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Assange Extradition

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, is an unattractive character, and he also has very poor judgement. He should have gone to Sweden seven years ago and faced the rape charges brought against him by two Swedish women. Even if he had been found guilty, he would probably be free by now under Swedish sentencing rules, since no violence was alleged in either case.

His explanation for taking refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy instead was that he feared that once in Sweden, he would be extradited to the United States – and the US government wanted to try him on charges that could involve a life sentence or even the death penalty.

What had so angered official Washington was WikiLeaks’ spectacular 2010 dump of 725,000 classified cables from American embassies around the world. The most damaging revelation was an official video in which the crew of a US Apache helicopter over Baghdad machine-gunned innocent civilians while making remarks like “Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards” and “It’s their fault for bringing their kids into battle.”

(Donald Trump, then completing his transition from Democrat to Republican, condemned Assange, as his new guise required. “I think it’s disgraceful,” he said. “I think it should be like death penalty or something.”)

In fact, Assange faced no immediate threat of extradition in 2012, because President Obama had not encouraged the relevant American officials to make such a request. Indeed, in 2017, just before leaving office, Obama pardoned Assange’s source for the leaked cables, former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, after she had served only four years of her 35-year prison sentence.

Maybe, when Assange sought diplomatic asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012, he feared that there would be a different administration in Washington after the US election that November. He should still have gone to Sweden, because the Swedes would have been less likely to grant an extradition request than the British government under Conservative prime minister David Cameron. Poor judgement.

Fast forward four years, and there is another WikiLeaks dump, this time of Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails that seriously embarrass Hilary Clinton on the eve of the Democratic presidential convention.

“WikiLeaks – I love WikiLeaks,” says Donald Trump at a rally in Pennsylvania. “This WikiLeaks is a treasure trove,” he says at another. In fact, he cites WikiLeaks 141 times at 56 different events during the campaign, according to a count by NBC News. This is known in the philosophy trade as ‘situational ethics’.

But by 2017 Trump is in the White House and the Mueller probe is investigating his campaign’s possible links with the Russians who hacked the DNC and passed the information to WikiLeaks. He did not “support” or “unsupport” the release of the hacked emails, he says. “I am not involved in that decision (to seek Assange’s extradition),” he says, “but if they want to do it, it’s OK with me.”

It isn’t really OK with him at all, because who knows what Assange might reveal if he were brought to trial? But what else could Trump say? The US intelligence community is known for its vindictiveness towards those who reveal its secrets, and a sealed request for Assange’s extradition was delivered to the British government a year ago.

It has now been seven years, and the Ecuadorian government has changed. The new president, Lenin Moreno, wants to mend relations with the United States (and he is quite cross about a picture WikiLeaks released of him eating lobster in bed in a luxury hotel). So he withdraws diplomatic protection from Assange, and invites the British police into the embassy to arrest him.

The sole charge currently laid against Assange is carefully written to avoid a British refusal to extradite him – no death penalty is involved – and to get around the guarantee of freedom of the press in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which says “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom… of the press.”

Instead, Assange is charged with conspiracy to commit a computer crime: helping Chelsea Manning crack a password to gain access to the classified documents she gave to WikiLeaks. The evidence for this is scanty, but Manning has been jailed as a ‘recalcitrant witness’ for refusing to answer questions about her conversations with Assange. She can be held for 18 months.

The maximum penalty for the charge Assange currently faces is five years in prison, but of course ‘new evidence’ can be discovered once he is in the United States, and other charges brought that would involve a far longer sentence.

In fact, we can safely predict that it will be discovered. And Donald Trump now says “I know nothing about WikiLeaks. It’s not my thing.”

Assange is not an honourable whistle-blower like Daniel Ellsberg of ‘Pentagon Papers’ fame, who released hugely embarrassing documents about the US war in Vietnam but stayed in the US and faced his accusers down. Neither is he like Edward Snowden, another honourable man (still in exile in Moscow), who alerted the world to the scale of the US global electronic surveillance operation.

Assange is an unpleasant narcissist, but the world needs more whistle-blowers, not fewer. He still deserves protection under the US First Amendment, but it’s doubtful that he will get it.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 9 and 10. (“Donald…something”; and “But by…ago”)

The Maniac in Pyongyang

“This guy, he’s like a maniac, OK? He wiped out the uncle. He wiped out this one, that one. I mean, this guy doesn’t play games. And we can’t play games with him. Because he really does have missiles. And he really does have nukes.”

So spoke President Donald Trump in Iowa in January. North Korea flight-tested a ballistic missile on Saturday night that landed off Japan’s west coast, so what will he do now? What can he do? And is North Korea’s 33-year-old dictator, Kim Jong-un, really a maniac?

South Korea’s foreign ministry certainly thinks so: “North Korea’s repeated provocations show the Kim Jong-un regime’s nature of irrationality, maniacally obsessed in its nuclear and missile development.” The same word was used a great deal after North Korea tested nuclear weapons in January and September of last year.

But why would it be maniacal, or even irrational, for the North Korean leader to want nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the United States? After all, the United States not only has nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach North Korea; it has enough of them to eradicate the country twenty times over.

If it is not maniacal for the United States to have them, why is it maniacal for the North Koreans? Because American leaders are responsible, they explain, whereas Kim Jong-un is a maniac. Begging your pardon, but isn’t that argument rather circular?

The United States is the only country that ever developed nuclear weapons with the deliberate intention of using them. It was at the end of the Second World War, when tens of millions had already been killed, and moral restraints had largely been cast aside.

But the United States never used its nukes again, even when it still had a monopoly on them – and all the other known nuclear powers got them in the name of deterrence: stopping somebody else from using nuclear weapons on them.

The Soviet Union developed them to deter the United States from launching a nuclear strike. Britain and France got them to deter the Soviet Union. China got them to deter all of the above. And Pakistan and India each developed them because they suspected the other country was working on them.

Only Israel developed nuclear weapons for use against enemies who did not already have them (and it still refuses to confirm their existence, although it is common knowledge in the strategic community). But Israel got them out of fear that its people would be “driven into the sea” if it lost a conventional war, back in the 1960s when it was conceivable that it could lose such a war. The intention was still defensive.

So why can’t the rest of the world believe that North Korea is doing this in order to deter an American nuclear attack? North Koreans have lived sixty-five years with the knowledge that the United States could do that whenever it wanted, and it is not maniacal to take out a little insurance against it.

The North Korean regime is brutally repressive and given to foaming at the mouth over minor slights. But since it has actually kept the peace for 64 years (while the United States has fought three large wars and many small ones), it is hard to maintain that it is maniacally aggressive.

So why say it? Because if you don’t characterise North Korea as insanely dangerous, then you cannot justify forbidding it to have ballistic missiles (which several dozen other countries have) and nuclear warheads (which nine countries have, and another four had briefly before giving them up).

Since none of the great powers want North Korea to have them, and they control the United Nations Security Council, they have managed to get special UN bans on both ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons for North Korea. Maintaining that the Pyongyang regime are maniacs is part of the programme, but it does frighten those who are not in on the joke.

It would be better if the ban worked, since the world has more than enough nuclear powers already. However, the ban is essentially unenforceable, and the heavens will not fall if North Korea does get a few nuclear-tipped ICBMs one of these days.

It will never have very many, and they will not be used for some lunatic “first strike” on countries that are tens of times more powerful. They will be for deterrence, only to be launched as an act of revenge from the grave. Just like everybody else’s.

What can President Trump do about this? He could try bribing North Korea into suspending its work on missiles and bombs. That worked once before, but not for very long. There is really nothing useful to be done.

And what will he say about it? Nobody knows, probably including him.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9. (“Only…defensive”)

Everybody Take a Valium

When Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, he took more than half a million troops with him, and he still lost. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, he used four million troops, but he lost too. And now the United States has deployed just one thousand American into Poland.

So did the Russians giggle and snort at this pathetic display of American “resolve”? Of course not. They pretended to be horrified by it.

“We perceive it as a threat,” said Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman. “These actions threaten our interests, our security, especially as it concerns a third party building up its military presence near our borders. (The United States) is not even a European state.”

The Russians have not suddenly caught a severe case of timidity. They know perfectly well this handful of American troops poses no danger to them. But building up the American “threat” helps to mobilise popular support for Putin – and he will be even more popular when Donald Trump enters the White House and makes a “deal” with Putin that ends this alleged threat.

Pantomime threats like this are a standard part of international politics, and should not be seen as a cause for panic. It is also quite normal for great powers to bury an inconvenient dispute and move on, as Trump will probably do with Putin after he takes office. As long as Trump does not formally recognise Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, international law will survive. Indeed, it would survive, perhaps limping a little, even if he did.

As Trump’s inauguration looms, there is great panic among American commentators and strategic analysts (and quite a lot of people elsewhere) about the grave danger that the ignorant and impulsive Trump will pose to world peace, but this ignores two important facts.

One is that the other world leaders he is dealing with will still be grown-ups. The other is that the real US government – the tens of thousands of senior civil servants and military officers who actually make the machine work – are people with a lot of real-life experience, and they instinctively resist extreme policies and grand visions.

Even Trump’s most radical ideas, like threatening to end America’s 45-year-old “One China” policy – and implicitly, therefore, to recognise the independence of Taiwan – will only destabilise the international order if OTHER national leaders are panicked by his demands. In most cases, they will not be. (Indeed, many of them are already taking up meditation or practicing deep breathing in preparation for having to deal with him.)

None of this guarantees that Trump will not blunder into a big international crisis or a major war during his term, but the chances of his doing so are relatively low – maybe as low as one-in-ten. You wouldn’t freely choose to live with this level of risk, but people did live with it for decades during the Cold War, and they survived it.

As for the ‘Manchurian Candidate’ nonsense: while Trump may have had significant Russian help of one sort or another during his election campaign, he is almost certainly not an ‘agent of influence’ for Moscow. The intelligence report by a British ex-spy that is causing such a fuss is actually TOO detailed: senior Russian officials do not give that much away to each other, let alone to Western spies or the Russians who work for them.

Even if the lurid accounts of Trump’s alleged sexual games with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel were backed by Russian-held film of the event, Moscow could never blackmail Trump with a threat to make it public. He would know that it was a bluff, because Putin’s rational strategy must be to put and keep Trump in power, not to discredit him.

The real cost of the leaked allegations for Trump is domestic, it is high, and he has already paid it. He can indignantly deny the story until his thumbs are sore, and he may actually be telling the truth, but mud sticks. People think of him as the sort of man of whom it MIGHT be true, and so the ‘lentil and chickpea’ jokes will not stop. He has suffered grave and lasting reputational damage even among his own supporters.

Many people will be very frightened about the future when Trump swears the oath of office on Friday. They are certainly right to be concerned, and the economic damage may be very bad, but the risk of war, even with China, is probably lower than they fear.

Back in 1976, when the Quebec separatists won an election for the first time, English-Canadians were terrified, and the anglophone minority in Quebec itself saw it as the apocalypse. It was only six years, after all, since there had been dramatic terrorist attacks in Quebec by a different brand of separatists. But cartoonist Aislin (Terry Mosher) in the Montreal Gazette had the right idea.

It just showed a close-up of the separatist leader, René Lévesque, smoking his usual cigarette and telling the entire country: “OK, everybody take a Valium.” It was better advice than even he knew: Quebec never left and the heavens never fell.

We need Aislin again.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“Even…supporters”)

Letter From Iraq

12 February 2004

Letter From Iraq

By Gwynne Dyer

“Dear Mom:

Iraq is really fun, and us guys from al-Qaeda are doing great work. I personally have organised twenty-five suicide attacks already, and Osama bin Laden himself wrote to thank me. It’s a great pity that our ally Saddam Hussein didn’t get his weapons of mass destruction finished in time for us terrorists to start using them against the infidels, but that’s how the cookie crumbles. The dumb Iraqis are all grateful to the Americans and won’t help us, but with the help of other foreign terrorists I am now trying to get a civil war going between the Sunnis and the Shias in order to defeat the Americans and their stupid democracy. Gosh, how I hate their freedoms.

Your loving son, Ahmed

P.S. Thanks for the clean socks.”

I am not at liberty to reveal how the letter came into my possession — let’s just say that it came from a highly reputable US intelligence agency whose title includes the letters ‘C’, ‘I’, and ‘A’. According to what they told me, it was written by the same al-Qaeda terrorist from Jordan, Musab al-Zarqawi (real name Ahmed Fadil al-Khalaylah) whose 17-page letter from Iraq to al-Qaeda’s leaders was recently leaked to the ‘New York Times’. Like that letter, it proves that US President George W. Bush was absolutely right to invade Iraq: the Iraqis love Americans, and the problems there now are all caused by foreign terrorists.

I must confess that I did wonder for a moment if the intelligence service in question might just be trying to help the government that employs it, but that way lies doubt, disillusion, and the deadly sin of cynicism. These spies have professional standards, and they would never cook the intelligence they provide just to suit the needs of some passing administration.

Same goes for the soldiers: when Brigadier-General Mark Kimmitt, US deputy chief of operations in Iraq, said last Wednesday that the suicide bombing outside a police station in Iskandariya the previous day that killed 50 people had “al-Qaeda’s fingerprints all over it,” you just had to believe him. I mean, why would any Iraqi who doesn’t belong to al-Qaeda target a police station full of people who are collaborating with foreign occupation forces? And who else but al-Qaeda carries out suicide attacks anyway (apart from Palestinians, Tamils, Chechens, and a few others)? “When you see…these kinds of attack,” as Kimmitt put it, “one has the tendency to look at foreign fighters.”

OK, enough sarcasm. What kind of idiots do these people take us for? Having failed to find the weapons of mass destruction they allegedly invaded Iraq for, having failed to be greeted with open arms by grateful Iraqis, and having arrested only a handful of foreigners among the thousands of suspects they have rounded up since the resistance movement started blowing up American soldiers and local collaborators, do they really think that they can persuade us that this ‘foreign terrorist’ — they have just raised the price on his head from $5 million to $10 million — is the source of all their troubles in Iraq?

‘Al-Zarqawi’ is not really very foreign to Iraq — he is a Jordanian citizen, but he belongs to the Bani Hassan tribe which straddles the Iraq-Jordan border — and he is not very important either. He is a rather obscure member of al-Qaeda who was in Afghanistan during the period when the 9./11 attacks on the United States were planned and carried out, and there is no evidence that he or any other al-Qaeda member was in contact with the ruling Baathist Party in Iraq before Saddam Hussein’s regime was destroyed in the US invasion.

If he is in contact with underground members of the Baath party now — for which there is also no evidence — that would hardly be surprising: the enemy of my enemy is (for the moment) my friend. But the notion that he and al-Qaeda are behind the Iraqi resistance is purely an ideological fantasy. There are plenty of Baathists in Iraq who hate having been driven from power, plenty of Islamists unconnected with Osama bin Laden’s crowd (including even some Kurds) who hate the presence of arrogant infidels in their country, and plenty of plain Iraqi nationalists who regard the occupation as an intolerable national humiliation.

So far these resisters are mostly Sunni, since the Shia leadership has managed to keep its own people quiet in the hope that free elections will finally bring the majority population to power without a fight, but the US plan to install a ‘sovereign’ government in July without elections risks bringing the Shias into the fight, too.

Since unemployment has soared from 50 percent to 80 percent since the US invasion, it is no surprise that desperate Iraqis are willing to join the new police and army that the US occupation authorities are building to serve as sandbags between American soldiers (who have largely been pulled off the streets to minimise casualties) and the resistance. But it is equally unsurprising that the resistance regards these Iraqi police and soldiers in US pay as collaborators and high-priority targets. Sometimes their attacks employ suicide bombers, but almost all of them have been native-born Iraqis.

Still, you can see why ‘foreign terrorists’ is the preferred explanation in an election year. It makes the whole invasion of Iraq look less like barking up the wrong tree.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“Same…fighters”; and “So far…too”).