Sunday, July 19, 2015

It Would Serve Them Right

Memo to the US Congress: These guys don't
give a shit what you think
The nuclear deal with Iran is a good deal for everybody. It's a good deal for Iran, for the US, for Europe, for Russia, for China - it's even a good deal for Israel. If we're going to be honest, the whole thing has been unnecessary - both North Korea and Pakistan are orders of magnitude more dangerous and unpredictable than Iran, and they already have nuclear weapons. If post-revolutionary Iran wanted a nuclear weapon, they would  have had one by 1990 - '95 at the latest. Nuclear weapons are just not that difficult to produce - they are much harder to deliver. But the technology of uncontrolled nuclear fission is a well understood 70 year old science. Given access to the right equipment and materials, a precocious physics postdoc could probably make a working weapon.

But for many reasons - Israel's domestic politics, Saudi Arabia's viciously sectarian state religion, the American hostage crisis and its historical enmity - Iran had to be singled out. An entire case had to be built that Iran was a dangerous, rising regional power desperately focused on developing nuclear weapons. If you note a chilling similarity to descriptions of Saddam Hussein's Iraq in post 9/11 America, you get a gold star. There were just too many agendas too well served by hostility to Iran, and Iran's leadership couldn't make the decisions necessary to get out of that box.

So now it all comes back to American domestic politics. The Israel lobby, their large congressional constituency along with their powerful media voices are in full-throated cry to kill the agreement. They can't explain why this would be a desirable outcome - after all, the deal is objectively good for all parties. But the state of hostilities with Iran is valuable to them all, and cannot be put at risk by diplomatic progress.

What the US congress refuses to understand is this is a global, multi-lateral agreement. The Europeans, the Russians and the Chinese invested huge amounts of time and prestige in getting the deal done. A few hundred hillbillies and extremists in the US don't have the power to alter the deal - they only have the power to alter America's participation in the deal, and hence how the world views American reliability in global diplomacy in the 21st century.

So here's what I'm thinking today. Maybe they SHOULD win the argument. It won't change anything - the sanctions will end, Iran will honor the deal, and the US and Israel will be on the outside looking in, shrieking in spittle-flecked outrage at their irrelevance and impotence. The only thing that would happen is the American Republican party would own the greatest diplomatic debacle in American history. They would have cemented a prominent place in the downfall of American global power. They would have contributed greatly to rising respect and authority for the EU, China and even Russia, all at America's expense. And the next time the US went to the UN, or to the negotiating table with another nation, the very first question will be 'why should we trust you?' Why don't you get your political leadership house in order first and THEN come and talk to us'.

The simple fact they are ignoring is that if the sanctions aren't lifted, Iran won't be obligated to comply with the terms of the deal. If the US Congress abrogates the deal, the UN will still pass a resolution lifting the sanctions - and the Obama administration won't veto it. The agreement will go into effect - the US congress will then pass legislation imposing additional sanctions on Iran - and Obama will veto them. If they somehow became law, the rest of the world would ignore them. The sheer irrational futility of American governance will become starkly clear to the rest of the world, and that will have unpredictable effects in the future.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

OK, We Have a Deal - Now What Happens?

You tried, I'll give you that. But maybe you
tried too hard
The reason that the international diplomatic community favors the use of economic sanctions as a tool to change the behavior of a national leadership is that sanctions are unique - they are a 'stick' with a built-in 'carrot'. The end goal is not to impose sanctions - it is to achieve specific, verifiable goals and then lift the sanctions. A sanctions regime that can never be lifted is useless - why would a government bother to alter their behavior if the sanctions would remain in place anyway?

Which brings us to the agreement the US, Europe, Russia and China reached with Iran this week restricting their civilian nuclear program and fuel cycle work. From any reasonable viewpoint, the sanctions 'worked'. Iran came to the table, and ultimately accepted the most onerous, intrusive inspection regime in the history of the NPT and simultaneously agreed to stringent limitations on centrifuge development, reactor design, fuel cycle R&D and amounts of LEU they are permitted to stockpile. You have to understand that these things have NEVER been controversial before - they were part of the 'peaceful use' of nuclear technology that the NPT actually encouraged. (The lesson here is that, if the international community is going to use the NPT as a weapon, it might be better in some cases for a signatory to abrogate it.)

But I'm not actually optimistic. Why? Because, under pressure from wingnuts, Israel and France, we actually drove TOO hard a bargain. Under the agreed upon terms, Iran will have to begin complying immediately - reducing stockpiled LEU, shuttering facilities, mothballing centrifuges, taking an entire reactor offline - and yet they won't see any meaningful sanctions relief for almost a year, and other sanctions (the arms embargo) will stay in place for five years. If Ayatollah Khamenei can hold it together while the IRGC hardliners are screaming, Iranian sovereign pride is in tatters and he has exactly nothing to show for it, month after month after month, great. But I don't think he can. I think what could have been a reasonable agreement that let each side get a win is inherently unsustainable, booby trapped from within, and it's very hard to see how this is going to work over the next 12 months.

As always, the net result of 'American Exceptionalism' is overreach, and we might very well see another example of everything we tried to do ended up making things orders of magnitude worse. If the IRGC stages a military coup to depose the supreme leader and impose a military government with far less concern about economic deprivation (think North Korea with big oil reserves) the middle east is going to be a much uglier, more violent and more unstable place.

I used to have a little lapel button that said: "Congratulations - you have somehow managed to turn a routine transaction into a bizarre ritual". And that's where I think we find ourselves with Iran.

Monday, July 13, 2015

On the Aptly-Named New Horizons Mission to Pluto

You gotta have a badass mission patch
Tomorrow, for a very brief few minutes, a probe that was launched from earth nine years ago will fly by Pluto at 31,000 miles per hour, coming within 8000 miles of the former planet. It will record images and data all along the approach and departure, and then return this data across a 3 billion mile chasm of space at a data rate of about 1 kilobit per second. For a year after the momentary close approach we will continue to receive information about the only major body in our solar system we have never seen in any detail before.

The science is not that remarkable.

New Horizons was designed in 2001 and constructed between 2003 and its launch in January of 2006. The technology that was used was mature at the time - in a probe like this one, only robust, well-understood and highly reliable systems can be used - essentially 20 years old at the time of the flyby.

The instrument package consists of:

LORRI - The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager - a high resolution camera with a 1024x1024 CCD and a resolution of approximately 1 arc-second.

SWAP - Solar Wind At Pluto -  one of the two instruments comprising New Horizons‍ '​ Plasma and high-energy particle spectrometer suite (PAM), SWAP measures particles up to 6.5KeV

PEPSSI - Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation - the other component of the PAM, PEPSSI measures higher energy particles than SWAP

Alice - An ultraviolet imaging spectrometer, Alice will help analyze Pluto's atmospheric composition

Ralph - Another camera, Ralph includes both a multispectral (color) visible light imager and a near-infrared imaging spectrometer

SDC - The Student Dust Counter - this instrument has been operating all throughout the mission, measuring the interplanetary dust levels. It will provide the first measurements of dust in the Kuiper Belt ever. This instrument was built by students at the University of Colorado Boulder.

REX - The Radio Science Experiment - a transmitter that will use New Horizon's communication systems to send a signal through the atmosphere of Pluto and Charon, to be received and analyzed by radio telescopes on earth.

The engineering is incredible.

The orbital dynamics are impressive. A mission travelling 3 billion miles over 9 years with a very precise gravitational boost from Jupiter, aimed at a point not just in space, but in time - a very specific point in three-space that will, at that precise moment, also be occupied by Pluto. The margin for error is so small it's difficult to even calculate. You'll hear repeatedly that that New Horizons is the fastest space probe ever launched - that's only partially true. It is the spacecraft with the fastest launch - it left earth orbit at 37,000 miles per hour and passed the lunar orbit in 9 hours. But the fastest spacecraft is Voyager 1, now leaving the confines of our solar system at 17 Kilometers per second.

The meaning is profound.

This is real science. We'll be learning things we didn't know, not just about Pluto and its moons, but then about the region outside Pluto's orbit, the Kuiper Belt. This is a region populated by icy chunks of the original primordial 'stuff' that formed the solar system five billion years ago. This is the material that drifts around in vast reaches of interstellar space until some gravitational perturbation starts pulling it all into a disc. This is our best chance to understand our own actual creation story. But it is so much more than that.

Set aside whether Pluto is a planet, a dwarf planet or something else altogether. This is the last completely unexplored, unobserved body in our solar system. And beyond that lies more, much more, of the great unknown. For all their bloodthirsty brutality, humans have always, from the very beginning, been driven by a need to know. What's over the next ridge, whats across the ocean, what's at the edge of the solar system. It is the one thing that makes our species noble, and special. It is the one thing that truly does unite us. Curiosity, the willingness to take great risks to learn, and the ability to make that knowledge meaningful and useful.

And tomorrow we're going to Pluto.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

20 Years After Srebrinica - Have We Learned Anything?

Never Forget
Twenty years ago this weekend, Bosnian Serb forces under their notorious General Ratko Mladić took the Bosnian city of Srebrenica. The women and children were rounded up and put on buses, ultimately to a UN airbase in Tuzla. The Serbs promised that the Red Cross would have access to the remaining 8000 men and boys, but of course, that never happened. We now know what did. Over the next two or three days, Serbian forces systematically murdered all 8000 Bosnian men and boys and bulldozed the bodies into mass graves. It was by far the worst war crime, the worst ethnic cleansing, and the worst genocide in Europe since the Second World War.

The thing that makes the Srebrinica massacre so outrageously apalling was that, as early as April, 1993, the UN had declared Srebrinica to be a specifically designated 'Safe Zone'. It was a place that Bosnia refugees knew they could go to receive protection from UN forces. And in early 1995, as Serbian forces rolled across Bosnia, thousands fled to Srebrinica specifically because of that explicit promise of protection. UN Resolution 819 declared the Srebrenica and Zepa safe zones and ordered that they be de-militarized. Of course, the Bosnian forces were woefully underequipped, and the Serb forces simply ignored the order.

Throughout early 1995, the Serb forces, operating on very specific orders from Serb President Radovan Karadžić, prevented supplies from getting into the enclave. When Dutch UN forces would patrol outside the city, the Serbs would prevent them from returning. When the UN would attempt to reinforce or resupply their garrison, the Serb forces would prevent it. All throughout this slow motion catastrophe, the world watched in horror as the UN forces, day after day after day, refused to use their weapons, refused to fight, and refused to defend the people who had come to the safe haven the UN itself had promised them. In the end, the city fell without a shot being fired, with no UN casualties*, and on July 11th, after being filmed drinking a toast with Mladić, Lieutennant Colonel Thom Karremans, head of the Dutch UN contingent charged with the defense of Srebrenica, was permitted to take his forces and march out of the city. The rest, as they say, is history.

Sadly, this is often the story of UN protective forces in various war zones around the world. An unwillingness to fight, highly restrictive rules of engagement, political fears of the fallout from getting involved in the fighting - the UN in New York has many times written checks it could not cash, and the people who believed their promises died hard, and in large numbers. The obvious irony here is the 'Blue Hats' are almost always the best trained, best equipped and most disciplined forces in theater, and yet a curious weakness in leadership has crippled their ability to carry out their mandate time and time again.

To be fair, this may be slowly changing. The actions of the Force Intervention Brigade under MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Great Lakes Region were brilliant. In a series of offensive operations in 2014, particularly in Kitchanga in May and Kiwanja, in the battle of Governors Ridge in September, they utterly crushed the M23 movement and put an end to a long running war. They used their superior forces and mobility, especially armored fighting vehicles and helicopter gunships to support the domestic forces and effectively put an end to the fighting.

But Srebrinica will always stand out as the darkest moment for the UN. Rwanda was bad, in that the west could not muster the will to intervene at all, but for the UN to promise all those people safety and then be utterly unwilling to assume the risk necessary to make good on their promises was cowardly to the point of craven. It is a black eye they can never live down, and we can never forget how they marched out of town and left those people to die.

*On July 8th, a Dutch YPR-765 armored personnel carrier on the perimeter came under Serbian fire and withdrew. The Bosnian forces in the area demanded that the Dutch stay and provide fire support. The Dutch soldiers refused, and as the armored vehicle continued to pull back one of the Bosnians threw a grenade that killed one of the Dutch Soldiers.

Finally, mid-afternoon on the 11th, NATO agreed to UNPROFOR requests/demands for air support and flew a few strike missions against advancing Serb armored forces. After a few hours, the Serbs threatened to murder their French hostages, kill Dutch UN personnel and begin shelling the UN Potočari compound, and air attacks were halted. It should be noted that this is not how armed forces are supposed to react to threats of attack.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Kaliningrad - Ground Zero for Armageddon?

Russia is the light colored area. Kaliningrad
is the little red spot next to Poland on the Baltic Sea
Most people, even most Americans, have no trouble pointing to Russia on a map. Russia is very big, and for those of us who lived through the cold war we know the approximate location of the line between Europe and Russia.

Or do we?

Can you point to Kaliningrad on a map? It's not where you think it is. It's not in Russia. Look to the west - you'll find it wedged in between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Seacoast. It's the only access Russia has to warm western seas. It's a key port for the Russian Navy, primarily servicing the Baltic Sea Fleet. It's incredibly vulnerable if hostilities were to heat up.

So what's the deal here, anyway? Well, for thousands of years of European history this seaport city and the surrounding region was called Königsberg, a part of East Prussia. In 1945, at the end of WWII, one of the determinations of the Potsdam Conference was to transfer "Königsberg and the area adjacent to it" to the Soviet Union. The next year it was renamed Kaliningrad and the remaining German population was expelled. In 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Poland, Lithuania and Belarussia became independent, isolating Kaliningrad as something geographers call an "exclave". Because it provides Russia with its only year round ice free western deep water port, there was never any possibility that Russia would give up its sovereign possession of the Kaliningrad Oblast.

Fast forward to today. Poland and Lithuania are members of the EU and NATO. Russia has invaded and annexed Crimea, and is fighting a ground war in Eastern Ukraine. Taking an increasingly belligerent tone, Putin's government is threatening to place theater nuclear missiles in Kaliningrad. But ultimately, it is the seaport's very vulnerability that makes it such a terrible risk. Russia has no ground access - everything must go by air or sea. At some point, if Putin does something particularly egregious, there will be a temptation within NATO to take some action against Kaliningrad. It's close, it's isolated, a blockade or even just a reduction in access, coupled with a military buildup on the border, and the Russian reaction becomes unpredictable.

It is a historical anomaly that places a critical piece of sovereign Russian territory in the midst of Europe - but that is just the kind of historical anomaly that has led, many decades later, to all sorts of unpleasant consequences.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Bernie Sanders Campaign - Don't Get Carried Away

Collectors Item in the Making
Would I like to see Bernie Sanders win the Democratic nomination for President? Well, yeah. Sort of. Mostly. See, there are reasons why this might not be a good thing - things we'll get to in a bit. But in general, with the same relentless Republican obstruction in congress, one could assume he'd do about the same domestically as Hillary Clinton - very little, but with an overt progressivism that would probably be good for America in general. And I think - although not with certainty - that he'd probably be more resistant to American military interventions around the globe and to authoritarian/surveillance state growth domestically. Of course I had those same expectations for constitutional scholar Barack Obama, and look how that turned out.

And now the networks are starting to buzz with a steadily evolving view of his chances of winning the nomination. He's drawing big crowds, he's raising a lot of money from individual donors, he's getting media attention - and people are evolving from "it'd be nice..." to "hey, maybe?" to "FEEL THE BERNMENTUM! WE CAN WIN THIS THING". Of course, it's months before the first Primary and a year before the convention. A lot can - and will - happen in that time, not the least of which is the basic structure of the American electoral system will assert itself.

There are two reasons why Bernie Sanders won't be the Democratic nominee. One is a pragmatic political reason, and one is more of a question of electoral math. To look at the second reason first, the Democratic nominee will go into the General Election with a structural advantage of somewhere between 3 and 8%. Now, it should be noted that this is for the popular vote. The electoral college and the way it depends on the geographic distribution of voters will negate some, perhaps even most of that. But the Democrat has won the popular vote in five out of the last six Presidential cycles, and there's no reason to think that would change in 2016.

But here's the thing - Bernie is benefiting from a lot of excitement and energy from the left wing of his party. If Ms. Clinton were the nominee, these same people will vote for her, albeit with many of them holding their noses. What, are they going to vote for Scott Walker? So Sanders doesn't gain much in the way of voters on the left, and he will certainly lose some center right Democrats who would vote for a Clinton but would NEVER vote for a communist like Bernie Sanders. Now, how many Democratic votes he loses as the nominee is unclear - we'll see better polling in six months or so - but between the electoral college and the right wing of the Democratic Party, it's perfectly legitimate to question his electability vs. the Clinton campaign.

While that loss of electability numbers will be - and should be - of concern to the national Democratic elite, there is a larger set of issues that basically make 2016 Hillary Clinton's year. The national party is deeply invested in a perceived inclusive 'centrism'. Bipartisan politics is their dream, even in these highly polarized times. Bill Clinton famously pulled the Democratic party to the right, gaining the advantage over the republicans on issues such as welfare reform, crime and punishment and NAFTA. Obama won the nomination over Clinton in 2008 by promising to work WITH the Republicans in the legislature, in a way that didn't seem possible with the history of 'Clinton Derangement Syndrome' and the vast right-wing conspiracy. Sure, we're a lot wiser now, understanding that ANY Democratic President will be obstructed and de-legitimized from the right, but if you listen to the national party elites and donor class, this is what they continue to demand.

Additionally, as odd as it sounds, after 2008 and 2012, it is considered Hillary's turn. She's the default leader of the Democratic party going into 2016, the standard bearer and it's her nomination to lose. She'll lead in fundraising, and she'll get all the advantages the national party can provide. That's what the party is seeing - the electable, reliable centrist vs. the bomb throwing socialist that frightens flyover state Democrats. And remember the key point: The people don't decide on the nominee, the Party does, so even if Bernie wins the popularity contest he still won't get the nomination.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Hillary Clinton Goes WAY Too Far in Support of Israeli Settlements

Objects may be wingnuttier than they appear
Look, I don't care if Ms. Clinton is pro-settlement. Even if that does put her well out of the American historical mainstream - her husband, the foul and odious GW Bush and her predecessor, the current occupant of the White House, have conceded as a matter of policy that the settlements are illegal and must ultimately be abandoned or traded for land for Palestine elsewhere. I don't even care if she's pro-Netanyahu - oh, she'll learn soon enough the folly of trying to hug a snake. Once again, just as her husband did, and just as her predecessor did.

But this just goes way too far. BDS is a purely economic, non-violent form of resistance. It is designed to pressure the Israeli government to end the occupation and the settlements - both policies are considered globally to be war crimes and violations of longstanding international law. It is well within every organization's rights to decide who they want to support economically, and what systems they want to invest in. It is perfectly reasonable to decide to withhold investment from companies that support apartheid. And, of course Clinton's primary point - that the Israelis are a 'vibrant democracy surrounded by hostile neighbors' ignores the fact that yes, the treatment of a large, stateless, occupied population in this manner - including denial of not just citizenship, but basic human rights - amounts to apartheid. Instead of addressing why Israel is not like white South Africa, she needs to explain how the Palestinian people are not like the black South Africans.

If it is not even acceptable to decide as a private organization or sovereign nation to boycott, divest or sanction a nation for internationally-agreed-upon war crimes, one wonders what she expects supporters of Palestine to do. No violent resistance. No economic resistance. No political resistance. Does she really believe that Israel is so special that they deserve this kind of special protection from reactions to their own policies? BDS is the most legitimate international non-violent form of resistance to Israel's settlement policies, and should be embraced by all, even those who don't agree, as the best form of push back against the occupation. There is no reason why any nation's policies should be exempt from international scrutiny.

An Additional Thought: When you think about it, the effect of American attempts to intimidate and bully nations and organizations considering BDS might very well be the diametrical opposite of what they hope. European nations and organizations already predisposed to a BDS program will very likely be further convinced when they see the US acting in its typical one-sided, irrationally unfair manner. They might just think "with such a powerful ally lined up in implacable opposition to Palestinian independence, the least we can do is add our voices - and our checkbooks - to what global opposition there is..."