Tuesday, April 28, 2009

It's not what you spend, It's the way that you spend it

Public Debt’s not the Devil and Balanced Budgets are no Cure-All

Going into debt is not necessarily a disaster for governments, nor will balancing the books automatically result in economic success and good public services. What’s important is what governments spend money on. The solutions to our economic problems are also much wider ranging and less separable from political, military, social and environmental problems than many economists and politicians seem to think.

What is vital in public spending is not whether governments go into debt but whether they spend money productively on things that will bring a mixture of increased revenue and collective benefits, or reduced financial costs and suffering, in the long run – in other words whether they waste money or spend it productively. A government which balances its books or reduces its debt in the short term can still be destroying its revenues or increasing its costs to an unsustainable level in the long run.

Private Finance Initiatives or ‘Public Private Partnerships’ are a good example of debt that isn’t formally counted as debt at all but in fact results in massively and costs on the public sector in annual payments over decades, resulting in increased taxes along with cuts in the number of full-time, fully-trained staff and beds in hospitals. Both main parties in the UK have expanded these massively from the 1990s on.

The US federal government has repeatedly gone into massive debt under Republican administrations from 1970 to the present, but their economy has never collapsed as a result, despite mis-spending massively on military contracts such as a fleet of submarines commissioned in the Cold War and re-marketed as ‘special ops’ submarines which would supposedly fire special forces in capsules onto beaches from their torpedo tubes. It’s Iraq ‘reconstruction’ and army supply contracts running to tens of billions have similarly been grossly over-priced and provided a tiny fraction of what they were supposed to in services and reconstruction.

The only governments to collapse due to over-spending in the modern period were the Soviet Union and it’s satellites. That was the result of mis-spending. Under Leonid Brehznev and Yuri Andropov in the 1970s the Soviet government increased their military budget massively to attempt to make their military as powerful as that of the rest of the world combined when their economy wasn’t as large as that even of their main rival’s, never mind it and all its allies. Over-spending on the military is indeed wasteful, as military spending never creates a fraction of the number of jobs or tax revenue that investment in civilian technologies and research does.

However going into debt in order to develop new technologies such as more efficient wave, tidal, solar and wind power would be the most sensible thing our governments could do. Obama has taken a step in this direction, even if a relatively modest one, but other governments seem slow to follow.

After World War Two Japanese and German industry had been destroyed by their defeat in the Second World War. Two decades later the Japanese and West German economies had overtaken most of the rest of the world in wealth because they had been forced to re-build their economies and so had been willing to pay for newer technology, while the rest of the world delayed making the investment and relied on its existing machinery.

The longer we delay now on investing in developing new, cheaper, more environmentally sustainable, energy and transport technologies the more we will suffer for it in the long run in terms of delayed economic recovery, unemployment (and the costs of paying unemployment benefit rather than getting tax revenue from the employed) and climate change related ‘natural’ disasters and illnesses (e.g lung cancer, other cancers and leukaemia caused by air pollution, mercury poisoning of seas, water and fish and nuclear waste).

Even John Browne, the former Chief Executive of British Petroleum, has said that private companies cannot be relied on to invest in these new technologies on the scale that’s required unless new government regulations and incentives ensure that they do (1). It should be added that the majority of people should not be gullible enough to allow their taxes to be used to pay to develop technologies which are then handed royalty-free for big multinational firms to reap all the profits when we’ve paid for the costs of the research and development. We need to demand that if we pay for the development of these technologies we also see a return on them in increased spending on public services and infrastructure and more apprenticeships and full-time skilled jobs.

That’s where a return to the 1970s British system of requiring all firms over a certain size to take on a certain number of apprentices relative to their number of employees or else pay an apprenticeship levy can come in. This eliminated the ‘free rider’ problem. Since it was abolished by the Thatcher government in 1979 there has been a massive shortage of apprenticeships and trained staff in Britain because every company has faced the problem that if it spends money to train apprentices other firms can simply coax them away with slightly increased pay without having to spend nearly as much on training itself. Unemployment has risen because of the resulting mis-match between the skills available among the potential work force and required by businesses. Only a reintroduction of a law making it compulsory for all medium sized and large businesses to take on apprentices or pay a fine to subsidise those who are will solve this problem.

Of course investment in green technologies and an apprenticeship law will not be enough to rebuild our economies and societies on a more sustainable model on their own. That will require a new mixed credit system, involving not just private credit from private banks but public and micro-credit, which i’ll give the outlines of in another post. It will also require fair trade with a balance between protectionism and free trade; a reform of farming towards organic mixed farming rather than chemical-using monoculture; a redistribution of wealth within and between countries; a move away from over-spending on military technology towards civilian technology ; a new system of international regulation to eliminate tax havens and allow and require firms to behave responsibly and take a long term view looking at returns over the next decade or two rather than the next quarter; and increased foreign aid replacing some military spending in order to take into account the primarily economic and social causes of many wars and genocides – and the primarily economic and social ways to end them and prevent them starting in the first place. We can always crush pirates and militias by military force in the short term, but in the long term that will not deal with the causes of piracy, civil war, sectarian violence and failed states – which are also often the product of our own governments’ wars, foreign polices, sanctions and economic policies. As with the credit system i’ll deal with all these issues in other posts here and/or articles on my website www.duncanmcfarlane.org in the future.

(1) = Guardian 25 Mar 2009 ‘State intervention vital if Britain is to meet its green energy targets, says former BP boss, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/mar/25/clean-energy-uk-browne

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Want to reduce our national debt by making real "efficiency savings"? Scrap PFIs and PPPs then - and arms Export Credit Guarantees too

The budget announced by Chancellor Alastair Darling includes £15 billion of cuts in public spending through “efficiency savings”.

If the government really wants to make significant efficiency savings it doesn’t need to fire even one public sector employee to get them. Instead it should scrap the grossly inefficient and over-priced Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and ‘Public Private Partnership Programme’(PPPP) contracts given by Blair, Brown and the Conservatives under Major and Clarke to consortia led by huge multinational firms to build and maintain hospitals at costs which Professor Allyson Pollock and other healthcare academics found to be between 4 and over 10 times the cost of either paying for them with taxes or taking out loans to pay with them.

PFIs and PPPs are not shown on the government’s debts – but in reality they are probably the largest debts we've incurred – and ones that taxpayers are already paying for twice – as taxpayers in increased taxes and as NHS patients.The annual payments which NHS trusts have to pay to the PFI consortia have already resulted in cuts in the number of beds and full time, trained staff in hospitals, making it more and more difficult for the remaining, exhausted staff to give patients the care they need and pay for through taxes.

Sacking public sector employees would result in them spending less money, further weakening the economy and putting people in the private sector out of work too.

Another “efficiency saving” could be made by ending all Export Credit Guarantees for arms exports. The weapons mostly go to military occupations and dictatorships anyway and the money could be invested in green energy technologies such as tidal, wave and solar power and create far more jobs than the arms industry ever has or could.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

De Ja Vu in Baghdad

New attacks in Iraq are not down to ‘die-hards’ any more than they were in 2004 –They’re caused by unemployment, poverty and by a cycle of violence also involving the other side.


US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is repeating a Bush administration mistake in a new form in assuming that the new wave of sectarian violence in Iraq is down to Al Qa’ida die-hards rather than mass unemployment, poverty and a cycle of violence caused by both sides(1).

Al Qa’ida is not the only force in Iraq contributing to civil war. The vast majority of Sunni insurgents have never been Al Qa’ida but Sunnis fearing Shia dominance and repression. The Coalition forces after the 2003 invasion initially used Shia militias to target Sunnis – including civilians – for “detention”, torture and death, mistakenly viewing them all as “pro-Saddam die-hards” and “Saddam loyalists” (2). A couple of years later the US military and the Bush administration did a u-turn, deciding that a Shia dominated Iraq would be an Iranian dominated one and hired Sunni “awakening” militias to target Al Sadr and other Shia Iraqi nationalist and fundamentalist groups (though strangely not the Iranian backed Badr brigade – perhaps Iraqi nationalism has been the real target in a divide and conquer strategy by the occupying forces, rather than Iranian influence). (See this page and this one and the source notes and links on them for more information and sources on the links between unemployment, poverty, sectarian violence, organised crime and terrorism in Iraq and elsewhere).

The new wave of suicide bombings coincide with the US ending funding for the sunni militias to fight for them and the Iraqi government – and the mostly Shia Iraqi government attempting to disarm the Sunni militias. With many Sunnis who were in the awakening militias made unemployed – or at least moved to jobs which won’t pay their previous wage of $300 a month - the result is similar to the earlier decision to disband the Iraqi army – lots of unemployed or poor people with weapons but not enough money looking for a way to make a living – and fearing being victims if they aren’t armed (3). Organised crime can overlap with sectarian violence – sectarian politics giving a cover for kidnapping for profit. Sunnis have been the targets of Shia death squads just as former members of Saddam’s forces inside Iraqi government forces have tortured and murdered Shia - and Shia have been victims of Sunni suicide bombings (4), (5). Working for any group that will pay them to fight for it – including Al Qa’ida in Iraq – is another option. Indeed some of the Sunni awakening militia worked for Al Qa’ida before the US offered them more money. They may now return to it unless the US and the Iraqi government think again and provide them with paid jobs. (Again see this page and this one and the source notes and links on them for more information and sources on the links between unemployment, poverty, sectarian violence, organised crime and terrorism in Iraq and elsewhere).

In 2004 then Iraqi Governing Council member Adnan Pachachi warned “More violence will cause more violence and this will be an endless spiral.” (5). His words remain as true today as they were five years ago. I’d only add that making more Iraqis unemployed or only giving them very low-paid jobs that won't give them an income they can survive on will have the same effect.

(1) = Guardian 25 Apr 2009 ‘Hillary Clinton says Iraq suicide bombs are sign of extremist fear’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/25/hillary-clinton-iraq

(2) = BBC News 11 Jul 2005 ‘Profile: Iraq's Wolf Brigade’,

(3) = Guardian 02 Apr 2009 ‘Iraq disbands Sunni militia that helped defeat insurgents’,

(4) = Guardian 20 May 2005 ‘British lawyers to pursue Iraqi security forces over killings’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2005/may/20/iraq.uk

(5) = Times 07 Jul 2005 ‘West turns blind eye as police put Saddam's torturers back to work’,

(6) = Guardian 08 Apr 2004 ‘Battles rage from north to south’,

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

One thing Ahmadinejad’s right about – and Desmond Tutu agrees

Israel is racist in its treatment of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians

The Iranian government are wrong on many things. They’ve beaten Iranians, tortured them, jailed them without fair trial and murdered them. Their victims include striking bus drivers and teachers to women’s rights activists, journalists, gay people, students demonstrating for democracy, journalists, editors and unmarried women who have had sex or publicly held their fiancĂ©e’s hand (1,2,3,4,5).

Ahmadinejad is also wrong in doubting the scale of the Holocaust in which six million Jews were murdered, but he’s right about one thing – Israel’s treatment of Israeli and Palestinian Arabs is racist.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and UN special rapporteur Professor John Dugard both visited Israel and the Israeli occupied Palestinian territories. Both compared it to the apartheid system they’d lived under (6, 7).

The current Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has proposed expelling all Arab citizens from Israel and bombing Israel’s ally Egypt (8).

Ehud Barak is Defence Minister in the current Israeli government and was also Defence Minister in the previous one. While his Labor party is seen as progressive and ‘pro-peace’, he has claimed Arabs have a “culture” of lying (9). In 2000, when he was Prime Minister, armed paramilitary police were ordered by his government to fire on Palestinian and Israeli Arab rioters with live ammunition after Ariel Sharon deliberately provoked Palestinians by visiting the disputed Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The anger created by this visit is understandable given that Sharon was personally involved in carrying out the Qibya massacre in 1953 and the architect of the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982 along with many other war crimes against Arab civilians and prisoners of war. The rioters were armed only with bottles and stones (10 -16).

The deaths and injuries caused by this led to widespread riots and demonstrations across Israel and the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories by both Palestinians and Israeli Arabs (some of whom consider themselves Palestinians or want a bi-national state with Israeli Jews, Arabs and Palestinians all given citizenship) This was the start of the ‘Second Intifada’ or ‘uprising’ against Israeli occupation (10 – 16).

Israeli police and soldiers responded by shooting unarmed Palestinian and Israeli-Arab protesters, bystanders and peace campaigners, killing large numbers and wounding thousands. The dead included 12 Israeli Arab citizens of Israel, including peaceful demonstrators and bystanders to demonstrations and riots. Aseel or Asel Asleh, a 17 year old Israeli Arab member of the American funded ‘Seeds of Peace’ peace campaign group (whose members include Israelis and Palestinians) was killed by Israeli police who shot him in the neck. He had not been involved even in throwing stones, only peacefully demonstrating. Israeli Arab Ibrahim Suleiman and his daughter Nur Suleiman were both shot by Israeli armed police while watching demonstrators from the flat roof of their house. Marlene Ramadan was shot dead without warning by hidden Israeli snipers as she and her husband Doctor Amr Ramadan drove home. One Israeli Jewish woman was killed by a rock thrown at her car by rioting Israeli Arabs (10 -16).

In the occupied territories the numbers of Palestinians killed when rioting, stone-throwing or merely being unfortunate to be around at the time was far higher (10 – 16).

Not one Israeli policeman, soldier or government minister was jailed or fired for any of this. The Israeli Or Commission, appointed to investigate the deaths was a partial white-wash – but even it criticised Israeli police for opening fire with rubber bullets at point blank range and live ammunition on Israeli Arab demonstrators, especially since they managed to stop Israeli Jewish rioters, who were throwing Molotov cocktails and attacking Arabs, without using deadly force (10 – 16).

When an Arab Knesset member proposed a bi-national state, with equal citizenship for all Jews and Arabs across Israel and the occupied territories, Barak portrayed Israeli Arabs as a ‘fifth column’ inside the ‘Jewish state’. (17).

The long-standing Israeli government policies of refusing any ‘right of return’ to Palestinian refugees and their descendants forced out of their homes at gunpoint in 1948 and 1967 to present also stands in marked contrast to the Israeli ‘law of return’ for Jewish immigrants to Israel. A 1970 amendment to it also allows Israeli citizenship to anyone with one Jewish grandparent. This shows the emptiness of the Israeli government claim that there is ‘no room’ for the Palestinian refugees or that Israel couldn’t support them. Palestinians and Israeli Arabs are seen as ‘a demographic timebomb’ that must be prevented from outnumbering non-Arabs in Israel either by forced transfer of Arabs or by increasing the non-Arab birth rate - notably by very high grants and child benefit provided to all Israeli Jewish (or non-Arab) families but not to Israeli Arab parents. (18) (also click here for more on this and more sources).

Israeli government adviser Arnon Soffer once suggested that the only solution is to “kill and kill and kill. All day, every day.” to keep Arabs’ numbers down within Israel and the occupied territories (19).

While the Israeli government are certainly not putting Israeli Arabs or Palestinians to the gas chambers there are uncomfortable echoes of the 1930s German government’s policy of encouraging ‘Aryan’ Germans to have lots of children and discouraging non-Aryan ones.

The American Jewish professor Norman Finkelstein has also pointed out the similarities between the South African Apartheid system of autonomous, poor, inner-city ‘homelands’ or ‘Bantustans’ for black and coloured people and the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords which granted the Palestinian Authority very limited autonomy in mostly poor urban areas cut off from one another by Israeli occupied territory, while reserving most good farmland and water for Israeli settlers in the West Bank. The role Israel’s government intended for the PA also parallels that intended by South African Apartheid governments for black ‘homeland’ governments – they are to help oppress their own people in return for being allowed to pocket some money for themselves. Ehud Barak’s later offer to Arafat at Taba in 2001 was little different from the Oslo offer, forcing Arafat to reject it. (Click here to read more and for source notes on this).

Corruption among Arafat and Abbas’ Fatah party was one of the major reasons for Hamas winning the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections – the others being Israeli violence against Palestinians and Israeli Arabs and the mass unemployment and poverty caused by the Israeli occupation and Fatah corruption.

Many Israeli Jews fear that if they are not the majority in a Jewish state they will face massacres like the pogroms and Holocaust. This however can’t justify their brutality towards and repression of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. The only way to guarantee peace is to end the cycle of violence and hatred by granting equality.

Even former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said that if Israel does not allow Palestinians their own state soon the result will be the overthrow of the current ‘Jewish state’ by a binational one supported by the majority of the population, much as happened with South African Apartheid (20). As in Apartheid South Africa there are many of the currently ‘dominant’ group – Israeli Jews rather than whites in this case -who oppose the racism of their government and society. Whether the solution found is two-state or one binational state, it’s clear that the status quo is not morally or politically tenable in the long run.

(1) = Guardian 17 Mar 2007 ‘Iran crushes teachers' pay protest’,

(2) = BBC News 22 July 2003 ‘Canada tackles Iran over reporter’,

(3) = Human Rights Watch 06 Jun 2004 ‘"Like the Dead in Their Coffins"
- Torture, Detention, and the Crushing of Dissent in Iran ‘,

(4) = Human Rights Watch 30 May 2008 ‘The Issue is Torture’,

(5) = Human Rights Watch World Report 2009 – Iran,

(6) = BBC News 29 Apr 2002 ‘Tutu condemns Israeli 'apartheid',

(7) = BBC News 23 Feb 2007 ‘UN envoy hits Israel 'apartheid'’,

(8) = Times 17 Mar 2009 ‘Avigdor Lieberman - branded Arab-hating racist - set to be Israeli foreign minister’, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article5920555.ece

(9) = Guardian 23 May 2002 ‘Lying is cultural trait of Arabs, says Barak’,

(10) = New York Times 15 Jun 2001 ‘Police Killings of Israeli Arabs Being Questioned by Inquiry’, http://www.nytimes.com/2001/06/15/world/police-killings-of-israeli-arabs-being-questioned-by-inquiry.html?n=Top/Reference/Times%20Topics/Subjects/A/Arabs

(11) = Seeds of Peace – Tribute to Asel Asleh,

(12) = New York Times 02 Sep 2003 ‘Police Used Excessive Force on Israeli Arabs, Panel Says’, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/02/world/police-used-excessive-force-on-israeli-arabs-panel-says.html

(13) = B’Tselem March 2002 ‘Trigger Happy: Unjustified Gunfire and the IDF's Open-Fire Regulations during the al-Aqsa Intifada’, http://www.btselem.org/Download/200203_Trigger_Happy_Eng.pdf

(14) = Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel ‘Special report: Official Commission of Inquiry into the October 2000 Events’, http://www.adalah.org/eng/commission.php

(15) = The official summation of the Or Commission report, http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=335594&contrassID=2&subContrassID=1&sbSubContrassID=0&listSrc=Y

(16) = Jonathan Cook (2006) ‘Blood and Religion – The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State’ , Pluto Press, London, 2006 , pages 38-40, 43-44, 51-54, 66-70

(17) = Jonathan Cook (2006) ‘Blood and Religion : The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State’, Pluto Press, London , 2006, Chapter 1 , especially pages 55 & 57

(18) = Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs ‘The Law of Return’,

(19) = John Pilger (2006) , ‘Freedom Next Time’ , Bantam, London, 2006 , page 152

(20) = Guardian 30 Nov 2007 ‘Israel risks apartheid-like struggle if two-state solution fails, says Olmert • Jewish state is finished without deal, warns PM’,

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What they never wrote down

The Bush administration torture memos Obama released don’t mention any of the worst methods of torture used

The methods described in the Bush administration memos released by Obama do include torture, but they don't come close to the worst torture methods used by the US army and the CIA (not to mention some of the British army in Iraq).

Prisoners' heads were beaten against concrete floors to 'restrain' them, even when they were already on the cell floor with several guards holding them down.

For instance Sean Baker of the Kentucky National Guard says was left brain damaged when made to play the role of a prisoner in a training exercise at Guantanamo (1).

At Bagram air base, Abu Ghraib and other prisons and military bases prisoners were tortured by beating and kicking them and asphyxiating them by waterboarding or sitting on them while they were tied inside a sleeping bag (2).

Baha Mousa died after being kicked and beaten by squads of British soldiers over several days and nights - other soldiers not involved in the torture testified, but the officer who oversaw the torture was still promoted (3).

Afghan prisoners similarly died after prolonged torture by beating by American soldiers at Bagram air base and being chained to the roofs of their cells by their arms. They turned out to have no involvement in terrorism (4).

Members of the US military who tried to testify on the fact that military intelligence officers were approving, ordering and over-seeing these torture methods - and that other senior officers were uninterested or threatened the whistle blowers with prosecution when they were told of them - were confined to base and threatened with prosecution.

One was Sergeant Samuel Provance, who served as a military intelligence officer at Abu Ghraib. When he reported to superiors that high ranking military intelligence officers had told him they had ordered and overseen the torture methods used he was threatened with prosecution (5).

Captain Ian Fishback, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and reported seeing prisoners arms and legs broken with baseball bats, with his superiors unconcerned when he told them - until he went public, when they confined him to Fort Bragg (6), (7).

The Bush administration was full of old hands at organising torture and death squads in Latin America in the 1980s - and good at propaganda. They didn't put authorisation for the worst torture methods down in writing. They made memos about the less bad methods, so that when the memos were released, people would wonder what all the fuss had been about. For plausible deniability the paper trail must look morally good or neutral, with the worst orders only ever given by word of mouth or by making it clear a blind eye will be turned to those actions.

(1) = New York Times 05 Jun 2004 ‘Beating Specialist Baker’, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/05/opinion/beating-specialist-baker.html?scp=1&sq=kristof+sean+baker&st=nyt

(2) = CBS News 24 Jun 2004 ‘Intel GIs To Be Charged In Death’, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/06/25/iraq/main626121.shtml

(3) = Panorama – BBC 15 March 2007, 14:55 GMT - A good kicking: Transcript http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/panorama/6455113.stm

(4) = New York Times 20 May 2005 ‘In U.S. Report, Brutal Details of 2 Afghan Inmates' Deaths’, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/20/international/asia/20abuse.html?ex=1274241600&en=4579c146cb14cfd6&ei=5088

(5) = ABC News 21 May 2004 ‘Military Punishes Abu Ghraib Key Witness’, http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/Investigation/story?id=131659&page=1

(6) = Washington Post 28 Sep 2005 ‘A Matter of Honor’, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/27/AR2005092701527_pf.html

(7) = Sunday Times 02 Oct 2005 ‘How America tiptoed into the torture chamber’, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2092-1806906,00.html

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Rules must be binding on us and our allies as well as our enemies

"Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something. The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons. Now is the time for a strong international response," President Barack Obama 5th April 2009

The North Korean government is a brutal one that uses many of its own people as slave labour in prison camps. It’s missile launches over Japan in the past have been highly provocative. The most recent was of a satellite, but may have involved testing ‘dual use’ technologies that could also be used to launch nuclear missiles.

The trouble is that Obama is selective in who he condemns for breaking which rules

Obama has taken a major step back towards promoting moral behaviour in international politics by stating that US forces will not carry out torture and in closing down the camps at Guantanamo Bay and the CIA ‘black sites’ around the world.

However Israel and Pakistan have both already developed nuclear weapons, yet there’s no suggestion of punishing them for violating the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Another set of rules - the Geneva Conventions - also ban targeting civilians, yet Obama made no mention of Israeli forces’ targeting of civilians, including UN aid workers and trucks and the main UN aid depot in Gaza, in their offensive into Gaza.
Obama said he was ‘concerned’ and wouldn’t want [Palestinian] missiles falling in his garden and threatening to kill or injure his children, as if some Palestinian groups missile attacks on Israelis justified Israeli forces’ attacks on equally innocent Palestinian civilians and children and UN aid workers. Not only did he not punish the Israeli government for its actions, he hasn’t even ended military aid or arms sales to Israel.

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton did condemn Israeli house demolitions in East Jerusalem, but said not a word on Israeli forces targeting civilians, as though Israeli forces only harmed houses, not people.

The morality and legality of missile strikes in Pakistan is also questionable since they kill many civilians. Obama rightly condemned over-reliance on air-strikes in Afghanistan, but it's hard to see what the difference in results between air strikes in Afghanistan and missile strikes by unmanned drones in Pakistan is.

For Obama’s administration to make a real change in US foreign policy internationally accepted rules would have to be as binding on the US and its allies as on it’s enemies.

This is sometimes referred to as Immanuel Kant’s principle of universalisability, but it really doesn’t need such a big word to say that rules have to apply to everyone equally.

Correction - : Obama may not be continuing Clinton administration rendition to countries that torture

I wrote in my last blog post that the new head of the CIA told congress that extra-ordinary rendition to countries that practice torture might continue. While both Obama and Panetta have been vague on this in some interviews both seem to be saying this won't happen under the Obama administration. There is some uncertainty still about whether the administration is saying it would accept (worthless) diplomatic assurances from governments such as Egypt and Jordan that they wouldn't torture prisoners rendered to them by the CIA.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Why a nuclear weapon free world might mean more Iraq wars and more Hiroshimas and Nagasakis

President Obama has stated that his aim is a world free of nuclear weapons, beginning with a treaty to reduce the number of nuclear weapons possessed by the US and Russia. Dismantling some of the thousands of nuclear weapons which both countries are paying a fortune to maintain, while they multiply the risk of an accidental launch by thousands of times, is very wise and very possible.

However achieving the aim of a world free of nuclear weapons is likely to be as impossible as the medieval papacy’s attempts to ban crossbows though. Crossbows did eventually fall out of use, but only when they were made obsolete by newer technologies. The analogy with crossbows doesn’t highlight the much greater threats faced by countries attempting to give up nuclear weapons.

In theory every country in the world could make a mutual agreement to destroy all its nuclear warheads, but the technological know-how to create more would still exist and sooner or later someone - governments or terrorist groups (probably both) – would build new ones. Those countries which had given up their nuclear deterrents would then be at best vulnerable to blackmail by those possessing such weapons – and at worst would be in the position of Japan at the end of World War Two, facing massive nuclear attacks on their people merely in order to make an example of someone to show that those possessing nuclear weapons were willing to use them.

There’s also the question of how the ban on nuclear weapons would be enforced. By sanctions of the kind that led to the deaths of millions, including hundreds of thousands of children, in Iraq in the 1990s? ; By wars like the Iraq war?

When Bush and Blair began the fear-mongering for war on Iraq in 2002 opponents of the war were able to point to the British, American, French and Israeli nuclear deterrents and the way they had deterred Saddam from using chemical and biological weapons when he did have them - in the 1991 Gulf war.

If there were no nuclear deterrents though it would be that much easier for unscrupulous politicians to whip up fears of WMD or nuclear attack – and in fact they might even turn out to be pointing to genuine threats in future, which wouldn’t be threats if we had nuclear deterrents. We might well see another Iraq war every couple of years as part of enforcing the Non-Proliferation Treaty. How many soldiers and civilians would die in those? How many civilians would die in the increased terrorist attacks created by them?

Most of Obama’s foreign policy is a break from the Bush administration’s, but it's not clear yet how different it is from the Clinton administration's. Obama seems to have said that rendition may continue - but not to countries which practice torture. Interviews given by Obama and the new head of the CIA leave some room for uncertainty on this though. Obama, while condemning the collateral damage caused by the over-use of air strikes due to insufficient ground forces in Afghanistan, also continues Clinton’s disastrous policy of trying to assassinate Taliban and Al Qa’ida leaders by cruise missile strikes, using intelligence provided by the highly unreliable Pakistani ISI military intelligence.

These conventional missile strikes, like terrorist attacks, kill civilians along with combatants. In fact they’ve killed far more people in the last few decades than nuclear weapons have (excluding Depleted Uranium shells used by NATO and coalition forces which, again, Obama makes no mention of). Since most countries acquired nuclear weapons there have been no new Hiroshima’s or Nagasaki’s, because those were only possible when only one country had nuclear weapons. An attempt to eradicate nuclear weapons entirely could bring that nightmare scenario back along with millions of deaths.

Obama, unlike Bush, will talk to Iran – but, like Clinton, only to hector it about giving up its nuclear weapons programme or facing sanctions at the least, even though Iran was attacked with chemical and biological weapons by Saddam, who had funding and support from almost every other government in the world. Iran has no nuclear deterrent and no reliable ally to provide it with cover by providing a nuclear umbrella to them. While the US under Obama has ended threats to attack Iran for now Israeli governments have continued to threaten Iran with air strikes, while Obama says he will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.

Obama’s rhetoric on nuclear disarmament may also be merely a return to the Clinton-era doctrine of using diplomacy to put pressure on opponents and gain greater international support for sanctions and air and cruise missile strikes. Obama has condemned Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programmes and missile tests respectively, but made no mention of Israel’s large nuclear arsenal, which has broken the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty for Decades, nor Pakistan’s, nor India’s active nuclear programme, nor the leaks suggesting the Saudi monarchy are developing nuclear weapons.

If Obama put as much pressure on his allies to give up nuclear weapons as on his country’s enemies his ‘world free of nuclear weapons’ speeches might carry more weight, but they would still fail to explain what we would do if we had given up our nuclear weapons and someone else then produced some; and how we would enforce the ban without constant wars?

There is the option of developing some kind of nuclear missile shield of the kind proposed by the Bush administration and then providing every country in the world with it, thus making ICBM nuclear weapons obsolete. This is a very attractive idea but it faces three serious and probably insurmountable problems.

First no-one has managed to develop any weapons system capable of reliably shooting down high speed missiles travelling across vast distances. Second, even if they did technologies could be developed to counter them and get missiles past them (and such technologies are being developed now).

Third, nuclear weapons don’t have to be delivered by missiles either (though these are the fastest and so most effective deterrent). They can be dropped by planes as bombs – and more advanced ‘stealth bombers’, not to mention bombers capable of space flight and orbital weapons systems in space, are being developed all the time. The Pentagon and NASA are at the cutting edge on these technologies and the US has the most advanced aircraft and highest military research and development budget in the world.

So while it would definitely make sense to dismantle some of the thousands of missiles the US and Russia currently maintain, a world without nuclear weapons is something we’re unlikely to see unless new weapons make them obsolete – and an attempt to free ourselves of nuclear weapons might cost many lives without saving any.