Focal Points Blog

U.S. Men’s World Cup Team Rides a Wave of Jingoism

US fans

Everyone seems to be gushing about the U.S. Men’s World Cup soccer team. Fans are jumping and hugging in streets and bars across the country. Men are actually admitting to shedding tears. And commentators keep talking about what the last-gasp victory over Algeria says about the “national character.”

“These were Americans doing something recognizable,” wrote New York Times soccer columnist George Vecsey, linking the goalscorer, Landon Donovan, and his teammates with iconic athletes Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter, “something Americans have seen before.”

“American athletes would never give up,” was the lesson Vecsey drew from the match.

Vecsey and others have likewise read the victory, and the team, as symbols of an idyllic melting pot nation. One blogger, who calls himself the “renegade sportsman,” was particularly effusive:

Call it, perhaps, a protean, republican spirit of inclusion through merit. The pile-up on Donovan after his goal involved Hispanic dudes, white dudes, black dudes—even a Scottish dude. It was a fleshy amalgamation produced by a country that has always been polyglot and multihued.

And then there are the oft-quoted, hazily poetic words of U.S. midfielder DaMarcus Beasley (whom I happen to like and hope gets to play more), who is suddenly being compared to Whitman, Dickinson, and Louis Armstrong: “We bring something to the table, the American people as a whole.”

Understandable words from a member of a team that has rarely been taken seriously by the international soccer world. But as exegesis on a nation (that is so often, and so tellingly, mistaken for a hemisphere)? (Then again, I’m sure many Iraqis and Afghans would agree that U.S. Americans bring something to the table.)

The U.S. team is not an allegory for the nation. The team and its victory are not signs of some unique “American character” that we have and that no one else possesses. They are not symbols of an inclusive, meritocratic melting pot nation (which has somehow, magically erased its history of slavery, genocide, and imperial expansion, as well as its present day reality of ongoing racism, war, impoverishment, and inequality).

The team is just that. A team of 23 men and their coaches and trainers who have, despite some nervous moments, done rather well in the first round of the world’s largest sporting event-cum-platform for nationalist dreaming and global capitalism.

The rest is pure mythmaking and nationalist dribble (pardon the pun).

Indeed the World Cup, by its very modus operandi of pitting teams said to represent nations against one another, encourages such mythmaking and nationalist hyperbole. I get caught up in the emotion of the World Cup as much, if not more, than the average “American.” But when the crowd at the stadium, at the bar, in the streets starts chanting “USA! USA! USA!” maybe we should think twice about the seemingly instinctive, but very much conditioned, nationalist ritual we’re participating in.

Maybe at such a moment it might be worth thinking about those like the distraught Algerian goalie, Rais M’Bolhi, who conceded Donovan’s goal, after bravely turning aside everything that had come his way? Who couldn’t feel terrible for him? Was the goal some sign of the Algerian national character?

Before a difficult match against Ghana (and, if the U.S. team is lucky, other difficult match(es) ahead), perhaps it’s worth considering, in a game that inevitably entail wins and losses, why it is that we only see our victories—and never our defeats—as a sign of our national character?

Pavlovian Congress Jumps to Israel’s ‘Self-’ Defense

Gaza FlotillaPosted as a complement to Stephen Zunes’s Foreign Policy in Focus piece Israel’s Dubious Investigation of Flotilla Attack.

In a letter to President Barack Obama date June 17, 329 out of 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives referred to Israel’s May 31 attack on a humanitarian aid flotilla in international waters, which resulted in the deaths of nine passengers and crew and injuries to scores of others, as an act of “self-defense” which they “strongly support.” Similarly, a June 21 Senate lettersigned by 87 out of 100 senators — went on record “fully” supporting what it called “Israel’s right to self-defense,” claiming that the widely supported effort to relieve critical shortages of food and medicine in the besieged Gaza Strip was simply part of a “clever tactical and diplomatic ploy” by “Israel’s opponents” to “challenge its international standing.”

The House letter urged President Obama “to remain steadfast in defense of Israel” in the face of the near-universal international condemnation of this blatant violation of international maritime law and other legal statutes, which the signatories referred to as “a rush to unfairly judge and defend Israel.” The Senate letter condemned the near-unanimous vote of the UN Human Rights Council for what it called “singling out” Israel, even though no other country in recent memory has attacked a humanitarian aid flotilla in international waters. Both letters called upon the United States to veto any resolution in the UN Security Council criticizing the Israeli attack.

What is perhaps most disturbing is that many of the key arguments in the letters were misleading and, in some cases, factually inaccurate.

The Israeli government had acknowledged prior to the writing of the letter that the extensive blockade of humanitarian goods was not necessary for their security, but as a means of pressuring the civilian population to end their support for Hamas, which won a majority of legislative seats in the most recent Palestinian election. In addition, the Israeli government announced a significant relaxation of the embargo two days after the letter was written. Despite this, the House letter claimed that the purpose of the blockade was “to stop terrorists from smuggling weapons to kill innocent civilians,” thereby placing this large bipartisan majority of the House even further to the right than Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s rightist coalition.

There was no mention in the letter than no such weapons were found on board any of the six ships hijacked by the Israelis nor on the previous eight ships the Free Gaza Campaign had sailed or attempted to sail to the Gaza Strip. In addition, even though the ships had been thoroughly inspected by customs officials prior to their disembarkation, the House letter claimed that had the Israelis not hijacked the ships, they would have “sailed unchecked into Gaza.”

Similarly, according to the Senate letter, Israel’s naval blockade was necessary “to keep dangerous goods from entering Gaza by sea” and falsely claimed that the intent of the Israeli blockade was “to protect Israel, while allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza.” Particularly striking is the fact that, despite that the International Committee on the Red Cross and a broad consensus of international legal experts recognize that the Israeli blockade of humanitarian goods is illegal, the Senate letter insisted that the blockade “is legal under international law.”

The House letter insisted, despite the fact that several of those killed on the Mavi Marmara were shot at point blank range in the back or the back of the head and a video showing a 19-year old U.S. citizen shot execution style on the ground, that “Israeli forces used necessary force as an act of self-defense and of last resort.” Similarly, the Senate letter refers to the murders of passengers and crew resisting the illegal boarding of their vessel in international waters as a situation where the Israeli raiders were “forced to respond to that attack” when they “arrived” on the ship.

The House letter also claimed that the other ships were “commandeered peacefully and without incident,” even though on the other ships, despite completely nonviolent resistance, passengers were tasered and brutally beaten and were attacked with tear gas and rubber bullets. Similarly, the Senate letter insisted that, in spite of these potentially fatal beatings and other assaults, “Israeli forces were able to safely divert five of the six ships challenging the blockade.”

Even though the Israeli government has never entered Gaza to disperse aid to the people of that territory since the start of the siege years earlier and reputable relief organizations have documented that the Israelis had routinely refused to allow humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip, these House members claimed that Israel had offered to “disperse the aid . . . directly to the people of Gaza.” And, despite the fact that the five aid ships that Israel had allowed to dock in Gaza in previous months had distributed their humanitarian cargo directly to those in need, the senators claimed that it would have otherwise gone “into the hands of corrupt Gaza officials.”

Learning what actually transpired in the tragic incident was apparently of little interest to the 87 senators who signed the letter defending the attack. Despite the apparent whitewash forthcoming in the internal Israeli investigation, the senate letter supported Israel’s alleged intention to carry out “a thorough investigation of the incident,” insisting that Israel “has the right to determine how its investigation is conducted.” This comes in spite of a recent public opinion poll shows a clear majority of Americans — including 65 percent of Democrats — favor an international inquiry over allowing Israel alone to investigate the circumstances of the attack .

Ironically, a number of progressive organizations, web sites and list serves have called on the peace and human rights community to support the re- election of some of the very senators who signed this letter, including Barbara Boxer, Ron Wyden, and Russell Feingold. MoveOn, Council for a Livable World, and other progressive groups with PAC money have been are calling on their members, many of whom are peace and human rights activists, to donate their money to these right-wing Democrats who defend attacking peace and human rights activists and lie about the circumstances to justify it. They have no problems with supporting the re-election of those who lie and mislead their constituents in order to defend illegal actions by allied right-wing governments, even when they kill and injure participants in a humanitarian flotilla on the high seas.

There may be an underlying current of racism at work here. It is unlikely MoveOn, Council for a Livable World and other groups would defend such actions if, for example, if the activists were helping those under siege in Sarajevo in the 1990s or West Berlin in the 1940s, who happened to be white Europeans.

It is important to remember that the majority of Democrats joined in with Republicans in supporting the Salvadoran junta in the early 1980s and the Suharto regime in the 1990s until voters made clear they would withdraw their support from them if they did not change their policy. AIPAC and other right-wing “pro-Israel” groups are only as powerful as the absence of counter-pressure from the peace and human rights community. Letters like these will continue to be supported by most Democrats only as long they know they can get away with it.

U.S.-India Nuke Transactions Go From Bad to Worse

“The United States has made new concessions as part of its civilian nuclear agreement with India,” Nicholas Kravlev reported for the Washington Times back in April, “while New Delhi has yet to make it possible for U.S. companies to benefit from the unprecedented deal. … Washington agreed to Indian demands to increase the number of plants allowed to reprocess U.S.-supplied nuclear fuel from one to two [in order to] avoid long-distance transportation of dangerous materials. Arms control experts denounced the new deal saying it adds to the “damage” done by the original agreement.”

For those unfamiliar with how damaging that was, Kralev reminds us that “the Bush administration went against established norms and allowed a country that has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to use U.S.-supplied fuel to make plutonium, though for strictly civilian purposes.”

Nor is it just the arms control crowd for which the United States engaging in nuclear commerce with India presents a problem. As Colum Lynch reported in his UN blog “Turtle Bay” at Foreign Policy . . .

“There is mistrust,” said Egypt’s U.N. ambassador, Maged A. Abdelaziz [according to whom] the five major nuclear powers are [among other things] permitting a special group of nations — India, Israel, and Pakistan — a free pass to produce nuclear weapons, without having to abide by the obligations of signatories to the NPT. “States outside the treaty are reaping the benefits of the treaty,” he said.

As Andrew Lichterman and M.V. Ramana write in Beyond Arms Control (2010, Critical Will):

“Procedurally, if such a deal were to be agreed to at all, it should have been voted on by all states parties to the NPT rather than just by” those few states that compose the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). “By its very constitution, the NSG, consisting mostly of countries that engage in and profit from nuclear commerce, is a biased body, not suited to decide on the future of non-proliferation norms. … There is a sour irony in the NSG making such an exception for India, since the trade cartel was formed largely in response to India exploding a nuclear device in 1974. [Emphasis added.]

Meanwhile, what’s this about New Delhi yet to make it possible for U.S. companies to benefit from the original deal? Disarmament considerations aside, is America being played by India? More likely, the aftershocks from Bhopal have yet to cease reverberating. As Kralev wrote in his Washington Times piece, “India thus far has failed to pass legislation that would release U.S. companies from liability in case of accidents [in the] two reactors expected to be built” under the original agreement.

Presumably, though, U.S., as well as Indian, corporations expect to ultimately prevail. Lichterman and Ramana again: “. . . the nuclear deal is part of a broader set of [U.S.-Indian] agreements [which] US-based multinationals are. . . hoping to use. . . as a wedge to further open India to foreign investment and sales.” Of course . . .

In light of the spiraling collapse of the US financial sector, the notion that opening India to its particular brand of radically deregulated, short-term profit-driven “financial services” will promote “economic stability” is highly suspect. [Read: laughable. – RW] … The effect of the US-India deal. . . will be to bind India to a development path favourable to particular elements in the US political and economic elite and to their Indian counterparts. … nuclear power is most useful for serving. . . the consumption needs of the elites who profit from them. It has far less promise, however, for solving the energy needs of the vast majority of India’s population. … Nuclear power, as the most expensive form of centralized electricity generation, is an inefficient way to deliver energy to this population living in villages spread out over a vast country side.

Meanwhile, whither sustainable development in this equation? Lichterman and Ramana explain that “use of decentralized, renewable energy technologies in India [would be] economically efficient. . . self-reliant. . . and environmentally sound [and would promote] innovation and bring down prices.”

We’ll end with another irony to bookend the earlier instance cited by Lichterman and Ramana in which the Nuclear Suppliers Group made an exception for the state (India) in response to whose explosion of a nuclear device the NPG was, in large part, formed. “But even in terms of the urban rich,” they write, “the reality is that nuclear power in India has been mostly a failure. [It generates] less than one percent of its total energy needs. This is unlikely to grow significantly.”

Between India’s elites failing to see the return they expected, its masses denied both energy and sustainable development, and U.S. plans thwarted at the moment by the Indian legislature, it looks like the India-U.S. nuclear deal has thus far been a lose-lose-lose deal.

Right-wing Loonies Support Okinawa Base Relocation

OkinawaThe Washington Post recently featured a full-page ad supporting U.S. military presence in Japan and Okinawa. The ad, sponsored by the Association for the Protection of Okinawa’s Freedom and the Happiness Realization Party, made the following claims:

“There is a heated debate surrounding the relocation of the U.S. airbase in Okinawa. Some leftists are frantically attempting to expel the U.S. military from Japan. The Japanese media have been actively reporting on this campaign against the bases. This gives the impression that the majority of Japanese are opposed to these bases. This is not true.”

This was a curious string of half-truths and misrepresentations. Only the first sentence is correct. There is indeed a heated debate. But it’s not about expelling the U.S. military from Japan. It’s very specifically about the building of a new U.S. base in Okinawa to replace the Futenma facility. The campaign focused very narrowly on preventing this new base – not on closing other U.S. bases on Okinawa much less U.S. bases elsewhere in Japan. The Japanese media has actively reported on this narrow campaign, not on the imaginary campaign to expel the U.S. military from Japan.

And how do the Japanese feel about the relocation of Futenma? Actually, a majority of Japanese are opposed to the new base: 52 percent compared to only 41 percent who support it. If you go to Okinawa, the opposition to the new base grows precipitously to 90 percent. Nearly 100,000 Okinawans – almost 10 percent of the population – gathered to protest the base back in April.

What do the ad sponsors offer as counter-evidence? The Association for the Protection of Okinawa’s Freedom brought together 300 people in Nago in Okinawa to demonstrate support for the new base. Not exactly a groundswell of support compared to the nearly 100,000 who voiced opposition to the new base.

And what about the other ad co-sponsor? The Happiness Realization Party is the political wing of a religious cult whose leader believes he is the incarnation of the Buddha. And what a strange incarnation he is, for he believes that Japan must renounce its peace constitution and rearm to the teeth. The wife of this reincarnated Buddha ran for office last year on a platform of attacking North Korea and preparing for an inevitable Chinese invasion.

Right-wing militarists and religious fanatics are not exactly the alliance partners the United States should be seeking out. And if these are the only political forces in Japan that can be mustered to support the Okinawa base relocation plan, Washington is facing a long, long battle to get its way.

Getting Beyond the Usual Suspects on Foreign Policy

Late last week I was asked to write a short response to the question, “Is American foreign policy too ambitious?” In an opening line that was edited out of the final article, I wrote, “I’m not sure who else will answer this question, but I hope an Afghan and an Iraqi are among them.” I continued:

Given the tens of thousands dead, wounded, and displaced in Afghanistan and the millions dead, wounded, and displaced in Iraq since 2001, I wonder how an Iraqi or Afghan would answer this question. So too, I wonder how the family of a dead or maimed member of the U.S. military would respond?

The person organizing the online forum for Los Angeles’ Zócalo Public Square told me that she had tried unsuccessfully to get such a commentator. Despite her best efforts, the four writers, whose responses were linked to an event for Peter Beinart’s new book The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, were exactly the people one would expect opining about U.S. foreign policy: They were, from all appearances, white, relatively elite men like me.

With few exceptions, these are the people who have long dominated foreign-policy debates as pundits, politicians, military brass, think tankers, and academics. While discussions of any kind about foreign policy have been rare of late (with General McChrystal’s public insubordination representing a recent opportunity), a longer-term question remains about how to expand the diversity of those deemed foreign policy “experts” beyond the usual suspects.

Of course there are aberrations from the white-male-elite norm, with important voices speaking out on foreign policy from, among others, Code Pink, Iraq Veterans against the War, and a recent letter asking President Obama to begin peace talks with the Taliban. The millions in the United States and globally who took to the streets to protest the invasion of Iraq likewise represent an unprecedented degree of public involvement in foreign policy.

The question remains how to further democratize debates and directions on war and foreign policy? Although I’ve never been there in person, Zócalo’s public square, like FPIF, seems to offer one small model for inspiring greater public involvement. Clearly nothing will take the place of masses of people getting into the streets. But part of the answer also lies in changing the faces of more of the experts, in disqualifying the expertise of some of those who have led us into two deadly and unnecessary wars, and in making the usual suspects on foreign policy more reflective of the nation’s diversity.

Petraeus Harbinger of Peace, Not Another Surge?

Firing Gen. McChrystal and replacing him with Gen. Petraeus raises many questions. For example, some say that when he accepted the post as top commander in Afghanistan, it was made clear to Gen. Petraeus that he’d come away with no great success like he supposedly had in Iraq with the Surge. On the other hand, did Petraeus take the position on the condition that the United States would send more troops to Iraq and switch back to a counterterrorism strategy from counterinsurgency?

But President Obama has stated that our Afghanistan strategy will remain the same. While that may be an attempt to appear strong and present a united front, will the administration, in fact, use this as an opportunity to begin the Great Drawdown? (After all, McChrystal is a ready-made fall guy for the failure of COIN.)

At IPS News Gareth Porter has an answer to those who fear that the error of COIN is about to be compounded with a new Surge (which always struck me as reinforcements rebranded):

Petraeus’s political skills and ability to sell a strategy involving a negotiated settlement offers Obama more flexibility than he has had with McChrystal in command.

Contrary to the generally accepted view that Petraeus mounted a successful counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, his main accomplishment was to make the first formal accommodation with Sunni insurgents.

Petraeus demonstrated in his command in Iraq a willingness to adjust strategic objectives in light of realities he could not control. He had it made it clear to his staff at the outset that they would make one last effort to show progress, but that he would tell Congress that it was time to withdraw if he found that it was not working.

Do Focal Points readers think the appointment of General Petraeus might portend peace, or another surge?

A REALLY BIG Black Swan

Black SwanIn the security biz, it’s rarely the anticipated events that kick your butt. It’s those so-called ‘black swans’ that blindside you, and maybe even inflict a career-ending injury.

Let me suggest one of those is paddling up the bayou at this very moment – carefully dodging the oil slicks – and we’re so busy looking at old threats and repeating our old prejudices at ever higher volume that we can’t hear the splash of those big, webbed feet.

The cygnus atratus I’m referring to is detailed here by Gus Lubin at The Business Insider. What he points out using wonderfully clear graphics is that:

  • The wealth gap between the richest 1% and everyone else in America hasn’t been this bad since the Roaring Twenties
  • The richest 1% has over 33% of the wealth
  • The richest 10% has over 71% of the wealth
  • Half of America has only 2.5% of the wealth
  • Real average earnings have not increased in 50 years
  • Savings rates are shrinking
  • And the only real socio-economic mobility is downward.

I think this is the greatest national security risk facing America – and it’s completely under the radar.

Now, let me be clear. I’m not just talking about a backlash from tea party types, militia members and disgruntled Cessna pilots having a really bad day. (Although I expect there will be plenty of that.) It’s much more serious.

Real security is about economic and social well-being. And what those graphics show is that the American economy is a house of cards, waiting for a good breeze, and societal well-being is heading south faster than Joe Barton’s seniority on Energy and Commerce.

That breeze might come from the looming collapse of the commercial real estate market and its highly leveraged CDOs; the implosion of the municipal bond market and states’ inability to raise money to keep providing services; or any of a number of potential shocks that could trigger an iterative ‘avalanche’ effect.

This is an existential grade threat, sport fans. It’s quite literally about the ‘hollowing out’ of America, and its steady progress toward failed state status.

(BTW, the annual Failed States Index just came out, and guess what? America is rated ‘moderate’ in terms of failure potential.)

This is about the danger of shattered dreams and expectations, and the disintegration of primary loyalties (patriotism / nationalism). It’s about the transfer of allegiance from nation state to sub-national entities, be those clan, tribe, gang, corporation, neighborhood or . . . **

Now dial in these multipliers.

Most all of the ‘growth’ in the American economy since 1998 is smoke. It’s the sale of derivatives and other ‘financial figments’ that are traded without adding any genuine value. The best analogy I can offer is it’s like Hertz rotating the tires on their rental fleet and booking each transaction as a sale.

That monetized smoke has ended up in the hands of that 10% referenced above. Even though the value is mostly illusory, it has tilted the economic scales even more against the average person. All those bubbles caused when the smoke holders try to convert it into real value – whether tech stocks, housing, metals or food – have increased costs of living for the 90%. Multiply that by the reality that real wages have been falling since the 1970s – and if true inflation were honestly factored in it would be far, far worse – and you start to see why Joe Sixpack is not only seriously scared, but righteously pissed.

Bad combo. For as Bob Marley put it so well, ‘A hungry mob is an angry mob.’

And it’s iterative. It cascades. Because all the money has been sucked out by the 10%, there is none left for cops, firefighters, libraries, fixing potholes, building schools . . . the stuff that makes us think tomorrow will be better for ourselves and our children.

(Anyone NOT seeing this in their community?)

The state’s inability to provide services – not least physical security and a stable context for livelihood / savings / retirement – drives people into ‘dark’ economies. (‘They’re not giving me anything back, so screw ‘em.’) That money leaves the system, and the spiral deepens.

One of the first policy symptoms is isolationism. People think, ‘Things are tough at home, so the hell with them damn furiners.’ This is a key reason the IrAfPak franchise of the All American Amusement Park is unsustainable – regardless of how much lithium they may find over there.

If POTUS doesn’t get that these wars (which are now perceived as ‘his’) will breed ferocious resentment / blame over the misallocation of resources, he needs new advisors. (Well, he needs those in any case.) At minimum, these underlying realities could make him a one-term wonder. They may even make him the first president to turn federal troops on their fellow citizens in large numbers since the Bonus Army.

Other symptoms of this hollowing out – the ‘sinkhole’ phenomenon – include the onset of social and economic warlordism (think Hezbollah, La Familia and Dudus Coke) active and passive subversion / systems disruption, and, as Bob Marley also sang, ‘Burnin’ and a lootin’ tonight.’

Are we talking tomorrow? No. (Probably not, anyway.) Even failing systems often have more elasticity and capacity in them than we anticipate.

But if we track behavior over time, as the Lubin graphics do so well, the probability of a crater becomes much more apparent.

Buckle up, Bunkie. We could be heading for a wild ride.

**One of the really interesting questions is what kind of ‘attractors’ the new loyalties will coalesce around. I doubt they’ll be ideological – at least for long – because dogma tends to make orgs non-adaptive. I believe their primary characteristics will be entrepreneurial and they’ll provide not only livelihood, but also identity, community, security and fun. Think Robin Hood meets Ecotopia. Or, maybe, Steve Jobs dances with wolves.

And thanks to Fabius Maximus for the link to the Lubin piece!

Crazy Talk in the Middle East

Trying to track—let alone make sense—of recent developments around Iran is enough to make one reach for that stuff they just found lots of in Afghanistan: lithium. While the element is essential for a host of electronics, it is also a standard treatment for bipolar behavior.

Take the issue of Iran’s missile force. The conservative International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London concluded that the threat the missiles pose to Israel, the U.S. or its allies has been vastly overstated. “While such attacks might trigger fear, the expected casualties would be low—probably less than a few hundred,” the study found. Iran’s Shehab-1 and 2 cannot even reach Israel, and it will be at least three years before the longer range Shahab-3B and Sejjil-2 are deployed. In any case, according to the study, the missiles are inaccurate.

But while the IISS was pooh-poohing the danger, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Europe was threatened by “hundreds” of Iranian missiles, although Iran doesn’t have a missile that can come close to hitting Europe. Gates was on Capitol Hill pumping the Obama administration’s new sea and land-based “ phased adaptive approach” to missile defense.

In the meantime, the U.S. was sending an aircraft carrier and almost a dozen support ships into the Red Sea. Rumor has it that the fleet will try to intercept Gaza aid ships organized by the Iranian Red Crescent Society. Several Israeli submarines are currently deployed in the Gulf of Iran as well, along with a newly arrived surface warship. While it seems extremely unlikely that the U.S. would actually try to halt the Iranian ships, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said, “ I don’t think that Iran’s intentions vis-à-vis Gaza are benign.”

The London Times reported that the Israelis and the Americans had come to an agreement with Saudi Arabia to allow Israeli warplanes to cross the desert kingdom without being challenged on their way to bomb nuclear sites in Iran. While Riyadh called the story “slanderous, the Times was holding to its sources in the Israeli and U.S. militaries. And Tzahi Hanegbi, chair of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said that “time was running out” for Iran.

As I said, people are talking very crazy these days in the Middle East.

If Israeli planes did decide to bomb targets in Iran, conventional thinking is they would hit enrichment facilities at Natanz and Qom, a gas storage unit at Isfahan and the heavy-water reactor at Arak. Planes might also target the light-water reactor at Bushehr. To do so, of course, would require crossing Jordanian and Saudi airspace, but there is very little either country could do about it. Challenging the Israelis in the air is a very bad idea.

Even with mid-flight refueling, it would be a stretch, but it would be hard to knock out Iranian targets using just their missile firing submarines. Unless, of course, the Israelis are willing to cross the Hiroshima-Nagasaki line and use nuclear warheads. It seems like madness, but then some people are talking pretty crazy these days.

In a recent Christian Science Monitor article, “Does Israel suffer from ‘Iranophobia’?”, reporter Scott Peterson examines the Israeli mindset and found some pretty scary things. “There’s something utterly irrational and exceedingly disproportionate in Israeli understandings of the Iranian threat,” says Haggai Ram, a professor at Ben Gurion University and author of “Iranophobia: The Logic of an Israeli Obsession.”

“Iran is perhaps the most central issue [in Israel], yet there is really no critical debate about this,” says Ram, and for those Israelis who do challenge the idea that Iran is an “existential threat” to Israel, “they are immediately rendered into these bizarre self-defeating, self-hating Jews, and seen as a fifth column.”

According to Ram, “For Israelis, anti-Iran is a consensus. You don’t have to be a neoconservative to wish for the destruction of Iran.” Polls show that Prime Minister Netanyahu is growing in popularity, and that Israelis are circling the wagons on everything from the attack on the Gaza flotilla to the embargo of Gaza Strip.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad has also said that one day “Israel will vanish,” but much of his bombast is for internal consumption and the need to divert people from the economic crisis at home. Netanyahu’s comparison of Ahmadinejad to Hitler, and of the current situation to 1939, serves much the same purpose. Focusing on Iran keeps the world’s eyes away from the ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands and the strangulation of Gaza.

How much of this is real is hard to sort out. The U.S. talks about Iran as a “threat,” even though Iran has neither the military nor the economic capabilities to inflict serious damage on Americans. Iran can also talk about Israel vanishing, but can do nothing to actually facilitate that. Even if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon, to use it would be national suicide, and the Iranians have never exhibited a desire for self-destruction.

The danger is that rhetoric and bombast can create its own reality and lead to a mistake. The Israeli attack on the Turkish ship was just that. When people with nuclear weapons talk in apocalyptic language, it’s something to pay attention to.

Seed of Destruction: Nuclear ‘Pits’

If a nuclear weapon is an evil fruit of the times we live in, its “pit” is like a dollop of brimstone ladled out by Satan with love from hell.

Didn’t know a nuclear weapon has a pit? First, it behooves us to note that the word “pit” has a number of definitions. In fact, even when applied to fruit — “a seed covered by a stony layer” — it’s of two faces like Janus. To humans, it’s waste material to be discarded, but from a tree’s point of view (on whatever level, such as cellular), it’s a means of ensuring the future of its species.

The nuclear-weapons industry adopted the word “pit” for the weapon’s core, which is power-packed with the varieties of uranium or plutonium isotopes capable of a warp-speed chain reaction. Yes, it’s a seed for the a chain reaction. But instead of ensuring anything or anyone’s continued existence, the pit instead serves as a cache for — drum roll, please — a seed of destruction.

Why have I brought up the subject of nuclear pits? A project for their production is pivotal to the Obama administration’s plans for nuclear modernization. In a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists piece titled Bunker mentality: Is NNSA digging itself into a hole at Los Alamos?, Greg Mello writes that “as part of the New START ratification package, the administration projects $16 billion in new warhead spending over this decade.” A beneficiary of the funding, if passed by Congress, would be Los Alamos nuclear laboratory, where — boring name alert — the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility for producing said pits would be built for a whopping $3.4 billion.

Mello writes that, at “270,000-square-foot” the new facility “would add only 22,500-square-feet of additional plutonium processing and lab space to [Los Alamos's] existing 59,600-square-feet of comparable space.” It “works out to $151,000 per square foot, or $1,049 per square inch.” Holy (watch your tax dollars go up in) smoke!

“But why make pits at all?” Mello asks.

Aside from the many potent reasons to steadily diminish a reliance on nuclear weapons . . . there is already a surfeit of backup pits [which] will last for many decades to come. [Nor is there a] shortage of space to make pits, either at [Los Alamos] or nationwide. … Were [the new facility] in place, [it] would increase production capacity to an even more absurd level. … Every aspect of the . . . project, from the mission itself to the practicality of the building design, should be questioned far more deeply than Congress has done to date.

The Obama administration is making generous concessions to the nuclear industry presumably, as alluded to above, to win votes from Republicans on the new START treaty and other disarmament measures, however tepid. In fact, one can’t help but wonder if the administration and conservatives have committed themselves to cooperation (respectable speak for “conspiracy”) in finding ways to keep the “nuclear-industrial complex” humming along, if at a diminished velocity from its heyday in the fifties to eighties.

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