Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Bits and Pieces - Wikileaks Edition

A number of countries, not just Pakistan, have been balky about allowing enriched uranium fuel to be removed from the research reactors, usually located at universities, that were distributed by the United States and Soviet Union a few decades back. And, illustrating our points about not taking the cables at face value, one apparently got something wrong: you can't produce enriched uranium in a reactor.

Nice to have a break from the usual foreign-policy nonsense.

Stephen Walt asks a question similar to one I've been wondering about:
how much would world politics change if all these conversations were held in public so that people could see and hear what was being said?
My question is how would the situation with Iran have played out if all the material so far made public had been made public as it became available? I might work on that if I have time (highly doubtful). I suspect that in the case of Iran, war would have been somewhat more likely, but I'm not at all convinced of that.

China and North Korean reunification.

Added later: Cautions from Steven Hadley and Zbigniew Brzezinski on reading the cables.

Bits and Pieces - Ratify New Start Edition

Pat Buchanan says to do it. (I'm not sure this is helpful, but I'm not a Republican.)

Medvedev says that no agreement on mutual work on missile defense could lead to another nuclear arms race. Pre-emptive clarification: He agreed to work with NATO on missile defense. This has nothing to do with the New Start Treaty, although I'm sure that some Republican senator can come up with why this means they should vote against ratification.

USA Today comes out in favor of ratification. (h/t Frank Munger)

Michael Krepon illuminates one of the less-discussed downsides of ratification failure.

The Wall Street Journal apparently illuminates one of the Republican anti-treaty memes. The problem seems to be that in this article, "missiles not bearing nuclear warheads" should be substituted for "tactical nuclear weapons." I'm not totally clear on this; the discussion is developing on Twitter as I write. I'll update when I can. The bottom line seems to be that the Russians never moved any nuclear weapons, so the Republican meme is false. Update: Pavel Podvig writes up what he's been tweeting. Bottom line:
So, what happened in the spring of 2010? My best guess is that some missiles were redeployed from one location to another, probably as part of the process of reorganization of the military. I'm fairly confident that no nuclear warheads were moved in the process. I believe we can also be certain that whatever happened was not related to the U.S. missile defense moves in any way. And, of course, one thing we know with absolute certainty - someone desperately wants the New START treaty to fail.
And I'll add that that last someone is the WSJ.

Bonus: Republican economics. Criticized by a Republican.

Ezra Klein has a nice piece about how Mitch McConnell and the Republicans probably don't think "Let's see: how can I screw my country" when they wake up in the morning. I think he's got a lot right, but I'm wondering how they can keep up the self-deception when so many of us are writing about it.

Keith Olbermann summarizes the state of play in the video below. Just after the five minute mark, Lawrence Korb suggests that Jon Kyl is trying to become the replacement for Richard Lugar. Ugh is the mildest thing I can think of in response.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Added later: Republican Senator George Voinovich (Ohio) is leaning toward ratification.

A Small Note On My Posts

At least twice lately, commenters or others have said something like "But you're not saying" something that already has appeared. That tends to be correct in the strict sense that I haven't said it. The fact of their saying it, however, is a challenge that I've got something wrong. Or left out.

The second is almost always true. A blog post, at least as I write one, does not allow for a full setting-out of the basics. When I provide links, I assume that the information in them becomes part of my presentation, and I don't repeat them, except for the most relevant, pithy, or beautiful parts. Leaving something out does not mean I disagree with it or am ignorant of it.

One of the things that I think blogs are particularly good for is raising questions. Questions usually do not into the categories of right or wrong. They may point in one direction or another, and the directions mine imply tend to be deliberate because I think those directions have not surfaced in the accounts I've seen. They also do not imply firm stands for or against other assertions or questions unless they directly address those assertions or questions.

Further, most arguments contain more than two possibilities. I recognize that eight years of George Bush with a chorus of evangelical religion playing loudly in the background and still not turned down has convinced many of us, even those who should know better, that if you're not for something, you must be against it. Or someone or something is either an existential threat to mankind or totally harmless. Or anything bigger than a firecracker is a WMD. That last is starting to get into the fear category that I'm fed up with. We can't live full lives in a democratic society if we fear everyone else on the street and walking in public. So I've got a campaign going against those excessive fears that too many of us have gotten far too accustomed to.

My arguments tend to lie in that broad band between good and evil, fear and foolishness. Because I question whether the fear is justified does not mean I am arguing in favor of foolishness.

It may be that my writing could be clearer, and I'll keep that in mind. But these are blog posts, and I don't intend to put this disclaimer on every one of them.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Wikileaks? Oh Yeah...

I see no reason to change anything I said last week about the much-anticipated and now eked out Wikileaks. Apparently only about 250 of the documents are out so far. With 250,000 on disc, it will take a long time at that rate. Which brings to mind some questions: who decided which ones to release and on what basis? I think I've read that Julian Assange was the decider.

There are some general considerations for interpreting raw data like this. First, is it accurate? Or is it mistaken, misinformation, or disinformation? Did the sender know or was he/she deceived? Or did the sender have a personal agenda?

Overall, I'm impressed by how unsurprising the revelations are. That means that we've been getting pretty much the straight scoop from our government, and the news media hasn't managed to mess it up too badly. I'm in good company here: Timothy Garton Ash and Steven Walt think so too, and I've seen a number of tweets and links along those lines.

Another piece of context is that relatively few of the communications are classified. I've seen some numbers That's remarkable in view of the opinion some of us hold: that far too much is classified. But Steven Aftergood makes the point that some essential facts are being declassified, in particular on nuclear weapons. So, although their construction specs should probably be classified in perpetuo, the information surrounding them may be becoming more transparent than other information within government. But, again, the Wikileaks information seems to be consistent with what we've been told, so it's not at all clear that there's a problem.

It seems to me that the most important message so far is that President Obama has been under a lot of pressure to attack Iran, but keeping that information out of the public eye has probably been a factor in preventing exactly that opening of yet another war.

I don't plan to work through the documents in detail unless a new revelation indicates that one of my hobbyhorses might be in the box. But I'll provide some links to people who are saying smart things or digging interesting stuff out.

Steve Hynd provides links to some of the bigger stories and stuff in general.

Richard Silverstein and Juan Cole look at the material on Israel.

Marc Lynch says he's going to be looking at the effects of the revelations on Arab governments and publics.

Pavel Podvig on joint threat assessments by the US and Russia.

I want to see the documents having to do with Estonia too.

There have been a number of op-eds lately pining for the old days when all we had was print on paper and kids kept off the lawn. Here's the latest I picked up. But it started before Mark Zuckerberg, with fax machines (ask the Chinese and the old Soviet army officers who are yelling at kids to get off their lawns) and then the internet itself. Yes, communications technologies are changing awfully quickly, and the ability of one 22-year-old Pfc to pull a quarter million diplomatic cables is part of that. Yes, we need to think all that out. But privacy and secrecy will never again be quite what they were. There's no going back. Let me get that ball for you, kid.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Chùm Ruột (Otaheite Gooseberries)

Pre-Cancun Climate Framing

In the lead-up to UNFCCC COP 16, the UN climate conference opening tomorrow in Cancun, the UN Environmental Programme publicly released its emissions gap report last week (.pdf, but not too big - here's the shorter press release, also a .pdf). The report is titled, "Are the Copenhagen Accord pledges sufficient to limit global warming to 2 or 1.5⁰C?" And the answer is, despite delegates' common desire to build upon the admittedly feeble momentum out of Copenhagen (COP 15) last year, of course not, silly.

Cheryl earlier linked to that widely-cited recent paper by psychologists Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg at UC-Berkeley that concludes what we've known for some time: fear-mongering public rhetoric only works when one wishes to invade foreign countries, not when it comes to convincing people about the importance of acting on climate change (I'm taking liberties here... the report is about climate change, not military invasions).

A minor industry in tsk-tsking anti-climate-fear-mongering warnings seems to have resulted, adding on to the more media-pervasive, misleading, and often fact-altering Lomborgian view that, there there, we're all just going to be alright (see one response here). Technological innovation, human ingenuity, rah rah. If environmentalists would just focus on happy thoughts and proposals for real improvements, some conclude, we might make real headway on climate change stabilization. What's needed is “a dash of more hope, all without losing the sense of urgency.” Well, put the latter way, it's hard to disagree.

As Isaac Smith notes in response, however,
Here’s the thing: Environmentalists already did this. It was called “green jobs,” which, although often oversold, was a bona fide attempt to frame the problem of climate change as an opportunity to put people back to work, revive American manufacturing, reduce inner-city poverty, &c. It was the complete opposite of doom-and-gloom, and yet it ultimately proved to be useless in the face of relentless opposition from Republicans and Democrats from coal- and oil-producing regions. Moreover, green jobs figured heavily, if only rhetorically, in the Recovery Act, and the failure of that plan to bring down unemployment (as opposed to halting its rise) may well have tarred the green jobs strategy as well.
Maybe I'm out of the loop of the scary people, but at least in my decade or so of working on environmental issues, teaching active grad students, and as a delegate at UNFCCC COP15 last year in Copenhagen, I haven't actually witnessed much climate change scare-mongering. The struggle for climate scientists, most environmentalists, and policy analysts is to help the public have a much clearer understanding of the high and low probability risks of certain climate change effects and of possible solutions.

The more detailed conclusions of the Berkeley research are crucial, however. All the more so because they suggest something much different than the media's understanding and much closer to Isaac's point above.

Basically, the research finds that,
...dire messages about the threat of global warming will strengthen people’s acceptance of climate science when combined with solutions, which is the approach taken by leading climate activists.
Polar bears actually are severely threatened (and countless other species, some of which may turn out to be quite resilient and others not at all), the likelihood of increasingly extreme weather events actually does have a very high degree of probability, sea levels are already rising due to warming, glaciers all over the planet are melting as is Greenland's ice sheet as is sea ice, acidification of oceans due to GHG emissions is a serious problem, human migrations already occur in response to changing climatic and environmental conditions, etc. The risks vary depending on a host of factors that go into the notion of vulnerability. There is also intrinsically some degree of uncertainty (it's science!) about the characteristics of future events (it's the future!), but the risks are very real. We should be worried.

But there are also real, concrete, and feasible responses on the table. They've been there all along and are constantly improved and added to through genuine human ingenuity. Sometimes market forces are helpful; sometimes not. Browse, for example, Bellona's impressive document, "101 Solutions to Climate Change."

Old-timey economic platitudes about technological innovation spurred by rising prices on resource commodities or other reactions to what economists call "scarcity" (high cost/price), and blind faith in human ingenuity are near-religious assumptions about which we should be very concerned. My point is hardly that innovation and ingenuity are not possible. Precisely the opposite! The problem is the concomitant economic assumption that if broad technological innovation hasn't fully catalyzed quite yet, then "scarcity" is not yet an issue, costs having reached that margin at which it is more efficient to seek substitutes, then everything is A-okay. Providing the public good that is climate stabilization will have to wait. Too inefficient right now; thus, environmentalists want to make you jobless and broke, while climate scientists enrich themselves through NSF grant funding!

We're now dealing with a temporal dimension of ecological change that out-paces responsive and effective technological innovation. This is of the very nature of the problem of climate change. Some environmental problems are more easily captured temporally by human economy and technological change: for example, toxic industrial waste for which we have perhaps slowly but eventually developed containment systems or completely changed the processes that produced the waste. Climate change, however, is simply out-pacing our ability to understand it fully and to respond effectively. It is a complex system that could come to be characterized by its emergent phenomena, systemic features completely unpredictable from examination of the system's components.

[Human consciousness, for example, is an emergent property of the brain or perhaps brain-action-environment-brain transaction - you can't predict the rich essence or even existence of consciousness solely by observing electro-chemical processes in the brain. Why isn't consciousness simply experience of electro-chemical synaptic transmissions?].

The risks of climate change include the risk that we're simply too far behind to develop effective technical responses. This is not because of environmentalists, who have been urging new research, building new technologies, trying to find new approaches to policy-making, and continue to try to communicate real science all while up against a major media machine that sometimes willfully and sometimes out of ignorance confuses the scientific evidence and actual policy options.

The risk that we're falling behind too quickly in responding to climate change is basically generated by having this same damn discussion over and over again. And it is in the interests of a certain special class of people to prolong preliminary discussions by sowing confusion rather than engaging in serious discussions about remaining scientific uncertainties regarding the nature of climate change effects and policy options. As long as people are led to believe the non sequitur that any uncertainty entails universal and absolute uncertainty, they will have few incentives to change their preferences and behavior, even though it is in their own interests and those of their families, communities, and countries to do so. As long as public confusion about evidence, current observations, risk, and probability regarding the future persists, people will stand pat.

This is how the status quo always wins its battles.

Quote of the Day

Maxine Udall, Girl Economist:
Now combine carefully fostered distrust of the government, the only thing that might reasonably be expected to stand between us and the private interests of concentrated, unfettered wealth and power, with the myth of an all-wise, all-knowing, beneficent invisible hand embedded in a Utopian free market. Then propagate the myth by a discipline that trains its young: to assume rather uncritically fully-informed, unchanging over time, prudent, industrious, self-interested preferences and behavior; to downplay the "friction" of transaction costs and information asymmetries; to assume that many externalities are or soon will be internalized; that labor and goods markets clear rapidly; that capital is more putty than clay; and until recently that financial markets were both rational and efficient.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Nuclear Standoff With Libya - Updated 11/29/10

This is quite a story. And it's recent. There are so many aspects to this; let me expand on a few.

Page van der Linden (@plutoniumpage) and I (@cherylrofer) have been tweeting a conversation about how it illustrates the importance of continuing good relations between the United States and Russia. The two countries worked well together on getting the enriched uranium out of Libya. Those continued good relations are part of why it's important to ratify New Start ASAP. (h/t to Page for finding it first.)

It's about respect.
Saif, according to the State Department cables reviewed by The Atlantic, told U.S. representatives that he could "fix" the nuclear crisis--if the U.S. met his demands. His list included military equipment, assistance in building a nuclear medical facility, relaxation of trade embargoes against Libya, and a sum of money that he implied would be in the tens of millions of dollars. But Saif made clear that what he sought most was respect. He suggested that the United States and Libya end their decades of enmity with a grand gesture of détente, even recommending that the senior Qaddafi and President Obama hold a joint summit. The incongruity of demanding friendship from the U.S. while simultaneously blackmailing it with the risk of loose nuclear materials does not appear to have bothered Saif. He concluded with a bit of American vernacular, telling the ambassador, "The ball is in your court." [emphasis mine]
Something to keep in mind with North Korea and Iran.

In media commentary and reports, statements from (mostly) Republican senators, and conversations, I keep hearing an isolationist viewpoint: we and the Russians aren't about to throw nukes at each other, so who cares about a dumb old treaty. Just a piece of paper.

Well, no. It's part of a process that began back in the 1970s, a relationship between the two nations. And now that the nuke numbers are getting below ten thousand each, other nations are paying more attention in terms of their own behavior. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and activities like the one described with Libya, have also brought that process closer to all the countries of the world. And then we could cite the famous "Trust but verify."

Finally, it occurred to me how much of this building interaction is invisible to the public. It's very real to me, because I've been involved in it in a small way, and I know quite a few other people who have. But it hardly ever shows up in the press. Frank Munger wrote a bit about the STCU the other day and about the transfer of enriched-uranium reactor fuel in Kazakhstan a few days before that. But there aren't many other reporters covering these stories.

Most of the work is fairly technical. Some of it was marked by infighting among and within government departments. And I suspect that some of it, maybe even a lot of the more interesting stuff, is classified. I give the Obama administration a lot of credit for leaking this, even it it turns out to be part of the advertised Wikileaks release. It's the kind of thing that more people should know.

We Americans have a very secure situation, even more secure since the demise of the Soviet Union, which is receding from people's thinking after almost twenty years. But our security is not the rule across the world. There's a web of relationships that treaties like New Start are part of. George Bush did his little bit to tear that web. We've got to mend it and go forward if we want to continue that security and hand it on to our children.

Update (11/29/10): Martin Hellman, Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, tells me he's tried to comment on this post without success. Here's his comment:

Thank you for pointing out the importance of symbolic measures, especially treating adversaries with some respect. That's important for reducing the adversarial nature of the relationship, and thereby getting more of what we want from the adversary. Sig Hecker has made exactly that point wrt North Korea, as noted in my recent blog post Another Face of North Korea.

As opposed to the pie-in-the-sky wish that the North would accept unilateral nuclear disarmament, I list "the three NO's" Sig thinks we can achieve: No nuclear exports, no more bombs, and no more tests. I then note: "Based on his visits to North Korea, Prof. Hecker thought that these goals were achievable if the United States will re-engage the North, temporarily put aside demands that it unilaterally disarm, and treat Pyongyang with some respect."

Martin Hellman

So This Guy Comes Up And Says "I Know Where You Can Get a Bomb"

Forgive me for being technical; this seems to be a point that escapes many reporters and perhaps government officials and lawmen. But

A threat consists of intent plus capability.

I've bolded that, because it seems to get lost in so many stories and, perhaps, in the sting operations we keep hearing about.
"The threat was very real," said Arthur Balizan, special agent in charge of the FBI in Oregon. "Our investigation shows that Mohamud was absolutely committed to carrying out an attack on a very grand scale."
Now there are a great many young men sitting in their parents' basements, eating cheetos and destroying various individuals and segments of the universe. They are not arrested by the FBI for their intentions of destroying the universe. And yes, I know that some are saving the universe, but they are the good guys, so we'll ignore them for now.

It can be argued that those young men in their parents' basements recognize that it's not the real universe they're destroying, just bits displayed on a screen. But I'll bet that some would really, truly, like to destroy the real universe. That's adolescence at the extremes. So they are as real a threat as poor Mohamed Osman Mohamud, according to our FBI agent. All we have to do is find them.

The news reports are never complete, and undoubtedly the FBI is withholding some details for use at the trial. But it sounds like Mohamud was working alone, except for his buddies who turned out to be FBI agents. How did he meet them? Were they hanging out, offering bombs for sale? Did he seek them out in some way? Did he or they advertise on Craig's List?

It may be that Mohamud had his mind made up to cause real destruction, or it could be that his FBI buddies urged him on. It could be that he would have procured a bomb by himself. In any case, all that he had until he met the FBI was intent. See bolded definition above. Intent alone is not a threat.

Clearly Mohamud didn't know enough about bombs to recognize the duds that the FBI was offering him. So he may or may not have been able to learn enough to make a bomb. Recent bomb-makers haven't been all that adept; fusing PETN seems to be the big hangup these days. Is intent plus half-capability a threat?

We've seen stings operating to buy fissionable materials and the results labeled "threat." But, once again, the sting itself is likely to provide part of the intent, and the capability is highly questionable.

A threat consists of intent plus capability.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Wikileaks and Diplomacy

In a general way, there is nothing in the to-be-released Wikileaks diplomatic correspondence that will surprise anyone. All countries say things in their confidential diplomatic correspondence that they don't say in public. The advance notices have allowed the United States to confer with the countries that may be annoyed by this. Some may feel they can score some political points, but the advance notice helps to limit that score.

The documents will contain expressions of no confidence in Hamid Karzai, possibly also David Cameron, Dmitry Medvedev, and others. There will be bad language. There will be some juicy bits that will make it into the MSM. The blogs will add one or two more.

It is harmful to diplomatic candor that the material has gotten out. But it appears that the leak was via one person who is now in custody. It will, very likely, happen again, but nobody knows where or when it will happen, so they will, after a short period of caution, proceed as they have in the past. Interactions between nations will require that.

One of the mistakes that Wikileaks makes, I think, is to release far too much material at once. Does anyone believe that anyone has gone through their previous two releases in detail? On the other hand, Wikileaks' credibility would be damaged if they picked out only the good parts.

Bits and Pieces - November 26, 2010

Can helicopter parents let their children soar?

Unsustainable US policies. Time to get serious, Republicans!

A couple of peace plans for Israelis and Palestinians. From Yitzak Rabin's son and from J Street.

Some thoughts on North Korea's latest moves from a journalist who covers China and a professor in Seoul.

Oh, Peter Baker, you've got to be kidding when you describe Jon Kyl this way:
frustrated would-be scientist who has made himself into a nuclear expert
A nuclear expert who didn't even know that we haven't had inspectors in Russia since last December? Please. (h/t to @jfleck)

Roger Cohen breaks with the MSM common wisdom that the see-thru-clothing machines and jailhouse frisking are good for American air travelers. Here's some detailed analysis of the machines, the first I've seen with numbers.

Meanwhile, here's someone with some real explosives in his house.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Have a Puritan Capitalist Revolution Day

The history of Thanksgiving, like every holiday I know of, is mythologized. The brown and orange construction paper image is of a 1621 Plymouth harvest festival during which very different people came together peacefully, feasted, and thanked God for having survived a rough year (h/t native Americans). Pilgrim-Indian love. The tradition has much older roots than the American Plymouth event. That Pilgrim-based version also has a much darker reality. You don't have to scratch very deeply to find that most holidays, most mythical events or creation myths in a country's history, are rooted in simmering or actual violence.

But I hadn't heard the version celebrating Thanksgiving as capitalism's victory over socialism.

From a NY Times Week in Review article, I have learned that Tea-Partiers (some? all? who knows?) apparently think Thanksgiving to be a triumph of capitalism over the Pilgrims' European socialism. The huggy day of warmth and thanks, celebrated with family and friends, is based on liberal mythology that suggests white people needed brown-red people to stay alive, then thanked them for it.
...[W]hy take a holiday from argument? In these fractious times, even the meaning of Thanksgiving is subject to political debate.

Forget what you learned about the first Thanksgiving being a celebration of a bountiful harvest, or an expression of gratitude to the Indians who helped the Pilgrims through those harsh first months in an unfamiliar land. In the Tea Party view of the holiday, the first settlers were actually early socialists. They realized the error of their collectivist ways and embraced capitalism, producing a bumper year, upon which they decided that it was only right to celebrate the glory of the free market and private property...
In one common telling, the pilgrims who came to Plymouth established a communal system, where all had to pool whatever they hunted or grew on their lands. Because they could not reap the fruits of their labors, no one had any incentive to work, and the system failed — confusion, thievery and famine ensued.

Finally, the governor of the colony, William Bradford, abolished this system and gave each household a parcel of land. With private property to call their own, the Pilgrims were suddenly very industrious and found themselves with more corn than they knew what to do with. So they invited the Indians over to celebrate. (In some other versions, the first Thanksgiving is not a feast but a brief respite from famine. But the moral is always the same: socialism doesn’t work.) The same commune-to-capitalism, famine-to-feast story is told of Jamestown, the first English settlement, in 1607. Dick Armey, the former House majority leader and Texas congressman who has become a Tea Party promoter, related it as a cautionary tale in a speech to the National Press Club earlier this year.
First, the NY Times writer is incorrect. There is no political debate. Socialism didn't exist until nearly 200 years after the Pilgrims. Generally-speaking, from regular Joes to history scholars, no one debates whether history moves backwards.

Oh, alright, let's be generous and assume that, by "socialism," is meant something as sweepingly general and ahistorical as "socialism-like mode of socio-politico-economic organization." Maybe somewhere on the internets someone claims that socialism runs as far back as ancient Greece where, of course, socialists were also the homosexual. Toss in a reference to Plato's Republic to make the claim sound authoritative (thanks for the reference, Glenn Beck!). The ideal city created in The Republic, however, is actually a strict, class society placed in contrast to the communism-like mode of socio-politico-economic organization Socrates outlines briefly in Book II as the truly just society, what young Glaucon refers to dismissively as a "city of pigs."

An assertion within a closed system of self-confirming assertions does not a debate make. History and historical accounts, including well-researched and rigorous historical scholarship, are value-laden and interpretative, an overlapping of the contemporary mind on the past. This is vital to the unfolding of history itself, not to mention the intellectual honesty and modesty of good historical scholarship, which as a modern discipline constantly grapples at least implicitly with questions of objectivity, memory, and selective forgetting (and, then, even "objectivity has a history").

Nonetheless,... oh screw it. I don't know why I'm spending time on this. Let me just bail on this post by using an analogous set of nonsensical assertions:

Benjamin Franklin proposed the turkey as America's national bird. The blasphemy! This preposterously liberal Frenchman mocked our noble national bird, the bald eagle. Besides, how could we possibly eat our sacred national bird? Therefore, Benjamin Franklin was a cannibal.

Happy Thanksgiving!!

UPDATE: Steve Benen goes at it too, but then does not wonder why the hell he's bothering (h/t Cheryl).

Monday, November 22, 2010

Bits and Pieces - November 22, 2010

One of those days when everyone remembers where they were, although that seems to be fading.

From the others on the trip to the North Korean centrifuge plant.

Palaeoporn. Figuring out the bizarre Ediacaran fauna.

Rearranging the world's countries according to population. The US stays in place.

For those who have had enough of politics, you may stop here.

Steven Walt makes some nice points about how the security America enjoys makes it easier for the Republicans to act irresponsibly.

"This funding issue is a total red herring." Supporting the political interpretation of Jon Kyl's actions.

And, finally, I hardly ever link Paul Krugman, because I assume that everyone reads his column. But today's column addresses the undercurrent that's been bothering me for a while. If one political party in effect declares political war on the rest of us in hopes of winning the next election, how can the country continue? Another thought I've been having is that such a strategy implies an utter absence of a willingness (or ability?) to develop real programs for governing.

What Does Jon Kyl Want?

It's really hard to say. He's gotten an additional $10 billion for the nuclear weapons complex, then another additional $4.1 billion. There is only so much that any organization, even the nuclear weapons complex can spend usefully.

There are two ways to look at this. One engages rationality, the other politics. The Republicans have committed to wrecking government so that the voters will vote out those who have been in office during the wrecking, primarily Democrats. Collateral damage to the country's economy, military power, or world standing is irrelevant to this intellectually bankrupt strategy. So dodge and weave to prevent passage of a treaty necessary to improving relations with Russia while taking measures to control nuclear weapons. Preventing passage of that treaty will make for a more unsettled international situation and a basis (to the extent that Republican talking points need a basis) for arguing in 2012 that President Obama's policies have made the country worse off. That's the political analysis.

If we assume some rationality and care for the future of the country on Kyl's part, it may be that he truly believes that one aspect of US strength on the world scene is holding more and better nuclear weapons than other countries. It may also be that he feels that the nuclear complex needs to be upgraded in order to maintain this position. Thus the demands for more and more funding. But the second demand, followed by refusal to consider ratifying the New START treaty anyway, raises some questions.

The word modernization has been central to the argument from rationality. Many of the buildings in the nuclear weapons complex date back to the 1950s and 1960s. If we are to continue holding nuclear weapons, which will be the case for any reasonable scenario, those buildings must be updated or replaced. Even in the extreme case of eliminating all nuclear weapons immediately, facilities will be needed for disassembly and dealing with the dangerous materials contained in those weapons. So it is hard to argue with modernization, although questions may be raised about the number and character of the facilities. Kyl's demands have largely focused on dollars, without much detail as to how those dollars will be spent.

There is another meaning that was attached to the word modernization, particularly during the Bush administration. That referred to the nuclear warheads themselves. It comes through quite clearly in an op-ed today, although it has been lurking ambiguously in other phrases that have been used during the negotiations between the administration and the Republicans.
Republican senators led by Jon Kyl of Arizona are holding up the treaty to force the Pentagon to increase spending on the modernization of nuclear weapons and associated delivery systems.

Their demand comes despite the more than $180 billion already committed to modernization over the next decade and assurances from retired military commanders and former secretaries of defense that the treaty wouldn’t undermine America’s nuclear deterrent.

The trouble is that spending more money on nuclear modernization would undercut a key purpose of the treaty, which is to demonstrate to the world that the two countries are reducing their reliance on nuclear weapons — and thus strengthen our leverage against states like Iran and North Korea, which seek to enter the nuclear club. Ratification, in short, creates a platform for partisan grandstanding wholly at odds with the treaty itself. [emphasis mine]
So far, the administration's wording on modernization seems to be aimed at modernization of the nuclear weapons complex. But maybe it is modernization of the weapons themselves that Kyl wants.

The nuclear weapons we have now were built during the Cold War. They are designed to destroy cities in an exchange with the Soviet Union. They are periodically refurbished, with perishable parts replaced. They are usable, but not necessarily suited to today's conflicts, which would require smaller weapons. New, smaller weapons could also be built in such a way as to require less maintenance and to be, as far as such can be said of nuclear weapons, greener in the materials they use. They would also be safer to handle. During the Bush years, the Los Alamos and Livermore weapons design laboratories competed for designing such a weapon, the Reliable Replacement Warhead or RRW.

The plan was dropped when it became clear that the funding would not be forthcoming from Congress because building a new generation of nuclear weapons would provoke a new round of a now-global arms race that would include China and would give new justifications to the Indians and Pakistanis who want to build up their nuclear arsenals.

But I have to wonder whether Kyl's real purpose is to resurrect the RRW. Doing that would undercut the purpose of New START, so it would be consistent with the Republicans' political goals. Of course, he can't say it straight out, because that would give away the game. Or perhaps his latest demurral is one more move in an attempt to get the administration to back an RRW. Then he could blame the administration for losing a treaty with the Russians, too.

Update: A little birdy tells me that a little birdy told him that the Republican leadership told Kyl to kill or delay the treaty. That's consistent with the political theory.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

More Cleaning Up Republican Arms Control Messes

Back in 1994, the Clinton administration was concerned that North Korea was going to go for nuclear weapons. They negotiated the Agreed Framework, which involved fuel oil and civilian reactors for North Korea in return for North Korea's stopping work on the reactors that looked like they were designed for making plutonium for weapons.

Then came the Bushies, who didn't believe in treaties for the Lords of the Earth, which they must have been since they beat the Soviets in the Cold War. So they could just push punks like the North Koreans around. In 2004, they accused the North Koreans of developing a uranium enrichment plant, which, on top of a number of other strains in the relationship, cratered the Agreed Framework. Good. No more agreements with guys that the neocons would prefer to regime change.

So I'm wondering about the timeline on the enrichment plant that the North Koreans just showed Sig Hecker (NYT, LA Times, Sky News, BBC) Sig is quoted as saying the development of the plant was rapid, which suggests it happened after 2004. Last year, there was some indication that this was coming.

The North Koreans have rather regularly reached out to Sig. He was the person most responsible for reaching out to the ex-Soviet weapons scientists when the Soviet Union collapsed, and it's clear that the North Koreans would like him to do the same for them. Unfortunately, it's mixed with a lot of bluster, which is exacerbated by stuff like the Bush/neocon swagger about regime change, accusations, and general boneheadedness. Yes, the North Koreans do a certain amount of swaggering, but responding in kind isn't serious diplomacy.

So did the Bushies' accusation of a uranium-enriching plant encourage the North Koreans to go ahead with one? That would show the world their capabilities. Or, if they're going to be accused of something they don't have, they might as well have it.

All the news accounts I've linked above emphasize the weapons possibilities (fear this!) and how this is going to make negotiations that much harder. I suspect that when they interviewed Sig, he said some things about North Korea's desire to reach out as well as the dangers; he always says such things in his presentations, of which I've seen several.

Another Bushian mess to clean up.

Update: Paragraph added to clarify what the time sequence might be telling us.

Yet another update: Sig's report. h/t to Plutonium Page.

From the report:
A high-level North Korean government official told us
that the October 2000 Joint Communiqué, which brought Secretary Madeleine Albright
to Pyongyang, is a good place to start.
I have heard Sig mention numerous "hints" that the North Koreans have provided. I'm hoping the negotiators have been listening to them too.

More from someone who's been talking to Sig recently.

Welcome to those clicking over from Crooks & Liars. I've written a more recent post on Senate politics over the New Start Treaty here.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Today's Good News

Besides that Russia and NATO are getting along, that is.

It looks like the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy is going to approve a nuclear fuel bank at its next meeting. The idea was put forth by Mohamed ElBaradei when he was the director of the IAEA. Immediately after, George W. Bush put forth his idea for something called the Global Nuclear Energy Program, which, surprise surprise, proposed an international nuclear fuel bank.

Of course, if you're, say, Iran, a nuclear fuel bank run by the United States looks dicey at best. So you're unlikely to sign up. Which was, of course, Bush's purpose, unless it was just part of his thinking that America should run the world. His proposal was a spoiler aimed at the only workable model of an international fuel bank, one run by an international group.

So the Obama administration disassembled that Bushian idea, while keeping some cooperation among the nations that had signed up, paving the way for this action by the IAEA.

Nice to live in a country that plays well with others. One less thing to get fixed now.

It's All Over, Jon Kyl!

Russia is on our side now. Even the Republican side of missile defense. From the NATO summit:
The Nato nations and Russia have today agreed in writing that while we face many security challenges, we pose no threat to each other.
Russia has been cooperating with NATO on Afghanistan and plans to cooperate further on terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, piracy, and counter-narcotics.
Mr Medvedev hailed the "constructive atmosphere" of the talks, adding: "We have ambitious plans, we will work across all directions, including European missile defence and the Russia-Nato council has demonstrated that."
And, if you want to worry that they're not sincere, there's a saying about holding your friends close and your enemies closer...

NATO - Russia Joint Statement

Quotes of the Day

Steve Benen:
We're talking about a major political party, which will control much of Congress next year, possibly undermining the strength of the country -- on purpose, in public, without apology or shame -- for no other reason than to give themselves a campaign advantage in 2012.

Maybe now would be a good time to pause and ask a straightforward question: are Americans O.K. with this?
At least one isn't.
Please do your duty for your country.
Senator Dick Lugar, R, Indiana, to his fellow Republicans on ratifying the New START treaty.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Bits and Pieces - November 18, 2010

Commentary on Jon Kyl's putting politics before national security:
John Podesta
Though a handful of GOP senators outright reject New START and are ideologically opposed to arms control, the majority are likely to support the treaty if it comes to a vote.

The Republican leadership, however, appears to be stalling -- perhaps to extort as much as possible out of the Obama administration, or maybe just to make the president look ineffective and weak.
Los Angeles Times:
If one looks very hard, it's possible to find experts who oppose the New START nuclear arms limitation treaty with Russia.
David Schorr:
Many of us in Foreign Policy Wonk-land have felt that New START is the perfect fault line dividing sober-minded Republicans and reflexive, unabashed, unthinking, ideological obstructionists. Senator Kyl has been the center-of-attention swing vote and had been trying to straddle the line. Now having pushed his luck by trying to further postpone a vote, he got called out.
Daniel Larison:
The Senate delayed until now out of deference to the concerns of the minority, so Republicans have some nerve to say that there is a “rush” to consider the treaty.
New York Times:
The world’s nuclear wannabes, starting with Iran, should send a thank you note to Senator Jon Kyl.
Update: Michael Krepon:
There aren’t many profiles in courage on the Republican side of the aisle besides Sen. Lugar at this point.
And, oh, don't forget that Congress can declare war. Here's a nightmare extension of Kyl's tactics.

Defense spending has doubled since 9/11. More fear.

It's time to tax the rich. And get the country as prosperous as it was in the nineties.

I'm hoping Gershom Gorenberg has it right on Obama's tactics with Netanyahu.

Dennis Kuchenich takes on Darrel Issa. Sounds like a good idea.

Kazakhstan's reactor fuel gets protected. This kind of thing will become more difficult if Jon Kyl gets his way.

Enough Fear Already!

We’re a species that likes to celebrate. We celebrate all four seasons: harvest, the snow and quiet of winter, spring’s rebirth, and the bloom of summer. Yes, we may bitch about various aspects of those seasons, but we do more celebrating.

We seem to have a few wired-in fears, like those of snakes and spiders, but most of us can overcome even the wired-in. Fear usually disappears as its cause does.

So it’s been ten years, almost, since the dreadful events of 9/11. The vivid reports and pictures were cause for fear. But then the more rational mind kicks in: how probable is it that such a thing could happen again? And the gut reaction calms as the events are not repeated.

That’s part of the message that the opt-outers are sending. They’re also saying that we’re entitled to make known our sanitary napkins, adult diapers, ostomy bags, mastectomy prostheses, diabetic pumps, prosthetic bones, or unusually sensitive bodies or minds, only to those we know and trust. Our founding fathers agreed.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Those who are fine with getting naked in front of strangers say that fear should win. They would be more persuasive if their fear were being allayed by reality, rather than performance, um, art.

Another aspect of fear of terrorists has been the theme of a few things I’ve said in recent posts. The Belfer Center at Harvard University has focusing on fear of terrorists with nukes. Their arguments are exceptionally weak. There are bad people who want to do bad things out there, wooooh! Well, yes. There always have been. The bad people who wanted to blow up airplanes have not been particularly competent lately, which suggests that they might have a bit more trouble with nuclear weapons. There are lots of threats and lots of things that are less than threats. Fear is not the most productive response to either; finding ways to thwart them, and putting appropriate priorities on the various threats is much better. We can look at how the Germans are handling their latest terror threat. (Once again, the bad people seem not to have been terribly competent.)

And now we have a couple of journal papers saying something similar about how scientists have been talking about global warming, that the fear of apocalyptic scenarios isn’t very effective. Such scenarios conflict with people’s ideas of a just world, and that conflict tends to be resolved in their minds toward the just world. More celebrations in a just world! A better approach, the papers suggest, would be to offer ways to solve the problem.

The Republicans have been relying on fear for some time, and it worked pretty well for them in this last election. Although winning just one house of Congress isn’t the most amazing electoral feat ever, so maybe people are getting tired of Republican fear too. Look at the faces of Mitch McConnell and John Boehner: pinched mouth, dull eyes, even fearful themselves. Let’s prolong the financial misery. Jon Kyl’s seems to want to damage relations with Russia, and, btw, keep our weapons inspectors home so that we can imagine all sorts of fearful things, like the nonexistent missile gap of the 1960 election. Democrats can do the fear number, too, but today the Republicans seem to know no other tactic. Their narrow desire to keep Americans fearful and therefore voting Republican is likely to lead to a world in which there are genuinely more reasons for fear.

But people get tired of fear, and it wears off. We have some real problems, like the economy and global warming, that must be dealt with. The electoral system has been too blunt an instrument. There’s humor as well. Laughing at fear is a good way to extinguish it. And perhaps a demonstration next week to show that fear has been carried too far in passenger screening. And we can hope that everyone gets to that Thanksgiving celebration and past the fear.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Or Maybe They're Not So Dumb After All

The failure of the Senate to ratify the New START treaty will strengthen the hand of Russia's hardliners. Hmmm...the enemy the Republicans have been needing...

The failure of the Senate to ratify the New START treaty will end the inspections we've been doing of Russian nuclear weapons. So then the Republicans will be able to spread more lies about them.


Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) thinks that the New START treaty is with the Soviet Union. Almost twenty years late.

And it appears that Jon Kyl's delaying game has to do with the inability of Republicans to decide how they should vote on the treaty.

There's One Adult in the Republican Party

...and he's talking to you, Jon Kyl!

Debt Mongers

Eisenhower managed to reduce the debt burden by almost 2 percent a year. George W "deficits don't matter" Bush managed to add 1.6 percent a year without a significant downturn. And yet for some reason, the public still associated the GOP with fiscal conservatism. This is quite simply the biggest mass delusion I've witnessed in the quarter of a century I've lived in America.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Bits and Pieces - November 16, 2010

Killing the meth monster. It's worked in Oregon.

Kazakhstan says it's thinking of switching from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. When I was there a few years back, there was a lot of Latin alphabet around.

New book: Obama's Race.

AIPAC on the ropes?

Sam Nunn has some very sensible things to say about NATO and nuclear security.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen has more scare stuff on al-Qaeda and nukes. A threat consists of both intent (which the article illustrates) and capability (which it does not).

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen urges ratification of the New START treaty.

But Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona (R, naturally) is playing games with ratification. He's already extorted promises of $14 billion for the weapons labs, but he's still playing coy. Or is he, as Steve Benen says, intent on destroying US foreign policy? We'll hear more tomorrow from the adult members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Thinking About Israel's Nuclear Weapons

Leaving them out of the strategizing on Israel, or interpreting US actions toward Israel, really makes a difference.

That's why Avner Cohen's new book, The Worst-Kept Secret, is important. Cohen argues that it's time to give up the "opacity" that keeps Israelis and too many Americans from talking and thinking about Israel's nuclear arsenal.

I've been trying to consciously bring Israel's nuclear arsenal into my thinking about Israel's geopolitics lately. A colleague asked the other day,
When in American thinking though did Israel become essential to its overall valuation of the region as being essential to US interests?
In 1956, the United States broke up a French, British, and Israeli plot to take control of the Suez Canal away from Egypt. President John Kennedy saw that Israel was building a nuclear capacity at Dimona and tried to keep them from getting nuclear weapons. Israel has not always been a protected favorite of the United States. So it was after that.

Israel's favored position dovetails with its development of nuclear weapons. Kennedy and the Israelis played a game of cat-and-mouse, with Kennedy insisting on US inspections of the Dimona facility and Israel allowing the inspections but dissimulating. Then Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. At that time, there was no Israeli lobby in America as there is today; AIPAC was formed in 1963. President Lyndon Johnson was distracted by the Vietnam war and, in general, seems not to have been as concerned with nonproliferation as Kennedy was. Cohen shows that Israel had nukes by 1967. By the time of Richard Nixon's presidency, the US knew that Israel had a nuclear arsenal, and there wasn't much we could do about it. Nixon and Golda Meir agreed to keep those nukes a secret because of the real Cold War danger of Soviet aid to Arab nations to develop nukes. That made Israel the beachhead of "the free world" in the region.

Oil, of course, was part of it. The US more or less inherited Britain's interest in the Middle East, along with a great appetite for oil. It was largely US companies that developed Saudi Arabia's oilfields. We needed that beachhead.

So the Israelis had the threat of making known, or even using their nuclear weapons, and the US had the threat of removing aid. AIPAC strengthened, and the moral downsides of using nuclear weapons became more apparent. But the nuclear opacity persists, and, with it, something like blackmail on both sides.

I don't see an alternative argument, omitting the nuclear weapons factor, that is quite this strong, or explains why the relationship developed when it did.

It's possible that a solution to Iran's nuclear ambitions might involve inspections of Dimona or a cap to the weapons materials made there. Or we can wonder what the analyses (one example here) of the latest moves in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would look like if Israel's nuclear weapons were taken into account. Did part of the US deal have to do with preventing an Israeli attack on Iran? Or does opacity reach into the analyses done in the White House and Defense Department?

African Palm Oil Fruit

I'm always pleased when I can post some tropical fruit along with my compadres. This photo is from here.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Malaysian Apples (Pomagás)

Process and Ideology

Peter Levine at HuffPo, taking on Paul Krugman's critique of President Obama by crafting a nuanced, empirically-grounded, and pragmatic alternative understanding of where we are politically.
...Obama did reject the diagnosis that we were simply "in trouble ... because we had been governed by people with the wrong ideas." He didn't think that he could explain or argue the American people into a different political philosophy, one in which our major troubles stemmed from conservative ideas and the solutions lay in a more activist government. Obama wanted a more activist government and has taken the largest step in that direction since 1974 with the health care bill. But he didn't believe that the way to get there was to conduct a debate on ideology. He did think, contra Krugman, that the main problem was the process and not the misguided people in office....
As long as elections are privately funded, districts are gerrymandered, and legislative procedures are rigged, it doesn't matter who makes what argument or what the people believe who govern us. Policy will be determined by power.

Obama explicitly understood these points. He concluded that the problem was the process. Debate wouldn't solve anything, but we needed to build new relationships--relationships of trust between citizens and the government and among diverse citizens. Krugman scoffs at the idea of "men and women of good will ... coming together to solve our problems." That is indeed too much to expect of Congress, but it happens regularly in civil society. At the national level, politicians can at least display more of the civility that Americans expect of fellow citizens. (Civility, by the way, is not the same as bipartisanship.)

I think Obama's diagnosis and promise were correct. That doesn't mean that the execution has been satisfactory. There have been no new policies that permit or encourage broad public participation. There have been no serious changes in the rules and processes of Washington. The administration has tried to negotiate its way to satisfactory policies and explain their merits to the American people, instead of changing the system itself. In that sense, they have been doing what Krugman recommends, but with less economic ambition and impact. We need the kind of transformational presidency that Barack Obama promised and that Paul Krugman considered a mistake.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Different Worlds We Live In

Beloit College every year publishes a list of things that this year's college freshman take for granted. It started as an aid to professors, who have a different set of things that they take for granted, because they are older and have lived through different happenings, like wars and changes in media. So this year's first-year class(sorry, that changed too) are
is a multicultural, politically correct and “green” generation that has hardly noticed the threats to their privacy and has never feared the Russians and the Warsaw Pact.
So Gen X, enough older than first-year college students to feel the displacement, tell us of their disillusionment today. Happens to all of us. For some reason, today's papers have an unusual number of those contrasts between past and present.

Smoking was once considered highly sophisticated. Now it just seems deadly, and graphic pictures are planned for cigarette packs to emphasize that. Back when smoking was considered sophisticated, air travel was a delightful adventure. And they served up mini-packs of three or four cigarettes with meals. I stashed them in my purse for experimentation later, on the infrequent times I donned hat and gloves to fly to or from college. Never did get the hang of it. Smoking, that is. I would be happy to go back to pleasant flying.

Ruby Bridges, the little girl among the US Marshals in the Norman Rockwell painting of school integration, is still working to improve schools. Her account of her perceptions dduring that experience is enlightening. Kids don't notice things the same way adults do, and her parents seem to have done an admirable job of protecting her from the hate.

Ted Koppel bemoans the end of what he considers the news business, but he does it in such an even-handed way, finding Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, MSNBC, as much at fault as Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly, Faux News, that it's hard to regret the losses he otherwise totes up. Maybe this is a transition period to a time when we can appreciate the real news again. But the old press "objectivity" just doesn't work in a time when teh Crazy is mostly on one side, for example the Congressional investigations that are likely and that are desirable, the facts of a warming earth that are being denied. The hopeful side is that teh Republican Crazy is being called out by some: David Frum has a nice list of lessons that should be learned, although he was drummed out of the corps a while back, and Tom Friedman delivers a shockingly unbalanced evaluation of rightwing stupidity.

Maybe most important for a reality check is the New York Times's budget game. Actually add up what it takes to balance the budget, Republicans! And Tea Partiers! Should be required for all members of Congress.

Then there's history, which keeps getting rewritten. This account seems strange to me, although it may be partly a matter of younger folks rediscovering what actually happened. It never was particularly a secret that Werhner von Braun, who was a major player in American rocket development, had been removed from defeated Nazi Germany, where he had developed the V-2. And he wasn't the only one. Dr. Strangelove's German accent and uncontrollable arm owe something to this history.

It's convenient, of course, to remember a cartoon of World War II in which all the Nazis were killed, but that would hardly have been practical. Tony Judt notes in Postwar that the bureaucrats who knew how to run the country were, by and large, Nazis, and taking them out of their jobs would have undermined the rebuilding of Germany and Europe. Likewise, the governments of the Baltic nations after the dissolution of the Soviet Union were made up of many of the same people who had run them as Communists. They had been more nationalist than Communist, however. But the cartoon prevailed in Iraq, and all the Baathists were removed from government. We see how well that worked.

Back a lot further in history, we have the period (generously defined here) of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which have fascinated me, particularly European developments, for a very long time. I'll add that Chaco Canyon saw its zenith during the thirteenth century and collapsed. Why did so many civilizations peak and collapse at that time?

Quote of the Day

What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

Christopher Hitchens, 2003, quoted by Michael Schermer in the November Scientific American.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Bits and Pieces - November 12, 2010

Robert Kaplan shows how intertwined the issues in Asia are. I don't agree with everything he says, but the overall picture of national interests is worth thinking about.

How cats drink, with video. Applied fluid dynamics, as elegant as any cat lover could expect.

Want to know more about Koch Industries, the guys who are funding the Tea Parties and climate denial? Find it here.

The 21st century retreat from public education. I keep thinking about California in the sixties, when the university system was rightfully a source of pride. Californians then were willing to pay taxes to support the citizens of the future.

The next steps for controlling tactical nuclear weapons. This will be the subject of the next arms control treaty after New START, if there is one. Contact your senators and urge ratification NOW!

Touchy, Feely

Roger Cohen is usually one of the better columnists at the New York Times. His columns on Iran, for example, shine for their first-hand experience and thoughtful analysis.

But, as so often happens when a writer steps away from his expertise, Cohen stumbles badly today. I would suggest that he's the one being touchy-feely, more so than Global Zero.

Eschew nuclear weapons, President Obama, and the world (and Republicans) will think you weak! Cohen allows as to how Obama didn't really do that, but, well, it could sound that way if you selectively quote.

So it's a confused piece. One of my Facebook friends suggested that Global Zero hasn't exactly been getting its message out to the masses. That's part of the problem. Cohen, of course, should have looked more closely into the facts for any of his columns. But Global Zero could have been lobbying for its goal. Instead, they have chosen to work on convincing heads of state and foreign ministers. I've been told that by other nonproliferation NGO leaders.

A while back, Global Zero asked bloggers to link to them. I did, and sent them an e-mail. I got a polite e-mail back: Thank you very much. Period. No list at the site of blogs who support Global Zero. An NGO leader who backs the high-level only strategy was looking for young people to "get involved," clearly a call for low-paid (or unpaid?) helpers. I haven't seen his organization encouraging young people with recognition or even a particular focus. Too busy with those heads of state and foreign ministers, I guess.

Global Zero and other NGOs were ecstatic when President Obama made his speech in Prague, almost two years ago. I'll bet that a number of you reading this haven't even heard of Global Zero. We're coming up to Senate ratification of New START, a significant step toward Obama's goals. I haven't heard of MoveOn-style local potlucks in favor of ratification sponsored by Global Zero or any other of the nonproliferation NGOs. And it's possible that the "Just Say No" party will prevail.

So those proponents of lowering the numbers of nukes, of eventual abolition, haven't done anything to educate the public or even Roger Cohen, and that means they're not supporting the steps that President Obama is taking. But none of us are heads of state or foreign ministers.

Too bad.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The War To End War

I'm not a fan of the trend toward generic holidays located on Mondays. I see the markets are open today, even if the Post Office isn't. Probably the stores are having sales, unless they're saving that for the Thanksgiving weekend.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, an armistice was declared in the Great War - World War I. It was a new kind of war in Europe, as devastating in its killing as the American Civil War had been a half-century before.

It was called the war to end war, for reasons that aren't clear to me, although they probably had to do with the mindset before the war among many Europeans: things were pretty good, and that wasn't likely to change.

Of course, the peace of Versailles only set the stage for World War II, two decades later.

It's hard to see the direction, let alone the eventual outcome, of events when you're in the middle of them. I'm reading Tony Judt's Postwar . So far I'm up to the 1950s and 1960s. Europe was developing some of the structures that really would end their internal wars, but it didn't look like it at the time. Britain hung back, and France was determined to do as it would. Everyone expected a World War III.

Whereas, in 1910, the interwoven treaties that were supposed to assure peace actually helped to bring about the wars of the twentieth century, the intentions of the fifties to end European wars went in the right direction, assisted by the earlier mistakes of the century.

The United States has escaped that sort of devastation on its own territory since the Civil War. So it's easy to come to a lot of conclusions that aren't supported by other countries' existence. And easy to say that we're different, it's different this time. Which the recent economic disaster should have taught us about.

Humility and balancing history's lessons with the need to innovate ended the twentieth century European wars. We could use a bit of that in America now.

Steve Hynd and Tom Levenson and the Balloon Juice commenters give us some of the traditional poetry for remembering the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Bits and Pieces - Leftover Politicians Edition

I am so glad there are others who have taken on some of the uglier jobs around.

John Bolton and John Yoo (what a team, hey?) have taken on New START in a New York Times op-ed today. I'm not going to link it, but you'll be able to get to it if you really want to. My impression was of a bunch of American Enterprise Institute (where Bolton works) talking points that I had seen before hashed into a fundamentally unbelievable framework. And I think that John Yoo had the words "constitutional law" inserted. I only skimmed the article.

But Fred Kaplan and Page van der Linden have taken some of their valuable time to debunk it in more detail. We can be grateful to them; I certainly am.

And Stephen Walt has taken some of his time (I thought he said a couple of days ago that blogging would be light!) to throw some of George W. Bush's failures back at him, in parallel to the structure of Bush's book. And today he tells us that Bush's interview with Matt Lauer was a ratings failure. I think that ties back in with Bolton's contention that he has any reading whatsoever on what the voters (or at least the tv viewers) want. (BTW, doesn't that Bush pic look like something out of one of the Matrix films?)

Tuesday, November 09, 2010


Zadie Smith's thoughts on Facebook are in the New York Review of Books, I mean. Best I've read yet by far--and that's not necessarily my bad. Link.

Changing the Narrative

One reason to change outdated narratives is to be able to hear what is being said. Siddarth Varadarajan catches something in the joint statement from President Obama and Prime Minister Singh that American reporters seem to have missed.
In their joint statement issued on Monday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and U.S. President Barack Obama “affirmed the need for a meaningful dialogue among all states possessing nuclear weapons to build trust and confidence and for reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in international affairs and security doctrines.”
Varadarajan takes this to mean that
What Mr. Obama and Dr. Singh envisage, however, is a framework which will bring all eight countries possessing nuclear weapons together for a dialogue on building trust and confidence, a major step in the direction of harmonising the NPT, which the three outsiders will never sign, with the wider aim of “universal and non-discriminatory global nuclear disarmament in the 21st century.”
The full paragraph in the joint statement is
The two leaders affirmed that their countries’ common ideals, complementary strengths and a shared commitment to a world without nuclear weapons give them a responsibility to forge a strong partnership to lead global efforts for non-proliferation and universal and non-discriminatory global nuclear disarmament in the 21st century. They affirmed the need for a meaningful dialogue among all states possessing nuclear weapons to build trust and confidence and for reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in international affairs and security doctrines. They support strengthening the six decade-old international norm of non-use of nuclear weapons.
Varadarajan's interpretation is consistent with the joint statement, but it goes further. If he's right, both heads of state are moving in the direction I suggested yesterday.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Bits and Pieces - November 8, 2010

More Republican backing-off from campaign promises.

Oklahoma ban on Sharia law may extend to the Ten Commandments.

Tony Judt on world cities. I'm reading his Postwar now. I hate it that he's gone.

Will states cut prison budgets?

Climate scientists strike back!

New Nuke Narratives Needed

President Obama has proposed including India in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) and related groups that oversee and define trade in dual-use technology – that is, technology that can be used both for civilian nuclear power and for nuclear weapons.

So we have the usual reaction from the usual suspects. The problem is that this reaction comes directly from the 1990s or earlier.

The world is different than it was then. If we’re going to get serious about eliminating nuclear weapons, we have to look at the world we’ve got, not the world we’d like to have.

Four nations decided to be exceptions to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT): India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan. North Korea withdrew from the treaty; the other three never joined. All have nuclear weapons. Every other nation on Earth has signed on, although it was the 1990s before that happened. The only way those four nations could sign on to the treaty would be to give up their nuclear weapons. None has expressed a desire to do that.

The NPT Endgame
Endgames are different from mid-games are different from openings, and so it has been for the NPT. We are now in the endgame. Darryl Kimball and others in the arms control community are still playing mid-game.

President Bush recognized that we were in an endgame situation and changed strategy. Unfortunately, his strategy included the ideas that it’s okay for friends to have nukes and that treaties don’t matter. So he straightforwardly went ahead and gave India pretty much what it wanted in terms of nuclear trade without asking for much in return. And he strongarmed the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group into approving the deal. All bad messages to send on nonproliferation.

Endgame is to bring the four exceptions into a regime of inspections of nuclear facilities and control of nuclear material like what the rest of the world is subject to under the NPT. If Bush had approached the issue from that viewpoint, the results would have been more positive. But the agreement is in place, if somewhat hampered by internal Indian politics. The agreement includes some international inspection and control, although not as much as would be desirable. The NSG has already been bent, probably not broken, so the question is now whether India, as a part of international nuclear trade, is to be inside or outside that tent.

Generally, it’s better to have outliers where you can watch what they’re doing and perhaps even jawbone them. So including India in the various regimes as a pseudo-NPT nuclear weapon state now makes a certain amount of sense. The next steps should to bring India under the same restrictions as NPT nuclear weapon states.

Israel and Pakistan have said they’d like deals like India’s. Good. But let’s negotiate those deals toward nonproliferation goals as well as trade.

The arms control community took a hard stance against opening nuclear trade with India. Kimball’s blog post continues that hard stance, even after it lost badly during the Bush administration. It’s time for a change.

Israel’s Nuclear Ambiguity
Israel presents a special problem. The governments of Israel and the United States will not admit that Israel has nuclear weapons, although that status is clear to the entire world. Early in the NPT game, the ambiguity was genuine and probably more positive than negative because of Soviet support of the Arab nations, facing off US support of Israel in the region.

But, again, we’re a long way from then. We all know that Israel has nuclear weapons, probably between 100 and 200, built at the Dimona nuclear complex. Avner Cohen argues in a new book, The Worst-Kept Secret, that maintaining that secret damages Israel’s place in the world. Offering Israel a deal like India’s without acknowledging its nuclear weapon status would damage the nonproliferation regime even more than the deal with India or India’s getting a seat on the NSG. Israel’s nuclear ambiguity interferes with considerations of the strategic situation in the Middle East, particularly Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It’s time for a change in this narrative, too.

Nuclear Fear for Fun and Profit
Julian Borger reports some details on a recent nuclear material smuggling case. The amount of 89.4% enriched uranium involved was 18 grams. For Wikipedia’s critical mass for a sphere of U-235 (52 kilograms) 2,889 buys of this size would be necessary if the uranium for sale were pure U-235. In other words, what was traded in this sting was far from enough for a bomb.
What is not clear is how much nuclear material is in circulation and whether any has already been bought by extremist groups.
Indeed. It is entirely possible that the 18 grams was all these two fellows could put their hands on, motivated by the requests of the government agents posing as buyers. It is also possible that none has already been bought by extremist groups.
Altogether, there have been 21 seizures or attempted thefts of weapons grade material, uranium or plutonium, in the region since the Soviet Union collapsed.
Not nearly enough for a bomb; and most (all?) of those have involved government stings.

The Guardian gives Matthew Bunn of Harvard's Belfer Center a full article to expand on fantasies of nuclear terrorism.
The dark netherworlds of nuclear smuggling still pose a terrible danger to us all.
Bunn and his colleagues have never shown anything more terrible than those 21 seizures. They haven’t shown that terrorist groups are doing more than playing at nuclear designer, or that they have acquired nuclear material. He says that al-Qaeda was conducting explosive tests in Afghanistan, but he doesn’t say what kind of explosive tests, implying that they were serious design tests, but, given the “designs” found in Afghanistan, this seems unlikely. Nor does he give us a date for those tests, which must have been before 2001.

You can see and hear Bunn and colleagues repeating stuff like this in the movie “Countdown to Zero,” along with others making the point that maybe, possibly, terrorists might be able to make a nuclear bomb. The purpose of “Countdown to Zero” was ostensibly to build popular support for ratification of the New START treaty. But it looks like not many people saw it, and those that did were probably already convinced. Maybe fear doesn’t sell as well as some thought.

New START deserves support because it keeps us and the Russians aware of the status of our nuclear arsenals. It also helps control nuclear materials, although other treaties will address that more directly. New START moves toward the kinds of verification we will need for smaller nuclear arsenals, and it lays the groundwork for bringing in the other nuclear weapons states into arms reduction negotiations. Those are all good reasons for supporting it.

It’s been nineteen years since the Soviet Union collapsed. Things are better there now for workers at the nuclear plants. The chances of their collusion in stealing nuclear material for profit are going down, and their collusion would be necessary to make that material available on the black market.

The scare scenario, of nasty men getting nuclear materials and making a bomb in a garage, isn’t credible. If there were large quantities of nuclear material getting out of Russia, we would have seen something happen. It’s not easy to build a nuclear bomb.

We’ve got too much fear in national politics now. I’ve suggested some directions for a new narrative. Somehow I doubt that the Belfer Center will be able to change theirs.