Thursday, January 24, 2008

"Five of the west's most senior military officers and strategists" lose it

/ how I learned to stop worrying and use the Bomb /, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought. I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.
General Jack D. Ripper - Dr. Strangelove

The Guardian reports that five prominent military officers have submitted a "manifesto for a new NATO" which advocates that

The west must be ready to resort to a pre-emptive nuclear attack to try to halt the "imminent" spread of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction...

In this document the five former armed forces chiefs from the US, Britain, Germany, France and the Netherlands, claim that:

a "first strike" nuclear option remains an "indispensable instrument" since there is "simply no realistic prospect of a nuclear-free world".

The manifesto as presented by the Guardian is like something out of an updated Dr. Strangelove movie. It purports to defend the West's values, lamenting that "the west is struggling to summon the will to defend them". The particular subset of the West's values being defended hails from the colonial era, with a healthy dose of the "shoot first and see who's dead later" ethos which has endeared billions of the unfortunate portion of humanity to the West and its values for some centuries now...

The threats to "our values and way of life" as presented in this document are apparently the following:

1. Political fanaticism and religious fundamentalism.

As I'm quite certain that this is not a call for nuking either the Huckabee headquarters or the Vatican, or indeed of turning the world's most powerful fundamentalist state, Saudi Arabia, into a radioactive desert, I assume that political fanaticism refers (as it does traditionally in these circles) to any political power that opposes a very narrowly defined set of western interests, as illustrated here; and religious fundamentalism, as a threat, refers to non-governmental Islamic fundamentalist actors - and possibly Iran. To make this last point more explicit it is repeated in the list as a second threat (international terrorism):

2. The "dark side" of globalisation, meaning international terrorism, organised crime and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Now, the first two have existed for a long time, with much less radical proposals for their elimination. In fact organized crime has had frequently mutually beneficial relations with western intelligence agencies. As for the spread of weapons of mass destruction the report apparently means the spread of weapons of mass destruction to countries we don't like (such as Iran and North Korea) and where we don't actually support their efforts to acquire them. The countries not-so-subtly indicated here, however, are motivated to obtain these weapons in no small part exactly because of the actions of the leading western power and the realization that they might be next in line for the carnage euphemistically "regime change" if they don't get them quick, and by the insane statements of the sort that these five Generals are making.

Thus the threat here again is either Iran and North Korea (which would be yet another incentive for those two countries to acquire any sort of WMDs they can get their hands on as fast as possible), or "organized crime" and non-state entities. If the latter is the case however, one wonders what kind of nuclear or conventinal deterrent effect on these organizations' actions is imagined. The only scenario I can think of is either blackmail ("we will bomb the countries in which these organization are based and everybody in them, regardless of whether the organizations are in fact a very small part of the population of said countries"), or a declaration of the intent of exterminating huge numbers of civilians in blind retaliation to a possible strike against "the West". One wonders whether this includes the bombing of Moscow in retaliation to a strike by the Russian mafia, or an invasion of Sicily and Southern Italy in retaliation against violent acts by the three branches of Organized Crime there. I doubt it.

3. Climate change and energy security, entailing a contest for resources and potential "environmental" migration on a mass scale.

Now, it is interesting to note that on both of these issues these former NATO commanders assume that there is a military role for the alliance, which is rather doubtful. Unless of course they imagine that the forced migration of millions due to climatic changes can be accomplished by creating a huge military fence around the most severely afflicted areas, thus letting the people that live in them starve in an extended concentration camp. Or unless they think that the "contest for energy resources" between Arctic states should be decided by forcefully excluding the main non-NATO (and non-Western) player in this new Great Thawing Game, namely Russia. That is indeed a situation which might potentially create a nuclear confrontation, but one has difficulty to understand exactly which of the West's values will be defended - other than greed that is... The prospect of a nuclear confrontation over Arctic fossil fuels (which is what they're talking about here) and the knowledge that it is seriously considered by "senior NATO military officers and strategists", is rather frightening... I imagine that military action to keep those damn Arctic fossil fuels in the ground, is not what is meant here, and the concept of modifying our way of life (and our energy production and consumption patterns) in order to mitigate climate change is beyond the scope of this proposal...

4. The weakening of the nation state as well as of organisations such as the UN, Nato and the EU.

I fail to see how this constitutes a threat, but one should note that the UN has been weakened most recently by US unilateralism and NATO, if indeed it has been weakened, has done so because it seems irrelevant nowadays to an increasing number of citizens in NATO-member countries. As for the EU, I fail to see how it has been weakened in any real sense.

These are the threats then. And what do these five military men suggest NATO does to face them? Among other things, the following:

To prevail, the generals call for an overhaul of Nato decision-taking methods, a new "directorate" of US, European and Nato leaders to respond rapidly to crises, and an end to EU "obstruction" of and rivalry with Nato. Among the most radical changes demanded are:

1. A shift from consensus decision-taking in Nato bodies to majority voting, meaning faster action through an end to national vetoes.

2. The abolition of national caveats in Nato operations of the kind that plague the Afghan campaign.

3. No role in decision-taking on Nato operations for alliance members who are not taking part in the operations.

4. The use of force without UN security council authorisation when "immediate action is needed to protect large numbers of human beings".

Let's translate this: The "overhaul of Nato decision-taking methods" and the "new 'directorate' of US, European and Nato leaders" (detailed in proposals 1, 2, 3), really means that NATO should be shielded both from pesky "smaller" members' opinions (suffering from the illusion of being equal partners in the Alliance) on how to use their own armed forces, as well as from possible popular majorities inside NATO-member countries that may disapprove of the Alliance's goals and methods. In fact this is a call for terminating (or at least limiting) public participation through elected governments in NATO's decisions. It is a contempt for democracy not at all uncommon among military brass, and quite dangerous for the, supposedly, core values of democracy that the west alleges it is trying to protect and export. This is amply demonstrated by Klaus Naumann's attack on his own country's performance in Afghanistan:

"The time has come for Germany to decide if it wants to be a reliable partner." By insisting on "special rules" for its forces in Afghanistan, the Merkel government in Berlin was contributing to "the dissolution of Nato".

A statement that should be seen in light of the fact that:

An opinion poll carried out by Forsa reported that over 60 percent of Germans wanted the troops brought home.

So Naumann suggests that the Merkel government, already performing a balancing act between its NATO "duties" and public disapproval for any sort of continued German involvement in Afghanistan, should ignore public opinion and, in fact, act exactly opposite to its demands. The legitimacy of such a policy does not seem to be an issue with the good general.

Further, the proposals contribute to the further weakening of state sovereignty (1,2,3), the "end to EU obstruction" weakens the EU, and proposal 4, weakens tremendously the UN. All of the above institutions' weakenings, are presented as threats above... There seems to be a non-trivial contradiction here.

Proposal 4 is, indeed, a direct affront to international law. The highly selective protecting of "large numbers of human beings", as judged by NATO, using its own highly partial criteria, constitutes potentially an act of aggression. I wonder if use of force is considered in protecting Gaza's population from starvation or if NATO would consider intervening in Iraq, to protect the huge numbers of human beings suffering, escaping or dying from the US invasion and its aftermath. The idea that NATO should become judge, jury and executioner of international law, given the history of its most powerful member-states is morally laughable and practically of disastrous potential consequences.

Some idea on how well thought this proposal is, is given by Naumann:

Naumann suggested the threat of nuclear attack was a counsel of desperation. "Proliferation is spreading and we have not too many options to stop it. We don't know how to deal with this."

However no mechanism by which the threat of a NATO nuclear first strike might prevent proliferation spreading is presented. Not knowing how to "deal with this", apparently leads the modern Dr. Strangeloves, to propose a policy that is likely to lead, among other more terrible things, to the acceleration of proliferation. That is, leaving aside the issue of whether nuclear proliferation is actually spreading, or whether there exist silver billets to counter it... I note in passing that Mohamad ElBaradei proposed in 2003, a sensible plan to end nuclear proliferation:

My plan is to begin by setting up a reserve fuel bank, under IAEA control, so that every country will be assured that it will get the fuel needed for its bona fide peaceful nuclear activities. This assurance of supply will remove the incentive – and the justification – for each country to develop its own fuel cycle. We should then be able to agree on a moratorium on new national facilities, and to begin work on multinational arrangements for enrichment, fuel production, waste disposal and reprocessing.

This plan, as Noam Chomsky noted, was rejected by the usual parties:

ElBaradei’s proposal has to date been accepted by only one state, to my knowledge: Iran, in February, in an interview with Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. The Bush administration rejects a verifiable Fissban — and stands nearly alone. In November 2004 the UN committee on disarmament voted in favour of a verifiable Fissban. The vote was 147 to one (United States), with two abstentions: Israel and Britain. Last year a vote in the full General Assembly was 179 to two, Israel and Britain again abstaining. The United States was joined by Palau.

All in all this proposal provides an excellent example of why generals should be restrained from participating in any kind of policy planning. Jack D. Ripper would be smiling.

[Crossposted at The European Tribune]

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Time magazine: Support the antiquities traffickers

/ incitation to plunder /

This is an outrageous piece of journalism from Time magazine in which the benefits of "investing in antiquities" are extolled, with no mention of the fact that the vast majority of such "assets" are the product of plunder, perpetrated by various smuggling gangs, at various times.

The article has the gall to begin by describing rather approvingly an auction of a Sumerian (?) artifact sold recently at Sotheby's, which - as Iraq is under colonial control (and obviously can't protect or demand back its cultural treasures) - is rather outrageous.

While it might indeed be true that "no matter how ornate a stock certificate might be, an Egyptian amulet is always going to look better in your living room display case", it's probably even more accurate to say that the amulet might look better in a museum in Cairo. And, as Digging Digitally suggests, the article doesn't even "hint at the larger external costs and widespread destruction that is part of this trade".

On the issue of post-colonial cultural plunder and antiquities trafficking from museums, Greekworks had a couple of interesting articles a couple of years ago, which are to the point and cutting in their critique.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

New Left Review - Qin Hui: Dividing the Big Family Assets

/ uncommon analysis /

This is an interview with Qin Hui, almost four years old now (brought to my attention via metafilter, triggered in turn by this recent piece), in which the historian discusses a broad range of issues:

Where is the PRC heading? One of its leading intellectual iconoclasts, after describing his origins in the Cultural Revolution, offers a long-range comparative perspective on the Chinese state’s strategy for land and industry today. The divisions in the intelligentsia and the fate of the peasantry, the overwhelming majority of the country, as China enters the WTO.

This is a treasure trove of information and insight for those (like me) who have a superficial knowledge of current China. It offers glimpses of the Cultural Revolution from within (a very different and more nuanced situation than that usually found in western publications), the situation of the peasantry and the problems facing today's China. He also points out the implications of China's current situation for the West:

Obviously, in the manufacturing sector no labour force—either under the welfare system of developed countries, or backed by trade unions in Third World or East European democracies—can ‘compete’ with a Chinese working class that has no right to unions or to labour negotiations. So too, Western farmers who rely on state subsidies may find it difficult to compete with Chinese exporters who can rely on peasant producers who have never enjoyed any protection, only strict control—causes underlying many of the ‘miracles’ in today’s China that often seem equally baffling to Right and Left in the West. In fact, though no one in the contemporary world will say so, such a situation is not without historical precedent. Around the sixteenth century, some East European countries became highly competitive in commercial agriculture by establishing a ‘second serfdom’. You can find people in today’s Chinese think-tanks who understand this very well. In some internal discussions they bluntly state that, as China has no comparative advantages in either resources or technology in today’s world, and cannot advance either to a real socialism or a real capitalism, its competitive edge can only come from its unique system of dependent labour.

Factually, I admit they are to a great extent right. Without this labour system China wouldn’t have been able to pull off the ‘miracle of competitiveness’, which attracts such interest from the West, the former Soviet bloc and many Third World democracies—but which they will never be able to emulate. The question I would ask, however, is whether a ‘miracle’ of this kind is sustainable? We might want to look at the long-term consequences of the ‘second serfdom’ in Eastern Europe. Nowadays there is a lot of talk in the US about a ‘China threat’. Actually, as no big power emerged out of the sixteenth-century East European experience, it is highly doubtful whether the current Chinese miracle could continue to a point where it really did threaten the West. But even if economic magic of this sort, that does not treat people as human beings, did take China to the top of the world, what would be its value? Such a development would first of all threaten the existence of the Chinese people themselves.

I would also highlight this insightful comment:

…The merit of general ‘isms’ lies in the universal values that inform them; yet the specific theory of a given ‘ism’ is usually constructed in response to particular historical questions, not universal ones. Therefore, when we advocate universal values we should be careful not to confuse them with universal questions. My slogan is: ‘isms’ can be imported; ‘questions’ must be generated locally; and theories should always be constructed independently…