Friday, May 29, 2009

America's Dirty North Korean Secret

There’s nothing new about Kim Jung Il setting off atomic bombs and launching missiles in order to attract attention.

The same thing happened in 2006.

At the heart of North Korea’s seemingly reckless behavior is a strong desire to assert an independent economic and geopolitical role for itself in North Asia.

Lips and teeth rhetoric notwithstanding, North Korea and China have never been that close.

Kim Il-sung was Stalin’s client. China fought against the United States on North Korea’s behalf in the Korean War, but still resents the fact that this exercise in socialist solidarity forced the Communists to abandon their planned invasion of Taiwan and the reunification of the country.

North Korea’s serious economic problems—and its desperate reliance on China’s good offices--began when the Soviet Union broke up and Moscow abandoned its traditional patronage of Pyongyang.

North Korea has never behaved like a loyal ally of China’s, let alone a client.

At one tense moment in their relations, Pyongyang even threatened to open air links with Taipei in retaliation for Beijing’s lack of cooperativeness.

In the minds of the North Koreans, I would suspect that they see their nation as, potentially, another South Korea.

Indeed, the material foundation for an economic miracle in North Korea is stronger than South Korea’s.

It might be said that North Korea’s economic avatar is China’s state-mediated growth, while South Korea relies on a resource-poor, globalized Japanese-style hypereconomy whose long-term sustainability is open to question.

Unlike South Korea, North Korea has abundant supplies of hydropower and coal energy.
The canard that North Korea is “dependent on China for most of its energy supplies” needs to be laid to rest periodically.

In 2006, I took a close look at the North Korean conundrum in a post entitled Intimate Enemies: Pyongyang, Beijing, and the Nuclear Factor.

It gives an idea of the risibly small import needs of North Korea, in contrast to the immense foreign food and energy inputs required to sustain the South Korean economy.

According to the Federation of American Scientists, North Korea has significant reserves of coal and hydropower and continues:

Oil accounts for about 6% of total North Korean primary energy consumption, and is largely limited to non-substitutable uses such as motor gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. Oil is imported from China and the Soviet Union by pipeline, and from Iran by sea.

North Korea relies on coal for power generation, exports over $100 million of coal to China per annum, and even exports electric power to China on occasion, presumably when it is desperate for a quick shot of foreign exchange. Last year it imported about $286 million dollars worth of petroleum products from China, mostly crude.

In contrast, South Korea imports 70% of its grain and 97% of its energy needs—a combined tab of about $20 billion per year—to keep its economy humming.

The difference, of course, is that South Korea is integrated into the global capitalist economy and easily generates the hard currency needed for its imports. North Korea went the other way, allying with a socialist bloc that collapsed catastrophically in 1989 and now has to scramble to come up with the foreign exchange to finance its imports.

It is certainly true that North Korea is dependent on China for most of its petroleum needs.

China’s insistence on doling out diesel and other products only in return for hard currency has certainly contributed to the devastation of North Korea’s agriculture and industry.

Energy supply is undoubtedly a sore point in the already fraught relations between the two countries and I suspect China is squeamish about playing the petroleum card any more aggressively than it already has, lest it provoke a furious outburst from Pyongyang.

The partial energy blockage is, in one sense, counterproductive. It feeds the North Korean elite’s sense of grievance and provides it with a useful external scapegoat for its enormous troubles.

I think it would be worth considering that North Korea’s highly disciplined, militarized autocracy is nationalistic and patriotic does not consider itself a collection of criminal fiends guzzling imported cognac while dancing on the crumbling bones of its suffering citizens.

It considers itself a society that, if it was able to shed its pariah status and rejoin the family of nations as a PRC-style mixed socialist export-oriented economy (with an impoverished and ill-nourished workforce grateful for any wage above the starvation level), would probably thrive and have no problem importing the relatively insignificant energy inputs it needs to survive.

North Korea wants improved relations with the United States, and to engage in a controlled opening of its economy and society. In return, Pyongyang is offering itself to Washington as a counterweight to Beijing in North Asia.

The dirty secret of U.S.—North Korea relations is that the United States, unwilling to take positive measures that would prolong the survival of the Kim Jung Il regime, let alone midwife its return to respectability in the international community, has decided to let the situation fester—and the North Korean people rot in a misery that is probably eminently reversible.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Does the Obama Administration Have Any Clue About North Korea?

The Bush administration refuses to deal with Kim Jung Il

The Obama administration calls on China to handle the North Korea mess

Ah, for the good old days of the Bush administration.

So simple, so easy to predict and analyze.

One always knew that it would make the stupidest, most violent, and most vehement response to any policy irritant.

Like Curly of the Three Stooges banging himself on the head with a two-by-four to rout a pesky fly.

I am willing to give the Obama foreign policy team more credit.

But maybe we’ve only upgraded from the Three Stooges to the Marx Brothers.

I find the willful bewilderment of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus on the issue of North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile tests utterly baffling.

The explanation, to me at least, is rather simple.

North Korea is facing hostility from the right wing government in South Korea. It is dealing with calculated indifference from China, which is more interested in links with Seoul than Pyongyang.

North Korea is begging for one of those (I’m sorry, but it has to be said) “Nixon goes to China” moments from the Obama administration, so it can improve its economic and geopolitical position (and secure the survival of the current set of characters running things in Pyongyang) without worrying about the US taking advantage of the regime destabilization opportunities that will be created by any attempt to open up an profoundly impoverished society sandwiched between three very prosperous states: China, South Korea, and Japan.

Kim Jung Il wants to shuffle the geopolitical deck in North Asia by closing the books on the Six Party talks (mediated by China and a necessary evil when Pyongyang faced the concentrated hostility of the Bush administration) and negotiating directly with the United States.

Banging off nuclear tests and firing missiles don’t look like the best way to attract Washington’s attention, but Kim Jung Il is doing the best with the meager hand he’s got.

When the tired old tropes about insane dictators are trotted out, I hope someone realizes that it’s a matter of survival for small states disliked by the U.S. to be careful, rational, and calculating; it’s only superpowers like the United States that can afford occasional spasms of insanity like the Bush administration’s plan to democratize the Middle East through invasion.

Kim has a plan and he’s currently considering what kind of provocation will force the United States to deal with him, without endangering the survival of his regime.

Therefore, earnest calls on China from the United States to handle the unpleasant, grinding chore of restraining and cleaning up after the North Korean pit bull are unlikely to yield positive results because

a) the North Koreans are trying to break away from Chinese influence and will fight U.S. efforts to force them back into the framework of the Six Party talks;

b) as long as North Korea is politically and diplomatically isolated from the rest of the world and hopelessly dependent on Chinese assistance and diplomatic good offices, it’s in China’s interest simply to let the matter fester without a resolution of the nuclear and missile issues that worry Japan and the western powers.

The analogy isn’t perfect, but we’re basically telling the wife who’s screaming out the window that she’s getting battered by her spouse to go back and work things out with her husband.

The way the current policy is evolving, it will simply increase China’s leverage on North Korea without achieving significant improvements in the regime’s behavior.

One would like to think this point is clear to the Obama administration.

Maybe they’ve got the whole situation scoped out, have decided that the North Korean problem will be solved in Obama’s second term (i.e. never) and have consciously made the call to let Kim stew in his dysfunctional relationship with the Chinese.

Then again, maybe they’re just clueless.

But in either case, for the sake of the long-suffering North Korean people, I hope the Obama administration has more in mind than malign neglect.

Nixon-Mao image from The New Yorker

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Article on Guantanamo Uyghurs Up at Asia Times Online

I wrote an article Uyghurs Sold Out by the US for Asia Times Online.

It describes how the Republican counterattack on President Obama’s Guantanamo policy torpedoed the simultaneous release of 17 Uyghur detainees at Guantanamo to destinations in the United States and Europe.

The release was closer than most people realize.

There are indications that Obama hoped to announce the Uyghur release as part of the rollout of his new post-Guantanamo security and detention policy last week.

The twist was that European governments—led by Germany—had agreed to take Uyghurs only if the United States took some, too and bore the brunt of China’s displeasure.

When the Republicans stampeded the Congress on the Guantanamo issue and Harry Reid joined the NIMBY posturing about chunking terrorists in America’s neighborhoods, the Uyghur release went pffft.

The Republican effort was spearheaded by Newt Gingrich, who wrote a shamelessly misleading and inflammatory op-ed about the Uyghur detainees, characterizing them as dangerous, television-flinging Islamicist terrorists.

The question of interest: did Mr. Gingrich unwittingly scotch the planned release in the course of an opportunistic attack? Or did he knowingly seize upon the Uyghur issue in order to sabotage the release and deny Mr.Obama a signal and significant foreign policy victory?

In either case, it looks like another dishonorable chapter in the biography of America's Machiavelli.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

WaPo’s Colum Lynch Gets the North Korea BDA Story Bass Ackwards

I heard one Colum Lynch, UN correspondent for the Washington Post, pontificating on the current North Korean nuke crisis on PRI (Public Radio International).

Lynch joined the PRI anchor, Lisa Mullins, in lauding the financial sanctions imposed on Banco Delta Asia in 2005 by the Bush administration as an example of " some measures against North Korea that worked" i.e. a model of effective multi-lateral soft-power shenanigans.

I understand that liberals are enamored of soft power as a more desirable alternative to the “bomb ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out” unilateralism of the Bush administration.

But listing the BDA circus as an example of the exercise of multi-lateral, rule o’ law soft power is nonsense.

The BDA sanctions—and the hardliner policy behind them—drove North Korea to build and explode a nuclear bomb.

North Korea only resumed negotiations with the U.S. when the BDA sanctions were abandoned.

It’s an embarrassing chapter in neo-con history; I guess that’s why we don’t hear much about it.

Except here.

Patient readers of this blog know that I posted non-stop on the BDA situation in 2006 and 2007.

The Banco Delta Asia sanctions were a complete failure.

They were instituted by anti-North Korean hardliners within the Bush administration in order to advance a regime change agenda on the cheap.

They were not an exercise in multilateralism. They were an attempt to impose a unilateral American North Korea policy when the Bush administration was unable to persuade China, Russia, and pretty much anyone else to institute an economic blockade against Pyongyang.

We didn’t sanction North Korea; we sanctioned our allies. And we threatened to sanction China, whose sympathy and support is critical to any North Korea policy.

Banco Delta Asia was chosen as a test case, to threaten China with an attack on their banking interests if they didn’t toe the U.S. line on North Korea.

Contrary to Mr. Lynch’s ignorant assertion that North Korea employed BDA as a conduit to launder counterfeit currency, the only confirmed instance of North Korean account holders attempting to deposit counterfeit cash in BDA occurred in 1994, and was detected and reported by BDA. .

The hardline policy epitomized by the BDA sanctions collapsed soon after North Korea exploded its nuclear bomb.

Instead, Secretary of State Rice turned to Christopher Hill to negotiate with North Korea within the framework of the Six-Party talks mediated by China.

After an agreement was reached, the Treasury Department deliberately obstructed a key element—the return of $24 million dollars in North Korea-related accounts at BDA to Pyongyang—for three months in a futile effort to sabotage the deal.

It’s a fascinating story.

When the history of the decline of the U.S. financial system is written, the BDA fiasco will probably be recognized as a tipping point, when the Treasury Department emerged as the Bush administration’s international hatchet man and its traditional image as an honest broker and diligent guardian of the integrity of the international financial system was irrevocably tainted.

Unless, of course, that history is written by Colum Lynch.


One could do worse than to read the reporting of McClatchy’s Kevin Hall, the only journalist, in my opinion, who got the North Korean sanctions story right.

Of course, you could also do worse than read the 58 posts I wrote on North Korea between October 2006 and October 2007.

Here’s one.

Fittingly, it dissects a craptacular piece of mainstream media reporting.

Also, for those looking for an insight into the motives behind the current bomb and missile tests, the article points to an abiding preoccupation of North Korea: the hope that the United States will respond to these provocations by entering into direct negotiations with the North Korea to normalize relations, thereby enabling Pyongyong to reduce its reliance on its overbearing and not-too-friendly ally, the People's Republic of China.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Two Lost Years

History Gets Whacked by Lazy Time Magazine Stenography on North Korean “Soprano State”...

...But Lawrence Wilkerson Provides a Much Needed Corrective

With the shutdown of the reactor at Yongbyon, the Six Party agreement to denuclearize North Korea has lumbered into its next stage.

That means it’s time for all the hardliners who eagerly predicted the collapse of the agreement (and, indeed, may have worked actively to sabotage it by hindering the unfreezing of the North Korean accounts at Banco Delta Asia in Macau) to avoid unwelcome comparisons between their own counterproductive measures and the current success of the engagement policy.

Facts must be spun, failure must be obfuscated, reputations must be burnished and, I suppose, think tank sinecures must be defended until indifference and fading memory permit these indefatigable and unchastened screwups to return to positions of power within the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy.

So it looks like it’s time once again for a complacent press will provide political cover to anxious Beltway apparatchiks in return for access to a selective slice of the inside story... that glosses over a crucial two year period of failure—2005 and 2006—during which North Korea policy was under the undisputed control of the hardliners.

Case in point: Time Magazine’s expose of Kim Jung Il, “The Tony Soprano of North Korea.”

The article draws on assertions by David Asher, currently at the Heritage Foundation, who worked as a senior advisor in the State Department until mid-2005.

Mr. Asher was the driving force behind the hardliners’ aggressive implementation of the Illegal Activities Initiative (IAI). The IAI focused the enforcement actions of various U.S. departments on alleged illegal activities by North Korea, including cigarette counterfeiting, the meth trade, Supernote counterfeiting, money laundering and trade in protected species.

Mr. Asher’s twin legacies will probably be 1) using the IAI to instigate the Patriot Act Section 311 investigation of Banco Delta Asia in Macau that turned into an embarrassing fiasco and 2) his notorious but publicly unsupported statement that the investigation was a part of a planned effort to intimidate China by “killing the chicken to scare the monkeys”.

Time’s authors, Bill Powell and Adam Zagorin, could have grilled Mr. Asher about his role in the Bush administration’s hardline North Korean diplomacy in 2005/2006, which ended in North Korea’s detonation of its first atomic bomb, the failure to create an effective regional coalition to support Washington’s policy of confrontation against Pyongyang, the departure of the key hardline architects, Bolton, Joseph, et. al., and the laborious dismantling (and discrediting) of the ineffectual U.S.-led financial blockade that failed to bring Kim Jung Il to his knees.

Too bad they didn’t.

The story of how the hardliners drove America’s North Korea policy into a ditch is an interesting and important one, and it isn’t too hard to dig out.

Recently, I had the pleasure of corresponding with Lawrence Wilkerson, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff during the first George W. Bush administration.

My attention had been drawn to Mr. Wilkerson by the contrast between his perspective on the IAI and a recent claim of Mr. Asher’s.

Lawrence Wilkerson, as reported in the Wall Street Journal in 2005, had this to say about the IAI:

Larry Wilkerson, who was former Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff, said in an interview that the effort -- which officials named the Illicit Activities Initiative -- was launched to augment, rather than undercut, diplomacy.

In Congressional testimony in 2007, David Asher spoke of his resistance to the U.S. concession on Banco Delta Asia that ended the standoff concerning the frozen North Korean funds, and provided his characterization of the IAI::

We designed this initiative with the goal of countering these [illicit] activities themselves...not necessarily supporting the Six Party talks.”

Well, which was it? Was the IAI designed for diplomacy...or something else?

Mr. Wilkerson, who, one might say, was present at the creation, commented to China Matters:

[The North Korea Working Group] was the most successful interagency group of the first Bush administration. It had members from every element of the federal bureaucracy. We forged a consensus, a way ahead, a plan of attack...

The primary reason of the Illicit Activities Initiative was to give us a tool for negotiating the Six Party agreement. That tool would be the "stick" with which we would attempt to make the DPRK negotiators more receptive to our desires with regard to their nuclear and missile programs, as well as their illicit activities. ...

David Asher liked to assume there was a real crimefighter I’m going to get you [component to the IAI]. [But it was always meant to be] orchestrated with astute diplomacy.

... I believe that once we had gone, John Bolton and others put the IAI to use as a stand-alone policy to attempt to force regime change in Pyongyang by drying up the money with which Kim Jong-il essentially kept his generals happy.

As to whether getting the North Koreans to walk out of the Six Party talks was part of the original, devilishly clever scheme for the Illicit Activities Initiative, I had this exchange with Mr. Wilkerson:

Was the BDA investigation part of the plan? Was the North Korean walkout in 2005 a contingency you had planned for?

No. [In President Bush’s second term] other people, John Bolton, Bob Joseph took away the dual track. They lusted after it, got ahold of it [the IAI], went whole hog [to use it to destabilize North Korea ].

That wasn’t so hard, was it?

In contrast to Mr. Asher’s assertion, Mr. Wilkerson states that the Illicit Activities Initiative was designed to complement American diplomacy in the Six Party talks.

So it might be enlightening for Mr. Asher to explain how the Illicit Activities Initiative was repurposed at the beginning of President Bush’s second term as an acceptable substitute for Six Party diplomacy... that North Korea walked out of the Six Party talks, detonated a bomb, and demanded a humiliating retreat by the United States on the signature action of the Illicit Activities Initiative—the action against BDA... that the talks could resume in early 2007 under China’s aegis at essentially the same point we were at in early 2005...

...or during the Clinton administration for that matter...

...except of course that North Korea now has the atomic bomb...

...and enough plutonium stockpiled to make several more.

Hardly a glowing endorsement for the decision to pursue the Illicit Activities Initiative independently of (and seemingly at the expense of) Six Party diplomacy

I did request a comment from Mr. Asher, but he didn’t respond.

Maybe Time had the same problem.

Of course, now that the hardliner policy failed with a thud (or the crump of an underground nuclear test), it seems to be in Mr. Asher’s interest to downplay the marked discontinuity in North Korea policy during the first two years of President Bush’s second term, as well as the role Mr. Asher played in that redirection.

Instead, Time got another retelling of Mr. Asher’s increasingly shopworn tales concerning Royal Charm and Smoking Dragon stings against alleged illicit North Korean activity, albeit with some of that patented Time factchecking.

That would seem to be the point, as far as Mr. Asher is concerned: keeping the focus on continued North Korean perfidy instead of the spasm of hardliner ineptitude that gave North Korea the bomb and left America playing second fiddle to China in North Asia.

There is some news, albeit of a negative sort, buried deep in the end of the article--the relative softpedaling of North Korean counterfeiting allegations.

Time writes:

According to U.S. and South Korean intelligence reports, the North has been producing the counterfeit bills at least since 1994. The South Korean intelligence service two years ago said it could confirm production only until 1998, but at least twice in recent years, claim U.S. and South Korean sources, the U.S. has presented the South Korean government with supernotes said to have been produced in 2001 and 2003.

A 2006 State Department estimate puts the amount of counterfeit currency in circulation at $45 million to $48 million. Estimate is the key word. Of all the illicit businesses from which North Korea profits, counterfeiting is the one about which outsiders know the least. U.S. officials say they don't believe the North Koreans produced the equipment to print such high-quality counterfeit bills. If that's the case, where did they get it from? No U.S. agency interviewed for this story, including Treasury, State and the Secret Service, could say. U.S. sources also say they do not know where in North Korea the notes are produced.

It does seem likely, however, that Kim's government is running the scam. [emphasis added]

Pretty weak beer, especially when compared to the prior allegations of extensive Supernote counterfeiting by North Korea that formed the central justification for the global financial campaign orchestrated against North Korea in 2005 and 2006 by the hardliners.

Heritage Foundation researcher Balbina Hwang—who currently occupies Mr. Asher’s advisor slot at the State Department—asserted that North Korea annually produced hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Supernotes.

Supernote counterfeiting was deemed an act of economic warfare, an act that Ed Royce (Rep., California, and the voice of the hardliners on the House Foreign Affairs Committee) darkly opined would justify the financial implosion of the Pyongyong regime by the United States.

In 2006, David Asher characterized North Korea’s Supernote involvement as follows :

The US Secret Service has been investigating the circulation of the “supernote” counterfeit dollars since 1989. Last year it charged that the counterfeit US notes were “manufactured in, and under auspices of the government of, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (“North Korea”). Individuals, including North Korean nationals acting as ostensible government officials, engaged in the worldwide transportation, delivery, and sale of quantities of Supernotes.” As the Secret Service has now revealed, the Federal Reserve Bank has come into the possession of roughly $48 million of these notes in the last fifteen years. Some argue that this shows that counterfeiting is just a drop in the bucket. Let me argue against this view.

To be fair, it wasn’t just David Asher.

According to Mr. Wilkerson, when he was at State before 2005 the briefings were pretty categorical:

I sat in meetings with the Treasury and Secret Service and they essentially convinced me [that North Korea was producing Supernotes inside North Korea and trafficking in them].

Now he adds a self-deprecating verbal shrug:

But I thought there were WMDs inside Iraq too.

Maybe the reporting of McClatchy and the investigations of Karl Bender concerning the immense technical and logistical hurdles Pyongyang would have had to overcome—and the paucity of evidence for any significant operation--are persuading the administration to back away from the North Korean Supernote allegations.

Or maybe, with the North Korean crisis cooling off, the government decided simply to stop yanking our chain about Kim Jung Il’s private Supernote factory, and allow the location of the purported facility to continue its hegira to our next designated boogie man (prior to North Korea, the United States had cited Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley a.k.a. Hezbollah, and then Iran as sources for the insidious notes).

In any event, the shift from a casus belli involving hundreds of millions of dollars in Supernotes produced inside North Korea to Time’s “we don’t know where or how much or how they do it or if they’re still even making them” is quite a step back.

While Mr. Powell and Mr. Zagorin missed the significance of the apparent retreat on the Supernote story, they also managed to add a few errors to their reporting about this hot-button issue:

a) Contra their statement quoted above, “estimate” is not the “key word” in describing the $45-$48 million number for circulating counterfeit currency; the key word is “confidence”.

Mr. Asher has energetically hyped the possibility of an enormous undetected North Korean Supernote menace by dismissing Treasury’s data on counterfeits as a mere “estimate”.

However, the Treasury Department has studied the international traffic in counterfeit U.S. currency exhaustively in a multi-year effort by the Federal Reserve Board involving visits to dozens of countries and is confident—with considerably more authority than Mr. Asher can muster-- that there is no significant reservoir of undetected counterfeit notes of any kind, including Supernotes.

b) The total of $45--$48 million in circulation is all counterfeit currency, not just Supernotes.

c) Only $45 million in Supernotes has been seized in the last fifteen years, as Asher himself says in his other statement. That’s an average of $3 million a year (for perspective, about $500 billion in US currency is in circulation worldwide).

Humph. I’ll bet Mr. Luce only needed one reporter to get it all wrong, back in the day.

Extensive Supernote counterfeiting was an important allegation not only because of the provocative and symbolic character of the outrage against America’s currency.

It was the only case in which the United States could claim to be the primary injured party and assert the right to lead a global action against North Korea outside the frustratingly incremental, multi-lateral Six Party and UN processes reserved for the nuclear, WMD, and missile issues.

The other major examples of alleged North Korean illicit activities did not have the United States as their primary target—they were concerns for China and Japan.

In both these cases, even with Japan’s highly confrontational stance toward North Korea, the injured parties did not see fit to characterize the North Korean activity as a casus belli that could not be handled by local and international law enforcement.

If the North Koreans are churning out huge quantities of counterfeit cigarettes, the main destination would be China, where an astounding percentage--over 90%--of imported cigarettes on the market are illicit—either smuggled or counterfeit.

If North Korean factories were making meth, the primary market would be Japan.

According to reports I’ve seen, meth is tolerated in Japan, presumably because it encourages the get-up-and-go-and-go-and-go-go-go ethos that is supposed to make Japanese society tick, and the yakuza’s drug trafficking is tolerated as long as it sticks to meth and stays away from cocaine and opiates. As a result, the market is served by immense illegal factories in the Philippines, Taiwan, and/or whatever locale offers the best combination of access to ephedrine, lax enforcement, and corruption.

The business is run by sophisticated, flexible, and internationalized criminal cartels whose entrepreneurial acumen is one of the true faces of 21st century globalism.

Which brings me to a gripe about the soundbite du jour on North Korea, “the Soprano State.”

David Asher et. al. probably found this formulation very useful, as the concept of a North Korean state fundamentally criminal in its nature justified an attack against any and all North Korean activities without the need to build a persuasive case in each and every instance.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the North Korean government, at a high level, countenances some dirty dealing. But I don’t think they’re the Sopranos; I think they’re the Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight, relatively ineffectual amateur criminals stuck in the low-profit links of the Asian criminal supply chain.

Does anybody think the North Korean bureaucrats and generals can outhustle and outmuscle the fearsome Chinese triads who, if one might recall, were the designated Asian menace back in the 1990s?

I believe North Korea’s fundamental identity is that of a sclerotic dictatorship trying to cling to power and revive its moribund economy in an environment of overt US and Japanese hostility and Chinese malign indifference. Its willingness to engage in criminal activity is moderated by the requirements of its diplomacy and the need to achieve some sort of modus vivendi with the West that will allow Pyongyang to share in the immense river of trade and investment cash flowing through North Asia via South Korea, Europe, and China today.

Which means I believe this piece of analysis in the Time article is just plain wrong:

But even if Pyongyang agrees to disarm, there's little reason to believe that the regime will abandon its nefarious business dealings. By keeping Kim's top military and security officials happy, such lucrative enterprises help the dictator maintain his grip on power and resist pressure to open up the North's broken, Stalinist economy. [emphasis added]

Fact is, Kim Jung Il is trying to strengthen his regime by a controlled opening to the West—as the Chinese did in the 1980s—through special economic development zones and preferential policies to attract foreign investment.

Kim would love to preside over a one-party post-socialist business-friendly state that could claim US appreciation and support for acting as a counterweight to China in Asia.

Prospects for a Nixon-goes-to-China rapprochement have, of course, been pretty dim during the Bush administration.

The US campaign to block North Korea’s foreign trade and investment-related initiatives—and prevent Kim from prolonging his rule by presiding over a more prosperous and globalized North Korean economy—would make for an interesting story by itself.

The story would include items like our serial harassment of the Daedong Credit Bank—the foreign-owned North Korea bank meant to promote foreign investment in the Hermit Kingdom, that happened to account for 25% of the money tied up in Banco Delta Asia—and efforts to discourage participation in the Kaesong Industrial Park, North Korea’s flagship export processing zone catering to foreign manufacturers.

But I guess it’s too complicated.

The simple narrative of North Korea as a “Soprano State” is comforting, because it allows us to ignore or disdain the forces acting against American diplomacy in the region.

That, of course, is the problem.

It’s reckless and dangerous to simplify the North Korean issue to that of a repulsive toad king that the world would gladly spit out of its mouth, if only it got a strong enough slap on the back from the United States.

That kind of mindset makes it too easy for lazy and cynical bureaucrats to promote badly-conceived policies and then excuse and obscure their own failures by exploiting the genuine but also carefully cultivated abhorrence that America feels for Kim Jung Il.

Looking at the current state of play on the Korean peninsula, we should be asking:

Was it worth it to abandon nuclear diplomacy for two years to pursue provocative but relatively insignificant allegations of North Korean wrongdoing in a futile effort to get Kim Jung Il to dance to our tune?

In other words, was pursuing the Illicit Activities Initiative more important than supporting the Six Party talks, as Mr. Asher seems to think?

Now, with North Korea possessing the bomb, and lined up with China, Russia, and South Korea in a position of advantage in North Asia, the answer seems obvious.

I just wish Time had asked the question.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Where in the World is Dana Rohrabacher?

And What About the 17 Uighurs at Guantanamo?

Dana Rohrabacher is an ardently anti-Chinese Communist California Republican congressman.

He’s also the ranking Republican member of the House Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight.

Mr. Rohrabacher used that bully pulpit to call attention to the plight of the Uighurs in western China.

He also championed the cause of the seventeen Uighur detainees at Guantanamo, to the point of co-authoring a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on June 19, 2008, urging that the 17 Uighurs be allowed to reside in the United States on parole:

The first paragraphs read:

On the basis of the Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight’s investigation into detention at Guantanamo Bay, we request that the Uighur detainees at Guantanamo Bay promptly be paroled into the United States…

The Uighurs are friends of the United States, and based upon the facts of their political inclinations and struggle against the Chinese Communist regime, they should not be grouped, even in appearance, with the other detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

The letter is signed by Rohrabacher and Bill Delahunt, the Democratic chair of the subcommittee. It can be viewed here (it’s Exhibit A at the end of the court filing).

Now the Republican Party has made the decision to smear the seventeen Uighurs as a terrorist threat to the United States, in order to block the Obama administration’s plans to disperse the detainees at Guantanamo and close the prison.

In a recent op-ed, Newt Gingrich characterized the 17 as terrorists, “trained, most likely in the weapons, explosives and ideology of mass killing, by Abdul Haq, a member of al Qaeda’s shura, or top advisory council”.

Mr. Gingrich also indicated that, if the Uighurs were allowed to live in the United States, they would also threaten something almost as precious as our lives: our television sets.

At Guantanamo Bay, the Uighurs are known for picking up television sets on which women with bared arms appear and hurling them across the room.

To date, I have come across no statement by Mr. Rohrabacher condemning Mr. Gingrich’s smear, or defending the seventeen hapless detainees that he had previously spoken for so ardently.

Maybe I’ve missed something.

Where’s Dana?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Outta Control!

The World Doesn’t Have a Pakistan Nukes Problem…It Has a David Albright Problem

As AFP tells us, the Institute for Science and International Security just published a report on Pakistan’s nuclear program that seems designed to pour gasoline on the “the Pakistani nuclear program is outta control” story.

And, when you look at the story, there isn’t a whole lot of there there.

The commercial [satellite] images reveal a major expansion of a chemical plant complex near Dera Ghazi Kahn that produces uranium hexalfuoride and uranium metal, materials used to produce nuclear weapons.

Big whoop, I must say. The Pakistanis love their nuclear weapons, and it’s not surprising—as a sovereign state outside the NPT—they might decide to make some more.

The only conceivable takeaway from this report is muddled alarmism, which ISIS obligingly provides.

Given turmoil in Pakistan with the army waging war against Taliban militants in the northwest, the ISIS said the "security of its nuclear assets remains in question."

"An expansion in nuclear weapons production capabilities needlessly complicates efforts to improve the security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets," it said.

I don’t get it. How are things suddenly more complicated by an expansion in capacity?

Washington, apparently believing that it doesn’t have enough on its plate with al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistan Taliban, is suddenly awash with dramatic plans to add a self-created problem to the mix: a quixotic effort to wrest Pakistan’s nuclear weapons out of the hands of the Army if the situation deteriorates.

And selling that idea seems to require fomenting an irrational panic concerning Pakistan’s nuclear program, as a metastasizing cancerous problem that’s getting BIGGER and BIGGER if we don’t DO SOMETHING.

You know what it smells like to me?

It smells like an effort by some to put a radical U.S. nuclear counterproliferation doctrine on the table now, so when it’s the end of the year and it’s time to deal with that other Muslim country with the destabilizing nuclear capability—you know, the one on the other side of Afghanistan, the one that the Israelis are so upset about—public opinion has been primed to accept the idea that some combination of air strikes, special ops, and insertion of U.S. forces is needed to save the world from an Islamic nuclear program that’s…outta control!

A crisis in Pakistan—and high-profile U.S. handwringing over those dangerous Muslim nukes—might be the best thing that happens to Benjamin Netanyahu this year.

We’ll see.

Anyway, I don’t think we have a Pakistan nukes problem.

We have a reckless and cynical fearmongering problem that should ring alarm bells for anybody who remembers the Iraq war.

In a small way, I think we also have a David Albright problem.

ISIS is run by David Albright.

Scott Ritter delivered a devastating rip job on Albright in Truthdig last year, entitled The Nuclear Expert Who Never Was.

He characterized Albright as a dilettante wannabe nuclear weapons guy, who has self-promoted himself, his honorary doctorate, and his institute using the flimsiest of pretexts.

More importantly, Ritter identifies Albright’s key credential as a willingness to offer up uninformed and tendentious alarmism when the situation demands it.

Ritter’s conclusion sums up his feelings about Albright’s role in the nuclear non-proliferation debate:

Albright, operating under the guise of his creation, ISIS, has a track record of inserting hype and speculation about matters of great sensitivity in a manner which skews the debate toward the worst-case scenario. Over time Albright often moderates his position, but the original sensationalism still remains, serving the purpose of imprinting a negative image in the psyche of public opinion. This must stop. It is high time the mainstream media began dealing with David Albright for what he is (a third-rate reporter and analyst), and what he isn’t (a former U.N. weapons inspector, doctor, nuclear physicist or nuclear expert). It is time for David Albright, the accidental inspector, to exit stage right. Issues pertaining to nuclear weapons and their potential proliferation are simply too serious to be handled by amateurs and dilettantes.

Amen to that.

Friday, May 15, 2009

“I Want to See Dustin Hoffman Bleed Out of His Nipples”

Biodefense’s USAMRIID Problem

Biohazards bring out the weird in people.

Especially people from USAMRIID—the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick.

The quote about Dustin Hoffman comes from Tales from Development Hell (Titan Books, London: 2003), a book by David Hughes that recounts the tortured path that movie projects can take from sure-fire properties to triumph, failure, or terminal residence in the soul-sapping limbo of…development hell.

One of the more entertaining chapters concerns the frantic race between Fox and Warner Brothers to make the first Ebola virus thriller.

Fox had prestige and science on its side, having purchased the rights to Crisis in the Hot Zone, the lauded non-fiction account by the New Yorker’s Richard Preston of a successful effort to contain an Ebola outbreak in a monkey house in Virginia. The producers also obtained the cooperation of the key scientific protagonists in the story—scientists Nancy Jaax and Karl Johnson.

Howwever, Fox’s Tiffany Ebola project, The Hot Zone, never got made. It lost out to the flashy cubic zirconia of Warner Brothers’ Outbreak, a by-the-numbers biothriller directed by Wolfgang Petersen and starring Dustin Hoffman.

Hughes quotes an interview with Entertainment Weekly, in which Preston poured scorn on Outbreak:

“It just wasn’t scary. You have scabs that look like Gummi bears. The blood was put on with an eyedropper. In a real [Ebola attack], the men bleed out of their nipples. I would have liked to see Hoffman bleed out of his nipples.”

However, judging from Hughes’ account, Warner Brothers got the movie-making business right and Fox got it wrong. And what Fox got wrong was excessive loyalty to Preston’s book.

Outbreak, an efficient and compelling science fact/fiction thriller with gory and involving scenes of an exploding epidemic, martial law, and desperate scientific detective work that saves humanity, opened in 1995 and pulled in a more than respectable $187 million at the global box office.

The Hot Zone, a fictionalized docudrama that would have featured scenes of scientists earnestly centrifuging blood samples with coathangers and climaxed with the offscreen massacre of a warehouse full of monkeys, lacked the compelling narrative and dramatic core necessary to satisfy the finicky talent actually making the picture.

Ridley Scott was going to direct; he had his ideas and his screenwriters. Robert Redford was going to star; he had his ideas and his screenwriter. Scott and Redford couldn’t get on the same page. And everybody was too invested in respecting Preston’s book to take the momentous and perhaps necessary step of throwing it out the window and punching up the script with some gratuitous nipple-bleeding action.

So The Hot Zone never got made.

But it lives on, both in development hell and in the pages of Hughes’ book.

Hughes’ book also includes this interesting quote from The Hot Zone’s screenwriter, James Hart:

“I went to USAMRIID, and to a person, the biggest problem—and I want to make sure this is said right—the biggest problem they had with the Ebola outbreak at the monkey house was the fact that no human being died. If one human being had died, it would have moved their cause for prevention and preparation for these kinds of outbreaks forward in the government’s mind…So what they wished had happened—and it’s a horrible thing to say – was that a person had died of Ebola brought over here by monkeys, so it would give them the strength and ‘go juice’ to go get government funding…”[emphasis in original]

Possibly this plaintive lament has an eerie resonance for China Matter’s informed and discerning readers.

Can’t pin it down? Let me help.

"I think a lot of good has come from it," he told ABCNEWS. "From a biological or a medical standpoint, we've now five people who have died, but we've put about $6 billion in our [2003] budget into defending against bioterrorism."

That was David Franz, the former bioweapons commander at USAMRIID’s Fort Detrick, speaking in the aftermath of the 2001 anthrax attacks—which he devoted considerable effort to trying to pin on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Of course, subsequent investigations showed that the most likely source for the spores was Franz’s own lab, in which some of the world’s deadlier substances were manipulated both by dedicated scientists and an unknown number of careless technicians, racists, and psychologically unbalanced individuals, apparently including at least one person who thought that the best way to protect America was to selectively kill off a few Americans.

The DoJ’s October 31, 2007 request for a search warrant on Dr. Bruce Ivins, the USAMRIID scientists who was officially tagged as the Amerithrax perpetrator after his suicide, makes for interesting reading. Hey, did you know the FBI thinks it can link a piece of Scotch tape to the roll it came from?

I suppose it could be argued that the deceased Ivins was smeared as a convenient fall guy for an investigation that had dragged on inconclusively for seven years.

But I don’t think that the U.S. government would be eager to build its case as the steward of the world’s most dangerous microbes by fabricating allegations that one of its key bioweapons researchers stayed on the job for years despite evidence that he was absolutely nuts--or that he took his work home to punish the perceived American enemies of his staunchly pro-life Catholic/national-security Republican worldview.

According to Ivins’ own e-mails cited in the warrant, he was already undergoing psychiatric counseling in 2000 and the diagnosis pointed to a “paranoid personality disorder”.

"I wish I could control the thoughts in my mind. It's hard enough sometimes controlling my behavior. When I'm being eaten alive inside, I always try to put on a good front here at work and at home, so I don't spread the pestilence. . . .I get incredible paranoid, delusional thoughts at times, and there's nothing I can do until they go away, either by themselves or with drugs."

Things did not get better after 9/11.

September 26, 2001, "Of the people in my [counseling] "group," everyone but me is in the depression/sadness/flight mode for stress. I'm really the only scary one in the group. ... my reaction to the WTC/Pentagon events is far different. Of course, I don't talk about how I really feel with them - it would just make them worse. Seeing how differently I reacted than they did to the recent events makes me ratify [sic] think about myself a lot."

Ivins shared a poem with a friend in December 2001:

I'm a little dream-self, short and stout.
I'm the other half of Bruce - when he lets me out.
When I get all steamed up, I don't pout.
I push Bruce aside, them I'm Free to run about!

Hickory dickory Doc - Doc Bruce ran up the clock.
But something then happened in very strange rhythm.
His other self went and exchanged places with him.
So now, please guess who
Is conversing with you.
Hickory dickory Doc!

Bruce and this other guy, sitting by some trees,
Exchanging personalities.
It's like having two in one.
Actually it's rather fun!"

One does wonder why it took almost six years to get a warrant to search this guy’s house.

Bruce Ivins sure served up the wrong kind of scary for a biodefense lab hoping to hype its budget.

To date, the anthrax attacks that apparently emanated from Fort Detrick represent the only proven case of anti-American bioterrorism.

In fact, one might argue that the best way to protect Americans might be to close down Fort Detrick instead of funding it.

It looks like the U.S. government has done the next best thing—funneling that multi-billion dollar bioterrorism bonanza into the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ biodefense programs and resources at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while shunting the dysfunctional and demoralized USAMRIID to the sidelines.

The insular culture of USAMRIID seems diametrically opposite of the mindset needed to manage biohazards in a free society.

People with long memories might recall a pre-9/11 outbreak of an disease that claimed multiple human victims in the United States: the hantavirus episode that killed forty five largely Navajo inhabitants of Four Corners, New Mexico in 1993-95.

New Mexico HPS hantavirus had an impressive mortality rate of 50%, Furthermore, it’s delivered just like USAMRIID’s favorite boogeyman—weapons-grade anthrax.

HPS is transmitted as a microscopic and highly infectious pulmonary aerosol, albeit generated prosaically from the urine and feces of infected rodents, not engineered in military laboratories by delusional scientists with too much time on their hands.

However, this lethal incident didn’t serve as USAMRIID’s ticket to the institutional and budgetary bigtime.

HPS attacked anonymous victims in one of the poorest and most remote parts of the United States, not the movers and shakers in Washington or the media types who chronicled them.

And it wasn’t bioterrorism.

So the CDC handled it.

Perhaps because hyping a biohazard is antithetical to the CDC’s basic mission of keeping the lid on and preventing public panic, its response to HPS provides an interesting contrast to USAMRIID’s near palpable PR desperation:

The CDC on Four Corners:

Taking a calculated risk, researchers decided not to wear protective clothing or masks during the trapping process [to capture and identify the rodent vectors]. "We didn't want to go in wearing respirators, scaring...everybody," John Sarisky, an Indian Health Service environmental disease specialist said.

I feel utterly confident in completing the elided phrase as “scaring the shit out of everybody”.

Compare and contrast with James Hart, sympathetically explaining the Hollywood/biowar synergies of the The Hot Zone gang:

All they [USAMRIID] wanted to do was scare the shit out of the public, so they’d have some more juice to go back to Congress and get more funding…

There’s an interesting contrast between how a public health organization—relying on transparency to achieve a relationship of trust with the public in order to manage an outbreak—and a bioweapons outfit—thriving on secrecy, threatened by exposure, and eager to exploit an outbreak in order to seize control of a situation and extend its budgetary and executive reach—handle a crisis.

Weathervane Watch

...Or, Keeping Up With Uzi Arad

The folks at Just World News are interested in the issue of whom Israeli right-wing security honcho Uzi Arad is meeting with during his visit to the United States, and whether his trip is deliberate poke in the eye of the Obama administration.

Uzi Arad is Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security advisor. There was some awkwardness about permitting Arad to participate in classified US discussions with Netanyahu, or even to come to the United States, because of his involvement in the Larry Franklin espionage affair; hence the speculation about the possible provocative character of his trip to the United States.

I don’t think Arad’s visit is an attempt to insult the United States. I think it’s a rather desperate attempt to demonstrate that Uzi Arad still has U.S. juice and thereby buttress his rather shaky credentials as the Likud administration’s custodian of the American relationship in the Obama era.

In my opinion, Uzi Arad’s main mission in life is not to bend American policy to the will of the Likud.

His main job is to determine the prevailing trend in US policy toward Israel and find a viable place inside it for his government and himself.

China Matters took a look at Uzi Arad because of his statements on what was once a hot-button issue involving North Korea: the bombing of the alleged Syrian nuclear facility in September 2007.

My take is that quite possibly there was a nuclear facility of some sort getting built, but it was not an imminent threat to Israel.

In my view, the Israeli government blew it up because it wanted the Bush administration to turn back the clock to the good old days of unilateral pre-emption, keep the IAEA’s multilateral mitts off the Middle East’s nuclear issues, and, through a powerful U.S. condemnation of Syria, get an implied show of U.S. support for a strike against Iran.

U.S. support for a strike against Iran is absolutely critical because—and I think this bears repeating in light of Mr. Netanyahu’s threats that Israel will take out the Iranian nuclear program itself if the U.S. doesn’t step up—because active U.S. participation is needed to degrade the Iranian nuclear program in a meaningful way.

Not just refueling support.

Active participation, as in bunches of U.S. bombs and missiles showering down on Iran’s dispersed and hardened facilities (armament enthusiasts can refer to this discussion of the technical obstacles to a lone Israeli attack on Iran).

And I think everybody who matters, in Tel Aviv, Washington, and Tehran, not to mention Moscow and Peking, knows this.

With the Bush administration depopulated of its neo-con enthusiasts and war-weary bureaucrats at State/Langley/DoD calling the shots, the whole “nuclear reactor in Syria” story was allowed to fizzle.

And Uzi Arad, who had at first vigorously fluffed the story to his network of U.S. reporters, let the issue drop.

Apparently, Mr. Azad believes that his most important brief is to keep Israel’s lines of communication open to the people holding power in Washington, in order to maintain good relations with Israel’s most important ally while assuring a central role for himself and the continued prosperity of his Herzliya security conference—the pre-eminent right-of-center venue for developing the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Arad obligingly conceptualized, endorsed, or reinforced every significant U.S. policy shift of the Bush years, from Clean Break to democracy crusade to countering the existential Islamicist threat. I expect he will, albeit with some difficulty, make similar efforts to ingratiate himself to the Obama administration.

Uzi Arad derives his clout from his image as the ultimate insider—not a lone voice crying in the wilderness.

When the United States showed no interest in running with the Syrian allegations, he briskly dropped the matter.

At the present time, Mr. Arad is undoubtedly anxious about the rapprochement between the United States and Iran.

Good relations between Washington and Tehran inevitably detract from the importance of Israel as America’s only true buddy in the United States.

If the U.S. no longer gives absolute priority to backing Israel, Tel Aviv’s freedom of movement—and the ability to evade the dire consequences of its confrontational policies toward the Palestinians by shifting the frame of reference to a pan-Middle East battle against Islamicist extremism—is significantly curtailed.

The logic of U.S.-Iranian cooperation—and the benefits of Iranian support to a successful disengagement from Iraq and rolling back the Taliban in Afghanistan--is currently so compelling to the Obama administration that I don’t think that Uzi Arad is trying to buck the tide.

Mr. Arad and Netanyahu’s objectives at the present time presumably involve holding the line until the U.S.-Iranian relationship comes acropper, either from internal contradictions or active Israeli connivance.

All that matters now is making a show of cleaving to the Obama administration’s line on Palestine, so that Prime Minister Netanyahu and Mr. Arad can still present themselves as Israel’s effective interlocutors with the United States.

So the weathervane flops to the left for the time being.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Atom Bomb: “A Poor Killer”

Crawford Sams and the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Japan

General Crawford Sams reconstituted or, to be more accurate, recreated the Japanese public health system after World War II. No stranger to pride or self-confidence, he characterized himself as one the six men who ran Japan under MacArthur.

With good reason, Sams credited himself with decreasing mortality by five million lives through application of his exemplary professionalism, energy, and focus to the prevention of epidemics, upgrading the health care system, and improving nutrition during the occupation.

As a military medical man, General Sams had a healthy respect for epidemic disease as the leading cause of casualties and degraded fighting ability of armies amid the chaos and destruction of wartime. According to his experience, World War II was the first war in which actual fighting produced more U.S. casualties than disease.

His respect for the atomic bomb? Not so great.

General Sams also ran the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, charged with evaluating the mortality and morbidity associated with the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

According to an oral history Sams recorded in 1979, his first job was to collect the data; the second job was to hype it:

There was a letter brought over by this first group that came up to Japan from the Philippines with me, from the Manhattan Project, in which the President was looking for a new deterrent against a future war…So the object of this instruction, called Letter of Instruction, was “You will play up the devastating effect of the atomic bomb.” All right?

So I was the one who set the deadline this time. Anybody who had been in Hiroshima and died within six months, whether they got run over by a bicycle or whatnot, would be credited to the atomic bomb. We had to set some kind of order to this…all the reports that came back were the result of these studies that came over my desk.

The atomic bomb went off and that city had about 250 thousand people in it…When the bomb went off, about 2 thousand people out of 250 thousand got killed – by blast, by thermal radiation, or by intense x-ray, gamma radiation.

Then, what happened is like an earthquake. The blast knocked down houses, hibachis had turned over and started fires. When you have an earthquake or an atomic bomb, you start fires and then people are trapped in the buildings.

And again, by endless interviews, “Where were you?” “Where was your great uncle?” “Where was grandma when this occurred?” We built up the evidence to show on a cookie-cutter basis that it took about thirty-six hours for about two-thirds of that town to burn.

You see, it wasn’t “Bing” like the publicity here [said]: a bomb went off and a city disappeared. No such thing happened. That was the propaganda for deterrent. They’re talking about after that, “One bomb and away goes Chicago,” you know? All you’ve got to do is look in Life magazine and whatnot back in ’45, ’46, and so on. ... Well, you have to keep your feet on the ground.

As near as we could figure then, about twenty-one thousand people died in thirty-six hours as a result of being trapped and burned and so on. It’s like those who died in the ’23 earthquake [and subsequent] fire.

Then, as I say, I set the six months’ deadline for anybody who had been there, even though they went away and so on, to put a deadline on deaths from delayed radiation effects as far as it takes six months or so for deaths from (what do they call it?) delayed effects.

One of us …got a priest there to say he guessed 100 thousand people died when the bomb went off. Well, you see, it didn’t. There never was 100 thousand people [who] died. I recall the figures to the ultimate, six months’ deaths from untreated burns, thermal burns – they didn’t have any drugs or anything else, except what we could get in to them – and the delayed effects of radiation which take several months. …It was about 76 [thousand] [who] ultimately died in six months, out of 250 thousand.

Actually, the atomic bomb was a poor killer.

Indeed, according to Sams, the only reason that the casualty numbers in Hiroshima were as high as they were was because the Japanese government had taken no measures to disperse the population there—as it had done in Tokyo in anticipation of the devastating U.S. incendiary raids of 1945.

Sams was even less impressed by the atom bombing of Nagasaki.

Down at Nagasaki, they missed the ground zero they tried to hit, but there’s still the fact that it hit Nagasaki Medical School and Hospital there and killed a lot of patients and so on – from the _____(?) of the concrete building. But the blast effected [sic] this and knocked down part of the concrete and so on. But you don’t hear much about the effects of Nagasaki because actually it was pretty ineffective. That was a narrow corridor from the hospital in _____(?) down to the port, and the effects were very limited as far as the fire spread and all that stuff. So you don’t hear much about Nagasaki.

Indeed, the structure of the Nagasaki Medical School and Hospital—700 meters from the hypocenter-- was still standing after the attack.

Sams had also participated in the famous post-World War II Strategic Bombing Survey of Europe, which concluded that Germany’s industrial output had simply increased as the U.S. and Great Britain had pounded its factories and infrastructure with huge bombing raids.

He placed the Truman administration’s need to exaggerate the destructive effects of the atomic bomb in the context of the desire to create a new, more credible deterrent now that the strategic bombing boogeyman was a thing of the past:

After each war, for political reasons, you’d try to find a deterrent to prevent the next war.

After the First World War, it was gas warfare and people – you probably wouldn’t remember – but after that we even had motion pictures (the movies) about gassing New York City and so on till somebody figured out the air currents were such [that] you couldn’t hold a concentration of gas to gas New York City if the people stayed in the buildings and closed the windows. So that failed.

The next deterrent was air power, and so from the time of Billy Mitchell in 1925 to the Second World War, [the belief was that] if we ever had another war, air power would destroy civilization. Sound familiar? So, the theoretical production of air casualties, the catching of troops in defiles and their obliteration was the thesis in which we were all indoctrinated up until the beginning of the Second World War.

As you know then again, the myth of strategic bombing carried on and finally “Tooey” [Gen. Carl A.] Spaatz, who was an ex-classmate of mine and so on, was given [command of the] Eighth Air Force [with] the authority, together with the RAF, to bomb Germany. And Germany industrially was to collapse. But of course it failed. ..

I was part of the Strategic Bomb Survey Group in the theater to assess damage as we progressed across where we had been bombing Tobruk, for instance, and supposedly had cut off [the enemy’s] oil supply. When we got there, we found, of course, we had knocked down the warehouses and so on, but he dispersed his supplies in the desert, so we hadn’t cut off anything.

So the casualty factor was – I sent back reports on this – that air power was not a major casualty producer. But when you have a whole senior echelon, like in Washington, indoctrinated over years, growing up with the idea that you could stop armored columns with air power and so on, it’s hard to get that reversal.

I had to do the same thing with the atomic bomb when I came back.

To Sams, the atom bomb was nothing new. It was a new form of strategic bombing, but the Germans and the Japanese had already figured out the appropriate countermeasure: dispersal.

Sams believed that the Soviet Union, unlike the United States, had made drawn the correct lesson from Hiroshima and Nagasaki: that the casualties and damages from an atomic attack could be mitigated by a strategy of dispersal and atomic attack was therefore survivable.

Interestingly, the Chinese government drew the same conclusion and engaged in a massive dispersal of industrial and military assets to remote areas of the country—primarily as a countermeasure to an anticipated atomic attack by the Soviets—during the 1960s.

Sams was a loyal MacArthur man and left Japan for reassignment (the Army had rejected his attempt to retire) when Truman relieved MacArthur at the height of the Korean War.

Back in the United States, Sams proselytized for a policy of strategic dispersal which seems to have run afoul of the U.S. military’s addiction to the doctrine of deterrence and the intoxicating effect of the budget-busting pursuit of Mutually Assured Destruction.

When I came back to this country, I was appalled, from a military standpoint, to find that our major planners in the War Department were using their own propaganda, 100 thousand deaths, Bing!

It took me a couple of years to get that comparison straightened out in our official training doctrine in this country. I used to tell them back in the general staff and so on and including the chief of staff, “...if you can deter a war, for God’s sake, let’s do it and blow up the effects all you want

It’s all right to put out propaganda, but don’t believe your own propaganda. That’s what happens too often in this business. That’s why you had the hysteria about this radiation thing up here. So I had a job of de-glamorizing, if you like, no that’s not the word – debunking the myth that air power alone could win a battle against ground troops, or that air power could win a war…

It took me about four years to get some facts straightened out about the atomic bomb at Hiroshima with our high echelon people and now you’ve got a generation of diplomats who still are swallowing the old nonsense and putting it out.

But anyway, this has been the kind of a thing I’ve gotten into, not because of choice, but because when I found something that doesn’t fit the generally-accepted thing, I try to find what’s true and what’s fallacious.
In that Valhalla reserved for military men of the Sam-Browne-belt wearing, polo-playing persuasion, Sams is probably grumping, Suck on that, Wikipedia!

Sams may have been right about the survivability of nuclear war, but I suppose we can be grateful that his energetic debunking only took hold in the military sphere and not in the civilian/political realm. Otherwise we probably would have gotten into a few nuclear scuffles by now with the Russians and Chinese. And our muddled and partial peace is preferable to a nuclear exchange--even if it's survivable.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Inside Story of the Ingrid Betancourt Rescue

For China Matters the Ingrid Betancourt story had everything: an official line that smelled fishy from Day One; a thrilling narrative chock-a-block with colorful personalities and amazing developments; conflicting stakeholders—and versions of events—coming out of Colombia, Venezuela, France, Switzerland, and the United States; credulous, stenographic reporting by the U.S. press; and a convoluted geopolitical context.

Best of all, nobody else cared a tinker’s damn about the tale.

The media could have worked American readers into a lather about the rescue of Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves, and Thomas Howes—three American contractors who had spent six long years in the Colombian jungle as prisoners of the leftist FARC insurgents (in contrast, how long did the U.S. embassy hostages provide the wind beneath Ted Koppel’s ratings wings in 1979-81? a mere 444 days).

Nevertheless, the Bush administration soft-pedaled the American aspect (and extensive American assistance) so that the operation could be presented as “the Betancourt rescue”: an unalloyed triumph for America’s steadfast ally in Latin America, Colombian president Alvaro Uribe.

So the story was mineminemine.

The only thing it didn’t have was a China angle.

I wrote about it anyway.

I’ve posted the piece, Betrayal and Liberation, on a dedicated website: Betancourt--The Inside Story.

Short version of a long story: the Colombian government probably arranged the release of Ingrid Betancourt, three American hostages, and several other captives with the assistance of two FARC traitors. The brilliant rescue on July 2, 2008 was a cover story.

The most interesting angle on the story: that the Colombian government deliberately sabotaged a release negotiated by the Europeans four months earlier, in order to package the freeing of the hostages as a victory for Colombia’s uncompromising anti-FARC strategy—instead of the fruits of a deal arranged between FARC, Colombian leftists, the Europeans, and Hugo Chavez with Colombia stewing resentfully on the sidelines.

The Colombians intercepted satellite phone calls between the top FARC negotiator, Raul Reyes, and the Europeans and used the intel to obliterate Reyes’ camp in Ecaudor in a provocative cross-border air raid that risked a regional war between Ecuador and Venezuela and Colombia—while scuppering the impending release of Betancourt and the other hostages.

Here’s an excerpt:

FARC had enjoyed the status of a quasi-legitimate belligerent from Venezuela and Ecuador. As long as FARC used the border regions near Colombia for rest and resupply and not as a base for armed operations, its presence was apparently tolerated by the two socialist regimes over the objections of the Colombian government.

The real reason why the Colombian government chose March 1, 2008 to plaster the camp, provoke an international incident with Ecuador, and raise the specter of a hot war with Venezuela (which undoubtedly feared a similar incursion against the Venezuelan camp of FARC commander Ivan Marquez and was primed to respond) is open to conjecture.

When the attack is placed in the context of the ongoing negotiations concerning the captive release—and Colombia’s own stated willingness to support them—the Colombian military incursion seems strikingly cavalier and ill-timed.

After all, the international negotiation track had recently borne fruit, with the high-profile release of Luis Eladio Perez and two other captives through Venezuelan intercession. Killing FARC’s chief hostage negotiator—and lurching toward war with Venezuela, FARC’s only trusted interlocutor—put a stop to it.

When Colombia announced that Reyes had been killed, the French government expressed its displeasure. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told the press that "It’s bad news that the man we were talking to is dead."

The rebel leader was France’s contact in the negotiations for the release of Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen, which Sarkozy has made a top priority of his government.

Noel Saez confirmed that he and Gontard were in the jungle journeying to Reyes’ camp to engage in the peace negotiations that were taking place under Venezuelan and Ecuadorian mediation and apparently with the approval of the Colombian government.

Gontard and Saez were prepared to meet with Reyes in the next few hours when they received a phone call from the head of Colombia’s ironically named Peace Commission, Luis Carlos Restrepo, warning them to stay away from the camp:

Question:The day when Colombia bombed the camp of 'Raul Reyes', you and Jean-Pierre Gontard received calls from the Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo. He wanted to make sure you were not with Reyes before the bombing?

Saez: I am convinced of that. Uribe knew that if we had met and that Reyes died in the bombing there would be more problems than it was to throw over for violating Ecuador's sovereignty.

As to how close the release was, Saez makes a remarkable claim:

How close was the release of the hostages when Reyes was killed?

It was a matter of days or a couple of weeks.

Hey, read the whole thing!

Friday, May 01, 2009

Pakistan Responds to America’s Dangerous Delusions with Desperate Duplicity

Or 混水摸鱼 "Hun Shui Mo Yu"

It’s hard to figure out what’s going on in West Pakistan. The Taliban moves into Buner. Then they move out. Or the government kicked them out. Whatever.

And I suspect that’s the point.

I think the Pakistani government is playing a complicated double game, trying to chivvy the Taliban back into Afghanistan, selectively pressuring groups that have a presence further from the border and a more aggressive agenda inside Pakistan with a carrot and stick military/political approach, while laying off groups that are willing to use their redoubts in NWFP and FATA only for rest and resupply as they stick it to the West in Afghanistan. (For an analysis of the Awami National Party's anxious and equivocal efforts to play footsie with local Taliban-affiliated militants in Swat on its own behalf and with the support of the central government, see this post.)

There’s open speculation that Buner’s sound and fury was simply an exercise to give the illusion of activity prior to President Asif Zardari’s visit to the United States next week in quest of American aid largess.

Washington is probably equally interested in the burning question of why Pakistan security forces are somehow unable to keep NATO supplies from getting torched in Peshawar or otherwise interdicted, thereby undercutting the war effort in Afghanistan.

Maybe Pakistan believes that letting a few (of somebody else’s) tankers go up in flames is a small price to pay for showing Mullah Omar that its Islamic heart is in the right place when it comes to tacitly supporting the new jihad in Afghanistan.

Of course, actively conniving at the collapse of Afghanistan in order to relieve pressure on Pakistan is not the kind of foreign policy that a U.S. ally can go public with.

But I believe Pakistan believes that there’s no foreseeable way that Afghanistan can get turned around, and a real fight to the death against the insurgent forces in NWFP and FATA is only going to lead to the evaporation of government control in the Pashtun areas and a catastrophic reign of terror in Pakistan’s major cities, without materially improving the West’s chances in Kabul.

Pakistan has a lot of options if it wants to ensure the failure of an aggressive anti-Taliban effort in its Pashtun areas. And, inevitably--and dangerously—Islamabad cannot discuss or coordinate any of these options with Washington.

In a note to General Petraeus and the punditocracy that apparently has come to the conclusion that the thoughtful and determined Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Kayani should displace the feckless civilian government of Asif Zardari in a coup in order to prosecute the anti-Taliban fight with more honesty and élan…

…well, I would posit that the Army is on board with the prevailing doctrine of muddled conciliation and confrontation (while praying that the West’s Afghan adventure will die a quick and merciful death and relieve the pressure on Pakistan’s west )…

…and is not unhappy that the complicating factors of the Machiavellian Asif Zardari and squabbles of Pakistan’s self-interested democratic parties are there to prevent the U.S. from putting the army unequivocally and unmistakably on the spot…

…to engage in the all-out war on the Taliban in Pakistan that America needs…

…but nobody inside Pakistan wants.

Pakistan’s difficulties are real, not manufactured by duplicity and lack of will. And they will persist, regardless of who’s in charge.

And I recall, in Vietnam we thought that replacing the civilian dingbat Diem with that tough-guy no-nonsense Colonel Thieu would get the war on the right track. But it didn’t work, did it?

Maybe when the locals believe that a strategy is bankrupt, it’s better to assume that the strategy has a problem, and not just the locals.

I think the United States realizes that the Taliban’s safe havens in western Pakistan enjoy tacit Pakistani toleration. And I think that the Obama administration is groping toward a political resolution in Afghanistan, one that recognizes these havens are a fact of life and make a military victory impossible.

But the Western negotiating position isn’t very strong and the U.S.—perhaps in response to the urgings of General Petraeus—is trying to gain some negotiating advantage through the application of military pressure, directly and through Pakistan.

But nobody has a solution that reconciles two fundamentally contradictory positions: America’s desire to pressure the Taliban (at the cost of Pakistan’s internal stability) vs. Pakistan’s willingness to tolerate Afghan jihad in exchange for local peace (at the cost of the West’s interests in Afghanistan).

Under these circumstances, Pakistan’s best hope seems to be to keep the ball of confusion rolling through western Pakistan until the Taliban surge to decisive victory (or, less likely, decisive defeat) in Afghanistan.

So I think there’s a lot of sound and fury going on, with raids, attacks, withdrawals, and announcements meant to placate the West and disguise a policy of selective conciliation and cooperation.

In Chinese, this sort of misdirection or, more aptly, progress through confusion, is called “Hun Shui Mo Yu (混水摸鱼)”, stirring up the silt in the river and then groping around in the muddy water to catch fish.

It’s a classic asymmetric response of the weak (in this case Islamabad) to thwart the will of the strong (Washington) to impose an unpalatable policy (aggressive rollback of the Taliban in Pakistan) by exploiting proximity to a key area (NWFP and FATA) in order create a state of chaos that can only be left to the locals to try to sort out as they see fit.

As I argued previously, it’s a risky gamble.

The Taliban has its eye on the prize—Kabul. Not Islamabad.

But it also knows that Islamabad would prefer to back rival insurgents—primarily Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose alliance with Islamabad goes back decades to before the anti-Soviet jihad—if a struggle for power erupted between the forces seeking to push the U.S. and NATO out of Afghanistan.

It knows that the Pakistan government is shaky, weak, and vulnerable.

And it knows the Taliban has powerful forces, proxies, and assets throughout Pakistan available for military campaigns in the Pashtun region and terror campaigns in the heartland.

So the Taliban might not necessarily respond to tacit Pakistani support for its Afghan endeavors by totally abandoning its plans to make mischief inside Pakistan.

Instead, as the Afghan insurgency evolves this year, the Taliban might still calculate that the best way to secure its rear—and eliminate its rivals—is to shatter Islamabad’s power in western Pakistan, and intimidate the regime through a campaign of urban terror.

Pakistan might find that it’s stirred up the mud and is groping for fish—in a river of hungry piranhas.