Post #37 – War’s Other Casualties: The Situation in Gaza and the Global Refugee Crisis

I ended a recent post by asking when someone would step forward to bring about a cease-fire. Well, John Kerry eventually answered the call. But by the time he left Tel Aviv and a 12-hour ceasefire began on July 26, the body count had reached 856 Palestinians and 40 Israelis dead, as well as several thousand wounded. As I write, the Palestinian toll has reached 1,000. Neither side seemed interested in negotiating a more enduring halt to the fighting or a renewed approach to a peace agreement. Instead, accusations of terrorism and self-righteous proclamations were commonplace. I’m thinking, in the latter case, of Ron Dermer, Israeli ambassador to the US and former US citizen, who said in an interview with the New York Times July 26, “the Israeli Defense Forces should be given a Nobel Peace Prize.” Indictment of Israeli and Hamas leaders for war crimes seems more appropriate.

Left out of the casualty figures, but no less important, are all the people who have been forced from their homes and have become refugees in their own country. This reality, that war’s heaviest impact is on civilian populations, is often obscured by its frequency. People flee as the bombs fall; another refugee camp is set up to house thousands of them; and thousands more line the roads leading to another country. How often have we read such reports?

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) says there are around 5 million Palestinians in the Middle East who count as refugees (, making them the world’s largest refugee population. About a third of them are registered with the agency in 58 (!) camps, located in Gaza, the West Bank, and surrounding countries. The other two-thirds are not in camps. Except for those living in Jordan, Palestinians are stateless; they do not have citizen rights, whether in Israeli-occupied territory or in Syria and Lebanon (

With the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the figure for Palestinian refugees is rising again. It draws our attention to the desperate worldwide refugee situation. The main United Nations refugee organization—UNHCR, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees—provides statistics and, along with numerous nongovernmental organizations, various forms of relief. Its most recent (2013) report ( gives a total worldwide refugee population of around 11.7 million, of whom UNHCR assists about 8.5 million. That figures does not include a staggering 24 million IDPs (internally displaced persons) who, like the refugees, overwhelmingly live in the Middle East and Africa. When all types of forcibly displaced persons are counted, the global figure is over 45 million, the highest total in twenty years.

You can imagine what the costs of helping all these people must be, and how increasingly difficult it must also be to raise adequate funds when the problem keeps growing and when so many other global issues compete for money. At the end of 2013 UNHCR’s budget called for around $5.3 billion; but it only raised about 60 percent of that amount from governments and private sources. (The US, at 36 percent; Japan, at 9 percent; and the European Union at 7 percent are the top three governmental donors. Private donations account for 7 percent of all funding.)

Keeping up with the world refugee crisis is virtually impossible. Just look at what has happened in the Middle East this year. Millions of Syrians and Iraqis have fled to neighboring countries or calmer parts of their own country (such as Kurdish territory in Iraq). Many Iraqi families have become refugees for the second or third time in recent years. Afghani refugees, numbering 2.6 million, are stranded in Pakistan and Iran. Meanwhile, in Africa, very large numbers of people from Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Eritrea have also been forced to flee. The strain on the budgets of host countries is enormous, and the stresses that providers must face as they try to meet basic needs are huge. Moreover, refugee camps are fertile ground for gangs, recruitment by terrorist groups and political factions, and fights over scarce resources.

And let’s remember that “refugees” does not include migrant workers and their family members. Consider, in the US alone, the roughly 3 million undocumented migrants from Mexico and beyond as well of late as the many thousands of children who have crossed the border alone from Central America. They aren’t exactly receiving a warm welcome from Texans and Arizonans–though I’m pleased to note that the governor of Oregon has declared those children are welcome here. Or take the North Koreans who manage to cross the border with China to escape horrendous repression. They must somehow blend in with the Korean Chinese population; but if they are caught and returned to China, they are treated as migrants and thus denied the rights granted to refugees under international law. We need to remind ourselves that ever since the enormous refugee problem at the end of World War II, refugees who have “a well-founded fear of persecution” have the right to resettlement in another country, and cannot be sent back by the receiving country. Tell that to Beijing.

Interested in helping? Mercy Corps, Catholic Relief Services, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, CARE, and the International Committee of the Red Cross are among the many relief organizations that are doing wonderful work. A full list of organizations can be found at

Post #36 – What Works? Person- and Planet-centered Development

The usual script for international development is the provision of aid—mostly in loans, occasionally in outright grants—by a “developed” country or international institution to an “underdeveloped” one. The money goes from the top to the top. With luck some of it will flow from the receiving government to the local people who need it. As often as not, however, a fair portion of the aid money will find its way into the pockets of developing country officials, their cronies in business, and their favorite banks in Geneva or Miami.

But there is another script: development from the ground up. I’m referring to grassroots assistance that encourages self-reliance and capacity building, and is directed to immediate human needs, such as clean water, unadulterated food, literacy, childhood diseases, gender balance, and increased income opportunity. Thanks to the insights of the Indian economist Amartya Sen, the United Nations Development Program adopted a concept of human development that it now applies annually to rank all countries that contribute information. You can see this ranking and its components at Nongovernmental organizations that focus on aid for human development, such as Oxfam (, the Renewable Energy Enterprises Foundation (, and the Institute for Food and Development Policy ( deserve our support, because they make a difference in people’s lives and understand that the purpose of aid is to promote sustainable, locally-determined growth, not to provide charity or aim at growth for growth’s sake.

Besides NGOs, many individuals—probably in the tens of thousands—are quietly but effectively doing their part to promote the capacity of poor people to improve the quality of their lives. I mentioned some of these folks in a previous post on health care; and in a future post I’ll discuss microfinance. Here I can only add a few more names of people who are promoting other kinds of human development through environmental protection, education, and food assistance. My purpose is to show that there is good news everywhere thanks to the usually unsung efforts of ordinary people doing extraordinary things—people who are reaching out across their community, country, or the world.

Paul Meiliara is chairman of Soralo, the South Rift Association of Land Owners (, which is home to the Maasai tribe that straddles the Kenya-Tanzania border. Soralo represents seventeen communities spread out over about 2.5 million acres. Under Paul’s leadership since 2004, the Maasai have responded to serious environmental problems—lower rainfall, prolonged drought, overgrazing by livestock, cutting down of trees for charcoal—by coming together around shared values and respect for the land and its animals. Their goal is to make good use of the community’s natural resources while preserving local values embedded in ceremonies, generational stages, and respect for the interdependence of wildlife and livestock. With cooperation from various NGOs, and in response to the Kenyan government’s insistence that the Maasai subdivide land, Soralo has developed land conservancy and ecotourism programs, a resource center, and a women-run dairy cooperative. (Thanks to Shiloh Sundstrom, who is doing doctoral research among the Maasai, for introducing Paul to my community.)

The Bluefields Bay Fishermen’s Friendly Society ( in Jamaica seeks to provide people with new employment opportunities while maintaining sustainable environmental practices. In this breathtakingly beautiful seaside area, best known for its luxury tourist villas, the BBFFS runs educational programs, food and housing for the poor, and a market place. Simultaneously, the organization is trying to preserve its fisheries and sea life through establishment of a marine sanctuary, which received help from Sandals Foundation, the philanthropic offshoot of Sandals Resorts. BBFFS is responding to rising tourism by emphasizing ecotourism, with the marine sanctuary as the centerpiece. (Thanks to Candice Goucher for alerting me to BBFFS.)

Right here in my own tiny community of Deadwood, Oregon, three people are involved in international programs that are making a difference. Michelle Holman and Churpa Rosa-Rogers are among the directors of another Jamaica project, the Jamaica Breakfast Program (, which finances breakfasts for 47 school kids in a very poor neighborhood. The program’s mission is simple but meaningful: “to promote health and nutrition to needy school children in Jamaica and to advance the education and social welfare of the poorest students by providing access to adequate food.” Michelle gave me this personal perspective: “By fundraising in the US, I have been fortunate to play a role in the lives of some very economically disadvantaged children in a very desperate Jamaican ghetto town. The reality is that help from the ‘first world’ is a tourniquet on Jamaica’s hemorrhaging economic system. While this type of help alone is not the ultimate answer, it does stem the flow of suffering for these very needy children for whom the food that is provided by our Jamaica Breakfast Program is often the only food they will receive that day. True economic health lies in a country’s ability to feed itself. Our own government has been guilty of taking resources from Jamaica and not giving back in ways that could help remedy the situation . . . In the present moment, children must eat, so we feed them.”

Johnny Sundstrom links our area with the Russian Far East via the Siuslaw Basin Partnership. The partnership evolved following decades of clearcutting in the Siuslaw National Forest. It has effectively engaged in forest and watershed restoration, including recovery of the salmon population, via collaborative planning among landowners, businesses, and government. In 2004 the Siuslaw Basin Partnership ( won an award, the Thiess International Riverprize, for effective river management, and was encouraged to reach across the Pacific to share expertise in restoring waterways. This brought Johnny into contact with Russia’s Sakhalin Island communities, which have similar geography and salmon issues. The result has been a longstanding friendship and sharing of knowledge about watershed protection.

Jere and Emilee Gettle created Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, Missouri to preserve a heritage that is under assault from Monsanto and other giant agribusiness and biotech firms ( The Gettles have gained a lot of media attention for their accomplishments, which include promoting non-GMO, non-patented seed sales at three locations in the US, publishing seed catalogues and a magazine (Heirloom Gardener), holding an annual festival on gardening and food politics in Sonoma County, California, and supplying free seeds in the poorest countries. Their philosophy, defined in their latest Good Seeds catalogue, is to start “a revolution in the garden, on the farm, and most of all, at the dinner table: a revolution that reconnects us and our kids to the earth, to the seeds and to the value of good food.”

Know of other good-news stories? Send them along, and support the people behind them.

Post #35 – Mr. Xi Goes to Seoul

China and Korea watchers jumped to attention when it was announced that Xi Jinping would visit South Korea from July 3-4, rather than visit North Korea first.  Although the trip could have been seen as reciprocating ROK President Park Geun-hye’s visit to China in June 2013, the Chinese side surely was aware that the trip would be viewed abroad as a departure from standard Chinese protocol and would probably upset Kim Jong-un and his colleagues.  But while the trip can be judged a success for China, the North Koreans may have less to worry about than might appear.

As I see it, Xi had three aims.  First, at a time when the United States has reemphasized its Asian alliances––particularly its relationship with Japan––Xi may have wanted to show the South Koreans that they also have a reliable friend in Beijing.  Second, Xi wanted to demonstrate the economic importance of Republic of Korea (ROK)-PRC ties as the United States struggles to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) idea.  Third, concerning North Korea, he hoped to generate interest in resuming dialogue on denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

China is out to gain acceptance of a foreign-policy concept that will distinguish it from the US alliance system, which Beijing has always seen as a remnant of the Cold War.  Currying favor with South Korea is an important starting point inasmuch as both countries’ relations with Japan are at a low point, effectively frozen in terms of summit-level diplomacy, and tense because of territorial disputes.  Japan under Abe Shinzo is redefining its national security perspective in ways that neither Beijing nor Seoul finds acceptable—a reinterpretation of Japan’s peace constitution so as to permit involvement in “collective defense” missions.

China-Republic of Korea (ROK) ties are already quite substantial, and represent remarkable growth since formal relations began in 1992.  China now describes the relationship as a “strategic cooperative partnership”. The two countries have established a multitude of bilateral mechanisms to govern cultural, political, and security affairs.  China is South Korea’s number-one trade and investment partner, and China’s third-largest export market. Total trade between the two countries was over $270 billion in 2013 according to PRC statistics. A significant flow of people also demonstrates the importance of the relationship, with over 8 million travelers visiting each other’s country in 2013 and around 60,000 Chinese studying in South Korea—both being at the top of Chinese rankings for tourism and study abroad.

The commercial significance of Xi’s trip was indicated by the fact that he was accompanied by “over 250 Chinese entrepreneurs from manufacturing, finance, and IT.”  One specific agreement reached was on direct renminbi-won trading.  Chinese accounts described South Korea as an “offshore center for the RMB.” As such, the US dollar will not reign supreme in those countries’ transactions. The agreement is also relevant to a China-ROK free trade agreement (FTA), which the two sides said they are aiming to complete by the end of this year.  Their FTA might be China’s biggest in Asia and a challenge to the US-backed TPP.

A number of commentators have suggested that Xi’s agenda was to erode ROK-US ties, but if so, the end result did not serve that purpose.  ROK-US relations are very solid these days, all the more so in the defense arena, and President Park Geun-hye is not about to upset the apple cart in order to get closer to China.  Notably, the final communiqué did not mention Japan; if it had, Washington would surely have been miffed. But I don’t believe Xi’s objective was to undermine the ROK-US alliance anyway. To judge from some Chinese commentaries, Beijing takes the alliance as a given, but finds close ties with South Korea useful in support of other Chinese objectives. Among these objectives are the avoidance of another Korean war, investment in less-developed parts of inner China, and strengthening of the G20 group as leverage against the G7. President Park surely finds these aims unobjectionable: As her administration sees it, a fulsome economic relationship with China and continuation of close security and other longstanding ties with the US are perfectly compatible.

A litmus test of Park’s policies toward the US and China may come with a final decision on participation in the US theater missile defense (TMD) system. Washington has been pushing the idea in South Korea for quite a few years, but up until now the South Koreans have preferred to upgrade their own ballistic missile defense, citing the cost and value for Korea of the US program.  They have also balked at US proposals for trilateral missile defense cooperation with Japan. The Chinese see TMD as a backdoor way for the US to neutralize China’s missile deterrent, and not merely as directed against North Korean missiles, and if Park ultimately buys into it as the Japanese have, we may have a better gauge as to the effectiveness of Xi’s effort to wean the ROK away from the US.  But that seems like a long shot.

What President Park probably most wanted to hear from Xi was a strong commitment to pressing North Korea on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles as a condition of resumption of diplomatic engagement. As is by now well known, discussion in Beijing has turned from consistent support of Pyongyang on the nuclear issue to concern about how Pyongyang’s behavior might hurt PRC interests. But China’s public position had already been established when Xi Jinping spoke in May to the 24-member Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building in Asia (CICA). That group embraces most Asian as well as Middle Eastern countries. The ROK is a member, but not North Korea; the US has observer status.  Xi’s address mentioned China’s participation in the Six Party Talks, but did not list North Korea’s nuclear weapons among the specific Asian security issues he considered important.  (He mentioned “terrorism, separatism, and extremism,” a region-wide code of conduct, and establishment of an emergency response center.)  In Seoul, Xi would not go beyond what he and other PRC leaders have said many times: the Six Party Talks should resume, the September 19, 2005 Six Party joint statement on Korean issues should be fulfilled, dialogue should take place among all the parties at every level, and direct North-South Korea contacts should increase. Perhaps Xi was more forthcoming in private; but at least at the public level, in the China-ROK final communiqué, Xi did not promise anything new concerning UN sanctions on North Korea or Chinese fuel or food deliveries to the North.

Interestingly, North Korea released a statement on July 7 that called for renewed North-South Korean efforts to forge an agreement on national reunification. As in the past, the official statement insisted that “outsiders” not be permitted to interfere with Korea’s destiny.  The statement made no reference to China-ROK relations, but it gives rise to speculation that the statement was in direct response to Xi’s visit.

NOTE: This post is an abbreviated version of an article published July 15 in the e-journal, China-US Focus.  You can view the entire article at  I also recommend an article on the same subject by Prof. Chung-in Moon at


Post #34 – The Madness in Gaza

War never achieves political goals, but just destroys the people,” he said.  “War is the language of the ignorant, and it is fought by the ignorant.”  The speaker was an unemployed Palestinian construction worker, living on United Nations assistance and commenting philosophically on the latest round of fighting in Gaza.  I think this man is far more perceptive than the leaders of Israel and Hamas, for whom human life seems inconsequential and whose sole purpose in ordering attacks on the other is revenge.

Israelis have every right to be outraged over the kidnapping and killing of three boys by people associated with Hamas. And Palestinians have every right to be outraged over the killing and burning of a boy by Israeli settlers, evidently in retaliation.  But I, as a global citizen, am outraged at the absurdly disproportional responses of both sides to these despicable acts. To believe, as Israeli and Hamas leaders evidently do believe, that conducting air strikes or sending missiles into crowded cities will resolve specific acts of violence—that punishing innocent others is proper retribution—displays appalling ignorance, besides being criminal in purpose and consequence.  At least 100 civilians, all but one Palestinian and many of them children, have already died at this writing, and the lives and businesses of many more have been greatly disrupted.  At what point do Israeli and Palestinian leader believe they have punished enough?  Have we not learned time and again, in warfare and other settings, that violent retaliation escalates the violence and plants the seeds of future violence rather than creates the basis for settlement?

The Israelis reportedly are considering a ground invasion of Gaza.  Then, if not before, Hamas will declare the start of a third intifada. Each side will maintain that it was forced into a larger conflict by the other side, and that it must finally “end things,” meaning the other side’s “terrorism.” So here is displayed how far human society has advanced. Is it too much to ask that a third party step forward to demand at least a cease-fire?

Post #33 – The Nuclear Danger and the Case for Nuclear Abolition (Part Two)

So far as I know, every post-World War II US president has come to realize the awesome responsibility that accompanies presiding over a massive nuclear-weapon arsenal.  And every one of them has at one time or another in his presidency determined that the danger posed by nuclear weapons was so great that a way had to be found to dramatically reduce if not eliminate US and others’ nuclear weapons.  We now know that even President Reagan, who authorized an unprecedented increase in the number of US nuclear weapons, was seriously interested in their complete abolition, and at the summit meeting with Soviet Premier Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1986 sought a way to reach an agreement to that end.  (Gorbachev’s insistence that testing of the US “Star Wars” missile defense system be limited to the laboratory scotched the deal.)  Nevertheless, the gap between the ideal and the real, as we all know, is great: no president or premier has been able to resist the pressure from the military-industrial complex to keep and expand his country’s nuclear arsenal in the name of national defense—and sometimes to share nuclear-weapon research and components with others.  And all leaders are capable of entrapment in the “fog of war.”

Even as the numbers of nuclear weapons have declined from a high of around 50,000 worldwide to around 17,000 today, their cumulative destructive power and overkill capacity remain absurdly great, and their capacity to deliver destructiveness with ever greater accuracy continues to be refined. (Ploughshares––estimates that the US has about 7,700 weapons and Russia has about 8,500.  Of the US nuclear weapons, about 4,600 are “available for delivery”; the Russian figure is probably comparable.)  US-Russia nuclear weapons agreements over the years have helped reduce the size of arsenals but have not been able to stop research and development of new or improved weapons.

You and I have been told many times that the Cold War is over and that we can stop worrying about The Bomb.  But we should worry, not only about the existing arsenals, nuclear proliferation, and (as noted in the previous post) the ever-present danger of accidents, but also about spending to maintain and upgrade nuclear weapons.  In 2011, for example, the US spent about $34 billion on so-called “core” nuclear-weapon programs (testing, maintenance, research) and another $27 billion on related programs (such as missile defense and  environmental and health costs). These costs, which are more than twice those of the other countries with nuclear weapons combined, will continue to rise significantly in the coming decade (see the Global Zero report at Global Zero’s report says “the nuclear-armed states will spend, conservatively estimated, at least one trillion dollars on nuclear weapons and their direct support systems over the next decade.”  

A perfect example of both overkill and over-cost is the US Navy’s plan for upgrading its Trident nuclear submarine fleet, at an expected cost of around $100 billion for construction alone.  As Lawrence Wittner points out (, just one of these dozen new subs, each armed with 16 multiple-warhead long-range missiles, is capable of killing millions of people.  Think of it this way: The Navy alone has at its disposal the  equivalent of literally thousands of Hiroshimas in destructive power.  Is this necessary or desirable?

How many Americans, or Russians, or Brits, if asked to choose ways to spend those billions, would support building another nuclear submarine or another plutonium processing factory instead of new schools, more modern railroads, or wind generators?

On the positive side are the calls in recent years from many of the same civilian and military officials who were active players in their countries’ nuclear establishments for dramatic changes in policy governing nuclear weapons.  For example:


  • In 1982 Robert McNamara, George Kennan, McGeorge Bundy, and Gerard Smith challenged the idea that use of a nuclear weapon could be kept limited, and urged a US policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons.
  • In 1983 McNamara argued that “nuclear weapons serve no military purpose whatsoever.  They are totally useless—except only to deter one’s opponent from using them.”
  • In 1996, US Air Force General Lee Butler (former head of the Strategic Air Command) and US Army General Andrew Goodpaster (former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe) called for huge slashes in nuclear weapons inventories and the eventual abolition of nukes.
  • In 1998, US Air Force General Charles Horner, Robert McNamara, and others strongly discounted the view that if the US and other states eliminated their nuclear weapons, some other country would acquire them and be able to blackmail the world. The risk of that happening was very small, they said; in the event of a so-called nuclear breakout, that country would risk utter destruction with conventional weapons.
  • In 2006 the former UN chief nuclear weapons inspector, Hans Blix, chaired a study that called for nuclear abolition, a stronger commitment to nuclear nonproliferation by the nuclear-weapon states, and assurances to all other countries against attack with nuclear weapons.
  • In 2007, George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “the world is now on the precipice of a new and dangerous nuclear era” and offered a series of steps toward “the goal of  world without nuclear weapons,” “a bold initiative consistent with America’s moral heritage.”

These statements have buried the once-fashionable notion that nuclear abolition was only the naïve dream of disarmament idealists.  The complete, verifiable abolition of nuclear weapons is the new realism, and has been for some time.

President Obama, in his memorable speech of 2009 in Prague, imagined “a world without nuclear weapons.” He warned: “If we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable” ( Let us recall some of the measures he hoped to achieve during his tenure:

  • US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty;
  • A new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia;
  • A new treaty that ends production of fissile materials used in bomb-making;
  • Creation of an international nuclear fuel bank;
  • Strengthening of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty;
  • “A new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years” to combat nuclear terrorism;

Five year later, I think you’ll agree that there’s not much to celebrate, and that much work remains to be done.  The Cold War should have ended 25 years ago.

For further guidance, see the Nuclear Abolition Forum (, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (,,, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace ( Best of all, in honor of Jonathan Schell, who passed away recently, read his superb analysis, “The Gift of Time: The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons,” a special issue of The Nation (February 2-9, 1988).

Post #32 – The Nuclear Danger, or Why We Should Still Worry about the Bomb (Part One)

When is the last time you gave serious thought to the dangers posed by nuclear weapons?  Probably not since those awful years under Ronald Reagan, when it seemed we were this close to a nuclear-level confrontation with the Soviets, and when at least one top official blithely observed that Japan after all had recovered just fine after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Now, as Cold War nostalgia replaces Cold War terror, as our attention is riveted on insurgents running amok in the Middle East, and as drones look like the latest weapon of choice, nuclear weapons are on the back burner.  But they shouldn’t be, and not just because of North Korea’s small arsenal or Iran’s potential.

In my first post I proposed that global climate change is the number-one threat to humankind.  But for some observers, the possible use of a nuclear weapon, by design or accident, outranks even climate change as the most urgent threat.  These days we’re inclined to think that a premeditated use of a nuclear weapon is inconceivable, since the leaders of a country that launched it would surely know that it would suffer a devastating attack in return.  Thus, the usual argument goes, the only rational reason for possessing such a weapon is to deter its use by another country.  However logical that may sound, it ignores at least two possibilities: first, that a nation’s leaders will, on the basis of rational calculation, deploy and use a nuclear weapon first (i.e., preemptively) in self-defense, perhaps believing that the attacked country would not counterattack; second, that a nuclear weapon will be detonated accidently, precipitating either a great loss of life or an unintended nuclear war.

The second of these two possibilities is my main subject here. It supports the following proposition: The mere possession of a nuclear weapon poses an incalculable threat to humanity.

One type of nuclear weapon accident is “broken arrows,” the Pentagon’s term for loss or theft of a nuclear weapon due to crashes by aircraft and submarines carrying one.  By one count, 32 such accidents involving the US military have occurred since 1950 ( Most of these happened early in the Cold War.  A second type is nuclear “near misses,” the result of breakdowns in communication and safety precautions.  This type is a constant.  A just-released study of thirteen near misses, from the 1962 US-Soviet missile crisis over Cuba and India-Pakistan confrontations in 1999 and 2002, to the 2009 collision of British and French nuclear submarines, concludes that the risk of war or catastrophic loss of life is a good deal higher than we might imagine (

With over 17,000 nuclear weapons stockpiled in nine countries—the US, Russia, China, France, Britain, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea—and a few other countries (such as Iran) possibly seeking to have them, the danger of a nuclear-weapon detonation, whether by accident or miscalculation, is always around. (The figure is from Ploughshares, at We prefer not to think about such a catastrophe, particularly since so many other sources of widespread destruction are available and seem more likely to be used, such as chemical and biological weapons.  But the new Chatham House study cited above suggests otherwise.

A widely cited book published last year—Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control—gives us frightening details on the perils of handling nukes.  Besides reviewing the postwar history of US administration of nuclear weapons, Schlosser interviewed people at every level of their control, including soldiers responsible for maintaining the missiles in underground silos.  His book is a reminder that nuclear weapons, like any other complicated piece of technology (but of course not like any other in its capacity for destruction), pose countless potential, often unpredictable problems.  Not least of them is the psychological pressure on the soldiers who guard them and who must always think about one day being ordered to unleash them.  But not only soldiers, for we mustn’t forget that leaders in charge of nuclear launch codes might also be mentally impaired, such as Richard Nixon and Boris Yeltsin, who were heavy drinkers. In a word, too many things can go wrong, many things have gone wrong, and we’re terribly lucky that since 1945, a nuclear weapon hasn’t accidentally exploded near a city or been used as a weapon of war.

Part of the subtitle of Schlosser’s book refers to the “illusion of safety.” With good reason: He cites official, once-classified reports about the safety of nuclear weapons by concerned specialists ever since the 1950s.  Consistently, these specialists identified numerous potential hazards that raised the risk of a major nuclear accident.  As one of them wrote in the 1970s, “We are living on borrowed time.”

One of the conclusions of the Chatham House study is that in some near-miss cases, only prudent judgment by individuals saved the day.  Decision making during the Cuban missile crisis, for instance, is often referred to as a model of calm deliberation.  Actually, the Kennedy team, we now know, stumbled along in the “fog of war.”  We were indeed lucky then; but as in any gamble, luck runs out at some point.


Post #31 – What Works? The Courage to Blow the Whistle

American heroes come in many forms, and historically, one of them is acting selflessly in the public interest and in defiance of established authority. Daniel Ellsberg did just that in 1971 when he copied and divulged the contents of the Pentagon Papers. (As some of you know, I was an author of the Papers and testified for Ellsberg at his trial in Los Angeles.) Eric Snowden is another such hero. The huge tranche of highly classified documents about NSA eavesdropping that he revealed, arguably in violation of the Espionage Act, performed a public service. He set off a nationwide debate on mass government collection of private communications—not to mention eavesdropping on the communications of other countries’ leaders—that has led to examination of the National Security Agency’s mission and some restrictions on the scope of its spying.

As so often happens in such cases, some people, especially in government, have done their utmost to blame the messenger and protect their turf. They have tried to pin a “traitor” label on Snowden just as they did on Ellsberg and Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame. The editorial board of the New York Times, with the experience of publishing the Pentagon Papers behind it, produced an outstanding defense of Snowden (June 11, 2013), correctly pointing out that his “goal was to expose and thus stop the intelligence community from what he considered unwarranted intrusions into the lives of ordinary Americans. ‘My sole motive,’ he told The Guardian [of London], ‘is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.’”

In the same interview with The Guardian (published June 9, 2013), Snowden also said: “I really want the focus to be on these documents and the debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in. . . .I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest. There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn’t turn over, because harming people isn’t my goal. Transparency is.”

Indeed: transparency, in order to expose abuse of power, is the issue.

Some might say that Snowden’s actions have damaged national security. But the only evidence of damage has been to the reputation of the United States as an upholder of the rule of law and a respecter of individual freedom. Those who keep the nation’s secrets are always trying to expand their authority to obtain and classify “information,” giving higher priority to secret government than to the rule of law. Snowden—like Ellsberg, Assange, and the Watergate and Iran-Contra hearings—exposed this threat to democracy. As Snowden recently said, the oath he swore on becoming an NSA contractor “was not to secrecy. That oath was to protect and defend our Constitution and the policies of this nation—[from] all enemies, foreign and domestic” (The Nation, May 26, 2014). At great personal risk, he did just that.

A critical other piece of that reputation is being truthful. While Snowden, Ellsberg, and others “spoke truth to power,” some high US officials did the opposite: they used their power to hide the truth. The most glaring example concerning the NSA is the testimony in March 2013 of the director of national intelligence, James Clapper. When he was asked by Oregon’s Senator Ron Wyden whether the NSA collected “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans” —Clapper said “No, sir . . . not wittingly.” (Faced with some angry senators, the administration fully backed Clapper and said he “did not intend to mislead Congress.” Clapper later apologized, but his lie went unpunished.)

Snowden served the country by setting in motion a national debate over the costs and consequences of government surveillance and data collection on ordinary citizens. President Obama said that Snowden “shed more heat than light” on that issue. But the National Security Archive had it right: “What the President did not say was that these surveillance reforms would never even have been contemplated without the Snowden revelations. In fact, these leaks . . . disproved a series of lies that the administration and its Intelligence Community repeatedly told the American public in an attempt to keep this surveillance in the dark” ( The National Security Archive, which vigorously pursues declassification of official documents, presents ten cases of official lying about NSA’s activities at that web site. (Go to to view the numerous documentary collections the Archive has assembled.)

When senior officials like Clapper knowingly lie at Congressional hearings, they commit a felony: contempt of Congress. But they are rarely punished. Those who dare to violate bureaucratic boundaries, however, and throw the international spotlight on official conduct that is at the least embarrassing and at worst unlawful and immoral, have no such license. Edward Snowden did the right thing.

Critical appraisals of foreign affairs from a global-citizen perspective.


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