Focal Points Blog

Killing Libya in Order to Save It: Gulf War Syndrome

Gulf War SyndromeThere were two images from the Libyan war that are likely to spell real trouble in the coming years. One was of several U.S. A-10 attack planes, ungainly looking machines ugly enough to be nick named “Warthogs,” taxiing down a runway. The other was of several rebel fighters dancing on top of a burning tank.

That tank, an old Russian-era T-72, was likely knocked out by one of those A-10s, which means those rebels fighters are almost certainly going to be in a world of hurt. Because, while they were celebrating, they were also breathing in the residue from the shell that killed that tank, a 30 mm depleted uranium munition (DUA).

DUA is the weapon of choice when it comes to killing armored vehicles, and A-10s are specialists at using it. The U.S. used 320 tons of it in the first Gulf War, 10 tons in Kosovo, and over 1,000 tons in the invasion of Iraq. It is lethal to tanks, but it also damages anything that comes into contact with it. Common photos back in 1991 were of U.S. soldiers climbing on top of knocked-out Iraqi tanks to have their pictures taken or to look for souvenirs. When they did, they inhaled uranium oxide or impregnated their uniforms with it.

The soldiers didn’t know better because the U.S. Defense Department (DOA) told them DUA was harmless, even though the DOA knew better. In 1991 the U.S. Army’s Armament Munitions and Chemical Command concluded that “any system struck by DUA penetrator can be assumed to be contaminated with DU,” and instructed soldiers to wear protective masks, clothes and respirators “as a minimum,” and dispose of the clothing afterwards.

The only problem was that the Army never told the troops, even those whose job it was to deal with vehicles hit by DUA. No one said a word to the 144th National Guard Supply Company of the 24th Infantry Division which picked up 29 U.S. armored vehicles hit by DUA “friendly fire” to ship them home. When the tanks and armored personnel carriers arrived in South Carolina, they were interned in a radioactive waste dump. If the soldiers didn’t know the objects were “hot,” the brass did.

Many of those members of that National Guard company subsequently came down with the “Gulf War Syndrome” (GWS) that afflicted at least 118,000 out of the 700,000 soldiers who served in the 1990-91 conflict. Veterans suffer from chronic fatigue, headaches, muscle spasms, joint pains, memory loss, anxiety and balance problems; were twice as likely to develop amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig Disease); and between two and three times more likely to have children with birth defects.

DUA is one of the most deadly anti-tank weapons around. The enormous weight of the DUA “arrow” in each shell can penetrate four inches of armor as if it were margarine. It then explodes in a 10,000-degree fireball that reduces up 70 percent of the munition to powder. The powder can travel up to 25 miles from the initial blast site.

Depleted uranium is not highly radioactive, but it has a half-life of 4.4 billion years, and, if it gets into your system, it can be very dangerous. According to the U.S. Environmental Policy Institute, DUA “has the potential to generate significant medical consequences.”

“People have always assumed low doses are not much of a problem,” Alexander Miller of the U.S. Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute told the Guardian (British), “but they can cause more damage than people think.” A study by the Institute found that DUA could damage bone marrow chromosomes.

Not all of the Gulf War butcher bill can be laid at the feet of DUA. After 11 years of denying there was anything to GWS, the Pentagon finally admitted that at least 130,000 soldiers had been exposed to chemical weapon residue when the Iraqi arms depot at Kamisiyah was blown up. Modern battlefields tend to be toxic nightmares, and that was doubly so in Iraq.

But there is no question that DUA was a major contributor to the syndrome, particularly for those who developed immune related diseases. A standard effect of radiation is suppression of the immune system.

The effects of low-level radiation are hard to track, because many “hard” cancers take 16 to 24 years to develop. Iraqi medical authorities claim that the cancer rate in Basra—an area that was saturated with DUA in the Gulf war and the Iraq War—has jumped ten fold, and birth defects are much higher than in the rest of the country.

DUA is also used in 25 mm cannon shells, and 105 MM and 120 MM tank shells. The Army is using it to manufacture 50-caliber machine gun ammunition and is experimenting with using it for standard issue infantry weapons. It is also used to coat armored vehicles, making them almost impervious to non-DUA shells.

The U.S. is selling DUA to Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, some of our NATO allies—Germany and Italy won’t use it—Sweden, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Thailand, and other countries that the Pentagon will not reveal in the name of “national security.”

Depleted uranium is also a highly toxic metal and can damage the liver and kidneys, particularly if it gets into the water supply. If a DUA round misses a target, its “penetrators” are so heavy that they tend to go deep into the soil. “A major concern of the potential environmental effects of intact [DUA] penetrators or large penetrator fragments,” notes the World Health Organization, “is the potential contamination of ground water after weathering.”

Because of the dangers associated with DUA, in August 2002 a subcommittee of the United Nations found that the weapons violated seven international agreements, including the UN Charter and the Geneva Conventions. Efforts to ban it, however, have been vetoed by the U.S., France and Britain. In 2009 Belgium became the first country to ban the use of DUA, and in the same year the Latin American Parliament voted for a moratorium on its use.

The International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons that includes 120 non-governmental organizations is currently lobbying to get the weapons eliminated.

There are other rough beasts being visited on the Libyans these days as well, including cluster weapons, highly explosive canisters that can shred everything from people to tanks. U.S. warplanes have been dropping CBU-103, 104, 105, and AGM-154 A and B, all of which have a failure rate of anywhere from 5 to 23 percent. These unexploded “bomblets” can kill for decades.

During the bombing of Laos from 1964 to 1973, 90 million cluster munitions were dropped, killing more than 12,000 civilians. The bomblets continue exact a yearly toll of 100 to 200 people. More than 50 million clusters were dropped during the 1991 Gulf War, and in the two years that followed the war’s end, they killed 1,400 Kuwaiti citizens. A U.S. company hired to clear cluster weapons from a small area in Kuwait found 95,700 unexploded MK-118 submunitions from the notoriously unreliable CBU-99 “Rockeye” cluster bomb.

Unexploded clusters are still causing problems in Kosovo, and they take a steady toll of civilians in Afghanistan.

Libya has no-go areas dating back to the Second World War, when Italians, Germans and British seeded their fronts with land mines. Whatever government emerges in Libya today will have to deal with the aftermath of yet another war, this time created by DUA and cluster weapons. “The problem in defense is how far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without,” Dwight Eisenhower once remarked.

A problem indeed. One hopes Libya manages to avoid what a village in Vietnam experienced, the one that was destroyed in order to save it.

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

To Rev. Terry Jones, UN Attack Just Proves He’s Right

After receiving news of demonstators protesting a Koran burning by his Gainesville church over-running a U.N. office in northern Afghanistan and killing at least seven foreign staff members and five Afghans, Rev. Terry Jones

. . . released a statement expressing no regret for the Koran burning. He called the attack on the compound “a very tragic and criminal action” and called on the United States and the United Nations to take action.

But he didn’t stop there, adding

“The time has come to hold Islam accountable.”

I’m sure he sleeps well at night.

For $700 Million Mugabe Lets China Write Its Own Rules

Mugabe Jintao(Pictured: Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe and China’s President Hu Jintao.)

In what has to be one of the largest protection money payouts ever recorded, the Chinese government announced last week that it had agreed to loan Zimbabwe $700 million in desperately needed funds. Of course, the Chinese did not frame their offer as anything other than humanitarian, announcing that the loan would be used for investment in the agricultural, health and water sewage sectors. But amidst President Robert Mugabe’s demand that all foreign-owned mining ventures sell majority holdings to black Zimbabweans, the meaning of the money was clear. Vice Premier Wang Qishan, visiting Harare last week to announce the agreement, was unambiguous about the expected return on the loan, stating flatly that he “hope[d] Zimbabwe will protect the legitimate right of Chinese businesses in the country.”

Mugabe is likely to respect Beijing’s wishes. China’s largesse was timed perfectly with a particularly acute moment of crisis in Zimbabwe where political turbulence is quickly being overshadowed by the increasing threat of food shortages in the country. The country’s agricultural minister, Joseph Made, announced this week that six of the country’s ten provinces are currently facing severe food shortages. The country claims to have enough food to stem the threat of widespread hunger but not the resources to cover transport and distribution costs. The UN has requested nearly half a billion dollars in emergency aid to help aid efforts, but Made managed to soil the offer by announcing he would refuse to allow the UN-affiliated agencies into the country to assess Zimbabwe’s needs in the name of national security. The reason? “We don’t want to have politics in food,” Made argued. The country’s food czar quickly performed a rhetorical about-face, however, claiming that he had been misrepresented in response to critics’ contentions that the only person salting the country’s food with politics was the agricultural minister himself. But given the current circumstances, this may be the least of his problems.

The looming threat of mass starvation couldn’t come at a worse moment. As nationwide elections approach, steadily mounting political tensions between Mugabe and opposition prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai threaten to collapse the unity government that has been precariously in place since 2008. In recent weeks, Mugabe has ordered an end to MDC protests, jailed one of the prime minister’s closest allies, and has threatened to arrest Tsvangirai himself. But the prime minister has more than just Mugabe to contend with. The MDC leader must also keep his own party from splitting apart at the seams. A breakaway faction lead by Welshman Ncube has been flexing its muscles of late, refusing to come under the discipline of the party’s high command.

Ncube claims he was blocked from a top parliamentary position by a Mugabe-Tsvangirai tag-team effort, and that his faction will no longer follow the party line at a critical moment when the MDC needs all the help it can get. Complicating matters further, Ncube’s son is married to the daughter of chief peace negotiator and president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, who dispatched his team to Harare to help find ways to keep the peace.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s food security forecast is bleak. After a brutal drought last month, crop yields are expected to be virtually nonexistent throughout much of the country over the coming months which will almost certainly prompt an accompanying spike in food prices nationwide.

The shortages are nothing new in Zimbabwe, which has suffered through a decade of Mugabe’s failed land reform policies on the one hand, and Western sanctions targeting the regime’s dismal human rights record on the other. But this year looks to be especially bad, which makes China’s timing all the more remarkable.

Last month, the Chinese boldly offered Mugabe $3 billion for complete control over the country’s platinum reserves and a share of its lucrative diamond mining sector. By most accounts, Mugabe was ready to seize on the deal, but was rebuffed by opposition members of his coalition government who pointed out China’s opportunistic attempt at a wholesale land grab. Public outrage followed, and for good reason. Conservative estimates of Zimbabwe’s platinum reserves value them at between $30 and $40 billion, nearly ten times greater than what the Chinese offered.

Since then, China has ordered a public relations full-court press to contain resentment of their presence in Zimbabwe. Immediately before Vice Premier Wang landed in Harare, the Chinese government dispatched a small army of eye surgeons to the country to perform free cataract removal for hundreds of poor Zimbabweans. These complimentary procedures were the first in what the Chinese government promises will be a series of missions to cure the entire population of reversible blindness. Not only that, China has underscored its commitment to help Mugabe’s coalition government battle western sanctions, and most recently extended the landmark $700 million loans for agricultural revitalization.

Their efforts have already paid off. On Sunday, Mugabe announced that he was aggressively moving ahead with his plan to force all foreign-owned mining firms to sell majority stakes to local investors. Mugabe made clear that foreign-held mining corporations have until May 9 to outline plans for turning over majority control to Zimbabwean financiers, and six months to finalize indigenization of the country’s mining sector, or face unspecified penalties. All corporations, that is, except for those owned by China. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Chinese companies, including those mining diamonds in Marange, will be exempt from indigenization regulations because they are carrying out ‘national projects,’ said Indigenization and Empowerment Minister Savior Kasukuwere.”

If this defense for exempting Chinese multinationals from national policy sounds fishy, that’s because in all likelihood it is. The irony, of course, is that while the indigenization scheme is designed to decisively erase the last vestiges of western colonialism’s legacy in Zimbabwe, Mugabe is potentially opening the door to the next generation of foreign domination. Only this time, instead of Europe maintaining the upper hand, Zimbabwe’s economic dependency will be hitched to the growing power of Beijing and a new era of imperialism—with Chinese characteristics.

Neocon Call for Regime Change in Syria Doesn’t Do U.S. National Security Any Favors

In the Washington Post Sunday noted neocon Eliot Abrams of Iran-Contra fame called for the United States to back regime change in Syria:

While the monarchies of the Middle East have a fighting chance to reform and survive, the region’s fake republics have been falling like dominoes — and Syria is next. . . . Since the wave of Mideast revolts has spread to Syria, Assad is responding the only way he knows: by killing. What should be our response?

Abrams provides a regimen for the United States to support Syrian protesters such as recalling the U.S. ambassador. However disingenuous this always sounds coming from a conservative, he writes, “Our principles alone should lead us to this position.” What’s the real reason, though, El-i-ot-t-t.

The demise of this murderous clan is in America’s interest. The Assad regime made Syria the pathway for jihadists from around the world to enter Iraq to fight and kill Americans. Long a haven for terrorists, Syria still allows the Hamas leadership, among other Palestinian terrorist groups, to live and work in Damascus.

It’s one thing for Syria to be a “haven” for terrorists. but what if it were its headquarters? Ata IPS News Jim Lobe writes that, in fact, regime change in Syria may run at cross purposes to U.S. national security.

. . . Paul Pillar, a retired Central Intelligence Agency analyst who served as National Intelligence Officer for the Middle East between 2000 and 2005, warned that regime change could turn out very poorly for both the US and Israel and that Abrams’ and the Journal’s confidence that any successor regime would be preferable to Assad’s was ill-founded.

“Syria under Assad is probably the most secular place in the Middle East,” he noted in his blog at the website. “The influence of Islamism, in whatever form, in Syria has nowhere to go but up if there is regime change. That would not be welcome to those in Israel and the United States who worry about any political role for Islamists.”

Neocons — forever born yesterday, they forget the past and are incapable of looking ahead long term.

Interview With WikiLeaks Go-to Guy, the Nation’s Greg Mitchell

Greg MitchellCross-posted from the GC Advocate and FireDogLake.

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

For nearly four months, the Nation’s Greg Mitchell has steadfastly blogged “Cablegate,” the publication of some 250,000 US diplomatic cables released by the whistle-blowing organization WikiLeaks. What began as basic coverage of a media phenomenon quickly blossomed into the world’s most important clearinghouse for news and analysis concerning the WikiLeaks saga. Other media outlets have attempted similar up-to-the minute coverage, but none have been able to keep up with Mitchell’s one-man tour de force.

Mitchell has not only managed to keep on top of the seemingly never-ending revelations and scandals surrounding the WikiLeaks phenomenon but along the way has also found the time to punch out two books on the subject. The first, The Age of WikiLeaks: From Collateral Murder to Cablegate (and Beyond), hit the shelves just before an avalanche of other books—largely focused on Assange—came out, and remains the most useful general account of WikiLeaks’ rise from relative obscurity to international prominence. The second book—Bradley Manning: Truth and Consequences—just published, looks at the man accused of feeding WikiLeaks the massive trove of embassy cables.

Foreign Policy in Focus contributor Michael Busch spoke with Mitchell—whom Glenn Greenwald calls “one of the nation’s most insightful journalists”—shortly after he celebrated the one hundredth day of his marathon WikiLeaks coverage to discuss the blog, the book, and the future of journalism in the age of WikiLeaks.

MB: First of all, congratulations on one hundred days of blogging Cablegate!

Mitchell: [Laughs.] Thank you.

MB: I hoped to start by asking about the blog. You joke that blogging WikiLeaks has left you feeling like Michael Corleone: just when you think you’re about to wrap it up, it pulls you back in. Where did the blog come from, and did you expect that that one hundred plus days after the initial Cablegate revelations dropped that you’d still be at it?

Mitchell: Well, I started blogging for The Nation last May, a daily blog that covered a wide variety of media subjects. It was kind of a live blog; every morning I’d put up a bunch of links and maybe three times a week I would write a standalone piece. Two or three times a year I would concentrate on live blogging some major media event that was breaking…the election last November, for example. It might be one or two days of concentrated coverage and that would be it.

With WikiLeaks, it was sort of the same thing. I wasn’t up and running when the “Collateral Murder” video was released, but I was when the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs dropped and live-blogged on them for a couple of days when they came out. With Cablegate, I received an alert right before it was about to happen and so when it began I was ready to go. I figured I would blog that first day of cable releases and the next, certainly.

And then it just kept going. With the Afghan and Iraq war log dumps there were things to cover for several days because the newspapers were bringing different angles to the story, there was a lot of analysis and reaction. But the material was all out there in its entirety at the start. It was just a matter of how people were analyzing it. With Cablegate you had all that, of course, because a lot came out immediately, but new information also kept coming. And on top of that there were suddenly more threats against WikiLeaks, and Julian Assange in particular, and there was more reaction from around the world because of all the various countries involved. So at the start, I thought the blogging might be two or three days and if it went a little longer than that, then fine.

I wouldn’t have kept doing it if there hadn’t been a strong reaction to it, if people hadn’t been egging me on. It proved to be very popular at The Nation. The editors originally were telling me that blogging Cablegate would be fine for ten days or even maybe even twenty, but they were also saying that I really should stop at some point because I had better things to do with my time. From day one, though—actually, for a hundred and two days now—it has been the most popular and most frequently viewed site at the Nation. And that popularity has made it acceptable with the editors that I keep going. Now they say, “Yeah, sure, concentrate on this!” So the extended blogging has really been the result of a combination of things: my interest, the fact that new documents keep emerging, and the fact that it is proving so popular around the world. It’s really taken on a life of its own.

MB: After all of this time dedicated to reporting on the cables, what strikes you as the most important lesson learned from the Cablegate scandal, either with specific reference to the documents themselves, or to the broader developments around the “leak” phenomenon that you refer to as the “Age of WikiLeaks”?

Mitchell: Well, that’s the big question in all this. In terms of the world of geopolitics the most dramatic thing that has occurred in the midst of all this is the wave of Middle Eastern and North African revolts. Of course, there are great debates about how big a role WikiLeaks has played. But I think most people would agree that it had a big role in the Tunisian uprising and Tunisia in turn had a big role elsewhere. You can trace [the wave of revolutions] back to Tunisia, and when you ask if WikiLeaks was much of a factor in events there you have to say it was a pretty big factor, in fact.

More generally, I presume that history will show that the biggest effect of WikiLeaks—even though people don’t all agree on the details of it—will be seen in the way it affected the politics of different countries. That’s what’s most striking to me in all this: we suddenly have a huge mass of information which keeps having ripple effects in different countries all over the world, like most recently in Mexico where the effects of the WikiLeaks cables has been quite dramatic. There are a lot of people in America, pundits, who say that none of this is really a big deal, that we knew most of this stuff already, and ask what’s really changed. And they might be right, in terms of US policy. But they totally ignore what’s been happening in other countries. That’s the most impressive thing, as opposed to the big ticket items.

And then of course, the other thing is how it set in motion the whole discussion and encouragement of a new era of leaking, and how the media has reacted. This has been very revealing, though I must say that the jury is still out on the question of what will happen with all these other “leaking” organizations. Many have been formed, much has been promised, numerous organizations have set up their own portals…and very little has come of it. Even WikiLeaks hasn’t come up with anything new. I just reported on this new group, Quebec Leaks. They sent me word weeks ago when they were originally going to launch, and then they postponed it. Now they’ve just gone through with the launch today and they haven’t received any documents at all! They didn’t even say they were processing anything. Another one, OpenLeaks [started by former WikiLeaks collaborators], doesn’t have anything either. So it goes to show that people may be saying it’s a new era of leaking, but that’s still far from clear. Outside of al Jazeera’s “Palestine Papers,” I’m not sure that anything new has leaked in recent months.

MB: There’s been a lot said about the ways in which WikiLeaks has transformed traditional approaches to journalism. Less remarked upon are the ways in which WikiLeaks itself has changed since its creation, if any. Is there any sense in which you think WikiLeaks has evolved in the period between Collateral Murder and the current flood of cable documents? Have its own methods and standards changed at the same time that it’s been driving changes in the old media establishments?

Mitchell: What’s interesting is that WikiLeaks, at least until “Collateral Murder,” and even afterwards, was not a household name. In some ways, their history is much more varied and interesting in the three years before “Collateral Murder.” They had a lot of different leaks, from the contents of Sarah Palin’s Yahoo! email account to Scientology documents, and a bunch of other interesting things. Then suddenly, there was allegedly one gigantic leak—which included the “Collateral Murder” video, the Iraq and Afghan war logs, and of course the Cablegate documents. As a result, this past year has been totally unlike the past three or four years for WikiLeaks. One gigantic leak got them massive attention and partnerships with the New York Times, the Guardian and other leading news outlets. This is most apparent in the way we talk about WikiLeaks itself, in terms of Assange. I presume that before it probably was an organization comprised of a bunch of different people and Assange wasn’t so much of a point man. Whether it’s because of the nature of these recent leaks, or because the backlash, Assange has become WikiLeaks. He seems to be person who’s doing everything. I mean, just go to the WikiLeaks main site, and there you’ll see a big picture of him at the top! Assange can say, “Oh, it’s not just me,” all he likes, but there’s his face on the main page. So I think that’s quite different. Which raises the question of how many people actually are working for the organization, how much money they have, whether they can actually get stuff out. The Bank of America documents, for example, still aren’t out. Rudolph Elmer gave them the CDs and that doesn’t seem close to being released. This creates room for other organizations, but they haven’t been coming out with stuff either.

In terms of working with the media, it’s fascinating to chart the partnerships with these big media groups and particularly how these media establishments eventually turned on them. A lot of people will blame Assange for that and will argue that it didn’t necessarily have to play out in this way. The Guardian, particularly, always seems to emphasize the importance of WikiLeaks even while they have had their problems with Assange, but the New York Times…not so much. The Times keeps slamming Assange, relentlessly, while continuing to quote from the cables in their news coverage. And that’s the thing! On any given day, the Times or the Washington Post will be ripping Assange and the organization on the opinion page but quoting from WikiLeaks on the front page! You’ll have three different stories referring to “diplomatic cables,” routinely. And often crucially. So it makes it interesting to cover. They may want to step away from them, but they can’t resist quoting from this stuff.

MB: That’s what seems to me most important about the book, that it cuts through the sensationalism surrounding WikiLeaks and offers a clear timeline of events.

Mitchell: That’s one of its values. Without any of the fanfare, it just lays out what happened without analyzing it to death: here’s how it started, here’s how it was covered at the time.

MB: There’s been a parade of WikiLeaks books over the past few months but yours was the first. It’s also clear that your book has a much narrower focus than the others, namely the phenomenon of WikiLeaks itself rather than controversies surrounding Assange. How did that idea come about? What did you intend to accomplish? What do you want readers to take away from it?

Mitchell: By the time Cablegate was way under way, WikiLeaks was getting a lot of attention, Assange was getting a lot of attention, God help us, but people still didn’t really know what had happened over the previous year. In some ways, Cablegate is actually a little less interesting to me, because I’ve always had an interest in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wars and the media have always been my primary subject of interest, so it was natural that I was really interested in everything WikiLeaks did before Cablegate. I felt that people had forgotten what happened before Cablegate, and that it was criminal that all this incredible stuff came out about the wars, and the media just turned the page. So I wanted to tell a story of the whole year, not just Cablegate but the other three quarters of the year as well, which meant that I myself had to go back and look at the coverage, what had been written. It was good for me because I had an opportunity to brush up on it all.

I sensed that there would be a bunch of books coming out, but that they would largely focus on Assange, his legal case, and his dealings with the newspapers. But I didn’t think there was going to be clear history. So it seemed to me that a clear laying-out of everything that had happened would be valuable, and especially if it came out quickly so people could have it ready as more and more coverage of the situation piled up.

MB: You close the book on a hopeful note by discussing the convergence between new and old media, and the expectation that this will create a stronger journalistic project in the future. If you had to guess, how would you sketch out the contours of this new journalistic project? In other words, do you think that recent efforts by the NYT and others to create in-house drop boxes for leaked documents will ultimately be successful, or will independent leakers always attract the juiciest stuff, or both?

Mitchell: It’s hard to say. It’s unclear whether this supposed deluge of leaks is actually going to happen. The assumption has been, like we discussed before, that we would be seeing leaks from all these different quarters. It’s also unclear whether the mainstream media is going to try to control the flow of information. We’ve seen some of this with the New York Times which announced that it is studying possibilities for their own portal, which would put them back in the role of gatekeepers. Cablegate has been educational for a lot of people, that’s for sure. Even for WikiLeaks: they were willing to give up their old way of doing business which was to dump out there whatever it was they had and then let the media cover those things it wanted to cover. This time, they held back and let the paper do the dissemination. So in this way, the papers are still the gatekeepers. They choose what they will focus on, what comes out and when, how much time they are willing to devote to it, how many people they will put on it. They also divvied up between themselves what each paper was doing. In a telling moment, it was either Bill Keller or one of his top people who was asking [the Times staff] “Why didn’t we have any cables on Egypt?” And they were told, “Well, we were working on other things and didn’t have time to search the Egypt cables.” So all this stuff is coming out about [Omar] Suleiman and torture and other damning cables and they just hadn’t gotten to it. They had a list of important areas: Egypt probably shouldn’t have been at the top of it, but couldn’t they have gone and done a search through the Egypt cables? Nobody did, apparently.

In any event, they media have still been the gatekeepers. It’s the role they have traditionally played, and it’s the role I think they would still like to play in the future. The idea of working with leaks is still very appealing to them. Having their own portals might be also appealing, but I’m sure they also see the work involved in that. They would probably rather take someone else’s leak and pick and choose, and vet what would be released, what wouldn’t and so on. If there hadn’t been such a falling out between Assange and the Guardian and the Times, I think a lot more people would be saying that this is the model, that as far out as WikiLeaks might seem, they’ve managed to work with these mainstream giants for most of the year in a mutually beneficial relationship. Similarly, we saw the Guardian do it again with al Jazeera in releasing the Palestine Papers. Speaking of which, the Palestine Papers was this gigantic thing for about a week, but then…whatever happened to that? What came out of that? How did that shake things up? See what I mean?

It seems like the new era is still very unclear. I don’t know if places like Huffington Post plan to do much with leaks, if this is in fact the model for the future, or whether the model will be blogging, link aggregators, or whatever. Will we have organizations with enough resources to really plunge into these things? So the real question is how are leaks going to come out in the future, if they come out at all? Dealing with leaks is massively complicated, and the payoff is unclear. We’ve had things that were rolled out—like the war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq—by the New York Times and the impact proved to be not that significant. So are other organizations going to feel it’s worth it to present important information that might not ultimately be reader-friendly? On the other hand, if they could get a list of every woman Charlie Sheen has ever slept with, or proof of all the drugs he’s ever taken, or better, both, that might be one thing. But if the information is going to be about chasing loose nukes and materials around the world—which involves a lot of technical explanation and countries most Americans have never heard of—then it is probably going to be another.

Imagine Disarmament and Nonproliferation Talks That Reward the State With More Nukes

Nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation are based in part on the premise that if the states with the most nuclear weapons dial down their numbers that those with fewer will do the same. Just as important, states without nuclear weapons will no longer be tempted to develop them. Sounds like a simple matter of leadership, right?

But today, not only conservatives, but generic realists, make the case that whether or not the United States makes significant strides toward global zero is of no concern whatsoever to states aching to scratch the nuclear itch. It’s explained as well as anywhere in a 2009 paper for the Hudson Institute by Christopher Ford titled Nuclear Disarmament, Nonproliferation, and the “Credibility Thesis.”

Personally, I cast my lot with those who call for global zero. But I can’t help suspecting that conservatives and sundry, self-styled realists are correct when they claim that states that seem to aspire to nuclear weapons — Iran, Syria, and Burma, for instance — aren’t impressed with disarmament. It’s as if disarmament were an acquired taste.

Even more oblivious to calls for global zero are most of those states that acquired nuclear weapons without signing nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel. The fourth, though, India, might respond to disarmament leadership on the part of the United States and Russia. As might another which signed the NPT, but, more and more is portrayed as a rival to the United States — China, of course.

But Lavina Lee, author of a foreign policy briefing published by the Cato Institute in February titled Beyond Symbolism? The U.S. Nuclear Disarmament Agenda and Its Implications for Chinese and Indian Nuclear Policy, isn’t so sure.

The Obama administration has elevated nuclear disarmament to the center of its nuclear agenda through the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty [among other things, and] expects that its professed goal of “getting to zero” has symbolic value and will encourage reciprocity in terms of disarmament and nuclear arms control by other nuclear weapons states, as well as cooperation on measures to limit nuclear proliferation. [But in] the case of the two rising powers of Asia — China and India — it is highly questionable whether either of these expectations will be met.

For its part, while

China has already responded favorably to the new START treaty [but it] is likely to be viewed in Beijing as merely a first, tentative step toward global zero. . . . In China’s view, the United States and Russia, as “the two countries possessing the largest nuclear arsenals, bear special and primary responsibility for nuclear disarmament” [Ambassador Li Baodong speaking] and should “further drastically reduce their nuclear arsenals.”

Specifically, writes Ms. Lee

Given that the United States currently has 5,113 warheads in its nuclear stockpile . . . and China’s nuclear capabilities are estimated at around 240 . . . it is unlikely that the Chinese will believe that the New START treaty has created anywhere near the “necessary conditions” to enable China to begin force reductions of its own.

Worse, from China’s point of view (ostensibly anyway)

. . . given President Obama’s own admission that global zero is unlikely to be achieved in his lifetime, the Chinese have cause to question whether the United States and Russia will voluntarily relinquish their nuclear superiority any time soon. Under these circumstances, the United States will be waiting a long time for any Chinese reciprocity on nuclear force reductions.

Along with the token cuts in New START and U.S. adherence to missile defense, neither is the $85 billion that President Obama has committed to the nuclear weapons industry in the United States over the next decade likely lost on China. For India’s part, since it doesn’t loom as a supposed threat to the United States, it

. . . has little reason to view the continuing strategic nuclear superiority of the United States and Russia as a security threat. However, in keeping with its moral and political stance against nuclear weapons [say what? — RW]. . . . Prime Minister Singh, while welcoming the New START agreement also called on “all states with substantial nuclear arsenals to further accelerate this process by making deeper cuts that will lead to meaningful disarmament.”

But professing to support disarmament and putting the onus on the U.S. and Russia to show leadership is somewhat disingenuous on the part of India when what really determines its willingness to disarm lay elsewhere. Ms. Lee explains.

The greatest influence over when India will begin nuclear force reductions remains . . . its nuclear armed regional competitors, China and Pakistan. . . . Any commitments India is likely to make on nuclear force reductions will be linked to both of these states doing the same.

Besides, Ms. Lee writes [emphasis added]:

The bottom line is that the short-term national security interests of both China and India are likely to have greater influence over the level of [disarmament] reciprocity that will be forthcoming [from them], given that global zero is still aspirational and the United States continues to maintain a high level of nuclear superiority.

Which means

. . . there are real opportunity costs associated with elevating disarmament to the center of U.S. nuclear diplomacy. Of concern here is the risk that that the United States will offer much with respect to nuclear disarmament and get little in return. In particular, placing emphasis on disarmament could inadvertently provide both states, especially China, with a reason to condition progress toward nuclear proliferation goals on even greater force reductions by the United States. . . . Linking disarmament to nonproliferation may have had symbolic value but may ironically have the effect of reducing U.S. leverage in achieving nonproliferation goals that are more immediately pressing and achievable. Because the United States has more to lose in getting to zero — if that goal is achievable at all — than either China or India, it would not be wise for America to dissipate its advantages without gaining significant concessions in return.

Even though I routinely read this kind of material for fun (alas, no profit), I found it necessary to read that paragraph over and over to worry some sense from it. With regards to the italicized sentence, why does the United States finds itself in a position to “offer much”? Because it has many more nuclear weapons to divest itself of than China. Thus, Ms. Lee advises the United States not “to dissipate its advantages” in weapons numbers “without gaining significant concessions in return.” Those would include requiring China to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and join in creating a treaty on fissile material treaty before the United States agrees to give up a certain number of weapons.

The problem with maintaining that since China doesn’t have the same approximate number of weapons to count down as the United States and Russia does, it must substitute agreeing to Western treaties is immediately apparent. In effect, it punishes China for its “failure” to have built as large a nuclear arsenal as those of the United States and Russia and for not having as many weapons to dicker down.

How shortsighted of China to have limited its arsenal when it should have foreseen the day when it would be required to reciprocally roll back its weapons with the United States and Russia! In effect, no matter how worthy a goal treaty ratification may be, handicapping a state for its head start in the disarmament race (if you can call a course that will likely require generations to negotiate a race) is no way to promote either disarmament or nonproliferation.

In the end, Ms. Lee’s advice to extract concessions from China before we agree to disarm is yet another attempt by right and other realists to put the nonproliferation cart before the disarmament horse when traditionally disarmament was expected to lead the way.

Will Italy Help Keep U.S. and NATO Airstrikes on Libya From Becoming Another Afghanistan?

In an op-ed at Foreign Policy in Focus on U.S. and NATO airstrikes on Libya titled Attack on Libya May Unleash a Long War, Phyllis Bennis writes:

President Barack Obama says the U.S. will transfer command authority very soon, that military action should be over in “days, not weeks,” and that he wants no boots on the ground. But the parallels with other U.S. wars in the Middle East don’t bode well. The Pentagon may indeed transfer its command to some other military leadership. But what happens when London and Paris decide they don’t have sufficient weaponry, or can’t afford it any longer–what will President Obama do then? And what about that “no U.S. troops on the ground” line? . . . What if a stalemate leaves Libya divided, with military attacks continuing? . . . And what if these attacks lead to an escalating, rather than diminishing, civil war? . . . The UN itself acknowledged that this could be the beginning of a very long war. The resolution asks the secretary-general to report on military developments in Libya “within seven days and every month thereafter.” So much for “days, not weeks.”

When it comes to charges that President Obama may be embroiling us in another war without end, a chance exists that another country might come to the rescue and not only spare Libya some bloodshed, but save the president’s political skin in the process. At the Guardian, Julian Borgen and Richard Norton-Taylor report:

Efforts appear to be under way to offer Muammar Gaddafi a way of escape from Libya, with Italy saying it was trying to organise an African haven for him, and the US signalling it would not try to stop the dictator from fleeing. . . . Italy offered to broker a ceasefire deal in Libya, involving asylum for Gaddafi in an African country. . . . A senior American official signalled that a solution in which Gaddafi flees to a country beyond the reach of the international criminal court (ICC), which is investigating war crimes charges against him.

Still, with the United States, there’s always the chance it will turn the state in which it’s intervening into . . . “A Squalid Protectorate,” as Tariq Ali also writes in the Guardian (useful paper, eh wot?).

The frontiers of the squalid protectorate that the west is going to create are being decided in Washington. . . . The US state department is busy preparing a new government composed of English-speaking Libyan collaborators.

While references might have made the second sentence more credible, anyone who puts that past Washington has been asleep during our Iraqi and Afghan expeditionary adventures.

Regime Change in Libya Could Undermine U.S. Diplomatic Leverage

Tomahawk Launched at Libya(Pictured: Tomahawk missile launched at Gaddafi’s forces.)

“Broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake,” said President Obama on Monday, addressing the National Defense University in Washington, DC. Instead of a policy of regime change, the United State will stick to “the task that I assigned our forces – to protect the Libyan people from immediate danger.”

That is all well and good, except that the immediate danger is the rule of Muammar Gaddafi (“Gaddafi has not yet stepped down from power, and until he does, Libya will remain dangerous”) and the means by which we are we protecting the Libyan people are military attacks against Gaddafi’s forces (“We struck regime forces approaching Benghazi to save that city and the people within it. We hit Gaddafi’s troops in neighboring Ajdabiya, allowing the opposition to drive them out. We hit Gaddafi’s air defenses, which paved the way for a no-fly zone. We targeted tanks and military assets that had been choking off towns and cities, and we cut off much of their source of supply”).

So, what we’re not doing is regime change. What we are doing is making war on Qaddafi’s forces until he has been deposed from power. I leave it to the good judgment of the reader whether these are distinct concepts.

There’s nothing new in presidents lying about military missions to make them more palatable to the voting public, so Obama’s characterization of the Libyan action is not of paramount importance or even interest. But the fact of regime change really is, and it carries damaging implications for American diplomatic prospects in Iran and other countries going forward.

The problem is this: if Gaddafi can relinquish his weapons program and stop supporting international terrorism and still be targeted for regime change, no other country has any incentive to do either of those things. The mission in Libya is a rod that the State Department has crafted for its own back.

“The oldest test in diplomacy is simply this,” Christopher Hitchens puts it, “Who are your friends? Who are your enemies? Do they know that they are? And is it more dangerous to be your friend than your enemy or is it more dangerous to be your enemy than your friend? Are your enemies apprehensive? Are your friends rewarded?”

Well, no one crowed more loudly than Hitchens himself when, apparently out of Iraq-inspired fear of US invasion, Gaddafi surrendered his illegal weapons. And the negotiators who spearheaded the effort to extract contrition from Gaddafi over Lockerbie were furnished with no small amount of hagiography. And yet, neither of these efforts disqualified Gaddafi as a recipient of violent deposition.

Hitchens, in accusing Ahmadinejad’s Iran of “staking what looks like its entire credibility on negating the concept of non-proliferation,” notes that Iran’s weapons program “must mean a lot to them because they could certainly get a great deal of aid, acceptance, trade, prosperity, stability, if they would give up the idea of their own nuclear device.”

He makes a similar point on Iran’s proxy party in Gaza, Hamas, which retains as part of its manifesto the discredited piece of fascist propaganda, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Hitchens recommends we demand that Hamas abandon this: “You can say, ‘Will you do that or won’t you? Because if you won’t, it must mean a lot to you, given what you could get by repudiating it.’”

Well, in order for these overtures to carry any weight at all, the U.S. has to ensure that rogue and unsavory parties willing to change course really do stand to gain. The bombs falling on Libya today argue to the contrary.

Samantha Power and Paul Wolfowitz and their ilk will tell us that Libya’s about-face on weapons and terrorism were good for what they were and produced a certain ease of tensions with the US, but Gaddafi’s brutality against the Libyan revolutionaries demanded a response like the inspiringly-named Operation Odyssey Dawn. (Wait: did I just lump liberal interventionists in with neocons? Yes.)

But it is not as though Gaddafi engineered a violent crackdown on peaceful protestors (which is happening in U.S.-backed Bahrain and Yemen, not apparently to Ms. Powers and Mr. Wolfowitz’s consternation); the protestors in Libya were tribal rebels, amassing guns to go and kill Gaddafi and his cohorts. As splendid as it would have been if they’d succeeded (the more painful, the more splendid), there is no meaningful charge that Gaddafi’s response to the looming revolution should have been non-violent, and no reasonable person could have expected as much.

These optics are bad for the US. It looks as though America has had it in for Gaddafi all along, and no action of his could have had any effect. Even if the optics are deceptive, it’s perception that matters when our diplomats sit down opposite hostile powers elsewhere in the world, not least in Tehran.

Or does Obama think we’ve exhausted diplomacy with Iran?

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.

US Handing Off Libya From Ourselves to — Ourselves

Those watching President Obama’s speech last night may have been puzzled by his references to transitioning to NATO, as if the United States were bowing out of conducting Libyan airstrikes.

In an Associated Press fact-check of the speech, Calvin Woodward explains (emphasis added).

In transferring command and control to NATO, the U.S. is turning the reins over to an organization dominated by the U.S., both militarily and politically. In essence, the U.S. runs the show that is taking over running the show. . . .

As by far the pre-eminent player in NATO . . . the United States will not be taking a back seat in the campaign even as its profile diminishes for public consumption [and] the same “unique capabilities” that made the U.S. the inevitable leader out of the gate will continue to be in demand. They include a range of attack aircraft, refueling tankers that can keep aircraft airborne for lengthy periods, surveillance aircraft that can detect when Libyans even try to get a plane airborne, and, as Obama said, planes loaded with electronic gear that can gather intelligence or jam enemy communications and radars.

The United States supplies 22 percent of NATO’s budget [and] the supreme allied commander Europe [is] a post always held by an American.

As for any grand speech on the part of the United States revealed in the speech, Daniel Nexon writes at Duck of Minerva via the Progressive Realist:

I might be wrong, but I don’t consider the “Humanitarian-intervention-against-militarily-weak-fossil-fuel-producing-countries-in-strategically-important-regions-that-are-also-located-near-many-large-NATO-military-bases-and-are-run-by-dictators-who-kind-of-piss-us-off-and-have-no-powerful-allies Doctrine” the stuff of Grand Strategy. But if you read between the lines, that’s pretty much the gist of what Obama had to say tonight.

Juan Cole Challenges the Left “to Chew Gum and Walk at the Same Time”

Last night MSNBC’s The Last Word solicited the opinion of Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) on President Obama’s speech. After the congressman expressed his opposition to the airstrike’s preemptive nature, he voiced what is perhaps progressives’ main objection to U.S. leadership in the Libyan airstrikes — its lack of a Congressional authorization.

Another guest, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), replied (not his exact words), “True, we should have been debating that instead of de-funding NPR.” But he agreed with the actions and plan that the president outlined in his speech. For the record, either host Lawrence O’Donnell or guest Rachel Maddow made the point that, because the Senate had been consulted, opposition was found mainly in the House.

Meanwhile, Juan Cole’s post on Libya March 27 titled An Open Letter to the Left on Libya, in which he writes that he is “unabashedly cheering the liberation movement on,” has generated much attention and response. Essentially a call to the left to be less doctrinaire in its policy on the use of armed force in causes other than national defense, he makes some points that are difficult to refudiate, I mean refute. Beginning with — congressional authorization aside — its legality:

The intervention in Libya was done in a legal way. It was provoked by a vote of the Arab League, including the newly liberated Egyptian and Tunisian governments. It was urged by a United Nations Security Council resolution, the gold standard for military intervention.

On the reflexive use of force:

The proposition that social problems can never be resolved by military force alone may be true. But there are some problems that can’t be solved unless there is a military intervention first, since its absence would allow the destruction of the progressive forces. . . . If the Left opposed intervention, it de facto acquiesced in Qaddafi’s destruction of a movement embodying the aspirations of most of Libya’s workers and poor, along with large numbers of white collar middle class people.

On selective application of the use of forces:

Many are crying hypocrisy, citing other places an intervention could be staged. [But military] intervention is always selective, depending on a constellation of political will, military ability, international legitimacy and practical constraints. The humanitarian situation in Libya was fairly unique. You had a set of tank brigades willing to attack dissidents [and] aerial intervention by the world community could make a quick and effective difference.

This situation did not obtain in the Sudan’s Darfur, where the terrain and the conflict were such that aerial intervention alone would have have been useless. . . . But a whole US occupation of Iraq could not prevent Sunni-Shiite urban faction-fighting that killed tens of thousands, so even boots on the ground in Darfur’s vast expanse might have failed.

Note: Cole didn’t mention, for example, repression in Bahrain, where U.S. refusal to intercede is due most likely the state’s hosting the U.S. Fifth Fleet. As for whether or not the Libyan airstrikes set a precedent:

The UN Security Council is not a court. . . . and works by political will. Its members are not constrained to do elsewhere what they are doing in Libya unless they so please. . . . But if a precedent is indeed being set that if you rule a country and send tank brigades to murder large numbers of civilian dissidents, you will see your armor bombed to smithereens, I can’t see what is wrong with that.

On al Qaeda fighters joining the opposition:

If there were an uprising against Silvio Berlusconi in Milan, it would likely unite businessmen and factory workers, Catholics and secularists. It would just be the people of Milan. A few old time members of the Red Brigades might even come out, and perhaps some organized crime figures. But to defame all Milan with them would be mere propaganda.


The arguments against international intervention are not trivial, but they all did have the implication that it was all right with the world community if Qaddafi deployed tanks against innocent civilian crowds just exercising their right to peaceful assembly and to petition their government.

As a progressive struggling with the aerial strikes, you can be forgiven if Cole’s points give you pause. Returning to Congressional authorization, Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy responded [emphasis added].

In this particular case, the decision of the Obama Administration to engage the country in a new Middle East war without Congressional authorization represents a long-term threat to the U.S. peace movement . . . and Congress is a key arena in which the peace movement tries to assert influence over U.S. policy.

Of course, it’s important to think long-term about the implications of acts of war without congressional authorization. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem fair to withhold assistance to Libyans to keep from setting an American legal precedent, no matter how important. Focal Points readers are urged to respond to Juan Cole’s points in the comments section.

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