Wednesday, October 31, 2007

UN Bulletin: Space, Nukes, and Snubs

It might be remembered how the cold hand of fear gripped the world’s heart when China plunked one of its own satellites this January and it was understood that something had to be done.

At that time it was understood that China might be interested in an international dialogue that would regulate the militarization of space.

In fact, as I look at the context, maybe the operation was a copycat of the North Korean nuclear test—an effort to forcibly attract U.S. attention and compel engagement.

If so, it didn’t work.

Earlier this month, China and Russia cosponsored a draft resolution at the U.N. calling for “transparency and confidence building measures in outer space activities” that might prevent an arms race.

On October 29, the U.S. was the only country out of 172 to vote against a presumably similar draft resolution “that would have the Assembly call upon all States, in particular those with major space capabilities, to contribute actively to the objective of the peaceful use of outer space and of the prevention of an arms race in outer space and to refrain from actions contrary to that objective and to the relevant existing treaties in the interest of maintaining international peace and security and promoting international cooperation”.

U.S. hostility to any sort of international frou-frou that might limit our freedom of action in outer space is well-known.

In this case, it’s interesting that apparently the United States was simply not interested in doing any diplomatic heavy lifting that might have provided some diplomatic cover from close allies like the U.K., Japan, Australia, etc. who will usually hold their noses and vote with us if we ask for a favor.

The only abstention on the resolution came from Israel, which is apparently keen to demonstrate to the Bush administration that Washington and Tel Aviv are joined at the hip, even in scraps we care nothing about.

I think China will interpret America’s ostentatiously lone no vote as a message that the U.S. sees space as an important area of strategic and technical superiority, and will not tolerate any effort to curtail our (hopefully perpetual) advantages up there.

Since the Chinese space (and anti-satellite) program seems to be chugging along nicely, this might not turn out to be one of our smarter decisions.

In other news from Turtle Bay, the International Atomic Energy Agency and Elbaradei haven’t been getting a lot of love from the United States lately.

On Syria, WSJ via Josh Landis :

But U.S. and Israeli officials said they have no intention of cooperating with the IAEA on the Syria issue. Some U.S. diplomats derided the U.N. agency for failing to identify the Syrian program itself. These U.S. officials said involving the IAEA before the Israeli strike could have bogged down the Syrian proliferation threat in endless rounds of negotiations at the U.N. Security Council, with no action.

"The Israelis decided to take care of this early on," said the U.S. official working on nuclear-proliferation issues. "We don't want to involve an agency that thinks it's in control, but isn't."

On Iran via AFP:

The United States on Monday brushed aside the UN nuclear watchdog agency chief's warning that there was no proof Iran seeks atomic weapons, and invited him to stay out of diplomacy with Tehran.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told CNN Sunday that he had no evidence Iran was building nuclear weapons and accused US leaders of adding "fuel to the fire" with their warlike rhetoric.

"He will say what he will. He is the head of a technical agency," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters. "I think we can handle diplomacy on this one."

And on October 29, Elbaradei presented the IAEA annual report to the United Nations and seemed to receive a somewhat subtle snub.

A departure from previous practice occurred:

Reaffirming its confidence in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year, the General Assembly today adopted a resolution appealing to Member States to continue to support the Agency’s indispensable role in “encouraging and assisting the development and practical application of atomic energy for peaceful uses”.

A similar resolution had required a recorded vote for the last three years, but the Assembly reaffirmed, by consensus, its strong support for the Agency’s activities in the area of technology transfer to developing countries and in nuclear safety, verification and security. [emp. added]

Russia and China piped up with statements supporting the IAEA, but the United States was conspicuous by its silence

I can’t help feeling that the switch from a recorded vote to a statement of consensus (justified by the fact that the resolution had 90 sponsors) was meant to avoid a sticky scene where the United States might abstain if not vote against giving the IAEA this meaningless attaboy.

Of course, the US has a long-standing grudge against Elbaradei and his annoying war-questioning and Nobel-prize winning ways.

The none-too-subtle campaign first to derail Elbaradei’s work on Iraq and then punish him by denying him a third term produced one of my favorite items “it’s all in the game nothing to see here” journalism by the Washington Post in 2004 .

The U.S. government tapped Elbaradei’s phone and also leaked the transcripts to Dafna Linzer without even bothering with the whole plausible deniability thing. Three (!) U.S. government officials confirmed the existence of the program.

Since the tapes were devoid of dirt, we can assume that the leakers were probably not connected to John Bolton (who was embarrassingly relentless in his pursuit of Elbaradei) and were more likely affiliated with Colin Powell (who was all too happy to see Bolton embarrassed).

My favorite line:

... eavesdropping, even on allies, is considered a well-worn tool of national security and diplomacy...

Add a resigned shrug from the IAEA:

"We've always assumed that this kind of thing goes on," IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said. "We wish it were otherwise, but we know the reality."

If a Nobel-winning peacenik like Elbaradei can tolerate a little wiretapping, I guess we're being too alarmist about the whole FISA thing. It's just a "well-worn tool" so maybe we should take a tip from Queen Victoria and just lie back and enjoy it.


The whole idea of advancing regional security through international organizations is dead, thanks in no small part the United States’ unwillingness to support or even respect the process.

The only question is whether refractory U.S. unilateralism will lead to war with Iran, as many inside the U.S. profess to believe, or whether it will lead to grudging engagement with the Iranian government—which is what international opinion hopes will happen.

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