic take on Operation Enduring Freedom) furnishes us with a comprehensive analysis of the fatwa.

Khamenei is claiming that he is a cleric of the highest rank who possesses all the required credentials to hold the position of [Supreme Leader].

    Many Shia clerics and scholars . . . believed in 1989 that Khamenei did not have the required religious credentials to permit him to hold the position of Supreme Leader. Other regime officials have said that Khamenei has the credentials, but such claims were made [only] in political speeches. This time the claim is made in the name of a religious edict and by Khamenei himself.

    Khamenei is claiming that his rule is a direct succession to that of the Prophet and the Shia Imams.

      During recent months, as he has been trying to cope with the fallout of the crisis within the Islamic Republic, Khamenei has repeatedly compared himself to the first Shia Imam and his opponents to the Imam’s enemies. Now he is claiming that he is not only the successor of the Imams, but of the Prophet too. … [Emphasis added.]

      The obvious significance of this fatwa is that Khamenei is saying that his orders must be carried out without failure. [But he] has not been able to demonstrate that he has any real authority in Iran beyond the use of force by his security personnel.

      On Thursday, in a follow-up post at Enduring America, Mr. Verde adds that according to his fatwa, Khameini . . .

      . . . sees no necessity for the constitution and the laws of the land, as he — the rightful successor to the Prophet and the Imams and the leader of the Muslims of the world — can decide whenever he wants what should or should not be done. … If such a fatwa were to stand, then elected officials would become courtiers in Khamenei’s service, not the servants of the people.

      The United States was formed partly in reaction to the idea of a state controlled by a religion, with its inclination to intolerance and tyranny. However, a religion endowed with power is not only destructive to the state, but to itself — or, more to the point, to its worshippers.

      Today we’re witness to the insensitivity that the pope displays, ostensibly in the interest of shoring up the institution of the Catholic church, to the rage and pain of its members over clerical child abuse. Their spiritual lives are left to moulder as local priests are given few tools to work with by the church hierarchy to facilitate healing. Inevitably, the religion’s “brand” is sullied.

      It’s no different with Islam, when Iran’s Supreme Leader countenances the savage repression of the Green Movement (including street shootings, as well as killings and rapes by armed guards in prisons), arming Hezbollah, and, arguably, developing nuclear weapons. The sensibilities of moderate Muslims are hung out to dry, much as they are by the methods of Islamists like al Qaeda, as well as the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban.

      It’s easier to fit a camel through the eye of a needle than it is to find the Islam in Islamism. It’s equally as difficult to locate among the leadership of the Islamic Republic.

      On Trying Not to Think of Stalin While Reading the Priest-Arkin Series

      Joseph StalinNot long ago I read Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy, a magisterial biography — stop right there. Don’t you hate it when reviewers reflexively laud a biography with the cliche “magisterial”? Besides, the reactions this nonetheless important book evoked in me ranged from banal (okay, another cliché, this one to describe evil, of course) to disgusting — the deeds Stalin committed. It was written in 1991by Dimitri Volkogonov, one of Russia’s highest ranking generals and among the first to gain access to secret archives of the Stalin years . If you’ll recall, that was a time when the life of a Russian, especially if he or she worked for the state, was like a game of Russian roulette.

      We haven’t reached the point in the United States where the state capriciously singles out individuals for execution or imprisonment (at least not on the scale Stalin did). But has any recent reporting brought home the extent to which the U.S. government has become a secretive national security state than the series by Dana Priest and William Arkin that the Washington Post is publishing this week?

      Part one, A hidden world, growing beyond control, begins (as you probably know since you’ve no doubt read it):

      The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

      For example . . .

      Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States. . . .

      In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings – about 17 million square feet of space.

      To begin with, imagine Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden — assuming he’s not dead or a permanent resident in al Qaeda’s nursing and rehab center — reading a translation of this series. Al Qaeda may never again be the force it was (if it ever really was). But, along with the Afghanistan and Iraq wars started in its name, our inflated military budget, and our staggering secret national security state, al Qaeda’s leaders can’t help but celebrate how well their strategy of bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy seems to be working.

      It’s true that the government of a large country is, almost by definition, a cold, unfeeling entity. But more and more, one can’t help but view the U.S. government as the citizens (or subjects) of countless countries have perceived theirs since the inception of statehood. Such governments don’t exist for the benefit of their people; instead, we exist to ensure the hardiness and continuity of the state. More to the point, the apparatus of the state, as epitomized by Soviet Russia, is perceived as an occupying force in not only other states, such as, in our case, Iraq and Afghanistan, but in its own country.

      But let’s go straight to the most critical issue: After the Priest-Arkin series, exactly how are we supposed to respond to Tea Partiers who condemn big government?

      Part 2: National Security Inc.
      Part 3: The secrets next door

      Pakistan’s Insurgents More Like Our Founding Fathers Than We Know?

      Though the New York Times is a valuable source of information, its tone and content sometimes betray its mainstream liberal bias to an embarrassing degree. This Monday’s front-page piece, titled “Pakistan’s Elite Pay Few Taxes, Widening Gap” well illustrates the point.

      Published in sync with Hillary Clinton’s visit to Pakistan, the report says that the absence of an equitable tax system is helping to “[create] conditions that have helped spread an insurgency that is tormenting the country and complicating American policy in the region.”

      Tongue-clucking about Pakistan’s failure to do its part in America’s war, it describes “a sorry performance for a country that is among the largest recipients of American aid, payments of billions of dollars that prop up the country’s finances and are meant to help its leaders fight the insurgency.”

      Nowhere in the article, however, does the Times offer any evidence, statements of fact, expert commentary, or testimony from ordinary Pakistanis to substantiate its claim that its tax policy has “created the conditions” for the insurgency.

      It is doubtless true that inequality is rampant in Pakistan, and it is equally true that its ruling elite is corrupt, parasitic, and stunningly myopic. But that is not unusual in a poor country, and it does not explain the rapid rise of the blistering Pakistani Taliban insurgency.

      A more methodical tax collection effort would certainly bolster state revenue, but most uncollected taxes would be drawn from major cities like Karachi, which lies far to the south, and from the playgrounds of the rich that pepper Islamabad, the country’s capital.

      The insurgency, on the other hand, is burgeoning in the North Western Frontier Province that lies north and borders Afghanistan. The government exercises little administrative control there because of the fierce Pashtun tribalism that prevails on both sides of the border. That has been the case since the country’s founding more than sixty years ago.

      So how could a long history of unfair wealth distribution explain an insurgency that has sprung up only recently? If mere poverty were a kindle for political violence, wouldn’t the populations of, say, Bangladesh or North Korea be engaged in mass revolt? And if taxation policies benefiting the rich were responsible for the violence, shouldn’t America have been in the throes of an insurgency after G.W. Bush enacted massive tax cuts for the country’s richest citizens?

      To find the real catalyst for the insurgency, the Times ought to have looked a little closer to home. Before the United States launched its invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistani extremists were either working with the state or lying low. Indeed, it is only very recently—when the U.S. woke up from its neoconservative-induced coma in Iraq and shifted focus back to Afghanistan—that Pakistani cities, mosques, shrines, government centers, and military installations have regularly become scenes of bloody militant attacks.

      Though the Pakistani Taliban have certainly exploited the poverty of the rural masses, their rallying cry has not exactly echoed the slogan of “no taxation without representation”; it has instead homed in on the Pakistan’s support for the U.S. led war along the “Af-Pak” border. Its bloodiest assaults, including the cowardly massacres at an Ahmadi mosque and a Sufi shrine, came only after Pakistan launched a 2009 summer offensive in parts of the NWFP.

      Of course, the American-led war in Afghanistan is not the only reason for the insurgency, even though the Pakistani press, reflecting the impotence of the people, has heaped all blame on America. The Pakistani elites have themselves been playing a cynical and myopic double-game with militants, hoping to leverage ties with extremists such as the local Haqqani network and even the Afghan Taliban to shape Afghanistan once the United States exits the stage. According to one recent report, the ties are even more extensive than previously believed.

      The Pakistani military, blind to the pernicious effects of empowering illiterate and backward Pahstun tribal elements who imagine themselves to be pious Muslims, thinks it can harness the extremists’ violence against Indian interests in Afghanistan—even though these Pakistani “Islamists” have so far succeeded only in killing Muslim civilians and Pakistani soldiers at an unprecedented pace.

      The Times’ fixation on Pakistan’s tax policies is curiously off the mark, blaming Pakistan for the insurgency without pointing to either of the actual reasons to blame. It is the presence of thousands of American troops in neighboring Afghanistan and the Pakistani state’s tacit support for extremism, not an absence of tax collectors, that is most responsible for kindling the flames of the insurgency.

      Are Nuclear Weapons Really the Ultimate in More Bang for the Buck?

      “Saudi Arabia’s decision last week to sign a nuclear cooperation pact with France marks a major step forward for a pan-Arab drive toward nuclear power,” reports UPI. “All told, 13 Middle Eastern states, including Egypt, have announced plans — or dusted off old plans — to build nuclear power stations since 2006. All say they have no intention of seeking to develop nuclear weapons. But there is concern that once they’ve mastered the technology they’ll seek to counter Iran’s alleged push to acquire such weapons by doing so themselves.”

      How is it that when a state ponders going nuclear, it always seems to find the money? It’s true that it takes advantage of a tendency on the part of its citizens to: 1. agree that no expense be spared when it comes to defense and 2. take national pride in a nuclear energy program (even more so in a nuclear weapons program). Or is that embarking on nuclear weapons program isn’t as expensive as one would think?

      Conventional thinking holds that nuclear weapons are cheaper than non-nuclear weapons. In other words, they ostensibly represent a means for a state with limited conventional forces to level the playing field with states that boast larger conventional forces or even nuclear weapons. The editor of the Nonproliferation Review and perhaps the world’s leading nuclear weapons auditor Stephen Schwartz wrote at Nuclear Threat Initiative:

      The belief underpinning the rapid increase in nuclear weapons during the 1950s was summed up in the phrase, “a bigger bang for a buck.” According to this widely accepted idea, nuclear weapons were more cost effective than conventional ones because pound for pound they could deliver more “killing power.” The thinking was that nuclear weapons would replace conventional weapons, saving large amounts of money and deterring war. But in reality nuclear weapons supplemented conventional weapons and the United States developed enormous arsenals of both, wiping out any potential savings envisioned by those who championed a large and robust nuclear arsenal.

      Obviously, a nuclear weapons program won’t cost a state as much as the Manhattan Project, with its pioneering research and design — $28 billion (in today’s dollars) or $7 billion apiece for the two bombs. That wheel doesn’t need reinventing (unfortunately). But, the issue of states supplementing their conventional weapons instead of replacing them aside, how are nuclear weapons cheaper?

      In the summer of 2001, Nonproliferation Review published an article by Dr. Stanley Erickson, a scientist who today works in the private sector developing port inspection systems for the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. His piece, titled Economic and Technological Trends Affecting Nuclear Nonproliferation, shows how states might afford — or, more to the point, convince themselves they can afford — such an undertaking.

      Continued worldwide economic growth [at that time, just before 9/11] has raised the GNP of many states [some of which] may indeed be crossing the threshold where economic strength would allow the development of a nuclear weapon program without crippling their economy or conventional military forces, even if done rapidly.

      Dr. Erickson adds that “new technologies have been developed to produce nuclear materials [which] may be done with much less capital expenditure.” These include laser processes for isotopic separation. But, “There is little point for a state to develop nuclear weapons if delivery systems for these weapons are beyond the state’s capabilities. The preferred method for nuclear weapon delivery among the major powers has been ballistic missiles. … However, cruise missiles may be a more achievable delivery system for many countries.”

      Cruise missiles — talk about your budget delivery systems. Then there are submarines. Wait, a nuclear submarine costs $2 billion plus. But Dr. Erickson is referring to “conventionally powered submarines . . . with electric generators [from which] a short-range cruise missile [can be launched] from torpedo tubes while the submarine is submersed.”

      Along with laser isotope separation and launching cruise missiles from the torpedo tubes of electric submarines, there’s yet another avenue the aspiring, but cost-conscious nuclear power can pursue. What’s an illicit nuclear program without underground research and manufacturing facilities? Huh? How can that not be expensive? Turns out that while it’s not necessarily cheap, it’s less costly than you might think.

      Modern self-propelled tunneling machinery allows nuclear facilities to be built many times faster and cheaper than they were 20 years ago. Automated tunneling equipment . . . continues to become more efficient and less expensive [allowing] a tunnel two to 10 meters (m) in diameter to be bored at the rate of several m per day or more. … Other types of automated equipment allow supports and linings to be put in place at the same rate as the boring proceeds. [Tunnel boring machines] have lowered the cost and delay barriers that might have formerly inhibited the placing of facilities underground.

      One more option remains available to a state developing a nuclear weapons program on the cheap: skip developing a delivery system, such as missiles, in favor of prepositioning. What does prepositioning involve? Nuclear weapons smuggled, instead of launched or dropped from bombers, into another state such as the United States. Of course, you know that as nuclear terrorism. But what’s to stop a state, instead of a non-state actor (terrorist group), from attempting to plan such an attack? Conveniently Dr. Erickson is one of the few to publicly address that subject, which we’ll address in a future post.

      Meanwhile, though, a state aspiring to nuclear weapons would still be required to develop a delivery systems lest the International Atomic Energy Agency and the rest of the world draw the conclusion that it planned to either emulate nuclear terrorists, or equally troublesome, supply them with SADMs (special atomic demolition munitions), such as low-yield nuclear suitcases or backpacks. Thus, no totally scrimping on a delivery system.

      What to Do About Somalia

      SomaliaNow that the violence of Somalia has spilled over into Uganda, western policymakers and pundits are suddenly all aflutter with the urge to ‘do something’. Exactly what that something might be is uncertain. Drone attacks, special forces, a Gaza-like blockade and even a full scale invasion have been suggested.

      All of those are truly terrible ideas – and exactly the kind of legacy thinking that caused the US to hug the tar baby called IrAfPak. At best, they will generate yet another failure / quagmire, and expand the ever growing pool of pissed off people who want to car bomb Times Square. At worst, they could invite a ‘fifth column’ type of resistance on the part of the Somali diaspora and sympathizers, spreading conflict across the region and beyond. (Somewhere between 40% and 50% of ethnic Somalis live outside the country.)

      Instead of pursuing the same old failed policies, the way to resolve intractable problems is to expand the ‘solution space’ – the range of available options. Solution space is determined by the perspectives – which we might also call beliefs, paradigms or ‘mental models’ – of the players involved. Because we can only act on ideas that get through our political / cultural / personal filters, the way to achieve breakthrough is to broaden our perspectives in order to see a wider range of possibilities.

      Here are five perspectives that could begin to shift the situation in Somalia.

      1 – Disaggregate It

      Somalia is not really a country in the way westerners typical apply the concept. Like Afghanistan, it is a collection of tribes and clans that alternately compete and collaborate, spread across arbitrary boundaries imposed by colonial powers. (Somalia’s borders are a result of combining Northern Somalia, which was a British ‘trusteeship’, with Southern Somalia, which was an Italian ‘protectorate’, to form the Somali Republic. French Somaliland to the north became Djibouti.)

      Even though lines on maps are somehow sacred to most policymakers, they should be ignored here. So long as the US and its allies see Somalia as a single, troubled country controlled by radical Islamists, they will suffer ‘path dependency’, stuck forever with only the limited range of lousy options noted above.

      ‘Chunking’ the issues – seeing Somalia as a diverse jumble of players, areas and interests – would allow adaptive responses based more on objective realities and less on stereotypes. It would also allow distributed, locally appropriate interventions and innovations that could be rapidly prototyped to see whether and how they might scale and extend.

      Perspective 2 – Reinforce the Positive

      There are areas of Somalia that work reasonably well (by local standards), and those should be engaged and fostered. The Republic of Somaliland, in the northwest, is relatively stable and continues to move toward a constitutional democracy, including holding what outside observers consider free and fair municipal, parliamentary, and presidential elections.

      Puntland, which includes the ‘horn’ of Africa, declared itself an ‘autonomous state’ in 1998 and has been relatively stable since. (Again, by local standards. It’s not Sweden.) Puntland has worked to diversify its economy and made education a government priority, especially for girls and the nomadic clans that make up roughly half the population. Early childhood development is also a high priority.

      Engaging these regions with targeted aid and development efforts would increase their stability, and demonstrate that westerners are not the enemy of Somalis. Even more important, it would demonstrate to Somalis in war torn areas that there is hope. Nothing is more destabilizing to a regime than rising or falling expectations, and increasing stability and prosperity in the north could provide a severe challenge to Al-Shabaab, the Islamist movement dominating south-central Somalia.

      The reactionary, ‘crisis management’ focus on distressed areas in the south and center of the country causes neglect of the more stable north and west. That neglect creates openings for parasitic entities. Both pirates and human traffickers operate openly in Puntland, and can be displaced only by developing viable, alternative livelihoods.

      Perspective 3 – Open Lines of Communication

      Complexity science tells us that structures are relationships made visible. In order to create new structures – which will then generate new patterns of events and behaviors – the US needs to create new relationships.

      Obviously, this can be difficult – especially for politicians who have staked out positions based on simplistic jingoism, like ‘Islamofascism’ and ‘Global War on Terror’. But it has been done successfully in equally difficult situations. When Nelson Mandela was criticized by members of his own party for talking to the de Klerk government, he said, ‘If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.’

      Although the US despises the Al Shabaab movement, that entity currently controls much of the south and center of the Somalia. If the US truly wants to change the situation on the ground, it needs to get past its prejudice and work with Al Shabaab. Despite competing ideologies, both sides have some common ground and can find ways to work together. As trust and relationships grow, deeper issues can be addressed.

      Perspective 4 – Think Governance, Not Government

      Despite western claims, there is no legitimate government in Somalia. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has no writ beyond a few square blocks in Mogadishu, and would quickly disappear were it not protected by Ugandan and Burundian troops under the auspices of the African Mission on Somalia (AMISOM).

      The TFG is the fourteenth attempt to impose a functioning government in Somalia since the end of the Siad Barre regime in 1991. Like many other iterations, it is largely seen by locals as a shill for Ethiopia and the US, and has been accused by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch of chronic rape, murder, looting and theft. Backing it lends no credence to western claims of promoting human rights and democracy.

      Encouraging Al Shabaab to govern well – rather than attempting to subvert that governance – is a more effective strategy. If they succeed and bring forth order and development, everyone wins. If they fail and destroy their own legitimacy in the eyes of the Somali people, they will be deposed – without resentment against outsiders and the potential for blowback that engenders.

      Perspective 5 – Get Over the Fear of ‘isms’

      Just as America’s fear of communism stampeded it to make disastrous decisions regarding China, Viet Nam, Iran and a host of other nations, its fear of Islam drives stupid and self-defeating policy regarding Somalia.

      It was this fear of Islamism that caused western nations to sponsor the 2006 invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia to defeat the relatively moderate Islamic Courts Union (ICU) when that group seemed about to consolidate power. By toppling the ICU, the US and its allies created a vacuum that was filled by the ICU’s military wing. Today that movement is called Al Shabaab, and America rails against the very situation it helped create.

      The fact is, Somalia is a Muslim country, in a Muslim region. It is only logical that Islamic values and tradition frame discussions of the country’s future. (Even the TFG ‘president’ offers his degree in Islamic Law as a primary qualification for the job.)

      If US policymakers truly want to help stabilize the situation in Somalia, they need to get past their pathological fear of all things Islamic. In fact, they should encourage all sides to practice fundamental tenets of Islam, including devotional activity, simplicity, charity, humility, patience, and consistency.

      Muslims believe that through such practices believers become more whole, peaceful, loving and compassionate. These virtues, as they become living attributes, evolve into a state of higher consciousness called fana.

      Somalia – and the world – should be so lucky.

      Torpedoing Conventional Thinking on the Cheonan

      Cheonan, North Korea, South KoreaThe narrative around the Mar. 26 sinking of the South Korean Navy Corvette Cheonan, and the death of 46 sailors, seems pretty straightforward: the ship was sunk by a North Korean (DPRK) torpedo. That was the conclusion by a South Korean (ROK) panel of 47 military and military-research experts and three international representatives. The only question left unanswered was the DPRK’s motive, with fallout from an internal power struggle holding the inside track.

      But two researchers from the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins University are suggesting there may have been a rush to judgment, and that the evidence presented by the panel is deeply flawed. Seunghun Lee, a professor of physics at Virginia, and J.J. Suh, an associate professor of Korean Studies at Johns Hopkins, have analyzed the findings of the Joint Civil-Military Investigation Group (JIG) and found them wanting.

      The JIG concluded that the Cheonan was ripped in two by an external explosion from a North Korean torpedo, which ROK naval units recovered. But according to Lee and Suh, those conclusions are “riddled with such serious flaws as to render the JIG’s conclusion unsustainable.” They even suggest that some of the X-ray data used to tie the torpedo to the explosion “may have been fabricated.”

      Americans who watch television saw a sobering re-creation of the event in which an exploding torpedo’s powerful bubble destroyed a similar sized ship. But according to the two authors, the South Korean Navy has not been able to “produce a bubble simulation consistent with the information presented in the JIG report.” The simulations run by the JIG instead show a bubble forming, striking the ship, deforming the hull, and making a small rupture, not tearing the ship in half.

      According to the authors, “If the bottom of the ship was hit by a bubble, it should show a spherical concave deformation resembling the shape of a bubble, as the JIG’s own simulation suggests, but it does not.” Instead, the damage seems more consistent with a “collision with a hard object.”

      What is also missing is any sign of what is called the “pre-bubble shock wave,” nor does internal damage and crew casualties appear to be consistent with those inflicted by a shock wave.

      Lee and Suh also take issue with the chemical and X-ray analysis of the residue on the hull that the JIG found to be consistent with the chemical signature of an explosion caused by the recovered torpedo. According to the authors, the “critical evidence” used by the JIG “to link the Cheonan sinking to the alleged explosion of the torpedo is scientifically groundless and perhaps fabricated.”

      The two researchers also question the torpedo itself, and particularly a blue ink marking on the weapon spelling out “Hangul “in Korean. The torpedo’s deeply corroded surface is consistent with an explosion that would burn off the weapon’s protective paint. The only problem is that ink boils at a much lower point than paint, 150 degrees Celsius and 350 degrees Celsius respectively. “This inconsistency—the high heat tolerant paint was burnt but the low heat tolerant ink was not—cannot be explained and casts serious doubt on the integrity of the torpedo as ‘critical evidence,’” write the two authors.

      “While we emphatically note that our findings do not prove that North Korea did not do it, we conclude that the JIG has failed to prove that it did,” the authors argue. “The seriousness of the inconsistencies in fact casts doubt not only on the validity of the JIG conclusions but also on the integrity of its investigation.”

      If North Korea didn’t sink the ship, who did? Maybe it was not a “who but a “what.” Some of the damage is consistent with a collision. Is there damage that might indicate an internal explosion? The DPRK certainly has a history of doing provocative things, but part of that reputation comes from the relentless demonization of Pyongyang. The North Koreans have always shown an affection for bombast, but they have been generally careful not to do something that would provoke a war.

      It may turn out that the North Koreans did sink the Cheonan, but the evidence is hardly the slam-dunk it has been represented as in the media. And doubts about the DPRK’s guilt may well explain China’s reluctance to join in the pile-on condemnations of Pyongyang, as well as for the careful wording of the recent United Nations resolution that condemned the incident but avoided assigning blame.

      What is clear is that in-house investigations are always open to suspicion. No matter what the Israeli’s handpicked panel to investigate the attack on a Turkish ship comes up with, it will have no credibility outside of Israel.

      Lee and Suh conclude that “given the inconsistencies” of the JIG investigation, the South Korean government should “re-open the investigation and form a new, and more objective” investigation. “The dead sailors deserve such a report. So does the international community.”

      Visit Conn’s blog, Dispatches from the Edge.

      Finally, a Forum for Victims of the “Wars on Drugs”

      When was the last time you heard of a drug user, or a coca grower, or even a mother of a drug addict testifying at a U.S. congressional hearing on drug policy? The sad reality is that those most affected by drugs and drug policies – from urban youth in the slums of Lima to coca farmers in Peru’s Upper Huallaga Valley – are for the most part excluded from the drug policy debate. This is true not only in the United States, but across the globe.

      Take the United Nations, for example. At the 1998 UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS), a coalition of civil society organizations fought long and hard to have alternative voices heard from the official podium. In the end, a Colombian woman from a coca growing town in the Guaviare region of Colombia and a representative of U.S. drug users were given 5 minutes each. Ten years later, when a mandated review of the UNGASS took place, a similar effort failed. Such voices could be heard among the protestors outside the UN compound in Vienna, Austria, but they were not given an official platform at the meeting. Those who most needed to hear alternative points of view were deaf to the voices outside.

      Yet listening to those from the communities most affected by drug use, drug related violence and corruption, and the negative impact of drug policies themselves is crucial to developing sound public policies. And without listening to their voices, the human side of the story is lost.

      Perhaps one of the groups most excluded from the policy debate are low-level offenders or those who are unknowingly used as drug couriers and who end up in jail, with sentences that are usually greatly disproportionate to the crime committed. Incarceration and long-term jail sentences affect not only those incarcerated, but also their spouses, children and communities. When they are released from prison, these individuals face the same lack of socio-economic opportunities that may have led them to get involved in the drug business in the first place, compounded by the fact that they now have criminal records.

      In listening to their stories, two things become clear. First, the “drug war” can be profoundly unjust, with harsh mandatory minimum and tough sentencing laws – often combined with extremely abusive prison conditions – that are in direct contradiction of established international human rights norms. And second, addressing the roots of the drug issue is not simply a matter of law enforcement, but necessitates broader public policies, including policies that focus on the lack of economic opportunity for a growing number of urban and rural poor, particularly youth.

      To bring the human face of the “drug war” into the policy debate, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Transnational Institute (TNI) released two videos this week with interviews of women incarcerated on drug charges.

      One is filmed in Mexico, where the Mexican government has launched an all-out war on the drug cartels, leading to unprecedented levels of violence. Nonetheless, the vast majority of those imprisoned on drug charges are low-level offenders or consumers – not those connected to the cartels that we read about every day in the press. Mexican jails are bursting at the seams with those from the most vulnerable sectors of Mexican society, while the drug trade remains alive and well.

      As reported by WOLA and TNI:

      In this video, Rosa Julia Leyva Martinez tells the story of how one day in 1993, she decided to travel from her home state of Guerrero to Mexico City. According to her testimony, a few people she knew from her town convinced her to travel with them, and without her knowledge, had her carry a bag with heroine inside through airport security. She says that she was tortured into signing a confession and as a result spent close to 11 years in prison. In this video Rosa Leyva comes to the following conclusion: “I think I finally accepted what that judge and that criminologist said ‘I don’t care if they tricked you, if you were a victim of a thousand and one things, what matters to me is that you were carrying it, and this is what matters for my sentence.’ And I thought to myself, what brought Rosa Julia Leyva to jail? I was brought because of ignorance, social-cultural isolation, hunger, a thousand and one reasons.”

      Watch Drugs and Prison in Mexico:

      The second video is filmed at the El Inca women’s prison in Quito, Ecuador. That country has one of the harshest drug laws in the hemisphere: Sentences for drug offences range from 12 to 25 years, whereas the maximum sentence for murder is 16. As a result, a non-violent drug offender can receive a higher sentence than someone who has committed murder. The Correa government is seeking to reform Ecuador’s drug law, but in the meantime, the existing law continues to be implemented.

      Again, as reported by WOLA and TNI:

      In this video, Analia Silva says she started dealing drugs out of poverty. She explains that she did not even know the type of drugs she was selling; that she only knew that being the sole provider of her two children, and she needed to make ends meet. She was caught in 2003 and sentenced to 8 years in jail. In the video she comes to the following conclusion: “When they sentenced me, and it’s the same for every woman they sentence, they not only sentence the person who committed the crime, they also sentence their family, they also sentence their children. […] [Authorities] don’t realize that they want to get rid of crime, but they are the ones promoting it because if they [the children] are left alone… what can they do? Go and steal… my daughter would become a prostitute, my son would become a drug addict, deal drugs, sell drugs.”

      Watch Drugs and Prisons in Ecuador:

      (Or go to Vimeo itself.)

      While the videos were released without much fanfare, they quickly became a bit of a media sensation in Latin America – much to the surprise of those involved in their production. An EFE story with links to the video was reproduced in numerous places and mainstream media that has traditionally backed present drug policies picked up the story. The two most important newspapers in Lima, Peru (El Comercio and La Republica) gave the videos significant coverage, as did the leading daily El Universal in Mexico. In Colombia, both El Tiempo and Semana reported on the videos’ release. Semana’s front page coverage (including links to the videos) was picked up by non-other than Colombian rock superstar, Juanes – who has close to a million followers in Twitter and another million followers on Facebook – who tweeted the videos and linked to them from his website. Twenty-four hours later, more than 500 people had commented on the videos on his Facebook page.

      So in the end, these two moving stories of “drug war” injustices may have had more immediate impact in raising awareness of the collateral damage of the so-called war on drugs than the detailed policy analysis that NGOs tend to churn out. And the audience reached went beyond policy wonks to Juanes fans across Latin America. Maybe hearing more stories like those of Rosa Julia and Analia is what we need to bring about much needed drug policy reform.

      Israel: Warped Mirrors and White House Sofas

      Israeli settlers protestIf anyone had doubts about the outcome of recent talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barak Obama, they were put to rest July 13 when Israeli authorities demolished three Palestinian houses and announced the construction of 32 new homes in East Jerusalem. According to the British Guardian, “A further 48 housing units are expected to be approved next week.”

      So much for the “freeze” on evictions and settlement building; so much for the “peace process.” According to Jeff Halper of the International Committee against Home Demolitions, “The rule of thumb in this part of the world is that in the run-up to the U.S. elections Israel has a free hand. Israel is now taking advantage of that.”

      The collapse of the “freeze”—which wasn’t a freeze in any case because it did not cover East Jerusalem or “existing settlements”—will spike any negotiations between the Netanyahu government and the Palestinians, and accelerate Israel’s take-over of the West Bank. According to a recent study by the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, that process is rapidly reaching the point of no return.

      The B’Tselem report found that settlers now control 42 percent of the West Bank, far more than was previously thought, and much of the land seized from private Palestinian landowners. Any settlement land in the Occupied Territories is considered a violation of international law, but taking privately owned land also contravenes rulings by the Israeli Supreme Court.

      “The settlement enterprise has been characterized, since its inception, by an instrumental, cynical, and even criminal approach to international law, local legislation, Israeli military orders, and Israeli law, which has enabled the continuous pilfering of land from Palestinians in the West Bank,” the report states.

      Settler councils have either fenced off or designated massive tracts of land for future expansion, and they have seized 21 percent of the privately owned land on the West Bank. This drive to take over the entire West Bank has been greatly aided by Israeli government policies, including subsidized housing, tax breaks, bypass roads, and the seizure of scarce water resources.

      Israeli groups that oppose the settler expansion, or are critical of government policies vis-à-vis Gaza, are finding themselves increasingly under fire. In recent months demonstrators have been arrested for peacefully assembling and picketing, and a bill that demonizes non-governmental organizations (NGO) that accused the government of war crimes during the 2008-09 “Cast Lead” operation in Gaza is working its way through the Knesset.

      The bill would outlaw any NGO that provides information to foreign or international organization, like the United Nations, that results in a charge of war crimes. When the Israeli government refused to cooperate with the UN’s investigation of Cast Lead, groups like B’Tselem provided about 14 percent of the information that eventually went into the Goldstone Report. The Report found that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes.

      According to the Forward, “The proposed legislation would apply to NGOs that provide information directly to accusers, or to NGOs that put information in the public domain that leads to such accusations.”

      Some 17 Knesset members from the Kadima Party and other right-wing parties have signed on to the legislation. Some observers say it has little chance of passing, but that will depend on the position of the government.

      “Instead of defending democracy, the sponsors of this bill prefer to reduce it to ashes,” reads a statement signed by 10 human rights NGOs.

      Polls show the legislation—ram-rodded by Kadima Knesset member Ronit Tirosh—has support. A Tel Aviv University survey found that 57.6 percent thought that NGOs that exposed “immoral conduct” by Israel should not be allowed “to operate freely.”

      There is a growing chasm “between the slogans like, ’Israel is a great democracy,’ and ‘the army is the most moral in the world’—and the reality,” says Professor Daniel Bar-Tal who conducted the poll. Israelis, he says, “do not look in the mirror” and do not wish to be reminded by NGOs about their image. The result, he says, is that “the foundations” of democracy in the country are under siege.

      The mood to pull the wagons in a circle has helped revive a push by right-wing Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to cancel Israeli citizenship for the country’s 1.3 million Arabs, and transfer them to a “Palestinian state.” The plan—which would violate international law—was first proposed in 2003, but then shelved. In the current atmosphere, Lieberman has dusted it off and put it back on the agenda.

      The Obama Administration says Netanyahu accepts a two-state solution, but the Prime Minister has filled his pledge with so many caveats that there appears little possibility that such an entity could ever appear under his government. Indeed, his national security advisor and close friend, Uzi Arad, recently attacked the “magic” of the two-state solution and told a meeting of the Jewish Agency, “The more you market Palestinian legitimacy, the more you bring about a detraction of Israel’s legitimacy.”

      Israel has never been so isolated internationally. Several nations recalled their ambassadors in the aftermath of the Israeli commando raid on the Gaza flotilla, and leading politicians, including Kadima leader Tzipi Livini and Vice Prime Minister Mosche Ya’alon, have decided to curb travel to Britain because they fear an arrest warrant.

      This isolation is likely to get worse with the Goldstone Report coming before the UN’s General Assembly in late July and Turkey assuming the chair of the Security Council in September.

      The current Israeli leadership is a major part of the problem. “Ever since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, Israel has been ruled by one of the stupidest and least responsible leaderships in the world. Their failings have been masked by propaganda and by Israel’s American insurance policy,” says the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn.

      Cockburn points out that the last Israeli military victory was the 1973 war against Syria and Egypt, and that over the past 37 years Israel has lurched from one failure to another. “Israel’s only victories these days are won on the sofa of the White House.”

      The reason, he argues, “is that Israelis believe their own propaganda and their supporters abroad adopt a skewed view of events as if it was an article of faith. Israelis, leaders and followers alike, acquire a wholly distorted picture of the world around them. Hubris breeds self-righteousness and arrogance robs Israel of friends and allies and repeatedly leads its leaders to underestimate their enemies.”

      None of that is likely to be changed by refusing to look in the mirror or by killing the NGO messenger.

      Visit Conn’s blog, Dispatches from the Edge.

      U.S.-Iran: Small Voice of Optimism, Deafening Chorus of Dread

      Israel Air ForceAt Arms Control Wonk, Jeffrey Lewis linked to an article that provides a glimmer of hope in U.S.-Iran relations. Stephanie Cooke is the editor of Uranium Intelligence Weekly. (Right beside Entertainment Weekly on my night table.) In a piece sporting the tantalizing tltle, US May Drop Insistence That Iranians Shut Down Natanz — Eventually, she points out: “A little-noticed modification in its [new] National Security Strategy (NSS) document allows the US more flexibility in negotiations over Iran’s enrichment activities.”

      The new NSS “no longer states, as did the 2006 NSS, that a key US nonproliferation objective is ‘to keep states from acquiring the capability to produce fissile material suitable for making nuclear weapons.’ The new document . . . says only that: ‘The United States will pursue the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and work to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.’” Iran “need only meet its ‘international obligations on its nuclear program’ to enjoy ‘greater political and economic integration with the international community.’” Meanwhile, it’s already “proposing discussion questions for talks, rather than setting conditions.”

      Elsewhere, though, prognostications have turned as dire as they were at the peak of the Bush administration. For example, Foreign Policy in Focus’s own Conn Hallinan writes at Focal Points (and at AlterNet):

      “According to the [Jerusalem] Post, [Israeli] supplies were unloaded June 18 and 19 outside the Saudi city of Tabuk, and. … an ‘anonymous American defense official’ claimed that Mossad chief Meir Dagan was the contact man with Saudi Arabia and had briefed Netanyahu on the plans.

      “The Gulf Daily News reported June 26 that Israel has moved warplanes to Georgia and Azerbaijan, which would greatly shorten the distance Israeli planes would have to fly to attack targets in northern Iran. The U.S currently has two aircraft carriers . . . plus more than a dozen support vessels in the Gulf of Hormuz. … The rhetoric is getting steamy, the weapons are moving into position, and it is beginning to feel like ‘The Guns of August’ in the Middle East.”

      As usual, along with Israel, U.S. hawks are largely responsible for turning up the temperature on said rhetoric. Jim Lobe reports at Asia Times Online that “a familiar clutch of Iraq war hawks appear to be preparing the ground for a major new campaign to rally public opinion behind military action against the Islamic Republic.” If ever a bunch deserved the term “the usual suspects,” they include aging neocons like Stephen Hadley, John Bolton, and William Kristol. The hawks, Lobe writes . . .

      “. . . also pounced on reported remarks made by United Arab Emirates ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba at a retreat sponsored by The Atlantic magazine in Colorado last week to nullify another obstacle to military action — the widespread belief that Washington’s Arab allies oppose a military attack on Iran by the US or Israel as too risky for their own security and regional stability. ‘We cannot live with a nuclear Iran,’ Otaiba was quoted as saying.”

      Special shout-out to the Atlantic for the nobility it showed by sacrificing its good name for a cause it (apparently) believes in! Meanwhile, let’s not forget the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, which, Lobe reports, declared that most Arab officials “desperately want someone, and that means the US or Israel, to stop [Iran], using force if need be.”

      But how could the Israeli Air Force reach Iran without being intercepted or shot down? Also at ATimes, David Moon explains in a widely read piece.

      “Overflight of Iraq on a direct bearing to Iran is out of the question. Such a path would cause friction between the US, responsible for Iraq’s aerial sovereignty, and the next Iraqi government. … The likely route to Iran . . . is to fly a great circle around Iraq. … For this route, almost every applicable IAF logistics and support asset would be utilized.

      The first leg for [IAF] fighter bombers is a low-level run up the Mediterranean [when tankers would] top up the tanks of the strike group. … To skirt Turkish airspace and the ability of the Turkish military to raise an alarm [to NATO], the strike group [would be accompanied by an aircraft [that] ferrets out air defense radars. [Another] beams a data stream containing . . . a ‘worm’ into air defense radars with the capability of incapacitating an entire air defense network.”

      You get the idea — the highest of high-tech.

      In a third ATimes article, Victor Kotsev agrees that, “By most accounts, a cataclysm is approaching. The situation, according to analyst Tony Badran, is ‘arguably similar to the one immediately preceding the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.’” But how could an attack not end badly for the West? Kotsev explains.

      “. . . the Iranian regime could be quickly humiliated and weakened, its nuclear program set back by many years, and its international isolation deepened. In this case, seething internal tensions would eventually lead to regime change in the Islamic Republic. … such a development would [give] Obama much needed leverage to push through an Arab-Israeli peace agreement [which] would make Netanyahu more prone to compromise. Hamas would be left adrift.”

      From neocon wish list to wishful thinking . . . do you ever get the feeling that nations go to war just because they can’t stand the suspense of having an incipient war hanging over their heads? They just want the tension to cease and desist. What better way to remove the ongoing pressure of what also amounts to temptation than to give in to it?

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