Focal Points Blog

West’s Idea of No Nukes Doesn’t Include Itself (Part 4)

Cross-posted from Truthout.

(Read Parts 1, 2, and 3.)

We decided to ask authorities on arms control and/or disarmament this two-part question implied by Ford’s summary of the credibility thesis:

One, do you agree that nuclear-weapons states, especially the United States, have yet to show non-nuclear-weapons enough in the way of disarmament to convince them that the nonproliferation waters are safe? Two, do you think that, were the disarmament measures of NWS sufficient, some non-NWS would still seek nuclear weapons? If so, what then is the best route to nonproliferation?

Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center and regular contributor to the respected blog Arms Control Wonk rejects the premise of the first question. “The United States and Russia,” he replies, “have reduced their nuclear stockpiles by 70%. Is this not ‘substantive disarmament’?”

Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the founder of Arms Control Wonk also does not “agree that the United States has done too little to convince NPT signatories that the nonproliferation waters are safe.” In fact, he thinks that the “frame that you’ve chosen is a straw-person that right-wing opponents impute to those of us who would seek a world where the growing obsolescence of nuclear weapons is reinforced by the legally-binding agreements.”

Besides, he reminds us, the NPT is not “a bargain between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ — it is a commitment by the ‘have nots’ to one another to remain that way. Who do North Korea’s nuclear weapons threaten most? The United States? Or non-nuclear Japan and South Korea? … the agreement among the non-nuclear weapons states to remain that way — is either forgotten or obscured in many of these debates.”

However, Lewis does believe “that the United States can, and should, do more to demonstrate its commitment to Article 6. In particular, the United States should ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.”

Greg Theilmann is a senior fellow of the Arms Control Association. First, he states that my characterization of the New START treaty as “‘little more than verification and confidence building” does not do it justice. Then, he writes: “Although I would have preferred deeper cuts, restoring and improving on a verification regime for the two parties’ strategic forces was a critical prerequisite for any subsequent steps.” He also relates a little-known story about New START that casts the president in a more resolute light.

Moreover, what I find especially impressive about Obama’s determination was his rejection of his political advisors’ advice in late November 2010 (according to Rahm Emanuel) that he postpone New START ratification in the lame duck session because it was too difficult and jeopardized other political objectives. Had he done so, I believe the treaty would never have been ratified.

Whether non-NWS would be as quick to credit the president is another matter. Continuing with question one, Thielmann states that the Obama Administration has “demonstrated its NPT Article VI bona fides during the last three years.” Its “positions and efforts on shrinking the role of nuclear weapons, on endorsing CTBT ratification, and on leading an international campaign to achieve nuclear security improvements put it at the forefront of the nuclear weapons states on disarmament.”

Thielmann concedes that non-NWS “want to see more done to reduce nuclear arsenals by the U.S., Russia, China, the UK, and France — as do I.” He’s also willing to answer the question of whether some non-NWS would still seek nuclear weapons even if they deemed NWS disarmament measures sufficient. While, he writes, the disarmament “thus far is significant … in and of itself, [it] will not be sufficient to satisfy those states, which see their own nuclear weapons development as necessary for security or desirable to enhance influence.”

Taking up where Thielmann left off, Ward Wilson, who directs the Rethinking Nuclear Weapons project at the James Martin Center, notes that “nuclear weapons have become a currency of power in international relations. Irrespective of their actual utility, they are perceived as the key to great power status. Before proliferation can be definitively halted, not only do nuclear-armed states have to do better at disarming, but the belief that nuclear weapons are the sine qua non of international status has to be broken.”

Wilson concludes:

Disarmament progress was nil during the first twenty years of the NPT but since then there has been real, if painfully slow, progress. Even if disarmament progress were faster, however, some states would still want to proliferate. Disarmament by nuclear-armed states is a necessary, but not sufficient condition to halt proliferation.

West’s Idea of No Nukes Doesn’t Include Itself (Part 3)

Cross-posted from Truthout.

(Read Parts 1 and 2.)

Disarmament and Nonproliferation: No Longer Two Sides of the Same Coin
According to conservatives and many realists, it’s not the enduring nature of our nuclear-weapons infrastructure that’s lost on non-NWS. It’s those disarmament measures themselves, which by their reckoning, are much more substantial than they appear to non-NWS. They believe that disarmament “leadership” by NWS does little to discourage non-NWS from proliferating. If anything, disarmament creates a national-security vacuum into which non-NWS can’t wait to insert themselves.

In a briefing for the Hudson Institute, where he’s a senior fellow, Christopher Ford, who served as U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation for the George W. Bush administration, describes the argument that NWS have failed to demonstrate the requisite disarmament leadership to non-NWS.

First, it explicitly assumes that the commitment of the NWS [nuclear weapons states] to the ideal of disarmament lacks credibility, and implicitly assumes that the United States is both the most important locus of the problem and the key to its resolution.

This point of view was illustrated by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini in a 2011 speech during which he said: “the greatest violators of the NPT are the powers that have reneged on their obligation to dispose of nuclear weapons mentioned in Article 6 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.” Credibility may also be undermined by NWS toleration for Israel’s nuclear-weapons “ambiguity.” Another likely sticking point for non-NWS is the 123 Agreement that the United States signed with India, which, like Israel, is not party to the NPT. Notable for its lack of a call for disarmament on India’s part, it provided for full cooperation on nuclear energy between India and the United States.

Second, Ford writes, the thesis “assumes that if this disarmament ‘credibility gap’ is closed, it will be possible to meet today’s proliferation threats much more effectively and with a much wider base of diplomatic support.” But, he maintains, “few people seriously argue that countries such as Iran and North Korea seek nuclear weapons simply because the United States or other NWS possess such devices themselves, and that proliferators’ interest in such devices would accordingly diminish if only the United States reduced its arsenal further.”

West’s Idea of No Nukes Doesn’t Include Itself (Part 2)

Cross-posted from Truthout.

(Read Part 1.)

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: Imperfect Arbiter

The drafters of the NPT, as with any treaty, sought to balance the needs of different parties. In this case it was between NWS — states with nuclear weapons — and non-NWS — those without. Signatories (or the treaty’s signers) among the latter forfeited their rights to develop or acquire nuclear weapons. The former, meanwhile, promised to roll back the numbers of their weapons with an eye toward total disarmament. In addition, they would assist non-NWS to establish their nuclear-energy programs and use their own possession of nuclear weapons to extend an umbrella of deterrence to certain non-NWS.

Ideally, the NPT bestows equal benefits on all parties. But, like many treaties, it’s riddled with loopholes and gray areas. For example, Article VI — debated nigh unto death — is chock full of them. It reads:

Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.

Where there should be key words are noncommittal terms. For example, preceding “to pursue” with “undertakes” adds a preliminary step that almost seems designed to allow parties with nuclear weapons to stall. “Good faith” may be inherent to contracts, but in the context of a nuclear treaty it sounds Polyanna-ish. “Effective measures” and “early date” are much too open to interpretation.

With regards to disarmament, a recent report that the Obama administration may be considering reducing the total numbers of deployed strategic nuclear weapons to as low as 300 generated a flurry of excitement — and a blizzard of overwrought reactions from conservatives. Whether or not the leaked news was just red meat for conservatives, no weapon reductions will be enacted until after the election.

In fact, even though President Obama assumed office with an apparent personal investment in disarmament, his administration seems to have suffered few qualms about letting it, if not exactly die, wither on the vine. When push came to shove over the New START treaty, it bet the farm to secure Republican ratification of a treaty that guaranteed little more than verification and confidence building. The administration proposed to increase funding for nuclear-weapon modernization to $88 billion during the next decade — 20 percent more than the Bush administration sought. Even the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee balked at such exorbitance in the current economic climate and allocated $500 million less than the administration’s $7.6 billion request for fiscal year 2013.

As Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine: “Obama has let the bureaucracy suffocate his plan to move step by step toward, as he said in Prague, ‘the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.’” He explained that “there are far more entrenched officials and contractors that benefit from the sprawling nuclear complex than officials who believe in the president’s stated vision.”

The apparent intention on the part of the United States to fund, at however fluctuating levels, its own program into perpetuity likely isn’t lost on non-NWS. This realization has finally begun to rear its head in established media such as the London Review of Books. In the February issue, national-security specialists Campbell Craig and Jan Ruzicka write of the vast sums that the Obama administration committed to nuclear-weapon modernization.

What clearer demonstration could there be that the US government is not serious about reducing its stockpiles? Central to the idea of nonproliferation is the presumption that if smaller states are to be discouraged from acquiring a bomb, nuclear states will need to take real steps towards disarmament. Otherwise, non-nuclear states will regard their demands as self-serving and hypocritical — reason enough to think about creating an arsenal of their own.

Extending this line of thinking one step further, New START may not only seem perfunctory to non-NWS, but a smokescreen for continued nuclear-weapons funding.

West’s Idea of No Nukes Doesn’t Include Itself (Part 1)

Cross-posted from Truthout.

When dueling narratives clash and the subject is nuclear weapons, the sparks that fly could make flashing sabers seem dim in comparison. According to conventional thinking in the West, Iran is not abiding by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and restraining itself from all nuclear weapons activities. Thus it should be denied its right to enrich uranium. But, in the view of much of the rest of the world, the West is making little more than cosmetic efforts to roll back its nuclear arsenals. Therefore, it has no business denying Iran nuclear energy — not to mention nuclear weapons (but that’s another story).

In other words, the side that committed to disarming thinks that the side that promised not to proliferate is. And the side that promised not to proliferate thinks that the side that committed to disarming is not.

In truth, abundant evidence exists that any nuclear-weapons work Iran has done since 2003 is conceptual, if that, which is not expressly forbidden by the NPT. The uranium it enriches to the higher levels that worry the West seems to be for medical isotopes, which are used for radiation therapy, as well as diagnosis. Combined with enrichment at lower levels for nuclear energy, it serves as a bargaining chip in negotiations.

Leave It to Bibi

Much attention has been generated in Israel and the United States by Richard Silverstein with his post at Tikkun Olam titled Bibi’s Secret War Plan. He writes:

This is Bibi’s sales pitch for war. Its purpose is to be used in meetings with members of the Shminiya , the eight-member security cabinet which currently finds a 4-3 majority opposed to an Iran strike. Bibi uses this sales pitch to persuade the recalcitrant ministers of the cool, clean, refreshing taste of war. My source informs me that it has also been shared in confidence with selected journalists who are in the trusted inner media circle (who, oh who, might they be?). … I don’t believe the IDF wrote it. It feels more likely it came from the shop of national security advisor Yaakov Amidror, a former general, settler true-believer and Bibi confidant. It could also have been produced by Defense Minister Barak.”

The briefing reads, in part:

The Israeli attack will open with a coordinated strike, including an unprecedented cyber-attack which will totally paralyze the Iranian regime and its ability to know what is happening within its borders. … The electrical grid throughout Iran will be paralyzed and transformer stations will absorb severe damage from carbon fiber munitions. … A barrage of tens of ballistic missiles would be launched from Israel toward Iran. 300km ballistic missiles would be launched from Israeli submarines in the vicinity of the Persian Gulf. The missiles would not be armed with unconventional warheads [WMD], but rather with high-explosive ordnance equipped with reinforced tips designed specially to penetrate hardened targets.

The missiles will strike their targets—some exploding above ground like those striking the nuclear reactor at Arak. … Others would explode under-ground, as at the Fordo facility.

We’re looking at this all wrong. Sure, Bibi looks through an attack through rose-colored glasses. But, sticking with the color metaphors, a silver-lining exists: at least he has no plans to use “unconventional warheads” — nuclear weapons.

Besides, Israel’s outgoing civil defense minister assures us at Reuters:

“There is no room for hysteria. Israel’s home front is prepared as never before,” Matan Vilnai, a former general who is about to leave his cabinet post to become ambassador to China, told the Maariv daily.

He believes the war would likely last a month and “Echoing an assessment already voiced by Defence Minister Ehud Barak, Vilnai was quoted as saying hundreds of missiles could hit Israeli cities daily and kill some 500 people in a war with Iran, which has promised strong retaliation if attacked.”

To Israelis wondering if they or their loved ones will be among The 500, he basically said, man up: it goes with the territory.

“Just as the citizens of Japan have to understand they are likely to be hit by an earthquake, Israelis must realise that anyone who lives here has to be prepared for missiles striking the home front.”

File that one under Equivalencies, False.

Meanwhile, also drawing headlines has been a petition reported by Haaretz:

More than 400 Israelis, including Tel Aviv University law professors Menachem Mautner and Chaim Gans, have recently signed an online petition calling on Israel Defense Forces pilots to refuse to obey if ordered to bomb Iran.

The petition calls a decision to launch a strike against Iran a “highly mistaken gamble” that would only delay Iran’s nuclear program, without stopping it, and would come “at an exorbitant price.”

Israel Hayom’s Dan Margolit tries to make the case that it’s no different from right-wing resistance by the settlers. He zeroes in on former law professor Menachem Mautner.

For some time now Mautner has felt a deep sense of anxiety over the possibility of a military strike in Iran, and when he read Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s interview with Ari Shavit in Haaretz he decided to take action, which in essence is a call to thwart a legal order issued by the government. … How has he lent his hand in support of a petition that is a call for an undemocratic rebellion? Indeed, he has always been a champion of democratic virtues.

With his signature, [former law professor Menachem] Mautner gave legitimacy to the “hilltop youth” of Judea and Samaria and to those of their ilk who have authored manuscripts calling for a return to biblical law. … The professor tried explaining that right-wing insubordination is done for the purpose of creating a Halachic state (a state run according to Jewish religious law) and is inappropriate to begin with, while the Left acts to return Israel to its good old values.

Refusing to bomb Iran may be illegal on the part of pilots today. But in the future bombing Iran might be judged not only illegal a war crime.

Author’s Note: For those wondering, according to Google, the phrase “Leave It to Bibi” has not been previously used.

What Next? Will Somali Pirates Issue an IPO?

Somali piracy is down 32 percent from last year, reports Ben Berkowitz for Reuters, but it’s still highly profitable. In fact, they’ve professionalized their operations and now present their victims with a package of material outlining the ransom process — printed on letterhead. Berkowitz writes:

The cover sheet, in memo format, is addressed “To Whom It May Concern” with the subject line “Congratulations to the Company/Owner.”

“Having seen when my Pirate Action Group (P.A.G) had controlled over your valuable vessel we are saying to you Company/Owner welcome to Jamal’s Pirate Action Group (J.P.A.G) and you have to follow by our law to return back your vessel and crew safely,” the memo begins. …

“Do not imagine that we are making to you intimidation,” the memo says, before signing off with “Best regards” and the signature of Jamal Faahiye Culusow, the General Commander of the Group.


The tone of the memo belies the violent reality of the pirate’s actions. [They] were responsible for 35 deaths in 2011 alone.


Lest there be any doubt about who Jamal is or what he does, his signature is accompanied by his seal — yes, Jamal has a stamped seal — depicting a skull and crossed swords with the name of the group.

The pirates are not the only ones profiting.

A small coterie of companies … offer “kidnap and ransom” policies to shipping companies for just these kinds of situations.

Guess one hand washes the other. But insurance companies have long offered war risk insurance. In fact, writes Berkowitz:

Because the number of attacks have declined, piracy coverage prices have, too, said Amanda Holt, a vice president in the financial and professional liability unit at insurance brokerage Marsh in Norwich, England. “Often if you buy piracy cover you’ll get a discount on your war premium. It makes a lot of sense for ship owners and managers.”

Oak Ridge Activists Challenge Disarmament Advocates to Step up Their Games

The Berrigans

The Berrigans

As Focal Points readers no doubt have heard, on July 29, three peace activists, representing a modern-day version of the original Plowshares peace group founded by the Berrigan brothers, penetrated the highest-security area of the Y-12 nuclear weapons facility for uranium storage and nuclear modernization in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The New York Times reported:

Inside the complex, the three graying pacifists painted “Woe to the empire of blood” and “the fruit of justice is peace” on the exterior of Y-12’s Highly-Enriched Uranium Manufacturing Facility, and splashed what they said was human blood.

… But despite what appears to have been a slow crawl through the defenses (the three had bolt cutters, hammers, flashlights and cans of spray paint, and went under the fences), they did not draw a prompt response.

In fact,

… they apparently spent several hours in the Y-12 National Security Complex before they were stopped — by a lone guard, they told friends — as they used a Bible and candles in a Christian peace ritual.

Consequently, the actual anti-nuclear activism was eclipsed by the outcry about the poor plant security that the terrorists exposed, as if they were only practicing a dry run for terrorists. But that comes with the territory for those who engage in extreme acts of terrorism. Perhaps attention to Transform Now Plowshares’ mission can be refocused during the trial. Along with a misdemeanor, each of the three is charged with two felonies.

Adding insult to plant-security injury is that one of them, Megan Rice, is not only a nun, but 82 years old. At his Knoxville News Y-12 blog Atomic City Underground, Frank Munger wrote:

I communicated with Frank von Hippel, a Princeton University professor who’s been in the forefront of nuclear policy work for decades with a special focus on control and protection of special nuclear materials, about the recent break-in. … “This should indeed be an embarrassment,” von Hippel responded via email. “An 82-year-old nun with a bolt cutter is certainly within the post-9/11 design-based threat envelope.”

One would think, but as mentioned above, that’s not Transform Now Plowshares’ concern. Sister Rice (Sister Megan?) has been an anti-nuclear, as well as more broad-based, activist for decades and once served six months in a minimum-security prison for a 1998 protest at the one-time School of the Americas. On August 11, at the New York Times, William J. Broad reported on Sister Rice’s reaction to her incarceration.

“It was a great eye-opener,” she said. “When you’ve had a prison experience, it minimizes your needs very much.”

Of nuns’ acts of civil disobedience in general,* Broad wrote:

They also illustrate the fierce independence of Catholic nuns, who met this week in St. Louis to decide how to respond to a Vatican appraisal that cast them as rebellious dissenters.

“We’re free as larks,” Sister Rice said of herself and her older religious friends. “We have no responsibilities — no children, no grandchildren, no jobs.”

… “She’s a pretty sympathetic character,” Ralph Hutchison, coordinator of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, said of the nun. “[A 16-year prison term] would be signing her death warrant.”

…“So the lot fell on us,” she said of fighting nuclear arms. “We can do it.”

In a sense, Sister Rice is absolving the rest of us disarmament advocates, who have families and bills to pay, of acts that require substantial sacrifices. Though she adds, “But we all do share the responsibility equally.”

We live in a time when arms control is being overtaken by creeping incrementalism. As Andrew Lichterman wrote recently for Reaching Critical Will:

US arms control and disarmament groups focus mainly on preventing the expansion of nuclear weapons capabilities and budgets, or on taking advantage of what are perceived as opportunities for incremental progress. The common denominator is that the limits to the disarmament agenda are set by what is thought to be achievable in government for a without challenging anything fundamental about the existing order of things, or the role of US military forces in sustaining it.

Activism, such as the Y-12 break-in, or when the Berrigans and the original Plowshares movement trespassed onto the General Electric Nuclear Missile facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, in 1980, damaged nuclear warhead nose cones, and poured blood onto documents and file, doesn’t exactly endear itself to the American public. Aside from raising the prospect of a terrorist attack, it violates an ethos arguably more sacrosanct to much of the American public than averting mass destruction — respect for property.

But, along with Sister Rice, her fellow Transform Now Plowshares members Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed hold out the gauntlet to nuclear-disarmament activists (such as this author). What are we willing to sacrifice to abolish nuclear weapons?

*For some reason, in 2005, the Nevada Test Site Oral History Project, funded by the Department of Energy, felt compelled to include an interview with her. It serves as a fascinating case study in how a social-justice conscience is nurtured and becomes self-sustaining.

Former Algerian Defense Minister’s Indictment for War Crimes in Switzerland (Part 1)

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Khaled Nezzar“The generals are up to their necks in the killing, and their motive is to hang onto power and the oil revenues and business commissions that go with it…The real problem in Algeria isn’t Islamic fundamentalism, it’s injustice.”

– Habib Souaidia, author of La sale guerre, as quoted in Time, April 16, 2001


His name might not ring a bell this side of the Atlantic Ocean, but there is hardly an Algerian who wouldn’t recognize the name of Khaled Nezzar. Once, one of Algeria’s most powerful men, if not the most powerful, in the country, Khaled Nezzar was Algeria’s Minister of Defense and one of five members of Algeria’s High Council of State that suspended the country’s second round of elections scheduled for 1992 and engineered what was in essence a military coup.

That act plunged the country into a horrific civil war in which Nezzar was not merely a participant, but one of the main architects. Nezzar served as Minister of Defense from 1992-1994. He resigned from the High Council of State in 1994 after he was the target of an assassination attempt.

During the war years different human rights organizations (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International) cited Nezzar as “one of the main architects responsible for the bloody repression of political opponents, especially Islamicists, the massive campaign of torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in the first years of the dirty war which eventually cost about 200,000 deaths, 20,000 disappeared and the forced displacement of more than 1.5 million people” In his 2001 expose of the activities of the Algerian counter insurgency program, Habib Souaidia, author of La sale guerre (The Dirty War) accused the Algerian military of repeatedly perpetrating massacres of civilians while disguised as rebels, killing suspects in cold blood and torturing rebels to death during the Algerian civil war, Nezzar being one of those directing such operations.

On October 20, 2011, Khaled Nezzar was stopped by Swiss police in front of a Geneva bank and arrested. He is being charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the Algerian civil war of the 1990s. The indictment alleges that many of the terrorists acts allegedly committed by Islamic radical guerillas during “the dirty war,” among them many of the more heinous crimes, were actually committed by the army’s internal security counter-terrorism units (and members of the Interior Ministry’s internal security counter-insurgency units) which Nezzar directed. The Algerian government’s and Nezzar’s personal lawyers claims of immunity were rejected by the court as was his claim that the court was interfering into Algeria’s internal affairs.

Less than two weeks past, on July 31, 2012, the Swiss Federal Criminal Court released what is considered by human rights groups as a ‘landmark decision.’ Arguing the alleged crimes against Nezzar were too serious to drop, the court rejected Nezzar’s appeal to throw out the case. It ruled that international law as defined by the Geneva Convention of 1949 superseded national law. A number of Algerian political personalities have come out in Nezzar’s defense, but it would be overstating the case to argue that the nation is behind him. The original complaint against Nezzar was made by an organization, the English acronym of which is TRIAL, the Swiss Association Against Impunity. (Track Impunity Always.)

Nezzar was in Geneva to treat his smoking addiction at a medical clinic. After his arrest, he was kept in jail for two days, charged and then released. He was permitted to leave the country on condition that he returns to Switzerland to face charges. Although he promised to do so, it is unlikely that Nezzar will return to Switzerland to face the judicial music. Still, even in his absence, the trial will be politically charged for what it might reveal about the activities of Nezzar and the Algerian government in those dark days.

Others with whom the top Algerian leadership had close relations, such as French intelligence, can only be uncomfortable with the proceedings as well. The leadership of the High Council of State maintained close ties with its former colonial masters in French military intelligence throughout the dirty war. Any whiff of French complicity – until now suspected by unproven – could prove both embarrassing and damaging to French interests. French-Algerian relations run the gamit – including historic, economic and political ties. France is a major importer of Algerian oil and natural gas.


At the time that the Algerian elections were suspended in 1991, all the indications suggested that had the election proceeded, that an Islamicist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique de Salut or FIS as it was commonly known), would have swept the elections and come to power, breaking the stranglehold that the Algerian military and its powerful internal security force had enjoyed since 1965 when Houari Boumedienne, a colonel in the Algerian army, came to power in a coup d’etat ‘to restore order’.

It is unclear what a 1991 FIS victory would have meant for the country; that we will never know. But there is not much to suggest that it would have resulted in the implementation of shari’a law and that much of the hysteria an FIS win provoked was simple fear mongering. Clearer though is the fate of the ruling military-security elite. Their grip on power and control of oil profits would have been broken or at the very least seriously compromised. The glory days when they could use the country’s oil and gas profits for a cash cow to buy new weapons systems and send their children on weekend trips to Paris dentists would have evaporated as well.

‘Having it all’ and seeing it all slip through their fingers, the Algerian leadership at the time essentially panicked. From the time Boumedienne had come to power, democracy in the country was little more than a facade. Algeria was a military dictatorship with democratic trappings in which the voice of the people was stifled and then silenced early on. As long as the price of oil remained high, Algeria’s military junta was able to hide the mess that had become the Algerian economy. But as oil prices collapsed in the early 1980s, the facade collapsed. Its left rhetoric and talk of socialism aside, the Algerian Revolution’s failure to deliver on either prosperity or democracy was exposed. Unemployment, especially youth unemployment, was soaring, corruption and misuse of oil profits among the elite was rampant, and repression, long a factor, had intensified. Put another way, the social chemistry that led to the explosion known as the Arab Spring in late 2010 were already percolating in Algeria nearly a quarter of a century earlier. Angry demonstrations – calls for the government to live up their promises, to end the nepotism, corruption and repression became louder.

Somewhat similar to the Polish communists who in 1988 bet that the experience of their party would be able to outflank the new dissident voices in an electoral contest, two years later, the Algerian generals gambled that they would win an electoral contest against an expanding political opposition. The government still tried to hide behind the Algerian Revolution of 1962, claiming they were the generation of the national liberation movement and had provided many of the revolution’s martyrs. In both the cases of Poland and Algeria, the powers that be discovered just how far afield they were from the pulse of the people. It was striking just how out of touch both ruling elites turned out to be with their electorate, as if the governments lived on one planet and the population of the countries inhabited another world.

The Polish Communists lost the 1988 elections by a margin, if I recall correctly, of 99–1, opening up a new dawn for Polish politics that spelled the end of communist power there. The Algerian military did not fare as poorly as the Polish Communists, but still they got trounced and the writing of history was, as the saying goes, ‘on the wall.’ The FIS (mentioned above) swept to victory with 54% of the votes cast. As with the victories of Islamicists in Palestine in 2006 and in 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt, polls showed that it wasn’t so much that the population had turned to religion as much as it was a turn away from those in power. In Algeria, a second round was scheduled for 1992. It never took place. In short, the Algerian leadership panicked. The military junta that ruled behind the curtains came out in the open and assumed the full powers that they had held behind the scenes. The president was removed; the military dictatorship came out in the open. It is essentially still in place today despite new sugar-coated democratic trappings.

Then all hell broke loose.

The election suspension triggered a civil war which lasted nearly a decade in which the number of dead might have exceeded 200,000, although we’ll never know the precise count. An armed uprising erupted, the sources of which remain murky. It lasted until 1999 – and in fact – never entirely ended. In response to the uprising, in the name of countering Islamic fundamentalism, the High Council of State unleashed a reign of terror on the country. Jihad versus anti-Jihad? That is how the media spun it, in Algeria, France and the U.S.A. This wasn’t a case of an old fashion Latin America-like military coup of an essentially greedy and pervasively corrupted leadership. No – the Algerian generals were the last line of defense against a Salafist (Islamic fundamentalist uprising) whose goal was to destroy Algerian democracy and modernism and thrust the country, Taliban-like, to some version of 7th century Islam.

Among those leading the charge against ‘the forces of evil’ – or so it was said was General Khaled Nezzar.

But it wouldn’t take long before gaping holes appeared in this version of events and even already in the 1990s, rather stinging questions as to what the Algerian leadership, its military and security force were actually up to began to emerge.

To be continued …

Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Hillary Clinton in Laos, Where Our Past Lies Buried

Cross-posted from Scramble for Africa.

Let the world beware — Hillary Clinton is on the move.

Presently she is cementing relationships with a number of governments in Africa, a continent that has taken on new importance for Washington in recent years. The people of Uganda living under Museveni’s thumb are no doubt thrilled.

Just a few weeks ago she was in Asia. On July 11th, Clinton devoted four hours of her itinerary to a stopover in Laos. The moment was illustrative, dramatizing how effectively the crimes of powerful nations can be sanitized and misremembered.

Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world. It hopes to escape Least Developed Country status by 2020. An unnamed “senior US official” modestly said Clinton’s four-hour pit stop was, “a pretty big deal for the Laotians”.

Although none of the press coverage devoted extensive space to a recap of the little-known and long-forgotten history (certainly in the U.S. but also, tragically, to an extent even in Laos, if Western press reports are to be believed; it is a youthful country with a government that has little to gain by publicizing the past).

A photo from Clinton’s pit stop shows her looking at a map of the bombed areas of the country. A huge swath of the center is blotted out in red dots indicating bombed areas that suffered under the assault of 260 million cluster bombs.

The New York Times article gave virtually no meaningful backstory, describing the bombing campaign in the most anodyne tone possible. Take this obligatory sentence: “There were more than 580,000 bombing missions by the United States military, making Laos the most heavily bombed country on a per-person basis.” The line reads somewhat awkwardly because it omits a phrase like ‘on earth,’ or ‘in history,’ but then, that would begin to sound a bit too damning.

The Times did note that the U.S. has demurred to signing the Convention on Cluster Bombs — but failed to contextualize that fact. The U.S. stance is shared with regimes like Syria and Israel, while over 100 nations have accepted the ban. Bullies are often lonely sorts.

The Times did find space to recount that “After Saigon fell, more than 1,200 Americans were evacuated from Laos when the Pathet Lao, backed by the Soviet Union, took power.” This carefully selected back history begins to make it sound like America played the victim.

The wire services did better. The Associated Press article was stronger on context than the Times, commenting for example that:

“Cleanup has been excruciatingly slow. The Washington-based Legacies of War says only 1 percent of contaminated lands have been cleared and has called on Washington to provide far greater assistance. The State Department has provided $47 million since 1997, though a larger effort could make Laos “bomb-free in our lifetimes,” California Rep. Mike Honda argued Wednesday.”

The Legacies of War executive director noted Washington’s null support for two and a half decades, the anemic $2.6 million per year funding initiated in 1997, and the bump to $9 million this year. Such funding has permitted one percent of the bombs to be cleared. At this rate, Laos will be safe for playful children again in 4,000 years. The half-life on cluster bombs turns out to be quite high.

The AP also noted:

“2 million tons of bombs on the impoverished country during its “secret war” between 1964 and 1973 — about a ton of ordnance for each Laotian man, woman and child. That exceeded the amount dropped on Germany and Japan together in World War II, making Laos the most heavily bombed nation per person in history.”

Note the contrast with the way the Times worded and abbreviated the same information.

We further learn that, “More than 20,000 people have been killed by ordnance in postwar Laos, according to its government, and contamination throughout the country is a major barrier to agricultural development.” This death toll — 6-7 times greater than that suffered on September 11th 2001 — is in a small country of 6.5 million people.

Reuters also did a better job of briefly describing the horrific bombing campaign: “the country is still struggling to rid itself of an estimated 80 million cluster munitions and other unexploded ordnance that kill and maim as many as 100 people a year.”

Still these short articles do not attempt to convey something of the atmosphere of living under the attack. Nor are such pieces likely to be forthcoming. For that, one must search, turning for example, to the 2002 documentary Bombies: A Secret War.

Noam Chomsky, in an unusually personal account based on his direct observations from a visit to Laos that appeared in The New York Review of Books in 1970, observed that U.S.:

“policy was precisely to attack and destroy populated areas in the territory controlled by the Pathet Lao. The evidence that the bombing has been directed against farms, villages, and towns, most of which have been totally destroyed in these territories, is incontrovertible.”

Washington was implementing classical counterinsurgency doctrine and draining the swamp:

“The effect and presumably the purpose of the American bombardment in Northern Laos have been to destroy the civil society administered by the Pathet Lao and to drive as much of the population as possible into Government-controlled areas. As Tammy Arbuckle reports:

Well-informed sources said the United States is pursuing a “scorched earth” policy to force the people to move into government areas—and thus deprive the Reds of information, recruits and porters.

When the population is forced into Government areas or driven into caves and tunnels, it can no longer provide support for the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese troops, who are therefore forced to rely increasingly on supplies from North Vietnam.”

Chomsky then cites the evocative observations of a foreign visitor, later confirmed by a separate source:

“You cannot imagine what it is like in the headquarters of these people. Never is there any halt in the bombing. Not at night. Not by day. One day we were in the cave. The bombing went on and on. The toilet was in another cave only 20 yards away. We could not leave. We could not even run the 20 yards. It was too dangerous.”


“According to this visitor, the Pathet Lao had set up a hospital, a printing press, a small textile mill, a bakery, and a shop for making arms and ammunition in the caves. The bombardment was said to include guided missiles that can dive into a cave, as well as high explosives and anti-personnel weapons. The people come out only at dusk and dawn to try to farm, but the planes attack any visible target, even trails and cultivated fields.”

It is difficult to forget the imagery conjured up by such descriptions of survival under relentless assault from the sky. Chomsky writes that:

“Prior to 1968 the bombing of the Plain of Jars was sporadic. In April of 1968 it became more intense, and the villagers soon had to leave their villages and dig trenches and tunnels in the surrounding forest. At first they were able to farm sometimes, mainly at night, but this became impossible as the bombing increased in intensity. One man told us that the people of his village had been forced to move eight or nine times, deeper and deeper into the forest into new systems of trenches as the bombing extended its scope. He reported that by April, 1969, his village was destroyed by bombs and napalm. The Pathet Lao showed them how to dig trenches and tunnels, and identified the types of planes.”

Chomsky quotes similar observations from the Far Eastern Economic Review:

“…The area is a carpet of forest dotted by villages and a few towns. Refugees report that the bombing was primarily directed against their villages. Operating from Thai bases and from aircraft carriers, American jets have destroyed the great majority of villages and towns in the northeast. Severe casualties have been inflicted upon the inhabitants of the region, rice fields have been burned, and roads torn up. Refugees from the Plain of Jars report they were bombed almost daily by American jets last year. They say they spent most of the past two years living in caves or holes.”

In a just regime of international laws, Washington would be compelled to pay reparations to the Laotian people. As it stands, they can’t even get an apology. The original manufacturer of these cluster “bombies,” Honeywell, resides in Washington D.C.

While the wire services embarrassed the paper of record, the AP piece also included some egregious departures from impartial journalism. Witness the following passage:

“Persistent human rights issues stand in the way of closer relations with Washington. The U.S. remains concerned about the plight of the ethnic Hmong minority, most of whom fled the country after fighting for a U.S.-backed guerilla army during the Vietnam War. Nearly 250,000 resettled in the United States. The U.S. has pressed Laos to respect the rights of returnees from neighboring countries.

“Washington also has been seeking greater cooperation from Laos on the search for U.S. soldiers missing in action since the Vietnam War. More than 300 Americans remain unaccounted for in Laos.”

Those graphs could have been scribbled down directly from the mouth of some State Department apparatchik on a background interview. Needless to say, the difficulties facing Hmong people or U.S. veteran’s families should not be set against the suffering of the victims of the terrible 9 years of bombing — but to so badly and willfully lose any sense of proportion regarding the crimes perpetrated is an insult to all affected.

Washington had its way, securing an agreement from Laos “to improve and further facilitate the accounting operations for American personnel still missing from the Indochina War era.”

Most coverage rightly noted that one topic for discussion concerned the Xayaburi dam project. It is controversial among other regional governments and poses environmental threats. Clinton was able to play the role of environmental champion. Washington’s sordid past trashing the Laotian landscape with Agent Orange was allowed to pass unobserved.

Most glaring was the failure by the media to emphasize the awkward fact that while Clinton took the opportunity to appear empathic at a land mine removal organization, Washington has long nurtured a shameful record on the matter. Adequately funding the mine removal programs would cost peanuts for the global behemoth.

The video of Clinton’s photo op with a young man victimized by Washington’s war detritus is public relations at its cynical finest. Clinton utters some vague and pretty sentiments of friendship and well wishes for the cameras. Will she join Congressman Honda in pushing for increased funding (and really, this year’s increase remains an insult)? Only the most incurably optimistic will expect even that much.

A Reuters dispatch described her interlocutor as, “a young man who cradled a white cane between the two stumps of his arms as they spoke.” The 19-year-old gently expressed his hope:

“I would like to see all governments ban cluster bombs and (try) to clear the bombs together and to help the survivors”. Clinton, evasive as expected, responded, “You are absolutely right… We need to do more.” Specifically, she claimed, “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here today, so that we can tell more people about the work that we should be doing together.”

Perhaps this is an instance of the Obama team’s vaunted ‘leading from behind.’ In this case, ‘you lead, and we’ll put our foot on the path behind you when it suits us and acclaim our own bold vision.’

It takes a special level of shamelessness for the Secretary of State to utter such platitudes after Washington had left tiny organizations like the Mennonite Central Committee and the Mine Advisory Group to undertake the pioneering and risky ordnance removal efforts — all the more dangerous because of limited funds- – in virtual isolation, funded by community donations and other under-resourced civil society groups.

Her Oprah moment aside, the purpose of her visit regarded more important matters. The tour was an opportunity to chat with the Vientiane about cultivating government-to-government ties and managing Chinese influence in the region. The Times noted that “the import of her visit — to seek warmer relations between the United States and Laos — was quite clear.”

Clinton herself was explicit on this point, telling reporters that:

“My trip reflects a strategic priority of American foreign policy today…. After 10 years in which we focused a great deal of attention on the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States is making substantially increased investments — diplomatic, economic, strategic and otherwise — in this part of the world. It’s what we call our pivot toward Asia.”

Though some reports made mention of Laos being a one-party authoritarian state, none mentioned the timely Human Rights Watch complaint objecting to Washington bankrolling a Laotian torture dungeon of the indigent, the drug addicted, and other undesirables masquerading as a treatment center (welcome to the AA meeting, complete with barbed wire!). Cooperation between Vientiane and the U.S. must start somewhere after all.

The Times account of Clinton’s visit does include one remarkable detail:

“As she toured the center, Mrs. Clinton asked several times why more sophisticated technology could not be used to find the bombs, which are currently located by workers with metal detectors.”

Is it possible that she does not know? Is she truly not aware that demining efforts have languished for decades due to Washington’s refusal to clean up the mess it left at its crime scene? But after all, why would she trouble herself to know? Knowing such things is a maladaptive trait in her line of work.

The Washington Post pointed out that as a student at the time Clinton had protested against the U.S. war in Southeast Asia. The mark of a functioning elite hierarchy is to successfully bring an element of the dissenters into the power framework. Clinton long ago made a full transformation.

In contrast to Clinton, Representative Honda has displayed some concrete commitment to tackling the problem. At the time of her visit he noted that:

“Approximately 800,000 cluster bombs are still buried in Lao soil, remnants of the Secret War that the U.S. waged in the country, without Congressional consent, from 1964 to 1973. While the U.S. fought the Vietnam War, it secretly flew 580,000 bombing missions over Laos, a country the size of Minnesota. The bombings dropped one ton of ordnance for every man, women, and child in Laos at the time, making it the most heavily bombed nation per capita in history. Up to a third of these bombs did not explode when they hit the ground and remain to this day literal time bombs, preventing much needed agriculture and infrastructure development and threatening the lives and livelihoods of villagers across Laos.”

“I believe” Honda declared, “that we have a moral obligation to help eliminate our debilitating war legacy.”

Honda pointedly wrote that:

“the funding since the war ended pales in comparison to the $17 million spent every day for nine years dropping these bombs. In fact, only about one percent of these bombs have been cleared thus far. We have a long way to go, but I am confident this is a problem that can be solved with sufficient political will.”

Unfortunately, political will is exactly what is most always lacking for general welfare, in contrast to serving.

Along with Kevin Funk, Steven Fake is the author of “Scramble for Africa: Darfur – Intervention and the USA” (Black Rose Books). They maintain a website with their commentary at

History’s Greatest Terrorist: Harry Truman

Cross-posted from Scramble for Africa .

Harry Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson in the lull between the storms of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Harry Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson in the lull between the storms of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Terrorism, despite continual abuse, is a word like any other. It has an actual definition: violence against a civilian target undertaken to send a political message. It is not merely a slur to be affixed willy-nilly to whomever, as geopolitical needs dictate.

On August 6th 1945 Washington dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. One hundred fifty thousand civilians were incinerated or condemned to slow and terrible deaths by radiation exposure (as immortalized in the Japanese manga and animated film Barefoot Gen). On August 9th, the Truman Administration released a plutonium core atomic bomb over Nagasaki, killing an additional 75,000 people.

A justifying mythology was immediately crafted and remains firmly lodged in popular understanding — at least in the U.S. The bombs were dropped, reluctantly, to save the lives of U.S. servicemen fighting Japan. Perhaps a half million (Truman’s claim) would have died before Japan would have unconditionally surrendered had the U.S. not deployed the bombs. The story has long been debunked, but with little popularization. If fact, Japan was already prepared to surrender, having only a few (trivial next to hundreds of thousands of lives) conditions. The actual reasons the bomb was dropped, included, as Gar Alperovitz has long argued, intimidating Russia and to demonstrate U.S. power on the world stage. Any street gangster would recognize the dynamic. There was also a concern to forestall any further Soviet influence in Asia. Thus the motive was political and the target was civilian. It is a textbook case of terrorism. Perhaps the preeminent example.

Truman’s successor continued developing the arsenal. In 1954, the federal government, in a secret test, detonated a thermonuclear hydrogen bomb — the most powerful device the country ever exploded — on the Bikini Atoll island range in the Pacific Ocean. Rongelap Atoll, in the Marshall Islands, was downwind. The people were temporarily relocated, only to be sent back a few years later to their now radioactive homelands.

The documentary Nuclear Savage: The Islands of Secret Project 4. 1 (a deeply moving preview is available online here) exhumes the history of the episode.

“In 1957,” Barbara Rose Johnston writes,

“the people of Rongelap were returned to their homelands with great fanfare, moving into newly built homes on islands still dangerously contaminated from prior nuclear weapons tests and clearly vulnerable to the fallout from the 33 bombs detonated in 1958. This repatriation of the Rongelap community was both planned and celebrated by scientists and officials at the US Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission, who saw a significant opportunity to place a human population in a controlled setting to document how radiation moves through the food chain and human body. Annually, and then as the years progressed and degenerative health symptoms increased, biannually, the US medical teams visited by ship to examine, with x-ray, photos, blood, urine and tissue samples, the relative health of the community.”

In the documentary, footage from the era plays — “these are fishing people,” announces a narrator in the inimitable timbre of broadcasters of the era, “savages by our standards”. Such was the condescension of the powerful and the damned.

The mayor of Rongelap is introduced as “a savage, but a happy amenable savage.” He later developed thyroid cancer. As did his daughter. And then a grandson. Two of his sons also grew cancers. Another died of leukemia. The title of the film is an appropriate double entendre indeed.

The subtitle references the U.S. government medical study of the incident, which, as Johnston explains, “documented the array of health outcomes from their acute exposures, but did not treat the pain or discomfort of radiation burns, nor utilize antibiotics to offset any potential infection.”

A woman recounts how her first child was born without bones and “looked like a jellyfish.” Washington continues to maintain that the radiation fallout was an accident. It is not enough to suffer the blast. One must be insulted with such denials as well.

Unlike, Truman, the Eisenhower Administration had no terrorist motive. Theirs was purely a scientific experiment. They wanted to see how impressive their new weapon was. What would be the effect on humans? Best to find out on humans that did not matter. The people of the Marshall Islands were no more significant than lab mice. Though the Nazis had been defeated a decade earlier, the fascination with barbarous science, complete with Nuremburg Code violations, had evidently not been entirely quelled. Rongelap became an island of Dr. Moreau for the nuclear age.

There were plenty of remote corners of the world where Washington’s dark sciences could have been conducted far from human populations. The location was chosen precisely because there were homosapien unpeople inhabiting the area. Ordinary terrorism seems rather noble by comparison with the cynical motivations of Eisenhower’s grand secret experiment.

Subsequently, and to the species’ great fortune, no other nation has ever had the audacity to follow suit. The U.S. record remains blissfully unchallenged.

Along with Kevin Funk, Steven Fake is the author of “Scramble for Africa: Darfur – Intervention and the USA” (Black Rose Books). They maintain a website with their commentary at

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