IPS Blog

Japan v. China: Smoke or Fire?

Chinese activists on the Diaoyu Islands.

Chinese activists on the Diaoyu Islands.

Could Japan and China—the number two and three largest economies in the world—really get into a punch-out over five tiny islands covering less than four square miles? According to the International Crisis Group, maybe: “All the trends are in the wrong direction, and prospects of resolution are diminishing.”

That the two Asian superpowers could actually come to blows seems unthinkable, but a devil’s brew of suspicion, anger, ham-handed diplomacy, and a growing US military presence has escalated a minor dispute into something that could turn very ugly if someone makes a misstep.

And so far, the choreography in the region has ranged from clumsy to provocative.

A few examples:

On the anniversary of Japan’s brutal 1931 attack on China, Tokyo purchased a handful of islands in the East China Sea—known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China—whose ownership is in dispute. In response, China accused Japan of “stealing” the islands, and anti-Japanese demonstrations and riots broke out in 80 Chinese cities. Several major Japanese companies, including Toyota, Honda, and Panasonic were forced to shut down for several days.

Amidst this tension, Washington announced that it will deploy a second anti-ballistic missile system (ABM) in Japan, supposedly to guard against North Korea, but which the Chinese charge is aimed at neutralizing their modest nuclear missile force.

“The joint missile defense system objectively encourages Japan to keep an aggressive position on the Diaoyu Islands dispute,” charges Shi Yinhong, a professor of international studies at Beijing’s Renmin University. Tao Wenzhao, deputy director of United States studies at China’s Academy of Social Science, adds, “It is highly inappropriate and counter-constructive for the U.S. to make such a move at this highly sensitive time.”

Timing-wise, the island purchase and the ABM announcement seem almost consciously provocative, but Tokyo and Washington are hardly the only capitals guilty of inept diplomacy in the Pacific.

Two years ago China declared the South China Sea a “core interest area,” which means Beijing essentially claimed sovereignty over 80 percent of one of the most heavily trafficked waterways in the world. China also insisted that several island groups—the Spratleys, Parcels, and Macclesfield Bank—were Chinese territory, and it backed this assertion up with ships and even a small garrison.

Some in China have gone as far as to claim sovereignty over the Ryukyu chain, which includes Okinawa, an island hosting several major US bases, with a population of 1.4 million Japanese citizens. Japan took control of the island group in 1879, but several hundred years earlier the independent Ryukyu Kingdom had paid tribute to China.

On top of all this, the Obama administration last year announced an Asian “pivot” and beefed up its military footprint in the region, including plans to send 2,500 Marines to Australia—the first time US troops have been deployed on the sub-continent since the end of World War II.

Not to be outdone, China launched its first aircraft carrier, introduced a new stealth fighter, and is apparently upgrading its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Dongfeng-41. According to the Pentagon, China has 55 to 65 ICBMs and 240 nuclear warheads. In comparison, the US has over 1,000 ICBMs, 1,737 strategic warheads, and over 5,000 nuclear weapons.

Feeling a little nervous? You should be. The tensions are real even though it is hard to imagine countries in the area letting things get out of hand. But when you combine overheated rhetoric with gunboat face-offs, a clumsy move, a misinterpreted act, or plain stupidity could spark something that might be difficult to contain.

So who is to blame for all this sturm und drang?

Depending on your perspective, the crisis is either triggered by the US and Japan trying to smother a rising rival in a resurgent China, or by Beijing’s aggressiveness in the region creating dangerous tensions. Actually, it is a little of both and a lot more complex than it appears. First, China, Japan and the US are not the only actors in this drama. Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Russia and South Korea all have pieces on the board.

South Korea, for instance, is locked in a fight with Japan over the Dokdo Islands (called Takeshima by the Japanese). Taiwan and China have a grievance with the Philippines over the Seaborough Shoal, and Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims on a host of islands, shoals, reefs and tiny coral atolls. Japan and Russia are at loggerheads over the Kuril Island chain that Moscow occupied in 1945.

Nor are issues in the South China Sea the same as those in the East China Sea. In the south the disputes are mainly economic: fishing rights and energy reserves. In the East, imperial history and the echo of World War II play an important role. For example, the Senkaku/Diaoyu and Dokdo/Takeshima islands were seized by Japan in its early imperial days, and neither China nor Korea have forgotten or forgiven Japanese occupation of their countries.

Countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei view the Chinese as heavy-handed bullies who throw their weight around and routinely arrest their nationals for fishing in disputed waters. They would like Beijing to negotiate boundary issues with them as a group through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), while China insists on talking with them individually. This standoff has allowed the U.S. to reassert itself in the region by presenting itself as a “fair broker” (and thus enraging China).

China, on the other hand, sees the US as surrounding it with potentially hostile allies, shifting yet more aircraft carrier battle groups into the region, and drawing up plans to spend $352 billion modernizing its nuclear weapons arsenal. What China doesn’t want is an arms race with the US, which already out-spends the Chinese five-to-one on defense. But the new US ABM system in Japan will force China to respond.

While China’s economy is in better shape than that of the US, its growth rate has plunged further than Beijing had hoped, and increased military spending will come at the expense of economic stimulation, energy efficiency, and infrastructure improvement. The Chinese smell a whiff of the Cold War, when the Americans hobbled the Soviet economy by forcing it to divert many of its resources to defense in order to keep up with the US.

So if the Chinese are feeling a little paranoid these days, one can hardly blame them.

There are a number of ways the current atmosphere of tension in the Pacific can be defused.

First, China should back down from its insistence that it will only negotiate boundary and access issues country by country. It is perfectly valid for smaller countries to collectivize their negotiating strategies, and ASEAN would be the obvious vehicle through which to work. That would have the added benefit of strengthening a regional organization, which can then be used to deal with other issues, from trade to terrorism.

Second, while the US is a Pacific power, it is not a western Pacific power. Putting warships in Beijing’s home waters is asking for trouble, and feeds a strong nationalist current in China. There should be a gradual de-militarization of the region, and a reduction in the number of US bases. And the US has to recognize that ABMs are trouble. They have soured the atmosphere for military reductions in Europe, and they will fuel a military buildup in Asia. The ABM Treaty produced sensible policy until the Bush Administration unilaterally withdrew from it. It should be revived and adhered to.

Third, provocations like China’s bluster over Okinawa, Japan’s purchase of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Washington sending 2,500 Marines to Australia, and general chest-beating via gunboats needs to stop.

On one level it is unthinkable that Japan and China would actually come to blows, a conflict that could draw in the US though its mutual support treaty with Tokyo. China is Japan’s number-one trading partner, and Japan is China’s number-two partner (the US is Beijing’s first). Polls indicate that the average Chinese and the average American have favorable views of one another. A study by the Committee of 100, a Chinese-American group, found that 55 percent of Americans and 59 percent of Chinese had favorable views of one another.

It is a different matter with Japan and China, which makes the tension between the two countries much more dangerous. Some 70 percent of Japanese had an “unfavorable” view of Beijing, and those figures are matched in China. The islands crisis has brought out a powerful current of nationalism in both countries. It was the right-wing mayor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishimara, who kicked off the crisis by trying to buy the islands. Rightwing politicians from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have since seized the dispute to bludgeon the current government, and the LDP is likely to win the next election.

Passions are running high, distorted by bitter memories of the past, and fed by fear and political opportunism. “There is a real possibility that if diplomacy fails, there will be a war,” says Kazuhiko Toyo, a former career Japanese diplomat.

One hopes this is smoke, not fire.

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.

Why Hasn’t West Responded to Beheading Videos as Some Muslims Do to Anti-Islamist Videos?

It’s tough to deny that Denis Hamill (younger brother of Peter) makes a good point in his September New York Daily News column titled Radical Islamic terror ‘flicks’ insult humanity far more deeply than an idiot film about Muslims by a felonious con man. He’s referring, of course, to the video Innocence of Muslims that’s poured gasoline on fire in the Muslim world.

Suppose New Yorkers decided to retaliate and storm all their diplomatic outposts, killing ambassadors and other innocents because we were outraged by an Islamist film that we found offensive? … And, believe me, we have lots more than one dopey fictional film to be offended by.

Go online and you’ll find authentic real-life footage detailing radical Islamist atrocities that any rational person would find far more blasphemous to the human spirit than anything in the YouTube trailer that has set the Muslim world ablaze.

Start with these … videos:

1) The beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl on an Al Qaeda website, perhaps one of the most evil videos ever shot.

2) American hostage Eugene Armstrong being beheaded in Iraq.

3) Hooded terrorists killing Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.

4) The second plane smashing into the South Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

5) Human beings leaping to their doom from the Trade Center.

6) The collapse of the twin towers as people are obliterated inside.

7) A woman being stoned to death for adultery in Saudi Arabia.

8) The bodies of four U.S. contractors hanging from a bridge above the Euphrates River in Fallujah, Iraq.

Earlier in the piece he said:

I’m having a hard time believing that Islamic extremists from more than 20 countries actually hold 300 million Americans responsible for a single amateur film, an incoherent anti-Islamic screed made by a convicted felon on parole for credit-card scams.

Okay, maybe one or two offended people could be that dumb. But no way could tens of thousands of folks in 20 countries believe the same line of nonsense that this film is representative of the entire American people.

It’s tough to deny that, as a progressive, it’s difficult to explain the response of many Muslims. But those protesting may be under the impression that the video was the trailer for a mainstream film allowed to be distributed to movie theaters in the United States, as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was.

At al Jazeera, quoted at Race for Iran, Flynt Leverett provides a likely explanation.

If it hadn’t been this film, it would have been something else that triggered an outburst—a manifestation of very, very deep-seated, longstanding resentment in Arab and Muslim societies about many important aspects of American foreign policy toward the region. When Americans think about this, they will tend to want to say that this a cultural issue—that there is something about Islam or that Arabs are insufficiently modernized to be able to keep something like this film in proper perspective. I think that it’s Americans who are having a cultural problem here, and who aren’t really able to keep things like this film in proper perspective. The proper perspective, at least from the vantage of the Muslim world, is that the United States has been, for many years now, an aggressive and a repressive force in the region.”

Also, it must be recalled that it probably wasn’t Innocence of Muslims per se that elicited the most violent responses, but extreme Islamists using it to stoke reaction to the film for their own purposes. As Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday (September 23), “news reports have suggested that there was no video-related anti-US protest before the armed attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and the three other men.”

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

This Week in OtherWords: September 24-Oct. 2, 2012

This week, OtherWords is running an op-ed by Raul A. Reyes that sums up Mitt Romney’s lackluster efforts to win over Latino voters and a commentary by Dashka Slater about the disappearance of the kinds of jobs that traditionally provided low-income Americans with economic mobility.

Next week, we’ll start distributiing our commentaries and cartoons on Wednesdays. Please don’t be alarmed if you don’t see our latest offerings appear on Monday Oct. 1. They will appear at OtherWords.org on Wednesday, Oct. 3.

Also that day, the Institute for Policy Studies will release the first congressional report card that grades lawmakers on what they’ve done to narrow our country’s economic divide. The report card will identify the members of Congress most friendly toward the “1 percent” and the “99 percent,” based on their positions on 40 legislative actions. It will also provide grade-point averages for each state’s congressional delegation.

We’ll send out a link to this report in the Oct. 3 OtherWords newsletter. News outlets seeking advance information should contact Lacy MacAuley, the IPS media manager, at [email protected]

As always, I encourage you to subscribe to our weekly newsletter and visit our blog. If you haven’t signed up yet, please do.

  1. The Islamophobe Fringe / John FefferThe deeper reason for the heated response from the Muslim world is not so much Western rhetoric but Western policy.
  2. Romney’s Losing Bid to Win the Latino Vote / Raul A. Reyes
    Romney needs to up his game — pronto.
  3. Armed with Irony / Ryan Alexander
    If lawmakers really want to stop blank checks for spending binges, they should start with the Pentagon
  4. A Vanishing Act for Good Jobs / Dashka Slater
    For those on the economic ladder’s lowest rungs, the middle rungs have almost completely disappeared.
  5. The ‘Self-Made’ Hallucination of America’s Rich / Sam Pizzigati
    Like Mitt Romney, most Americans who amass grand fortunes have a substantial head start.
  6. A Memo to Mitt and Ann / Katie Halper
    Pretend that you like people.
  7. The Price of Admission / Jim Hightower
    Across our country, women are walking away from Regal Cinema’s pretentious abrogation of our Fourth Amendment rights.
  8. Just Don’t Say Climate Change / William A. Collins and Emily Schwartz Greco
    Global warming can’t be legislated away.
  9. Vote for This Clown / Khalil Bendib (Cartoon)
Vote for this Clown, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Vote for this Clown, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Return to Adversity

In the 1970s and 1980s, the nascent civil society movements in East-Central Europe leveraged their marginal position in society into a form of social power. Because they were largely disconnected from an unjust power structure – and suffered considerably from the repression of that power structure – they commanded what Vaclav Havel famously called “the power of the powerless.” The eventually successful campaigns of Poland’s Solidarity, Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77, and East Germany’s New Forum proved the “uses of adversity,” in the phrase that Timothy Garton Ash borrowed from Shakespeare to title his 1989 collection of essays. Repression produced rebirth.

The collapse, when it came, was rapid, spectacular, and relatively bloodless. The Warsaw Pact monolith, which was never quite as monolithic as Moscow would have preferred, fell apart in 1989, and the region experienced what Joseph Rothschild described as a “return to diversity.”

As I prepare to retrace my 1990 journey through East-Central Europe, as I attempt in other words to step into the same region twice, I suspect that time and hardship have fused the phrases of Rothschild and Ash. The region is now experiencing a return to adversity.

Governments in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and elsewhere are showing signs of greater authoritarianism. Right-wing populists populate the parliaments, and their brothers-in-arms patrol the streets. Has liberalism reached its high-water mark in East-Central Europe? Or, to use a different metaphor, is this return to adversity a short detour or a more involved journey to an unknown location?

On March 17, 1990, I set off from Brussels for East Berlin to begin what would be seven months of wandering around the region. It was wandering with a purpose – to help the Quaker organization, the American Friends Service Committee, to establish an office in this newly tumultuous part of the world. Now, thanks to the Open Society Foundations, I am returning to track down the people I interviewed back then to see how their lives, their families, and their countries have changed.

Of course, I too have changed. I’m no longer a footloose 26-year-old looking for a life-changing experience of my own. Back then, I carried a week’s change of clothes in my college backpack, along with an early version of a laptop, one of the first portable printers, a shortwave radio, a tape recorder, and a copy of Terra Nostra by Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes (the nearly 800-page paperback accompanied me all the way through Slovakia where I finally finished it).

Back in 1990, I had a handful of names and contact numbers, but not many. As soon as I hit the ground in a new country, I quickly scrambled to locate interesting people to interview. There was no Internet, no Facebook, no cell phones. The first thing I did in a new place was to determine what coins the public telephone took. I came to dread these cold calls. I had no idea whether the person on the other end spoke English (or Russian or Polish, the other two languages I could use). They didn’t know who I was, and I had to very quickly describe my project. Most people were sufficiently intrigued not to hang up. In some cases, just being an American was enough to open doors, for this was before the rush of American backpackers to Prague and Budapest. Where I lacked contacts, I would visit the places that housed the new civil society organizations – Haus fur Demokratie in East Berlin, for instance – and marvel at how quickly the new world was taking shape.

Every week, I wrote up a report of my conversations, including many transcribed interviews. I printed them out on the portable printer. And I sent the hard copies back to the AFSC office. It’s difficult to remember a time when news was not instantaneous.

Today, I travel very differently. I have my Mac Air, and WiFi will never be very far away. I’m taking a video camera this time to record my interviews. And I’ll be writing periodic blog posts (available at johnfeffer.com). I can now carry a library in my pocket. My smart phone carries several audio books, the film The Hurt Locker, and a number of books on Kindle, including a novel by Dubravka Ugresic, several early memoirs of travel in Serbia, Chuck Sudetic’s book on Carla Del Ponte, and Tony Judt’s massive history of postwar Europe. After 15 years of studying East Asian affairs, I have a lot of reading to catch up on.

I’m no longer footloose. My wife remains at home, where we have lived now for a decade. I’m no longer looking to transform my life. I can concentrate instead on how historic events have transformed the lives of others.

I will begin my travels this time in Belgrade. I’ll continue to Bulgaria, where I expect to visit Varna and Plovdiv as well as Sofia. I’ll return to Serbia and then on to Croatia and Slovenia. In 1990, I concentrated on the issue of ethnic minorities in Bulgaria and the disintegration of the central state in Yugoslavia, and these were the topics of the chapters on these countries in my 1992 book, Shock Waves: Eastern Europe after the Revolutions. I’ll revisit these issues in 2012.

Almost everyone that I interviewed in 1990 has responded to my emails. They generally don’t remember me – and why should they? – but they are willing to sit down and talk just as they did 22 years ago. Some people have died; some have moved to distant countries. To augment my original list and avoid the trap of talking only to a narrow demographic slice of society, I’ll be reaching out to a lot of people for the first time: young people, artists, representatives of new social organizations.

I’m not exactly sure what will come of all this. But then, I had no idea in 1990 either. I am open to possibilities, just as the region was in 1990. But, as I did 22 years ago, I feel a certain urgency. In 1990, East-Central Europe was on the verge of economic austerity, resurgent nationalism, and, in the case of Yugoslavia, outright war. Today, the region has largely survived these traumas, but they have left their mark. And although much of the region has joined the European Union, or is currently negotiating accession, a return to adversity threatens. What worked in East-Central Europe and what did not work: I am eager to hear what the people of the region have to say.

U.S. on a Pedestal of Nuclear Immorality

30-plus years ago Iranian zealots grabbed some CIA and Embassy folk in Teheran and held them hostage, and then let them go, and Reagan took credit. But before we plunge into military conflict with Iran, as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu extols, the press might indulge its public in some useful historical review – they forgot some important history – to try to deal with the alleged threat of “nuclear mullahs” as Bill Keller called Iran’s religious leaders.

Maybe, start with questions like: What did we do to Iran and what role did our government have in fostering its nuclear program? And why does Israel’s insistence on U.S. backing become so important to U.S. policy?

Read the rest of this blog post in Progreso Weekly.

The One Percent Supreme Court: A Conversation with the Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel

Whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, tea-partier, liberal, conservative, or in-between, you’re experiencing an election season unlike any in U.S. history. That’s because the rules on political spending have changed in a billion dollar way.

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in the now-infamous Citizens United decision that corporations must be treated the same as people when it comes to political speech. The Court said the ban on using corporate cash to endorse or oppose political candidates (in place since 1947) was unconstitutional. The ruling freed them up to spend money both on “electioneering communications” and advocating for the election or defeat of candidates — so long as they don’t actually put the money in the candidate’s palm.

A few weeks after Citizens United, a lower court joined the festivities by ruling that certain political action committees could also accept unlimited contributions for so-called “independent” expenditures. So as not to leave anybody out, individual donors were included too. The Super PAC was born.

By mid September 2012 Super PACs aligned with Republicans had already spent $83 million on attack ads against President Obama, while pro-Obama Super PACs had spent $30 million. One well-heeled Republican donor, Sheldon Adelson, has vowed to personally spend $100 million to influence the 2012 elections.

Is all this good for democracy? What can we do about it? On September 20, The Nation attempts an answer in a special issue titled “The 1% Court,” with an introduction by Bill Moyers, who has spoken out repeatedly against Citizens United. I talked about those questions and others around corporate influence on the Court and the government itself with Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, on my radio show Equal Time With Martha Burk.

MB: Let’s go back to when this got rolling — the mid-term elections in 2010. Only 15% of the money spent was a result of Citizens United because it was a brand-new ruling. You wrote in the Washington Post that 2010 was a test case. Conservatives and their corporate allies were “dipping their toes in the water, gauging the legal boundaries of the new landscape. They liked what they found.”

KvH: They certainly did. We’ve seen a 427% increase in spending since 2010. We’re looking at a presidential election with a price tag expected to reach over $2 billion. Overarching all of this is a dramatic assault on American democracy and the fundamental principle of one person, one vote.

MB: Some have tried to make the case that Citizens United isn’t that harmful, because most of the money coming into the Super PACs 2012-06-12-yourvoicesmallest2.JPGisn’t from corporations or unions, but from individuals like Adelson. Just ordinary people giving to causes and trying to elect candidates they like.

KvH: We are witnessing the derugulation of campaign finance – the scaffolding that was erected to protect people from the barrage of big corporate money. A moment where corporate power is virtually unchecked. It’s a fundamental concept of how you balance interests. The Koch brothers are the poster boys of this anti-people campaign finance structure.

MB: Has Citizen’s United sparked a counter movement.?

KvH: We had a week of people across this country — called Resolutions Week — where legislators in cities and counties have approved resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to get money out of politics, to overturn Citizens United. A constitutional amendment is a heavy lift. But it’s a long-term goal around which to organize and agitate.

MB: Many people don’t realize is that you can’t find out who is paying for these ads [unless the donor discloses it voluntarily].

KvH: Anonymity is so destructive. And it may well be that Americans will get most of their information from attack ads because local news has been cut back, and it’s very dangerous.

MB: One reform that has been mentioned is that if a corporation runs these ads, the CEO has to come on and say “I’m [for example] Jamie Dimon and I approved this message.”

KvH: I love that because there’s all this talk about taking responsibility, so make that CEO whose corporation is pumping money in take that responsibility.

MB: Does the media have a role here?

KvH: We have not seen the corporate broadcast media play a constructive role. The money is so huge, the media is complicit in this financial-campaign-industry complex. It’s going to require agitation and exposure.

MB: All kinds of other races are being polluted by this money – down ticket races and ballot initiatives.

KvH: Yes. In the short term – as a minimum – we need disclosure, disclosure, disclosure.

MB: What is the most important thing voters ought to be paying attention to this year in regard to money in politics?

KvH: Voting is the first step. Accountability, engagement, movement pressure. The fight for an amendment, for a more democratic country is not an easy one. It demands engagement.

Liberal Hawk Poised to Swoop Down on Iran

On Wednesday (Sept. 19) I posted about how disappointing award-winning Washington Post reporter Dana Priest’s recent nuclear-modernization series (parts 1 and 2) was. I had thought she was poised to investigate the need for it, as well as for nuclear weapons themselves. After all, that’s what she had done in the past with the U.S. intelligence and classified activity system, as well as CIA detention sites overseas.

Turns out that, for whatever reason, Ms. Priest felt compelled to sound the alarm about what she calls “the decrepit, neglected state of the aging nuclear weapons complex,” apparently in order to drum up funds for it, like, yesterday! She writes that federal officials and many outside analysts maintain:

Failing to act before the end of next year … is likely to mean that there won’t be enough time to design and build the new systems that would be required if the old arsenal is no longer safe or reliable.

Tuesday, September 18, brought another, comparable disappointment. Historian Dan Plesch is the Director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at University of London’s School of Oriental and Africa Studies. You can tell where he’s stood on issues by the titles of some of the pieces, alone or with others, he’s written for publications like the Guardian and the New Statesman: What a mess our military has made, Making the Middle East nuclear-free, and Occupy London is reviving St Paul’s history of free speech. And, in May of this year: Disarmament is more practical than we are conditioned to think.

Tuesday’s piece, written with Martin Butcher and Ian Shields, is posted at esteemed British progressive site Open Democracy and is titled Reconsidering war with Iran. I only just realized that the title is a play on the title of a lengthy paper he wrote with Martin Butcher which was published exactly five years ago (September 2007): Considering a war with Iran (emphasis added).

One who had read neither piece and only knew Plesch’s reputation from his other work would naturally be puzzled. What’s being reconsidered? Previous counsel to attack? To refrain from attacking? Neither seems comprehensible in light of Plesch’s reputation as a nonproliferation and disarmament advocate. Hold that thought for the moment.

The authors concluded the earlier piece thusly:

If the attack is “successful” and the US reasserts its global military dominance and reduces Iran to the status of an oil-rich failed state, then the risks to humanity in general and to the states of the Middle East are grave indeed.

The two world wars of 1914-18 and 1939-1945, the creation of nuclear weapons, and the advent of global warming have created successive lessons that humanity and states cannot prosper or survive long unless they hold their security in common — sharing sovereignty and power to ensure both survival and prosperity.

A “successful” US attack, without UN authorisation, would return the world to the state that existed in the period before the war of 1914-18, but with nuclear weapons.

The self-styled realists argue that this is an inevitable and manageable world, the naivety of imagining a nuclear armed world without nuclear war is utopian in the extreme.

Obviously, in 2007 Plesch and Butcher were opposed to attacking Iran. Let’s now turn to the recent Open Democracy piece, which, at first, I thought was seemed simply to be presenting a scenario:

This article (drawing on open source material) will challenge the notion that America will not attack first, and demonstrate that the US has the wherewithal to destroy the Iranian military capability.

They write:

Conventional wisdom is that the US is unable to, or unwilling to risk, a pre-emptive attack and that Tehran is calling all the shots.


The US military, and likely political, readiness for a war using minimum ground forces indicates that the current seeming inaction surrounding Iran is misleading. The United States retains the ability – despite commitments to Afghanistan – to undertake no notice major military operations against Iran that could remove Iran’s ability to retaliate and remove the regime’s ability to function at all.

The enthusiasm with which Plesch and Butcher made their case was somewhat disconcerting. But, after all, this was Open Democracy. Certainly they weren’t suggesting an attack was advisable. Let’s jump ahead to the authors’ conclusion (emphasis added).

America certainly has the firepower to undertake such a mission, and could do so with little or no warning or additional build-up: this would be Shock and Awe on a new scale, while the advantages of a successful campaign – which we believe to be very highly likely – outweigh the potential disadvantages of either doing nothing or prevaricating.

… The US military machine, particularly for high-technology, full-spectrum conflict – as epitomised by air power – offers a President the option of an overwhelming advantage through the use of military force: this remains a viable option that should not be disregarded.

Where, you may be asking, is the disarmament and nonproliferation advocate Dan Plesch in this picture? In fact, his views may be a symptom of his commitment to nonproliferation, if not disarmament in this case. Just as liberal hawks supported invading Iraq both to divest it of supposed WMD and to free its people from a tyrant, Plesch is countenancing an attack on Iran to abort another — thus far imaginary, like Iraq’s –nuclear-weapons program.

But nonproliferation was never intended to be used as a pretext to attack another state. It only convinces the state that’s attacked, as well as its neighbors, that their security depends on acquiring arms commensurate with the attacking state. It’s disturbing to see someone whose previous work has been on behalf of peace sign on to such a project.


On September 26, Dan Plesch wrote us:

The authors oppose an attack on Iran, this piece is written to demonstrate that from within the US government the perception is that war is a far more viable option than is usually recognised and the article is written to explain that perspective”. Plesch commented that anyone familiar with his work would recognise this and that he has had several Iranians commend him for putting in the public domain an all too real scenario. Plesch added that people should note that the US and UK publics re-elected Bush and Blair despite the war in Iraq, so that the precedent is that even a disaster on the scale of Iraq need not have electoral consequences. Wiser counsel must prevail to stop war but wishful thinking over ill thought through disaster scenarios is worse than useless.

WaPo’s Dana Priest’s Alarmist Excursion Into the Nuclear Weapons-Industrial Complex

It was with some anticipation that I approached Dana Priest’s series in the Washington Post on nuclear-weapons modernization. After all, she’d won a Pulitzer prize and George Polk award for her reporting on CIA detention sites overseas and, along with William Arkin, she’d written Top Secret America, a three-part series on how immense the U.S. intelligence and classified activity system had become.

With the nuclear-weapons modernization articles, I was expecting an examination of the need for modernization and of nuclear weapons in general. Instead, Ms. Priest began the first article, Aging U.S. nuclear arsenal slated for costly and long-delayed modernization, by sounding an alarm about what she perceives as “the decrepit, neglected state of the aging nuclear weapons complex.” She writes that despite this ostensible state of affairs

… officials have repeatedly put off sinking huge sums into projects that receive little public recognition, driving up the costs even further.

Now, as the nation struggles to emerge from the worst recession of the postwar era and Congress faces an end-of-year deadline to avoid $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts to the federal budget over 10 years, the Obama administration is overseeing the gargantuan task of modernizing the nuclear arsenal to keep it safe and reliable.

… Federal officials and many outside analysts are nonetheless convinced that, after years of delay, the government must invest huge sums if it is to maintain the air, sea and land nuclear triad on which the country has relied since the start of the Cold War. Failing to act before the end of next year, they say, is likely to mean that there won’t be enough time to design and build the new systems that would be required if the old arsenal is no longer safe or reliable.

In a lengthy press release, Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, not only pointed out inaccuracies in Ms. Priest’s work, but questioned its basic assumptions. He writes:

Contrary to the impression given by this article, there is nothing about the U.S. nuclear deterrent that is about to “wear out.” The warheads and bombs in particular – the focus of this article – do not “wear out” because they undergo periodic maintenance and upgrade programs of varying intrusiveness, roughly on an as-needed basis.

The one component of the U.S. nuclear arsenal that will “wear out,” and which will do so more or less on a succession of dates certain, are nuclear submarines.

The most intrusive warhead and bomb modifications are called “life extension programs” (LEPs), which are akin to a “complete factory overhaul.” After each LEP, the warhead or bomb in question is generally expected to last another 30 years before another LEP is needed, although there may be exceptions.

As for the “the decrepit, neglected state of the aging nuclear weapons complex”:

This is grossly inaccurate and misleading. Some buildings are new, replacing others that have been torn down. Most buildings have been properly maintained and are quite serviceable as they are. A few are being intentionally neglected (“run to failure”), sometimes because replacements are planned and sometimes because of bad decisions by senior management. Across the complex, hundreds of buildings are simply not needed, or are grossly oversized for their current missions, or have been adapted for new uses – which may or may not be important. Some buildings have been the subject of major upgrades already.

Then Mello quotes the Post:

An extended stoppage would disrupt the weapons safety work and could force the closing of domestic and foreign civilian reactors that rely on low-enriched uranium from the facility, according to the NNSA.

And responds (emphasis added):

No “weapons safety work” would be interrupted. The LEP program would be interrupted, but this should not be characterized as “weapons safety work.” Nuclear weapons almost always fail toward safety, not danger. There are no weapon safety problems which the LEP program is remedying.

Finally, he addresses a spurious charge by Ms. Priest, who wrote:

For their part, many anti-nuclear activists favor disarmament by atrophy, which would mean not repairing or extending the life span of the current arsenal.


This is absurd. We know of no anti-nuclear activists who favor disarmament by atrophy. In our own case (the Los Alamos Study Group), we believe we offer practical management alternatives which will maintain the arsenal better than NNSA’s program, which is failing, while at the same time our proposals position the country better for disarmament. We believe sound management and good government facilitate disarmament. Virtually all parties agree that NNSA is currently choosing and managing its projects poorly.

In other words, no urgent need to throw vast amounts of money at the U.S. nuclear-weapons industrial complex exists. One can only guess at Ms. Priest’s agenda for trying to scare up the funds. In the end, Mello’s critique obviates the need to even read Dana Priest’s series. With the Washington Post, it seldom pays to get one’s hopes up.

Netanyahu Squandering Israel’s “Rationality” Advantage Over Iran

Widespread in Washington is an assumption as implicit as it is unexamined that the possession of nuclear weapons by Israel, even though it hasn’t signed the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), is acceptable because:

1. It’s an ally.
2. It’s “rational.”

Bear in mind that Iran is a signatory to the NPT and International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors prowl Iran 24/7 365 days a year.*

But Israel, or to be more exact, Prime Minister Netanyahu, seems to be doing everything within his power to disabuse us of the notion that Israel is either an ally or rational. Netanyahu, constantly monitoring his personal tachometer of war, keeps watching for the needle to approach the red line. His latest impolitic outburst occurred on NBC’s Meet the Press, Sunday, July 16. Among other things he said:

Some have even said that Iran with nuclear weapons would stabilize the Middle East, stabilize the Middle East. I think the people who say this have set a new standard for human stupidity.

Of course, proliferation is never a good idea. But Netanyahu’s language became more and more un-prime-minister-like as the show proceeded. Speaking of Iran’s leadership, he said:

They put their zealotry above their survival. They have suicide bombers all over the place. I wouldn’t rely on their rationality, you know, you– since the advent of nuclear weapons, you had countries that had access to nuclear weapons who always made a careful calculation of cost and benefit. But Iran is guided by a leadership with an unbelievable fanaticism. It’s the same fanaticism that you see storming your embassies today. You want these fanatics to have nuclear weapons?

Netanyahu is propagating two myths:

1. Netanyahu is implying that any belief in the return of the Mahdi on the part of Iran’s leadership means that, like Christian millennialists, it courts the Apocalypse.
2. That those attacking American embassies — Sunni extremists at their worst, as in Benghazi — have much in common with Shiite Iran.

Meanwhile, Washington, too, seems incapable of putting itself in Tehran’s shoes. How, Tehran no doubt wonders, does a state like Israel get away with not only not refusing to sign the NPT, but enlisting the help of the entire West in upholding the pretense that it’s not in possession of a nuclear-weapons program?

The jury may still be out on whether disarmament initiatives by states with nuclear-weapons spurs states that aspire to a nuclear-weapons program to give up that dream. But, in a just world, Israel needs to give the world the opportunity to learn what the impact of signing the NPT and allowing IAEA inspectors into its own country would have on Iran before considering an attack. Of course, the evidence that Iran is developing nuclear-weapons or the capability to manufacture is little more — if that — than circumstantial thus far. But nuclear transparency on the part of Israel would likely induce concessions on enrichment from Iran. Of perforce, the temperature of Netanyahu’s war fever would be lowered and the dial on his war tachometer would recede safely into the black.

*Which, incidentally, place them in harm’s way in the event of an attack by Israel. Alternately, if pulled out, Iran knows an attack is forthcoming and Israel loses the element of surprise.

With Friends Like Morris Sadek, Copts Don’t Need Enemies

The dynamic duo: Morris Sadek and Pastor Terry Jones.

The dynamic duo: Morris Sadek and Pastor Terry Jones.

Pastor Terry Jones — the man who gained infamy for threatening to burn the Koran — promised to promote Innocence of Muslims, the film that’s setting off sparks and lighting brush fires across the Middle East. But Morris Sadek is the man who, Daniel Burke at Religion News Service reports, “translated it into Arabic, sent it to Egyptian journalists, promoted it on his website and posted it on social media.” Sadek is “an obscure Egyptian-born Coptic Christian who lives near Washington and proudly touts his ties to Jones.” In other words, Sadek was the catalyst to a conflagration, Jones the catalyst for the catalyst. Burke again (emphasid added):

Morris Sadek describes himself as a human rights attorney and president of a small group called the National American Coptic Assembly, based in Chantilly, Va. … But fellow Copts depict Sadek as a fringe figure and publicity hound whose Islamophobic invectives disrupt Copts’ quest for equal rights in Egypt.

… Sadek “has done a lot of harmful things for Copts in Egypt,” said Cynthia Farahat, Coptic Solidarity’s director of advocacy. “Every single thing he says is used by Islamists to justify terrorism against Copts.”

And that’s the last thing Copts need. At WND, Aaron Klein writes about the persecution to which they were subjected even before this latest episode.

While Copts were targeted by Islamists during Mubarak’s regime, such persecution has increased exponentially since Mubarak’s ouster.

Just weeks after Mubarak was booted, Muslim villagers in March 2011 reportedly set fire to a Coptic church while attacking Christians on the street.

Since last year, two other churches were set on fire in the Imbaba neighborhood of Cairo and in Edfu in the south of the country. Coptic Christian families were also reportedly evicted from their homes in Alexandria.

Some reports say more than 200,000 Copts already have fled their homes.

When Copts attempted to protest last October, security forces reportedly fired at the protesters, killing 24 and wounding more than 300 people.

Maggie Michael of the Associated Press reports on Copt persecution since the film.

“We are afraid the anger will engulf us,” said Monier Hanna, 58, a Coptic government employee who says he saw two unveiled Christian women being harassed over the movie by Muslim men in his middle-class district of Helwan on Thursday.

… Mira Girgis, a 23-year-old Copt and recent college graduate, said she feels insecure.

“I can’t go to church alone; my brother must be with me. I can’t go out at night. When I return from work, a male — either my father or brother — must be waiting for me at the subway station,” she said. “Being a Christian … is hard in Egypt in these conditions.”

A Christian journalist, Caroline Kamel, wrote in the Shorouk daily Friday that she and her family came under attack at a bus terminal in Cairo and another city over the film.

“Am I supposed to … apologize for stupidities of others just for the mere fact that we share the same religion?” she said.

By way of distancing themselves from the film, Copts

… gathered Friday in front of a Cairo cathedral holding signs denouncing a film that mocked the Prophet Muhammad amid fears that Muslims will take out their anger on Egypt’s minority community.

The Coptic Christian Church has issued a statement denouncing the film and rejecting “defamation” of the Muslim faith, and church officials have pledged that Christians will join their “brotherly Muslims” in sit-ins against the movie.

“This is part of a wicked campaign against religions, aimed at causing discord among people, especially Egyptians,” read the statement, issued Wednesday by the Sacred Congregation of the Coptic Church.

Morris Sadek is not only no friend to Middle-Eastern Christians, but, by providing them with a ready-made pretext to incite the public, he’s shown that he’s a friend to Islamic extremists.

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