Focal Points Blog

Bin Laden Had Jumped the Shark Anyway

A couple of nights ago I heard a TV commentator (can’t recall who) note that al Qaeda officials often clashed with Osama bin Laden over tactics. Bin Laden remained in thrall to his dream of another attack on a grand scale against the United States like 9/11, which he professed to believe was required to convince the United States to leave the Middle East. Others in the organization, more active on a day-to-day basis in its logistics, advocated a more realistic approach, which entailed smaller attacks that were more manageable, as well as local. In fact, their conflict echoed a long-time division in Islamic extremists: whether to attack the “far” enemy, as they call the United States, or the “near,” as they refer to autocratic regimes under which they live.

In his May 7 column for the Toronto Globe and Mail, Bin Laden died in Sidi Bouzid before he died in Abbottabad, Doug Saunders, the chief of its European bureau, wrote:

It was never difficult to find fans of Osama bin Laden. You ran across them almost daily if you spent time in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf or Pakistan. . . . He was a rock star. . . . If you talk to the kids wearing him on their T-shirts, you find they admire him as an Arab who took on the United States, who ran his own show, and who wouldn’t bow to anyone else’s agenda. It’s the way many blacks admire Malcolm X, as an icon of self-sufficient resistance, without any interest in the Marxist-tinged racial separatism he sought. . . . But it’s been almost impossible, in recent years, to find anyone who subscribes to his ascetic and medieval view of the role of religion in politics, who has any interest in installing his endlessly touted Islamic caliphate in their country. The ideas died long before the man.

“The demand for freedom and democracy in a national context has displaced the imaginary umma, the world community of Muslims, in its struggle with the West,” [writes French scholar] Olivier Roy. . . . “Charismatic authoritarian personalities such as bin Laden no longer exert any fascination on an individualistic and rather pragmatic younger generation.”

With his severity and grandiosity, bin Laden had outlived not only his tactical and strategic usefulness, but his philosophic as well, with his idle dreams of a global caliphate and shariah rule. Saunders again:

Osama bin Laden, in his efforts to fit the world into a single identity, was a man of a previous era.

If it’s any consolation to his spirit, where ‘ere it roams, he at least retains some symbolic value to Islamic extremists.

Palestine: the Logical Locus of Les Onzards

You are a Palestinian.

You are forced to tolerate foreign troops, armed with machine guns and grenades, patrolling the shopping district of the city you live in, claiming the right, uncontestable because of their weaponry, to survey, harass, frisk and detain any civilian for any reason or none at all.

You live with the knowledge firstly that those troops represent the most impressive military in the region, the only one with nuclear weaponry at its disposal, and secondly that you and your family and all your friends are not represented by a government with sovereignty, jurisdiction or statutory legitimacy. To the extent that the occupying Israeli army grants your people any administration at all, it is an interim provisional government, the Palestinian Authority, whose “authority” lapsed thirteen years ago.

The Foreign Minister of the occupying army’s government, Avigdor Lieberman, is the head of the second most powerful party in the Knesset, a party that is overtly racist against your people (Arabs) and constitutionally hostile to your uplift. The last twenty years of what commentators glibly misrepresent as the “peace process” have only led to peace in the Pax Romana sense, maximizing not freedom, justice and equality but settlement, occupation and colonialism, the number of Israeli settlers in the occupied territories having more than doubled in that time.

The land your people are allowed to inhabit is non-contiguous, and each part is overseen by an unsavory party that lacks public support, even in the territory each ostensibly leads. Fatah, which represents the West Bank, is a corrupt client party of Egypt, the United States and Israel, which has compromised too snivelingly with the latter to have achieved anything like gains in the movement for Palestinian liberation (all the while soaking up Palestinian money to enrich apparatchiks) and has therefore remained complicit in occupation. Hamas, democratically elected to represent Gaza, is a radical Islamist sect that maintains a website complete with the discredited fascist propaganda piece “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and so heavily prioritizes its narrow ideological program over national interests that it will later publicly celebrate “Arab holy warrior” Osama bin Laden.

You are a Palestinian, and the outlook is not brilliant.

But then March of 2011 rolls around and Hosni Mubarak is deposed by protesters in Egyptian streets. The greatest strategic pillar in the region of Israel’s siege of your brothers and sisters in Gaza and the primary neighboring patron of Fatah has fallen. Then, by two months later, Syria finds itself engaged in sanguinary strife, Bashar Assad (for whom Israel is lobbying) striking back viciously at protestors there, the death toll rising toward a thousand, which jeopardizes Hamas’ chief regional source of support. Forced by the collapse of their outside benefactors to make a change, the two parties agree to a reconciliation deal, temporarily ending the inter-Palestinian feud, which the former Egyptian government has refused to mediate for the last four years. As a term of this deal to create a unity government of Fatah and Hamas forces, Egypt agrees to open the Gaza border crossing. All of a sudden, everything is different.

Israel becomes increasingly isolated, facing the prospect of democratic regional rivals who are unfriendly to its occupation, nations with legitimate claims to all the moral high ground that comes with casting off despots, operating under pressure by their populations, who cannot be bribed to surrender their cause célèbre, Palestinian liberation. This means that Israel feels increased pressure either to make concessions to Palestine, by way of dismantling the settlement and occupation apparatus, or to rely solely on the United States for military support.

In the United States, $3 billion in direct military aid to Israel is proposed despite a “fiscal crisis” that right wing lawmakers maintain necessitates cutting home heating assistance to impoverished Americans. The backlash against this sort of malfeasance in national fiscal prioritizing is changing the narrative in American media and public opinion. Even as neo-conservative American commentators publish their doubts that democracy will take hold in Egypt (because they envision democracy landing in the area in the form of American torture, prisons, bombs and tanks), America’s stomach for funneling money to Israel erodes as its esteem for the Arab world – which is demonstrating its yearning for freedom, justice and equality – rises.

You are a Palestinian, and you have a lot of work to do.

There are 11 million Palestinians, about half living inside the territory prescribed by former mandatory Palestine (including not just denizens of the occupied territories, but Arabs living as citizens of Israel proper) and the other half living elsewhere, chiefly Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. You have to mobilize all those people around a liberation strategy that appeals to the widest possible base. You have to forswear armed struggle, not because a stateless people isn’t justified in taking up arms against its occupying military (it is), but because such struggle against so heavily armed an enemy is asinine, not to mention damaging from a public relations perspective.

The public relations perspective is of crucial significance, especially in the United States. Nothing like a consensus exists among Americans that Palestinians are worthy of statehood, and the fact of Hamas’ shared representation of the national position does not help to reverse that inclination. Luckily, precedent is springing up all over the region for youth-led democratic movements, in opposition both to Islamism and client parties of American imperial power, deposing regimes and attempting to replace them with much more attractive governments. Palestine, centrally significant to the Arab world, stands every chance of being the most important location for that movement, the movement of les onzards, to take root.

You are a Palestinian, and the whole world is watching.

J.A. Myerson, Executive Editor of the Busy Signal, is the Artistic Director of Full of Noises and a teaching artist with Urban Arts Partnership. He writes primarily on American Politics and Human Rights. Follow him on Twitter.

Bin Laden: Death by Verb

Osama bin Laden’s demise raises many moral, legal, political, and historical questions. As I’ve edited and posted a steady stream of commentary about this post-9/11 milestone, one persistent editorial question has touched on all these issues.

Specifically, which verbs are appropriate for conveying what U.S. Special Forces did to carry out their mission after they burst into the al-Qaeda leader’s Pakistani compound? Did they simply kill bin Laden? Murder him? Assassinate him? Execute him?

Most Americans consider Osama bin Laden a dangerous and evil man. With so many of us feeling that the world is better off without him, few are questioning the legality of the operation that ended his life. As a former New Yorker who lives in Arlington, VA, it’s easy for me to relate. I was already at work in a downtown DC newsroom on September 11, 2001 when those planes flew into the twin towers and the Pentagon, and several years earlier my daily commute required me to change trains underneath the World Trade Center. I still wince whenever I glance at the Manhattan skyline. Yet, as an editor committed both to accuracy and to speaking truth to power, I need to probe this issue carefully.

One of the dictionary definitions of assassination is “to murder (a usually prominent person) by sudden or secret attack often for political reasons.” The Saudi-born terrorist certainly was killed at home, and he was killed for reasons that could easily be described as “political.” However, Merriam-Webster defines “murder” as “the crime of unlawfully killing a person especially with malice aforethought.” That’s more problematic because it raises another question: did the U.S. government commit a crime by killing bin Laden?

To read the rest of the story, visit Other Words.

Responsibility to Protect Gives Way to Targeted Assassination and Regime Change in Libya

Just two days before the assassination of Osama bin Laden by U.S. special forces eclipsed all other newsworthy issues, another targeted assassination was carried out by NATO forces in Tripoli, except there, the target was missed. That target was Libyan leader Muamar Gaddafi, and the missile that struck the home of his youngest son didn’t take the life it sought. Instead, the bombing of the home, located in a residential neighborhood of the Libyan capital, killed the 29-year old German-educated Saif al-Arab al-Gaddafi and three of his nieces and nephews, all under the age of 12. Apparently, Gaddafi was inside the house with his wife at the time, but both escaped unharmed. Several critics have spoken out against the targeted assassination of the Libyan head of state, but NATO officials have offered little response. They claim that the attack in the middle of an upscale neighborhood around 8 in the evening on Saturday April 30 was carried out against “a military command and control building with a precision strike.” Military paraphernalia recovered from the rubble included the video game Modern Warfare 2 for the Playstation console, and children’s books.

But the mainstream media largely ignored the “accidental” killings of four innocent civilians by NATO forces on April 30 in their mission to protect civilians, as it erupted on May 2 in a chorus of praise for president Obama. The fact that targeted assassination ‘worked’ to put an end to the life of alleged 9/11 mastermind bin Laden conveniently eases the public into acquiescence with the plainly illegal strategy, drawing praise from even self-proclaimed ‘critics’ like Jon Stewart, whose ‘Daily Show’ featured a positively nauseating celebration of the supposed terrorist’s death. The piece ends with Stewart whooping, “we’re back baby!” as the map behind him shows an animated map in which the state of Florida inflates into the Atlantic to resemble a fully engorged penis, “and,” he adds as a scrotal-shaped landmass appears in the Gulf of Mexico, “our testicles have descended.”

Indeed, the macho rhetoric employed by Stewart, by the college students seen cheering ‘USA’ in the streets the night of bin Laden’s death, and by the entire lexicon of the so-call Global War on Terror, like any form of phallo-centric chauvinism, betrays a deeper insecurity. The paternalistic messaging that was used to sell the invasion of Libya to the American people (as well as to the French, British, Spanish, Italian and other NATO-member states’ populations) — that NATO was enforcing UN Security Council Resolution 1973 and taking up the ‘responsibility to protect’ — painted a rather thin veneer over the geopolitical motives that laid behind. As NATO unsuccessfully denies that its air-strikes are seeking to murder Gaddafi, one must wonder how far Western governments will go to set up a puppet regime under the auspices of neoliberal opportunist Mahmoud Jibril’s National Transitional Council. It now appears that the British will overtly fund the rebel forces, and it seems likely that the rest of the allies will follow suit. Meanwhile, the civilian death toll of NATO strikes on Tripoli had exceeded 40 by the end of March.

And as if the ‘accidental’ killing of so many of the civilians NATO is supposed to be protecting were not enough to show that the multinational cold-war military alliance isn’t in Libya for humanitarian reasons, its response to the humanitarian refugee crisis that is filling the Mediterranean with bodies certainly is. The Guardian has reported that in the last month alone, some 800 migrant workers who left the Libyan mainland never arrived at their European destinations and are presumed dead. Now, the participating armies have on their hands the blood of 61 African migrant workers whose escape boat ran out of fuel about 60 miles off the Libyan coast.

The boat’s passengers managed to reach an Eritrean priest in Rome via satellite phone, who relayed their call to the Italian Coast Guard. The Coast Guard told the priest that the boat’s location had been pinpointed and that the alarm had been raised to help the refugees. Soon a military helicopter of unknown origin lowered water bottles and biscuits to the wayward boat, and informed them that help was on the way. But help never came. Days later, a French aircraft carrier came into view. So close was the Charles de Gaulle to the drifting boat that it would have been impossible for such a well-equipped vessel not to have taken notice of the refugees. It sent out two sorties of fighter jets, but no rescue boats, despite passengers’ frantic attempts to contact the sailors on board. After 16 days at sea, 61 of the 72 passengers had starved to death, and one of the 11 survivors dropped dead shortly after stepping foot on land as the boat washed ashore near the Libyan city of Zeitan.

NATO could have prevented these deaths, and more, if only it would spend a bit less time and effort trying to effect a favorable regime change in Libya, and a bit more on its “responsibility to protect.” But perhaps the best thing NATO could do now is follow the Hippocratic oath – if you can do no good, at least do no harm – and cease the bombing of Libya. From there a ceasefire could be negotiated between rebel forces and the government, with regional bodies such as the Arab League and the African Union playing mediating roles, and the Libyan people could resolve their own political issues without foreign intervention. NATO hasn’t had any real reason to exist for the last twenty years, and it is about time for what has become an openly imperialist force to disband once and for all.

Noah Gimbel is an intern with Foreign Policy in Focus. He is currently working on a book on universities and empire and can be reached at

Has Tunisia’s March Towards Democracy Been Halted in Its Tracks?

Farhat Rajhi(Pictured: Farhat Rajhi, briefly Tunisia’s minister of the interior.)

Four months after Zine Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi were forced by angry protests to flee Tunisia on January 14, a complex struggle is unfolding over the country’s future, a focus of which is the upcoming election. The election is to vote for a constituent assembly which will be charged with writing a new constitution and deciding the parameters of the political system that will replace the decades of Ben Ali’s single party rule.

Some are asking: Has Tunisia’s march towards democracy ‘gone sour’? Is there, as some youth protesters claim, ‘a counter revolution’ taking place in the run up to the country’s July 24 elections with a ‘shadow government’ made up of members of Ben Ali’s old guard, ‘the clique of Sahelians’, stage managing the process in a bid to retain power? That there is a power struggle shaping up over the country’s future and the extent to which the old system might be dismantled is clear enough.

Add to that mounting economic and social challenges. The economy is still in the doldrums; it hasn’t recovered from the civil unrest with tourism, a sector that employs nearly half a million people, having been particularly hard hit. The sluggish recovery in Europe continues to hurt Tunisian exports. Unlike Algeria, Tunisia cannot expect income from oil and natural gas. It will have to borrow heavily from international institutions and the global financial sector – with the usual strings attached – to avoid complete financial collapse While it is too much to expect that the interim government could reverse the high levels of unemployment and low wage jobs, very little has been accomplished on this front to date.

To that must be added the growing refugee crisis in the south of the country. Since the civil war in Libya nearly 700,000 people have fled into the neighboring countries. As of May 4, the lion’s share of that number – more than 325,000 – have made their way into Tunisia adding dramatically to the country’s economic woes. Some of the Libyan armed conflict has also spilled over into Tunisia’s southern interior in the areas around Foum Tataouine and Dhibat Remeda. Khadaffi opposed the toppling of Ben Ali – probably because as much as anything he well understood he could be next. His forces’ cross boarder raids into Tunisia is both a punishment and a warning to the Tunisians that Khadaffi still has the ability to influence the outcome of the Tunisian events.

True enough, the political map has dramatically changed. There are now at least 64 political parties (some say 70) that span a wide spectrum that come into being since the Ben Alis were forced from power. As one would expect after decades of political repression, few of them have broad constituencies or much political experience in organizing elections.

While the former ruling party, the RCD (Rassemblement Constitutionnel Demcratique) was dissolved, many of its former members that include much of the old economic and political old guard are re-organizing under new banners. There are already widespread rumors of certain parties with ties to different Western countries ‘buying votes’, with large cash infusions coming from unknown sources coming into the country. Comparisons are being made with recent elections in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (Ukraine, Georgia) where under the veil of democracy, foreign agendas are being played out.

Rajhi’s bombshell

The signs of increased activity by the old guard are multiplying, confirming in the minds of Tunisian democrats, that while Ben Ali and Trabelsi have left, the system that they put in place is still fighting to maintain its privileges and power. This should be no great surprise. Ben Ali had a security force of some 200,000 – and that did not include all of his paid agents. Many of these elements were active in the days just after Ben Ali’s flight, sowing violence and terror from 4-by-4 Toyota pickup trucks throughout the country. More recently, the signs of a concerted destabilization campaign are popping up everywhere.

  • Last week there were major fires set in five prisons leading to the escape of more than 800 prisoners. Very suspicious
  • Of late, the police and army have abstained from protecting demonstrators throughout the country. In the absence of the state’s security, more and more demonstrations are being attacked by provocateurs in civilian clothing, using the same disruptive tactics that Ben Ali’s (and Mubarek’s) thugs employed earlier
  • In a number of Tunisian cities, Beja for one, people have been identified providing funds to provocateurs who are willing to disrupt meetings and protests ‘pour cash crouttes et ashrah dinars’ (for a few crumbs of bread and 10 dinars)
  • During the recent four days of demonstrations in Tunis, a lot of damage to property and cars took place. The demonstrators insist it is not they who turned violent, but provocateurs.

A 20 minute interview on May 4 loaded on to Facebook, triggered angry denials from two leaders of Tunisia’s transitional government and four days of angry demonstrations in Tunis and elsewhere in the country. The demonstrators, mostly the same Tunisian youth that helped topple Ben Ali in the first place, had slogans calling for the transitional government to resign. The demonstrations are met with ‘Ben Ali-era like’ repression from the authorities that include many arrests and at least one death. While demonstrators appear (from various press reports) small in number, their impact created a political crisis for the interim government, whose grip on power remains tentative.

What lay behind this latest flare up and loss in confidence?

Although in Tunisia he’s emerging as the darling of the democratic movement in this complex ‘post-Ben Ali’ era, Americans have hardly heard of him. Farhat Rajhi is his name. But he’s done it again – shaken the country to its core. In so doing, at the very least he’s embarrassed those who would prefer that Tunisia’s ‘transition to democracy’ be held behind closed doors, managed if not smothered. Rajhi’s accusations reinforce the suspicions of reactionary plots afoot.

Rajhi is a highly respected judge who, for one brief shining moment in February and March of this year, was Tunisia’s Minister of Interior. During his short tenure, Rajhi sacked more than 45 former members of Ben Ali’s security police, ordered the dissolution of the former ruling party, the RCD, and was in the process of purging many more when Tunisia’s interim president, Beji Caid Essebsi, sacked him. Rajhi’s ‘mistake’ was failing to inform Essebi of the firings beforehand and that he was ‘ostracising’ Tunisian police officers. Rajhi’s dismissal sent a chill through Tunisia’s democratic movement, suggesting that behind the scenes, Ben Ali’s old security network still was a potent and well connected force of reaction in the country.

More recently, on May 4, Rajhi did it again, suggesting that elements of the former elite were angling to find a way to maintain their grip on power. In a video circulated on Facebook, he accused the current interim prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi and a small ‘clique of Sahelians’ close to him of running a shadow government bent on using whatever means possible to win power in the upcoming July 24 elections. ‘The Sahel’ is the rich coastal region of Sousse and Monastir from where many of the Zine Ben Ali’s old guard originate. According to Rajhi, a former Ben Ali intimate, Kamel Ltaief, credited for helping Ben Ali seize power in a 1987 bloodless coup, is the country’s ‘shadow president’ .

Rajhi also accused Essebsi and Ltaief of maintaining close contact with Tunisia’s deposed president, Ben Ali. He spoke of a recent meeting between Tunisia’s military chief of staff, General Rachid Ammar and Ben Ali in Qatar. Rajhi also warned that should Tunisia’s Islamic Movement, al-Nahda, win the elections that the shadow government would ask the military to seize power in a coup d’etat.

The targets of Rajhi’s accusations, Essebsi and Ltaief, have both angrily denied his allegations mostly by attacking Rajhi personally rather than by dealing with the charges. But he has forced them out into the public. Beyond repeating their mantras of support for the revolution, to date, they have done little to dispel the suspicions Rajhi raised. The fact that these accusations are coming from a former minister of interior with a proven track record of supporting the democratic movement (and losing his job as a result) gives added weight to his claims.

IFES – Promoting democracy or something else?

The day after Rajhi gave his ‘J’accuse!’ speech, the interim government was again embarrassed and found itself on the defensive concerning the new election law. Much of the process leading up to this law has been conducted in secrecy. A sub-committee of the interim government charged with coming up with the process for the July 24th elections in their few public announcements have insisted that they will put together the election law without ‘outside intervention’.

But lately it turns out that a U.S. based NGO – the International Foundation of Election Systems – has been heavily involved behind the scenes. Well known for helping to set up election systems in ‘transitions to democracy’, according to well placed Tunisian sources, the IFES, has been more than marginally involved with Tunisia’s election sub-committee: it is alleged that they wrote the election law in its entirety. A number of inquiries to IFES (from Tunisians in the USA) have gone unanswered.

While internationally respected in some circles, IFES has a history of being involved in electoral campaigns that curiously produce U.S. oriented administrations, as were the cases in Ukraine and Georgia. Despite appearances of bipartisanship, its Board of Directors is heavily tilted to the right. Such figures as William Hybl (chair of the El Pomar Foundation from Colorado Springs), Leon Weil (Reagan era U.S. ambassador to Nepal), Ken Blackwell (former Ohio Secretary of State, implicated in voting irregularities in the 2004 presidential election) and Colorado’s own former U.S. Senator Hank Brown (with close ties to the lobbying firm Brownstein, Farber, Hyatt and Schreck). All hail from the Republican Party’s rightwing. That the name of the most conservative, pro-U.S. Latin American president of Colombia, Andres Pastrana, also appears is more than a curiosity.

Funded in large measure with federal moneys, the organization has created a niche for itself along with organizations like the Freedom House, George Soros’ ‘Open Society’, the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute and National Democratic Institute. A more cynical observer might comment that these foundations today do legally what the C.I.A. used to do under the table and illegally during the Cold War: in the name of ‘democracy’ – buy elections and overthrow governments.

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

Addle-Brained Islamic Extremists Take Revenge on Muslims for bin Laden’s Killing

“In revenge for bin Laden’s killing, as during his life, most of the victims of al Qaeda are Muslim,” Tweeted Doug Saunders, the chief of the Toronto Globe and Mail’s European bureau. He was promoting an Associated Press piece that appeared in the Globe and Mail by Riaz Khan, who reported

A pair of suicide bombers attacked recruits leaving a paramilitary training centre in Pakistan on Friday, killing 80 people in the first retaliation for the killing of Osama bin Laden by American commandos last week. . . . The bombers blew themselves up at the main gate of the facility for the Frontier Constabulary . . . close to the Afghan border.

A Pakistani Taliban spokesman told the AP: “We have done this to avenge the Abbottabad incident.”

On May 10 the AP reported:

In a statement posted on the Internet, al-Qaeda’s official online media organization, al-Fajr, says the American people “will pay the price” for the May 2 raid that killed bin Laden at a compound in Pakistan.

Yeah, that Constabulary attack really hit America where it hurts, didn’t it?

Bin Laden’s Killing Used to Rationalize Guantanamo Detention

RFK buildingJohn Yoo (his former seat of power – the Robert F. Kennedy Justice Department Building – is pictured to the left; his address has since changed), a key architect of the Bush administration’s legal system practiced at Guantanamo Bay penned an article for the Wall Street Journal arguing a post facto case to justify “enhanced interrogation techniques” developed by him and his fellows for use against “enemy combatants.”

Basically, he argues, the successful operation to find and kill Osama bin Laden carried out on May 1st could not have succeeded without the information obtained through these techniques (waterboarding, for example).

Mr. Yoo has since been joined by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in arguing that their actions – and the whole legal system they built after 9/11 to go after al Qaeda – have been justified by the results.

Such measures are not effective techniques for obtaining intelligence, as those involved with that sort of work have testified, but the death of bin Laden has given those who favor such methods new ammunition for the fight.

In an article for The Arabist, I reported on the news that al Jazeera cameraman, Sami al-Hajj, had been held in Guantanamo Bay from 2002 to 2008 because he could help the CIA learn more about “The al-Jazeera News Network’s training program, telecommunications equipment, and newsgathering operations in Chechnya, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, including the network’s acquisition of a video of UBL [Usama bin Laden] and a subsequent interview with UBL.

Al-Hajj’s story, and the stories of many others who had nothing to do with al Qaeda (but were thrown into the legal limbo of Gitmo because they might have), is in jeopardy of being eclipsed and rationalized by bin Laden’s death.

David Sirota and Glenn Greenwald, of Salon have confronted the legal and moral ramifications of the system and its role in bin Laden’s death, and are now drawing considerable flak for their trouble.

Why does legality matter? Because as Americans, we pride ourselves on the morality and legality of our actions. The “War on Terror” is depicted as a war, yes, but is also frequently construed in existential terms and the sort of language one sees in the eponymous crime drama. Legality matters because, to lift a quote from Max Brooks’ horror novel World War Z, as Americans, “All we have are the dreams and promises that bind us together. All we have . . . all we have is what we want to be.”

That’s why the morality and legality of it matters, Mr. Yoo.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

What if the U.S. Actually Attempted to Seize Pakistan’s Nukes?

U.S. helicopters PakistanYesterday I posted that Pakistani fear of the United States attempting to seize its nuclear-weapons arsenal is at an all-time high. As Yochi Dreazen wrote at the National Journal, “the ease with which elite U.S. forces jammed Pakistan’s advanced air defense systems and mounted a precision operation deep inside Pakistani territory is eroding the Pakistani military’s standing in the eyes of its own people and raising new questions there about whether the U.S. could one day mount a similar push to grab Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.”

As I mentioned, one obstacle to that course of action is that

The West doesn’t know all the locations of Iran’s (however peaceful thus far) nuclear program, thus rendering preemptive bombing inevitably incomplete. Neither does the West know the location of all of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, thus making it impossible to take complete control of its program.

I also cited an article I wrote for Asia Times Online in 2009 titled Keeping Pakistan’s nukes extremist-free. I had contacted veteran British reporter Brian Coughley, South Asian defense analyst for Jane’s, who also wrote War, Coups and Terror: Pakistan’s Army in Years of Turmoil (Skyhorse Publishing, 2009). As recently as April of this year he wrote an article on Pakistan’s nuclear security for Jane’s Intelligence Review (requires paying a — steep — subscription fee). In my ATimes piece I wrote:

Cloughley’s extensive experience with the Pakistani military has left him with respect for its professionalism and much less concern for the security of its nuclear weapons than Washington expresses.

Besides, British columnist Johann Hari wrote:

Every time the US military has war-gamed sending in troops . . . it has ended in a horrific bloodbath — and the weapons still eluding their control.

Cloughley agreed.

It would, indeed, be a bloodbath if any attempt were made to insert special forces. How anyone in their right mind could even suggest such a scenario is beyond me.

Nevertheless, at my request, he provided one.

In spite of its being lunacy, the attempt . . . to clandestinely insert special forces teams . . . might well go ahead. This could be done by having them join the embassy in the guise of marine guards, or be accepted as part of a liaison or training mission, then, in civilian vehicles, moving to the various sites to attempt to take them over.

This could be concurrent with heliborne [air assault by helicopters] insertion from Afghanistan or carrier(s). There would have to be a large number of teams, but I’m not prepared to provide an assessment of how many.

The helicopter operation would have to involve complete dominance of Pakistan’s airspace, mounted from Afghanistan and carriers from the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean. This would excite the attention of the Pakistan Air Force which would attempt to deny control. The air war would be intense and end in favor of the USAF/USN, although their casualties would be high.

This would escalate into all-out war, and Pakistan would attempt to involve the UN, which would be vetoed by the US and the UK. China and Russia, for once, would join hands in condemnation. The entire Muslim world would go berserk.

It is possible — just — that some weapons could be taken over, but the sites are extremely well-guarded (although their ground-based air defenses are minimal). Fighting would be intense, with already earmarked army units coming to the aid of the guard units. By this time, the US Embassy would be under siege and all foreigners’ lives would be at grave risk. There would be chaos on a very large scale indeed.

Is Pakistan Justified in Its Fear of U.S. Takeover of Its Nuke Program?

As you may have heard, the U.S. foray into Pakistan to seize Osama bin Laden is, writes Yochi Dreazen at the National Journal, “fueling one of the country’s most enduring — and potentially dangerous — conspiracy theories: that the U.S. has designs on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and is prepared to send highly trained commandos into the country to seize control of the weapons.” First, it’s not fair to describe it as a conspiracy theory when, in fact, much of the American public, if polled, would no doubt wholeheartedly support such a campaign. Besides, writes Dreazen:

. . . the ease with which elite U.S. forces jammed Pakistan’s advanced air defense systems and mounted a precision operation deep inside Pakistani territory is eroding the Pakistani military’s standing in the eyes of its own people and raising new questions there about whether the U.S. could one day mount a similar push to grab Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

Dreazen explains that Secretary of Gates Gates tried to reassure Pakistan.

Gates told a crowd of stony-faced senior Pakistani military officers at the country’s National Defence University that the he wanted to tell them “definitively” that the U.S. had “no desire to control Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.”

The United States may not “desire” but it might feel the need to assume control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. But it’s considerably more difficult than most people are aware. The West doesn’t know all the locations of Iran’s (however peaceful thus far) nuclear program, thus rendering preemptive bombing inevitably incomplete. Neither does the West know the location of all of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, thus making it impossible to take complete control of its program.

I cited other reasons that the United States might feel the need to take such a drastic action in an article I wrote for Asia Times Online in 2009 titled Keeping Pakistan’s nukes extremist-free.

The London Independent’s Johann Hari quotes Scott Sagan, a nuclear security expert: “If Pakistan fears they may be attacked [by India or presumably jihadis], they have an incentive to take [the weapons] out of the [more secure] bunkers and put them out in the countryside.” Where, of course, there’s that much greater a chance they’ll be apprehended by jihadis.

In fact, the [New York] Times’ [David] Sanger reports that a top George W. Bush administration official expressed his fears to him that “some groups could try to provoke a confrontation between Pakistan and India in the hope that the Pakistani military would transport tactical nuclear weapons closer to the front lines, where they would be more vulnerable to seizure. Indeed, when the deadly terror attacks occurred in Mumbai [other] officials told [Sanger] they feared that one of the attackers’ motives might have been to trigger exactly that series of events.

[Also, writes Shaun Gregory of the University of Bradford’s Pakistan Security Research Unit] to facilitate maximum anticipation of an attack on its nuclear weapon sites (as well as to foil a quick ground strike) by India, Pakistan has located them in its west. “The unanticipated consequence,” he explains, is that the nuclear weapons are “either within or close to the more volatile tribal regions of Pakistan to the west and northwest of Islamabad.”

Still, Pakistan has the capability to keep its weapons safe. Professor Gregory describes just some of the precautions it takes with its nuclear-weapons program.

Pakistan has also designated certain facilities as no-fly zones and is acquiring specialized vehicles to prevent hijacking of nuclear materials when they’re most vulnerable — while in transit.

Other preventive measures Pakistan has taken include signing the Container Security Initiative, which provides Karachi with radiation detectors. Also, as part of a new US program called the Second Line of Defense Megaports, detectors and imaging equipment were set up in a port in southern Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has access to an International Atomic Energy Agency database for sharing information about missing radiological materials. Finally, Pakistani officials have stated that their warheads have been fitted with permissive action links (PALs), a locking device which prevents detonation without a code.

Again, that’s barring Islamic extremist infiltration of the Pakistan military and the ISI.

Retaliate in Kind Even if Doomed by a Nuclear Attack? Really?

If doomed by a nuclear attack, is there any reason to retaliate in kind? In other words, if we’re about to be wiped off the face off the earth, how does it help up us — beyond the consolation (for the 15 minutes we’ll be alive) of Biblical revenge taken to the nth degree — to decimate the attacking nation? One suspects that it’s one of the few questions about nuclear weapons that has crossed the mind of many in the American public.

In his remarkable new book How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III (Simon & Schuster), Ron Rosenbaum virtually wallows in that question. It’s been eating at him for all the years he’s been writing about nuclear weapons. At a symposium on nuclear deterrence in 2009 he actually questioned Major General C. Donald Alston, currently head of the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missile force, and at the time the Pentagon’s assistant chief of staff, Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration Headquarters, on just that point.

“If we get attacked, a surprise attack. What in your view is the morality of retaliation at that point?”

Major General Alston’s entire response was curious. (Buy the book.) But most intriguing:

“Well I guess in the position I’m in I’d say . . . response in kind.” Interesting that he doesn’t suggest that it’s necessarily what he believes is right himself. It’s “the position I’m in.” [Also, without] prompting he brings up the difficulty of deciding what “in kind” would mean.

“What would be — how would you do the calculus on what response in kind would be? So I think that [response in kind] would be one course of action but that [the president] wouldn’t be brought a singular course of action.” In other words, he’d have options other than retaliation.

Major General Alston added, “In my job I have no propensity for response in kind.” Rosenbaum concludes, “If I’m reading this right . . he’s showing a reluctance to retaliate.”

The top nuclear commander (then and now) General Kevin Chilton, chief of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), might not have approved of his subordinate’s response. Asked the same question, General Chilton replied that one issue

“. . . you have to be cautious about when discussing a philosophical or, truly, hypothetical question is that you don’t send a mixed signal that would confuse anybody about your intention.”

In other words, debate in public about deterrence on the part of the military might send the wrong signal to other nuclear-weapons states. When push comes to shove, the president may flinch and fail to issue the order to launch an attack or military command in possession of the codes that ignite the attack might waver. A united front is equally as important a component of deterrence — if you believe in that sort of thing — as the nuclear weapons themselves. The saying “loose lips sinks ships” applies not only to leaking secrets but giving the enemy the impression of a command structure that’s divided against itself.

The term “second strike” has the potential to mislead. If you’re like me, your first reaction is to think it means an enemy that goes on the offensive and launches a first strike, we retaliate, and the enemy launches a second strike. In fact, the retaliatory strike is considered the second strike. Instead of first and second strike, why not just call it attack and retaliation?

As for the actual morality of the second strike when a state knows it’s doomed, it’s helpful to refer back to how George Lakoff describes the attitude of conservatives toward the underserved. They feel that, aside from church or individual charity, federal or state assistance only enables them in their disempowerment and perpetuates its continuation. Conservatives’ idea of helping means pulling the safety net out from under the underserved and forcing them to stand on their own two feet (whether disabled or not). That’s the conservative moral code.

A similar line of thinking may inform the traditional attitude of nuclear war planners toward responding to a first strike. However unconsciously, they think that refraining from retaliating when you know you’re doomed is no longer about you. It doesn’t help the attacking state to think it’s been rewarded for its aggression. In fact, refraining from making it pay in kind not only encourages such behavior in the future, but is harmful to the state. When, though it’s of no earthly advantage to us, we launch a second strike, we may be taking the lives of the citizens and command structure of the aggressor state, but we’re saving their souls.

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