The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Human Modifiers

In a recent post, I suggested that our President fashions himself as a master of nuance. If you are to believe his supporters in the media, every decision that comes out of the White House is deliberative, with experts on all sides of a question offering advice, and the President (with blinding brilliance) coming to the right decision every time. Those of us who are somewhat less enamored of Barack Obama aren’t so sure. In fact, most of his decisions exhibit a troubling dose of naïveté.

After giving it some thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that the President’s recent triumphal announcement of a nuclear non-proliferation agreement (well, not so much an agreement as an “understanding”) is an example of well-intentioned naïveté. While the President bragged about Russian nuke cutbacks and Canadian efforts to reduce the number of their nukes, he remained strangely reticent to discuss Iran’s growing nuclear threat or North Korea’s present one. He seems to believe that if the U.S. sets a good example, the bad actors will somehow follow it. History indicates that doesn’t happen, but no matter, it’s a wonderful idea, isn’t it?

The problem isn’t with the nonproliferation “understanding,” it’s generally harmless. But it’s also completely and utterly ineffective in addressing the true threats that we face today. Mark Stein takes a more cynical view:
If you read in the paper that New Zealand had decided to go nuclear, would you lose a moment's sleep over it? Personally, I'd be rather heartened. It would be a sign that a pampered and somnolent developed world had woken up and concluded that betting your future on the kindness of strangers is a helluva gamble. What Obama and his empty showboaters failed even to acknowledge in their "security" summit is the reality of the Post-Big Five nuclear age: We're on the brink of a world in which the wealthiest nations, from Canada to Norway to Japan, can barely project meaningful force to their own borders while the nickel 'n' dime basket-cases go nuclear.

How long do you think that arrangement will last? Iran has already offered to share its nuclear technology with Sudan. Sudan? Ring a vague bell? Remember that "Save Darfur" interpretative-dance fundraiser you went to, where someone read out a press release from George Clooney, and you all had a simply marvelous time? Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed – with machetes. That's pretty labor-intensive. In the Congo, five and a half million have been slaughtered – and, again, in impressively primitive ways.

But a nuclear Sudan would be a model of self-restraint?

By the way, that's another example of the self-indulgent irrelevance of Obama. The mound of corpses being piled up around the world today is not from high-tech nuclear states but from low-tech psycho states. It's not that Britain has nukes, and poor old Sudan has to make do with machetes. It's that the machete crowd are willing to kill on an industrial scale, and the high-tech guys can't figure out a way to stop them. Perhaps for his next pointless yakfest the president might consider a machete nonproliferation initiative.

The sad reality is that bad actors don’t respond to good examples—never have, never will. As Steyn notes, while activists held fundraisers for Darfur, and expressed their solidarity with the population of the Congo, hundreds of thousands of innocent people were gruesomely slaughtered. To stop the slaughter, we needed force—you know, the kind of force that kills bad people (and sadly, a few good people) so that the mass-killing stops. But the activists don’t have the stomach for that, so instead they hold fundraisers and express solidarity, and the killing keeps rolling along.

In addition, you’d think that the President actually believes that the core problem is the nukes themselves. Wrong. It’s the people and/or countries that control the weapons. Richard Fernandez , a truly nuanced thinker, puts it this way:
Sometimes a gun isn’t just a gun. About 740,000 assault rifles and pistols are stored in Swiss homes or in private possession. Nobody knows the exactly how many firearms are in circulation, but there may be up to 1.3 million firearms in Switzerland. Despite this you are more likely to murdered by knife than by gun. “Police statistics for the year 2006 records 34 killings or attempted killings involving firearms, compared to 69 cases involving bladed weapons and 16 cases of unarmed assault. Cases of assault resulting in bodily harm numbered 89 (firearms) and 526 (bladed weapons)”

Sometimes a nuke isn’t just a nuke. The country with the largest known deposits of uranium, which tested 7 nuclear devices on its soil in the 50s and whose head of government isn’t even going to attend President Obama’s nonproliferation summit won’t keep statesmen up at night. It’s Australia. The first thing its scientists did after devising a way to enrich uranium with lasers (SILEX) was worry about keeping it out of the wrong hands.

The danger posed by weapons is crucially dependent on their human modifiers. Guns in the hands of the Swiss are not the same as guns in the hands of a Sudanese militia. Enriched uranium in Australia is no worry; but uranium in the hands of Kim Jong Il is. It is changes to the political environment that create or diminish the problem even when the hardware remains the same.

You’d think that a smart guy like President Obama would understand that and act accordingly, wouldn’t you?

To stop the bad actors who are developing nukes and will provide them to even worse actors, we’ll probably need to use force. But our President doesn’t have the stomach for that, so instead he holds a conference among “human modifiers” who pose little threat and has them commit to reduce their nuclear arsenal. As a backup he suggests a sanctions regime that history indicates will be ineffective. Problem is—the vehicle for future killing by the bad actors keeps rolling along.

Update (4/19/10):

Yesterday, The NYT reported:
WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has warned in a secret three-page memorandum to top White House officials that the United States does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran’s steady progress toward nuclear capability …

Several officials said the highly classified analysis, written in January to President Obama’s national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, came in the midst of an intensifying effort inside the Pentagon, the White House and the intelligence agencies to develop new options for Mr. Obama. They include a set of military alternatives, still under development, to be considered should diplomacy and sanctions fail to force Iran to change course.

There’s no surprise in this information. It’s been apparent for some time that the Obama administration has all but ruled out force as an option.

What is interesting is the reason for this leak and who did the leaking. Is it a not-so-subtle message to the Mullahs that we’re getting serious? If so, I’m afraid that our feckless approach to Iran over the past 15 months (continual threats of “harsh sanctions” with no action) will cause them to discount this leak as a bluff. But maybe that’s what we want.

On the other hand, this leak, if it does reflect a new direction provides the Iranians with plenty of time to distribute their nuclear materials widely and likely into heavily populated civilian locations, harden those facilities they can’t be moved, and plan for retaliation via Hamas and Hezballah and in the Gulf of Hormuz should our President actually decide that force is necessary. Either way, this leak tells us little and does a disservice to our Iran strategy (if we actually have one).