Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Let Me Get This Straight

Number of Israeli deaths due to rocket attacks from Gaza in the past eight years: 19.

Number of Palestinian deaths due to retaliatory fire from Israel in the past 36 hours: 375.

Hmm. Of course what really matters is the percentage of each that are civilian, versus military, targets.

What should Obama do about this mess when he takes office?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Monday, December 15, 2008

Trouble in Niger

The New York Times has a long report on the drive for uranium in Niger, which is threatening to create a conflict between Tuareg nomads who live on but presumably do not own the land wherein the ore is to be found, and the government, which presumably would prefer to profit from mining contracts at their expense:

"A battle is unfolding on the stark mountains and scalloped dunes of northern Niger between a band of Tuareg nomads, who claim the riches beneath their homeland are being taken by a government that gives them little in return, and an army that calls the fighters drug traffickers and bandits.... Uranium could infuse Niger with enough cash to catapult it out of the kind of poverty that causes one in five Niger children to die before turning 5.

Or it could end in a calamitous war that leaves Niger more destitute than ever. Mineral wealth has fueled conflict across Africa for decades, a series of bloody, smash-and-grab rebellions that shattered nations. The misery wrought has left many Africans to conclude that mineral wealth is a curse.

In February 2007, a group of armed Tuaregs mounted an audacious attack on a military base in the Air Mountains. A new insurgency was born. They called themselves the Niger Movement for Justice and unfurled a set of demands: that corruption be curbed and the wealth generated by each region benefit its people.

To fight the rebellion, the government has effectively isolated the north, devastating its economy. International human rights investigators have also documented serious misdeeds on both sides. The rebels use antivehicle land mines that have killed soldiers and civilians, while the army has been accused of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions and looting of livestock. In all, hundreds of people have been killed, and thousands have been pushed from their land.
I have some reactions to this aticle. One: this is an important wakeup call, and I'm glad to see Lydia Polgreen reporting on this now, before the situation turns into a bloodbath. Two: observers will note the paralells between the unfolding situation and the origins of the conflict over the Darfur region of Sudan. The grievances and mobilization strategies are identical; the 2004 war and its related atrocities were also sparked by attacks on military bases that provoked a disproportionate response; and now that the Niger government has attack helicopter it is anyone guess whether they will limit their response to hitting "bandits" or go wholesale against villages. Current signs aren't promising, and surely this is a situation where there is an opportunity for some preventive action. (Empedocles? What might work?)

Third, I will note a slight mischaracterization in the article when the use of anti-tank landmines against military personnel is labeled a "misdeed" in the same paragraph as extrajudicial killings. While the latter is clearly a violation of human rights law as well as Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which would apply in this situation, the former is nothing of the sort. Only anti-personnel landmines are prohibited under the Ottawa Convention, and not being signatorites the Tuareg wouldn't be bound by that anyway. Anti-vehicle mines must only be used so as not to target civilians directly; it's simply collateral damage of they are caught in the crossfire. Since Polgreen's article is otherwise designed, it seems, to provoke sympathy for the rebels, I must assume that this is not intended to suggest moral relativism but rather either a misguided attempt to appear objective, or otherwise a simple error.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Reconsidering Nuclear Policy

Writing in the Salt Lake Tribune today, two arms consultants ask some pointed questions:

For decades, nuclear weapons were thought to make us safer by deterring the first strike by another nation. Today we need to re-evaluate the roles and dangers of nuclear weapons in the world. Let's ask ourselves: Does it help the United States to have nuclear weapons? Would the whole world be safer if no one and no nation had even one of these weapons?
Well, isn't the follow up question: safer from what? Safer from nuclear holocaust, perhaps. Safer from conventional war with all its bloodiness? Hard to know, since the decline in inter-state war coincided not only with the nuclear era but also with the establishment of the UN Charter regime.

At any rate, strategies to escape from MAD are back on the foreign policy agenda. Writing in Foreign Affairs this issue, Ivo Daadler and Jan Lodal make a case for disarmament. Or so they say:
"The next President will have the opportunity to make the elimination of all nuclear weapons the organizing principle of US nuclear policy."
But actually the authors' proposals do not take the US very far in that direction. One - a better nuclear-control regime - makes sense but really is an extension of the non-proliferation treaty, not a pledge to disarm. Another - a pledge to use nuclear weapons only to deter attacks against allies - would only formalize US adherence to existing nuclear norms, while presumably keeping weapons on a hair-trigger alert and maintaining a policy based on a threat to commit a grossly unethical act - the incineration of foreign civilians as revenge for a similar attack against an ally. A reduction of US arsenals to a "mere" 1,000 weapons would be lovely, but how is that even close to approaching a world of "zero"? And if the US can't be expected to take this goal seriously, then how is Daadler and Lodal's proposal that that the US convince its allies of the "logic of zero" anything other than a recipe for hypocrisy?

The truth is, of course, that any steps toward disarmament will have to be baby steps. Even disarmament advocates like those writing for the Salt Lake Tribune can't seem to do any better than this modest proposal: increasing the amount of time required to make a nuclear launch decision.
More time would then be available to double check for possible computer malfunctions. We can also take physical steps to increase the time it takes for a weapon to be launched. For example, today's modern Minuteman missiles can be "safed" in their silos, much as the older Minuteman missiles were safed in late 1991 at the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
What would it take for the US to simply disavow the use of nuclear weapons as inherently unethical and take the lead in nuclear disarmament?

Belated Friday Star Trek Blogging (Yeah, Well, It Was A Holiday...): "The Wrath of Bush"

President Bush is doing what a lame duck can: try to complete rule-making processes at federal agencies that would lock in conservative policies on labor, environmental and health standards:

"With the economy tumbling and American troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Bush has promised to cooperate with Mr. Obama to make the transition 'as smooth as possible.' But that has not stopped his administration from trying, in its final days, to cement in place a diverse array of new regulations.

The Labor Department proposal is one of about 20 highly contentious rules the Bush administration is planning to issue in its final weeks. One rule would make it easier to build power plants near national parks and wilderness areas. Another would reduce the role of federal wildlife scientists in deciding whether dams, highways and other projects pose a threat to endangered species.

A new president can unilaterally reverse executive orders issued by his predecessors, as Mr. Bush and President Bill Clinton did in selected cases. But it is much more difficult for a new president to revoke or alter final regulations put in place by a predecessor. A new administration must solicit public comment and supply 'a reasoned analysis' for such changes, as if it were issuing a new rule, the Supreme Court has said."
You know what all this makes me think of?

This fan trailer, "The Wrath of Kirk":

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