Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Reviving or Reviling

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”

If that quote is not your cup of tea, there’s always “Bloody Kansas” in the British sense of “bloody” (a swear word).

At least that seems to express the viewpoint of the Kansas State Republican party in the wake of the revelation that the party’s state chairman from 1991 to 2003, Mark Parkinson, has re-registered as a Democrat. Speculation is that he will join the Democratic ticket as the candidate for lieutenant-governor in this November’s election.

Parkinson is not the only one to switch. The current lieutenant governor, who is retiring, made a similar switch to run four years ago. Moreover, a prominent state district attorney, Paul Morrison, has switched to challenge the state’s attorney general.

The state, whose general shape emerged in 1854 when the Kansas-Nebraska Act became law, had earlier been designated Indian Territory. As such, the number of different tribes living in the territory had risen almost four-fold (from 8 to 30) as white settlers drove Native Americans westward. Then there was the question of whether Kansas would be a free or slave state. A referendum gave the nod to slave-owners (mostly from Missouri), but a guerrilla-style war commenced almost immediately thereafter and continued right up to the eve of the Civil War. In early 1861, after four attempts to get a statehood bill passed, Kansas entered the Union as a free state – and has been dominated by Republicans ever since. Currently, both U.S. Senators and three of the state’s four House members are Republicans.

Many have speculated that 2006 may be the year that brings a partial reversal of the 1994 Republican gains in the U.S. Congress. War and the ravages of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan, among other struggles, are creating cross-aisle alliances in both the Senate and House between fiscal conservatives and internationalists who know that the surest way to end war is to prevent it from starting – hence the need for the U.S. to fulfill its international obligations and provide aid that goes toward meeting the needs of the disadvantaged, the downtrodden, and the desperate.

One need not change party label to do the right thing, for no matter how difficult, the “right thing” is embedded in compassion and respect for shared humanity.

“Ad astra per aspera” reads the state motto: “To the stars through difficulties.”

Apt, would you not say?

Monday, May 29, 2006

A zinc-copper penny for your thoughts

Last week, driving home from the office, I heard a short news clip that perhaps was inevitable considering what has been happening to the rest of the financial structures of the country. The rising price of the main raw materials for nickels and pennies had driven the cost of making these two coins more than the coins were worth. The Mint conceded that for every penny it made, it was spending 1.7 cents and for every nickel it was spending 5.7 cents.

Now everyone knows that the U.S. Mint is part of the Department of the Treasury. And everyone also knows that the U. S. is running a huge current account deficit and an even larger trade deficit. These also are matters that are the responsibility of the U. S. Treasury

I have been aware of another Treasury-related phenomenon that started, for me, about six months ago. Among the change I get back from purchases are an increasing number of coins struck in the 1960s. And it’s all the mass circulation coins – the pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters that pour from and into cash registers in an annual $8 billion dollar cascade.

Everyone might not know that when the composition of these most U.S. coins changed in the mid-sixties. The reason was the scarcity of silver – hence its cost. Before 1965, dimes, quarters, and half-dollars were 90% silver. In 1965 that changed; the dime and quarter went to 0% silver while the new Kennedy half went to 70% and then to 40% silver. The new mass circulation Eisenhower dollar and its successor, the Susan B. Anthony, were minted without silver content except for the silver proof sets that were 60% nickel and 40% silver. The Eisenhowers were 75% copper and 25% nickel while the Anthonys were 90.66 copper and 8.33% nickel.

But nickels have always been 100% nickel and pennies 100% copper, right? Wrong. Nickels are 75% copper and 25% nickel. Pennies were 95% copper and 5% zinc until 1982 when they went to 97.5% zinc and 2.5% copper.

The amount of coinage to be in circulation is set by the Federal Reserve Board. The Mint meets the requirement. In FY2001, $564 million or 59% of the Mint's total operational costs were associated with circulating coinage. Another 37% was related to meeting the needs of the numismatic community (coin collectors), with the remaining 4% going to the protection of assets.

The Mint says it has achieved a 19 percent reduction in manufacturing costs since 1997. I have no doubt that the Mint can back this claim with data so reliable that, as the phrase goes, “you can take it all the way to the bank.” And lest one think it possible to make money by cornering the market on coins and selling them for the value of the raw materials, most countries, including the U.S., criminalize the mutilation or defacement of their respective currency, whether coin or paper.

So what you see is not necessarily what you get. And coining a phrase may not be worth your time and effort unless it comes naturally.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Water Everywhere and Nowhere

As the calendar flips past Memorial Day this coming Monday, the price of petrol is expected to go up as the country enters vacation mode and hits the roads.

There is another shortage in the globe’s vital fluids It is the result both of mal-distribution and absolute scarcity Some 75% of the earth’s surface is water; 98% of this surface water is not potable. Of the remaining 2%, 90% is locked in ice at the poles or underground.

In terms of natural distribution, Europe contains 40% of the world’s running surface while 88 developing countries with 40% of the human population fall below the water scarcity barrier of 1,000 cubic meters annually.

Nowhere is the resultant condition as more a threat to peace – the coming resource wars – than in the Middle East, especially the swath called the Fertile Crescent whose arc runs from Egypt through Lebanon into Iraq and Afghanistan

All countries in the region are heavily dependent on irrigation to sustain the intense form of plant cultivation – both legal and illegal.

Three rivers carry the main burden of providing reliable flows of water for the eight most heavily populated countries: Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Egypt’s needs are met by the Nile. But none of the main feeder rivers – the Atbara and the Blue and White Niles – has its origin in Egypt. Ethiopia boasts Atbara and Blue Nile while Burundi, through Lakes Albert and Victoria, is the source for the White Nile. Recognizing Egypt’s vulnerability, and hoping to ameliorate the negative effects of the annual floods, Egypt built the High Aswan hydroelectric dam. (Other reasons for building the Dam included the need to provide useful employment for a young population, to create a new source for electric power, and as part of Gamul Abdal Nasser’s drive to create symbols around which he could build Arab socialism.

The heart of the region is also the most vulnerable, for none the major rivers flow into Israel, Jordon, Syria, or the Palestinian enclaves. Another factor that is contributing to the shortages are the burgeoning populations. In 2000, annual rates of population growth were 1.7% in Israel, 3.1% in Jordan (down to 2.49% in 2006), 3.4% in the West Bank, and 4.0% in the Gaza Strip.

That leaves Turkey, Iraq and Syria. The Euphrates and the Tigris both have headwaters in Turkey. Turkey is planning a series of dams on both rivers in the basin. This has caused enormous consternation n both countries.

By 2025, by some estimates, demand for fresh water will exceed supply by 56%. That’s a recipe for war and for exploitation for profit of life itself. For while it might be hugely inconvenient to have to switch to alternate means of transport (remember walking?) if we run out of recoverable petroleum, the day people run out of water is the day of death.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The End of the World

The folks running the Iraq Casualty Count website have been criticized for being too conservative in accepting reports of civilians killed by any side.

Just how conservative came to light today in a report from the United Nations using the number of death certificates issued by Baghdad morgue. The Iraq Casualty website registered 1,094 fatalities in March and 1,010 in April. The death certificates for those two months were 1,294 and 1,155, respectively. That’s a difference of 15%. But remember, the death certificates are for Baghdad only, so 15% is the minimum. Cause of death was almost universally attributed to a gunshot.

The UN report also said that 85,000 Iraqis had been forced to flee the sectarian violence during these same two months.

Other statistics point to a population on the move, prodded by bombs and bullets. The New York Times said that 7% of Iraq’s population – 1.85 million – had been issued passports. Within this number are a quarter of the middle class.

In the last 17 months, just over 39,550 letters from the education ministry have been sent to parents wishing to take their children’s academic records abroad – presumably with the children.

Neighboring countries are being deluges by émigrés: Jordan has an estimated million Iraq’s.

An Iraqi acquaintance closed her last email: “it seems the end of the world will come soon.” Iraq is going from middle class to murder class.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Next Declared War

Coming to a press conference near you – maybe. Actually it's probable, since we don't declare war anymore except on everything but war.

Did you know that in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson first proposed what came to be known as the War on Poverty, the full title of the program was “The War on the Sources of Poverty.”

Forty-two years later, it’s obvious that the country hasn’t even come close to winning this war – and I’m not sure the country is still fighting.

What we have with us today is the war on drugs and its subsidiary war on marijuana; the war on terror and its subsidiary wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. One can even find on the web references to wars on sex, on porn, on science, on freedom, and yes, Virginia, on Christmas.

Infrequent is the “war on crime” – possibly because the appropriate response to crime is law enforcement, not war. Today of course, the firepower of SWAT (special weapons and tactics) teams is comparable to infantry units of the same size.

Given the hysteria that has been generated over the last month or two, look for someone to make the next “war” to be on immigration. And it might not be restricted to illegal immigration.

Notice however, the general absence of a “war on war” – probably because those opposed to war refrain from using military terms unless the context leaves absolutely no alternative.

But you’ll know we’re in trouble the day someone seriously proposes a “war on peace.”

Friday, May 19, 2006


“I” – the ninth letter in the English alphabet and a pronoun; the first consideration in the various choices made every day by nearly everyone; the psychological center that enables the separation of the “me” from the “not me.”

Occasionally used as a modifier, as in “the I-word.”
Consider the following two examples.

Among the emails that have been piling up in my in-box was a news item that on March 8, the Chapel Hill NC Town Council unanimously voted for a resolution that would apply the “I word” – impeachment – to George W. Bush.

Their reasons for such action rested on three points. The president:

“lied to Congress and the American people to launch an illegal war of aggression”;

“violated human rights by torturing prisoners at home and abroad and detaining suspects with no due process”; and

"unleashed a massive unconstitutional wiretap and spying operation against the people of the United States."

On May 18, General Michael Hayden testified before the Senate Select “I-word” Committee in connection with his confirmation as the new CIA director. The nominee was at all times quite precise in his answers, slicing and dicing about his qualifications (extensive), his forthright, non-partisan approach to “Intelligence,” and his genuine belief that in telling the U.S. public about government intrusion of its civil liberties in the name of security, government would also tell the enemy something they don’t know or suspect already.

One can easily conjure a scenario, a world in which the I-word gradually drops out of the popular lexicon. Going back to Hayden, on many questions he declined to give an answer in public. This reminded me of the prosecutions the government doesn’t pursue because it might have to present classified information to make its case, or the judge would have to be given a security clearance to hear the case – heaven forbid an empanelled jury be told a secret that everybody but the U.S. public already knows.

In the end, the I-word and any public reference to it (like “the I-word”) would be criminalized. But no trial could be held because nothing could be said about the reason for the proceeding. Nor could the accused be let go for fear that more secrets would be disclosed. Eventually, even the Supreme Court would not be permitted to hear an appeal if anything about the case could be considered classified.

It sounds almost like Guantanamo Bay.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Tweaking Uncle Sam's Nose

Venezuela is considering selling its 21 F-16s to a foreign government -- Iran has been mentioned -- because Washington has cut new military aid to that South American government.

This illustrates the old truth that allies are not forever -- especially when the ally suspects someone is trying to remove him or her from power.

Bush at West Point

President Bush is scheduled to give the commencement address at Wesi Point on May 27.
Four years ago, when he spoke to the graduating class at the academy, he first introduced the general concept of preventive war. Less than a year later, those graduates were fighting one in Iraq.

Any suggestions for a bombshell this year -- like a timetable for leaving?

Monday, May 15, 2006

Border Duty

“In America, anybody can be president. That’s one of the risks you take.”
-Adlai Stevenson

President Bush is expected to call for the deployment of “several thousand” National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexican border as part of a broader effort to overhaul the U.S. immigration system.

The White House is saying that the deployments will only be temporary and will not include physical patrolling of the 2,000 mile border by Guard personnel. That will be left to Border Patrol agents whose numbers along the border will be augmented chiefly through turning over administrative duties to contractors.

At least that is how the White House is spinning the solution. But with some of the more conservative Members of Congress calling for the physical deployment of 36,000 or 48,000 troops to the border, the details may well change by speech time.

The last time troops were used along the border was in 1997 in an anti-drug role. The mission was to monitor and report movements so that the Border Police could swoop in and make an arrest. The deployment of small Marine detachments to perform the border watch ended after a Marine shot and killed Ezequiel Hernandez, a goatherd moving his animals along a border he might well have not known.

The White House is dodging questions about which Guard units will be tapped, who will command them, and other details. Many Guard combat units are still trying to recover from lengthy deployments to Iraq where the fatalities – 20 percent of total U.S. deaths – and the wounded unable to return to duty have left key vacancies in unit rosters. Moreover, equipment damage is so severe that a significant number of combat and transport vehicles cannot be repaired but will have to be replaced. The only good news is that just two Guard brigade combat teams are in the Iraq rotation.

The bad news is that over the weekend, governors of three New England states – New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Massachusetts – have declared their states disaster zones because of extensive flooding. Maine may become a fourth. The declarations allow the governors to call out their states’ National Guard to help maintain order and assist ordinary citizen as requested. This “traditional” mission suffered during last hurricane season, in the view of some administration critics, because Guard units from Mississippi and Louisiana were in Iraq when hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast.

As to command and control, the troops involved in the border call-up are expected to be under state command but paid by Washington. In the longer run, governors and adjutants general are seeking more power to shape the debate about and missions assigned to Guard units. Bipartisan legislation that has the backing of the states would elevate the Chief of the National Guard Bureau to four-star rank – equal to the service chiefs – and give him or her a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He (or she) would also become the Deputy Commander of Northern Command, created after September 11, 2001, to coordinate the defense of the continental U.S. against attack and organize the Defense Department’s response should an attack succeed.

Will it work? With a border 1,951 miles long and a nominal Guard strength of 430,000, it would seem possible on the basis of sheer numbers – about 215 troops per mile. Unarmed reconnaissance drones would stretch the coverage, as would the border fence in California, now covering 83 miles. The House of Representatives passed a bill in December 2005 that would authorize barrier fencing totaling 850 miles in the four border states (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California) at a cost of $2.5 billion – nearly $3 million per mile.

Solving the border question equitably will take creative thought. That should rule out any thought of trying to fence the 5,525 miles of the U.S.-Canadian border. One can only hope that – to paraphrase Lily Tomlin – the person responsible for developing a radical, workable, fair system isn’t the person who thought up Muzak.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Law, NSA, and Bush

When General Michael Hayden spoke at the National Press club January 23, 2006, on the original NSA warrantless wire-tapping program, he assured the audience that it was all legal. “You shouldn’t worry,” he concluded.

Well, with the latest revelation about the telecommunications giants (except Qwest) turning over the phone number records of tens of millions of accounts, I think it’s time for the public to do more than simply worry. It’s time to demand a full accounting in straightforward language ( thus not the technical aspects) exactly what President Bush has unilaterally authorized the various intelligence agencies to do as part of his self-proclaimed “global war on terror” (GWOT).

An interesting sidebar to the NSA spying revelations is sharp criticism of the program from a former NSA chief, Admiral Bobby Ray Inman. The admiral called on Bush to either go to Congress and get the wiretap law rewritten to reflect “the modern world” or scuttle the entire program. (Inman, appearing at a public forum sponsored by the New York City Public Library, also called for breaking the CIA into two parts.)
The following – at a minimum – are integral to such an accounting:

- changes in standing guidelines for administrative rulings (e.g., anti-pollution measures);
- presidential signing statements
- intelligence findings
- presidential decision directives, especially those that may have ignored or contravened federal laws.

Speaking of law, some Members of Congress are quite willing to amend the law and the Constitution to “legalize” the president’s edicts. This is exactly the reverse of the reaction I would expect under a system in which the rule of law dominates. Legalizing presidential actions ex post facto is a back-door subversion of the rule of law by the rule of man – what the Founding Fathers spent lives and treasure to escape by throwing out King George.

And they wonder why so many in this country don’t trust government?

Iran, History, and Preventive War

History, it has been said, is what the winning side – the strongest, the most nimble, the most devious, and on occasion the most enlightened – remembers and records for posterity.

This of course, assumes that the “record” survives for posterity to have the opportunity to receive it -- and be interested enough to look at it. Particularly when history was primarily oral, emendations and omissions would not be rare. And even when histories began to be written, manuscripts could disintegrate or be destroyed in subsequent natural or man-made catastrophes.

Then there are the competing views of history – that great men (and women) are the catalysts for history and shape it or that the unfolding of events call forth the women and men with the talents, energy, and drive to seize the moment.

A middle position about how history is made acknowledges the unfolding of natural forces and rhythms which form the backdrop for the movements and activities of animals and humans – or in some cases their lack of activity.

This latter aspect is not trivial. Inaction is a shaper of history as much as action is, for each constitutes a choice, and it is through the myriad choices made or perhaps simply accepted that the future is charted – or perhaps distorted. And because we live in a single, still unfolding universe, we cannot achieve an Archimedean point from which to look at our universe and see how great the distortion might be. Our very act of looking influences (distorts) history.

At one time, war was considered one of the rhythms of life. Even a cursory look at the history passed through generations revealed that the causes of war were legion and could be aggressive or defensive. From time o time, the so-called” Great Captains” emerged, men who seemed at home on the battlefield making the history that others were record.

But war is not simply a rhythm. It is a choice. Most particularly, Preventive War is a distorted choice, for it comes not in the face of a plausible and imminent threat but because a ruler comes to believe, based on present day actions or inaction, that at some indeterminate time if the future, another country or group will pose a threat of great magnitude to that ruler’s successors and to their country.

The distortion created by preventive war is its assumption that the future can be predicted based on the past, on today’s status quo in so doing, preventive war denies the fundamental law that the only universal constant is change.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Iranian Democracy in the 20th Century

For many in the U.S., the history of diplomatic relations between Washington and Tehran is the history of non-relations covering the past 27 years. For it was in 1979 that Iranians succeeded in forcing the Shah to abdicate, followed a few months later by a further regime change that brought the clerics to power in a theocracy. A crowd of young Iranians stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, seizing 52 embassy personnel and holding them captive for 444 days. A long-shot rescue attempt ended in disaster at a rendezvous called Desert One.

This was not the first regime change brought to fruition by the Iranian people. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the despotism of the ruling dynasty sparked a rebellion that, in 1906, finally forced the monarch (Shah) to issue a constitution.

From the start, this “Constitutional Revolution” was under multiple pressures. Hardly had the ink dried on the constitutional decree than the Shah reneged. More than once he detained government ministers. More than once foreign troops, Russian and British, invaded in support of the Shah. But in 1909 he went into exile in Russia. Nonetheless, foreign interventions continued, wreaking havoc on parliament and ministers. By December 1911, the end of the second parliament, the experiment in democracy essentially was over. At least one U.S. citizen died in the fight for freedom.

Another attempt at democracy was made after World War II. This time the interference came from Britain and the U.S. whose agents overthrew the elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh and restored the Shah to the Peacock throne in 1953.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Renuart of the Joint Chiefs on Iran

Last Friday the Telegraph (UK) carried a story about the public remarks by U.S. Lieutenant General Victor Renuart, Director for Plans for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was in the UK.

Renuart’s basic message was that military attacks on Iran pose enormous operational risks as well as high geo-political costs in terms of regional stability and U.S. standing. “Any action militarily is very complicated. And any action by any country will have second-order effects, and that is a strong case to continue the diplomatic process and make it work.”

So is Renuart playing point man for the Chiefs to see who reacts and how. Possibly – but if so, cautiously.

Renuart seems to me to be saying what military professionals know and civilians who govern from ideology always fail to contemplate: war is inherently unpredictable. These unknown unknowns – as Rumsfeld might put it – are the knock-on, second-order effects and the repercussions Renuart cites.

While Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice always make the point that all options are on the table, Bush and Rice in particular also say that the U.S. is working for a non-violent resolution of the stand-off.

Renuart and the Joint Chiefs don’t want and won’t support military action against Iran as long as the U.S. is tied down in Iraq. For what its worth, that is my interpretation of what Renuart is saying – both to the Brits and to the White House.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Peace Quilt

Dear Mr. President….

Diplomacy has at least one trait in common with war: its course is unpredictable and therefore can catch governments by surprise.

As the still unsuccessful occupation of Iraq continues, some analysts see signs that the Bush administration is planning for a fight with Iran. This view is empirical – Bush had not completed the process of regime change and building democratic institutions in Afghanistan before vital assets – personnel, funds, intelligence platforms, unmanned reconnaissance-strike drones – were diverted to plan or be available for invading Iraq.

Even as the White House insists it wants a multinational diplomatic resolution of the status of Iran’s nuclear program, what it really wants is a “solution” on U.S. terms. And Iran, for its part, has demands of its own.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s rhetorical forays against the U.S., Israel, and Europeans have been so consistent in their defiance that his dispatch of a letter offering to discuss a range of issues seems to have caught the White House a bit flat-footed. Washington is focused on stopping Iran’s enrichment program so as to preclude the possibility of diverting highly enriched fissile materials for bombs. Washington’s position is Iran cannot be trusted to stop at three percent enriched fuel for energy production.

The White House also wants Iran to cease interfering in Iraq, a charge Tehran says is baseless. Ahmadinejad, for his part, says he is ready to talk on a host of issues directly with the U.S. Talk he is able to do, but in reality, his status and the status of any promises he might make are subject to the governing councils and the Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

While Washington dithers, ordinary citizens in Idaho are acting. Their dialogue, like that between Washington and Tehran, has two sides. Unlike Washington and Tehran, Idaho’s two sides are reinforcing.

The first actual begins in 1870 when, on the second Sunday of May, a “Mothers' Day for Peace” proclamation, written by poet Julia Ward Howe (who also penned the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”), was read. Its concluding paragraph was a powerful appeal.

“In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of internationalquestions, the great and general interests of peace.”

As the post-Napoleonic “Concert of Europe” disintegrated, peace societies multiplied across the country. Many actively sought alternatives to war rather than relying on religious proscriptions against killing. Inevitably, the great gathering envisioned by Howe took place – but it was not restricted to women. In mid-April 1907, as diplomats negotiated what became the 1907 Hague Conventions protecting noncombatants in times of war, 40,000 marched in New York City to express their support while in churches across the United States, 50,000 sermons were delivered on “Peace Sunday.”

Fast forward 77 years to 1984 in Boise where a red, white, and blue “National Peace Quilt” with 50 panels – one for each state – is unveiled. Each panel contains a child’s vision of what peace and security would “look like.” The inscription on the quilt reads:

“REST beneath the warmth and weight of our
hopes for the future of our children,
DREAM a vision of the world at peace,
ACT to give the vision life.”

Each U.S. Senator is challenged by the Boise ladies to take the quilt home and sleep under it for one night. In return, the names of those participating were embroidered on the quilt. Over the course of 1985-86, sixty-seven senators participated, recording in the “National Peace Quilt Log Book” their own personal vision of peace and how to achieve that goal.

This Mothers' Day, May 14, marks the 20th anniversary of the collective dreams of peace recorded in a log book in Boise following (one hopes) a restful night. The Idaho Peace Coalition will send Mothers’ Day Peace Entreaties to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – whose chairperson and ranking member took their turn resting an dreaming under the blanket 20 years ago – asking the committee to redouble their efforts to develop diplomatic solutions to will resolve the animosity between the United States and Iran.

Friday, May 05, 2006

When Words Matter

Has a war ever started because of a speech of other remarks by one official about another country?

Probably. One modern instance that is a close parallel is the World War I era Zimmermann Telegram. Imperial Germany’s Foreign Minister suggested an alliance between Imperial Germany and Mexico should the U.S. enter the war on Britain’s side. Zimmermann confirmed the telegram’s authenticity in February 1917, when the U.S. public was moving (or being moved by the Wilson White House) toward war. It arguably represented a final if not the final “evidence” of German perfidy.

Has a war ever been started because purportedly irrefutable evidence presented to decision-makers to justify war wasn’t irrefutable or even evidence?

The “second attack” on U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin didn’t precipitate U.S. involvement in Vietnam but it did mark the point from which Lyndon Johnson greatly expanded the U.S. presence in the South and the air war over the North.

And then there is Iraq – the non-existent weapons of mass destruction, the Nigerian yellow-cake, the non-existent mobile bio-warfare labs, the aluminum tubes for nuclear weapons.

Has a war ever been started because something purportedly said by a ruler or an official pronouncement was incorrectly translated?

Again, probably, and again there is a close parallel in our own time. In April 2003, tensions between North Korea and the U.S. suddenly ratcheted up when the official North Korean News Agency initially mistranslated one of its own statements. The mistake, of course, was about nuclear weapons production: the first translation suggested they had already processed the spent fuel rods while the correction said they were on the verge of reprocessing.

Washington, of course, would have been hard-pressed to do anything about it as the White House was fully occupied with the invasion of Iraq and the first indications of how difficult the occupation would be.

Another Iraq-related instance is found in Bush’s October 2002 speech in which the president states: “Saddam Hussein has held numerous meetings with Iraqi nuclear scientists, a group he calls his ‘nuclear mujahedeen’ – his nuclear holy warriors”

As Dr. Glen Rangwala, Lecturer in Politics at Cambridge University, England, points out, the transcript of Saddam’s entire speech reveals that the context is nuclear energy, with even the phrase “nuclear energy mujahedeen.” Nuclear weapons are not mentioned.

The most recent example, with the potential to come back to haunt the U.S. and other western countries, is a mistranslation of remarks by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The translation picked up by the media was: “Israel should be wiped off the face of the map.” Juan Cole, one of the most knowledgeable authorities on the Middle East, strongly disputes this translation as this idiomatic structure does not exist in Persian.

The proper translation is: “This occupation regime over Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time” – something far different from the implied use of military power conveyed in “wiping off the map." There are many options for diplomacy and non-violent dispute resolution by which an “occupation regime” can be ended.

The White House might do well to take careful note.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Bombs Away! Or Bomb Anyway

December 2001: the USAF dropped the 15,000 pound Daisy Cutter on the cave complex in Afghanistan known as Toro Bora. At the time, this was the largest bomb in the U.S. arsenal.

The same month, the Pentagon sent ten of the more lethal 2,000 pound thermobaric bombs to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Thermobaric weapons are dual action: one explosion disperses a fine mist of under-oxidized fuel into a confined space such as a room in a building or a cave. A second explosion ignites the mixture, generating a flash fireball and pressure wave that kill any person or animal in the immediate effects zone. Anyone who escapes these effects most likely will still die as the spreading fireball consumes all the oxygen in the space.

Those old enough to remember Jimmy Carter’s presidency might recall the so-called “neutron bomb” which was supposed to be an alternative to “ordinary” nuclear weapons. Unlike a “conventional” nuclear weapon, the neuron bomb only killed people. It did not destroy things. Thermobarics come close to the same result, although the pressure wave shock could collapse some structures and the fireball ignite flammables.

The latest iteration of “kill people – don’t destroy things” (or innocent by-standers) weapon under development is the “focused-lethality munition,” touted as a super-precision weapon. Perhaps most people remember the first Gulf War and the video tapes from airplane nose cameras showing a 2,000 or maybe a 1,000 pound laser designated bomb going down a building chimney or through a window. Today’s bomb of choice for urban combat support is a satellite-guided 500 pound bomb, soon to be a 250 pound weapon. These bombs work – that is, kill – by the tried and true methods of blast and spraying shrapnel 360 degrees.

Enter tomorrow’s bomb sporting a carbon composite case which, because it fractures more easily than current metal casings, absorbs less of the blast (which goes further) but also doesn’t distribute shrapnel as far. The interior of the bomb includes the usual explosives augmented by a metal powder that, riding the blast wave, is lethal but m=limited in range by gravity. The net effect of all these changes is to reduce the lethality radius, but within that radius to blow away every hard object – including people. (Wall Street Journal))

One hesitates to commend development of weapons with increased lethality even with the prospect that, when used, casualties among innocent by-standers are reduced. Yet there is something less onerous in the “focused lethality” bomb when it is stacked beside another USAF development that will be tested June 2 at the former Nuclear Weapons Test Site 90 miles north of Las Vegas. This test will detonate 700 tons (in later reports lowered to just under 600 tons) – that is to say 1,400,000 pounds – of conventional explosives in a hole 36 feet deep to allow scientists to measure ground shock waves and from these estimate damage to various underground or buried facilities. (Washington Post)

The deeper rationale for the ground test is to try to determine if a very large conventional weapon could be powerful enough to damage deeply buried bunkers sufficiently to knock them out of a battle (command and control headquarters) or destroy possible chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons and missiles.

Some skeptics think the test will not be conducted fairly or that the results will be skewed to “demonstrate” that the only way to be sure buried targets can be neutralized is by using nuclear weapons. And considering that the administration is pressing for money to build 125 new nuclear weapons annually – including new designs – to replace older bombs that the Pentagon says cannot be considered reliable, the skeptics may be on to something.

Not since the Cold War ended has the United States produced a nuclear warhead (1989) or tested one (1992).

Does anyone feel a chill?

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Senate and the Supplemental

The Senate debate on the FY2006 Emergency Supplemental resumes after the weekend during which major rallies were held across the nation to protest the Iraq war and the tepid response by the administration and other governments to the genocide in Darfur.

The rallies were intended to maintain momentum that has been building on both Iraq and Darfur during the previous two weeks when Members were in their districts meeting with constituents. And when they returned last Monday, Members were confronted with a major coordinated call-in on Iraq that sparked some of the proposed amendments.

Some amendments proposed will strengthen the pending legislation while others fall short. Senator Biden is expected to submit an amendment prohibiting the expenditure of any funds in the bill on permanent basing in Iraq or to exercise control over oil infrastructure is on the mark. Senator Feingold’s misses as his proposal, while providing for troop withdrawal by the end of 2006, leaves a “minimal force for engaging directly in targeted counter-terrorism activities…and protecting U.S. infrastructure and personnel. Since embassy protection via Marines is a given for all U.S. embassies, this proposal, if accepted, would leave open the door for permanent installations and U.S. troop presence.

Biden would help pay for the Iraq war by canceling tax breaks affecting the wealthiest if the breaks have not already kicked in. Biden, Kennedy, and Leahy would target $96 million to promote democracy and build civic society in Iraq; while this may help grass roots democracy in Iraq, the $25 million that Senator Santorum wants to build democracy in Iran is wasted until or unless some administration finally ends the now 27 year old grudge against Tehran. (This doesn’t meaning forgetting, just moving on.) Senator McConnell also introduces sanity back into the Palestinian issue by giving the president authority to waive restrictions on assistance to the Palestinian Authority and to support democracy building.

A sense of the Senate resolution that has been adopted (94-0) would require that future requests for money for military operations ongoing when the annual budget request is about to be sent to Congress – including for Iraq and Afghanistan – be included in the regular budget request rather than in a supplemental. This may be contentious in any Senate-House conference.

On Darfur, Senators Biden and DeWine call for funds to pay for the U.S. share of costs to keep NATO assistance flowing to the African Union mission in Darfur and to continue the activities of the special envoy of the president in Darfur.

Together with restoration of full funding for Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction funds and other provisions on veterans’ health care, some of which operate at cross-purposes and will have to be reconciled before a final vote, the foreign affairs side of the supplemental is about as political feasible as is possible.

The big question is what will be cut, first in the Senate to get the price tag down to the $94 billion range, and then in conference with the House.