Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Useful Idiots Dance to Interventionists' Tune in Attacking Obama's Foreign Policy Restraint

The barrage of criticism of President Obama's foreign policy has cast a new and favorable light on the President and his role in the generally grisly parade of foreign policy cockups that have characterized his two administrations.  Particularly, it has highlighted the dissatisfaction of the neoliberal and neocon interventionists with President Obama's chariness in committing military power to advance their cherished initiatives.  And that's a good thing.  For Obama. IMO.  I discussed this issue in yesterday's post, where I characterized the President's position as "don't use stupid actions to follow up on stupid policies".  

Remarkably, given the considerable energy and intellectual power exhibited in America's non-stop overseas jiggery-pokery, US geopolitical strategy has abounded in stupid policies. 

And, in my opinion, that's no accident.  I think it has to do with the mindset of the interventionist caucus in the US foreign policy government and private sector apparatus, which has been dragging or guiding the US government into wars (and enhancing its own power, profits, and influence) for generations.  The gold standard for ham-fisted intervention is still Iraq War II, but it seems there is an inexhaustible supply of wonks, pundits, advocates, and agitators within the Beltway ready to be "heroes in error" for the next US crusade. 

A few points about interventionism in the Age of Obama:
First, I think initial failure in foreign affairs strategy in the political and diplomatic sphere, and the subsequent need for escalation into the military realm in order to paper over US failure and preserve credibility is a feature, not a bug, for the US interventionist foreign policy crowd.  If you want to be generous, you could say that obvious flaws and risks of foreign policy adventurism—like installing a demonstrably incapable, fascist-larded government in Kyiv over the strong and understandable objections of Russia and, for that matter, a healthy percentage of the population in Ukraine's eastern demographic and economic heartland—are simply ignored because the hardliners assume that some not clearly defined but invincible combination of money, power, sanctions, coercive diplomacy and, indispensably, utter callousness to the sufferings of the subject population a.k.a. “Strategic Patience” will be sufficient to overcome the defects of even the most irresponsible policy.

I am not inclined to be generous. Syria and Ukraine look like classic examples of “Let’s get the US government on the hook for a confrontational policy.  The escalation will take care of itself.”  In other words, the policies were designed to paint President Obama into a corner and commit US prestige to fundamentally unviable policies that can only be rescued by escalating to the military solution that the designers of the policy wanted in the first place.

 Second, I think President Obama knows this.  He got burned on Afghanistan, where the surge turned a disaster that he could have turned the page on into an incubus that sucked life out of his administration FOR THE WHOLE EIGHT YEARS.  He also got burned on Libya, a classic “camel’s nose into the tent” or, to be less Orientalist, the classic “no fly zone turns into unrestricted air warfare” operation that transformed Libya into a failed state.   The Iran rapprochement, if--and it's still a big if--it succeeds, has been conducted in defiance of the interventionists and will probably be the only part of President Obama's legacy that he can and will genuinely cherish.

Three, it’s kind of nice that the US populace seems rather down on the “tough choices” liberal/neocon interventionist Beltway gang.  It’s not just the foreigners upon whom we inflict our policies that hate us.  Presumably, this gives President Obama some aid and comfort when he decides to resist the advice of the self-serving foreign policy advocates who have embroiled his administration in a series of miserable confrontations from Afghanistan to Libya to Syria to Ukraine and endure the barrage of criticism their allies and acolytes unleash on the op-ed pages and on the cable networks.

Fourth, unfortunately, political wars, especially foreign policy debates, are fought inside the Beltway, not in the nationwide democratic arena.  To paraphrase Napoleon on the Pope, “How many defense contractors, bespoke lobbyists, doctrinaire think tankers, and op-ed writers do the American public have?” Resisting the interventionists, and their desire to maximize their influence and power and validate their their well-paid but not particularly successful existence, and taking across the spectrum political and diplomatic heat from domestic and foreign interests eager to get the US on the hook militarily to advance their agendas, is not going to score President Obama many useful political  points.

Realization of this situation, I believe, has reflected itself in the President's morally questionable decision to let the interventionists' regime change shenanigans play out in places like Syria and Ukraine, while withholding the final military consummation they most desperately crave.

Fifth, I think much of the torrent of lame-duck dumping on President Obama is misguided, cynical, or in the service of Hillary Clinton.  Criticism of President Obama is typified by the Ian Bremmer tweet: “Bush: a leader that didn’t think; Obama: a thinker that doesn't lead”.  The actual distinction is that President Obama was not “led”, led by the foreign policy apparatchiks of the same ilk that “led” George W. Bush around by the nose.  It is interesting, to say the least, that so many foreign policy types, for various reasons ranging, I imagine, from institutional self interest to advocacy to carrying Hillary Clinton’s water, are following the anti-Obama script.

Sixth, I’m afraid that, unlike President Obama, President Hillary Clinton will love to play the interventionist game because of the authority, power, and political initiative pursuing craptacular but violent foreign policy initiatives give to the White House.  In fact, given the Clintonian instinct for outflanking their adversaries by adopting even more extreme forms of their positions, things could get a lot worse.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Is the Hillary Clinton Coterie Pushing Obama Further Into Lame-Duck Territory?

Uh-oh.  Looks like things are getting somewhat Ides-of-Marchy within the Obama administration.

I think the coterie of Hillary Clinton supporters and enthusiasts have something to do with it.

From today’s LA Times:

Those who want him to act more forcefully include not only Republicans but also liberal internationalists and some members of his staff. [emphasis added]

I should say I’m pretty much on board with President Obama’s hesitations about using military force, which I would gloss as “Don’t use stupid actions to follow up on stupid policies.”

The US foreign policy establishment has come up with a series of stupid policies that it would like to get bailed out of with some showy military action.

Case in point: the anti-Russian enthusiasts (Victoria, I’m lookin’ at you) in the State Department overreached with the Kyev coup, now Obama won’t back them up by threatening to employ the U.S. military to buck up the government and deter Russia.  

My reaction:

  1.   Boo-hoo
  2. Cry me a river 
  3. Thank God

Pretty much the same thing with Syria.
The United States contributed significantly to the catastrophe by listening to the regime-changers and backing the insurgents instead of considering some kind of accommodation with Assad.  Death toll 150K and counting.  Thank God Obama decided not to blow up the Middle East by bombing Syria and/or sending in troops in an attempt to rescue the faltering and increasingly radical and unpopular insurgency.

As for the pivot to Asia, Obama’s stance is pretty problematic.

The the pivot (by which I mean the US leading the China-containment effort, instead of simply participating in it) is premised on the idea that US military power is the trump card and the pivot rests on the foundation of a credible US deterrent i.e. a deterrent that the US will promptly deploy regardless of the geopolitical and economic consequences of f*cking with the PRC, a rather important regional power in a rather important region.

I’ve argued elsewhere that China containment is the wrong policy for Asia, and the US could do better for itself by playing the honest broker in a bilaterally-tilted engagement strategy instead of taking up the role of backup to Japan and the Philippines in an anti-PRC united front and basing US credibility on the idea that we'll start World War III over a cluster of worthless islands.

Unfortunately for President Obama he jumped into the pivot bed that Hillary Clinton and the neoliberal interventionists prepared for him, and he needs to declare that he will wield US military power precipitously, unfairly, and irrationally (like Nixon with his madman doctrine) if he wants to maintain his credibility as Pivoteer-in-Chief.

Sadly, I think the recent spate of articles question President Obama’s warmongering cred are simply another sign that he’s a lame duck.

The reference to dissent within the administration concerning his restraint on military matters is simply another sign that the vaunted Obama message discipline is crumbling, and everybody’s waitin’ on Hillary.

Hillary, I think, will come into office eager to bomb something in order to re-establish US military cred and get on the (literally) right side of the liberal interventionalists and even the neo-cons.

In other words, instead of questioning and modifying or even abandoning crappy policies (after all, the pivot is her baby), she will escalate, shifting the debate to the military sphere in which US military power is pre-eminent  for the sake of holding the political initiative inside the Beltway and claiming the geopolitical initiative overseas.

Wonder who the symbolic (presumably helpless and easily demonized) victim will be?  What country will be Hillary Clinton’s Grenada? [thanks, DC]

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Mysteries of the USS Ronald Reagan...and Godzilla!

As I promote CounterPunch’s release of the offprint on my article concerning contamination of the US aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan by Fukushima fallout (link to purchase here; please buy many, many copies), there is a plethora of radiation-related news that highlight and illuminate the questions discussed in the piece.

First, Godzilla!  The creature design for the new reboot looks like it turns its back on the fleet, buff, raptor-ripoff of Roland Emmerich’s disastrous 1986 version (which offended fanboys to the extent that the two planned sequels never made it to the screen; rights-holder Toho Pictures subsequently denied the monster true “Godzilla” status and reassigned it the secondary role of “Zilla” in the as-yet embryonic Godzilla canon).  The new Godzilla faithfully cleaves to the template of the lumbering, obese, murderously irate but somehow lovable pseudoallosaur of the 60s and 70s.

However, the trailer holds out the possibility of some major revisionism on the issue of Godzilla's origin (he was unleashed by nuclear testing in the Pacific), declaring “Not tests.  They were trying to kill it.”

Ahem.  A major reason for the cultural reasonance of Godzilla, especially in Japan, was the big guy’s role as a stand-in for Japanese fears and resentment concerning the nuclear havoc released by the United States, both over Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, and in post-war atomic testing in the Pacific during the 1950s.

One of the most notorious instances was the surprise of the Castle Bravo H bomb test in 1954 in the Marshall Islands.  Surprise because the planned yield was 5 megatons (300 times the Hiroshima bomb) but the scientists, the atoll, the observers, and the west Pacific got 15 megatons  (1000 times) instead.  It was a pretty big bang, the biggest the US ever pulled off.

Castle Bravo produced an oversized fireball over four miles in diameter, vaporized the test site atoll, and created a lot of radioactive fallout.  Because of a wind shift, a considerable amount of fallout landed on inhabited islands, and also irradiated the crew of a Japanese fishing boat, Lucky Dragon No. 5.  The crew members became sick and one died “of a secondary infection”, a distinction that is very much in keeping with the strong desire of the nuclear industry to draw a bright line between statistically and scientifically unambiguous direct radiation-related mortality and radiation-related health impacts, exemplified by the WHO finding, much disputed by activists, that only 50 people died as a result of Chernobyl radiation (including 28 from acute radiation exposure and 15 from thyroid cancer).

Also typical was the government’s inclination to minimize the true extent of the radiation released in the fallout from Castle Bravo, a problem which also figures in my discussion of the purported radiation exposure of the crew of the Ronald Reagan.

Take it away, Wikipedia!

The official U.S. position had been that the growth in the strength of atomic bombs was not accompanied by an equivalent growth in radiation released. Japanese scientists who had collected data from the fishing vessel disagreed with this. Sir Joseph Rotblat, working at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, demonstrated that the contamination caused by the fallout from the test was far greater than that stated officially. Rotblat was able to deduce that the bomb had three stages and showed that the fission phase at the end of the explosion increased the amount of radioactivity a thousandfold. Rotblat's paper was taken up by the media, and the outcry in Japan reached such a level that diplomatic relations became strained and the incident was even dubbed by some as "a second Hiroshima".

More Wikipedia:

The sky in the west lit up like a sunrise. Eight minutes later the sound of the explosion arrived, with fallout several hours later. The fallout, fine white flaky dust of calcinated Bikini Island coral, had absorbed highly radioactive fission products, and fell on the ship for three hours. The fishermen scooped it into bags with their bare hands. With one fisherman, Matashichi Oishi, reporting that he "took a lick" of the dust that fell on his ship, describing it as gritty but with no taste. The dust stuck to surfaces, bodies and hair; after the radiation sickness symptoms appeared, the fishermen called it shi no hai (死の灰, death ash).

The US government refused to disclose the fallout's composition due to "national security", as the isotopic ratios, namely a percentage of uranium-237, could, through a radio-chemical analysis of the fallout, reveal the nature of the device to the Soviet Union, which had, as of 1954 not been successful with thermonuclear staging. Lewis Strauss, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), issued a series of denials; he also hypothesized that the lesions on the fishermen's bodies were not caused by radiation but by the chemical action of the caustic burnt lime that is produced when coral is calcined, that they were inside the danger zone (while they were 40 miles away), and told President Eisenhower's press secretary that the Lucky Dragon #5 may have been a "Red spy outfit", commanded by a Soviet agent intentionally exposing the ship's crew and catch to embarrass the USA and gain intelligence on the tests device. He also denied the extent of the claimed contamination of the fish caught by Daigo Fukuryu Maru and other ships. The FDA however later imposed rigid restrictions on tuna imports. The United States dispatched two medical scientists to Japan to study the effects of fallout on the ship's crew and to assist their doctors. 

Reportedly, the sailors were held incommunicado by the US to keep the story from getting out (I guess this was a by-product of U.S. powers under the ongoing occupation [Correction: Nope occupation ended in 1952.  Tks to alert reader MS]).

The case of the Lucky Dragon No. 5—and the radiation scare that prompted the dumping of several hundred tons of tuna—helped ignite the anti-nuke movement in Japan.  32 million Japanese signed a petition calling for the banning of the hydrogen bomb.

The Lucky Dragon No. 5, presumably satisfactorily decontaminated, is currently on display in an exhibition hall in Tokyo.

Castle Bravo also had a big role in igniting the movie career of Godzilla.  Hopefully when the movie comes out, Godzilla will still be true to his anti-nuke roots, and not fall prey to historical revisionism.

Off the nuclear theme for the moment, here is the Wikipedia entry for the most unlikely Godzilla manifestation:

In 1985, North Korea released Pulgasari, a kaiju movie similar to Godzilla. To make the film, North Korea used kidnapped South Korean director Shin Sang-ok. The special effects department from Toho was hired to produce the special effects.[9] Kenpachiro Satsuma, the stunt performer who played Godzilla from 1984 to 1995, portrayed Pulgasari.[10]

Here’s the trailer.  The whole movie is also available on the Internet.  I suppose that’s another reason we can thank sanctions for isolating North Korea from the whole IP/copyright regime.

Next up, Chernobyl.  April 26 was the 28th anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe.  Chernobyl figures heavily in my piece, as a cautionary tale of government coverup, proof of concept for the disastrous consequences of washouts a.k.a. precipitation bringing the contents of radioactive plumes down to the surface, and also for the multi-decade search for an alternate scientific and social narrative for the health aftereffects that acknowledges the radiation link to ailments similar to those experienced by some of the sailors on the Reagan.

April 26 was also the anniversary of the little-known Capital Region washout of 1953, a rainstorm which dumped a significant amount of radiation on Albany and its environs from the Simon nuclear test in Nevada.  It offers an illustration of the contamination problems created by local washouts such as the one the Ronald Reagan experienced.  It also recapitulates the government pattern of understating the magnitude of radioactive fallout in dealings with the general public.

Third, the government of the Marshall Islands—the Pacific atolls subjected to 62 nuclear tests—symbolically sued the governments of the United States, Russia, and all the other nuclear powers last week, in order to get them to live up to their nuclear obligations.

Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands was also the site, in 1946, of the only other known instance of radioactive contamination of a US aircraft carrier—and it was intentional.  The Baker shot was designed as an investigation as to whether naval vessels could be decontaminated while serving in a nuclear battle zone.  The answer was negative (see here for my discussion of the test, with a picture of the legendary Baker blast layer cake) at least for the derelict aircraft carrier USS Independence—which was subjected to a post-Baker sequence of unsuccessful decontamination exercises before the Navy gave up, turned it into a floating laboratory for more nuclear contamination experiments, and finally sank it off San Francisco’s Golden Gate with a cargo of nuclear waste.  Presumably, the Ronald Reagan fared better--though how much better is still something of a mystery, a mystery I'm trying to help unravel. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

CounterPunch Magazine article on Radioactive Contamination of USS Ronald Reagan at Fukushima Now Available for Purchase as Offprint

For the nuclear bureaucrat, lying seems to be as essential and continuous a human process as breathing.

I am not averse to the argument that a greater reliance on nuclear energy, despite its massive risks, might provide an alternative future preferable to being cooked to death by greenhouse gases.

But I must say that I do not think that nuclear energy should be in the hands of the current crew under the current system.

The nuclear agenda is largely in control of the legacy nuclear powers, whose dominance is enshrined in the imbalanced arrangement of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and its creature, the IAEA.  The United States and Russia, in particular, are nuclear horror shows when it comes to the waste, haste, shortcuts, and accidents inseparable from the birth of nuclear science in the crisis atmosphere of a world war and ensuing Cold War.

Neither of these nations, I would aver, is particularly interested in a new, more conservative model of radiation risk baselining that might impose onerous economic, political, and public health costs on their governments.  

The Japanese government (which, under Prime Minister Abe is set on nuclear power as a strategic national initiative) and Tokyo Electric Power Corporation (TEPCO) are pretty much cut from the same cloth.

Prime Minister Abe, in order to secure a key Japanese government priority, the 2020 Olympics, had this exchange with the IOC in September 2013 about the situation at the crippled nuclear power station at Fukushima:

"Let me assure you the situation is under control," [Abe] said.

"It has never done or will do any damage to Tokyo."

Abe replied decisively when pressed by veteran Norwegian IOC member Gerhard Heiberg over Fukushima.

"You should read past the headlines and look at the facts," he said.

"The contaminated water has been contained in an area of the harbour only 0.3 square kilometres big.

"There have been no health problems and nor will there be. I will be taking responsibility for all the programmes with regard to the plant and the leaks."

Fast-forward to April 20, 2014, courtesy of Japan Times:

“It’s embarrassing to admit, but there are certain parts of the site where we don’t have full control,” Akira Ono told reporters touring the plant last week.…

It appears that Abe’s “under control” assurances were based, at worst, on shaky assurances from TEPCO that the Japanese government was in no mood to question in the crucial run up to the awarding of the Olympic bid, or at best upon the rather unsophisticated idea that TEPCO would contain the contaminated water in tanks, so it wouldn’t reach the harbor, until some other more permanent solution got worked out.

Lots and lots of tanks.  

The 1,000 tanks [already “approaching capacity”] hold 440,000 tons of contaminated water. Some 4,500 to 5,000 workers, about 1,500 more than a half year ago, are trying to double the capacity by 2016.

The permanent solution has been slow in coming.

Add to the burgeoning storage tank farm the problems of radiation-averse contract workers hastily constructing and piping tanks and the inevitable problems of leaks, mis-routing, and overflows.   Add the difficulty in getting the balky liquid processing system up and running.  Add the challenges of trying out the new science of freezing a gigantic underground wall of ice to keep water from the ocean.  Add the fact that 400 tons of groundwater flow through the site every day, and after TEPCO struck a deal with the local fishermen to dump 100 TPD into the ocean, it turns out that the water might be too contaminated to dump, anyway.

There are many ways to describe the contaminated water situation at Fukushima.  “Under control” is not the most accurate.  “Fighting a holding action for the next 30-40 years” as the physics of radionucleide decay ineluctably reduces the danger (and Abe and his promises to take responsibility have entered LDP Valhalla) is perhaps a better description.

“Abe lied Tokyo’s way in the 2020 Olympics” is also not complete hyperbole.

With this context, it is not terribly surprising that lawyers for sailors on the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan consider TEPCO a target-rich environment for the lawsuits they are filing to claim redress for TEPCO’s alleged negligence in the matter of the plume of radioactive material that the Ronald Reagan sailed under and, thanks to the unfortunate circumstance of the downwash of a snowstorm, into, while conducting relief operations off the east coast of Japan after the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.

Their claims have been shrugged off and under-reported in the US and Japan on the grounds that the radiation exposure was so minor it could not have caused any health problems.  I don’t buy it, and not just because there is a predisposition in the nuclear industry to shade the truth.  

There are good reasons to believe that radiation doses were not—could not be-- accurately measured, and that valuable science on the extensive negative health outcomes for radiation workers, derived particularly study of the vast army of Chernobyl liquidators, has not been properly addressed, and a thoroughgoing rethinking of the scientific orthodoxy of radiation sickness and of the global nuclear regulatory apparatus should precede any new wave of nuclear power plant construction.

I addressed the issue of radioactive contamination of the USS Ronald Reagan and its crew in an article for the CounterPunch monthly magazine, “Fukushima’s Nuclear Shadow: Fallout Over the USS Reagan.”  To illustrate the USS Reagan situation, I also discusses little-known elements of the Chernobyl disaster, and the story behind one of the most serious episodes of radioactive contamination from nuclear testing in the United States—in Albany, NY, of all places.

It is, I can say with some confidence, an eye-opening read.

CounterPunch has kindly made it available as an inexpensive offprint.  The link for purchase is here.