IPS Blog

Letters to the Editor: Kaul on Kagan and God

Readers tend to love or despise OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul. Here’s the latest on their letters.

“I enjoy all your columns they publish in the (Biloxi, MS) Sun Herald, but this morning’s column was particularly enjoyable,” wrote Ms. Carole A. Dunn of Ocean Springs, MS. This praise came in a page-long letter in response to Academic Diversity on the Supreme Court, in which Kaul said he didn’t think Elena Kagan should become the next Supreme Court justice because she went to Harvard. It’s always nice to get mail from our fans in these days of instant everything, especially when they have a sense of humor.

Meanwhile, Kaul’s tongue-in-cheek God’s to Blame Too column, in which he called on Americans to stop blaming everything on government, attracted attention in the letters sections of the Springfield (MO) News-Leader and the Marshall (MN) Independent.

“Dear gentle readers, Do you know how you can tell when you have socialists on the run? When they start blaming God for their inadequacies,” intones Michael R. Peters of Springfield, Missouri. “Father’s promised ‘reward,’ Don, is eternal life. His punishment is eternal damnation – that’s Hell, Don. The rest He leaves up to us, and, unfortunately, people like Donald Kaul, Barack Obama, et al.”

The News-Leader granted a “rose” to Kaul “for his satiric and thoughtful column about whom to blame for misfortunes in life, government or God.” The paper issued a “thorn” “to those to those who missed his wit and point.”

The same column triggered the Independent to run a lengthy letter that quoted scripture. “I can always count on him to write something stupid, but this time he outdid himself. Perhaps he never read the old testament book of Judges, or the prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel. They illustrate how God chose the Israelites to demonstrate His blessings for obedience, and the cost of doing it your own way, which usually turns outs to be wrong,” wrote Cliff Reed, of Marshall, Minnesota. “Just remember, there are no prophets left to talk Him out of giving us the Sodom and Gomorrah treatment when He finally gets fed up with us.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now dial in these multipliers.

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

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

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

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

(Anyone NOT seeing this in their community?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crazy Talk in the Middle East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seed of Destruction: Nuclear ‘Pits’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Frontlines: June 21, 2010

Oil spill cleanup in the Niger Delta“Conservatives have declared a new class war, but it’s not on bankers earning seven-figure bonuses,” even though “[a] recent study [finds] that when such factors as education and work experience are accounted for, state and local employees earn 11 to 12 percent less than comparable private sector workers…By attacking public workers, they can demonize “big labor” and “big government” at the same time, while deflecting attention from the more logical target of Middle America’s rage: the irresponsible Wall Street traders, whose risky, high-profit business practices brought down the economy, and the lax regulators who let them get away with it.” (The Nation) If GOP senators are saying this, maybe they should volunteer to have their salaries cut first?

“It’s as if the Earth has been smoking two packs a day,” say the authors of a new Australian report on the decline of our oceans. (Scientific American)

The Guardian interviews Story of Stuff‘s Annie Leonard (with whom we collaborated on the Story of Cap and Trade) on her new book:”If you’re going to vote with your dollar that’s fine,” Leonard says. “But you need to remember that Exxon has a lot more dollars than you. We need to vote with our votes; re-engage with the political process and change the balance of power so that those who are looking out for the wellbeing of the planet dominate, instead of those who are just looking out for the bottom line.”

Anger at the BP oil disaster is turning into action. Yes! Magazine shows how. (You could also take a page from Rep. Barton’s book and apologize to BP. Via OpenLeft.)

But if you think the situation in the Gulf is bad, take a look at the Niger Delta. By IPS board member Ethelbert Miller, in the FPIF Focal Points blog. You can also go to Niger Delta Rising for more background.

Unemployed? Laid off and left out? The National Employment Law Project wants to hear your story, because America’s workers deserve better.

Children At War (With Funding From the U.S.)

While our children go off to school, many Somali children are going off to war. 80 percent of the Somali rebel groups are comprised of children. The rebel groups, however, are not the only perpetrators. 20 percent of the Somali transitional government is made up of children, some as young as 9 years old.

These child soldiers, only occasionally paid $1.50 a day, sport fully loaded assault rifles as they roam the dilapidated streets of lawless Somalia. They are employed by the Somali army, almost entirely armed and financed by the United States. Some of the children have even claimed to have recently returned from training in Uganda, where U.S. military officers have been overseeing the training for Somali soldiers.

The U.S. funding going to training and arming child soldiers in Somalia, exemplifies the effects of AFRICOM. AFRICOM is an independent military command for Africa and represents an increased expansionism by the U.S. military.

One of AFRICOM’s chief functions is to train and equip African militaries such as the one in Somalia. According to the New York Times, when questioned about how the U.S. was ensuring that it’s funding was not going to support child soldiers in Somalia, a U.S. official responded, “I don’t have a good answer for that.”

Furthermore, AFRICOM’s efforts generally contribute to further destabilization and conflict, rather than peace. The New York Times also recorded former defense minister Sheik Yusuf Mohamed Siad saying, “All this international training, it’s just training soldiers for the Shabab [rebel group].” This conclusion stems from the increasing number of defections from the Somali army.

Despite the recent failures of AFRICOM in the Congo and Mauritania, President Obama increased its budget for fiscal year 2010.

Where do you want your tax dollars to go? To the Department of Defense to arm and train child soldiers and fuel aggression?

Or you could urge the U.S. government to give it to nonmilitary agencies that will help build schools and provide children in Somalia and the rest of Africa with the education necessary to end the cycle of conflict. Learn more about how to resist AFRICOM.

The U.S. is also not in the best position right now to pressure Somalia end the use of child soldiers. It is the only country, besides Somalia, to not have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty that prohibits the use of children under the age of 15 in armed conflict.

The U.S., as the world hegemon and the leading provider of humanitarian assistance to Somalia, could have immense sway in preventing their use of child soldiers. The U.S. failure to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, however, hurts its credibility to pressure Somalia.

While campaigning, President Obama agreed that our failure to ratify the Convention “is embarrassing”; however, we have still not seen a move made to rectify the situation.

The U.S. must be held more accountable. Action must be taken immediately both to ratify the Convention on the rights of the Child and to prevent U.S. funding of military conflicts in Africa. These steps cannot be delayed when children’s innocence is at stake.

Wednesday, according to the New York Times, the UN Security Council discussed the use of child soldiers and declared a “readiness” to adopt sanctions against those who participate in this practice. While this is a positive step, rhetoric is not enough; the U.S. should take a leadership role in enacting this change immediately.

Reader Challenge: Trade Flotilla Investigation for Blockade?

Earlier today, Marc Lynch posted a piece entitled “A Good Deal For Gaza” in which he noted reports that the Israeli government is to “significantly ease the blockade of Gaza in exchange for American support for a whitewash of the investigation of the flotilla incident” and argued that “trading off the investigation for the blockade was the right move” for Gazans.

. . . writes Steve Hynd at Newshoggers in Accepting Crumbs? More:

Newshoggers’ pal Tehranchick writes in an email published with her kind permission:

. . . Throwing a few crumbs in their (Palestinians) direction isn’t going to help when we know that the Israeli government can just as easily stop with the crumbs. I see this issue of ‘easing’ as nothing more than concession and appeasement after murderous attack on the flotilla. So please, convince me that Palestinians are going to get real help from ‘the easing.’ Convince me that Netanyahu is serious about change.

That these “crumbs” can be stopped and started at Israeli whim is something Issandr El Amrani at The Arabist worries about too. …

The devil will be in the details, such as the list of allowed goods Israel still has to publish and the character and length of the border procedures for people and goods moving in and out.

To be honest, I think it will take more than one. But I also think that the Gaza Flotilla episode has undermined something crucial in the united-we-stand wall that the US and Israeli have presented to the world. … Thus, although it sticks in my craw to countenance a lack of legal accountability for the Flotilla assault, I’ll reluctantly take the product, if that leads to a wall being tore down, instead.

Finally, Abu Aardvaark himself tweeted:

To all: I’m skeptical about implementation of new Gaza rules too, but still think it’s better to take positive move and work with it.

Do Focal Points readers stand in agreement with Steve Hynd and Marc-Abu Ardvark-Lynch?

Loose Oil Is a Way of Life in West Africa

I believe it was Amiri Baraka who once said, “one man’s fast is another man’s slow.” The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has destroyed a way of life for many American fishermen. This should be accepted as fact not fiction. The landscape of our nation is going to change soon and not for the better. The recent oil spill is not an aberration. Just look at the story in The New York Times (June 16, 2010) about the awful conditions in the Niger Delta. It’s obvious we need the media to expand its coverage of oil spills. How soon will toxic wastelands become a normal sight for Americans, the way it is for some Nigerians? It’s unfortunate that Africa is still a “dark continent” when it comes to shedding light on the operations of the oil industry. When I read the following in the newspaper, I wanted to weep:

Big oil spills are no longer news in this vast, tropical land. The Niger Delta — where the wealth underground is out of all proportion with the poverty on the surface — has endured the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every year for 50 years by some estimates. The oil pours out nearly every week, and some swamps are long since lifeless.

BP is talking about cleaning up the mess they made. But what does clean-up really mean? Is it no visible oil on the surface of the water? How can life survive after being embraced by oil? What fish or birds would ever want to make love?

In the Niger Delta the villain is Shell. Oil leaks in the region are also a result of oil thieves and aging pipelines, no longer properly being maintained. The people in the Niger Delta have been battling for years to control their destiny and protect their environment.

One wonders what will happen here in the United States? Will a populist movement organize against a big oil company? Will the “small” people fight back?

It might be a good idea to bring Nigerian fishermen and folks from Louisiana to Washington and have them sit side by side and tell their stories. There is a similar (if not singular) narrative taking place and it is beginning to sound too much like science-fiction.

The fear of a black planet could be one engulfed by oil.

Protesters Speak Out Against U.S. Support for Ethiopian Government

protestersNearly 200 protesters gathered in front of the White House on the afternoon of June 14 to denounce continued U.S. support for Ethiopia’s incumbent regime. Chanting in native Amharic and rallying around the Ethiopian flag, the crowd members were predominantly from DC’s sizable Ethiopian diaspora.

On May 23, Ethiopia held its fourth national election since transitioning to democracy in 1993. The transition away from dictatorship seems incomplete, however, when all four election have reelected President Meles Zenawi and his monolithic EPRDF party by landslide majorities. This year’s officially reported win margin was 99.6% vote for Zenawi, representing the government’s repression of opposition, use of voter intimidation, and rejection of election monitors. This is a significant regression in democratic governance since the last election Ethiopia held in 2005.

The protesters reacted strongly to this regression, calling on the U.S. to change its foreign policy and aid practices, which currently help prop up Zenawi’s regime. Ethiopia receives the third largest amount of foreign aid from the U.S. after Israel and Egypt, receiving $862 million in foreign assistance in 2009. This inundation of aid and diplomatic silence by the U.S. is projected to be because Ethiopia is such valuable U.S. ally in the volatile horn of Africa and in the War on Terror.

But Ethiopians, both in the Horn of Africa and in the U.S. diaspora, are enraged that the U.S. is prioritizing the stability and anti-terrorism policies of their corrupt despot, Zenawi, over encouraging free and fair elections.

The State Department’s assistant press secretary has remained markedly vague and diplomatic, promising, “We will work diligently with Ethiopia to ensure that strengthened democratic institutions and open political dialogue become a reality for the Ethiopian people.”

Split This Rock Poem of the Week: Lori Desrosiers

A weekly featured poem of provocation and witness. You can find more poetry and arts news from Blog This Rock.

That Pomegranate Shine

Two brides arise from the river, shivering and shining like pomegranate seeds.
– Words from an Armenian Song

I was the wrong kind of bride,
more sweat than glisten,
more peach than pomegranate.
At twenty-three, in love with marriage,
not the man,
I plunged into rough water,
bringing grandmother’s candlesticks,
mother’s books and two silver trays.
Ten years later, I emerged shivering,
dragging my ragged volumes,
one candlestick and two babies.
On the bank, I shook off the water
and breathed.
Standing with my children,
looking out over the river,
the new brides asked me where
I got that pomegranate shine.

– Lori Desrosiers

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