Archive for August, 2009|Monthly archive page

Food on the Attack

In Specific Facts on August 24, 2009 at 1:45 pm


There has been a steady increase in concern with the way food is created in this country, perhaps peaking with then Presidential Candidate Obama mentioning this article by Michael Pollan (and then recanting after there was a backlash).  Michelle Obama’s white house garden was actually proposed in that article, though most of the other advice (like an end to food subsidies) will probably be ignored.  It has become undeniable and even uncontroversial that Americans don’t eat well, and that the problem stems from too much grain and grain fed meat.  However, what is much less well known is the role of factory farming in MRSA, the antibiotic resistant bacteria that kills more people than AIDS every year in this country.

John Hopkins magazine has a feature about how low dosage antibiotics in factory farm feed is essentially the perfect lab for the creation of antibiotic resistant bacteria.  All of the animals are dosed with small amounts of antibiotics so they will grow faster and not get sick in the miserable living conditions required to produce super cheap meat.  All of their feces, millions of tons of it, is stored in pools and manure sheds where bacteria grows in an environment with trace antibiotics present.  Humans who work on these farms are frequently in contact with these microbes, who then colonize humans and spread off the farms.  Even worse, bacteria share genetic information in “resistance cassettes”, so once a human catches a benign antibiotic resistant bacteria, they are vulnerable to any other treatable bacterial infection.  So staph infections end up killing more people than AIDS, whereas before they could be treated easily.

MRSA isn’t only caused by factory farming; it is most commonly found in hospitals where there are a plethora of antibiotics and bacteria interacting.  However, this is a necessary and perhaps unavoidable consequence of having hospitals.  On the other hand, feeding antibiotics to our meat so it will be cheaper is shockingly short-sighted.  Imagine a world where antibiotics don’t work anymore, but you can still get a hamburger for a dollar.  Does that seem like a trade worth making?  There are a lot of changes needed in the way we produce our food, and a lot of them will require incremental progress, but banning antibiotics in farm feed seems pretty straightforward.


North Korea: Time-Out or a Spanking?

In Specific Facts on August 19, 2009 at 10:22 am

First, a brief North Korean history lesson: with its patron state collapsing in 1991, China engaging in heavy trade with the United States, and Eternal President Kim Il-Sung on the verge of death, North Korea found itself exposed and began progressively developing its own nuclear deterrent.  The US and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework in 1994, with the assistance of former President Jimmy Carter, wherein North Korea promised to end enrichment in exchange for US assistance in modernizing power plants, within no specific timeframe.

However, when the Republicans won a Congressional majority that same year, funding for US obligations was cut off and progress was considerably slowed, which made the DPRK drag its feet in nuclear disarmament. The highest level official state visit occurred when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang in 2000 to confirm that North Korea was ending its nuclear program and offer concessions in exchange for more progress.

When the Bush Administration took power in 2001, the US had not met its obligation to deliver a light water reactor under the Agreed Framework, and North Korea had continued to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons use. The Bush Administration declared North Korea to be part of the “Axis of Evil” and adopted a more hard-line approach to Pyongyang. During this time, North Korea increased weapons exchanges with other rogue states (including most prominently US “ally” in the War on Terror, Pakistan) and began to conduct ever-more-provocative nuclear weapons and missile tests.

The six-party talks in 2007 concluded that progress would be made, within no specific timeframe, towards a formal peace treaty, as opposed to an armistice, between the two Koreas, nuclear disarmament, and normalization of US-North Korean relations. In 2008, after a period of feet-dragging and tension between the two nations, North Korea agreed to allow inspections of available materials in exchange for the US removing it from the list of States Sponsoring Terrorism.

In 2009, North Korea conducted an underground nuclear weapons test and has since conducted several missile tests as well as abducting two American journalists. On August 4th, former President Bill Clinton made an unannounced visit to Pyongyang to negotiate the release of Euna Lee and Laura Ling of Current TV, which may have been but probably wasn’t a “solely private mission”.

After fifteen years of little progress, it’s clear that the Obama Administration needs to adopt a fresh policy to curb this out-of-control nation. Recently, newspapers have been inundated with “alternative” solutions for North Korea, which basically fall into four distinct families.


(1) Soft-Unilateral: engage with North Korea directly; offer concessions in exchange for non-proliferation and disarmament. While the Obama Administration does not acknowledge complicity in former President Clinton’s recent trip to Pyongyang to secure the release of journalists Lee and Ling, it would seem consistent with Democratic policy since the 1994 Agreed Framework. During this time, another former Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, acted as envoy for the US and showed a friendly face to Pyongyang after years of hard-line diplomacy (until 1991, the US had up to 950 nuclear warheads pointed directly at North Korea). Furthermore, many Clinton Administration officials, especially former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, feel progress was being made and was “undone” by the Bush Administration’s abrupt about-face in 2002.

That being said, the recent nuclear test and missile launches drew condemnation from even traditional North Korean allies and Six-Party Talks members Russia and China, and North Korea has allegedly ceased its weapons exchanges and funding of terrorist groups. It would be foolish to fail to acknowledge that progress has also been made on North Korea under the Bush Administration. Obama must be careful not to repeat that administration’s mistake of basically nullifying all prior agreements upon entering office. It would allow Kim Jong-Il to think he can just stall until the next election.

Whether complicit or not, the Obama Administration’s allowing Bill Clinton to travel to Pyongyang for a photo-op after years of hard-line diplomacy sends mixed messages to the North Korean regime and to our allies in East Asia. Clinton’s visit sends the symbolic gesture that his administration’s style of unilateral, soft diplomacy is going to be resurrected under Obama, that the US is more concerned with petty party politics than with anti-proliferation, and that North Korea doesn’t have to adhere to any of its prior agreements and can begin proliferation activities anew.


(2) Hard-Multilateral: consider North Korea an enemy of the United States; impose multilateral sanctions. Recently the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial by former Dick Cheney national security advisor Stephen Yeats and former State Department deputy special envoy for North Korean human rights issues Christian Whiton suggesting a “new” approach for diplomacy to North Korea.

The editorial likened the actions of former President Bill Clinton in securing the release of hostages Euna Lee and Laura Ling to “rewarding Pyongyang for bad behavior”. Yeats and Whiton suggest that, instead of bribing Kim Jong-Il’s regime to not take journalists hostage, the US assemble a formal planning group for regional powers to both strengthen alliances and put additional pressure on Pyongyang, similar to NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group, which supposedly strengthened US hegemony in Europe in the 1960’s and showed the Soviet Union a united front during the early days of the Cold War. Of course, in addition to being a not-so-veiled continuation of the Six-Party framework, Yeats and Whiton`s proposal begs the question: why would China and Russia join an organization that revolves around a US nuclear deterrent when they already have one?

Moreover, for economic sanctions to have any effect on North Korea, both Russia and China, as the bulk of North Korean trade, must be given the most prominent seats at the table. Moscow and Beijing are strongly opposed to increased sanctions, and, since China is financing our rapidly increasing treasury debt, our bargaining power would be limited. If the Obama Administration goes ahead with a continuance of a hard-line, sanctions-based, multilateral policy towards North Korea, this would inevitably result in the US making major concessions to China, such as withdrawing our troops from South Korea or allowing PRC hegemony over Taiwan.

Furthermore, instead of strengthening alliances in the region, inevitable concessions for China arising from a hard-line, multilateral approach would most likely alienate both South Korea and Japan, who are dependent on the US as military protector and suspicious of China. As a response to growing Chinese regional hegemony, Japan or South Korea would very likely do exactly what France did in the 1960’s and develop an independent nuclear deterrent.


(3) Hard-Unilateral: consider North Korea an enemy of the United States; impose a complete trade embargo. This is the approach the US took with Pyongyang from the ceasefire of 1953 to roughly 1991, and has been US foreign policy towards Cuba since 1958.

While North Korea generally declined to participate in Soviet wars during the embargo period, instead pursuing its independent ideology of juche, Cuba sent large numbers of soldiers to Angola, Algeria, Zaire, Yemen, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Nicaragua, and currently rents doctors to Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela and Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

One could expect similar behavior from Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea under a hard-unilateral approach. Indeed, North Korea already provides/provided nuclear technology to Yemen and Syria and guns for Myanmar, engages in heroin and methamphetamine smuggling, produces counterfeit currency and cigarettes, commits insurance fraud, and supposedly financed the Irish Republican Army during its 1970’s bombing campaign.  With no watchdog around, Kim Jong-Il’s regime would most likely increase the scale of its illicit activity.  A full US unilateral trade embargo would also give Kim an easy scapegoat for anytime something goes wrong.

A hard-unilateral approach would at least have the advantage of not costing American tax-payers any more money and avoiding the blowback that has resulted from our more pro-active Middle-Eastern policy and would probably result from any attempts at forced regime change in North Korea.

Furthermore, Kim Jong-Il has pancreatic cancer and is in poor health.  His hand-picked successor is third son Kim Jong-un, who attended the International School of Berne and has direct experience living in a free, capitalist society.  If Kim Jong-un takes power, there could be a sudden policy about-face in North Korea, such as with South Africa when Frederik Willem de Klerk took power in 1989 and suddenly ended apartheid.

However, due to strong US military presence on the Korean Peninsula and in neighboring Japan, if North Korea were to seek reunification with South Korea during such a period of full US embargo or begin abducting Japanese citizens again, since both states are US military occupied client states, we would inevitably be drawn to the negotiating table and have to begin anew from scratch.  If either of those states felt we were not doing enough, it would very likely result in their developing independent nuclear deterrents.


(4) Soft-Multilateral: engage with North Korea directly; open trade. The disadvantage to this approach, advocated by many libertarians, is that it potentially sends the message that the US is willing to ignore human rights and proliferation issues when deciding with whom to trade. Countries such as Burma or Syria could interpret an opening of US trade to North Korea as an incentive to develop their own nuclear detterents and start making threats to regional democracies.

However, the US already trades with many nations that violate human rights, among them China and Saudi Arabia, two of our biggest business partners.  The US also trades with nations that proliferate, such as Pakistan.  The US is far beyond being able to demand compliance with international standards of human rights or nonproliferation as a pretext for trade, and the world knows it.

Furthermore, the reason none of the other approaches to solving the problem are feasible is because the US does not currently have a large trade volume with North Korea. Instead we have to rely on toothless, non-credible threats and concessions for China and Russia. If we open trade to North Korea, we will have something to take away in case Kim Jong-Il decides to proliferate again or develop ever more-powerful nuclear weapons.

The opening of doors to legitimate trade would also satisfy North Korea’s need to feed its own population, which has been ravaged by natural disasters, disease, and famine in recent years especially. It was this need for the simple necessities of life that compelled Kim Jong-Il to seek the world’s attention in the first place, and that most likely continues to motivate North Korean weapons and drug trafficking today.

The model for a soft-multilateral approach of course is China. Under Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao, China has become increasingly more democratic and capitalist. China’s international exposure has drawn protest which has made it at least relax its suppression of dissidents.  Experimentation and gradual implementation of capitalist markets have convinced Chinese authorities of the superiority of that system.

To return to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Good Morning America interview, if North Korea is an unruly teenager and America its parent, Democratic soft-unilateral policy has heretofore essentially been to promise a new car in exchange for not misbehaving. The Bush Administration’s hard-multilateral policy amounts to telling the child he’s destined to become a criminal and then the whole family having a public intervention on the Maury Povich show. To impose a hard-unilateral embargo on North Korea is like kicking a rebellious teenager out of the house. Finally, to open trade in a soft-multilateral fashion is like giving the child responsibility so he’s forced to become an adult.

Diet Healthcare Reform

In Specific Facts on August 17, 2009 at 7:07 pm

The big news of the day, at least according to Drudge, is that Team Obama is laying the groundwork for removing the public option from their health care plan. This would be part of a larger strategy shift, which has seen Obama rephrase “health care reform” as “health insurance reform” after his personal popularity and public support for health reform diminished as the debate soured.

While I do support a strong public option, I agree with Ezra Klein that it isn’t the most important part of reform. Without the freedom to opt into it, most Americans would not have any new option even with the public option, anyway.  Universal coverage is the most important part of health care reform because it will actually save thousands of people’s lives.  The rest is just about money.  Universal coverage doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the public option either.  Massachusetts does it through a mandate and subsidies and so would a national plan.

That said, the other, slightly less, important part is still vital, because its not just about money, it’s about a lot of money – both to individuals who have their lives ruined when they get sick and to the government, which will have to pay for huge new obligations. That last part is probably what has the public worried now: we are spending so much money and the economy is so bad that it’s hard to write another huge check.

However, It frustrates me is that no one talks about how expensive doing nothing is. Medicare is a $36 trillon dollar unfunded liability over the next 75 years because the costs of medical care keep going up.  Just to give some context, that is about two and a half times the total economy of the country in a year.

Furthermore, the American economy, the paradigm of the free market, has a health care system that creates economic inefficiencies.  Instead of free insurance markets, consumers have to use their employer’s plan, creating mini-monopolies (plus many states have single insurance companies that control super-majorities of the insurance market, which are not so mini-monopolies).  Consumers also don’t get to make decisions at the margin, comparing costs and benefits of additional care, because most of the costs of health care are hidden from consumers.  This encourages over-consumption.  Rather than encouraging the free flow of labor and low barriers to entry for entrepreneurs, our system punishes employees who leave their coverage, and business owners miss out on the tax exclusion loophole that only the employed enjoy.  Even the vary basis of the market system itself, a guarantee of services for fees, is undermined by insurance companies using pre-existing conditions to deny coverage when you actually need them.

This bill will go a long way towards fixing these inefficiencies.  It will stop insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions. The health exchange with its co-opts (if not a public option) and tax breaks will encourage small businesses ownership and self-employment by making health insurance affordable.  A health board that analyzes what works and taxes extravagant health benefits will encourage rational marginal decision making. Unfortunately, this bill will not end the monopolistic employer based system, though Wyden Bennet would.  Still, the American economy would work better, people would have more choices, and it would save lives.  If it takes jettisoning the public option to make that happen, then so be it.

Welcome to the Club

In Empires of the Mind on August 11, 2009 at 1:43 pm


In discussing Carr’s excellent post with friends, I ended up noting how overrated the nuclear peace theory is.  The theory is that nuclear weapons actually lead to a more stable international system by raising the stakes to a level beyond which rational actors will not escalate a crisis.  This is the realist version of democratic peace theory, but I think it suffers from ignoring the other variables that have produced international peace since the creation of the bomb, and ultimately, from being far too risky in practice to justify its limited benefits.

It is undeniable that two countries with nuclear weapons have never fought a war against one another, though the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. frequently contributed material support for whomever happened to be fighting against the other one at the time.  However, to give all of the credit for that peace to nuclear weapons slights the amazing progress of international institutions since WWII.  The UN, NATO, WTO, EU, G-8, G-20 et al. have created international stability and interdependence, while universal nationalism and sovereignty have necessitated acquiring legitimacy for military intervention.  Most wars in this period have been civil wars or proxy wars, often both.  Even the most glaring counterexample, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, was only possible because U.S. leadership flaunted international institutions philosophically.  As the U.S. has paid dearly for its hubris, it is hard imagine that any other great powers are in a hurry to follow that example.

Instead most powers seek regional hegemony, often through non-military means like Chavez’s oil-money largess or Iran’s philosophical hard-line appeal, and only will use force in their sphere of influence.  Russia’s invasion of Georgia last year was the first time that “Pax Americana” has been broken since the 80’s and even that was minor, strategic, and costly.  That China and Taiwan have settled into an uneasy equilibrium, and obviously China is not afraid of the U.S.’s nuclear intervention in Taiwan, points that international institutions and not nuclear weapons are the cause of global stability.

Some might argue that nuclear weapons, while not entirely causing the unprecidented global stability, have contributed to it.  Thus, rather than fear the expansion of nuclear weapons, we should embrace new nuclear states.  However, I fear that the truth of nuclear weapons is more like credit default swaps: a tiny dividend now and the unlikely possibility of catastrophe later.  The world has skated dangerously close to absolute calamity a few times, adding more players to this game only increases the probability that eventually something will go wrong.  That North Korea, probably the least rational, democratic, or internationally accountable country on Earth now has nuclear weapons should be a cautionary tale for those who like that road to peace.

In fact, I would argue that for a country like North Korea, because the conventional wisdom is that securing the bomb is an absolute prevention against attack, nuclear weapons actually increase bad behavior.  Indeed, since North Korea has publicly announced they had nukes, they have taken American journalists prisoner, threatened to bomb Hawaii and pulled out of the 1953 Armistice.  The thought of a nuclear Iran, in the most strategically important and complicated region on Earth, surrounded by enemies and terrified neighbors and recently proven to be brutal and unresponsive to its citizenry, is galvanizing.  Further, this analysis ignores the threat of non-state nuclear weapons, a possibility which becomes far more likely the more nuclear bombs become available to fall into the wrong hands.

President Obama’s efforts both as a senator and as president to seek a nuclear free world, however distant that goal may seem, should be celebrated.  We no longer live under the constant threat of annhiliation, but the danger remains.


The End of (the) War

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on August 10, 2009 at 6:01 pm

Last week, on August 6th and 9th respectively, citizens of the world observed the 64th anniversaries of the only nuclear attacks in world history, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These events forever changed the face of international relations and raised the stakes of warfare to a point which, to this date, has undoubtedly forced the world’s major powers to seek more creative and peaceful solutions to their disagreements. But was the cost in innocent human lives destroyed by both atomic bombs worth the Pax Americana today’s citizens are lucky enough to enjoy?

61% of Americans say “yes”, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll. It’s worth noting that the percentage of Americans saying “yes” increases dramatically with age, meaning that those who were alive at the time of the bombing, born shortly after World War II, or who grew up during the imminent nuclear holocaust and paranoia of the Cold War, are far more likely to support the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki than their younger counterparts, many of whom consider the nuclear attacks to have been acts of “State Terrorism.”

Before deciding for myself, I wanted to look at the relevant facts:

(1) World War II was a “total war”, which means that “participants placed their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities at the service of the war effort, erasing the distinction between civilian and military resources.” Due to the complete failure to peacefully resolve World War I through armistice, the Allies insisted on unconditional surrender to end World War II.

(2) The Empire of Japan was an aggressive state controlled by a military dictatorship that had nationalized industry, subjugated its populus through propaganda and fear, and had focused its entire civilizational capacity on military expansion.

(3) Japan failed to observe agreed-upon international law regarding treatment of POW’s and civilians in occupied territories:

(a) Japanese military forces were specifically directed to follow a scorched-earth strategy—to “kill all, burn all, loot all.”

(b) In occupied territories, in addition to cannibalism, contests as to who could decapitate the most civilians, and infant rape, Japanese forces executed as many as 30 million people, including 26 million Chinese civilians. After the war, only 56 Chinese POWs were released.

(4) During the 133 battles of the War in the Pacific (7 July 1937 – 2 September 1945), the Allies suffered 4,440,000+ military casualties and 24+ million civilian casualties. The Empire of Japan suffered 3,340,000+ military casualties and 960,000+ civilian casualties.

(5) The Battle of Okinawa was the last large pitched battle fought in world history. Approximately one fourth of the civilian population of the culturally non-Japanese Okinawa Honto died as a result of the Battle of Okinawa. In terms of number of deaths (altogether over 300,000 people died), this was the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War. 14,000 soldiers had to be discharged for psychological reasons. 90% of buildings on Okinawa were destroyed. After it became clear the island would be taken by Allied Forces, Japanese soldiers forced Ryukyu civilians to blow themselves up with hand grenades to avoid being captured by the Allies.

(6) The allies were planning on using Okinawa as a base for launching an invasion of mainland Japan, which had approximately 313 times the land area and 117 times the population of Okinawa. Compared to the Japanese mainland, Okinawa was culturally non-Japanese and therefore less susceptible to the nationalism propagated in the schools of all Japanese occupied territories from the 1868 Meiji Restoration. An invasion of the Japanese mainland, it was reasoned, would face civilian opposition even more ferocious than that found in Okinawa. Furthermore, Okinawa is relatively flat compared to the Japanese mainland, which is over 70% mountainous, making a land-based assault even more difficult.

(7) It was estimated using the experience of Okinawa that an invasion of mainland Japan would require at least 5,000,000 allied troops to balance the 5,000,000-strong Japanese standing army and respond to civilian resistance. It was believed that a mainland invasion would result in allied casualties of upwards of 1 million, with a much greater number of Japanese casualties.

(8) The United States strategic bombing of Japan from 1942 to 1945 had resulted in the destruction of 67 Japanese cities, as many as 500,000 Japanese deaths, and 5,000,000 people made homeless. The Empire of Japan ignored the ultimatum demanding its subsequent surrender.

(9) The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th respectively killed 140,000 and 80,000 (together 5% of the total Japanese war dead and three-fifths of one percent of the total number of people killed in the Pacific Theater of War). The Potsdam Declaration demanding Japanese surrender issued after the first atomic bombing of Hiroshima was ignored by the Empire of Japan.

(10) Due to the fact that “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” were the only nuclear devices the US had in its arsenal and together were considered incapable of inflicting damage enough to compel a Japanese surrender, Allied forces decided the only way to end the war would be to (a) convince the Japanese that stocks of this new, powerful bomb were virtually unlimited, and (b) to maximize the psychological impact of the bombs on the Japanese civilization.

(11) Accordingly, Kyoto was chosen as the first city to be bombed using this new technology due to its being the Japanese cultural, artistic, religious, and historical capital. However, US Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson had gone there for his honeymoon and, in a display of complete bureaucratic abuse, thankfully removed Kyoto from the list of potential targets.

(12) Hiroshima, being the main shipping port for western Japan, and Kokura, being the location of a massive Japanese arsenal, were chosen as targets, being of both military and psychological importance to the Japanese. However, Kokura was obscured by cloud cover, so the nearby city of Nagasaki, being another major shipping port, was bombed instead.

The Quinnipiac poll found that support for the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki increases with age. It’s easy to see why those familiar with these relevant facts generally support the dropping of two atomic bombs on the Empire of Japan. The opinions of many younger Americans are doubtlessly colored by current political conditions: (1) we live in a time where “US bombings” are much more morally dubious than they were during the closing years of the Second World War – a terrorist hijacks a plane and America responds by bombing the city of his birth; satellite photos show something suspicious, so the US occupies a country and destabilizes an entire region of the globe; or we don’t like the results of a democratic election in a third world country, so we finance and arm a nationalist dictator; (2) a nuclear event now has the capability to effectively end civilization as we know it. This was not the case with the relatively weak “Fat Man” and “Little Boy”; and (3) Japan is now one of our strongest allies and enjoys a reputation for peace in the international community. Their culture fascinates and entertains us, their tourists visit our national monuments, and we buy their cars and electronics. Given the current shape of the world, it`s understandable, although incredibly ignorant, that younger Americans would consider the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to have been acts of State Terrorism.

The idea that it’s okay to drop a weapon of mass-destruction on a city full of civilians sounds appalling to sane, caring individuals. And it is. But it’s worth examining the realities of the situation at the time before jumping to conclusions on whether or not the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary or not, because during World War II, sane, caring individuals were nowhere to be found, major powers were engaged in Total War, and the maxim was “kill or be killed”.

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki succeeded, at a relatively small cost in human lives, in subduing (as opposed to simply containing) the destructive, propaganda-riddled, and genocidal Empire of Japan. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the worst tragedy in the history of the world, bringing peace to nearly all nations, and setting off an arms race that eventually raised the stakes of major powers going to war to a level where no nation has, ushering in an unprecedented period of world peace.

Good Thing We Finally Closed that Barn Door

In Specific Facts on August 6, 2009 at 2:44 pm

Ever since I read Jeffery Goldberg’s dismantling of the Transportation Security Administration, I have believed that the TSA was a complete waste of time.  However, it is no use to kick against the goads: of all the worthless crap in our system, airport security has the most glaring cause and the least political gain from change.  It is the ultimate orphan of a cause: if you make airport security less of a pain then everyone benefits, but if anything ever happens it will be your fault.  You would literally have your face on the cover of every paper in the country under a headline blaming you for a terrorist attack.

So I generally try not to get to worked up about it, even while I’m taking off my belt and shoes, getting patted down or being forced to throw away my shampoo.  But then I watched the pillow fight hard hitting journalism of 60 Minutes’ TSA special and it got my blood boiling. It was outrageous to watch Lesley Stahl talk to Kip Hawly, the outgoing head of the TSA, who clearly knows his way around the Rudy Giuliani playbook: “This is war.  These people are trying to kill us.  They got on the planes on Sept. 11, 2001 and killed 3,000 people and they will do it again as many times as they can.”

This is the defense of anything and everything in the security apparatus.  The argument that Al-Qaeda wants to kill us is inarguable, so that makes the methods used to prevent them similarly beyond debate.  This is also indisputable: TSA is hugely expensive, onerous to everyone who travels, and, most importantly, has never caught a terrorist.  They have detained 180,000 people using 160 million dollar body language experts and were wrong every single time.

Even the “advances” in security, like making everyone take off their shoes and put their liquids in bags, are entirely reactive.  Richard Reid didn’t got caught with a bomb in his shoe by the TSA.  It wasn’t until he couldn’t manage to light the fuse while sitting in his seat in the plane, that he was stopped.  The TSA just plays whack a mole, constantly preventing the last method terrorists came up with.

For that matter, focusing on planes in 9/11 is the ultimate example of insuring your house once it burns down.  The lesson of 9/11 isn’t that planes can be weapons, its that in the hands of clever, insanely single-minded people everything is a weapon.  Kip Hawley talks about how good they are at stopping guns and knives, but hijackers blew up the towers using box-cutters.  Al-Qaeda tried to use a bomb to blow up the World Trade Center the first time; the second time they came back with planes.  They put bombs on trains in Madrid and in London and in a nightclub in Bali.  They used a boat to blow a hole in the U.S.S. Cole, and someone used Anthrax to really freak people out after 9/11.

It is impossible to live in a world with no danger.  The real work of preventing terrorism is done by intelligence professionals and the military, not by TSA officers, no matter how official their uniforms look.  According to Bruce Scheiner, the counterpoint to Hawley on 60 minutes: “Planes are safer because of “the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers,” everything else is just a show.


As Bob Burns pointed out in the comments below, Richard Reid actually wasn’t screened by the TSA because he flew out of Paris.  It is unfair to point out that he was in his seat, but the fact remains that they are always reactive rather than proactive. 

Palestine, A Penny Saved…

In Specific Facts on August 5, 2009 at 12:30 pm

I realized that I was a little light on actual policy suggestions in my post yesterday (What! you didn’t create peace in the Middle East in 500 words?), so I thought I would follow up today with some constructive criticisms.

First, Obama needs to do a better job of selling his plan to Israelis and Arabs, because so far he has failed miserably at convincing anyone that progress is occurring.  Fortunately, it looks like Obama has taken this to heart and is going to launch a PR campaign with Israeli and Arab media to drum up support for his vision for peace.

Second, expand the focus from just settlements, which are crucial, to a broad range of incremental steps, including some amount of normalization of relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors.  The drawback of focusing so heavily in public on settlements is that six months into the process nothing has  happened, so it looks like Obama is stymied.  Further, while it was crucial for Obama to be tough about getting something from Israel, especially after the invasion of Gaza and the election of a right wing government, the whole point of the excercise is to gain peace for Israel.  Showing Israelis that Arab governments are willing to start normalization, even something as minor as allowing El-Al to fly through their airspace, will go a long way towards demonstrating that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  George Mitchell has apparently done exactly this behind the scenes, but some public discussion is necessary.

That said, Israel needs to freeze settlement growth.  The settlements are illegal, expensive, and they cost Israel the moral high ground by giving the enemies of peace an issue to rally around.  Many of the settlements will eventually be part of the final status agreement, but until that agreement is worked out it is crucial to a good faith effort to stop expansion.  Supposedly, Netanyahu and George Mitchell are close to figuring out a deal on the subject, with the hangup being existing contracts for expansion.

Finally, some effort to reconcile the governments of Gaza and the West Bank must occur.  Marc Lynch has advocated for new elections, though obviously the last time there were Palestinian elections Hamas won control of Gaza, so there is some considerable risk to new elections.  Egypt has been holding Palestinian Unity talks, but so far they have been unsuccessful.  If necessary, both Israel and the U.S. will have to be willing to talk to Hamas, who for better or, almost certainly, worse, are the elected government in Gaza.

Finally, and most importantly, laying all the groundwork is crucial, but a comprehensive plan forward needs to be presented by the end of the year.  Set the stage, but then you gotta actually perform.  George Mitchell has experience ending a centuries old conflict in Northern Ireland, but this will be even tougher.  Just getting everyone to the table would be a feat, actually accomplishing something would be a miracle, but it is still in everyone’s interests to try.


Pennywise Israel

In Specific Facts on August 4, 2009 at 5:49 pm
Israel and Obama have had a troubled relationship since before he even took office, as Israel invaded Gaza two and half weeks before Obama’s inauguration and then withdrew all troops out just before he became President. It was a clear attempt to get in the last punch before the rules changed, though it failed to save center-left Kadima from losing to center-right Likud in elections held three weeks later.

Meanwhile, as Obama worked hard to improve U.S. relations with the Muslim world through a speech in Cairo, he also took a tough line with new Israeli Prime Minister “Bibi” Netanyahu on settlements.  Perhaps with a Jewish Chief of Staff and, bona fide friend of Israel, Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State, Obama thought he would have enough wiggle room to reposition the U.S. as a fair actor in the region.  However, from Netanyahu supposedly calling David Alexrod and Emanuel “self-hating Jews” to the vitrol and paranoia in the streets of Jersulem to a poll in June where just 6% of Israeli’s said that Obama was pro-Israel, it seems he misjudged the mood of the country.

Israelis look at everything they have sacrificed for peace, like offering to partition Jerusalem and withdrawing from Gaza and Lebanon, and see only rockets and violence in return.  Compounding this is the existential dread at the possibility of a nuclear Iran, a reality that is not understand as gravely outside of Israel.  The election of Netanyahu and the support for Avignor Leiberman are a reflection of the sense that the problems in Israel are intractable and that it is time to retrench.

However, Obama has actually done far more than he is getting credit for in Israel.  For example, in his speech to the Muslim world, he went out of his way to highlight the U.S. pact with Israel: “America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.”  He has also made it clear that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable, though the turmoil since the elections has made progress difficult.  Further, a better U.S. relationship with the Arab world could only benefit Israel.

No matter what the mood is in Israel right now, the fact remains that the situation as it stands is untenable.  Fortress Israel is heading for a demographic calamity even as it secures itself on a day to day basis.  The makeup of greater Israel is something like 54% Jewish at this point, however by 2020 it is estimated that Jews will only make up 47% of the population. A minority population administering over a second class majority is impossible to justify, and it will turn Israel into an international pariah.  Only a separate, truly sovereign Palestinian state can diffuse this time bomb.

Obviously, that is no small feat, but it starts with Israel understanding its own impending crisis and getting serious about even small steps like a total settlement freeze.