May 29, 2009

Who's Next?

"First we got the bomb,
but that was good,
'cause we love peace and brotherhood..."

Tom Lehrer, "Who's Next?"

It appears that North Korea detonated a 13-kiloton atomic bomb not too long ago, burying it six miles deep in a huge cavern to disguise detectable details about the blast.  It was most likely an implosion device similar to the "Fat Man" design first tested at Alamogordo by the United States in the Trinity shot, July, 1945.  A Fat Man bomb was detonated over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, with horrific results, as we know too well.  The kiloton yield of this bomb was similar to Nagasaki.

While many Western commentators are quick to analyze Kim Jong Ill's dogged determination to go nuclear as an effort to deter Western (and more specifically American) invasion, I have a feeling it's not as simple as all that.  That's a comforting analysis used by those who are somewhat over-ready to blame America for everything, and while there's always much to criticize about a country which is so influential and controversial, it seems more likely to me that Kim wants a bomb because he's nuts.  Arguing that he wants a bomb to "protect" his North Korean subjects is doubtless a contradiction in terms; if he actually cared about North Koreans, they would not live in a dirt-poor police state, subject to immediate internment (and probable death) in the Yodok Concentration Camp, which may rival Auschwitz in terms of sheer numbers killed at this point.  If one argues that Kim is simply being rational and self-defensive (as is argued often when talking about Ahmadinejad), then it reverses the argument and places the onus on the United States to behave rationally.

Yet, as noted, there's no particular reason to believe that Kim Jong Ill is rational at all.  He is hypothesized as rational in order to fit into the scheme of a predetermined argument, which is that all the United States has to do is behave itself and nothing bad will ever happen, at least where North Korea is concerned.  Rational motives and self-regard are imputed to Kim: he wouldn't be so foolish as to launch a preemptive strike against the West Coast of the United States because his own country would be vaporized in return.  He would, in other words, be committing suicide.  And as we know, no one ever commits suicide.  So we can rule out that danger.

Thus, irony aside, we can see that there's no comfort whatsoever in such simplistic analyses. Kim Jong Ill may be completely nuts and he may be building an atomic bomb so he can use it against another country.  His treatment of North Koreans strongly suggests that he is indifferent to
their fate.

So what do you do when a nut owns an atomic bomb?  We can't really say for sure what he'll do with it.  Those in possession of nuclear technology, such as A.Q. Khan of Pakistan, sometimes become promiscuous about sharing their secrets.  Khan was probably instrumental in the development of both North Korean and Iranian technology.  So what if Kim Jong Ill decides to sell a Fat Man to al-Qaeda?  Is that so far-fetched?  He always needs cash, and al-Qaeda has a lot of Arab (particularly Saudi) bankrollers.  We know that from the famous 28 redacted pages in the 9-11 investigation - Bush & Cheney's intervention to avoid Saudi embarrassment.

"A number of U.S. government officials complained to the Joint Inquiry about a lack of Saudi cooperation in terrorism investigations both before and after the September 11 attacks. [---redacted---]. A high level U.S. government officer cited greater Saudi cooperation when asked how the September 11 attacks might have been prevented. In May 2001, the U.S. government became aware that an individual in Saudi Arabia was in contact with a senior al-Qa'ida operative and was most likely aware of an upcoming al-Qa'ida operation." 
That part escaped redaction. If they let that part out, you can imagine how explosive the stuff was that they suppressed.  Still, Cheney, I must admit, has always focussed more than most on the danger of a nuclear explosion within the United States.  Now we can be assured that there is an anti-U.S. nut with a functioning atomic bomb.  It's doubtful it's ready for assembly atop one of those Taepodong missiles - that's very advanced stuff.  We began by dropping bombs out of B-29 bombers in 1945, a far more forgiving technology since the payload doesn't have to withstand all the G-forces involved in intercontinental ballistics.  But maybe one reason Kim buried his bomb so deep was to conceal the bomb's radioactive "signature:"  that particular array of radiation peculiar to specific designs.  That's just a hunch of mine.  If you were going to sell your bomb, that could have obvious advantages.  It might make it harder to trace the origins of the "device."  Would the United States vaporize North Korea on the suspicion it was Kim's bomb?

It's a horrifyingly fascinating subject because of the sui generis nature of nuclear weapons.  You can't fit them into the usual intellectual frameworks for discussing foreign policy. What we now know about even "limited" atomic bomb exchanges is that they will do so much damage to the Earth's ozone layer that it's folly to consider atomic warfare a "local" phenomenon.  If India and Pakistan exchange 30 or 40 atomic bombs detonated over cities, that may doom the Northern Hemisphere to unsustainability.

The subject has always perplexed me.  Nuclear weaponry is a subject so fraught with terror and existential implications that it's impossible to analyze it conventionally.  You have to invent a new kind of survival thinking in order to approach it intelligently, giving up the usual categories of "liberal" and "conservative" positions and becoming absolutely practical.  It's not a question of whether we "ought" to have the bomb and they shouldn't, or whether each "sovereign" who signs the Nonproliferation Treaty should be allowed to develop nuclear technology.  Those are nice, formal arguments which may win the debate for your team but do not alter the fundamental question.  A nut has the bomb; what are we going to do about it?

May 27, 2009

Men, Not Laws, Part 2

I mean, don't get me wrong. The most disappointing thing to me about Obama's adoption of Bushian Doctrine on Guantanamo, military commissions, "preventive detention," and escalation of the war in Afghanistan, state secrets (which he has actually expanded), and shielding from prosecution any violations of FISA or the Convention Against Torture, is that the most predictable result of such passivity and acquiescence has now come to pass.  Since Barack is a liberal hero, he has succeeded in educating the half of the country which resisted Bush's depradations against the Bill of Rights and lawless approach to governing that it was, after all, okay.  You can feel it in the air. Except for a few holdouts, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Center for Constitutional Rights, promotion of the Bill of Rights is seen as part of a "leftist agenda."  The most dangerous thing about Obama's enthusiastic adoption of the Cheney doctrine of "preventive detention without trial and without charges" (which so clearly violates the 5th Amendment rights of "any person" (not just Americans) is that it now vests in people the final decision on whether someone is set free or imprisoned.  Not a set of laws.  Not a predictable system of procedures.  The say-so of a politician.

A long time ago I wrote about the real meaning of the Jose Padilla case.  I saw it as Cheney's experiment.  He was curious whether he could arrest an American on American soil and imprison him indefinitely without charges and detain him in an American brig without (a) a public outcry and (b) Congressional interference.  He succeeded on both counts.  That's the thing you have to concede to Dick: he thinks big.  It was a test case to determine whether the Democrats in the House and Senate were the pussies he thought they were.  I watched and listened for that impassioned speech, that convening of hearings by Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi, which would spell out why the Padilla case was so outrageous and outside the bounds of ordinary American judicial procedure.  Never happened.

"9-11 changed everything."  So the self-protective solons in Congress were not going to do anything to make themselves look soft on terrorism.  Never mind that Padilla was never charged with the crime he was arrested for, the "dirty bomb" plot which Rumsfeld made up.  Instead, he was driven nuts through years of solitary confinement and abuse so that he could not effectively participate in his own defense in a conspiracy case he was sucked into down in Florida.

Could that happen to you or me?  Well, let's see.  If you're reading this, you're probably an American citizen, although it's probably worse for you if you're in America and you're not. Maybe you're on American soil right now.  And you haven't participated in a dirty bomb plot either.  Thus, so far, you're pretty much exactly where Jose Padilla was.  You're certain, however, that it won't happen to you and regard the suggestion that it might as paranoid.  You're probably right.

The Sons of Liberty in the late 18th Century in this country, however, didn't look at things that way.  One of their biggest gripes against King George III was his practice of "executive preventive detention" and abridgement of legal process.  It's right there in the Declaration of Independence, which hangs on my office wall:  "For depriving us in many cases of the benefits of trial by jury."  They weren't going to stand for that, because that's a tyrannical power, to declare the freedom or imprisonment of individuals on the basis of "executive decision."  And they included the 5th Amendment in the Bill of Rights:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

I understand the counter-argument: the world is now too dangerous for Constitutional rights. It's better to abridge liberties in the case of the individual in order to ensure the safety of the larger citizenry.  It seems to me, however, that if we're going to do that, we should amend these charter documents.  There is no serious argument that Padilla, for example again, was held beyond the "48-hour" period of permissible detention before presenting charges against him.  He was held for years with no charges.  He was denied his right to counsel.  He was denied his right to a speedy trial, and he was deprived of his life and liberty, for years, without due process of law.  

What is vexing about Obama's decision to make the Padilla treatment standard procedure is that I'm almost certain George W. Bush was unaware that the Bill of Rights existed.  I'm sure he never read them.  Barack, on the other hand, studied them and taught them.  He's aware of what he's doing.  And what is it that he's doing?  I think he wants to be taken seriously as a guy who's just as tough as Dick Cheney.  I think that's the image he and his handlers are working on. And one has to admit that it looks mighty tough to do unconstitutional things to protect the country.

So I said yesterday that Barack's preventive detention scheme looked "silly" and inconsistent when you compared it to the fate of terrorist suspects who are actually tried and convicted and given determinate sentences and ultimately released, and someone asked me what I meant. So to spell it out: presumably there will be Guantanamo inmates who are tried and convicted, one way or another, and given sentences which they outlive.  This has already happened in the very few cases which have actually gone to trial in the 7 years Guantanamo has existed.  So these convicted terrorists will then be eligible for release into the wide, wide world.  At least I assume they will be.  So we then would have these two categories of terrorist detainees: the Category 5 detainees who have never been charged because they can't be convicted but are considered too "dangerous" to release; and terrorists who have actually been convicted, proved guilty, and are now eligible for release.

That seems completely crazy to me.  It's the sort of arbitrary, nonsensical thing that begins to happen when you start operating outside the rules because of "special circumstances."  This kind of lawless approach spreads like a contagion until the system is no longer reliable or fair. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams understood such things; I'm not sure there are many people around today who still do.

May 26, 2009

A nation of laws

I was probably as surprised as the next bleeding heart liberal that it would be Barack Obama, a Constitutional law professor, who would come up with the idea of formalizing our "perpetual preventive detention without charges or trial" policy for dealing with terrorist suspects.  I shouldn't say "suspects," actually; maybe "suspicious individuals" or "suspicious Muslims" would be closer to the mark.  In his recent speech, delivered ironically enough in front of a mural of the Constitution at the National Archives, Prez O outlined the 5 categories of individuals detained by the U.S. held at Guantanamo and elsewhere.  That actually would be a good movie title for Michael Bay or Ang Lee or one of those guys who concoct movies for teenage boys, mainly using an Apple computer instead of a camera.  "The Fifth Category."  That's not bad.  In fact, instead of writing this blog...

Anyway, the Fifth Category is defined as a bad guy who can't be tried for war crimes, or violations of U.S. law, either in a civilian court (U.S. federal district court) or a military commission (juris macropus rufus), because no conviction is obtainable. Thus, it follows that there's no sense in charging such a person with a crime.  What you might think follows from that is that you let the guy go, but not so fast.  If the Executive Branch concludes that such a person, while more or less immune from the legal process, is nevertheless "dangerous," then he's simply detained indefinitely.  For how long?  Well, the President hasn't really said, except to say that his version of the Great War on Terror (GWOT) should probably last at least another, oh, ten years.

This seems to imply that a Category 5 Detainee will be held until the GWOT is over.  However, as much as I respect President Obama's intellect, it seems to me he has made a fundamental error in logic here.  To declare the GWOT over, I suppose we have to be assured that no terrorists anywhere pose any threat to the United States whatsoever.  If we don't mean that, what could we mean?  The existence of even one Category 5 detainee (and let's face it, there are going to be a lot more than one), means that a corps of hardcore, dangerous terrorists remain alive.  If you let them out when the GWOT is declared over, then you've started the GWOT all over again. Suppose there were 19 Cat-5 Detainees.  Well, that's just the right number for another 9-11, isn't it?

So you can't let them out ever.  That's not fanciful, that's logic directly connected to the policy Obama announced.  So that leads to the next logical conclusion.  Why are we keeping dangerous Muslims alive in U.S. custody?  We can't try them, because we can't prove they've committed any crime, even in a rigged court room run by the Department of Defense and staffed with soldiers where hearsay is allowed and evidentiary rules are "relaxed" in favor of conviction (the Military Commission route).  We can't let them out because they're dangerous.  We can't set a release date because that is a contradiction in terms with the end of the GWOT.  

So wouldn't the most logical handling of dangerous detainees who can't be convicted in any forum simply be summary execution?  Isn't that what Pinochet did?  Hitler?  Stalin? Mao?  Of course that's what they did, because a dangerous dissident or troublemaker is most effectively put out of commission by killing him.  Then when the GWOT is finally over for good, no residual corps of terrorists remains in custody subject to release, except for the Supermax or military brig prisoners actually convicted with determinate sentences, but that's a logical problem which makes the whole idea of Category 5 a little silly and we don't want to do that.  We're being serious here.  Introducing all the logical inconsistencies in a piece of Right Wing pandering by the President is not my intention.

Or, alternatively, we could use the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which really is more than just a backdrop for a pretty speech eviscerating civil liberties.  It's worked for a very long time.  Why not give it another shot?

May 25, 2009

Basic Rule of Hyperpartisan Politics

Carolyn Lochhead, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, yesterday did her usual good work in laying out the essential nugatory facts about the national finances.  Her piece is here at .  What I like about her analyses is that she's already up to date on the essential vocabulary of Medicare, Social Security, GDP, national debt, et cetera, and so doesn't have to rediscover these facts each time she writes about our looming catastrophes.  For example, Ms. Lochhead appreciates that when a government official, say with the General Accounting Office, refers to the "Social Security Trust Fund," he means "nothing."  That is, Trust Fund = Zero.  This simplifies one's understanding. Similarly, she comprehends the distinction between the external national debt (owed to China & Japan) and the internal national debt (owed to the various "Trust Funds.") With respect to the second category, a "moral imperative" only will force us to honor this debt to ourselves, which is to say, the promises are not worth the paper on which they're written (and stored in that famous file cabinet in West Virginia).

Plus Ms. Lochhead can call on the estimable Alan Auerbach at Berkeley's Haas School of Business, another dismal realist and highly quotable academic pundit.  Alan points out that frightening things like the downgrade of U.S. debt to less than AAA (as has already happened to Great Britain) is one of those things "that don't happen until they happen."  Which is to say, they seem like bad dreams until you wake up and find they're  the surrounding reality.  Our national debt to GDP ratio would already ban us from membership in the European Union, so some inconceivable things have already happened. The Big Kahuna, of course, is the potential loss of the dollar's world reserve currency status.  Apres ca, le deluge.

The leading edge of Carolyn's article is President Obama's current budget, which borrows a buck for every buck it spends, which is to say that we've reached the point where half the federal budget is done on credit.  By humble analogy one senses immediately that a household budget done on the same basis is a bankrupt situation, but macroeconomics, we're assured, are not the same as such lowly analogies, so it's all good. Increasingly, it is the external national debt that is being increased, that is, real money owed to real creditors and not debt we can erase by passing legislation stating, for example, that Social Security is no more.  The national debt, probably by not later than 2020, will stand at $20 trillion, and probably 2/3 of that will be real external debt.  Thus, the real external debt will = current GDP.  We've come a long way, baby.

It's hard to say what, if anything, we can do about any of this.  I suspect nothing.  Which brings me to my Basic Rule of Hyperpartisan Politics.  We have two political parties who take turns running things in our country. When one party is in power, the other party lusts for power and will resort to anything, even treason and actively working for the deterioration of the American standard of living, in order to regain power. Sometimes this is said openly; the official spokesman for the Republican Party, for example, Rush Limbaugh, stated candidly that he hoped Barack Obama's economic recovery would fail.  That way the Republicans could ascend to the throne and resume cutting taxes, exacerbating the debt problem, and increasing the military budget, so the Soviet Union will fall.  Certain ruts, they can't get out of.

A party wishing to retain power cannot afford to take any action, therefore, which risks short-term reversals.  In our everyday lives, we probably recognize there are times when one must retrench, reeducate ourselves, sacrifice, in order to move forward again. This is part of the natural cycle of life.  But such rationality is impossible in American national politics.  For example, the rotten-to-the-core banking system, overloaded with bad debt built on reckless gambling (itself enabled by repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act), could have been taken into receivership by the United States, its creditors and stockholders wiped out and only its depositors protected under FDIC rules.  Then, over time, a solid banking system built on actual regulation and legitimate business could have been rebuilt.  So, instead of lending or "investing" about $12 trillion in federal funding (money which we obviously don't have), we would have used the regulatory and police power of the American government to achieve a different system.

But that would have taken time - probably a lot of time.  A great deal of economic and financial dislocation would have occurred, including among the all-important Big Rich/Campaign Donor Class, and with the attention span (and comprehension) of John Q. Public, the Republicans would have had a field day with such a "responsible" approach. You can multiply examples. Rather than lending money to General Motors, this bankrupt company could be allowed to go bankrupt.  Michigan would revert over decades to seasonal farming country.  The money thrown away could have been invested in mass transportation, such as railroads run on alternative energy, technologies with real futures, rather than "shovel ready" projects such as repaving freeways and building more roads under the Stimulus Package.

On and on.  Nothing can be done unless the short-term fallout can be controlled.  The theory is that the long-term consequences (such as bankrutpcy of the country) can be disguised or deferred, but losing power is something that happens NOW. Yet some problems simply cannot be rationally solved without a period of loss and retrenchment, because you can't always continue to invest and support obsolescence while creating innovation.  There simply isn't enough money or human capital to go around.

Thus, let's face it.  The country cannot be fundamentally changed. We've passed that Rubicon. That is why "healthcare reform" has already fallen apart.  To fix healthcare, you have to get rid of the for-profit basis of the system. The party which does that will lose the financial support of Big Healthcare (Pharma, Insurance, Hospitals), confuse and rattle the general public, and thus be out on its ear.  

Relax, in other words, and enjoy the ride.  Quell thy reformist tendencies and watch, with fascination, as Nature, which always bats last, steps into the box.