What You Should Think About Belligerence

December 4, 2007

“There was never a good war or a bad peace.”

–Benjamin Franklin

As the autumn leaves brandished their colors in 2001, I looked forward to the prospect that something good might come out of a Presidency that had been consistently disappointing. Republican talking points were foreshadowing a call for immigration reform. No one fresh from the Texas Governor’s Mansion could side with the hateful rabble on that issue. Alas, I would not get to see the President make an appeal for something vaguely resembling decent public policy until years later.  Osama bin Laden and his associates made sure of that.

Instead, speeches that were initially disturbing for their lack of coherence and appeal gave way to coherent appeals to immanentize the eschaton. “You’re either with us or against us,” revealed that the President and his inner circle viewed the world in very simple terms. All humanity was reduced to black hats and white hats. Concern about a possible shortage of nuance was answered by flaunting a total lack of nuance. Our national leader seemed certain all citizens would look to him for clear answers about who was good and who was evil.

In international relations, messages seldom are so simple and clear as they were when the 2002 State of the Union address introduced “the Axis of Evil” to the pages of history. Iraq, Iran, and North Korea were the nations said to threaten national security and pose grave peril to all peace-loving human beings. One of the most overrated minds in the history of politics, belonging to David Frum, forged this powerful rhetorical implement of belligerence.

“Wise men talk when they have something to say; fools talk when they have to say something,” is an aphorism that is attributed to Plato, Benjamin Franklin, and Saul Bellow. Whoever actually wrote it, the sentiment surely applies here. Early in his first Presidential campaign, George W. Bush dismissed questions about recent events abroad by explaining that there was no cable television on his ranch. Both major party candidates in 2000 were clearly focused on a domestic agenda, and the nation itself had only recently shed the weight of the Cold War. Yet there is an enormous difference between being focused chiefly on domestic policy and being oblivious to world news.

Given how long it took overseers of Iraq policy to recognize the significance of the sectarian divide in that nation, it is fair to ask if White House insiders would have been able to find Iraq and Iran on an unlabeled map in early 2001. Though the time between the 9/11 attacks and the Axis of Evil speech was roughly as long as a typical undergraduate semester, whatever studying the President and his foreign policy advisors did during that time was unsatisfactory. Any astute assessment of their work makes this painfully clear.

Among the lessons they failed to learn was that Iran had made tremendous progress toward the restoration of secular rule. Years of relatively benign behavior and rhetoric from the United States robbed fanatics’ fires of fuel. Iranians old enough to remember the time before the revolution longed for a return to sights like women with loose hair in public places or progressive political messages in uncensored print. The original revolutionaries were growing old and tired, and their successors generally lacked the fervor so evident in the years just after the Shah was deposed.

Even in Iran, there was much sympathy for Americans blindsided by terrorism. Having restored authentic autonomy to a nation long dominated by Western puppets, the old guard in Tehran was circumspect about letting their homeland become a diverse and free society. Media censors rarely exercised their powers. Politicians called for an end to the theocratic institutions established during the revolution, and those calls resulted in increased popularity. Left to its own devices, Iran was months away from genuine secular governance.

Then the President of the United States took it upon himself to poke Iran with one very big stick. Suddenly militant Iranian conservatives stopped sounding quite so ridiculous as they railed against “The Great Satan.” The people of Iran felt threatened. This feeling emerged from the fact that they were threatened by the world’s only remaining superpower! Suddenly the work of censoring progressive media seemed much more important to Iranian officials. As the election approached, reinvigorated theocrats disqualified reform candidates and detained the most vocal protesters.

Yet even if old revolutionaries had not awakened police powers that had lain dormant for years, the people of Iran may have voted against reform. It is hard to be reasonable and thoughtful in a climate of fear. Much like Americans in 2002 and 2004, Iranians have suffered from a recent trend toward visceral politics. In both nations, the perception of a worldshaking menace threatening voters’ way of life mattered more than real issues and worthwhile ideas.

Enter Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Jubilantly pandering to Iranian jingoism, he was able to muster a strong level of popular support. In fact, it is a fair question to ask if he really is just pandering. Even today, American insiders seem unsure to what extent the Bush-Cheney team is intent on war with Iran. If you can get past the cyborg heart and secret underground lair, Dick Cheney is scary in ways unrelated to the archvillain stereotype. An Iranian firebrand could tell tall tales, but a sensible analyst may also raise alarms simply by focusing on what our Vice President has said and done.

There is no sane justification for the extent to which Americans have already changed our way of life out of fear. Though international terrorism provides a little core for this dark emotion, it has been built up to monumental proportions by the rhetoric of our own leaders. By contrast, no hyperbole is needed to make the threat of attack from the United States armed forces seem monumental. Peering across the border into Iraq provides a reality to generate that perception from a truly Iranian perspective.

This morning, President Bush took a number of questions from reporters, some clearly not planted there by his own administration. A recent National Intelligence Estimate suggesting that Iran has ceased work on military applications for nuclear technology was characterized as an opportunity to raise awareness about the “threat” posed by Iran. The President called for additional international pressure to isolate Iran. To Iranian observers, it must have seemed a “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” moment.

Assuming the President and his foreign policy advisors are not all mental defectives, we can infer from the garbage coming out of their mouths that there must be a great deal of garbage going into their ears. One might be able to make the case that Iran is troublesome because the government has some sympathy for Palestinian terrorists and may have some slight links to the insurgency in Iraq. Yet in making that case Saudi Arabia must be judged much more troublesome on both counts.

Perhaps the standard is that nuclear technology should be kept out of the hands of regimes that do not practice real democracy. How does this standard apply to China? Did Pakistan recently cross the line? Is Russia on track to “be against us” eventually? It seems as if U.S. policy toward a foreign government is influenced by no factor quite so much as the degree of personal animus George W. Bush feels for that regime. The problem with Iran is merely that the administration in the White House today is hostile toward the Iranian government. Just how is this the fault of any Iranian?

Okay, so it is fair to point out that President Ahmadinejad is just as quick to rattle a sabre as our own Warmonger-in-Chief. Yet it is vital to point out that the people of Iran are no less inclined than the people of America to seek peace. Outside the halls of power (and certain elements of each nation’s military-industrial complex,) there is widespread consensus in favor of focus of constructive actions by government. The average man, there as here, has no desire to feel foreign blood on his hands. If only the leaders of both nations could behave as well as average men, the world might be a more tranquil place than it seems to be just now.

What You Should Think About Nuclear Proliferation

October 23, 2007

“The discovery of nuclear reactions need not bring about the destruction of humanity any more than the discovery of matches.”

Albert Einstein

The 1986 film The Manhattan Project painted a light-hearted picture of what might happen if the power of atomic weaponry fell into the hands of an American teenager. Many aspects of working nuclear weaponry are within the means of any capable and well-equipped tinker. Even a truly tricky technical bit, like a working implosion trigger, becomes much simpler to fabricate with the widespread availability of high grade electronic components.

Weapons grade fissile material, the only bigger hurdle than an implosion trigger, was an issue the film sidestepped. The boy secretly obtained it from a government facility where his father was involved in refinement. However, that component is the real focus of efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation in our own times. No sovereign nation has ever been completely forbidden by international accord to work with conventional explosives. Mining, land development, and even agriculture create legitimate demand for safe controlled demolitions devices. Building every part of a working atomic bomb except the reaction mass involves activities that are no wild departure from peaceful actions.

On the other hand, proliferation experts have a fairly good grip on the kinds of specialized activities needed to produce weapons grade fissile material. The actual Manhattan Project required vast facilities, not to mention the loan of 15,000 tons of silver from the Department of the Treasury, in order to produce enough weapons grade material for a few primitive atomic bombs. Substances and processes have changed through the years. Yet it remains the case that large amounts of low grade radioactive material are required to synthesize masses with the properties needed to be consumed in an explosive chain reaction.

Tremendous amounts of electrical power, along with a great deal of distinctive industrial infrastructure, are required to produce material suitable for a nuclear bomb or warhead. Most processes require powerful centrifuges in which the radioactive material is combined with other chemicals to produce a fluid substance. Spinning sorts the nuclear material by isotope, making it possible to extract traces of the most volatile matter from the mix. A little more chemistry to return the stuff to its elemental form, and the end result is material that can largely be converted from matter to energy in a single explosive event.

Because of the tremendous economic demands of this activity, it is hard to conduct in secrecy. Yet in one way there is a parallel to the work with conventional explosives also needed to produce an actual nuclear blast. Enrichment of radioactive material has some valid application when it comes to developing fuel for certain types of reactors. This context enabled some regimes to blur the line between peaceful and military development of their own nuclear technology.

In recent years, the airwaves have seen plenty of people asking the question, “why would Iran construct nuclear power facilities when it has large domestic oil reserves?” Personally, I don’t see how that is a more sensible question than, “why would Iran expand its petrochemical energy infrastructure when it has large domestic uranium reserves?” After all, there are many reasons to minimize the extent to which a nation depends on fossil fuels. Nuclear power has its own disadvantages, but each uptick in oil prices makes it a better economic option, and sufficiently stringent controls enable secure handling of nuclear materials, including waste.

In an ideal world, international agencies would be permitted to inspect every nuclear facility in every nation. Outmoded thinking about the importance of preserving American secrecy (as if the idea that we have a pointlessly large nuclear arsenal would somehow surprise any other nation) makes it difficult to organize effective oversight around the world. Nations that really may have nuclear surprises stirring in their bowels can characterize inspections as an affront to their sovereignty, then point to the U.S. for cover. Setting a good example does not insure that all other nations will follow it. On the other hand, setting a bad example makes it much harder to push for positive change abroad.

So we have probable nuclear weapons in North Korea and possible nuclear weapons in Iran. Long-standing military adversaries India and Pakistan have both confirmed testing of functional nuclear weapons. Then there are the many ?s on a properly illustrated proliferation globe. Many herald the voluntary dismantling of South Africa’s nuclear program as a triumph of international efforts at non-proliferation. Yet it really seems much more like a footnote in the triumph of international efforts to end racial apartheid. Given their upbringing and outlook, I do not believe it is a cynical view to suggest the outgoing regime in South Africa was simply acting out of fear regarding what their successors might do with working nuclear weapons.

With America’s laser-like focus on perpetuating the status quo in Iraq, so many other foreign policy issues are not subject to due scrutiny. Again and again, opportunities for progress have emerged from North Korea, but this President’s aversion to summit diplomacy makes it impossible to determine the validity of offers to negotiate. It is as if George W. Bush would be so humiliated by not getting what he wants in a single meeting that our nation must forfeit the moral high ground of having at least tried to reach an accord. There is nothing humiliating about being rebuffed in negotiation. On the other hand, making no plausible effort to address the accumulation of nuclear weapons by a remarkably bizarre and militant regime — it seems like that could at least be described as “shameful.”

Another neglected front is the subsidy of controls on old Soviet stockpiles. If indeed the “terrorist nuke” scenario is what keeps Homeland Security bureaucrats up at night, then why not scoop a little pork out of their budget to accelerate efforts to put old Soviet fissile stockpiles under American control? To suggest that there was no chaos in that part of the world in the early 90s is to overlook major historic events. Since then there has been some effort to render Soviet stockpiles of weapons grade material useless for those applications or to relocate that material to secure American facilities. Yet no new emphasis has been placed on this painfully slow effort in spite of its obvious relevance to any serious global counterterrorism strategy.

Frankly, if I were a patriotic citizen of Iran today, I would be hoping that my government has an aggressive nuclear weapons development program that has already produced significant capabilities. The sitting administration in the White House seems to believe that the best way to discourage nuclear proliferation is to sling threats haphazardly around the world, then invade and occupy purported “menaces” that clearly do not possess any nuclear deterrent. I believe all honorable peoples of the world desire peace, and that no nation is populated by a dishonorable majority. Yet, given the behavior of the U.S. government, it seems as if compliance is the road to misery while real peace can only be achieved through strength.

It is a sorry state of affairs, but it is not without remedy. For those nations already in possession of nuclear weapons, open arms and honest dialog can accomplish much. It is in everybody’s interests to promote stability and democracy in societies that already possess nuclear weapons. As most sensible folks must already understand, this is not best accomplished with threats and attacks. Rather, it is accomplished through support that enables national leaders to feel secure enough that a more open society is not seen as a source of danger. Of course a bunker mentality will develop in a regime that is under constant assault, even if the assault is chiefly rhetorical. Openness to civil liberties, checks and balances, et al. comes more naturally in an environment without some hostile superpower deliberately provoking fear from afar.

Then, for those nations that have not yet developed nuclear weapons, setting a good example is key. The United States would give up very little to allow international inspectors to reveal what is already well-known from pole to pole. Yet in that process it becomes much easier to push other reluctant, secretive regimes to allow international inspectors regular visits to their nuclear facilities. It would then become easier to promote technologies that lack military applications and to spot instances where nuclear weapons development may be underway.

Long ago we let the nuclear genie out of its bottle. If our role from here forward is to be in any way constructive, we must promote peace with peaceful methods. Recent experience abroad should confirm that promoting peace with military aggression is every bit as horrible an idea as it sounds. This becomes all the more true as science and economics converge to make nuclear weapons affordable to ever smaller governments.

What You Should Think About Nuclear Energy

October 9, 2007

For 50 years, nuclear power has been a solution in search of a problem.”

–George Monbiot

Born into the 70s, making my first efforts to comprehend “the grown up world” in the 80s, my earliest perceptions of atomic power were shaped by a blend of rosy corporate propaganda and bleak doomsday dramatizations. By the time I was ready for my first political debate, concepts like “control rods” and “implosion triggers” were already familiar to me. Even setting environmental risks aside, my teenaged self could not break associations between constructive and destructive applications unleashed by discoveries in nuclear physics.

As time advanced, so did my views. Much more importantly, scientific understanding has advanced as well. Today the world finds itself in an interesting place vis-à-vis nuclear energy production. It was not so long ago that consensus views favored “cheaper” alternatives. Yet resource depletion, soot production, and greenhouse gas emission are all real costs associated with fossil fuel consumption. A market that demands one industry protect the public commons while making no similar demands of others may indeed place alternatives to nuclear power at a lower price per unit. Yet a more circumspect analysis reveals that polluting enterprises ultimately exact their true price one way or another — whether or not it is reflected in utility bills.

To be sure, nuclear power poses pollution concerns of its own. Chernobyl is now a household word precisely because of the extreme dangers associated with radioactive contamination. Heck, even thermal pollution is an issue with nuclear power. Clearly any sensible nuclear power program demands stringent and redundant oversight. Operating with a flawed design or sloppy management practices creates a very real risk that no nation should tolerate.

Also, there is the security issue. Yet that is an issue that cuts both ways. Every additional nuclear facility is a new target for terrorists intent on stealing material for radiological attacks or even staging a deliberate environmental disaster. On the other hand, every additional petrochemical facility drives up demand for a commodity that is partially under the control of aristocrats involved with promoting religious fundamentalism and financing terrorist organizations. This would seem to suggest the American energy sector should be heavily invested in alternatives to either approach.

Yet those alternatives, as they exist today, fall short. Nature offers up light, wind, water, and earth all as methods of collecting energy from sources that renew themselves. In time the yields and costs of solar arrays may improve to the point where that approach would merit a place as a mainstay of American energy. Yet just when that time will occur is unknown. Windmills, tide mills, and dams are only appropriate in locations that satisfy specific conditions. Surprisingly enough, geothermal resources can be depleted by overuse, and they also depend on an appropriate site to achieve commercial yields.

As demand for fossil fuel resources rises and awareness grows of the hidden costs associated with burning ancient carbon compounds, nuclear power provides an alternative with generating capacity independent of local natural features. At the very least, it merits consideration as a supplement for meeting demands when clouds or calm or cooling produce shortfalls from other methods. Given responsible government oversight (a legitimate worry if pursued under the present administration,) nuclear power has the potential to bridge the gap between what we can harness from natural forces and what is required to sustain economic progress.

Yet nuclear power also offers much potential for innovation. Nuclear fusion research has yet to produce anything like a device for generating more energy than it requires, but new approaches do hold some promise. Decades ago, the scientific establishment abandoned the idea that an intersection of powerful laser beams could be used to contain the intense pressure generated by fusion reactions. A new approach, less like a turbine engine and more like a piston engine, might make it possible to sustain serial bursts of fusion reaction with lasers only active for the briefest of instants. The dramatic reduction in energy cost is just one of several innovations that could pave the way for productive fusion power plants.

Then there is the prospect of breakthroughs in fission as well. European scientists are developing precursor technology with an eye toward constructing energy amplifiers. The concept involves using a powerful particle accelerator to outright disintegrate nuclear fuel. It would require elaborate facilities, but it offers many advantages. Energy amplifiers are “subcritical” nuclear reactors, meaning that they can produce power from reaction masses that are not susceptible to meltdown in the event of unexpected technical problems. They can be used to safely destroy dangerous nuclear materials produced by conventional fission reactors. This includes the world’s stockpiles of weapons grade plutonium. Also, they can derive power from thorium — a substance both much less radioactive and much more abundant than traditional nuclear fuels.

Of course, scientific breakthroughs are unexpected by nature. Low cost, high yield solar panels may emerge at some point in the future. Also, there is plenty of ground to be gained by applying energy conservation to building and product design. Society does well to invest in any avenue of progress that might address a mounting crises related to energy demands and existing fuel supplies. Yet without having already achieved such progress, we have no choice but to make due with what we have.

Considering the overwhelming mix of security and environmental concerns, giving private corporations broad latitude to expand America’s nuclear power industry seems like unacceptably risky business. Yet only politics obstructs the pursuit of a nationalized atomic energy industry that serves the common good while benefiting from tight controls that no nuclear facility should be without. As with other public sector enterprises, free markets and innovation could continue to play vital roles in areas ranging from component manufacturing to facility maintenance.

Personally, I’ve long questioned the merits of letting the whims of profit-seekers create turbulence in a key sector that serves as a foundation on which almost all other economic activity must rest. Entities like Enron operated contrary to the national interest not only because they were managed by dishonest crooks, but also because it was their business to seek profits through playing games with energy itself. When it becomes possible to generate revenue by deliberately choking off the economic lifeblood of a region, clearly a failed paradigm is in place.

Yet it is not my intent, today, to argue for the nationalization of the entire energy sector. Instead it is my contention that only in the context of nationalization can we expect the safest and best results from massive expansion of America’s nuclear power industry. Without the need for any technology yet to be discovered, that context makes it possible to safely generate energy enough to satisfy the needs of a large economy that (hopefully) will continue to grow through the years ahead. Given that numerous problems caused by fossil fuel consumption are already bad and likely to get even worse, I don’t believe it takes a visionary like Albert Einstein to point out that we would do well to make greater use of our capacity to split the atom for peaceful purposes.