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President Barack Obama

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“Thank God for the Atom Bomb”

Today’s Hiroshima doesn’t give the TV journalists a lot to work with. It’s a raucous, bustling, mid-sized Japanese city with only few reminders of its destruction by atomic bomb in 1945. There’s the skeletal dome of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall (which was right under the blast), and discreet plaques on various other buildings saying that such-and-such a middle school, with 600 students, used to be on this site, and that’s all.

So it’s no wonder, with President Barack Obama’s scheduled visit to Hiroshima this week (but no apology), that practically every journalist writing about the visit resorts to quoting from Paul Fussell’s famous article in the New Republic in August, 1981: “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb”.

At a time when all right-thinking intellectuals in the United States deplored the 1945 decision to drop two of America’s new atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was shocking for a university professor to point out that they had saved his life. For Paul Fussell was a university professor in 1981, but in 1945 he had been a 20-year-old infantry second lieutenant getting ready to invade Japan.

He had already been through almost a year of combat in France and Germany, and he was one of the few original soldiers left in the 45th Infantry Division. The rest had been killed or wounded, and Fussell had reached the point where he KNEW that he too would be killed if his division was committed to combat again. (Soldiers who see real combat all reach this point eventually.)

But his division was going to be committed to combat again. Having survived the war in Europe, he was going to be sent to Pacific, and the 45th Division would be in the first wave of landings on the main Japanese island of Honshu in March 1946. Like his few surviving comrades from the European war, he absolutely knew that he would die in Japan. And then he heard about the bomb on Hiroshima and the Japanese surrender.

When I interviewed Paul Fussell in the mid-1980s for a documentary, even in recollection the emotions he had felt when he learned that he had been reprieved, that he would live to grow up, were so strong that he was crying and trembling. The atomic bomb did save his life, and perhaps the lives of a million others who would have died if there had been a full-scale invasion of the Japanese homeland. For him, that was enough.

It will have to be enough for us, too. In any case, we do not need to engage in the tricky accountancy of balancing the quarter-million horribly real deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasakai against the hypothetical (but quite realistic) estimates of a million military and civilian deaths if the Allies had really had to invade Japan.

There’s a different way of looking at the Hiroshima bomb. It’s often mentioned by the hibakusha (bomb survivors) who struggle to give meaning to the horrors they experienced. If not for those bombs on living cities, they argue, the world would not have been afraid enough of these new weapons to avoid a nuclear war all down the long years of the Cold War.

I suspect Barack Obama sees the logic of that, and that he is going to Hiroshima not because it is a symbol of the past, but rather to use it as a warning for the future. At the beginning of his presidency, in April 2009, he said in a speech in Prague: “As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a responsibility to act.”

It has not acted decisively yet, and it is unlikely to do so before Obama’s presidency ends next January. All he can claim is a deal that probably prevents Iran from becoming the next nuclear power, and a controversial trillion-dollar programme to modernise US nuclear weapons while reducing the actual numbers. But if the remaining weapons have more accuracy and higher yields, have you actually achieved anything?

Obama’s heart is certainly in the right place. He has held four nuclear security summits during his presidency, mainly aimed at improving the custody measures meant to keep the weapons out of the wrong hands, and getting the nuclear powers to move away from launch-on-warning postures that keep everybody at hair-trigger alert.

In Hiroshima, he will probably ask the US Senate once more to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (ten years and counting). He will talk up a proposed new treaty banning the production of fissile material. He may even call for a world without nuclear weapons, although that is a concept that does not have much support in Washington.

But it’s hard to get the world’s attention when the threat of nuclear war seems low, and almost impossible to get real concessions out of the great powers when it seems high. In the end, Obama is just using Hiroshima to remind everybody that we have a lot of unfinished business to conclude in the nuclear domain.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 12. (“It will…Japan”; and “In Hiroshima…Washington”)

Seymour Hersh Strikes Again

14 April 2014

Seymour Hersh Strikes Again

Why would anyone believe Seymour Hersh? True, he’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who broke the story of the massacre committed by US Army troops at My Lai in 1968 during the Vietnam War, and revealed the torture and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by US military police at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004. But he’s getting old (77), and he’s a freelancer, and he won’t even disclose the name of his key informant.

Whereas the US government has hundreds of thousands of people working for it just gathering and analysing intelligence, and the American media are famed worldwide for their brave defence of the truth no matter what the cost. Besides, has the US government ever lied to you in the past?

So we obviously should not give much credence to Hersh’s most recent story. It alleges that the poison gas attack in Damascus last August that killed more than a thousand people, and almost triggered a massive US air attack on Syria, was not really carried out by Bashar al-Assad’s tyrannical regime (which the US wants to overthrow)

It was, Hersh says, a false-flag operation carried out by the rebel Al-Nusra Front with the purpose of triggering an American attack on Assad. If you can believe that, you would probably also believe his allegation that it was the Turkish government, a US ally and NATO member, that gave the jihadi extremists of al-Nusra the chemicals to make sarin (nerve gas) and the training to carry out the mass attack in Damascus.

Hersh even says that it was General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told President Barack Obama just days before the American strikes on Syria were due to start that the evidence was not strong enough to justify an American attack on the Syrian regime.

The rest of the story we already know. Obama postponed the attack by deciding, quite suddenly, that he had to get Congressional support for it. Then he cancelled it entirely once the Russians gave him the face-saving alternative of getting Assad to hand over all of his chemical weapons for destruction. There is no chance of an American attack on Syria now. But could Hersh’s back-story be true?

Not one American paper or magazine was willing to print Hersh’s story, so it was finally published in the most recent issue of the London Review of Books. The US media are still studiously ignoring the story, and the Turkish government and various branches of the US government have naturally all issued indignant denials. But the official story never made any sense at all.
By last August it was clear that Assad’s regime would eventually win the civil war unless there was some radical change in the situation (like an American bombing campaign against it). So Assad’s survival depended on not giving the United States any reason to attack him.

Barack Obama had already said that any use of poison gas by the Syrian regime would cross a “red line” and trigger an American attack. In mid-August there were United Nations inspectors in Damascus to look into two much smaller attacks earlier in 2013 that seemed to involve poison gas. And we are asked to believe that at that precise moment Assad thought it would be a neat idea to kill one or two thousand innocent civilians in the city with poison gas.

So who did it? The obvious question to ask was: Who stands to benefit from this attack? – and the answer was certainly not Assad. He would not have done this unless he was very stupid, and being wicked does not make you stupid. Whereas the rebels had every reason to do it, in order to suck American firepower in on their side.

But I must admit that it felt very lonely making this argument at the time. I had no evidence that al-Nusra, or any other rebel group, had carried out the attack. I just said that motives matter, and that Assad had no plausible motive for doing it. And of course I couldn’t say where the rebels would have got their chemical weapons from, if they did it. Hersh says: the Turks.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister for the past eleven years, has backed the Islamist rebels in the Syrian civil war from the start, and he will be in deep trouble if they lose. They WILL lose, unless either Turkey or the United States comes to their aid militarily.  Erdogan would obviously rather have the US Air force do it rather than his own armed forces. So he had a good motive for giving the rebels the poison gas.

Hersh says that he has been told by a former senior official in the US Defense Intelligence Agency that that is what happened.  You can read the details on the website of the London Review of Books. And yes, he’s old, but that just means he has been getting it right about a lot of different things for a long time.

He’s just a freelancer, but that’s why people with a whistle to blow trust him to get the story out. And no, he hasn’t got confirmation from three separate named sources. That’s not how whistle-blowing works. But he is Seymour Hersh, and I strongly suspect that he is right.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 11 and 14. (“Not…all”; “But…Turks”; and “He’s right”)

Climate Talks: Coasting Towards Disaster

9 December 2012

Climate Talks: Coasting Towards Disaster

By Gwynne Dyer

They made some progress at the annual December round of the international negotiations on controlling climate change, held this year in Qatar. They agreed that the countries that cause the warming should compensate the ones that suffer the most from it. The principle, known as the Loss and Damage mechanism, has no numbers attached to it, but it’s a step forward. The only step forward, unfortunately.

In the first phase of these talks, which concluded with the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, the emphasis was on “mitigation”; that is, on stopping the warming by cutting human emissions of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases”. That made good sense, but they didn’t get anywhere. Fifteen years later, emissions are still rising, not falling.

So gradually the emphasis shifted to “adaptation”. If we can’t agree on measures to stop the average global temperature from going up, can we learn to live with it? What’s the plan for developing new crops to withstand the droughts and high temperatures that are coming? What’s the plan for coping with massive floods that drown river valleys and inundate coastlines?

Well, there are no such plans in most places, so the emphasis has shifted again, to compensation. Terrible things will happen to poor countries, so who pays for them? In principle, says the new Loss and Damage mechanism, the rich countries that are responsible for the warming pay. But the “mechanism” has no method for assessing the damage or allocating the blame, so it will become a lawyers’ playground of little use to anybody else.

Besides, the rich countries are going to be fully committed financially in just covering the cost of their own damages. Consider, for example, the $60 billion that President Barack Obama has just requested from the US Congress to deal with the devastation left by Superstorm Sandy. In practice, there will be very little left to compensate the poor countries for their disasters, even if the rich ones have good intentions.

So if mitigation is a lost cause, and if adaptation will never keep up with the speed at which the climate is going bad, and if compensation is a nice idea whose time will never come, what is the next stage in these climate talks? Prayer? Emigration to another planet? Mass suicide?

There will be a fourth stage to the negotiations, but first we will have to wait until rising temperatures, falling food production and catastrophic storms shake governments out of their present lethargy. That probably won’t happen until quite late in the decade – and by then, at the current rate of emissions, we will be well past the point at which we could hold the rise in average global temperature down to two degrees C (3.6 degrees F).

We will, in fact, be on course for 3, 4 or even 5 degrees C of warming, because beyond plus 2 degrees, the warming that we have already created will trigger “feedbacks”: natural sources of carbon dioxide emissions like melting permafrost WHICH WE CANNOT SHUT OFF.

So then, when it’s too late, everybody will really want a deal, but just cutting greenhouse gas emissions won’t be enough any more. We will need some way to hold the temperature down while we deal with our emissions problem, or else the temperature goes so high that mass starvation sets in. The rule of thumb is that we lose ten percent of global food production for every rise in average global temperature of one degree C.

There probably is a way to stop the warming from passing plus 2 degrees C and triggering the feedbacks, during the decades it will take to get our emissions back down. It’s called “geo-engineering”: direct human intervention in the climate system. Our greenhouse gas emissions are an inadvertent example of geo-engineering that is pushing the climate in the wrong direction. Another, deliberate kind of geo-engineering may be needed to stop it.

Geo-engineering to hold the heat down is quite possible, though the undesirable side-effects could be very large. The biggest problem is that it’s relatively cheap: dozens of governments could afford to do it – and just one government, acting alone, could do it to the whole atmosphere.

So the fourth phase of the climate talks, probably starting late this decade, will be about when it is time to start geo-engineering, and what techniques should be used, and who controls the process. They won’t agree on that either, so things will drag on further until some government, desperate to save its people from starvation, decides to do it alone, without global agreement. That could cause a major war, of course.

So we had better hope that neutral observers like the fossil fuel industries are right in insisting that global warming is a fraud. Maybe all those scientists really are making it up just to get more money in research grants. That would be a happy ending, so fingers crossed.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“Besides…intentions”)


Global Zero

29 March 2012

Global Zero

By Gwynne Dyer

We have just had the second Nuclear Security Summit, in Seoul. It got surprisingly little attention from the international media although 53 countries attended. For the media, nuclear weapons yesterday’s issue, because nobody expects a nuclear war. But a nuclear weapon in terrorist hands is the defining nightmare of the post-9/11 decade, and that’s what the summit was actually about.

“It would not take much, just a handful or so of these (nuclear) materials, to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and that’s not an exaggeration,” said President Barack Obama on his way home from Seoul. “There are still too many bad actors in search of these dangerous materials, and these dangerous materials are still vulnerable in too many places.”

Keeping bomb-grade nuclear material out of the wrong hands requires a high level of international cooperation. Some progress was made on this issue in Seoul, in terms of coordinating police and intelligence operations, but the real problem is that there are far too many nuclear weapons in the world.

Nobody has ever come up with a plausible scenario in which a terrorist group creates a nuclear bomb from scratch. Mining uranium, refining it to weapons-grade material, and constructing a bomb that will actually produce even a 20-kiloton explosion (like the Hiroshima bomb) are tasks that require the scientific, technical and financial resources of a state.

What terrorists need is a ready-made bomb, or at least enough highly enriched uranium or plutonium that the only job left is to assemble the bomb. The only plausible source of a terrorist bomb, therefore, is the nuclear weapons programmes of the various states that own them. And the bigger those programmes are, the greater the chance that either a nuclear weapon or a large amount of fissile material will fall into the wrong hands.

Now, it may be true (or it may not) that the US nuclear weapons establishment is so efficient and experienced that there is little risk of anybody stealing American bombs or fissile material. But American security also depends on everybody else’s nuclear establishments being well protected – and this explains why Obama is a strong supporter of the “Global Zero” project.

No other US president except Ronald Reagan has called for a world with zero nuclear weapons. In 1984 Reagan said: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in (the US and the Soviet Union) possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?” Obama seems to share the same goal, but his support for “Global Zero” is more nuanced.

From a high of 65,000 active nuclear weapons in 1985, the world’s stock has declined to about 8,000 active warheads now, 95 percent of them under Russian or American control. There are an additional 14,000 nuclear weapons in storage, all of them Russian or American – and those may be an even greater danger for nuclear terrorism, since they are not under hourly supervision.

The world will probably never fulfill Ronald Reagan’s dream and abolish nuclear weapons, but it would be a much safer place if there were fewer of them around. Not because that would make a nuclear war less horrible if it happened: a hundred nuclear warheads, dropped on major cities, is quite enough to destroy any country. But because the more weapons there are, the greater the risk that some will fall into the hands of terrorists.

So getting the number of active nuclear weapons in American and Russian hands down to 1,000 each, and dismantling all of the “reserve” and stockpiled weapons, is probably Obama’s real goal. The “Global Zero” rhetoric is mainly useful for bringing the old peace movement along for the ride. (And why would they complain? The essence of any political strategy is finding partners to ride with you at least part of the way to your destination.)

However, to get Russia to sign up to a mere 1,000 nuclear weapons, Obama will have to give up on ballistic missile defence. The Russians are hugely inferior to the Americans militarily by every other measure, so they cherish their nuclear parity. Effective US missile defences, if they could ever be made to work, would fatally undermine that parity.

Of course they never have been made to work reliably, even though the United States has deployed them in a couple of places. But the Russians have a childlike faith in (or rather, fear of) American technological prowess, so ballistic missile defence systems have to go.

Abandoning them would involve Obama in an immense battle with the Republican right, and he’s not going to start that battle in an election year. But that is what President Obama and Dmitri Medvedev, the outgoing Russian president, were really talking about in Seoul when they were caught on an open mike.

Obama told Medvedev: “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved but it’s important for [incoming Russian president Vladimir Putin] to give me space. … This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.” And so he may.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. “Nobody…state”; and “The world…terrorists”)