Tag: threat inflation

Iraq's Chemical Arsenal: Justification for War?

Yesterday, a student asked me about the recent news reports indicating that Iraq did, in fact, have “weapons of mass destruction” back in 2002 and 2003 when the U.S. was attempting to justify a “preemptive” war. The New York Times reported that American soldiers were injured in the past decade by chemically-armed munitions found in Iraq.

Already, a slew of articles in the media have debunked the claim that this vindicates George W. Bush and his Iraq misadventure. This Washington Post piece is perhaps the best since it primarily quotes Bush administration claims from the pre-war period.

The Times piece certainly does not try to claim that Bush is vindicated:

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Guest Post – Dave Kang: ‘Military Spending in East Asia is Lower than You Think’

The following is a guest-post by my good friend Dave Kang of USC. Below he complements his recent TNI essay with the full flow of charts and graphics they screened out. This post is an important rejoinder to the constant assertion (think Robert Kaplan) that East Asia is on the brink of war and that everyone is freaked out by China. The thing is, East Asian military spending doesn’t actually suggest that at all…

“In a recent National Interest essay I argued that military expenditures in East Asia do not appear to be excessively high. In this post I’d like to post the figures that informed the TNI essay (for some reason, TNI made me take out all the graphics – isn’t that what the web is for?). The figures are quite vivid, and help explain why I made the fairly straightforward interpretation of the data that China’s neighbors, according to IISS and SIPRI, aren’t balancing it the way everyone says they are.

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Oliver North threat-inflates for the next ‘Modern Warfare’: a new Low for the Military-Industrial-Entertainment Complex

Even tea-partying righties should be pretty shocked at this shameless, exploitative (and wildly inaccurate) manipulation of Americans’ post-9/11 paranoia as a marketing gimmick. And you thought 24 was off the air. Well here’s the video game version, all designed to scare you s—less – for cash. When the Homeland Security Department terrified the country 10 years ago by telling us to buy ducktape and sheetwrap, at least they had public safety goals, however confusedly, in mind. But this pseudodocumentarian ‘they’re-everywhere!-no-one-is-safe!’ crap is just to shill some video game. Bleh.

And Oliver North?! Good lord – the guy violated the appropriations clause, the Logan Act, and who knows how much other statute, and should have been in jail next to Frank Colson. Yet this guy is credible for the (apparently) largest entertainment franchise in the world now? Wow. H/t to Kotaku: “What does this say, then, about the market for a game like Call of Duty? Does Activision really believe its core market is so full of gun-crazy, right-wing types that it feels entirely comfortable employing Oliver North as someone to help sell the game?”

Activision’s Modern Warfare series has a well-known, morally dubious (yet best-selling) record of brutality-celebrating, militaristic, war-glorifying gaming, but invoking Oliver North’s pseudo-gravitas for right-wing street cred must be a new low. Is the first-person shooter genre now politicized too? So Sarah Palin’s ‘Real Americans’ blow away commies and terrorists with extreme prejudice, while you wimpy liberals play girlie games like Final Fantasy or something? The red state-blue state divide has come to your Xbox too. How nice; how healthy for democracy. Is it necessary to remind all those Tea Parties who adore the Constitution that North blatantly, repeatedly violated the appropriations clause of said ‘sacred,’ ‘holy’ end-all-be-all document?

At a time when the President is asserting an unprecedented right to kill overseas Americans without Constitutional protections, we really don’t need yet another wildly overhyped, quick-cut, paranoia-inducing threat assessment. Somewhere neocons are smiling, because I guess we all need our own drone now, right? But this stuff is pummeling our democracy and leading to all sorts behavior, like warrantless wiretaps or the Patriot Act, that we’d never tolerate otherwise and about which we will one day be ashamed.

The irony too is how baldly this ‘documentary’ contradicts the actual social science work on war – you know, from people who actually know what the hell they’re talking about, like Pinker, Goldstein, the democratic peace, nuclear peace, Long Peace, or security community theorists. War seems to be becoming less frequent, less cost-beneficial, more hemmed-in with rules and norms, and less general (i.e., not involving all the system’s big players anymore). If there’s one thing just about everybody in IR today seems to agree on, it’s that the US spends way, way more money on defense than it needs to. But I guess there’s no money in a game entitled ‘Threatlessness,‘ so let’s amp up the fear-factor by rolling out the Gordon Liddy of the Reagan administration to freak out the consumer.

More generally, I find it pretty worrisome just how brutal post-9/11 American geopolitical entertainment has become. I don’t mean violent; many movies and games are violent, even graphically so. Rather I am thinking of the unabashed relish for pro-American killing, the zealous bloodlust that’s morally fig-leafed by American patriotism so as to be defensible to the viewer. The same people who cheered for Rick Perry’s talibanic enthusiasm for the death penalty and waterboarding are thrilled to see the gleeful embrace of pro-American torture, mass-killings, and executions in even mainstream, hugely popular franchises like Modern Warfare, 24, or Transformers.

24 constantly found a way to work in torture by the good guys, as if to say that real men, genuinely committed to America, don’t have time for rules and due process. Lawyers are for sissies and liberals; patriots will gladly go over to Cheney’s ‘dark side’ beat the hell out of anyone, violate any law, to defend America. Modern Warfare 2 became globally notorious by requiring the gamer to participate in a mass atrocity (machine-gunning hundreds of civilians). In Battle: Los Angeles, the American hero performed a battlefield vivisection on wounded opponent. In Modern Warfare 3, the protagonists shoot a defenseless, surrendered enemy in the face even after he has cooperated in giving information. Homefront portrays the execution of parents in front of their screaming child, has the gamer hide under the bodies in a mass grave, and later encourages you not to waste ammunition on enemies on fire after an airstrike. Transformers 3 includes four battlefield executions (because it’s a movie for kids you know) and gives the antagonist the startling, downright revelatory post-9/11 line: ‘We will kill them all in the name of freedom.’ Wow – why not just give Michael Bay a job at some neocon think-tank? EA’s Battlefield 3, in the same year as the US is debating striking Iran, spun up a story of Iranian-sponsored MWD use in Western cities, which then provokes an in-game US invasion of Iran in which the gamer participates. Good lord; Bill Kristol himself could have written that script. And I have no doubt after this paranoid video above that Black Ops 2 will include some gratuitously vicious sequence packaged as ‘defending’ America.

The basic trick in all these the-defense-of-America-requires-cruelty narratives is to structure the story with such extreme bad guys and circumstances that the viewer can morally excuse the American hero for egregious violations of the law or rules of engagement that would otherwise get the cop/soldier/good guy rightfully thrown in jail as a dangerous sociopath. 24’s constant portrayals of torture justified by the wildly unrealistic ticking time-bomb scenario is the most obvious example. So long as Jack Bauer can say he’s trying to save a million people in LA, he’s allowed to do anything – torture, maim, execute civilians, violate due process, steal passwords, etc.

This stuff is tea party nirvana – strong, a—kicking men stand-up for America while liberal sissies at the ACLU worry about lawyers for terrorists. Conveniently the hero’s brutality is shielded/morally excused by some lame narrative fig-leaf about MWDs or alien invasions. But the real point is to show vengeful, post-9/11 killing on behalf of America without feeling guilty about it. This is why it’s terrifying.

So if you wonder why stories about American misbehavior in Afghanistan, like trophy taking or killing squads, get so little attention, consider just how coopted the post-9/11 geopolitical entertainment industry is, constantly presenting America’s opponents as unworthy of any rights, justifiably tortured, and fit to be wiped out with extreme prejudice at all time. Conversely, if you wonder why Apocalypse Now or Platoon are vastly more gripping and engaging, while you can’t even remember the story of last summer Transformers, it’s because in the real world, the moral certainty imparted by the ticking bomb scenario (much less cartoonish alien invasions) almost never happens. Jack Bauer’s 100% certainty in the bomb threat, which justifies his tearing out some Muslim’s fingernails or something, is a narrative figment. Lots of studies of war and intelligence gathering have told us just how much confusion and uncertainty there is. This is the whole reason we have the rules of engagement.

This why Jack Bauer would be in prison for life in the real world, no matter how much the right thinks he should be a role model for GWoT CT. Real world bad guys usually aren’t all wholly unredeemable villains – unlike in the black-and-white, ‘moral clarity,’ tea-party/neo-con dreamworld of Michael Bay, John Milius, Keifer Sutherland, Fox News, and even Peter Jackson. Even after the ’good war,’ de-nazification didn’t lead to mass executions of the Wehrmacht. Someday we’re going to look back on this post-9/11 bloody-minded entertainment with cringe-inducing shame, in the same way we think about Rambo or Red Dawn today.

I don’t want to sound like some boring old dude who doesn’t get this stuff. I like gaming. I waste too much time on it also. I enjoy action movies and FPS’s like Halo; I’ve played Modern Warfare and even Homefront. What unnerves isn’t the thrill of the violence. (That is also morally dubious, of course, but given that it underlines the viewing rush of every action movie ever made, hold that for a moment.) What I find really noticeable and increasingly disturbing is the post-9/11 gleeful depiction of pro-American carnage. 9/11 ‘took the gloves off’ and allowed so many directors – Bay, Milius, Sutherland, the Activision guys –  to unleash their chauvinistic, reptilian id, all their inner xenophobia, cruelty, militarism, war-glorifying machismo, and sheer bloody-mindedness. And the Tea-Party loves them for it.

Every time I see one of these movies in Korea (Battleship and Act of Valor just arrived), or whenever my students tell me how great some new shooter game is, I always wonder what foreigners must think of us and this endless diet of jingoistic movie and gaming violence we produce. One movie after another game of over-the-top violence, huge CGI, American flags waving, uniforms and saluting, troopers barking canned, macho dialogue like ‘Marines never give up,’ killing, and then more killing, flirtation with torture. I understand why my students tell me America is an empire; we sure entertain ourselves as if we are, and foreigners can see this stuff. I know the Tea Party couldn’t care less what foreigners think of us – that’s they whole point, right? And I know that the Pentagon approves Hollywood scripts before it lends its hardware, but I can’t imagine that even the brass really wants only this kind of jingoistic, bloodthirsty pap. Who wouldn’t exchange one Apocalypse Now for all these awful, cruel, rah-rah post-9/11 movies and games? But they gross huge amounts, of course; as will Black Ops 2, I have no doubt. And what self-respecting tea-partier wouldn’t want to help Oliver North’s rehabilitation to credibility?

Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.

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Peddling Fear: Frank Gaffney’s world.

Frank Gaffney is calling for a new HUAAC — actually slightly renamed to House Anti-American Activities Committee…because apparently “un-American” is not tough enough:

Earlier this week, he wrote:

Absent a fundamental course correction, America will go the way of Europe and others before it, succumbing to an insidious totalitarian doctrine known as Shariah whose purpose, in the words of its prime practitioners — the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) — is to “destroy Western civilization from within.”

Wow, I hadn’t realized that Europe has already succumbed to the insidious totalitarian doctrine. Sucks to be them.

As for the course correction, well, we’ve spent $7.6 trillion on defense and homeland security since 9/11/01 and apparently we are more vulnerable than ever. Cheney just released his autobiography and is telling anyone who will listen that his proudest accomplishment as VP was overseeing America’s torture policy.

In Gaffney and Cheney’s world, what we desperately need is to have that HUAAC investigator, John Wayne, ride to the rescue…er, in a convertible? Yeah, well, whatever as long as he gets the subversive, lefto, pinko, racist, radical, Muslim Brotherhood, insidious totalitarian, bacteriologist (yes, bacteriologist), progressive, commie terrorists (or whoever they are) before they destroy us. The classic climax scene from Big Jim McClain — 6:45 but absolutely worth it:

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Another Iran data point

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden (who served George W. Bush) said something fairly provocative on CNN in late July — but Fox News trumpeted the story:

Michael Hayden, a CIA chief under President George W. Bush, said that during his tenure “a strike was way down the list of options.” But he tells CNN’s State of the Union that such action now “seems inexorable.”

During the cold war competition with the Soviet Union, Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, was famously quoted as saying, “when we build they build; when we stop, they build.” (It was apparently a paraphrase.)

Conclusion? Nothing worked to stop inexorable Soviet advances in the arms race.

Hayden said much the same about Iran:

“We vote for sanctions. They continue to move forward. We try to deter, to dissuade. They continue to move forward,” he added.

By the way, August 26th will mark the 8th anniversary of Dick Cheney’s speech about Iraq to the VFW. In that address, he kicked off the campaign for war, declaring

The Iraqi regime has in fact been very busy enhancing its capabilities in the field of chemical and biological agents. And they continue to pursue the nuclear program they began so many years ago….Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon.

Let’s see if September signals louder war drums.

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Israeli threat inflation?

Over the weekend, the AP ran a story based on high-level Israeli sources suggesting that Iran’s nuclear program has “crossed the threshold,” which implied that the program is now militarized:

Iran is now capable of producing atomic weapons, Israel’s top military intelligence officer said Sunday, sounding the highest-level warning that Israel’s archenemy has achieved independent nuclear capability.

At a Cabinet meeting, the chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, did not say Iran already has an atomic bomb, participants said. However, he said, Iran has “crossed the threshold” and has the expertise and materials needed for one.

Meanwhile, American intelligence sources disagree and reported their dissent to a US Senate committee this week. The Post today quoted Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair:

“The overall situation — and the intelligence community agrees on this — [is] that Iran has not decided to press forward . . . to have a nuclear weapon on top of a ballistic missile,” Blair told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Our current estimate is that the minimum time at which Iran could technically produce the amount of highly enriched uranium for a single weapon is 2010 to 2015.”

Readers may remember that I pointed out similar apparently contradictory statements about Iran’s nuclear material recently delivered on weekend TV progams by high-level US officials just last week.

What’s going on?

Iran has demonstrated that it can enrich uranium. So far, none of the uranium has been enriched to weapons-grade, but the technological skill required isn’t all that substantial. This is a huge flaw in the Nonproliferation Treaty and I’ve previously discussed the much-needed Additional Protocol to the NPT, which would improve verification.

Some experts, like Harvard’s Graham Allison, call for an end to nuclear enrichment. The big mistakes were made when Ike promoted Atoms for Peace and the NPT reflected his guarantee allowing non-nuclear states to pursue a wide range of “peaceful” technologies.

As for the moment, Blair notes that the Israelis are engaged in classic worst-case planning:

“The Israelis are far more concerned about it, and they take more of a worst-case approach to these things from their point of view,” he said.

Israel wiped out Iraq’s Osirak nuclear plant in 1981 and destroyed something mysterious in Syria in 2007.

Israel has often hinted that it might attack Iran, so this story isn’t over by any means — even if the Obama administration worries more about Pakistan.

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Iran’s bomb

Yesterday, Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN interviewer John King that he thinks Iran has enough fissile material to make a nuclear bomb. He said:

“We think they do, quite frankly.”

Meanwhile, on NBC, Defense Secretary Robert Gates apparently said the opposite:

“They’re not close to a stockpile, they’re not close to a weapon at this point

Politico noted the discrepancy.

What’s going on here?

The LA Times story about the interviews mentions a recent IAEA report finding that Iran has a bit more than a ton of “enriched uranium.” Additionally, the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control estimates that Iran actually had enough of this particular “low enriched uranium” to make a bomb by December 2008 and will have enough for a second one in October 2009.

As Mark Kleiman clarifies on his blog, however, low enriched uranium is not the same substance as highly enriched uranium (HEU), which is the weapons-grade material needed to make a bomb (without plutonium anyway).

In his 2005 Nuclear Terrorism book Graham Allison explained (see pp. 99-100) that it would take a substantial effort using a cascade of 1500 centrifuges operating for about one year to yield the 35 to 100 pounds of HEU that a state would need to manufacture a single nuclear bomb. The state needs the smaller amount only if it has mastered the technology and developed a beryllium reflector. Otherwise, it needs the larger amount.

Iran currently has close to 4000 centrifuges operating at the Natanz facility (and is heading to 6000), which means they could theoretically create HEU in months. However, the IAEA and the world would notice that kind of enrichment — at least at Natanz.

Granted, the technical barriers to an Iranian bomb are falling, but some stories about Mullen’s remarks definitely make it sound as if Iran has made a political decision to construct a bomb. After all, this is the sentence following the one I quoted above:

And Iran having a nuclear weapon I’ve believed for a long time is a very, very bad outcome for the region and for the world.”

Yet, there’s no publicly available evidence that Iran has moved to make a bomb.

The late 2007 NIE said

We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.

My blog post from that time quoted additional skepticism from the NIE.

Arms Control Wonk has been complaining about the panicked reporting on Iran’s technical achievements for some time.

The different apparent messages from Gates and Mullen certainly suggest that the administration is not trying to sell an Iran war to the American public. Or, if they are, they’re not as good at it as the Bush people were.

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Iran’s Sputnik

Earlier this week, Iran put a satellite into space for the first time. The AP covered it on Wednesday, February 4:

The telecommunications satellite – called Omid, or hope, in Farsi – was launched late Monday after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave the order to proceed, according to a report on state radio. State television showed footage of what it said was the nighttime liftoff of the rocket carrying the satellite at an unidentified location in Iran.

At least unofficially, some experts within the U.S. government seem to be trying to play down the importance of this event — comparing it without context to a Soviet launch more than 50 years ago:

A U.S. counterproliferation official confirmed the launch and suggested the technology was not sophisticated. Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence-gathering, the official said it appeared it “isn’t too far removed from Sputnik,” the first Soviet orbiter launched in 1957.

However, as The New York Times reported, not everyone in the government dismisses the significance of this technological achievement:

In Washington, the State Department called the event worrisome. “Iran’s development of a space launch vehicle establishes the technical basis from which Iran could develop long-range ballistic missile systems,” said Robert A. Wood, a department spokesman.

At the White House, Robert Gibbs sounded fairly hawkish too.

My dissertation had a lengthy case study chapter on the U.S. reaction to Sputnik — it was certainly not “ho-hum.” At the time, U.S. security experts believed that a state that could put a satellite into space could probably launch a missile soon. Threat perceptions soared. Sputnik dominated the news for weeks. It was a VERY BIG DEAL.

Interestingly, in its story about the Iranian launch, Voice of America quoted an expert who makes the launch sound defensive:

“They want a nuclear weapon to defend their territory, defend their government. They live in a very tough neighborhood. They are surrounded by nuclear states – Russia, China, Pakistan, India. And, too, Israel and the United States,” The Ploughshares Fund, President Joseph Cirincione explains.

However, Sam Sedaei at the Huffington Post seems to think the media overplayed the alleged threat signaled by Iran’s satellite — and he’s not talking about the right-wing media. Sedaei criticizes the Times and The Guardian!

Despite this concern, I think the coverage was reasonably balanced and I applaud the Obama administration for exhibiting some concern without panic. As we all recall from the Iraq debate, there’s more than one way for public officials and media to address this kind of stuff.

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