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March for Science: Can science and political activism coexist?

In Democracy, Environment, Climate change, Politics on April 27, 2017 at 3:34 am

Amanda Paulson, Christian Science Monitor, APRIL 21, 2017

Jenny Tam spent much of her life avoiding politics. She grew up in a small town in Arkansas, as the child of Chinese immigrants who had seen the dangers of political backlash, and she always tried to stay nonpolitical.

All that changed for Dr. Tam, now an immunologist and biophysicist at Massachusetts General Hospital, as she watched the current administration dismiss facts and saw a lack of understanding of how rigorous peer-reviewed studies really are. Suddenly, she felt the need to march into the fray, helping to found the group FACTS (Fostering Advocacy and Collaboration Through Science).

Tam isn’t alone among scientists who feel compelled to step out of the lab or the field to stand up for science. On Saturday, which is also Earth Day, these newly minted activists and other science supporters plan to gather in Washington, D.C., and in more than 500 other cities for a March for Science.
The foray into activism and politics is a tough one for some scientists. And although the organizers have taken pains to note the march is nonpartisan, concern that the focus will become political has sparked some controversy and debate among scientists.

Many supporters of the march note that science is already political, and that ignoring its importance to policy is disingenuous. The march is needed, they say, due to the increased attacks on science, threats to slash funding for research, and lack of understanding of what scientists do.

But critics worry that despite all the declarations that the march is “non-partisan,” it will be viewed by many Americans as anti-Trump and anti-Republican, and that it will only increase the partisan divide and cement the impression in some people’s minds that scientists are driven by ideology rather than evidence.

“I worry there will be people there carrying signs that have incendiary messages, and it’s that one percent that will become the meme for the conservative blogosphere,” says Robert Young, a coastal geologist at Western Carolina University. He cringes imagining rural America’s reaction to, say, a sign saying “Make America smart again.”

Dr. Young has seen first-hand the ways politicians can try to delegitimize science when he helped author a report on sea-level rise that had data that developers didn’t want to hear and state legislators dismissed. And back in his 20s, he says, he might have joined Saturday’s march himself.

But Young says he’s also become more pragmatic with experience, and he worries that a march – one that he says will certainly be viewed as partisan by much of America – will only solidify barriers. “If you want to make a difference and you want to live within the political realities we live in right now, then calling these people out and embarrassing them is not going to help us win,” Young says.

Other scientists say they hear that argument and acknowledge there is a risk but suggest that there is a much greater risk to not doing anything.

“It’s absurd to think of science as being apolitical,” says Alan Townsend, an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “It doesn’t mean it should be partisan, but it’s embroiled in the world of politics as well, and we have to engage.” Certain groups may use the march to attack scientists, he acknowledges, but says there’s nothing new in that narrative. “And the upside potential is more meaningful and needed.”

The backing for the science march has been widespread, including behemoths like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest scientific society, as well as dozens of research groups, museums, small scientific organizations, and nonprofits.

A huge piece of the march is simply making both science and scientists more accessible and visible to the public. Most marches have planned education stations; in Washington, nearly two dozen “teach-ins” are being offered, on topics ranging from food solutions and creek critters to carbon innovation and the physics of superheroes.

“We’ll have booths set up by a variety of organizations to talk about the science they’re doing, so that the public begins to get a more expansive view of what science is,” says Scott Franklin, a physicist at the Rochester Institute of Technology and one of the organizers of the march in Rochester, N.Y. “The more visible scientists are in the community the more normalized we get.”

Some participants also say that, while the march may have been catalyzed in part by the Trump administration – with its proposed cuts for research funding, its loose use of “facts,” and the nomination of some climate-change critics to prominent roles – the antagonism toward science among some policymakers in particular, has been building for several decades, and has reached a point where scientists need to push back, whatever the risks.

Climate change is just one example. Once it became associated with Al Gore around the 2000 election, some Republicans who had previously proposed climate action solidified in opposition and started denying the reality of climate change, says John Holdren, a senior adviser to former President Obama on science and technology. Partisan opposition to Mr. Obama, who supported action on climate change, just intensified the divide.

Is there a risk that the march will further alienate people? Of course, says Dr. Holdren. “The very notion of marching will aggravate some people. But you know it is pretty well-established reality that nothing one does in the domain of political action pleases everybody…. My own view is that the potential benefits do outweigh the downsides.”

The March for Science grew out of the momentum of the Women’s March in January and has faced similar criticisms and internal turmoil about inclusion of diverse peoples and perspectives.

Public critics have also suggested that the inclusion of certain advocacy groups, which they say ignore science on issues like GMOs, could make the march problematic. Those critics note that antagonism toward science is not partisan – just as climate-change denial is associated with the right, some on the left are leading the charge to dismiss science around GMOs or vaccines.

“Science is not a buffet where people can pick and choose the parts that they like and disregard the rest,” wrote Alma Laney, a plant virologist and blogger, in a blog post about why he was not marching. “Climate change denial, young earth creationism, anti-vaccine and anti-genetic engineering arguments are not equal to the science on those topics. It’s incredibly sad to see a group that purports to be standing up for all science to willingly partner with groups that are antiscience or hold antiscience positions.”

Still, for all the criticism and disagreements, most observers have noted just how broad the support for the science march has been, including many people and groups who disagree politically, but feel deeply that a strong commitment to high-quality science and research is necessary.

Many supporters of the march see it as an opportunity to shed positive light on science. As Tam, the immunology researcher, says, the march “should be a celebration of the science our country has really excelled at.”

And, rather than marching for one concrete goal – increased NIH funding, say, or a broader acceptance of climate change – many of the organizers and participants express hope that the march could help demystify the scientific process for some Americans, and also encourage more scientists to be engaged in the public sphere, whether through serving on local town councils or committees, reaching out to lawmakers, or simply talking to people in their community about what they do.

Michael Eisen, a computational biologist at the University of California in Berkley who recently announced his Senate candidacy, will be speaking at the march in San Francisco because “it’s about standing up for a worldview and a way of approaching problems.”

“Too often we think of it as this kind of priesthood, with scientists who work in labs and produce science. But really, I think most people are basically scientists in the way they live,” and the way they apply the scientific method in their daily lives, he says. Eisen hopes the march will help connect scientists and the public and to express that science truly is for everyone.

Holdren, Obama’s science advisor, sees the march as something of an experiment.

“We are trying something new compared to the historical approach of writing sober op-editorial pieces, and giving talks to rotary clubs, and folks at universities talking to each other, the national academies of science, and engineering, and medicine, holding their meetings and issuing their press releases,” he says. “The more we get people talking about society’s interest in science and technology, the better. If the March advances that conversation and persuades more people to engage in that conversation in more different ways, then it will have been a success.”

• Eva Botkin-Kowacki contributed to his report.

Instead of threatening North Korea, Trump should try this instead

In Democracy, Human rights, Peace, Politics, War on April 24, 2017 at 9:50 pm

By John Delur, Washington Post, April 23, 2017
John Delury is an associate professor of Chinese studies at the Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul.

President Trump’s missile strike on Syria won plaudits from commentators on the left and right, with some of the enthusiasm spilling over into the debate about a “military solution” when it comes to North Korea. The comparison, like much of the administration’s rhetoric about Korea, is dangerously misleading. There is no way to hit North Korea without being hit back harder. There is no military means to “preempt” its capabilities — nuclear and otherwise — with a “surgical” strike. Any use of force to degrade its weapons program would start a war, the costs of which would be staggering.

Maybe in the era of America First, we don’t care about death and destruction being visited on the 10 million people who live in Seoul, within North Korean artillery and short-range missile range. Do we care about some 140,000 U.S. citizens residing in South Korea — including soldiers and military families at bases here, plus more in nearby Japan? Or South Korea’s globally integrated $1.4 trillion economy, including the United States’ $145 billion two-way trade with the country? Do we care about North Korean missiles raining down on Incheon International Airport, one of Asia’s busiest airports, or Busan, the sixth-largest container port in the world? What happens to the global economy when a conflagration erupts on China’s doorstep and engulfs Japan?

Surely the American public and Congress, regardless of party, can agree that these costs are unbearable and unthinkable. Given the presence of many sober-minded strategists and policymakers in the administration, it seems reasonable to conclude the military taunts are a bluff. If so, they are a distraction from the real, pressing question: How much longer should they wait on economic pressure generated by Chinese sanctions, rather than pursue diplomatic options opened up by direct dialogue and engagement?
The Obama administration said it was open to dialogue, but put its money on sanctions and pressure as North Korea made the power transition from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un. North Korea, unfortunately, is not vulnerable to the pinch of the purse like normal trading nations such as Iran. North Koreans are already so cut off from the global economy and disconnected from international society that deepening isolation does little to change their calculus.

The one promising thing about Kim Jong Un is that he harbors ambitions to improve North Korea’s economy, and his domestic policies have already generated modest growth. But his first priority is regime survival and national security, and for that, he considers the nuclear deterrent is to be essential (a rational proposition, sadly). Eight years of sanctions and pressure — but for one spasm of diplomacy just prior to Kim Jong Il’s death — did little to disabuse Pyongyang of the sense that it needs nuclear weapons, or to prevent North Korea from improving its capabilities and expanding its arsenal.

The Trump administration proclaims that the Obama approach of “strategic patience” has ended. But if it really wants to start a new era, the way to do so is not by distracting the public with reckless threats of war, while waiting in vain for Chinese President Xi Jinping to bring Kim to his knees. Instead, the prudent move would be to open direct talks with Pyongyang that start by negotiating a freeze on the fissile-material production cycle, return of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, and moratorium on testing nuclear devices and long-range ballistic missiles (including satellite launches). In return, the United States should at least entertain Pyongyang’s standing request for suspension of joint military exercises with South Korea. Kim may be willing to accept something less, such as an adjustment in scale. Or he may be open to a different kind of trade — initiating talks to convert the 1953 Armistice Agreement into a proper peace treaty to end the Korean War, for example. The only way to probe these options is to get to the table. With two months of large-scale exercises coming to a close, now is a good time to do so.

A freeze is just the initial move in what needs to be a long-term strategy that changes underlying dynamics and addresses what each side sees as the core of the problem. We cannot really know what Kim wants, and what he might give up to get it, until we initiate dialogue. But since he took power, there have been strong signals that his ambitions go beyond a nuclear deterrent, that his real goal is economic development. Rather than threaten war or deepen sanctions, a more productive path is to nudge Kim down the same road that the major countries in East Asia have all taken: a shift from power to wealth. If Kim wants to be North Korea’s developmental dictator, the United States’ best long-term strategy is to help him do so. We cannot rationally expect him to surrender his nuclear deterrent at the beginning of that process, but it is the only realistic path for getting him to do so eventually.

Now is the time to jump-start a diplomatic initiative that reopens channels, lowers tensions and caps North Korea’s capabilities where they are. Then, working closely with the new government in Seoul and others, the United States should support a long-term strategy that integrates North Korea into regional stability and prosperity. Because the nuclear program is the last budget item that Kim will cut, sanctions only deepen the misery of the North Korean population, and pressure fails to improve human rights abuses on the ground. The best way to alleviate the suffering of the North Korean people is to give them a chance to succeed economically and help open up their country step by step.

By simply inflicting economic pain, threatening military strikes and keeping tensions high, the United States is playing into the worst tendencies of the North Korean system. Kim’s nuclear intentions will harden and North Korea’s capabilities will only grow. It’s time to reverse course.

Climate Change as Genocide: Inaction Equals Annihilation

In Climate change, Cost, Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Politics, Public Health on April 23, 2017 at 12:17 am

By Michael T. Klare, TomDispatch

Not since World War II have more human beings been at risk from disease and starvation than at this very moment. On March 10th, Stephen O’Brien, under secretary-general of the United Nations for humanitarian affairs, informed the Security Council that 20 million people in three African countries — Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan — as well as in Yemen were likely to die if not provided with emergency food and medical aid. “We are at a critical point in history,” he declared. “Already at the beginning of the year we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the U.N.” Without coordinated international action, he added, “people will simply starve to death [or] suffer and die from disease.”

Major famines have, of course, occurred before, but never in memory on such a scale in four places simultaneously. According to O’Brien, 7.3 million people are at risk in Yemen, 5.1 million in the Lake Chad area of northeastern Nigeria, 5 million in South Sudan, and 2.9 million in Somalia. In each of these countries, some lethal combination of war, persistent drought, and political instability is causing drastic cuts in essential food and water supplies. Of those 20 million people at risk of death, an estimated 1.4 million are young children.

Despite the potential severity of the crisis, U.N. officials remain confident that many of those at risk can be saved if sufficient food and medical assistance is provided in time and the warring parties allow humanitarian aid workers to reach those in the greatest need. “We have strategic, coordinated, and prioritized plans in every country,” O’Brien said. “With sufficient and timely financial support, humanitarians can still help to prevent the worst-case scenario.”

All in all, the cost of such an intervention is not great: an estimated $4.4 billion to implement that U.N. action plan and save most of those 20 million lives.

The international response? Essentially, a giant shrug of indifference.

To have time to deliver sufficient supplies, U.N. officials indicated that the money would need to be in pocket by the end of March. It’s now April and international donors have given only a paltry $423 million — less than a tenth of what’s needed. While, for instance, President Donald Trump sought Congressional approval for a $54 billion increase in U.S. military spending (bringing total defense expenditures in the coming year to $603 billion) and launched $89 million worth of Tomahawk missiles against a single Syrian air base, the U.S. has offered precious little to allay the coming disaster in three countries in which it has taken military actions in recent years. As if to add insult to injury, on February 15th Trump told Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari that he was inclined to sell his country 12 Super-Tucano light-strike aircraft, potentially depleting Nigeria of $600 million it desperately needs for famine relief.

Moreover, just as those U.N. officials were pleading fruitlessly for increased humanitarian funding and an end to the fierce and complex set of conflicts in South Sudan and Yemen (so that they could facilitate the safe delivery of emergency food supplies to those countries), the Trump administration was announcing plans to reduce American contributions to the United Nations by 40%. It was also preparing to send additional weaponry to Saudi Arabia, the country most responsible for devastating air strikes on Yemen’s food and water infrastructure. This goes beyond indifference. This is complicity in mass extermination.

Like many people around the world, President Trump was horrified by images of young children suffocating from the nerve gas used by Syrian government forces in an April 4th raid on the rebel-held village of Khan Sheikhoun. “That attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me — big impact,” he told reporters. “That was a horrible, horrible thing. And I’ve been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn’t get any worse than that.” In reaction to those images, he ordered a barrage of cruise missile strikes on a Syrian air base the following day. But Trump does not seem to have seen — or has ignored — equally heart-rending images of young children dying from the spreading famines in Africa and Yemen. Those children evidently don’t merit White House sympathy.

Who knows why not just Donald Trump but the world is proving so indifferent to the famines of 2017? It could simply be donor fatigue or a media focused on the daily psychodrama that is now Washington, or growing fears about the unprecedented global refugee crisis and, of course, terrorism. It’s a question worth a piece in itself, but I want to explore another one entirely.

Here’s the question I think we all should be asking: Is this what a world battered by climate change will be like — one in which tens of millions, even hundreds of millions of people perish from disease, starvation, and heat prostration while the rest of us, living in less exposed areas, essentially do nothing to prevent their annihilation?

Famine, Drought, and Climate Change

First, though, let’s consider whether the famines of 2017 are even a valid indicator of what a climate-changed planet might look like. After all, severe famines accompanied by widespread starvation have occurred throughout human history. In addition, the brutal armed conflicts now underway in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen are at least in part responsible for the spreading famines. In all four countries, there are forces — Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Somalia, assorted militias and the government in South Sudan, and Saudi-backed forces in Yemen — interfering with the delivery of aid supplies. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that pervasive water scarcity and prolonged drought (expected consequences of global warming) are contributing significantly to the disastrous conditions in most of them. The likelihood that droughts this severe would be occurring simultaneously in the absence of climate change is vanishingly small.

In fact, scientists generally agree that global warming will ensure diminished rainfall and ever more frequent droughts over much of Africa and the Middle East. This, in turn, will heighten conflicts of every sort and endanger basic survival in a myriad of ways. In their most recent 2014 assessment of global trends, the scientists of the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that “agriculture in Africa will face significant challenges in adapting to climate changes projected to occur by mid-century, as negative effects of high temperatures become increasingly prominent.” Even in 2014, as that report suggested, climate change was already contributing to water scarcity and persistent drought conditions in large parts of Africa and the Middle East. Scientific studies had, for instance, revealed an “overall expansion of desert and contraction of vegetated areas” on that continent. With arable land in retreat and water supplies falling, crop yields were already in decline in many areas, while malnutrition rates were rising — precisely the conditions witnessed in more extreme forms in the famine-affected areas today.

It’s seldom possible to attribute any specific weather-induced event, including droughts or storms, to global warming with absolute certainty. Such things happen with or without climate change. Nonetheless, scientists are becoming even more confident that severe storms and droughts (especially when occurring in tandem or in several parts of the world at once) are best explained as climate-change related. If, for instance, a type of storm that might normally occur only once every hundred years occurs twice in one decade and four times in the next, you can be reasonably confident that you’re in a new climate era.

It will undoubtedly take more time for scientists to determine to what extent the current famines in Africa and Yemen are mainly climate-change-induced and to what extent they are the product of political and military mayhem and disarray. But doesn’t this already offer us a sense of just what kind of world we are now entering?

History and social science research indicate that, as environmental conditions deteriorate, people will naturally compete over access to vital materials and the opportunists in any society — warlords, militia leaders, demagogues, government officials, and the like — will exploit such clashes for their personal advantage. “The data suggests a definite link between food insecurity and conflict,” points out Ertharin Cousin, head of the U.N.’s World Food Program. “Climate is an added stress factor.” In this sense, the current famines in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen provide us with a perfect template for our future, one in which resource wars and climate mayhem team up as temperatures continue their steady rise.

The Selective Impact of Climate Change

In some popular accounts of the future depredations of climate change, there is a tendency to suggest that its effects will be felt more or less democratically around the globe — that we will all suffer to some degree, if not equally, from the bad things that happen as temperatures rise. And it’s certainly true that everyone on this planet will feel the effects of global warming in some fashion, but don’t for a second imagine that the harshest effects will be distributed anything but deeply inequitably. It won’t even be a complicated equation. As with so much else, those at the bottom rungs of society — the poor, the marginalized, and those in countries already at or near the edge — will suffer so much more (and so much earlier) than those at the top and in the most developed, wealthiest countries.

As a start, the geophysical dynamics of climate change dictate that, when it comes to soaring temperatures and reduced rainfall, the most severe effects are likely to be felt first and worst in the tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Latin America — home to hundreds of millions of people who depend on rain-fed agriculture to sustain themselves and their families. Research conducted by scientists in New Zealand, Switzerland, and Great Britain found that the rise in the number of extremely hot days is already more intense in tropical latitudes and disproportionately affects poor farmers.

Living at subsistence levels, such farmers and their communities are especially vulnerable to drought and desertification. In a future in which climate-change disasters are commonplace, they will undoubtedly be forced to choose ever more frequently between the unpalatable alternatives of starvation or flight. In other words, if you thought the global refugee crisis was bad today, just wait a few decades.

Climate change is also intensifying the dangers faced by the poor and marginalized in another way. As interior croplands turn to dust, ever more farmers are migrating to cities, especially coastal ones. If you want a historical analogy, think of the great Dust Bowl migration of the “Okies” from the interior of the U.S. to the California coast in the 1930s. In today’s climate-change era, the only available housing such migrants are likely to find will be in vast and expanding shantytowns (or “informal settlements,” as they’re euphemistically called), often located in floodplains and low-lying coastal areas exposed to storm surges and sea-level rise. As global warming advances, the victims of water scarcity and desertification will be afflicted anew. Those storm surges will destroy the most exposed parts of the coastal mega-cities in which they will be clustered. In other words, for the uprooted and desperate, there will be no escaping climate change. As the latest IPCC report noted, “Poor people living in urban informal settlements, of which there are [already] about one billion worldwide, are particularly vulnerable to weather and climate effects.”

The scientific literature on climate change indicates that the lives of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed will be the first to be turned upside down by the effects of global warming. “The socially and economically disadvantaged and the marginalized are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change and extreme events,” the IPCC indicated in 2014. “Vulnerability is often high among indigenous peoples, women, children, the elderly, and disabled people who experience multiple deprivations that inhibit them from managing daily risks and shocks.” It should go without saying that these are also the people least responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming in the first place (something no less true of the countries most of them live in).

Inaction Equals Annihilation

In this context, consider the moral consequences of inaction on climate change. Once it seemed that the process of global warming would occur slowly enough to allow societies to adapt to higher temperatures without excessive disruption, and that the entire human family would somehow make this transition more or less simultaneously. That now looks more and more like a fairy tale. Climate change is occurring far too swiftly for all human societies to adapt to it successfully. Only the richest are likely to succeed in even the most tenuous way. Unless colossal efforts are undertaken now to halt the emission of greenhouse gases, those living in less affluent societies can expect to suffer from extremes of flooding, drought, starvation, disease, and death in potentially staggering numbers.

And you don’t need a Ph.D. in climatology to arrive at this conclusion either. The overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists agree that any increase in average world temperatures that exceeds 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above the pre-industrial era — some opt for a rise of no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius — will alter the global climate system drastically. In such a situation, a number of societies will simply disintegrate in the fashion of South Sudan today, producing staggering chaos and misery. So far, the world has heated up by at least one of those two degrees, and unless we stop burning fossil fuels in quantity soon, the 1.5 degree level will probably be reached in the not-too-distant future.

Worse yet, on our present trajectory, it seems highly unlikely that the warming process will stop at 2 or even 3 degrees Celsius, meaning that later in this century many of the worst-case climate-change scenarios — the inundation of coastal cities, the desertification of vast interior regions, and the collapse of rain-fed agriculture in many areas — will become everyday reality.

In other words, think of the developments in those three African lands and Yemen as previews of what far larger parts of our world could look like in another quarter-century or so: a world in which hundreds of millions of people are at risk of annihilation from disease or starvation, or are on the march or at sea, crossing borders, heading for the shantytowns of major cities, looking for refugee camps or other places where survival appears even minimally possible. If the world’s response to the current famine catastrophe and the escalating fears of refugees in wealthy countries are any indication, people will die in vast numbers without hope of help.

In other words, failing to halt the advance of climate change — to the extent that halting it, at this point, remains within our power — means complicity with mass human annihilation. We know, or at this point should know, that such scenarios are already on the horizon. We still retain the power, if not to stop them, then to radically ameliorate what they will look like, so our failure to do all we can means that we become complicit in what — not to mince words — is clearly going to be a process of climate genocide. How can those of us in countries responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions escape such a verdict?

And if such a conclusion is indeed inescapable, then each of us must do whatever we can to reduce our individual, community, and institutional contributions to global warming. Even if we are already doing a lot — as many of us are — more is needed. Unfortunately, we Americans are living not only in a time of climate crisis, but in the era of President Trump, which means the federal government and its partners in the fossil fuel industry will be wielding their immense powers to obstruct all imaginable progress on limiting global warming. They will be the true perpetrators of climate genocide. As a result, the rest of us bear a moral responsibility not just to do what we can at the local level to slow the pace of climate change, but also to engage in political struggle to counteract or neutralize the acts of Trump and company. Only dramatic and concerted action on multiple fronts can prevent the human disasters now unfolding in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen from becoming the global norm.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @mklare1.

Risk of ‘catastrophic’ nuclear accident as world relations worsen, UN warns

In Environment, Human rights, Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, War on April 21, 2017 at 9:31 pm

By Will Worley, Independent. April 21,  2017

There will be “catastrophic” consequences when “luck runs out” on nuclear deterrence, the United Nations (UN) has warned in a major report which highlights the massive risk of an accidental or deliberate use of the world’s most deadly weapons.

The “poor relations” between nuclear powers has contributed to an atmosphere that “lends itself to the onset of crisis,” said the report by the UN Institute for Disarmament Research.

The rise in cyber warfare and hacking has left the technical vulnerabilities of nuclear weapons systems exposed to risk from states and terrorist groups, it added.

“Nuclear deterrence works—up until the time it will prove not to work,” it said. “The risk is inherent and, when luck runs out, the results will be catastrophic.
“The more arms produced, particularly in countries with unstable societies, the more potential exists for terrorist acquisition and use of nuclear weapons.”

It comes as Donald Trump of the US and Vladmir Putin of Russia have both indicated support for expanding their country’s nuclear weapon arsenals.

Deterrence is at the “greatest risk of breaking down” in North Korea and between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir, it said .
North Korea has continued with its nuclear weapons development programme, despite heavy sanctions being imposed against it by various countries and international bodies.

While the secretive Communist state has conducted several tests with nuclear bombs, in order to launch a nuclear attack on its neighbours, it needs to be able to make a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on to a missile.

There is no consensus on exactly where North Korea is in terms of miniaturising a nuclear device so that it can be delivered via a missile.

President Trump has said he will “deal with” the country and has not ruled out military action against it.

The report also cited a string of recent attacks and threats between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Pakistan raised the stakes in January, when it fired its first submarine-launched nuclear capable cruise missile.

In addition, the report expressed concern over tensions between the West and Russia, which have grown since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. President Putin has maintained Russia would use nuclear weapons if it felt sufficiently threatened.
Denuclearisation would require “visionary leadership”, the report said, but added this was “sadly rare” as many powerful states “increasingly turn inward”.

It added that new technology and spending on nuclear weapons had “enhanced” the risk of a detonation. However, it acknowledged the secrecy surrounding the programmes made it difficult to accurately assess their true scope.

Increased reliance technology has also introduced new problems, the report said. In the past, accidental nuclear detonations have been averted by a human decision. Replacing military officers with computers could therefore rule out a potential safety check on the weapons, and open the possibility of hacking a nuclear weapon.

The report also referenced the January 2017 decision of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science to move the publication’s Doomsday Clock two and a half minutes to midnight over nuclear fears – the most risky it had been since 1953.

The UN maintained risk was inherent to nuclear weapons and the only way to truly eliminate it was to get rid of the bombs.

The twin goals behind North Korea’s resolve on nuclear weapons

In Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, War on April 20, 2017 at 7:31 am

Michael Holtz, Christian Science Monitor

APRIL 19, 2017 BEIJING—The Trump administration has portrayed the US missile strike on a Syrian air field earlier this month as a sign its willingness to make tough decisions.

In other words, North Korea better watch out.

But to North Korean leaders, analysts say, the attack reaffirmed a different lesson: the importance of having a credible nuclear deterrent.

“The logic is pretty simple,” says Wenran Jiang, an associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta, in Canada. “The North Koreans see what happened in Syria and say, ‘If we give up nuclear weapons, that’s what will happen to us.’”

As a small, impoverished nation focused on its own survival, North Korea is deeply committed to holding on to its nuclear arms. To shut its program down would be to risk the regime’s annihilation, but to keep it going runs the risk of triggering a devastating war that could lead to millions of casualties.
But ultimately, nuclear weapons are also a means, not just an end: the government hopes a powerful-enough nuclear deterrent will provide the security it needs to pursue economic reforms without the threat of outside interference – a trajectory not so different from China’s.

So goes the strategic calculus at the center of Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions – a paradox that leaves Washington with no good options as tensions continue to rise.

‘Storm clouds gathering’

Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned of “storm clouds gathering,” and criticized the United States, South Korea, and North Korea for dangerous “tit for tat” engagement, according to the Chinese state news agency Xinhua. Observers say North Korea could conduct its sixth nuclear test any day. Meanwhile, a US carrier group is on its way to waters off the coast of the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea’s expanded arsenal was on full display Saturday at an annual military parade in Pyongyang, commemorating the birthday of founder Kim Il-sung. It included intercontinental ballistic missiles that could one day be capable of reaching the US mainland, and solid-fuel missiles that could be fired from land and submarines.

On Sunday, North Korea launched a ballistic missile that exploded seconds after liftoff, a high-profile failure that occurred hours before US Vice President Mike Pence arrived in South Korea.

Still, the weekend’s displays of strength served as reminders of Washington’s long history of unsuccessful attempts at negotiations with Pyongyang that stretch back more than two decades. North Korea launched a long-range rocket and conducted two nuclear tests last year, including its most powerful to date.

North Korean resolve

Vice President Pence warned of an “overwhelming and effective American response” to any provocation from the North. But North Korea appears unwilling to back down. It has remained in a state of near-war since the fall of the Soviet Union, when the country lost its largest defender and became vulnerable to the US and its allies. Communist regimes around the world were crumbling, but North Korea dug itself in.

In the spirit of “juche,” Kim Il-sung’s philosophy of “self-reliance” that has become a kind of state-sanctioned ideology, the country established its military-first policy that continues to today. It maintained that footing even through widespread famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands. Pyongyang justifies huge investments in nuclear weapons by perpetuating a narrative of imminent threat from foreign forces.

But John Delury, an associate professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, says that establishing a nuclear deterrent is only part of supreme leader Kim Jong-un’s vision for his country.

Mr. Kim’s ultimate goal to ensure that North Koreans will never again have to “tighten their belts,” says Professor Delury, a promise he made as soon as he took power in 2012. Nuclear deterrence provides the young leader the security he needs to more fully focus on economic development.

Kim has already carried out a series of economic reforms, including an overhaul of the agriculture sector that has led to record-level harvests and the opening of new special economic zones. In a speech last year, Kim said future economic development would focus on the mechanization of agriculture, automation of factories, and increased coal production.

“I would not say the economy is booming, but it has seen steady growth under Kim,” says Andrei Lankov, a history professor at Kookmin University in Seoul who studied at a North Korean university. “He has no illusions about the command economy. He knows the only game in town is what China did 30 years ago through market reforms.”

The China Model

Few nations understand North Korea’s logic better than China, which followed a similar path in the second half of the 20th century. Delury says that China’s development of a nuclear weapon in the 1960s gave it a strong sense of external security, and helped spur the Chinese Communist Party to turn its attention to liberalizing the economy in the late 1970s.

With their shared history in mind, it comes as little surprise that China has been so reluctant to put more economic pressure on North Korea – and not only because it doesn’t want to push the regime to the point of collapse, a worst-case scenario for Beijing.

“The bottom line is the Chinese don’t think pressure is going to work,” Delury says. “They well understand that this is a stubborn, prideful, independent neighbor, but that twisting their arm makes the problem worse.”

The North Korean regime has effectively forced the world into an elaborate game of chicken to ensure its survival. The more pressure the country faces – whether economically or militarily – the more it’s pushed to develop new asymmetrical threats and accept even higher levels of risk to intimidate its rivals. Its goal is to make any potential war too costly to consider, which is why it’s so keen to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the continental US.

Not even China, the North’s main political ally and its economic lifeline, is immune to its provocations. The latest snub occurred last week, when Pyongyang didn’t respond to a meeting request from China’s top nuclear envoy, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

The diplomatic slight highlights ongoing questions about Beijing’s influence over the North Korean regime, as Trump pushes China to do more to rein in its erratic neighbor.

China has spoken out against the North’s weapons tests and has agreed to stiffer United Nations sanctions. In February, Beijing banned imports of North Korean coal, cutting off Pyongyang’s most important export.

But as North Korea’s dominant trade partner, China has also maintained robust economic ties with it. Data released last week showed that trade between the two countries grew 37.4 percent in the first three months of this year compared with the same period in 2016.
For its part, China argues that negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington are the only way to resolve the simmering crisis and avoid a conflict on its border. Such talks could require the US to make significant concessions it has so far been unwilling to accept.

“The Chinese look at North Korea and think, ‘We’ve been there before,’” Professor Jiang says, referring to China’s own path over the last half-century. “At the end of the day, they may decide its behavior isn’t as out of hand as people in the West suggest.”

 

Nuclear war has become thinkable again – we need a reminder of what it means

In Environment, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, War on April 18, 2017 at 11:09 pm

By Paul Mason, The Guardian, April 18, 2017

Last week, Donald Trump deployed his superweapon Moab, the “mother of all bombs” – 10 tonnes of high explosive detonated in mid-air in such a way as to kill, it is claimed, 94 Isis militants. The Russian media immediately reminded us that their own thermobaric bomb – the “father of all bombs” – was four times as powerful: “Kids, meet Daddy,” was how the Kremlin mouthpiece Russia Today put it. But these are child’s play compared with nuclear weapons. The generation waking up to today’s Daily Mail strapline – “World holds its breath” – may need reminding what a nuclear weapon does.

The one dropped on Hiroshima measured 15 kilotons; it destroyed everything within 200 yards and burned everybody within 2km. The warhead carried by a Trident missile delivers a reported 455 kilotons of explosive power. Drop one on Bristol and the fireball is 1km wide; third-degree burns affect everybody from Portishead to Keynsham, and everything in a line from the Bristol Channel to the Wash is contaminated with radiation. In this scenario, 169,000 people die immediately and 180,000 need emergency treatment. Given that there are only 101,000 beds in the entire English NHS, you can begin to imagine the apocalyptic scenes for those who survive. (You can model your own scenario here.)

But a Trident missile carries up to eight of these warheads, and military planners might drop them in a pattern around one target, creating a firestorm along the lines that conventional Allied bombing created in Hamburg and Tokyo during the second world war.

I don’t wish to alarm you, but right now the majority of the world’s nuclear warheads are in the hands of men for whom the idea of using them is becoming thinkable.

For Kim Jong-un, it’s thinkable; for Vladimir Putin, it’s so thinkable that every major Russian wargame ends with a “nuclear de-escalation” phase: that is, drop one and offer peace. On 22 December last year, Trump and Putin announced, almost simultaneously, that they were going to expand their nuclear arsenals and update the technology.

Right now, a US aircraft carrier strike force is steaming towards North Korea (the DPRK) to menace Kim’s rogue regime. We don’t know what secret diplomacy went on between Xi Jinping and Trump at Mar-a-Lago, but the US is sounding confident that China will rein the North Koreans in.

What we do know is that Trump has been obsessed since the 80s with nuclear weapons, that he refuses to take advice from military professionals and that he seems not to understand the core Nato concept of nukes as a political deterrent, as opposed to a military superweapon.

This sudden mania for speaking of nuclear warfare, among men with untrammeled power, should be the No 1 item on the news, and the No 1 concern of democratic and peace-loving politicians.

The video fireworks on US cable news channels have progressed in the space of 10 days from cruise missile launches to bunker-busting airburst porn. One US news host referred to the former as “beautiful”.

I will always remember the Botoxed faces of the US news anchors when they arrived in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It was as if they had been woken up from a dream, and the best of them realised how they had been sleepwalking towards the disaster.

Katrina shows what happens when a disaster hits a fragile, poverty-stricken and socially fragmented city. In New Orleans, for a few days, civilisation fell apart. Policemen, suddenly called on to haul their overweight frames into self-sacrificing and arduous work, quit on the spot. The modern equivalent of lynchings happened. Central government and unified military command of the situation broke down. My experience there convinced me that, in the event of mass fatalities being inflicted on a developed world city, the real problem would be social chaos, not mass radiation sickness.

Trump is ramping up the military rhetoric for a horribly simple reason: two weeks ago, the isolationist wing of his team got outflanked by generals; they tried some war to see how it went down and it went down well.

We may get lucky. It may be that the Chinese leadership is prepared to put serious pressure on North Korea to prevent Kim’s regime staging some kind of provocation against the US navy. Or we may get unlucky: the DPRK has a nuclear weapon, even if the missiles needed to deliver it are unstable.
It has been human nature, given the scale of devastation a nuclear war would bring, to blank the possibility from our minds, to worry about small risks because the big one is incalculable. But from the 50s to the 00s, we had – in all nuclear powers – military/industrial complex politicians who understood the value of multilateralism. All around us high politics is becoming emotion driven, unilateral, crowd-pleasing and falling under the control of erratic family groups and mafias, rather than technocrats representing ruling elites.

For the warmongers, true multilateralism is a serious annoyance; that’s why so many of the world’s autocrats are busy forcing NGOs to register, cutting off foreign funds to them and decrying the presence of international observers or sabotaging their work.

If Theresa May wanted to send a useful message at Easter it could have been: in compliance with the non-proliferation treaties, we will never use our nuclear weapons first; we will stick to diplomatic and economic pressure to get the DPRK to comply; and we will use our own, independent diplomatic clout to strengthen disarmament and non-proliferation.

That is what a responsible nuclear-armed power would do. The UK’s silence as Trump toys with military escalation and nuclear rearmament is criminal.

Russia, West Moving Towards New Cold War, Gorbachev Warns

In Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, War on April 15, 2017 at 10:41 pm

https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-west-moving-toward-new-cold-war-gorbachev-warns/28431864.html
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union, called on the West to “restore trust” with Russia and warned that the two old adversaries are moving toward a renewed state of Cold War.

“All the indications of a Cold War are there,” he said in an interview with the German Bild newspaper on April 14. “The language of politicians and the top-level military personnel is becoming increasingly militant. Military doctrines are formulated increasingly harshly The mass media pick up on all of this and add fuel to the fire. The relationship between the big powers continues to worsen.”

A new arms race between Russia and the West is already under way, Gorbachev said.

“It is not merely imminent. In some places, it is already in full swing. Troops are being moved into Europe, including heavy equipment such as tanks and armored cars. It was not so long ago that NATO troops and Russian troops were stationed quite far away from each other. They now stand nose-to-nose.”

Gorbachev said the new Cold War could turn into a hot one if both sides do nothing to prevent it. “Anything is possible” if the current deterioration of relations continues, he said.

Gorbachev cautioned the West against trying to force change in Russia through economic sanctions, saying the sanctions only galvanize public opinion against the West in Russia and bolster support for the Kremlin.

“Don’t have any false hope in this respect! We are a people willing to make whatever sacrifices we need to,” he said, noting that during World War II, Russian endured the deaths of nearly 30 million of their countrymen to win the war.

Instead, Gorbachev said Russia and the West need to find a way to restore trust, respect, and the willingness to working together. He said both sides can draw from a reservoir of good will that remains toward each other among ordinary citizens.

Russia and Germany, in particular “must re-establish contact, solidify, and develop our relationship, and find a way to trust each other again,” he said.

To repair the damage and renew understanding, the West “must take Russia seriously as a nation that deserves respect,” he said.

Instead of constantly criticizing Russia for not meeting Western standards of democracy, he said. the West should recognize that “Russia is on the path to democracy. It’s halfway between. There are approximately 30 emerging nations that are in transition, and we are one of them.”

Gorbachev traces the deterioration of relations to the West’s loss of respect for Russia and exploitation of its weakness after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

That led the West — and particularly the United States — to break promises that were made to Russia at the end of the Cold War that NATO forces would “not move one centimeter further East,” he said.

THE U.S.-RUSSIA NUCLEAR ARMS RACE IS OVER, AND RUSSIA HAS WON

In Cost, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, War on April 12, 2017 at 9:53 pm

By Scott Ritter, Newsweek, 4-12-17

This article first appeared on The Washington Spectator.

In October 26, 2016, amid the hubbub of a rancorous American presidential election that dominated the headlines, an event took place in Russia that escaped the attention of those not otherwise involved in monitoring the esoteric world of strategic weapons research and development.

This event, a test of a ballistic missile carrying a payload known as “Object 4202,” fundamentally changed the landscape of arms control, built as it is on the dual pillars of nuclear deterrence and missile defense.

“Object 4202” was a new kind of weapon, a hypersonic warhead capable of speeds 15 times the speed of sound, and capable of evading any anti-missile system the United States has today, or may develop and deploy for decades to come. While the October 26 test used an older RS-26 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) as the launch vehicle, “Object 4202” will ultimately be carried on a newer ICBM, the RS-28.

The RS-28 is itself a wonder of modern technology, capable of flying in excess of five times the speed of sound, altering its trajectory to confuse anti-missile radars, and delivering 15 independently targetable nuclear warheads (each one 10 times as powerful as the bombs the United States dropped on Japan at the end of World War II) or three “Object 4202” hypersonic warheads, which destroy their targets through kinetic energy (i.e., through impact).

A nuclear warhead-armed RS-28 would take about 30 minutes to reach the United States from a silo in central Russia; its warheads would be capable of destroying an area about the size of Texas.

Armed with the “Object 4202” hypersonic warheads, each of which is capable of destroying an American missile silo, the time would be cut down to 12 minutes or less. The RS-28 ICBM, scheduled to become operational in 2018, assures Russia the ability to annihilate the United States in retaliation for any American first strike, while providing Russia a silo-killing first-strike capability of its own.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has relied on the threat of massive nuclear retaliation as the foundation of its nuclear deterrence strategy, grounded in the notion of “mutually assured destruction,” where any nuclear strike by one side would result in a devastating response by the other, thereby reducing the chance of nuclear war.

The glue that held this theory of mutual nuclear suicide together was the 1972 anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty, where the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to limitations on the deployment of anti-missile defenses. An effective ABM capability gave a nation the theoretical ability to “win” a nuclear war by launching a debilitating first strike, and then destroying in-flight any missiles that survived. Limiting ABM defenses curtailed an arms race by reducing the impetus to develop new weapons capable of breaching an opponent’s defenses.

The ABM treaty provided a foundation of strategic stability, built on the precepts of “mutually assured destruction,” that enabled both the United States and the Soviet Union to enter into meaningful arms reduction agreements, including the ground-breaking Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987, and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991. (Ironically, it was President Ronald Reagan’s insistence in 1986 on continuing the research on the “Star Wars” anti-missile system that precluded the possibility of eliminating nuclear weapons altogether.)

This trend toward nuclear disarmament continued in the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, with President Bill Clinton signing a new START 2 treaty with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1993. START 2 eliminated the deployment of multiple warheads on ICBMs, further stabilizing the strategic balance between the two nations.

The START 2 treaty never entered into force. In 2002, George W. Bush’s administration withdrew from the ABM Treaty, citing the need to develop defenses against missile launches from so-called “rogue states,” like Iraq, Iran and North Korea. In doing so Bush unhinged the foundation upon which U.S.-Russian strategic arms control was built.

A new arms reduction treaty, signed in 2003, stripped away on-site, inspection-based verification, and did nothing to limit the deployment of ICBMs armed with multiple warheads. While the “New START Treaty,” signed by the Obama administration in 2010, brought back limited on-site inspections, there was no prohibition against ICBMs with multiple warheads.

Moreover, the Obama administration continued to develop and deploy anti-missile defenses, both in the United States and in Europe, resurrecting in Russia Cold War-era concerns that the Americans would leverage this new ABM capability to subject Russia to nuclear blackmail, threatening a nuclear strike for which Russia would have no response. The RS-28 missile system, inclusive of “Object 4202,” can trace its origin to American deployment of ABMs.

These concerns were on display on December 22, 2016, when President Vladimir Putin delivered a speech that made the recent Russian developments public. “We need to strengthen the military potential of [Russia’s] strategic nuclear forces,” Putin said, “especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defense systems.”

This speech would have more than likely been buried by the American media save for one person—President-elect Donald Trump, who on the same day as Putin’s speech tweeted a reply: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

The president-in-waiting then doubled down on this line of thinking, telling the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program the following morning, “Let it be an arms race! We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”

The Russian response was surprisingly muted. Russia, Putin said the following day, was not seeking a new arms race, but only to improve its capabilities in the face of American deployments of anti-missile defenses. Russia was now strong enough to repulse any aggressor, Putin said.

“As for Donald Trump, there is nothing new about it; during his election campaign he said the U.S. needs to bolster its nuclear capabilities and its armed forces in general,” the Russian president noted.

During the campaign, candidate Trump had been infamously unfamiliar with the basics of American nuclear strategy. At a primary debate, after the moderator underscored the age of America’s nuclear arsenal (“The B-52s [a nuclear-capable bomber] are older than I am. The missiles are old. The submarines are aging out”), Trump was asked, “What’s your priority among our nuclear triad?” The best the future president could come up with was, “I think…I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me.”

There is no doubt that Trump received a more detailed briefing on America’s nuclear capability upon being elected. The aging American nuclear arsenal, he would have learned, is a critical national security issue. A new stealth bomber is in development, as is a new class of ballistic-missile submarines. And the Obama administration had initiated a process for producing and deploying a new ground-launched ICBM that would cost the American public $1 trillion over the course of the next decade.

This perceived weakness, combined with Putin’s public pronouncement of Russian strength, apparently was enough to set the president-elect off on his tweeting and morning talk show rant.

A few days shy of his inauguration, Trump seemed to have a change of heart. In a wide-ranging interview with British journalists, Trump noted that, “They have sanctions on Russia—let’s see if we can make some good deals with Russia.” What deal was Trump suggesting? “For one thing, I think nuclear weapons should be way down and reduced very substantially, that’s part of it. But Russia’s hurting very badly right now because of sanctions, but I think something can happen that a lot of people are going to benefit.”

(The Times of London speculated that the first foreign policy trip President Trump would embark on would be a nuclear disarmament summit with President Putin; a Trump spokesperson rejected this as “false news.”)

While President Putin, in a January 28 phone call with President Trump, was warm to the idea of nuclear disarmament talks with a Trump administration, the Russians overall were dismissive of a deal that traded disarmament for the lifting of sanctions.

An offer to engage in nuclear arms control talks, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov noted, would be furthered by first reviewing the issue of U.S. sanctions against Russia. But there could not be any direct linkage between the two.

The Russian foreign minister also noted that the agenda for any such negotiations should include hypersonic weapons, U.S. missile defenses, space weapons and nuclear testing—in short, a broad range of interconnected issues that the new Trump administration appears ill-equipped to handle at this juncture.

Rex Tillerson, the new secretary of state, has been silent on U.S.-Russian nuclear disarmament. And James Mattis, the new secretary of defense and the one Trump Cabinet official who has opined publicly about disarmament issues, appears supportive of fielding a new land-based ICBM, thereby closing the door on the possibility of trading those weapons in exchange for similarly deep cuts by Russia. In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mattis noted that these missiles would be “a cost-imposing strategy on an adversary,” noting that “any enemy that wants to take us on is going to have to commit two, three, four weapons to make sure they take each one out.”

James Mattis would do well to speak to the men and women who operate America’s land-based ICBM force today. The Cold War is over, and these missiles no longer stand on the frontline of American defense. If the best reasoning for the continued deployment of land-based ICBMs is that they serve as a sump for a potential enemy attack, then there is no real justification for their existence, now or in the future.

President Trump reportedly told President Putin, during their January 28 conversation, that the current arms control treaty, up for renegotiation in 2018, was one-sided in favor of the Russians. With all due respect to Trump, his American-centric view of the Obama-era arms agreement is moot; the U.S.-Russian arms race is over, and Russia has won.

The RS-28 missile will be operational next year; the new American land-based ICBM won’t be operational for another decade. Russia is on the verge of deploying a hypersonic, missile silo-killing weapon that undermines the secretary of defense’s thin justification for a new land-based ICBM.

Every missile system Russia deploys, or will deploy, is capable of defeating America’s missile defense systems, including what is currently deployed and what is envisioned for the future. And Russia is on the verge of completing the deployment of its own anti-missile shield, one that will seal off its air space to bombers, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles, negating in totality America’s nuclear triad.

There is a deal to be made with Russia, and it doesn’t involve trading the lifting of sanctions for nuclear arms cuts. President Trump would do well to accept Sergei Lavrov’s proposed disarmament agenda, and expand it to include a new ABM treaty and a new disarmament treaty that not only reduces the numbers of weapons on both sides, but also would include the elimination of multiple warheads on all missiles, land-based and submarine launched.
Effective arms control negotiations must include an appreciation of history, a realistic assessment of the present and the ability to project into the future. At this juncture, the Trump administration has not demonstrated the level of competence needed to successfully conclude such a complex negotiation.

The first step, however, is to embrace disarmament as a positive goal. While President Trump has shown a limited understanding of the nuclear triad, his recognition that nuclear weapons should be “way down and reduced very substantially” is a step in the right direction.

Former Marine intelligence officer Scott Ritter served on the staff of General Norman Schwarzkopf during the Gulf War and as a U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1998.

US strike sends message to Syria: what it didn’t say

In Human rights, Justice, Peace, Politics, War on April 12, 2017 at 8:20 am

Christian Science Monitor, APRIL 7, 2017 BEIRUT AND ISTANBUL

By Nicholas Blanford and Scott Peterson

The US has launched its first punitive military strikes against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria since the civil war there began six years ago, a powerful message that Washington will no longer tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the civilian population.

President Trump’s administration indicated that the strikes, which saw 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired at Syria’s Shayrat airbase near Homs, were linked only to the chemical weapons attack Tuesday that killed at least 86 people, including 27 children, in Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib Province.

And while they may have chastened Mr. Assad, analysts say, they do not appear to signal a broader change of US policy on Syria that would pose a longer-term threat to his hold on power.

“This [missile attack] clearly indicates the president is willing to take decisive action when called for,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters late Thursday. “I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria today. There has been no change in that status.”

Those comments might offer some reassurance to Assad that the air strikes were more a slap on the wrist than the beginning of a knockout blow. And with the war in Syria slowly turning in his favor – and with his two key allies, Russia and Iran, continuing to stand by him – Assad looks likely to stay in power, a reality that Syria’s neighbors and the international community reluctantly have had to accept.

“We should not invest the limited American military attack with any strategic connotations so far,” says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics (LSE). “It’s an attack divorced from any strategic political vision. It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration has any concrete ideas to find a political solution. I’m very skeptical.”

Mr. Gerges warns, however, that military action on its own, absent a strategy, is inherently hard to contain, and could lead to an unintended deepening of US military involvement if Russia and Iran redouble their support for Assad even as Syrian rebels try to use the US strikes as leverage.

“This administration is enamored with hard power,” says Gerges, author of the book, “ISIS: A History.” But “without soft power – without diplomacy, and a political strategy – military actions might be counter-productive.”

Julien Barnes-Dacey, a Middle East analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, warns that the strikes’ ability to trigger an escalation derives from the region’s very different perceptions of US military power, including fears in Syria and Iran that the ultimate objective could become regime change.

“Obviously, Trump has framed this through a narrow proliferation lens, and the attacks were very limited. But I don’t think anyone else on the ground or internationally is going to see them through that same narrow lens,” says Mr. Barnes-Dacey, speaking from Brussels.

“For [Syria’s] opposition and its backers, there’s long been a sense that once you get US skin in the game, an escalatory cycle will quickly take over.”

Cost of Assad’s rule

Whether or not the retaliatory strikes have any impact on Assad’s hold on power, his survival after six years of war has come at an increasing cost. Assad took office in 2000 on the death of his father, Hafez, and hopes were initially invested in him as a reformer who would modernize the ossified police state he inherited.

Seventeen years later, Assad has achieved an international pariah status unseen since the days of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. His country has been devastated, the economy ruined, an estimated more than 400,000 people are dead, and the conflict has created the largest refugee crisis Europe has witnessed since World War II.

His regime controls only about 35 percent of Syria, with the rest carved up between various Arab and Kurdish militias and the extremist Islamic State group (ISIS). He stands accused of employing chemical nerve agents against his own population and executing tens of thousands of people in regime prisons. Even if the war subsides and thoughts turn to rebuilding, it is difficult to see which countries or what global institutions would be willing to bankroll a multi-billion dollar reconstruction process with Assad still enthroned in the presidential palace.

“Maybe Bashar will stay for some time now, but eventually, sooner or later [he will go], nothing stays the same in this region,” Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said recently, speaking to a group of foreign reporters. Mr. Hariri’s father, Rafik, was assassinated in 2005, with Assad’s Syria widely believed to have been involved.

“It would be foolish to think that this regime is still in control in Syria,” Hariri adds. “The people who are in control in Syria are the Russians and the Iranians.”

Russia holds its fire

Moscow, meanwhile, has reacted angrily to the air strikes, calling them an “aggression against a sovereign nation” and announcing an end to the de-confliction mechanism set up between Washington and Moscow to prevent accidental clashes between US and Russian aircraft over Syria, where both nations fly ostensibly on “anti-terror” missions against ISIS.

The Pentagon alerted Russia before it launched the cruise missile attack, as well as NATO allies Turkey and Britain, and the Russian forces do not appear to have activated their S-300 and S-400 air defense systems, which could have intercepted some of the cruise missiles.

“There was an effort to minimize risk to third party nationals at the airport – I think you can read Russians from that. We took great pains to try to avoid that,” Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, told reporters.

The Pentagon’s target, meanwhile, an operational air base, is seen as having a negligible impact on Assad’s ability to continue waging war. Initial accounts of the attack suggest that aircraft and hangars were destroyed and the runway rendered inoperable.

Assad’s real military weakness, however, is not a lack of aircraft but insufficient ground forces to battle rebel groups, which is why his regime has had to rely on allies such as Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Shiite paramilitary forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. Russia’s contribution to the Assad war effort has been mainly air support, and Moscow could deploy more aircraft to Syria if needed to plug any shortfall caused by US bombing.

On Thursday, Assad was quoted as repeating his determination to claw back the entire country, telling a Croatian newspaper that there was no “option except victory.”

“If we do not win this war, it means that Syria will be deleted from the map,” he told Vecernji List newspaper. “We have no choice in facing this war, and that’s why we are confident, we are persistent, and we are determined.”

Why chemical weapons?

Assad’s critical manpower shortage may be a reason the regime allegedly opted for chemical weapons in Idlib, analysts say.

“Assad doesn’t have anywhere close to the men to retake his territory, that’s why he’s using chemical weapons,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This [US strike] is a clear message he will not be able to gas his way over the two-thirds of Syrian territory outside his control.”

Some analysts suspect that despite the posturing from the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin believed Assad deserved some kind of punishment for the gratuitous use of chemical weapons against civilians – as well as his lack of cooperation in a Russian-led effort to negotiate a peace deal between the regime and the opposition.

“I suspect that the Russians are furious with their ne’er-do-well client,” says Frederic Hof, director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a former State Department point man on Syria under President Barack Obama. “Why in the world would you use chemicals when everything is going your way?”
It remains to be seen whether the missile strike against the air base is a one-off response to the use of nerve agents or whether the Trump administration will repeat such operations anytime Syrian government forces inflict mass civilian casualties, whether with chemical weapons or conventional means.

Military action “would not likely reverse the tide of the conflict against Assad,” says Mr. Hof. “But it could be significant enough to teach Assad that mass civilian casualty events will no longer be cost-free. This would be important, because as long as civilians are on the bullseye, there can be no meaningful or productive peace negotiations.”

Cruise Missile Hypocrisy

In Peace, Politics, War on April 10, 2017 at 3:13 am

By: Senator Chris Murphy

Thursday night, President Trump ordered missile strikes on an airfield controlled by the Syrian regime near the location of the recent horrific chemical weapons attack. Trump argued that the strike was necessary to respond to the attack that he believed to have been launched from that airfield.

As a theoretical matter, a targeted military strike in response to a major violation of non-conventional weapons norms is justifiable. Why have rules against chemical weapons use if no one is going to pay a price for violating the rules? International norms should be upheld by the international community–not the United States acting alone–but it’s hard to argue against Trump’s action last night when viewed in isolation as a response to Assad’s barbaric attack.

The problem is military strikes never happen in isolation–the before and after are arguably even more important than the strike itself. The actions Trump took leading up to Assad’s chemical weapons attack, as well as the all-important and totally unanswered question of what comes next, highlight the administration’s immoral and hypocritical approach to violence in the region.

The question Syria experts have been asking themselves this week is this: Why did Assad return to chemical weapons use, risking the ire of the global community, when he is, by all accounts, in a stronger position in Syria than at any time since 2013? The answer likely lies in the green light that the Trump administration gave Assad just a few days before the chemical weapons attack was launched. As my colleague Marco Rubio noted this week, when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that U.S. policy was now to allow Assad’s future to “be decided by the Syrian people” (a regular Russian talking point on Syria policy) he seemed to telegraph that Assad was free to act without repercussions from the United States. Rubio’s point is hard to argue – once Assad realized U.S. policy was no longer tied to his removal, there was nothing to hold him back.

Second, the check on Syria’s use of chemical weapons since 2013 had largely been Russia. The threat of U.S. military action in Syria in 2013 prompted the Russians to step in and help remove chemical weapons stocks from Syria. Obviously, they didn’t finish the job. But why? The answer here could lie in the newfound impunity with which Russia now operates globally. Since Trump was inaugurated, Russia has violated a long-standing missile treaty, accelerated the pace of military activity in Ukraine, dramatically ramped up its influence in the Balkans, and effectively taken control of the political process in Syria. Russia has acted this way since January because it no longer fears any reprisals from the United States. Their inability to finish the disposal of chemical weapons, or their unwillingness to veto the chemical attack, can be explained by the perceived permission slip they have been granted by the Trump Administration.

But the fundamental problem with the missile strikes arises when viewing it within the context of Trump’s other policies in the Middle East. First and most obvious is the policy of trapping Syrian families inside this dystopian war zone by refusing to help war victims relocate outside the country. Trump claimed to have ordered the missile strike because he was so personally moved by the images of the children killed by the attacks. Does our President not realize that these are the same children he’s twice tried to ban from entering our country? Or that last year alone, 650 children were killed in Syria, none by chemical weapons? What about the 2.3 million children who have had to flee their homes, living in refugee camps or on the streets of Damascus or Beirut or Amman? The new U.S. policy to ban all Syrian refugee resettlement in the United States, alongside Trump’s proposal to cut by 40% the funds that help settle refugees in other countries, will condemn far more children to death than were killed by chemical weapons this week.

Further, how can the region, or the world, reconcile the president’s newly discovered compassion for the victims of this war crime, when the administration has been so blind to prior conduct in Syria and similar transgressions in other parts of the region? Secretary Tillerson couldn’t commit to calling Assad’s barrel bombing of civilians a war crime, but he pivoted his rhetoric on a dime this week upon the chemical weapons attack. Yes, chemical weapons use poses a unique threat to global stability, but so does the intentional targeting of civilians by a domestic military. Tens of thousands of Syrians have been deliberately killed by Assad with conventional weapons – doesn’t our moral condemnation of that behavior melt when we decide that we are in fact willing to use military power against Assad, but only in response to the killing of 50 out of 450,000? To a Syrian parent, a child killed by a barrel bomb hurts no less than a child killed by sarin gas. I have long argued against the use of the military in Syria, but the only thing worse than a large scale deployment of U.S. forces in Syria may be the teasing of tiny amounts of military power that actually provides no change in the battle dynamics.

And what comes next? Is this the start of a dangerous military escalation, where the Russians feel compelled to ramp up their support for their ally in response to U.S. intervention? We already have more than 500 U.S. troops on the ground in Syria–is the next step the creation of safe zones, as Sean Spicer suggested? That would require even more U.S. military assets, increasing the risk of direct conflict with Russia, ISIS, and Assad. How does any of this end, or get us closer to a political agreement that will actually help the people of Syria? President Trump seems not to have thought through any of this, or have any kind of broader strategy, but rather to have launched a military strike based on a sudden, emotional decision.

It is hard to argue against taking a limited, targeted action against a solitary airfield as a consequence for a grotesque use of chemical weapons. But in the context of Trump’s broader foreign policy mistakes, the strike is hard to justify, and harder to defend. Furthermore, it is not clear whether Thursday’s missile strikes on a single airfield will have any lasting deterrent effect. A more comprehensive response would include sharply increasing pressure on the Russian government, whose support has enabled Assad to continue his reign of terror; ramping up humanitarian support and refugee aid so that any Syrian family who wants to flee the violence can; empowering the State Department to help find a political solution instead of outsourcing reconciliation to the Russians and the Turks; and keeping U.S. troops out of the fight to take Raqqa, which risks bogging us down inside a long term civil war for the future of Syria. Air strikes to enforce arms treaties can make sense. But when it comes to the potential quagmire of Syria, these strikes must exist as part of a broader, coherent policy – a policy that simply does not exist today.

Thank you very much for reading.

Every best wish,

Chris Murphy
U.S. Senator, Connecticut